Roy Green – Did the business community miss an opportunity to reply to OWS?


If the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, its frequently dissonant messaging notwithstanding, has taught any lesson of relative value, it may be that the business community as a whole can and probably should do a better job of explaining its relevance and contributions to society.

When a fundamentally unsustainable argument from a discordant group gains even moderate public opinion traction, neither the message nor its root cause should be ignored.  Assuming the shelf life of such a view to be self-limiting is similarly unwise.

In the case of OWS, the dominant group-think mantra remains that 99 per cent of the population is disadvantaged because one per cent engages unrepentantly in the pursuit of avaricious profit.

According to the various OWS protesters I have spoken to, the one per cent is most often defined as simply the “business” community.  Without pressing for clarification, little if any distinction was made between corporate entities and much smaller entrepreneurial organizations.  The “business” community was painted as being indifferent to the economic chaos created by the ethically challenged and arguably criminal behaviour of some although clearly not all major financial institutions on The Street which contributed to the 2008-09 global financial crisis. 

While even a cursory review of the “99 per cent are victims of the one per cent” mantra should serve to dismiss it as anything more than a rally cry, and the majority opinion expressed on my Corus radio network national program certainly remains the chant is unsupportable, it nevertheless doesn’t take very long before a lingering resentment of what is most frequently described as corporate greed and indifference enters the conversation.

Outsourcing of North American jobs, unfair bank fees and charges, CEO’s of bailed out “too big to fail” organizations earning in the multiples of millions annually, crony capitalism which creates an indebted to major election campaign contributors political elite and what are viewed as low tax rates for corporations head the list of complaints, with shipping jobs offshore the most resented on this list. 

Who among us hasn’t inspected retail items at a store only to eventually ask “Is there anything here that isn’t made in China”? The seemingly never-ending stream of “Made in China” stickers serves as a constant public reminder of not lost jobs, but exported jobs.

While it is true, as pointed out by Caldwell Securities Chairman Tom Caldwell, that the actual production of many of these items is only the end of the process which brings goods to market, there is an undeniable and growing viscerally negative impact of so many foreign manufactured consumer items stocking retail shelves here.

An unemployed Canadian or American isn’t interested in hearing an explanation of the why and how of this reality. He or she instead points to a closed down manufacturing plant and jobs which once fuelled local economies in North America being transferred to Mexico, India, and other nations.  Additionally, the “unions priced themselves out of the market with their high wage and benefits demands” argument is increasingly failing to resonate even with Canadians who have never held a union card or cared to.

So, with few exceptions, the greater “business” community chose to remain largely silent during the OWS protests. Was an opportunity to counter the demonstrations with a single and business positive message missed?  At least one of the so-called one per cent believes that to have been the case.

Euro Pacific Capital CEO and chief global strategist Peter Schiff publicly engaged protesters on the ground and in the middle of their New York City location.  

Schiff visited Occupy Wall Street demonstrators in Manhattan holding a sign which read “I am the one per cent.  Let’s talk”!  He brought along a video crew and what developed made headlines for days. Schiff told me his intent was to educate protesters on the cause of the financial crisis. 

Schiff didn’t talk down to the OWS supporters.  In fact he endorsed their anger, but not its selected target.  Peter Schiff pointed to “corporatism, crony capitalism, fascism and socialism” as the problem and identified capitalism as the solution. Capitalism in its most pure form.

With wealth redistribution being one of the most common talking points for OWS participants, Schiff asked the protesters how much of his own money he should be permitted to hold on to, explaining he already delivers half of his earnings to government.

Protesters insisted increasing taxes on the wealthy is necessary to raise government revenues. 

Schiff’s reply, recorded by his video crew, was that it was this type of thinking which caused him “trouble sympathizing with people calling themselves the 99 per cent.  I own a brokerage firm, but I didn’t receive any bailout money.  In fact, I have to work twice as hard to compete with bigger financial firms that are propped up by the U.S. government.”

Schiff urged OWS protesters to focus their justifiable anger by working for positive change.  To instead of demanding his self-made wealth be taken from him, march on Washington, which Schiff identifies as the real culprit of the financial crisis, arguing it was Washington’s guaranteeing of mortgages through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac which created the dynamic of Wall Street working with government, not the other way around.

Clearly, corporate USA, including major banks, deduced emulating Peter Schiff’s counter-offensive to OWS with a single media saturation message would serve to legitimize the movement.  It might be argued philosophically sympathetic media and nervous politicians had accomplished this early in the going.

At this writing public support for the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York had dropped to 39 per cent according to a Quinnipiac poll, while a Marist poll showed 50 per cent of registered New York voters opposed OWS, although 44 per cent still were onside with the anti-Wall Street message.   

Have we seen the last of Occupy Wall Street style demonstrations?  As long as U.S. unemployment numbers remain in the 10 per cent range, the answer is no.

Should Canada’s job figures sag correspondingly, more insistent OWS style demonstrations with a more cohesive message might be expected in this nation.  

So, when either the next round of protests begins, or OWS gains a second wind, it would seem wise for corporations and banks both in the U.S. and Canada to at least consider following Peter Schiff’s lead. 

If you have a positive message deliver it.  Silence suggests you don’t.

Roy Green is a contributor to the National Post and the host of the Roy Green Show, a national program weekends on the Corus radio network.