Occupy protests in Canada and the birth of the "nothing burger"

Toronto, like Vancouver and most large cities, has been undergoing an “Occupy Protest”. Things have been largely peaceful in this offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York. Perhaps the most significant media event occurred not at the protest, but on CBC.  On Oct 6, Kevin O’Leary (Business journalism’s answer to Don Cherry), referred to the Occupy Wall Street protesters as “nothing burgers” and suggested that author Chris Hedges sounded like a “left-wing nutbar.” This caused a storm of complaints from viewers and a protest from Hedges.

 

It's not certain exactly what a “nothing burger” is, but it sure isn’t complementary. If O’Leary was simply reporting about individual protestors, he might have a point. Like many protests, I am sure that in addition to the well-educated and committed, the Occupy protests have their share of clueless idealists, trust fund babies, tourists, and people with nothing better to do.

But an ad hominem attack on protestors is beneath O’Leary.

What O’Leary needs to do is address the core issue – people feel that that social contract that has supported Western society (and capitalism) has started to unravel. From Roosevelt’s New deal to a couple of decades ago, people in the West, and particularly North America felt pretty certain that their children could have better lives than themselves, regardless from which social stratum they began.

Today, it is much harder to find good paying work for those with less than average education and ability. What work there is pays poorly compared to the cost of living. Meanwhile, wealth is becoming further and further concentrated in the upper strata of society. This is poisonous to a democracy since it allows the wealthy to effectively set their children up as new feudal lords.  Note – Adam Smith, godfather of market economics warned of just this outcome.

To be sure, we are not yet on the verge of some kind of Marxist revolution. People in North America, including the poor, still have it much better than would be required for blood in the streets (praise be). It is not the 1930s. The trend, however, is not positive and people are much better informed than in the past. The protestors’ sentiment is valid, agreed Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney while speaking with Peter Mansbridge.

 

The real question is; what should be done? O’Leary seems to think everything is hunky dory, and we should leave well enough alone. This strikes me as deliberately naïve and obtuse. The occupy movement does not have a single voice or common vision. At worst, while individuals that identify with Occupy may be far more nuanced, the message often comes off as a simple “capitalism is bad”.

The protestors, and people on the Left in general, need to understand that capitalism is the goose that laid the golden egg for socialist endeavours. In that span from Roosevelt to today, well regulated capitalism generated the kind of wealth that allowed things like high quality universal education and health care in most Western economies (even the US has Medicare for the elderly). There isn’t really an alternative worth considering (in the short term). Capitalism works as a means of distributing resources, and more importantly, fostering innovation which is where real wealth is generated.

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