Occupy Wall Street

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Occupy Wall Street

The Occupy Wall Street gang had their first march in NYC while I was there to teach a class on Anti-Money-Laundering to Wall Street types at the India House.  I had to wade into the protest to get to my destination, and I took the opportunity to ask a penetrating question.  In a sly interrogatory manner, of which only years of investigative fieldwork can provide countenance, I asked, “What’s up?”

The India House is the short red building on the left

Every agitator has their own unique inchoate reply – similar, but palpably different.  What was common among them was the nature of their expression — their common bond was grief and anger.  About a month later it occurred to me where I have heard this tune before.  It is the same chorus I hear from fraud victims.  There appears to be a common cognitive dissonance expressed in the struggle to understand exactly what it is that’s happening, and why they are a part of it.

The origin of frustration in the OWS movement is fragmented, and their issues difficult to identify – while the origin of frustration in the Tea Party are common, and clearly articulated – but make no mistake, both movements are a reaction to political isolation and cognitive dissonance.  On the left we find rhetoric in search of reality — and on the right, reality in search of rhetoric.

Let’s lay the foundation…

A good fraud requires a constant supply of victims whose natural defenses have been compromised.  A great fraud requires a great supply.  The most successful fraudsters are capable of maintaining direct eye contact with their victim, attaining the victims trust, short-circuiting their fact-based decision making process, and then betraying them.  A good con man does this much as sport.  Once the victim’s pocket has been emptied, or they have cast their vote, they are discarded like yesterday’s trash.

Fraudsters use a psychological maneuver to distance themselves from responsibility for the fraud, and thus distancing themselves from blame.  The term of art for this maneuver is called “neutralization”.  Neutralization allows the fraudster to blame the victim – “I warned them” or “I couldn’t have enlisted them if not for their greed”.  One fraudster I knew simply referred to his victims as idiots and fools.

Once victimized, the marks end up in a state of cognitive dissonance — the uncomfortable tension stemming from concurrently holding two conflicting thoughts or beliefs.

Dissonance increases with:

The importance of the subject.

The degree to which the dissonant thoughts have been internalized.

Can you think of anything more foundational to a person than money (money is freedom) or political beliefs (our sense of community), other than issues of raw morality?

Our inability to rationalize and explain away conflict is most profound when the conflict involves our self-image.  And much of our self-image is measured by our social status (e.g., money).  Admitting to being defrauded is akin to admitting that you are an idiot and a fool.  In reality, victims have simply let faith and trust guide them in a decision that required objective analysis.  Faith and trust, the currency of the church and temple, do not serve us well in business and politics.

The victims of a fraud, instead of recoiling from the fraudster often become ardent defenders of the fraudster’s narrative.  They search for reinforcement to the narrative – the desire to maintain conflicting beliefs rather than admitting the fraud.

There are many narratives for current economic conditions, and few of the oracles are predicting recovery.  Whether you believe current conditions have been brought about by ill-conceived rules and regulations, the inability of markets to outrun the costs of regulation, government debt, or gaming in the financial world – it’s hard to find a political narrative that addresses your concerns.  The visions of the anointed disturbingly resemble the status quo.

In the U.S. our congress-critters (with an approval rating of 12%) are distancing themselves from the cause, and blaming the usual suspects.  Campaigns promising stimulus and jobs only need to appear sound and attract good press coverage – they don’t have to actually accomplish anything.  The political elite have been kicking this issue down the road for so long that they haven’t seriously considered any other option.

Voters want stability, but politicians are agents of instability – and every election cycle requires a new crisis to direct the narrative.  Political crisis is designed to disengage our objective mind, engage our faith and trust, and invest our political capital in those who claim to have the cure.  In other words, if the patient is so uncooperative as to appear healthy – the doctor must induce a heart attack before they can rush to the rescue.  As an example, note the antics in the latest U.S. debt-ceiling negotiations – they make Greece’s budgetary process look like something akin to best-practices

The citizens of the US have been lied to.  The congress-critters of yesterday and today have simply bought more goodwill from special interest groups than we are able to pay for.  We have been played for fools, have been lied to, and defrauded.  The OWS and Tea Party movements, as polarized as they are, both understand that.  Both movements are now being marginalized, as their members are no longer the useful idiots that political movements require.  The OWS crowd is pulling the left to the extreme left – while the Tea Party pushes the right to the extreme right – this during an election year when all candidates are trying to stake out the center (where the voters are).  With the left promoting socialism, and the right promoting the return to a market economy – both sides believe their narrative defines the center.

A wise man by the name of J. G Hutson of Arizona saw just this coming several years ago.  To paraphrase – The difference between the left and right has narrowed in substance so much that the only manner of differentiation is rhetoric — screaming and yelling.  This does not reflect the political intent of the electorate, and in time, as the political landscape is redefined, they will split again – left and right — and we will return to a two party system.

While surveying this year-long run up to another election, I’m reminded of this observation by H.L. Mencken;

“All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him. If it be aristocratic in organization, then it seeks to protect the man who is superior only in law against the man who is superior in fact; if it be democratic, then it seeks to protect the man who is inferior in every way against both. One of its primary functions is to regiment men by force, to make them as much alike as possible and as dependent upon one another as possible, to search out and combat originality among them. All it can see in an original idea is potential change, and hence an invasion of its prerogatives. The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are.”

The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are children of the same conflict, singing the same tune to a different arrangement.  The dissonant music was penned by the disingenuous leadership of the last fifty-plus years.  While the strident left and right will probably be marginalized in the process, the philosophical division between the two parties will – in the end – become visible again.

I must admit that there is no better theater than an American Presidential election.  Perpetuated by great promises that cannot be fulfilled, it has all of the trappings of a great tent revival – along with the attendant feeling that it’s all a fraud.

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