Wall Street needs to be fixed, not occupied

It’s a mistake to dismiss the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.


Issues of corporate ethics are too important to leave to the Occupy Wall Street gang. The principles the group is fighting for are noble ones, but the tools they employ leave much to be desired. It’s up to the rest of us to use better tools.

Those currently camped out in New York, and other cities across the U.S., are right to want better corporate ethics, including a big dose of accountability and transparency. And they’re right to want to live in a just and equitable society. And they’re right to want certain kinds of electoral reform: finding ways to limit the influence of corporations (without stomping on free speech) would be a very good thing. But occupying Wall St. isn’t going to do it.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m there, in spirit. Well, not there there. I’m not likely to join the sit-in anytime soon; those methods aren’t my methods. But I sympathize with the frustration manifested by the passionate, non-partisan cabal of well-intentioned folks who make up the Occupy Wall Street movement. Indeed, though our methods are radically different, I’ve dedicated my career to some of the same ideals. I’m committed to the project of figuring out the best possible standards for corporate structures and behaviours, and I hope that better understanding will lead, indirectly, to better outcomes. The folks from Occupy Wall Street likely think my way won’t won’t have much impact. Don’t worry, I’m not taking it personally.

The movement has substantial symbolic significance, but we all know, I think, that nothing concrete is going to come of it. To start with, the mechanism is all wrong—it’s not like corporate and political elites are going to see a sit-in, and suddenly smack their foreheads and say, “Oh, OK! Let’s make changes!” And then there’s the movement itself. It’s pretty clear by now that the loosely-organized movement doesn’t have much in the way of concrete goals. And its spokespeople can barely open their mouths on topics related to business and economics without saying things that are grossly mistaken, such as their idea that corporate personhood should be repealed. But then, to look for direct impact is, as others have observed, likely a mistake, and misses the real significance of the movement.

So it would be easy—too easy—to dismiss Occupy Wall Street as a bunch of well-intentioned young people tilting at windmills. But that would be a mistake. The windmills they’re tilting at are important ones.

The movement’s real value is that it ought to serve as a kick in the pants to the rest of us, an inspiration to make use of tools that will do some real good. Let’s leverage their energy into effective methods. So think. Learn about the issues. Learn about corporate governance. Advocate reform. Organize. Get out the vote. If Occupying Wall Street is to have any real impact, it won’t be by motivating a few hundred more people to camp out in the street.

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