The last time I passed the Days of Rage protesters in downtown Manhattan, amid their litter of expensive camping equipment, iPhone chargers, mobile hotspots and handwritten cardboard signs, they reminded me of people who walk up to you in bars pretending that they just discovered a new brand of beer they want to share with you. Those people are plants, so are the people with torn cardboard signs surrounded by a few thousand dollars of equipment.
The paradox of Wall Street financed radicals protesting against the Street makes as much sense as a dose of class warfare from Warren Buffett. But the Street is a devious place, which makes money by betting against itself, and whose favorite politicians denounce it around election time. The cynical game of broken expectations is played here like nowhere else and the entire economy is on the table.
Obama poured money into Wall Street before denouncing it, and like Kerry, he was against Wall Street, before he was for it, before he was against it. At luncheons in exclusive restaurants, his allies are still explaining to hedge fund managers that Barry doesn't really mean it. He's just trying to get elected.
Democrats sometimes like to take off their Harvard jackets, loosen their club ties and try on a little populism, but it never sticks. They're always against NAFTA, before they're elected, and for it once they do. At towns with the rusted steel of lost manufacturing, they pledge to stand up for American industry, and then fly off to a fundraiser thrown by the outsourcing firms who have the actual money.
The belated crusade against Wall Street is even more pathetic as it is coordinated by groups who wouldn't exist without men like Soros, who made their money from deals that make the Street look sparkling clean. It's class warfare as a cynical jab at the populist center, the people who mutter to themselves that the Street is full of crooks and so is Congress.
They're right and the Days of Rage protesters, who usually have a trust fund at their back and a degree in creative arts on their shelf, would never admit it. They're not here to protest against power, but for those in power. Or else why target Wall Street now, long after the bailouts and the fizzing outrage over Corporate Personhood.
The Days of Rage are an Obama election rally, coordinated ahead of time to coincide with Obama's own descent into class warfare. Which makes them a pro-government rally.
The yuppie ragers may try for comparisons to Tahrir Square, but they're more like if Mubarak had thrown a rally blaming the whole thing on international bankers. It's equally pathetic and desperate. And if the media had any credibility or ethics left, they would be doing something other than covering a disguised election rally as if it were the new Battle of Seattle.
Desperation is the only tactic here. Obama has lost on every issue and so the same fake "grass roots" plants who dialed up the social media during his last campaign, are sending the zombies into the streets to pretend to be leading a revolution. But if these are popular protests, then why do they look so much like an Abercrombie and Fitch take on the Battle of Algiers?
Where are the unemployed cannery workers, the bilked Madoff investors, the homeowners used as fronts for the massive Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac swindle by progressive billionaires like the Sandlers? Where are the victims of Buffett's insurance companies and the ordinary taxpayers who show up to Tea Party rallies, who are paying for all the crony capitalism?
The sheer cost of HUD's scams, the money diverted to friends of politicians, and the entire edifice of a corrupted capitalism where money is made by failing and then getting bailed out by the government deserves a real day of rage-- but it's not one that people from organizations funded by all that stolen money are going to express. You might as well ask members of the Communist Youth Movement to denounce the Politburo.
As Social Security swirls down the drain and millions of Americans eat paste out of a can, there's lots of money available to pay photogentic young people to hand-letter cardboard signs, put on their costumes and pretend to be angry about something other than a Defense of Marriage amendment or a supermarket that still uses plastic shopping bags.
People who are as detached from the economic turmoils of a sinking economy as possible are the worst possible representatives of populist outrage. And why should they worry, as long as rogue billionaires like George Soros or Warren Buffett keep trying to run the country to suit their own interests and agendas-- then they can expect a steady paycheck.
The exploitation of outrage is always an exercise in hypocrisy. But it's a particularly pungent odor when the upper class mimes revolution, when they really mean status quo. This isn't 2008, it's 2011. These aren't rallies meant to bring down a government they oppose, but to keep a government they support, with some bottom line differences, in power. To divert attention from its failures by resorting to a wholly phony populism that's little more than a subway stop game of three-card monte.
Hate the Street or not, the problems we face didn't begin there. They began in Washington D.C. It wasn't the Street that squandered the Social Security Trust Fund or decided that the economy would look better with a 15 trillion dollar deficit. The Street certainly played its role in suggesting to the politicians which side of the river to throw the money in, but it was at best a bagman. And the robbers are still off the Potomac, smirking their way through Senate sessions, and trading email notes with the organizations behind the populist protests.
Wall Street isn't the cause of our economic problems, it's the patsy for them. Bankers are always there to invest the loot when a government robs its own people blind. But unlike the leaders of so many Banana Republics, ours aren't piling money in suitcases and flying on the next four engine prop plane out of a dusty tarmac surrounded by palms. They're staying behind and running for reelection.
The Obama Administration is not the first government to pile up a huge deficit and treat the treasury like its own cash machine. It is not the first government to try and tough it out, by finding a villain to throw to the wolves and pledging to make them pay. These are all antics so outdated that you can read about them in the original Latin. Greek if you're willing to dig deeper. Phoenician and Hebrew if you've got an excellent dictionary.
"I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!" Casablanca's Captain Renault says. We have no shortage of Captain Renaults who show up at Wall Street to display their shock that the national economy is little more than a bunch of roulette tables, a few thousand pinball machines and a game that only exists so long as people have enough faith to keep throwing money into the pot.
But the Renaults know all about it, because they not only get their weekly cut, but because the entire system works only because the Renaults funnel money to the tables and then take their cut. And when the bubbles die, the jobs go down the chute and voters look for a scapegoat-- the Renaults put on their best self-righteous faces and burst into the establishments to knock the cards out of the players' hands. Shocked, shocked. This time they're really going to regulate those naughty brokers.
We've played this game long enough that the Renaults and the players have gotten cynical, but the public still hasn't quite caught on. When people mutter that Social Security is in trouble because there are thieves on Wall Street, they tragically miss the point.
This game can only go on for so long, as the numbers rise into the trillions. And where then? Debt is fine as a commodity until it comes time to cash the checks. It's fine to point the fingers at Wall Street before hitting them up for a donation, but that won't solve the problem either. Nor will rearranging the tax code to benefit Warren Buffett's financial interests. You can raise taxes on some of the rich some of the time, while the others will be buying stocks in solar companies and bailed out banks right before a government bailout.
For Halloween, the people behind the mess have decided to send their kids to Wall Street dressed as grass roots protesters. As Elizabeth Warren says, no one got rich on their own. The solar panel factory had government grants. The Harvard lawyers had consultancy fees. The unions had their own politicians. The politicians had book deals. The billionaires have trust fund zombies with cardboard signs. The question is what do we have?