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:

(1) Every movement attracts people with more or less relevant agendas to help decorate the Christmas tree that’s actually been stood up. On the one hand, this stimulates the democratic impulse and the yearning for a thousand flowers to bloom, as well as offering  useful alliances and a bigger labor pool .  On the other, it risks making the whole thing look like a mess to the outsiders whom you want to influence in a specific way.  You have to keep the crazies away from the microphone, and protect your movement from good intentions and impractical allies.  Leonard Peltier may or may not be the victim of a terrible injustice, but he has nothing to do with Wall Street and his advocates up the flaky/scary index of any demonstration in the estimation of a lot of onlookers.  Global warming is actually closely linked to corporate bad behavior and overconsumption by people competing in a positional arms race, but i think putting it out front in this enterprise just confuses people.

(2) You have to be crystal clear about the difference between presentation of self, something everyone has every right to do, and making something happen in the world you are operating in.  Ralph Nader’s conscience is pure as the driven snow, and he gave us W.  The McCarthy campaign in New Hampshire infuriated hippies and longhairs by making them shave and wear a coat and tie to volunteer, because in that electorate, tying the antiwar movement to certain perfectly reasonable freedoms would condemn a lot more Americans and Vietnamese to death.

(3) I believe the Koch brothers, and the bankers pocketing their absurd bonuses, and ADM and the farm lobby crowd, are in it for themselves, because everything they ask for makes them richer, even if there exists a principled defense of corn subsidies.  The risk of being seen as self-serving is important in political action, and our campus demonstrations are much too focused on asking for money for ourselves (faculty raises and lower student fees), especially as the faculty are pretty darn comfortable now compared to Californians generally, and the students are on a track leading them into the most protected tranches of society (the college- and graduate-educated).  Our pitch would be much more admired and admirable, for example in the eyes of all the people who aren’t getting into any college or job, and are having their unemployment insurance cut off, if it were more broadly directed to social justice across the board (as Bob Reich tried to steer it last night).

(4) Any campus has professional and semi-professional resources that can be organized to advance the revolution.  One of my fondest memories of Harvard ’69 was the silk-screen shop the architecture school set up, where anyone could be taught silk-screening, get professional graphic design help, and make T-shirts and posters.  You can thank that shop for the canonical red fist: graphics are important, just like music and rhetoric. We have a drama department and lots of actors: theater, including sidewalk improv, is a revolutionary tool.  We have a football team, and other teams, who are (i) celebrities (ii) particularly skilled at organized teamwork and confrontation within rules (iii) beloved of exactly the conservative alums and fans whose views need to be adjusted. Someone needs to  make it clear to these folks that they have more important work to do than practicing passes these days.  We are not going to beat Stanford Saturday; we might have some success against reaction and injustice.  We have a band that should be out playing the Internationale, or This Land is Your Land, or any of a whole library of relevant numbers, in Sproul Plaza; where are they?

Readers with hashmarks from earlier campaigns, and there should be lots, are invited to add tips for youth in comments.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

18 thoughts on “The dog that caught the car”

  1. A protest is great for solving problems in the case where everybody agrees on the solution, but there is a lack of will to carry it out. In this case, that doesn’t apply. We have a segmented society now, in which each group blames another and absolves itself of all blame (your post being a great example) and there is no agreement on what the proper action should be. For example, you blame GOP budget-cutting for tuition hikes; I could equally blame easy access to student loans for increasing demand, and excessive administrative overhead, and I’d probably find as many people to agree on one or both of those points as you could for yours. And that’s a relatively straightforward case. Solving the overall economic crisis is orders of magnitude more difficult.

    As a result, the protest winds up looking all too much like a big temper tantrum: something’s wrong and we’re unhappy and we want Daddy to fix it, but we have no solutions to offer and refuse to accept any responsibility for our own plight. Public sympathy is easy to get with a sob story, but easy to lose with bad behavior.

  2. Whining about demands is so six weeks ago. You’re showing how behind you are.

    This post made me sick, but it was “One of my fondest memories of Harvard ’69” that made me nauseous.

    1. Me too. Michael, I would say that you and yours tried and failed, but frankly most of allegedly liberal academia hasn’t even tried.

  3. “The McCarthy campaign in New Hampshire infuriated hippies and longhairs by making them shave and wear a coat and tie to volunteer, because in that electorate, tying the antiwar movement to certain perfectly reasonable freedoms would condemn a lot more Americans and Vietnamese to death.”

    Pro-war LBJ gives way to pro-war HH who loses to pro-war Nixon. The war goes on for 5 more years; many die. I’m failing to see the lesson for OWS in this.

    1. Fail in a way respectable to career failures, then assume your place in their ranks. It’s sort of like a young pundit currying favor with the old, corrupt windbags.

  4. I think there’s a limit to what you can accomplish with this sort of protest. That limit isn’t the fault of the protesters. If anything, it’s the fault of the rest of us who aren’t pushing successfully for policy changes.

    The protesters can only protest. And the idea that they must be kept from voicing support for, say, climate change mitigation is no more sensible than faulting ML King for opposing Vietnam. (Which, of course, many people did. But they were wrong.)

  5. Why do you repeat the nonsense about Nader giving “us” W? A reality-based pundit would note that tens of thousands of Registered Democrats in Florida voted for Bush and he still LOST the state, in terms of valid votes cast, even after the flagrant Choicpoint disenfranchisement effort to reduce black registration. Despite all the chicanery and all the DEMOCRATS who voted for W (not Nader), Gore won Florida on valid votes cast and counted under the then-extant legal standard for counting votes (able to discern the will of the voter). What defeated Gore and delivered the White House to W was the Supreme Court Incorporated, with two members having family members (Scalia’s son Eugene, Thomas’s wife) deeply tied and committed to a GOP victory, which the Court gladly delivered, thanks to a decision that they could not even deliver with a straight face, holding that it was precedent for nothing, as all daylight robberies are. Not to mention that, as buscaglia noted, there’s wasn’t even standing for Bush to sue unless you already had decided that Bush should prevail and that anything that led people to question his appointment counted as a concrete harm.

    1. Very simple.

      But for Nader, Gore would have won.

      All causal claims can be nutpicked apart, and you don’t even need a philosophy background to do so. But the human brain still likes causality, for some reason or another, and continues to make causal claims. Given the prospect of nutpicking, all you can ask of a causal claim is that it is consistent with some rational notion of causality, not that it is true. The claim that Nader caused Gore’s defeat is consistent with “but-for” causality, which is rational if grossly underdetermined. So it is good enough.

      Several of your claims are also consistent with rational notions of causuality. But invoking them to delegitimize the significance of Nader–there’s a word for that. And it kind of looks like “causality.” Mmmm, I remember! Casuistry!

  6. When Nader decided to stay in the race, IIRC, polling indicated a close race nationally and in Florida. It was predictable that nearly all his votes would otherwise go to Gore. What he did was reckless, self-indulgent, and arrogant, deliberately risking a catastrophic outcome for the nation in order to achieve the little he could accomplish by remaining a candidate. I would make the same judgment if Gore had squeaked out a win. W won because many things happened, the SC and Gore’s suboptimal campaign included. If Gore had received nearly all Nader’s votes, which he would have, all the litigation and vote-denying wouldn’t have happened because the result wouldn’t have been so close.

    If I see a car coming that looks as though it might run a red light, and I cross the street in front of it because I have the right to do so, and I get hit, observing that I was hit because the driver was careless and at fault doesn’t make my judgment any better. If I drag my child along with me and we’re hit, or if we only have a close call, my behavior is indefensible and no less so because the driver was drunk, texting, or even homicidal.

  7. Michael, here’s a comment from CT ( I’m printing it in full, because I agree with every word, and feel that (among many others) every word is applicable to your post:


    ” A few observations.

    First of all, all these people giving advice to OWS, or criticising them, or whatever. Lets just remember something. They did something that nobody else on the left has been able to achieve. Not unions, not the interminable marxist sects, not the professional “progressive” politicians, or those arguing for electoral approaches to reform.

    They put the elites on the defensive and they changed the media debate. Now maybe these aren’t huge victories, but I’m not seeing any other victories out there. Prior to this the best we had was a defeat in Wisconsin. Okay it made the victory very costly to the Republicans, but it was still a defeat (and yes I know other things may emerge – but so far they haven’t).

    Secondly, many of the people giving advice have been wrong and consistently wrong. We were told that voting for Obama, more Democrat Senators, whatever – would change things. It didn’t. Now that’s not a reason to give up and vote Republican, but it does suggest that voting isn’t going to change anything in itself. Most of the tactics people have argued for on this thread have been tried and have not worked. Demonstrations – not so much (I won’t even dignify the Tea Party comparisons with a response).

    Thirdly, people arguing about demands are completely missing the point. This is a nascent movement. Committees have formed, leaders are emerging, strategies are being evolved and tried out (the use of the people’s mic on Scott Walker and the School’s meeting in New York). People, who have been separated for too long, are getting to know each other. In New York alliances are being built between black groups, and middle class students. Some of them are demonstrating together against police brutality. This is huge. Seriously, do people not get what a big deal that is?

    At the end of the day the occupation did three things. First of all it finally forced the media and politicians to actually at least admit some reality.

    Secondly it got a group of people who were tired, fed up and angry together. Again, this is big. People complaining to their friends, or despairing on the internet, is not going to change things. Get those people together in a critical mass – that’s a potential movement.

    Thirdly it created powerful propoganda. The left has sucked at propoganda for a long time. Now we have the 99% meme, and the astonishing 99% tumblr blog. And the right’s response about that was panic – and they really didn’t know how to respond (as the 57/5% blog, or whatever it was, so amusingly demonstrated). The right have been forced to use the language defined by the left. They’re fighting on our turf. Again that’s a victory – maybe a small one – but a victory nonetheless.

    Finally, on the polls. The most unpopular people in the USA today are running things. Look at the polls on bankers, and CEOS, or rich people generally. They’re hated. Politicians are despised. Politics is not a popularity game. Its about the surgical application of force. Sometimes (though more rarely than people think) popularity can be that force, but mostly it cannot for the simple reason that the USA is not a very democratic place. The right did not win because they are popular. They won because they were organised. They created pressure groups in Washington. They created groups of like minded people who could be relied upon to turn out when a show of force was required. They won because they made their ideas, as stupid as they are, the default ideas of the elite.

    That’s what needs to be fought. Until it is defeated, it won’t matter how many Democrats are placed in the house/senate. Nothing will change.”

    1. Barry, I agree that the OWS thing is a good thing. I visited the LA one yesterday. It was completely calm and orderly, and I saw some good signs. (I’m big on signage.) Most important, to me, is that it was quiet, too. I am worried about what will happen there, vis-a-vis the mayor and police, but from what I saw, it looks quite responsible and respectable and a force for good.

      On the other hand, this paragraph has some issues: “Politics is not a popularity game. Its about the surgical application of force. Sometimes (though more rarely than people think) popularity can be that force, but mostly it cannot for the simple reason that the USA is not a very democratic place. The right did not win because they are popular. They won because they were organised. They created pressure groups in Washington. They created groups of like minded people who could be relied upon to turn out when a show of force was required. They won because they made their ideas, as stupid as they are, the default ideas of the elite.”

      1) Surgical application of force: that sounds like war. No thanks.

      2) Politics *here* most decisively IS a popularity game, and it is won by those who show up to vote. Otherwise, you must live in some other country. I like a certain amount of order. I like polling places. If you have something else in mind, please do it somewhere else!

      3) The GOP wins not because their ideas are of the elite. They win because they get poor and middle class people to vote against their own interests. (And yes the media often helps by being incompetent/corrupt.) *That* is what we must fight. Well, among other things.

        1. Oops, also, I can’t tell which comment on that comments page is the one you like. Does it have a number?

  8. NCG. “Surgical application of force: that sounds like war. No thanks.” implies that you didn’t really read the post. Please do, and ask somebody to explain the metaphors involved.

  9. Michael, here’s some more, from The Rude Pundit ( Again, I’m posting a long block, because I’d really like you to read this:

    “This Is Not Your F*cking Movement; This Is Our F*cking Movement:
    Let’s be honest here: the march this morning to shut down Wall Street was useless if its goal was to, well, shut down Wall Street. The New York Stock Exchange is, more or less, a show. Multi-million dollar financial transactions are not done by crazy, sweaty guys on a loud, chaotic floor. They’re done digitally. So whether or not the secretaries and junior fuckbag executives and janitors got into work didn’t stop a single transfer of funds from one rich asshole to another. It pissed off some people and got the cops more overtime.

    But, as ever, as ever, since it’s started, everyone, from The Daily Show to Diane Rehm, right, left, and middle, has insisted that Occupy Wall Street conform to some readily defined paradigm of what a protest movement needs to be. Essentially, they are echoing something that Karl Rove drooled out the other day when he asked protesters at a speech he giving at Johns Hopkins University, “Who gave you the right to occupy America?” The real question is “Who took that right away?”

    We are just two months into this. Two f*cking months after sucking up the shit given to us from the right for years. Two f*cking months after being part of the movement that propelled Obama into the presidency, only to see that movement dissolved and dissipated. Two f*cking months after watching two years of Tea Party bullsh*t being flaunted in our faces as if it represented anything but the height of corporate and conservative cynicism and manipulation.

    We are two months into this and everyone in the media is clamoring for closure. It took years for the civil rights movement to get laws changed. It took years for the anti-Vietnam War movement to get through the thick skulls of the majority of Americans. This is just starting. Welcome to the real occupation.

    Right now, the whole Occupy Wall Street narrative arc is following a well-worn script: defiance of authority followed by a crackdown by the agents of the authority. The corrupt, illegal power of the police and the governments of New York, Oakland, and elsewhere has been on display, with the raid on Zuccotti Park and on encampments around the country, as well as attacks on media members from the right, left, and middle.

    The march this morning wasn’t going to do anything, despite the hopeful rumors that the stock market opening bell had been delayed (it wasn’t). No, the point was, like the rallies for Obama before them, that there is power in numbers. And that power needs to be exhibited and enacted.

    When the Supreme Court, in the Citizens United decision, said that corporations are people with First Amendment rights and affirmed that money is the equivalent of speech, it essentially was saying that some people have more speech than others. The wealthy and the corporations can never be matched in terms of the speech effect of their dollars. But they can be matched and overcome by the sheer volume of people. That’s why we say we are the 99%.”

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