Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Time: The Protester as Person of the Year for 2011

Okay, yeah, I guess I can see the "logic" that TIME's editors used to pick "The Protester" as the TIME Person of the Year for 2011, but still, it seems rather off-key and slightly off-base. I do see that the protesters in the Middle East are very deserving of such recognition; if TIME had endorsed them, that would seem quite reasonable indeed, but to lump the Occupy Wall Street (et al) protesters into the same boat seems far too much of a stretch, almost as much as Obama getting the Nobel Peace prize for imagined future actions rather than actual accomplishment.
The TIME Cover Story does give a little background on the Occupy Wall Street (et al) movement, but no significant new detail and maybe simply a little different color. For example, they mention that organizer/anarchist David Graeber coined the phrase "We are the 99%!" The writer of the article also chronicles his own nephew's involvement in the movement in NYC. The article notes that Graeber "nudged the group to a fresh vision: a long-term encampment in a public space, an improvised democratic protest village without preappointed leaders, committed to a general critique — the U.S. economy is broken, politics is corrupted by big money — but with no immediate call for specific legislative or executive action." Kind of lame for a self-professed "anarchist", but hardly a vision worthy of "Person of the Year." Well, even though Graeber and the other "organizers" weren't selected as "Person of the Year" themselves for their instigation, the results to date for the OWS protesters who followed them hardly seem noteworthy enough for such a nomination.
Maybe the best I can say is that the editors were "stuck" and even though the accomplishments of OWS in terms of "real change" were hardly noteworthy, they were "protesters" and that somehow magically entitled them to sit in the back of the same bus as the Middle East guys who actually did achieve some real change.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Unclear outcome of the Occupy West Coast Port Shutdown action

Although the protesters at the various Occupy West Coast Port Shutdown actions seemed to be at least moderately successful in terms of media attention, noise, and disruptions, I would said that the overall outcome is still a bit fuzzy.
In some cases (e.g., Oakland) they seemed to have a moderate turnout, but overall the turnout seemed a bit light to me, given the supposed maturity of the "movement." The police (and rain) seemed to frighten them away in Long Beach. At other ports there was either only a moderate, temporary shutdown or "picket" lines and other protest activities that were not at all what one would consider a hard-core, massive shutdown of the entire west coast.
It is still not clear how much, if any, of this action will continue in the coming days. There may be some lingering activity in Oakland, but there is little in the way of evidence that that "action" will continue, let alone grow in strength.
So far, I would grade them a "B" for the protest, a "C-" for the shutdown, and an "incomplete" for whether this "action" has any longer-term ramifications, other than an irreverent "Is that all you've got?" I'm sure they could have done better, but for whatever reasons they didn't.
The "solidarity action" here in New York City was basically a joke. They huffed and puffed and talked about "storming" Goldman Sachs, but only around 100 or so activists held a so-so rally in front of the new Goldman Sachs building across from the World Trade Center site (diagonally-opposite corner from Zuccotti Park) and then lamely attempted to stage an impromptu "dance party" in the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center where their boisterous behavior quickly drew the attention of security and the cops. I doubt that the operation of Goldman Sachs was disrupted in the slightest. The only people who might have been disrupted probably were a few tourists or tenants who expected to enjoy a few quiet moments in the palm-treed atrium, a privately-owned public space that nonetheless is subject to the rules and whim of the property owner and manager. The cops did roughly handle a New York Times photographer and a few of the activist "media", but overall it was simply little more than a scuffle.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Another good backgrounder on the Occupy movement

There is another good background article on the Occupy (Wall Street) movement in The New Yorker by Mattathias Schwartz entitled "Pre-Occupied - The origins and future of Occupy Wall Street." I found the link on the Adbusters web site, so that is about as close to an official endorsement by the movement itself as you could possibly get.
Adbusters also links to an opinion piece on Al Jazeera by David Graeber, the self-described "anarchist" who was instrumental in getting Occupy Wall Street underway on the ground in New York City, entitled "Occupy Wall Street's anarchist roots."
The New Yorker article highlights an interesting perspective on this so-called "leaderless movement":
After the August 2nd gathering, the movement's center of gravity shifted from Vancouver to New York. The protesters planning the September occupation met again, on August 9th, at the Irish Hunger Memorial, near Battery Park; all subsequent meetings were held on the south side of Tompkins Square Park. Early on, they decided to call the organization the New York City General Assembly.
In theory, the job of facilitating the meetings rotated among the eighty or so attendees. In practice, facilitation fell to a much smaller set of people who had experience with the general-assembly process. The leaderless movement was developing leaders. Graeber was among this first rank of equals, as was Marisa Holmes, a twenty-five-year-old anarchist and filmmaker. Holmes is dark-haired and eloquent; she has the parliamentarian's trick of making harsh ultimatums sound palatable, even breezy.
Interesting reading to complement the mind-numbing "We are the 99%!" propaganda-rhetoric of the "protesters" themselves.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Future of the occupy movement - 12/11/2011

Although the Occupy movement can certainly be readily sustained as a mere protest movement, its ability to expand beyond mere protest is now seriously in doubt. The whole "tent thing", seeming to be the heart and soul of the movement is clearly losing momentum at an accelerating pace. Rather than seriously attempting to build long-term sustainable communities, the tents now appear to have been more of a mere statement of protest. Although remnants of the tent communities remain, they don't appear to be growing in any dramatic manner. The movement is still able to pull together pop-up protests and disruptions of various sorts, but mostly very modest in size and effect.
Tomorrow, Monday, October 12, 2011, will be a moment of truth for Occupy as they literally attempt to shut down all ports on the west coast of North America. Further, they threaten that "If there is ANY police violence on #D12 we will extend the port shutdown." "#D12" is the Twitter tag for the "operation" and "D12" is the same "operation" naming convention used by the anti-globalization movement for naming their "operations" – "D" is for December and "12" is for the 12th of the month.
The open question is how many activists can be mustered in each port locale, how many average Americans join the activists in their port shutdown, as well as how various unions respond, and finally how the police and other law enforcement responds.
I'm sure the protesters can disrupt and maybe even shut down port operations to some limited extent, which qualifies them as a protest movement, the real question is whether they will actually succeed in moving beyond a mere protest movement to accomplishing anything substantial or graduating into a full-blown "insurrection" or even "revolution." So far, most of what they have been about is simply idealistic protest and no real substance. They can probably get away with a fair bit more "mere protest" before people get tired of the disruptions and distractions.
I think the general attitude of the average American is "show us some results or... we change the channel to something more interesting." Occupy still retains some novelty and interest of non-participants, but the clock is ticking for them. After all, Americans have shown a powerful penchant for a limited attention span.
The bar is fairly high for "results" from this port shutdown. Unless the movement comes through with absolutely stunning and sustained success, their days will be numbered. If they do last into the spring and summer, it will be interesting to see them compete for attention with the 2012 elections.
Meanwhile, this past week the Occupy movement has managed to divert attention to themselves that might otherwise have been focused on the big UN global warming talks that were also having trouble getting results.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Payroll tax cut may be more of a political football than an economic godsend

During a recession the idea of economic stimulus such as a payroll tax cut makes sense, but in truth it is more of a political salve to show that politicians are "doing something" even though the actual, real, practical effect of the alleged stimulus may be quite meager at best. Right now, I am ambivalent about the economic value of the payroll tax cut. If it happens, fine, I'm okay with it, but if it doesn't happen this time around I'm okay with that too. Either way, I won't lose any sleep, nor will I jump with joy.
The U.S. economic outlook is weak enough that the payroll tax cut may make a (barely) noticeable difference in 2012, but I can't say that I am fully convinced of its efficacy. I think I would rather see a narrowing of the budget deficit and a strengthening of Social Security than a meager, one-time only gain in GDP.
The political value of the payroll tax cut is much more significant. Democrats want it so they can claim that they are "helping the middle class." On the flip side, Democrats would also like to see passage of the payroll tax cut fail so that they can use it as a club to convince the electorate how "mean-spirited" and "out of touch" Republicans are.
Republicans are lukewarm about the payroll tax cut. Many of them do see political value with being seen as "helping the middle class", but a significant fraction of them see greater value with being "fiscally responsible."
In short, Republicans could go along with a payroll tax cut deal that both costs them little and even gives them something in return, but since they gain political bonus points for being fiscally responsible (which includes refraining from excessive taxation) they stand to gain from failure to reach a deal.
So, ultimately, it comes down to how badly the Democrats want the payroll tax cut. They can have it if they want to pay for it politically, but they may decide that it simply isn't worth the price and that the economy will limp along well enough and that the "club" value of Republican "obstinacy" is worth its cost in terms of failing to "help the middle class."
Me? Right now, I'd prefer to see the "gimmick" of a payroll tax cut go away. If anything, I would rather see both an increase in the payroll tax rate and an increase in Social Security benefits. I think the latter would provide an economic stimulus as well as being "good for society."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A make or break moment for the middle class

I agree with President Obama when in today's economic speech in Kansas he said that "This is a make or break moment for the middle class..." It certainly is, but maybe not the way he wanted it to be. The middle class of our parents is plain and simply "over." Gone. Kaput. RIP. And, it is not coming back, at least in its old form.
We are in the process of recovering from the collapse of what I will call "The Middle Class Bubble" that dates back to the 1960's (if not earlier) as unions coerced or connived with corporate management and politicians to artificially boost so-called "middle class" incomes and benefits in a grossly unsustainable manner.
That bubble started to deflate/burst in the late 1970's and early 1980's and the recent housing bubble and debt/financial crisis was simply the final nail in the coffin of that old, unsustainable model of the "middle class" of the late 20th century.
So, to answer the President, yes, this is that defining moment, and we now need to formally acknowledge that the old middle class simply is no more, and is now being replaced with a newer and more sustainable middle class, with lower pay and benefits to be sure, but more sustainable, which is the important thing.
Also, we need to acknowledge that there really is still a separate "working class" and that past misguided economic policies improperly boosted members of the working class into the middle class bubble in an unsustainable manner and now many of those workers need to formally acknowledge that they really are "working class" and not "middle class."
In short, this is literally a "make or break" moment, or actually a "break and make" moment, where we break from the old, unsustainable economic model of a bloated middle class and make a new and much more sustainable economic model with a leaner middle class and a thriving working class.

The need for regional infrastructure consortiums

There is an article in The Washington Post entitled "Experts struggle to express direness of infrastructure problem to a wary public" which clearly expresses that there are looming (if not current) problems with our infrastructure, but then does quite a poor job of explaining the true financing aspects. These "experts" somehow misguidedly presume that only the federal government should be taking the lead in financing of infrastructure. I would submit that the primary burden of planning and financing of infrastructure should be at the state and regional level, with emphasis on regional consortiums such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Sure, the federal government should have a role, such as in setting standards for quality and safety, but there is no good reason for the extremely inefficient mechanism of taking money out of states up to the federal government and then parceling that money back to the states. Let the states, or those regional consortiums, handle the financing, whether through state and local taxes, bonds, or user fees.
In some cases, the federal government may have national interests beyond the interests of the states and regions, so in some few cases maybe the federal government may need to take the lead in financing, but those would be exceptions and not the bulk of the cases.
There might also be a need for a federal bond guarantee program, but that should be based on standards and having financial standards and financial reviews for states and regional consortiums issuing infrastructure debt that must be met in order to secure such a debt guarantee before it is granted.

Is the Occupy movement really just a front for communism?

There is an interesting essay on, the mother ship and puppet masters for the Occupy movement, by Jessica Whyte entitled "Awakening the Giant - Is the long night of the left drawing to a close?" which basically reveals that the true goal of the whole Occupy movement (not no much the rank and file foot soldiers, but the theorists behind the curtain) is to supplant Western-style democracy and capitalism ("neoliberal democracy") with... no, not socialism, but... communism. As the essay ends:
Libya provided the opportunity for the Western powers, who had reacted with fear to the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, to use a humanitarian cover to reinsert the numerous possibilities opened up by the Arab Spring into the familiar narrative of neoliberal democracy. ... what is at stake today... the isolation of the communist idea may yet give rise to a new collective subject finally capable of realizing communism.
That is the significance of the many tent "communities" with their leaderless structures and "general assemblies" and "working groups", to more closely approximate true "communes" suitable for a "communist collective."
Ultimately, the Occupy movement is doomed to fail, precisely because it has a conflict of interests between its three main factions, the communist theorists, the militant anarchists who don't need or want the communist structures, and the vast masses of mere foot soldiers who actually never really signed up for either the communist or anarchist agendas and really do simply want to engage in truly non-violent, truly peaceful protest to pursue "change we can believe in", but well short of actual revolution that the first two factions seek. This is why the movement is currently so indifferent to being explicit about goals – to hide from the true goal of communism and to deny the inherent conflict between communism and anarchism. The current vagueness works for all parties, but eventually the conflicts of interest will surface.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Background on the Occupy movement, Organizing World Revolution 2011

Here is some interesting background on the Occupy movement, straight from the horse's mouth, a post by former Yale Professor David Graeber, one of the "organizers" and promoters, on the Adbusters web site entitled "Situating Occupy - Lessons from the revolutionary past."
Graeber has a history of both direct and indirect involvement in political activism, including playing an organizing role in, and speaking in favor of the Occupy Wall Street protests. Comparing it to the Arab Spring, he claimed that this and other contemporary grassroots protests represent "the opening salvo in a wave of negotiations over the dissolution of the American Empire."
Ultimately, we are still left with the same question as before, namely, is the Occupy movement "just a protest movement" or is it "a revolution"? Protests can wax and wane and still contend that they have done their job, but a "revolution" ("the dissolution of the American Empire") either makes progress and achieves its goal or fizzles and dies. Or maybe Occupy will simply be a pseudo-revolution (revolutionary aspirations with lots of "big talk") that morphs into a protest movement and then claims "victory" in the sense of "we raised awareness of the issues."
The whole "occupy" meme is rather bizarre, with the tents and all. Were the tents supposed to be truly meaningful or just symbolic stage props? Now, after the "evictions", they talk as if they really didn't need the tents, but they still use the "occupy" meme.
Graeber is a self-admitted "anarchist", but it remains to be seen what his real motives are, as well as to what extent they are shared by the rank and file "membership" of the movement. What are participants in "Occupy" really signing up for? Do they know? Do they care?

Barney Frank, Steve Jobs, brash bosses, and over-the-top petulance vs. accomplishment

There was an interesting commentary by Jena McGregor on Barney Frank's management/leadership style in The Washington Post entitled "Barney Frank and the cult of brash bosses."
Must leaders be nice to be noteworthy?
We don't have to look much further than Steve Jobs to see they don't have to. The former Apple CEO could be, as we all know by now, a grade-A jerk who threw tantrums, parked in handicapped spots, and was fully capable of so-called gratuitous nastiness. Some are even worried that "with the death and canonization of Steve Jobs and the emergence of the Jobs biography as a kind of sacred text for managers," writes Tom McNichol over at the Atlantic, "the ranks of bosses who see Bad Steve's nastier traits as something to imitate is liable to swell." Jobs, he writes, is considered by too many people in Silicon Valley to be "living proof" that being an ass was a big part of leading a good company.
Of course, Steve Jobs was not a phenomenal innovator because of his leadership style; he was wildly successful in spite of it. And no, I'm not going to draw some pained parallel between the brilliance of Steve Jobs and the ornery intelligence of Barney Frank. But it's worth considering when being a nasty boss can help and when it hurts. In a world in which extreme attention to detail is needed—like, say, technology development—or when there's a real need for motivation, there could be some virtues to having a controlling jerk in the top chair. Because many such managers are equally good at turning on the charm when needed, McNichol writes, their salesmanship could outweigh their bad sides. And occasionally, brash thinking (and unfortunately, brash behavior) goes hand-in-hand with an appetite for innovation and risk that other more measured leaders can't really summon from themselves.
But in most cases, it's obvious that over-the-top petulance stands in the way of accomplishment. That's especially so in a place like Congress where negotiating skills and relationship building are supposedly the keys to success. Sure, a combative and abrasive style might win leaders points in the highly polarized dysfunction that is today's Congress. But it could also cause them to lose the most accomplished legacy possible.
Maybe bosses are like (removing) band-aids, "fast or slow", choose your style of pain.