Occupy Wall Street Loves Capitalism’s Pearls: William D. Cohan

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Oct. 17 (Bloomberg) -- It was probably inevitable that the Occupy Wall Street movement would be rife with contradictions. Back on Sept. 15, two days before the first protest began in lower Manhattan, an organizing principle of sorts appeared on the Adbusters website. “Hey President Obama, get ready for our one demand!” the post announced.

(Just as an aside, Adbusters is a Canadian nonprofit magazine and website that is generally credited with getting the Occupy Wall Street ball rolling and best known for a 2004 anti-Semitic essay.)

After ruminating on the possibilities of what that one demand could be -- “Shall we demand that President Obama reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act; outlaw flash trading; impose a 1 percent tax on all financial transactions?” (interesting ideas, but dismissed as “not very energizing”) -- the anonymous author landed on the sweeping indictment: “END THE MONIED CORRUPTION OF AMERICA MANIFESTO.”

The idea that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans is somehow subjugating the other 99 percent against their will quickly became the credo of the movement. “The lords of finance in the skyscrapers surrounding Zuccotti Park, who toy with money and lives, who make the political class, the press, and the judiciary jump at their demands, who destroy the ecosystem for profit and drain the U.S. Treasury to gamble and speculate, took little notice at (the) first activists on the street below them three weeks ago,” Chris Hedges, a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and one of the leading intellectuals of the organization, wrote Oct. 8 in a front-page column in the Occupied Wall Street Journal.

‘Worship Money’

“The elites consider everyone outside their sphere marginal or invisible,” he wrote. “Those who worship money believe their buckets of cash, like the $4.6 million JPMorgan Chase gave last week to the New York City Police Foundation can buy them perpetual power and security. Masters all, kneeling before the idols of the marketplace, blinded by their self-importance, impervious to human suffering, bloated from unchecked greed and privilege, they were about to be taught the folly of hubris.”

A powerful anti-capitalist screed for sure, aside from its mischaracterization of what JPMorgan actually did for the police. So where to begin with the contradictions? Let’s start with Hedges himself. He is a columnist for Truthdig.com, a website dedicated to digging deeper into stories and to asking “the questions that remain unasked.”

Helpful Billionaires

The money behind Truthdig comes from Zuade Kaufman, who is the daughter of the late Donald Kaufman and a relative of Eli Broad. Kaufman and Broad, of course, were the founders of what is now known as KB Home, which bills itself as “one of the nation’s premier homebuilders” and as having constructed “half a million quality homes for families since its founding in 1957” in Detroit. KB Home, based in Los Angeles, has a market value of $515 million. And, of course, at last count, Eli Broad was worth $6.3 billion, according to Forbes magazine. I’m not sure where Truthdig would be without good old-fashioned capitalism.

It’s no surprise that Occupy Wall Street’s preferred methods for getting out its message are the social-networking powerhouses Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Occupy Wall Street’s Twitter feed churns out a continuous stream of 140-character observations and its Facebook page is a blaze of commentary and pictures about the latest goings-on with the movement. Ditto, Tumblr.

Someone Forgot

Of course, these three companies are all backed by wealthy venture capitalists expecting to become even wealthier when these closely held businesses take advantage of the Wall Street-enabled market for initial public offerings. Did someone forget to tell Hedges et al. that Facebook is backed by Goldman Sachs Group Inc., may have a market capitalization of about $100 billion if it goes public next year, and its co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is thought to be worth $17.5 billion largely because so many people around the world are willing to share their private musings with their friends (and with Facebook) for free?

We all know now that no self-respecting Occupy Wall Street protester would be caught dead without his or her hand-held device, preferably an Apple Inc. iPhone or iPad. Without Wall Street and its ability to match entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs with investors and their capital, there would probably be no iPhones or iPads today and, of course, Apple wouldn’t be the world’s most valuable company -- at about $391 billion -- and one admired around the world. Nor would Jobs have been worth roughly $7 billion when he died tragically earlier this month.

‘Picked a Fight’

“We have picked a fight with the most powerful economic and political forces on the planet,” Naomi Klein, another one of the intellectual leaders of the movement, said in an Oct. 6 speech at the park. “That’s frightening. And as this movement grows from strength to strength, it will get more frightening.”

The park where the protesters have been living for the past month is named after John Zuccotti, the co-chairman of Brookfield Office Properties Inc., one of the nation’s largest developers of commercial office space. Brookfield, which owns the park, donated $8 million to repair extensive damage from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the nearby World Trade Center buildings.

On Oct. 11, Brookfield’s chief executive officer, Richard B. Clark, sent a letter to Raymond Kelly, the New York City police commissioner, stating that the company wanted to clean up the park, which has gotten understandably messy with all the people camped out there. He also noted that the protesters had pretty much prevented other people, not interested in protesting, from using the park.

Looming Confrontation

A confrontation loomed as the demonstrators insisted they wouldn’t move for the cleaning and would prefer to be arrested. On Friday morning, Brookfield made the decision not to clean Zuccotti Park, for now, and a serious confrontation with the police was avoided. No doubt, the protesters are giving little thought to the hospitality Brookfield has been providing to them.

What’s wrong with this picture is that the activists and their purported leaders, such as Hedges and Klein, have failed to account for how fortunate we are to live in a country that affords us the freedoms of speech and of protest and creates products, services and a general standard of living that we have come to take for granted and that is the envy of the world. Sure, there are problems -- many of them -- that need addressing. But the time has come for a more constructive approach, not the mindless, contradiction-filled claptrap that seems to be coming out of lower Manhattan.

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, had it absolutely right when he wrote last week, “It’s not about declaring war on some nefarious elite. It’s about changing behavior from top to bottom.” Amen.

(William D. Cohan, a former investment banker and the author of “Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: William D. Cohan at wdcohan@yahoo.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net