Archive for the ‘justice’ Category

The Occupy ‘Movement,’ 2 Years Later

Tuesday (2 days ago) was the nominal anniversary of the Occupy Movement. Or maybe that should be the Occupy ‘Movement,’ with scare-quotes softening any suggestion that an actual social movement of any scope has arisen and persisted.

September 17 of 2011, protestors flowed into New York’s Zuccotti Park, a small private park just two blocks from Wall Street in the city’s financial district. Months of periodic mayhem in isolated pockets ensued, with Occupy sit-ins and marches happening in cities all over the US and to a lesser extent around the world. In theory, Occupy was a protest against economic inequality, a reaction not just to the gap between “the 1%” and “the 99%,” but to the widening of that gap in the years following the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.

In practice, Occupy became a rallying cry for complaints of all kinds. One Occupy rally I stumbled across here in Toronto featured speakers from a big trade union, members of which enjoy jobs that pay relatively well, and a representative of one of Canada’s aboriginal groups, whose complaints are legitimate but have little to do with having been left behind by capitalism. This dilution of the main Occupy message was unfortunate, since it virtually guaranteed that the movement would suffer additional criticism while at the same time raising the probability that such criticism would be avoid the real issue.

Two years later, it’s hard to see Occupy as having achieved much of anything, other than a lot of overtime for police and a few weeks’ fodder for the nightly news. Certainly its economic impact has been negligible. A year ago, on the 1-year anniversary, I suggested that the main lasting effect of Occupy was more cultural than economic, and that’s still true. Politicians now must now acknowledge income inequality in speeches, for example, but action has been scarce.

So inequality is now ‘on the table,’ but it’s not clear yet that putting it on the table means much in practice. I wrote two years ago that “Wall Street needs to be fixed, not occupied. Even a die-hard capitalist has to admit that there are problems with the way Wall Street runs, but those problems won’t be fixed by sit-ins. They need to come from an understanding, on the part of Wall Street and its supporters, that there are changes that should be made because those changes stand to make capitalism work better. Any changes that can’t be made on that basis — changes for example that simply redistribute money — will have to be made through legislation, if and when there is political will to do so.

Of course, Occupy doesn’t necessarily need to have brought lasting change in order to have been significant. It may be enough for that word to mark a moment in time. It reminds us that there was a day when people rose up in peaceful opposition to fight for an ideal. Even those who think the movement misguided should in principle be happy about its idealism. But then, it’s much harder to inspire idealism about the painfully slow, methodical route to institutional change, even when the slow and methodical route is the more plausible one.

NHL Lockout and the Ethics of Labour Disputes

When the rich and powerful butt heads, are they obligated to look out for the little guy?

The NHL lockout may be over, but its impact is far from forgotten. Or even clear. And the impact goes far beyond the loss of income to the NHL, its member teams and its players.

The end of the dispute may mean little to the economy as a whole, but to one portion of the economy — the portion that depends for its livelihood on the actual playing of hockey games — it means everything. The economic loss to Canada as a whole as a result of the loss of half a season of hockey may amount to less than 0.05 per cent of GDP, but the impact was felt disproportionately by the thousands of businesses and individuals that depend for their livelihood on the NHL and its players. For every Sidney Crosby or Daniel Alfredsson making millions on the ice, there is an entire ecosystem of managers, announcers, hotdog vendors, and Zamboni drivers who only have jobs because hockey is being played.

The lockout resulted, in other words, in a lot of so-called ‘collateral damage.’ Some teams had to lay off staff (in some cases, that meant hundreds of employees per team) and many businesses — from sports bars to the guy selling hotdogs outside the arena — saw business dip or even bottom out entirely.

Of course, this is true in almost any labour dispute. When auto assembly-line workers go on strike, workers at companies that manufacture parts for those assembly lines may see hard times as a result. But as many have pointed out, the dispute between the NHLPA and the NHL was a dispute between millionaires and billionaires, which gives the whole thing a distinctly different feel.

Whether the 113-day dispute was worthwhile to either the players or the league — whether either side gained more than it lost — is for them to decide. The relevant ethics question, here, is what part the financial fate of these innocent bystanders should have played in the decision making of the two parties to this dispute, namely the NHL and the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA). Should the league and players have felt any obligation to end the dispute early, in order to limit financial collateral damage?

It is tempting to cast this question as a matter of what economists call ‘externalities.’ Externalities are the effects that an economic transaction has on non-consenting bystanders. Pollution and noise are standard examples. And both economic theory and ethical theory agree that externalities are a bad thing. It is typically both inefficient and unfair if significant costs are foisted on innocent bystanders.

But economic theory, at least, doesn’t typically count the income effects of competitive behaviour as “real” externalities. If I outbid you in an auction, your interests have been harmed but not in a way that results in either economic inefficiency or real injustice. If I invent a better mousetrap and put makers of lesser products out of business, the result is ‘frictional’ unemployment but also long-term social gain. And during a labour dispute, money not being spent on hockey-arena hotdogs or Zamboni-driver wages are surely being spent on something else: one man’s loss is another’s gain.

But while not technically unfair, the outcome for bystanders is certainly unfortunate, a bad thing by almost any measure even if not the result of wrongful behaviour. And when the dispute at hand is between millionaires and billionaires, it’s worth asking at least whether the rich don’t have some duty, some social obligation, to take better care of those less fortunate.

Once upon a time, the rich and powerful cleaved to the notion of ‘noblesse oblige,’ the idea that with wealth and power come responsibility. Of course, even if the team owners and the players took such social obligations seriously, that doesn’t necessarily mean the dispute would have ended earlier. An obligation to look out for the little guy doesn’t mean an obligation to throw in the towel. But the notion of social responsibility, not to say humility, might well have done something to reduce the length, and impact, of what many regard to have been a pointless conflict in the first place.

Occupy, One Year Later

Today is the nominal anniversary of the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement. On September 17 of last year protestors took control of Zuccotti Park, a private park not far from Wall Street in New York. The undercurrents and indeed the planning can be traced farther back, but September 17 was the day the world took notice. The protestors stayed at the park, their numbers ebbing and flowing, until finally forced out on November 15, 2011. The movement did of course spread well beyond Zuccotti Park; indeed the protest was mirrored in towns and cities across the US, and indeed across the world. But Zuccotti, a stone’s throw from Wall Street, remains the spiritual home base for the Occupy movement.

The aims of the movement were diffuse, though not as vague as critics sometimes claimed they were. The protestors were concerned most specifically with income inequality, with the sense that those who hold the reins of the various great steam horses of capitalism were hoarding for themselves a wildly disproportionate share of the world’s wealth. This led naturally to a concern with capitalism itself, with the tendency of major corporations to behave badly, and with the government’s tendency (according to protestors) to let corporations get away with it. As a result, the movement’s name came to be used as a virtual synonym for concern with corporate ethics.

It’s hard not to sympathize with the goals of the movement, or at least with the passion of those most centrally involved. We can question the precision of their targeting, and the efficacy of the sit-in as method of producing social change, but only the shallow and the oblivious could fail to see that there was something to the protestors’ complaints. The financial collapse of 2008-2009 did enormous damage to millions of lives, and left a great many people with a deep sadness, a feeling of alienation, a deep and persistent sense of injustice and that the system is somehow rigged.

But motives aside, a year later, the question on every commentator’s mind is “What did they accomplish? Certainly Occupy succeeded in putting income inequality on the map, so to speak. As others have pointed out, Occupy is the central reason that presidential candidates this time around must comment on inequality. Not that that hasn’t been a topic of discussion in previous elections, but this time it’s utterly unavoidable. Consciousness of the topic has been raised, though it remains to be seen whether that consciousness will matter at the polling booth.

But really, the movement’s impact has been more cultural than economic. It spawned a number of memes — occupy-this-or-that, and the 99%-vs-1% thing. As a meme, “occupy” has been a victim of its own success. Had it been slightly less catchy, it might actually have been a useful rallying cry. But no sooner had the slogan been uttered in earnest than a thousand copycats, earnest or mocking or simply silly, sprouted on Facebook and Twitter. Occupy the dean’s office! Occupy the Death Star! Occupy my couch! Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s also a good way to devalue a currency.

Alas, concrete examples of change that could plausibly be traced to the Occupy movement are hard to come by. No new grassroots movement doing anything beyond sit-ins and marches. No significant new activist organization with the organizational capacity to take effective action toward promote real change according to a clear agenda. Nor has Occupy made any noticeable moves in the realm of electoral politics; and however cynical you want to be about that system, it is still a crucial part of getting things done. The point is not to occupy Wall Street, but to change it.

In retrospect, perhaps all we can say at this point is that while the Occupy movement struck a nerve, and perhaps fostered conversation, what it has failed to do is inspire change. Whether real change is in the offing, and whether important change will ever be attributable to the sparks that originated in Zuccotti park remains to be seen.

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