What Is Occupy Wall Street? : Planet Money It's not a movement; it's a venue. And there's an economist who thinks it can be a model for the whole country.
NPR logo

What Is Occupy Wall Street?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/141158199/141167264" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What Is Occupy Wall Street?

What Is Occupy Wall Street?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/141158199/141167264" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: The future of America is at stake. And to those who say it'll cause a trade war, we are in a trade war. We have our clocks cleaned every day and lose jobs every day 'cause of unfair Chinese practices.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB SONG, "RINSE ME DOWN")

ADAM DAVIDSON, HOST:

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Adam Davidson.

ZOE CHACE, HOST:

And I'm Zoe Chace. Today is Friday, October 7. And that was the senator from New York, Chuck Schumer, talking about China's currency. Today on the podcast, we tell you why people are occupying Wall Street.

DAVIDSON: The media has been going around making a lot of fun of these protesters all this week. They don't have an agenda. They don't have any demands.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No specifics. There's no specific goal or demand for this organization.

DAVIDSON: I believe we have a PLANET MONEY first. I think we are breaking the story in this very podcast. I think we will reveal for the first time in the national media what these protesters are actually for, why they're occupying Wall Street. But first, a man we always know what he's for. He's for indicators - Jacob Goldstein with the PLANET MONEY indicator.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: Today's PLANET MONEY indicator, it's nine. And it's nine in two different ways, really. The unemployment rate in the U.S., it's been stuck right around 9 percent for nine months now - in other words, all year. The unemployment rate, it was 9.1 percent as of September. That's according to this morning's big jobs report. And, yes, 9 percent, it's a very high unemployment rate for the United States. But I think even more important is the other nine. Nine months is a really long time to see such a high unemployment rate essentially frozen in place.

DAVIDSON: Wait. Are we just replaying the indicator from last month?

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. I'm actually not here right now...

DAVIDSON: Right. Why...

GOLDSTEIN: ...It's great.

DAVIDSON: ...Did you even come in today? Like, I feel we were saying in the office this morning. It just - we're desperately trying to find something new to say about 9-plus percent unemployment, another month where the jobs numbers barely kept track with population growth, really didn't add any real employment for all those people unemployed. Give us something new. What's going on?

GOLDSTEIN: So, you know, you can dig around in the numbers. The BLS has this incredible data dump. And I did look through it. And, you know, you can see, well, construction finally started to add jobs in September. That's on the commercial side rather than the residential side. So that's a little bit interesting, a little bit hopeful. But, you know, really it's important to look at the overall picture. And the overall picture is overwhelmingly static, which of course is very scary.

But, you know, we still see the private sector adding some jobs but not enough. We still see local governments cutting tens of thousands of jobs every month. And, you know, you can slice the unemployment rate all different kinds of ways - by age, by gender, by education. And we did all that on the blog. And what you see is at every level, everybody is basically stuck.

DAVIDSON: Including us. Here we are again.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

DAVIDSON: Well, thanks very much, Jacob.

CHACE: Thanks, Jacob.

GOLDSTEIN: Thanks, guys.

CHACE: OK. On to the podcast. So, PLANET MONEY listeners, surely you've heard by now about the hundreds of people living and protesting in Zuccotti Park. It's a plaza near wall street in downtown Manhattan. And they've been there for the last couple of weeks.

DAVIDSON: Here in New York, it's just all-consuming. It's all over the media. You know, we see these protesters walking around. And the protests seem to be getting bigger and bigger. This week, a lot of labor unions joined in. Congresspeople have been coming out in support of the protesters. My dad called me today to ask if he should go. And...

CHACE: My brother's flying in from Seattle to go to Wall Street and join the protesters. So - but you and I, Adam, we're PLANET MONEY. And we cover a lot of what takes place on Wall Street. So we wanted to find out, what exactly are these Wall Street protesters against? So we went to the park.

The park is crowded. It's a little dirty. It's not that big a square. It's just one block long. And the crowd skews mostly young and bearded, Army-jacketed and sweatshirted. And there are a myriad of signs against lobbyists, against banks, against the war.

DAVIDSON: And it was like a detective job at first. Like, so what are these people for? And at first we realized everyone was giving us slightly different answers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Well, I'm here on my own agenda. Other people have their own agenda and here are what they're here for. We don't have one specific agenda in here. We don't have demands.

DAVIDSON: Read your sign.

JILLIAN CIPRIANO: College degree equals unemployment, and lobbyist equals bribery.

DAVIDSON: And then thank you, Wall Street.

CIPRIANO: Thank you, Wall Street.

DAVIDSON: The first guy there refused to give us his name. The second person is Jillian Cipriano (ph). She's a recent college grad from Staten Island. And she said the main reason she's here is she can't find a job. And it makes her mad. And she's frustrated with the political process.

CHACE: We ran into a punk from the Lower East Side who was against police brutality. We found Grandmothers Against the War, this girl from Brooklyn with a list of suggestions supporting everything from the carbon tax to libraries.

DAVIDSON: And then we caught up with this guy who said he couldn't stand and talk to us because he was in a rush to get zombified.

Can we walk what with you while you - what is getting zombified mean, by the way?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm - zombie makeup to make myself represent a dead person.

DAVIDSON: Got you. Now, you have a Ron Paul sticker?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Sure do.

DAVIDSON: Are you a libertarian? What do you call yourself?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I am, definitely.

DAVIDSON: And is this - I know that there's not one view, et cetera. But have you felt welcome here?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, this is all about community. We're not trying to marginalize anyone's voices. We're just trying to unite each other, you know?

DAVIDSON: During the day, Zuccotti Park has the feel of, like, a festival. You know, there's free food out. People are playing music, wandering around, napping under trees. I saw a few people smoking joints.

And we thought, all right. It's this big park full of independent thinkers who all have different views. Is there, like, a unified thing here? Is there some way that this is different from any other park in Manhattan where there's lots of people wandering around doing whatever they feel like? How does this thing come together and be one thing?

CHACE: So everyone told us this park does come together at one point, at night, at 7 o'clock. Everyone told us, you guys have to go to the general assembly. That's where decisions get made that affect this group. So we went.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Mic check.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Mic check.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: My name is Jeff.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: My name is Jeff.

DAVIDSON: So you've probably heard of this. This is the form of communication called the people's mic. The police won't allow bullhorns, so the crowd repeats every phrase said by the person addressing the crowd.

CHACE: The night we went, the meeting was being led by two people - facilitators.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Facilitators.

CHACE: But before the facilitators can begin facilitating the meeting, this dude in a puffy overcoat leaps out of the crowd to make this point about the facilitators.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: These are positions of power.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: These are positions of power.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: They have the power to tell us we can't talk.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: They have the power to tell us we can't talk.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: They lead this discussion in a direction.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: They lead this discussion in a direction.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: If they never ask for our consent...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: If they never ask for our consent...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: ...Their power is illegitimate.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: ...Their power is illegitimate.

CHACE: OK, so there is one rule here. And the rule is that decisions are made by consensus. The group consents to proposals by waving their fingers in the air, kind of like jazz hands. And then if they don't agree, they also do jazz hands but upside down.

And as you can imagine, it's hard to get 400 people to consent to anything. But soon enough, the night we went, all 400 people or so consented to the facilitators facilitating the meeting.

DAVIDSON: And so we learned, the general assembly, this is where everyone gets together. But there's also these working groups, these subcommittees that meet throughout the day - the sanitation committee, the finance committee, the legal committee. And they all report back to the general assembly.

CHACE: And so the night we were there, the comfort committee had a proposal about how to allocate some of the tens of thousands of dollars that have been donated to the group.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: We need sleeping bags.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: We need sleeping bags.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Sleeping bags cost money.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Sleeping bags cost money.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: We would like to request...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: We would like to request...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: ...About $2,000.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: ...About $2,000.

CHACE: So people had a lot of questions for sleeping bag man about his proposal. Does the proposal include a sales tax - which goes to the government. How will the sleeping bags be kept clean?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: My question is more pragmatic.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: My question is more pragmatic.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Should we not just buy fabric...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Should we not just buy fabric...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: ...And construct sleeping bags?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: ...And construct sleeping bags?

DAVIDSON: Now, Zoe, what we realized was this general assembly, this isn't just some logistical asterisk to the protest. This is what this whole thing is about. This is what they're for. This process itself, participatory democracy, that is what this group is demanding.

CHACE: I found an ex-Marine on the sidelines, Brian Phillips. He said exactly that.

BRIAN PHILLIPS: So we have people speak. Everyone votes on it. And we come to an agreement. And that's how we want society to be.

CHACE: That is how you want society to be?

PHILLIPS: Yes.

ANDREW SMITH: I don't think that this is by any means an efficient, particularly effective or the only direct democracy process. It's not.

CHACE: This is Andrew Smith. He's facilitated a couple times at the general assembly.

SMITH: There are many other models. This is the one we got. And we're going with it, you know? And it works to empower to be more effective.

DAVIDSON: I mean, it would be more effective, I would think - like if you had this many people, say, and they were all for or against some specific thing. Like, we're all for the Volcker rule. Let's just go nuts and in favor of the Volcker rule, you know?

SMITH: Of course it would be more effective. It would be more effective.

DAVIDSON: But you say, of course it'll be more effective like that's a horrible thing to be. Is effective bad?

SMITH: Effective will disenfranchise people around here. People will feel like they're not getting their voices heard. They'll feel like the move - the effect is moving in a direction that they do not agree with. And they will quit the movement.

CHACE: It seems like that whole - this whole organization of Occupy Wall Street is like a structure for people to bring their issues to and put them on, not like you have your own issue that you're...

SMITH: Yes. Yes. I like it.

CHACE: Is that...

SMITH: I agree. Agreed.

CHACE: I just made that up.

SMITH: Perfect.

DAVIDSON: You're a venue...

SMITH: That's what it's all about.

DAVIDSON: ...Not a movement.

CHACE: Yeah.

SMITH: Sure.

CHACE: Exactly.

SMITH: Awesome. You guys can run with that. There's a narrative right there. We got it. I think we got it.

CHACE: It's a venue, not a movement. Standing around and discussing what they want, that's what they want. That's their hope.

DAVIDSON: So we at PLANET MONEY, we're economics reporters. So we immediately started to wonder, they want all of society run on this basis where - lots of groups, where everyone's equal, gets together and just as a group decides what they want? Could that work? And how would that work, like, just in the pragmatic stuff of, like, getting people the things they want and figuring out what to do with food and clothes and, you know, just the basic structure of an economy? So it turns out we found this economist who has been working on this problem for 40 years. We caught him when he was on his way to Occupy Portland, where he...

CHACE: On his bicycle.

DAVIDSON: On his bicycle. And he said that, yes, for 40 years he's been crafting this proposal for exactly this vision of society. His name's Robin Hahnel.

ROBIN HAHNEL: I call myself a libertarian socialist.

DAVIDSON: Wait. Wait.

HAHNEL: To say those words...

DAVIDSON: Wait. I've got to interrupt you. Yeah. That's - I literally think of those as opposites, you know? The...

HAHNEL: That's right. If you call yourself a libertarian socialist in the United States, they think, oh, you're like Ron Paul or, you know, Hayek. Or they think, oh, you're a socialist, and that means Soviet socialist. So it's - I always hesitate to say that's what I am. But I believe that is an accurate way I can describe myself.

DAVIDSON: Robin Hahnel teaches economics at Portland State University. But earlier in his academic life he was a math major. And that helped me understand where his whole theory came from. He basically started pondering a puzzle. In the waning days of the Soviet Union when people like him, left-wing progressives, you know, really soured on the Soviet model, they were stuck with this problem.

Wait. We don't like American-style capitalism, and we don't like Soviet or Chinese-style communism. So what can we do? Can we create an economic system that was more democratic than capitalism and more democratic than communism as it's practiced now?

CHACE: And what he came up with is called participatory economics. And it works a lot like the way the general assemblies at Occupy Wall Street are structured. So first of all, there's no owners. There's no managers. Everyone is equal. And people gather in working groups to do business.

DAVIDSON: The easiest way to picture it for me is a factory. So you're a shoe factory. All the workers in the shoe factory gather and decide how we're going to run our shoe factory. One committee might come up with a proposal of what kinds of shoes we're going to make and which styles and how many.

Another committee would create a proposal for how we're all going to be compensated. So he said some might decide everyone makes exactly the same amount. But he imagines a lot of worker groups will decide, no, if you work harder, you deserve more stuff.

CHACE: The harder you work, the more you make. And it's not your boss deciding. It's your colleagues.

HAHNEL: And basically, they simply have to do what is a very difficult job and sometimes contentious. They have to essentially review one another's performance and decide, has somebody worked harder? You know, has somebody put in more effort? Has somebody made greater sacrifices than somebody else? And if so, then they are awarded, you know, by their co-workers.

DAVIDSON: Robin recommend we skim pretty quickly over the next step. He spelled it out in several books. But basically there's this other process for how all the different working groups all over the region or all over the country that want a little more leather or want a little more rubber, there's sort of a central processing system that uses, as he says, a very simple computer algorithm he's come up with which he says can determine supply and demand issues very efficiently without using what we in capitalism use, a price signal where you just - if you want more leather, you just find out what the price is. And if lots of people want leather, the price goes up, and you maybe substitute something else.

The other thing the price signal does is it turns on a dime. You know, if there's a disastrous frost destroying lots of orange crops in Florida, suddenly oranges are more expensive immediately all over the country. And we asked him how his system would respond to sudden shocks since his system requires people to mail these proposals in from all over the country.

HAHNEL: It may be the case that one of the things that this system has a great - has more difficulty in doing is making on-the-fly adjustments because it's more participatory. We may discover that in the real world, when this system is implemented, that that is a place where it perhaps is a little weaker than some other systems that have gone before it. I'm perfectly willing to accept the fact that perhaps there's going to be some disadvantages to doing things this way as well as some tremendous advantages.

CHACE: Another issue that we wanted to ask Hahnel about was what about us, the consumers? You know, how do we buy stuff? There's basically not really money in his world, at least the way we use money. So the way you purchase, you have to decide a year in advance what you're going to consume. So your neighborhood gets together. You have another meeting. You submit a plan to a consumption council of what you guys all want to consume over the next year. So you decide how much toilet paper you're going to need, how many pillows or T-shirts and iPods and iPads. And your neighborhood consumption council sends its requests to this centralized computer algorithm.

DAVIDSON: Which is a very big difference from how we live today. I mean, I have no idea how many potatoes or eggs I'm going to want next August, say. This year would have been really hard for me because, you know, in January I had no idea I was going be having a kid at the end of the year, but I am.

CHACE: Oh, Adam, you're kidding. This is the first I've heard of this. Congratulations.

DAVIDSON: She's kidding because Zoe, like the Amazon Corporation, know that my consumption patterns have changed rather dramatically in the last few weeks as I'm buying all this baby stuff. And I asked Hahnel about that. How does his system account for changes in what we want?

HAHNEL: How is that going to play out? Well, when you go through the checkout line of your neighborhood distribution center or stores or whatever, they're basically going to - they're going to keep track - they know what your approved consumption request for the year was. They know what you asked for. It's in their computer. And they're going to basically start giving you little tips. You know, at this rate, you know, you're not going to be consuming as much of this as you asked for. At this rate, you're taking a lot of stuff you never asked for.

DAVIDSON: Another thing I've got to say that I thought a lot about listening to Hahnel is, my God. This sounds like a lot of meetings. I feel like I have structured my life around avoiding meetings as much as possible. And he said, are you kidding? I'm an academic. I have been invited to lots of really awful, boring meetings.

HAHNEL: I can't stand meetings.

DAVIDSON: Then why did you create...

HAHNEL: I can't stand meet...

DAVIDSON: ...An economics built on meetings?

CHACE: Yeah.

HAHNEL: If the decisions I care about are going to be made at the meetings that I'm going to, then I think there's a lot more incentive for people to go to meetings.

CHACE: He's saying if people feel like their voice will be actually heard, then they'll be more into meetings. But if you really just can't get down with meetings, then you don't have to show up to make your voice heard. It's participatory, not mandatory.

DAVIDSON: Although he says if you don't participate, there's a good chance you're not going to like the outcome. Now, obviously there are a lot of things that people would object to here. But Robin Hahnel has sort of a sales pitch to the Occupy Wall Streeters. He says to them, you know what? You're brand-new at this, and that's fabulous. And you're bringing energy that my generation has long since lost. But keep in mind people like me, we've been thinking about this for a very long time. And we've thought through some of the issues that you're going to come up with as you're pursuing this participatory democracy model of society.

But Hahnel says in no way does he hope that his generation, the older guys, take over this movement. He says he is so excited about what's going on right now because for him, like a real radical leftist, it's been a pretty lousy 20 years. You know, except for those anti-globalization skirmishes in Seattle in the late '90s, there just has not been a lot in our culture to really appeal to someone like him.

CHACE: So this is a very exciting moment for a guy like that.

HAHNEL: Ever since this crisis hit, I've been wondering, is there gonna be a progressive, a looking-forward wake-up call here in America? And I'm a lifelong leftist. And I remember tears came to my eyes when I was at the Battle of Seattle because I didn't know whether I would ever see that kind of demonstration again in my country. I feel that way about this.

DAVIDSON: Now, we should tell the folks at the general assembly who don't already know Robin Hahnel's model - he calls it participatory economics or parecon - is just one of the models of an economics built on this small-group democracy idea. We found out there are a ton of them. There's something called mutualism, analytical Marxism. There are dozens of different-named forms of anarchism.

CHACE: Horizontalism, syndicalism, post-autistic economics - that's a thing - transformative economics.

DAVIDSON: We could go on. And each of these has its own approaches, its own policies and structures, although they all broadly follow this model of participatory decision-making.

CHACE: If they could actually create a society based on participatory democracy on that level, it would be among the most radical changes ever contemplated for America. And it's tough because before you change America, you need to get 400 people in a park to agree on precisely how you want to change America.

DAVIDSON: So they're meeting every night for several hours. One guy who said he didn't speak for everybody...

CHACE: Of course.

DAVIDSON: ...Proposed a timeline that they will have a consensus view with a complete platform by November 20.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RINSE ME DOWN")

BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB: (Singing) Chasing the night to make it right.

CHACE: As always, let us know what you thought of today's show. Email us at planetmoney@npr.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter.

DAVIDSON: And please do visit our blog, npr.org/money. Jess, our wonderful producer, has another experiment she's running right now on the blog. It closes on Monday, October 10, so you have the weekend. We need you to pick a number. I'm Adam Davidson.

CHACE: I'm Zoe Chace. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RINSE ME DOWN")

BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB: (Singing) Told you to wait, but it's too late. You've got your man, rinsing him down.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.