Sunday, November 27, 2011

Economist: Bosses who don't play golf earn 17% less

"The same study found that although golfing bosses are paid more, they do not produce better results for shareholders."

Clearly, golf distorts the free market and right-thinking companies should discourage their employees from playing it.

By R.G.
November 21, 2011 | The Economist

Ames reveals amazing UC Davis-Greece connection

Mark Ames is on a roll. Lately he's been digging up some unbelievable connections -- and not the "six degrees of separation" kind of connections on GB's lunatic chalk board either.

This is too amazing not to read.

By Mark Ames
November 22, 2011 | The Exiled

Ames: CATO, Reagan said 'Deficits don't matter'

Everybody gets duped once in a while. Hell, I voted for Obama, thinking I was getting a real anti-war progressive. Alas, I got duped. Obama is in fact a moderate Republican... or what used to be called a moderate Republican until about 10 years ago.

What matters is how you react when you're finally faced with the truth: Do you double down on your delusion, go permanently schizo with cognitive dissonance, or do you face up to it and admit you were fooled?

This article is full of quotes that should bring on that moment of truth for you slash-the-debt/tea-party types.

Let me know which way you go.

By Mark Ames
November 21, 2011 | The Exiled

Krugman: 'We are the 99 percent' an understatement

By Paul Krugman
November 24, 2011 | New York Times

"We are the 99 percent" is a great slogan. It correctly defines the issue as being the middle class versus the elite (as opposed to the middle class versus the poor). And it also gets past the common but wrong establishment notion that rising inequality is mainly about the well educated doing better than the less educated; the big winners in this new Gilded Age have been a handful of very wealthy people, not college graduates in general.

If anything, however, the 99 percent slogan aims too low. A large fraction of the top 1 percent's gains have actually gone to an even smaller group, the top 0.1 percent — the richest one-thousandth of the population.

And while Democrats, by and large, want that super-elite to make at least some contribution to long-term deficit reduction, Republicans want to cut the super-elite's taxes even as they slash Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in the name of fiscal discipline.

Before I get to those policy disputes, here are a few numbers.

The recent Congressional Budget Office report on inequality didn't look inside the top 1 percent, but an earlier report, which only went up to 2005, did. According to that report, between 1979 and 2005 the inflation-adjusted, after-tax income of Americans in the middle of the income distribution rose 21 percent. The equivalent number for the richest 0.1 percent rose 400 percent.

For the most part, these huge gains reflected a dramatic rise in the super-elite's share of pretax income. But there were also large tax cuts favoring the wealthy. In particular, taxes on capital gains are much lower than they were in 1979 — and the richest one-thousandth of Americans account for half of all income from capital gains.

Given this history, why do Republicans advocate further tax cuts for the very rich even as they warn about deficits and demand drastic cuts in social insurance programs?

Well, aside from shouts of "class warfare!" whenever such questions are raised, the usual answer is that the super-elite are "job creators" — that is, that they make a special contribution to the economy. So what you need to know is that this is bad economics. In fact, it would be bad economics even if America had the idealized, perfect market economy of conservative fantasies.

After all, in an idealized market economy each worker would be paid exactly what he or she contributes to the economy by choosing to work, no more and no less. And this would be equally true for workers making $30,000 a year and executives making $30 million a year. There would be no reason to consider the contributions of the $30 million folks as deserving of special treatment.

But, you say, the rich pay taxes! Indeed, they do. And they could — and should, from the point of view of the 99.9 percent — be paying substantially more in taxes, not offered even more tax breaks, despite the alleged budget crisis, because of the wonderful things they supposedly do.

Still, don't some of the very rich get that way by producing innovations that are worth far more to the world than the income they receive? Sure, but if you look at who really makes up the 0.1 percent, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that, by and large, the members of the super-elite are overpaid, not underpaid, for what they do.

For who are the 0.1 percent? Very few of them are Steve Jobs-type innovators; most of them are corporate bigwigs and financial wheeler-dealers. One recent analysis found that 43 percent of the super-elite are executives at nonfinancial companies, 18 percent are in finance and another 12 percent are lawyers or in real estate. And these are not, to put it mildly, professions in which there is a clear relationship between someone's income and his economic contribution.

Executive pay, which has skyrocketed over the past generation, is famously set by boards of directors appointed by the very people whose pay they determine; poorly performing C.E.O.'s still get lavish paychecks, and even failed and fired executives often receive millions as they go out the door.

Meanwhile, the economic crisis showed that much of the apparent value created by modern finance was a mirage. As the Bank of England's director for financial stability recently put it, seemingly high returns before the crisis simply reflected increased risk-taking — risk that was mostly borne not by the wheeler-dealers themselves but either by naïve investors or by taxpayers, who ended up holding the bag when it all went wrong. And as he waspishly noted, "If risk-making were a value-adding activity, Russian roulette players would contribute disproportionately to global welfare."

So should the 99.9 percent hate the 0.1 percent? No, not at all. But they should ignore all the propaganda about "job creators" and demand that the super-elite pay substantially more in taxes.

Studies: Charitable giving irrational, favors pain, not totally altruistic

The facts of human beings' emotional, irrational reactions to appeals for charity is just one more reason not to depend on private charity to take care of our brothers and sisters in need.

We should take advantage of government's economies of scale and rely on professional bureaucrats' dispassionate planning to ensure an adequate social safety net for our fellow citizens.

By Alix Spiegel
November 25, 2011 | All Things Considered on NPR

New findings in the science of charity reveals some counter-intuitive results. For instance, people will give more money to a single suffering person than to a population of suffering people, and also give more when some type of physical discomfort — for example, running a marathon — is involved.

GUY RAZ, HOST: This time of year, pleas for donations are as plentiful as eggnog and door-buster sales. Americans give around $300 billion a year to charity. And as NPR's Alix Spiegel reports, psychologists have started to look more closely at when and why we're motivated to give.

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: The science of charity took off in earnest in the late 1990s, but the series of papers that attempted to understand a puzzling psychological phenomena: When people give to charity, they'll give far more money to a single suffering person than to a population of suffering people, which charity researcher Chris Olivola, of the University of Warwick, says doesn't make a lot of sense.

DR. CHRIS OLIVOLA: You should be more interested in helping more people than fewer, right? You should be more interested in helping 10 sick children than you should be interested in helping one of those 10.

SPIEGEL: But that isn't how it works. In fact, Olivola says tell donors about even two hungry children or give them statistics about hungry children generally and donations will fall by half.

ALLA VOLA: In fact, I think one of the troubling results is if you give people the photo of the child and the statistics, people are less moved than just the child. So, statistics plus photo is just like statistics by itself.

SPIEGEL: These strange findings, says Alla Vola(ph), helped inspire other charity researchers. And last year, Alla Vola and a co-author published many of their resulting studies in a book called "The Science of Giving." This book includes all kinds of surprising experiments, which examine our quirky relationship to charity, including Alla Vola's own work on a kind of charity that now seems completely ordinary: marathoning for a cause.

VOLA: On the face of it, you know, it seems great that people are making this sort of, I would say, sacrifice, but if you stopped and think about, it's kind of puzzling, right?

SPIEGEL: Marathons and other charity events of that kind are essentially asking people to suffer real physical discomfort for the privilege of then giving money, a formula that Alla Vola says probably wouldn't fly in the commercial world. If I'm going to try to sell you a car, I don't ask you to run a race first. But with charity, Alla Vola says, the more you ask people to suffer, the better.

VOLA: When people anticipate they're going to have to suffer to raise money for a charity, then their willingness to contribute to that cause actually goes up.

SPIEGEL: So, for example, in his research, Alla Vola gathered groups of people, gave them each $5 then made it possible for them to contribute a portion of that money to what amounted to a charity. But for half of the participants, there was an additional requirement before they were allowed to donate.

VOLA: If you want to give any money to the group, you're going to have to put both your hands in very, very cold, painfully cold, water for 60 seconds - very painful task.

SPIEGEL: Now, the people who were not asked to suffer only gave about $3; and the people who were asked to suffer?

VOLA: What we found was that people in that condition, the cold water condition, gave more money. They gave four out of five dollars to the group, even though we basically give them incentive not to give.

SPIEGEL: Another interesting new finding comes from an Israeli psychologist at Ben Gurion University named Tehila Kogut. Kogut says that in Israel, like in America, people are constantly bombarded with telephone requests from charities seeking funds. And she says most of her friends have a method for dealing with these calls.

TEHILA KOGUT: They just don't pick up your phone when they don't recognize the number because they don't want to be asked for a donation. They say, why don't you say just no? Well, it's a problem to pick up the phone and say no.

SPIEGEL: To better understand why people avoid saying no, Kogut did a series of studies which ultimately made clear that people give to charity not just out of altruism or empathy but also curiously to protect themselves. Say you're called on a phone by a cancer charity and asked to donate. Well, the very act of being asked, Kogut says, brings on a miniature existential crisis.

KOGUT: They feel that if they say no, the probability that they will have cancer, it will increase. That this is an act of tempting fate.

SPIEGEL: Giving then is in part an attempt to ward off disaster. Now, as for implementing some of these insights, most of the researchers interviewed said that so far relatively few charitable organizations seem to be using the research on giving to shape their appeals. They should, though, Alla Vola says. (unintelligible) has a lot to say about when and why we give. Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

To survive, NBA needs socialism like NFL, MLB

Basketball is the one professional sport I care to follow, so I'm pissed I won't get to see any NBA this year. But enough about my precious feelings.

This article illustrates how the NBA is in the same situation as the NFL and MLB: less competitive smaller-market teams cannot be profitable without a scheme of socialistic wealth distribution from the fewer more successful larger-market teams. In the short term, the smaller teams are demanding more money from the players, but we can imagine that even more of the players' share will not keep all small teams profitable indefinitely. Something's got to give.

Socialism -- Fantastic!

By David Berri
November 21, 2011 | Freakonomics

With the NBA away, sports fans are looking for something to satisfy their need to watch teams strive for victory. Well, why not take a look at the teams competing in the lockout?

Okay, maybe this is a contest only a sports economist could love. But while it may not appeal to everyone, the labor dispute is still best thought of as a contest between two teams.

The first team is the NBA owners. The owners are the dominant buyer in the world market for elite basketball talent, so they have substantial monopsony power. In the other corner are the players, who are currently trying to disband their union. This union gave the players monopoly power in the sale of elite basketball talent (more specifically, in helping to determine the conditions under which individual players would sell their services). When a monopsony meets a monopoly on the economic battlefield, the outcome is determined by bargaining. And in that case, bargaining power – or what we call leverage – means everything.
At the onset of the lockout, the leverage was with the owners. This is primarily because the money made in basketball comes at different times for the owners and the players. The players are paid for the regular season, and receive regular paychecks throughout the season. So once regular season games are lost, the players start losing money.

What matters most for the owners is having enough of the season so that the playoffs can be played.

The owners also lose money when games are not played. But the owners also make a significant chunk of their money after the regular season ends. When the regular season paychecks stop, the owners start making money on the playoffs. And that means the owners are not quite as bothered by games being cancelled at the beginning of the season. What matters most for the owners is having enough of the season so that the playoffs can be played.

So this past summer, the owners were willing to hold out for a better deal. The players were much more anxious to reach a deal before paychecks were lost forever. This gave the owners an advantage over the summer.

Given the disparity in bargaining power, we should not be surprised that the owners have "won." The game's not over yet, but given the final offers we have seen from both the players and the owners, we know that even if the owners accepted the players' last offer, the owners would be doing better than they did after the last Collective Bargaining Agreement (an agreement the owners seemed quite happy to accept a few years ago).

Teams located in places like Charlotte, Memphis, and Indianapolis are not doing as well.

Although the outcome seems determined, there's still time on the clock. And the owners are looking to run up the score by increasing their margin of victory. To fully understand that move, we need to understand that the owners' team consists of two players: large market teams and small market teams. No one disputes the notion that the large market teams – in places like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago – are doing quite well. In contrast, teams located in places like Charlotte, Memphis, and Indianapolis are not doing as well. This had led the small market teams to ask for more money from somebody.

Such a move reminds one of a similar contest in baseball in 2002. About ten years ago, Major League Baseball claimed most teams were losing money and that the players needed to make concessions in the name of competitive balance. Does that sound familiar? Yes, it is the same argument we hear from NBA owners today.

Well, the owners in baseball didn't get everything they asked for in 2002. What they did get was about a billion dollars moving from high-revenue teams (i.e. the Yankees) to low revenue teams (like the Pirates). Theoretically, this money was supposed to allow the Pirates to purchase better talent. In practice, this money didn't seem to get spent on players, but it did allow the Pirates – one of the worst teams in professional sports in North America — to turn a profit. Regardless of how the Pirates spent the money, it is clear the 2002 labor dispute was not entirely a contest between the players and the owners. The most important combatants were the small market and large market teams.

Ten years later, the competitive balance in baseball hasn't really changed. And the players in baseball are still not subject to a salary cap or a luxury tax which would prevent the Yankees from dramatically outspending everyone else in baseball. But with money flowing from New York to places like Pittsburgh, baseball now has labor peace.

One suspects the story in the NBA will eventually play out in the same fashion. Here is how I see the play-by-play so far:

  • The small market teams began by asking the big guys for more money
  • The large market teams told the little guys to ask the players for some money
  • The players – with limited bargaining power at the beginning of the season – have given up some money
  • The owners – led by the small market teams – want even more

The players have now indicated – through the willingness to pursue legal action – that the offer the small market teams prefer is not going to work. In other words, the players have indicated that they are willing to sacrifice the season – and the money-making playoffs – rather than accept the last offer from the owners.

This last move by the players is designed to give them some leverage. And so that puts the ball back in the court of the large market teams. Will they step up and bail out the little guys, as the Yankees did back in 2002? Or will the big guys insist the players transfer even more money to the small market teams?

In sum, this is a contest with three players. If the small market teams are satisfied – either by the large market teams or the players – we will get an NBA season and an era of labor peace. If the small market teams are not satisfied however, then we may be without an NBA season for quite a long time to come.

Let me close by noting that just as we saw in baseball, none of this is about the fans. Yes the owners in the NBA claim – just as baseball claimed 10 years ago – that this is all about competitive balance. Unfortunately, there is simply no evidence that competitive balance is changed dramatically by luxury taxes and salary caps. In other words, this deal is not going to be something that will transform the Charlotte Bobcats into title contenders (especially with Michael Jordan calling the shots in Charlotte).

Furthermore, after the final agreement is in place and the players start collecting less money, do not expect your ticket prices to go down. Ticket prices in sports are driven by demand. Martin Schmidt and I have published research that indicates that demand will not be impacted by this labor dispute, and so ticket prices probably will not be changed much going forward. In other words, regardless of how this contest is eventually decided, fans are just going to have to be happy watching pro basketball again.

Epic words of those yearning to breathe free

"Poop": thank goodness they can still text it. Let freedom ring!

By Mark Memmott
November 21, 2011 | NPR


OWS already has a win -- in Ohio

OWS has successfully changed the debate from the federal debt and deficit reduction, to reducing inequality and consumer debt and improving the welfare of the bottom 99 percent. We owe them a big thank-you.

"Nonetheless, it's undeniable that a mood change had hit Ohio -- and in a major way. Pro-worker organizers and volunteers benefited from something their peers in Wisconsin lacked: the wind of public opinion at their backs. Polls conducted in the run-up to Ohio's November 8th vote showed large majorities of Ohioans agreeing that income inequality was a problem. What's more, 60% of respondents in a Washington Post-ABC poll said the federal government should act to close that gap. Behind those changing numbers was the influence of Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy protests."

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Banks spend record $ amounts on lobbying

Wall Street has already spent $100 million this year lobbying Congress, mostly related to the Dodd-Franke financial reform bill.

Meanwhile, most Americans are worried about other things. Some of those distractions are understandable: persistent unemployment, crushing debt, poor health, etc. But some of those distractions are manufactured, such as Solyndra: a "scandal" over a loan for $528 million which is driving the right wing nuts; meanwhile, the $16 trillion TBTF bank bailouts -- including banks in Europe -- get ignored by the right and the mainstream media.

"But the Solyndra loan was about corruption!" you might say. Well, maybe so. Congressional hearings and courts will sort that out. But if so, then the Wall Street bailouts were no less corrupt: Wall Street is consistently one of the biggest political donors; and it receives the biggest political $ benefits in return. Isn't that corrupt? And, to put things in perspective, the Solyndra loan, which just drives the Right rabid, was 0.000033 percent of the big bank bailouts.

The deck is stacked and the TBTF banks will win again, as always, until we get our heads out of our a**es and fundamentally change our pay-to-play political system.

November 21, 2011 | Huffington Post

Krugman: Romantic dreamers posing as 'technocrat' economists

By Paul Krugman
November 20, 2011 | New York Times

There's a word I keep hearing lately: "technocrat." Sometimes it's used as a term of scorn — the creators of the euro, we're told, were technocrats who failed to take human and cultural factors into account. Sometimes it's a term of praise: the newly installed prime ministers of Greece and Italy are described as technocrats who will rise above politics and do what needs to be done.

I call foul. I know from technocrats; sometimes I even play one myself. And these people — the people who bullied Europe into adopting a common currency, the people who are bullying both Europe and the United States into austerity — aren't technocrats. They are, instead, deeply impractical romantics.

They are, to be sure, a peculiarly boring breed of romantic, speaking in turgid prose rather than poetry. And the things they demand on behalf of their romantic visions are often cruel, involving huge sacrifices from ordinary workers and families. But the fact remains that those visions are driven by dreams about the way things should be rather than by a cool assessment of the way things really are.

And to save the world economy we must topple these dangerous romantics from their pedestals.

Let's start with the creation of the euro. If you think that this was a project driven by careful calculation of costs and benefits, you have been misinformed.

The truth is that Europe's march toward a common currency was, from the beginning, a dubious project on any objective economic analysis. The continent's economies were too disparate to function smoothly with one-size-fits-all monetary policy, too likely to experience "asymmetric shocks" in which some countries slumped while others boomed. And unlike U.S. states, European countries weren't part of a single nation with a unified budget and a labor market tied together by a common language.

So why did those "technocrats" push so hard for the euro, disregarding many warnings from economists? Partly it was the dream of European unification, which the Continent's elite found so alluring that its members waved away practical objections. And partly it was a leap of economic faith, the hope — driven by the will to believe, despite vast evidence to the contrary — that everything would work out as long as nations practiced the Victorian virtues of price stability and fiscal prudence.

Sad to say, things did not work out as promised. But rather than adjusting to reality, those supposed technocrats just doubled down — insisting, for example, that Greece could avoid default through savage austerity, when anyone who actually did the math knew better.

Let me single out in particular the European Central Bank (E.C.B.), which is supposed to be the ultimate technocratic institution, and which has been especially notable for taking refuge in fantasy as things go wrong. Last year, for example, the bank affirmed its belief in the confidence fairy — that is, the claim that budget cuts in a depressed economy will actually promote expansion, by raising business and consumer confidence. Strange to say, that hasn't happened anywhere.

And now, with Europe in crisis — a crisis that can't be contained unless the E.C.B. steps in to stop the vicious circle of financial collapse — its leaders still cling to the notion that price stability cures all ills. Last week Mario Draghi, the E.C.B.'s new president, declared that "anchoring inflation expectations" is "the major contribution we can make in support of sustainable growth, employment creation and financial stability."

This is an utterly fantastic claim to make at a time when expected European inflation is, if anything, too low, and what's roiling the markets is fear of more or less immediate financial collapse. And it's more like a religious proclamation than a technocratic assessment.

Just to be clear, this is not an anti-European rant, since we have our own pseudo-technocrats warping the policy debate. In particular, allegedly nonpartisan groups of "experts" — the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the Concord Coalition, and so on — have been all too successful at hijacking the economic policy debate, shifting its focus from jobs to deficits.

Real technocrats would have asked why this makes sense at a time when the unemployment rate is 9 percent and the interest rate on U.S. debt is only 2 percent. But like the E.C.B., our fiscal scolds have their story about what's important, and they're sticking to it no matter what the data say.

So am I against technocrats? Not at all. I like technocrats — technocrats are friends of mine. And we need technical expertise to deal with our economic woes.

But our discourse is being badly distorted by ideologues and wishful thinkers — boring, cruel romantics — pretending to be technocrats. And it's time to puncture their pretensions.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Taibbi: Now I Love the OWS Protests

Although I do wish the OWS protests would "get specific" and really go after corrupt Wall Street banks as their name suggests, it's their prerogative to focus on some issues or none at all, because it's their protests. I'm not out there camping with them, that's for sure.

Also, as I said before, it's not really fair or realistic to expect this mass of mostly young people to have all the answers. They've done America quite a service, in fact, simply by saying, "This is f***ed up." As in, the system is fundamentally corrupt, money-driven and undemocratic. Their job is to beat that drum until enough people -- liberals included -- really get the message. They are right that an election or "issues campaign" won't solve anything.

They've done us a great favor by diagnosing America with terminal cancer. Collectively, it's up to us to find the cure.

Much more than a movement against big banks, they're a rejection of what our society has become.
By Matt Taibbi
November 10, 2011 | Rolling Stone

I have a confession to make. At first, I misunderstood Occupy Wall Street.

The first few times I went down to Zuccotti Park, I came away with mixed feelings. I loved the energy and was amazed by the obvious organic appeal of the movement, the way it was growing on its own. But my initial impression was that it would not be taken very seriously by the Citibanks and Goldman Sachs of the world. You could put 50,000 angry protesters on Wall Street, 100,000 even, and Lloyd Blankfein is probably not going to break a sweat. He knows he's not going to wake up tomorrow and see Cornel West or Richard Trumka running the Federal Reserve. He knows modern finance is a giant mechanical parasite that only an expert surgeon can remove. Yell and scream all you want, but he and his fellow financial Frankensteins are the only ones who know how to turn the machine off.

That's what I was thinking during the first few weeks of the protests. But I'm beginning to see another angle. Occupy Wall Street was always about something much bigger than a movement against big banks and modern finance. It's about providing a forum for people to show how tired they are not just of Wall Street, but everything. This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become. If there is such a thing as going on strike from one's own culture, this is it. And by being so broad in scope and so elemental in its motivation, it's flown over the heads of many on both the right and the left.

The right-wing media wasted no time in cannon-blasting the movement with its usual idiotic clichés, casting Occupy Wall Street as a bunch of dirty hippies who should get a job and stop chewing up Mike Bloomberg's police overtime budget with their urban sleepovers. Just like they did a half-century ago, when the debate over the Vietnam War somehow stopped being about why we were brutally murdering millions of innocent Indochinese civilians and instead became a referendum on bralessness and long hair and flower-child rhetoric, the depraved flacks of the right-wing media have breezily blown off a generation of fraud and corruption and market-perverting bailouts, making the whole debate about the protesters themselves – their hygiene, their "envy" of the rich, their "hypocrisy."

The protesters, chirped Supreme Reichskank Ann Coulter, needed three things: "showers, jobs and a point." Her colleague Charles Krauthammer went so far as to label the protesters hypocrites for having iPhones. OWS, he said, is "Starbucks-sipping, Levi's-clad, iPhone-clutching protesters [denouncing] corporate America even as they weep for Steve Jobs, corporate titan, billionaire eight times over." Apparently, because Goldman and Citibank are corporations, no protester can ever consume a corporate product – not jeans, not cellphones and definitely not coffee – if he also wants to complain about tax money going to pay off some billionaire banker's bets against his own crappy mortgages.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the political spectrum, there were scads of progressive pundits like me who wrung our hands with worry that OWS was playing right into the hands of assholes like Krauthammer. Don't give them any ammunition! we counseled. Stay on message! Be specific! We were all playing the Rorschach-test game with OWS, trying to squint at it and see what we wanted to see in the movement. Viewed through the prism of our desire to make near-term, within-the-system changes, it was hard to see how skirmishing with cops in New York would help foreclosed-upon middle-class families in Jacksonville and San Diego.

What both sides missed is that OWS is tired of all of this. They don't care what we think they're about, or should be about. They just want something different.

We're all born wanting the freedom to imagine a better and more beautiful future. But modern America has become a place so drearily confining and predictable that it chokes the life out of that built-in desire. Everything from our pop culture to our economy to our politics feels oppressive and unresponsive. We see 10 million commercials a day, and every day is the same life-killing chase for money, money and more money; the only thing that changes from minute to minute is that every tick of the clock brings with it another space-age vendor dreaming up some new way to try to sell you something or reach into your pocket. The relentless sameness of the two-party political system is beginning to feel like a Jacob's Ladder nightmare with no end; we're entering another turn on the four-year merry-go-round, and the thought of having to try to get excited about yet another minor quadrennial shift in the direction of one or the other pole of alienating corporate full-of-shitness is enough to make anyone want to smash his own hand flat with a hammer.

If you think of it this way, Occupy Wall Street takes on another meaning. There's no better symbol of the gloom and psychological repression of modern America than the banking system, a huge heartless machine that attaches itself to you at an early age, and from which there is no escape. You fail to receive a few past-due notices about a $19 payment you missed on that TV you bought at Circuit City, and next thing you know a collector has filed a judgment against you for $3,000 in fees and interest. Or maybe you wake up one morning and your car is gone, legally repossessed by Vulture Inc., the debt-buying firm that bought your loan on the Internet from Chase for two cents on the dollar. This is why people hate Wall Street. They hate it because the banks have made life for ordinary people a vicious tightrope act; you slip anywhere along the way, it's 10,000 feet down into a vat of razor blades that you can never climb out of.

That, to me, is what Occupy Wall Street is addressing. People don't know exactly what they want, but as one friend of mine put it, they know one thing: FUCK THIS SHIT! We want something different: a different life, with different values, or at least a chance at different values.

There was a lot of snickering in media circles, even by me, when I heard the protesters talking about how Liberty Square was offering a model for a new society, with free food and health care and so on. Obviously, a bunch of kids taking donations and giving away free food is not a long-term model for a new economic system.

But now, I get it. People want to go someplace for at least five minutes where no one is trying to bleed you or sell you something. It may not be a real model for anything, but it's at least a place where people are free to dream of some other way for human beings to get along, beyond auctioned "democracy," tyrannical commerce and the bottom line.

We're a nation that was built on a thousand different utopian ideas, from the Shakers to the Mormons to New Harmony, Indiana. It was possible, once, for communities to experiment with everything from free love to an end to private property. But nowadays even the palest federalism is swiftly crushed. If your state tries to place tariffs on companies doing business with some notorious human-rights-violator state – like Massachusetts did, when it sought to bar state contracts to firms doing business with Myanmar – the decision will be overturned by some distant global bureaucracy like the WTO. Even if 40 million Californians vote tomorrow to allow themselves to smoke a joint, the federal government will never permit it. And the economy is run almost entirely by an unaccountable oligarchy in Lower Manhattan that absolutely will not sanction any innovations in banking or debt forgiveness or anything else that might lessen its predatory influence.

And here's one more thing I was wrong about: I originally was very uncomfortable with the way the protesters were focusing on the NYPD as symbols of the system. After all, I thought, these are just working-class guys from the Bronx and Staten Island who have never seen the inside of a Wall Street investment firm, much less had anything to do with the corruption of our financial system.

But I was wrong. The police in their own way are symbols of the problem. All over the country, thousands of armed cops have been deployed to stand around and surveil and even assault the polite crowds of Occupy protesters. This deployment of law-enforcement resources already dwarfs the amount of money and manpower that the government "committed" to fighting crime and corruption during the financial crisis. One OWS protester steps in the wrong place, and she immediately has police roping her off like wayward cattle. But in the skyscrapers above the protests, anything goes.

This is a profound statement about who law enforcement works for in this country. What happened on Wall Street over the past decade was an unparalleled crime wave. Yet at most, maybe 1,500 federal agents were policing that beat – and that little group of financial cops barely made any cases at all. Yet when thousands of ordinary people hit the streets with the express purpose of obeying the law and demonstrating their patriotism through peaceful protest, the police response is immediate and massive. There have already been hundreds of arrests, which is hundreds more than we ever saw during the years when Wall Street bankers were stealing billions of dollars from retirees and mutual-fund holders and carpenters unions through the mass sales of fraudulent mortgage-backed securities.

It's not that the cops outside the protests are doing wrong, per se, by patrolling the parks and sidewalks. It's that they should be somewhere else. They should be heading up into those skyscrapers and going through the file cabinets to figure out who stole what, and from whom. They should be helping people get their money back. Instead, they're out on the street, helping the Blankfeins of the world avoid having to answer to the people they ripped off.

People want out of this fiendish system, rigged to inexorably circumvent every hope we have for a more balanced world. They want major changes. I think I understand now that this is what the Occupy movement is all about. It's about dropping out, if only for a moment, and trying something new, the same way that the civil rights movement of the 1960s strived to create a "beloved community" free of racial segregation. Eventually the Occupy movement will need to be specific about how it wants to change the world. But for right now, it just needs to grow. And if it wants to sleep on the streets for a while and not structure itself into a traditional campaign of grassroots organizing, it should. It doesn't need to tell the world what it wants. It is succeeding, for now, just by being something different.