Friday, November 25, 2011

Occupy Everything

According to a recent news report, the anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has moved its operations from Wall Street, chock full of greedy financers, to Main Street, chock full of greedy merchants. This is encouraging and depressing; encouraging because the protestors have recognized a vital connection between Wall Street and Main Street, and depressing because the connection is misconstrued.

The OWS movement has refocused its ire on publically traded retailers, according to a Stop Black Friday website: "The idea is simple, hit the corporations that corrupt and control American politics where it hurts, their profits.”

Among the companies to be boycotted are:

“Abercrombie & Fitch [ANF 44.88 -0.79 (-1.73%)] - (yes, we have to stay away from Amazon, too!) [AMZN 188.99 -3.35 (-1.74%) - AT&T Wireless [ATT 27.21 0.17 (+0.63%) - Burlington Coat Factory - Dick's Sporting Goods (I was surprised, too!) [DSG-FF 27.745 -0.76 (-2.67%) - Dollar Tree [DLTR 76.61 -0.48 (-0.62%) - The Home Depot [HD 36.52 -0.58 (-1.56%) - Neiman Marcus - OfficeMax [OMX 4.25 -0.24 (-5.35%) - Toys R'Us [JPM 28.38 -1.03 (-3.5%) - Verizon Wireless [VZN 95.50 --- UNCH (0) - Wal-Mart [WMT 56.64 -0.21 (-0.37%)]”

The listing is necessarily partial. A full listing of companies that trade on the stock exchange would include, sadly, Ben and Jerry’s, the ice cream makers who sold out more than a decade ago to mega-giant Unilever. The franchise owners were concerned at the time that “the new owner would preserve the unusual aspects of Ben & Jerry's, particularly its commitment to social causes like helping the homeless and conserving the environment. Unilever maintains on its Web site that it is working to preserve clean water resources and is involved with other issues,” according to a story in the New York Times.

Slate Magazine, usually not chummy with greedy Wall Street trade traders, slammed the deal at the time as a sellout:

“It's easy to imagine that, if we could transport this deal back in time 10 years, it would have been frankly labeled a sellout, in the most pejorative sense of the term. Just a few days ago becoming a part of Unilever seemed like a distasteful option, as company co-founder Ben Cohen attempted to cobble together a counter-deal involving ‘socially responsible’ investors.”

In analyzing why “pretty much no one is going to accuse Ben & Jerry's of selling out,” the magazine hit the proverbial nail on the head:

“What has changed in the last 10 years to make such an accusation so unlikely to stick? The critical change is the evolution of the idea of ‘shareholder rights’ as something that now has an almost populist connotation. After all, a huge percentage of the kinds of people who care about "social responsibility" now own stocks. And while ‘social responsibility’ is kind of a murky term, ‘shareholder rights’ not only sounds virtuous, but is very easy to understand: You, the shareholder, have a right to see your shares go up.”

We are all shareholders now – including OWS protestors attending colleges that invest funds in publically traded companies.

Three years ago, Jon Meacham wrote an essay for Newsweek provocatively titled “We Are All Socialists Now.”  Mr. Meacham’s liberal credentials are unimpeachable. He is the former editor of Newsweek and co-anchor of PBS's new TV and web newsmagazine Need to Know. His best-selling biography, American Lion, about Andrew Jackson, was awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. President Jackson is the father of the modern Democratic Party whose fulminations against large banking systems more than match those of the protesting OWSs.

The central point of Mr. Meacham’s piece is that the United States has already passed over the bar:

“The U.S. government has already—under a conservative Republican administration—effectively nationalized the banking and mortgage industries. That seems a stronger sign of socialism than $50 million for art. Whether we want to admit it or not—and many, especially Congressman Pence and Hannity, do not—the America of 2009 is moving toward a modern European state... A decade ago U.S. government spending was 34.3 percent of GDP, compared with 48.2 percent in the euro zone—a roughly 14-point gap, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2010 U.S. spending is expected to be 39.9 percent of GDP, compared with 47.1 percent in the euro zone—a gap of less than 8 points. As entitlement spending rises over the next decade, we will become even more French… The architect of this new era of big government? History has a sense of humor, for the man who laid the foundations for the world Obama now rules is George W. Bush, who moved to bail out the financial sector last autumn with $700 billion.”

Welcome to the Eurozone. Not only is the OWS movement boycotting with a too broad brush, it is painting the wrong wall.
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