Wall Streeters don’t balance New York’s budget. Taxes on Wall Streeters do.

Yet another commentator faults the 99 percenters for failing to see that Wall Street types contribute to “the public purse.” But they don’t. It’s their taxes that do.

Clyde Haberman’s “What to Expect in New York in 2012” contains what I realize is a throwaway line. But I can’t let it go because the sentiment it reflects is both pervasive and pernicious.

The local economy may feel the effects of layoffs in financial services this past year. Even hard-core haters of the 1 percent might come to appreciate the importance of Wall Street types to the public purse, not that many of them would ever say so publicly.

This line has rankled me for more than a decade—ever since Andrew Sullivan in 2000 (in an article that I unfortunately can’t find; the web was young then) derided Al Gore’s promise to raise taxes on the wealthy by snarking about “the top one percent, without whom there would be no surplus.”

Correction. Without taxes on the top one percent there would have been no (Clinton-era) surplus. This isn’t opinion. It’s history. The top one percent didn’t go away after George W. Bush lost won the 2000 election. In fact they did very well, due largely to capital gains. What went away was even the modest, Clinton-era level of taxation on the top one percent—and with it, the surplus.

If Wall Streeters want to, they can try to argue that what they do creates huge benefits for the economy as a whole. The narrower argument that they benefit Gotham specifically, by hoovering up profit that would accrue to the rest of the country and spending it in New York, would be somewhat more persuasive (though this argument, which might be called the “efficient-parasite hypothesis,” is for some reason rarely asserted in the first person). But if we’re talking about a contribution to the city, state, or national budget, it’s not their economic activity or anyone else’s that brings about that. It’s the taxes on that activity.

This point matters politically and matters a lot. “Class warfare” hysteria aside, very few who criticize the top one percent want them to stop existing (nor is there a shred of evidence that any mainstream progressive proposal would threaten their existence). We want them to face somewhat tighter regulations and substantially higher taxes. If you want Wall Street to contribute to “the public purse,” you belong on the side of Elizabeth Warren, not Donald Trump.



Something happening here

The faculty senate meeting passed all four resolutions en bloc about 10:1,  336-34. The resolutions are here, here, here, and here. This morning, specific language of no confidence in the administration was removed from one of the resolutions by its sponsors so it wouldn’t appear to be a demand for resignation.

I think the attendance, 370 recorded as voting, was a record, about a quarter of the faculty.  One could think the other two thirds would have voted no, but one would then probably also believe in the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, and be bidding for a bridge I am offering, [email me off-line on that].  It was not a good day for Chancellor Birgeneau, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Breslauer, or  Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Harry Le Grande.  I recall an observation by Mark, possibly here, that more people are fired by their subordinates than by their bosses. That would be a fair characterization of the event; “no-confidence” language or not, it’s hard to imagine a more complete rejection of this team’s leadership, including their attempts to justify their decisions post facto.  They may go on doing executive things and drawing pay for a while, but they will be doing it with nothing but the trappings of formal authority. Let us hope they at least understand this no longer includes the authority to sic armored police on students.

The meeting put itself into committee of the whole for an hour, after the resolutions were moved as a group, to allow discussion without having to fuss about Robert’s Rules, with another hour afterwards for voting and amending.  The first 25 minutes of the discussion hour was granted to the three above-named to address the group; then they left. Not one clap.  I interpret not staying for the meeting as some combination of cowardice or a constructive resignation, or maybe both. It was extremely painful to watch, worse because this plan was announced by the chair with the insulting justification that it would “allow us to speak freely,” – do they think we don’t dare say what we think in front of them?  Really: they acted out, in front of everyone, their worst management habit, which is to talk instead of listening, and not ever visibly go into input mode or engage with the people who nominally work for them.  Which, I guess, explains how they could so completely misread the mood of their troops. Someone mentioned that Birgeneau has lunch with a dozen faculty every month, which would have him encounter each of us every fifteen years. I don’t know who does the talking at those lunches.

A couple of dozen speakers lined up at the microphones for two-minute remarks, each to applause, and to my real surprise, not a single person spoke against the resolutions. No-one wanted to debate them formally or offer amendments: the issue was obviously settled already in all important respects. After the vote, there was another on whether to have a mail (web) ballot, which was defeated 216-165.  Perhaps this should have gone the other way, but I have the sense that the no’s were not trying to protect the formal outcome of the meeting from being diluted or overturned (see fairy, tooth above), but just felt the message was so clear already, and the whole exercise so painful and embarrassing, that there was simply no point in bothering people who didn’t care enough to show up, or had to be in class.

Now we’re effectively rudderless.  It will be interesting to see if there’s a way for the faculty to take on some authority. (A promising ray of sunshine: mirabile dictu, I was buttonholed by the chair of the Committee on Teaching, who had come upon this post and asked if I wanted to chat with the committee about things they could do beyond choosing the annual teaching award winners.)

Or we can just wait for Zeusdof to throw a new log in our pond.  I don’t think we will sit still for a stork now, at least I hope not.

Occupy UC

On Monday, the Berkeley faculty will have a special meeting to consider several resolutions condemning the police behavior at the Nov. 9 Occupy Cal demonstration, and another resolution that says in part:

Therefore be it Resolved that the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate has lost confidence in the ability of Chancellor Birgeneau, EVC Breslauer and VC LeGrande to respond appropriately to non-violent campus protests, to secure student welfare amidst these protests, to minimize the deployment of force and to respect freedom of speech and assembly on the Berkeley campus.

This is going to be a complicated, awkward (not that that’s a fatal flaw) exercise that will probably not clarify much for anyone.  In the first place, the “Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate” is not a representative body but a committee of the whole 2000-odd of us, and its meetings are rarely attended by more than 100. Obviously it meets in a dense cloud of selection bias that obscures its legitimacy, so its resolutions and actions don’t seem to be taken very seriously by the campus authorities, who can easily say, “well, that’s what several dozen malcontents think, end of story”.  In the second place, the motion uses very strong language. Despite having signed the call for the meeting, mainly because I think this stuff desperately needs to be discussed, I’m not sure I’ve lost confidence precisely in the leadership’s ability to protect protesters from beating and chemical assault. Admittedly, it’s hard to reconcile the chancellor’s public words from two years ago on the occasion of excessive police force at the Wheeler Hall occupation

Any tactics to exercise crowd control on campus must provide a safe platform for expression of free speech and freedom of assembly and we expect that, as a result of this review, modifications will be made. We must strive to ensure that there is no possibility in the future of the alleged actions of police brutality and that our actions are guided by non-violence.

with what happened three weeks ago, but probably the latest quite broad outrage and criticism have got their attention and they will not make that mistake (whether of omission or commission doesn’t matter too much) again.

But that’s not the big mistake, outrageous as it was. Continue reading “Occupy UC”

The dog that caught the car

OWS is losing public support, [correction: polling numbers ungarbled 16/XI] to  33 for-45 opposed  from 35F-36O a month ago.  The project is suffering from a variety of problems mostly related to the lack of focus and leadership that appeared to its adherents as a virtue when it began.  This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have happened, but it might be time for advocates of more income and wealth equality, and fixing the economy so ordinary people can make a living in it, to move to new tactics. Napoleon lacked a plan for the occupation of Moscow and found, as Bush did in Iraq, that a successful invasion is to a wedding as the occupation is to a marriage.

A core problem is the mismatch of tactics to realistic goals.  An occupation or a hunger strike (in contrast to a self-immolation) is understood to be a process that will go on until demands are met.  This means the demands have to be within the capacity of someone or something, but (for example), the demonstrators at Berkeley are targeting the university regents and administration for not reducing tuition, as though they had a significant sum of money with which to cut student fees.  There is some small change around the edges, maybe from excessive administration salaries, but not enough to matter: the problem is that UC money from the legislature is being throttled back by Republicans who are down to one idea and one fake fact about the world.  Similarly, the time scale of public attention to outdoor camping demonstrations and the real national process of tax law changes, not to mention financial sector regulation, do not match.  Serious advocates of big change need to be planning their next move, as the occupations are becoming old news.  We know from psychology and the dog-bites-man rule, also from information theory, that the strength of a stimulus is proportional to the logarithm of the change in its level.  The change, not the level.

One reason to confront authority in cases like this is to provoke a response (that’s a classic example of a change in stimulus) that demonstrates moral deficiency or viciousness in the authority, so public opinion will change its mind.  Cops clearing the campsites, and brutalizing transparently harmless and peacable students and occupiers, may be such a response, and the bad press he’s been getting at Cal has certainly changed the tone of our chancellor’s attempts at leadership lately (and, so far, the behavior of the police).  But moving tents back after that PR victory looks to me like a real failure of imagination; even if its successful, it will just add a piece of static scenery to the campus daily theater.   Occupy, good symbolism (but better tactics with sharper demands and goals).  Get kicked out forcibly, good symbolism.  Keep occupying against “concessions” no-one can really grant, not so good.

As to my students, I wish they had asked some of us faculty fossils who made a lot of these mistakes back in the day, and learned from them, for help and advice: this wheel does not need to be reinvented (of course it needs to be adapted and updated). [Update 16/XI : I’m not sure I correctly interpret the tone of some of the comments, but to clarify: my generation failed at a lot of the reforms we tried to achieve, partly because we made mistakes I identify below.  I didn’t at all mean we did everything right and the current generation isn’t up to our standard, I meant we learned some bitter lessons from failure that might be appropriated this time.]  Some tips I’ve picked up chatting with colleagues and organizers, no charge: Continue reading “The dog that caught the car”

New York’s Flakiest

Occupy Wall Street on NYPD: “Demands Unclear.” Delicious.

It’s no secret that I have my problems with Occupy Wall Street (as well as an honest admiration for what it’s accomplished). But this from its blog is just delicious and I can’t resist quoting it in full:

NYPD Occupying Liberty Square; Demands Unclear

New York, NY — The NYPD have been occupying Liberty Square since 1:00am Tuesday morning, with the brand new occupation now set to enter its second day in just a few short hours. But will anyone listen to them when their message is so incoherent?

“What are their demands?” asked social historian Patrick Bruner. “They have not articulated any platform. How do they expect to be taken seriously?”

Critics of the new occupation allege that meddling billionaire Michael Bloomberg is behind the movement. Others question the new occupiers’ militant posture, concerned about the potential effects on the neighborhood.

“I suppose they have a right to express themselves,” said local resident Han Shan. “But I’d prefer it if instead they occupied the space with the power of their arguments.”

ABOVE: a rogue NYPD affinity group occupying the NY Stock Exchange


Occupy Berkeley

This afternoon I went down to the campus protest rally (part of the strike called for today to demand increased funding for higher education in California).  It so far has scored only one helicopter, and that since I left.  Everyone was there: the drum and dancing group, the “Free Leonard Peltier” people, some really mysterious setups including a large wagon wheel made, and nicely, of corrugated cardboard, labeled “Karma”. I may have some reflections on the current protests later, but it was in any case nice to see profs, students, the occasional bemused dog cadging ear scruggles, and the usual Berkeley types marching to their own drummers, some quite oddly measured and far away, all on a beautiful sunny day.

Well, almost everyone.  I asked some people, “where are the athletes?”  Nobody knew; someone said the coaches tell them not to demonstrate, but that’s impossible. As we know, intercollegiate sports teaches teamwork, selfless commitment to the community, sacrifice, and courage, and as we furthermore know, our sports teams are the public face of our university. And the coaches are the mentors of citizenship and responsibility for their charges.  So I do not understand why the 850 of them, who are quite nicely cared for and do not pay any of the skyrocketing tuition crushing the other 20,000 students who occasionally get to watch them play, were not out, in uniform, marching for one or another version of justice and showing solidarity with the institution whose glory they advance, or maybe even providing disciplined, calm security.

It’s a mystery.

Berkeley protests

Yesterday an OWS-affiliated (whatever that actually means) crowd tried to occupy what functions as a quad at Berkeley, with tents in which to stay a while.  Campus police and Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies arrived in armor looking like Darth Vaders, cleared the tents away by force, pulled down signs, and brutalized a bunch of students and faculty.  Getting jabbed with the end of a police baton held in two hands is not a nudge, as the AP inexcusably described it, and neither is getting grabbed by the hair and thrown to the ground for convenient placement of handcuffs.   Brutalized is the word, though the police have lately been trained to injure people in ways that don’t show in TV interviews (no bleeding scalps or bloody noses! no broken long bones: cracked ribs hurt plenty, and we don’t want pictures of victims in hospital beds or casts).  There were 39 arrests, including a professor and 22 students.  Some of the videos I watched last night and this morning have been taken down by YouTube, but there are several here that will make you sick.

Our chancellor, who is here responsible for an episode that is totally inept as both leadership and public relations, has had the remarkable good fortune of being able to hide behind his opposite number at Penn State all week (and do our students ever look better than theirs).  He circulated a letter to everyone yesterday that may reach a new high in official cowardice and mendacity (but note exception below). It presents a stupefyingly lame justification for the “no encampments” order he issued, and blandly identifies standing unarmed in a row with arms linked – you remember, the way MLK and the freedom riders did – as “not non-violent”.  Then he adds the truly incredible “we regret all injuries, to protestors and police, that resulted from this effort.”  Injuries to police? Excuse me: AFAIK there were no injuries to police: the police, as Chili Palmer says, were the ones inflicting the pain, period. And finally, we get the inevitable, scurrilous passive voice diffusion of responsibility into thin air, “the police were forced to use their batons to enforce the policy.”

I have never been completely comfortable with the California campus protests of the last couple of years.

Continue reading “Berkeley protests”

Occupy Wall Street: hopeless leaders, perfect catalysts.

Let’s put it plainly. The demands of Occupy Wall Street are both valid and popular. The people occupying Wall Street are total flakes. The second fact in no way discredits the first. The people in Zuccotti Park aren’t the best people to carry forth their message—but they don’t need to be. They’ve already catalyzed others to do the job.

I’ve been reading a lot about Occupy Wall Street.  Last Saturday, I visited Zuccotti Park and took a look for myself. I think it’s time we recognized a clear but complex set of truths.

The demands of Occupy Wall Street are both valid and popular; Democrats and Progressives of all tendencies should endorse them. The people actually occupying Wall Street are total flakes. The second fact in no way discredits the first. The people in Zuccotti Park aren’t the best people to carry forth their message—but they don’t need to be. They’ve already catalyzed others to do the job. Like Lieutenant Dunbar in Dances with Wolves, their impotent flamboyance can inspire others to fight the battle that they started but won’t take part in.

Dances with Wolves : Suicide Attempt or see more Kevin Costner Videos

 Taking these theses one at a time: Continue reading “Occupy Wall Street: hopeless leaders, perfect catalysts.”

Money manager makes it official: one huge donation, one vote

Wall Street to politicians: your “constituency” isn’t the voters. It’s your donors: namely, us.

A “longtime money manager” quoted in Saturday’s New York Times:

“Who do you think pays the taxes?…Financial services are one of the last things we do in this country and do it well. Let’s embrace it. If you want to keep having jobs outsourced, keep attacking financial services. This is just disgruntled people.”

He added that he was disappointed that members of Congress from New York, especially Senator Charles E. Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, had not come out swinging for an industry that donates heavily to their campaigns. “They need to understand who their constituency is,” he said.

Emphasis added. From the perspective of huge donors, elected officials’ “constituency” consists of them, not us. A sentiment no doubt widely held, but rarely openly avowed—until Occupy Wall Street provoked it. Keep up the good work.