Occupy Wall Street, the nascent catch-all protest movement now in its third week, is gathering attention. After hundreds of arrests over the weekend, labor unions are getting involved, and members of Congress are sending messages of support. As it spreads to other cities, corporate elites are getting nervous. One bank CEO was so concerned he called up Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times and asked him to go check it out.
Based on my visit this morning, America's corporate titans don't have much to fear. It's a small group, a few hundred people occupying a public park, chilling out, talking about issues, socializing. For those intent on shooting fish in a barrel, Occupy Wall Street offers happy hunting. It's all there: the drum circles, the series of demands without specifics, the man dressed up as a Greek philosopher, clever placards. Some of the protesters are opposed to coal seam gas. Another guy I spoke to at length didn't like the idea of intellectual property protection. "There are a lot of whackos here," as one participant told me.
But Occupy Wall Street is no more incoherent or leaderless than the global financial system it is critiquing. From Wall Street in 2008 to Europe in 2011, the global elite has been much more of a clown show — and a much more damaging one — than this scraggly bunch of protesters in a public park. In many ways, Occupy Wall Street reminds me of another event I've attended several times, one that people take much more seriously: the World Economic Forum at Davos.
In its own way, Occupy Wall Street is an inverse, bizarre version of Davos. It has a lot of similarities, and the differences are like mirror images.
Davos is the global establishment crowd; this is the anti global-establishment.
At Davos, the Financial Times publishes special editions; here, there's The Occupied Wall Street Journal.
The former event is designed to take place in the cold, with bad weather taken as a given. The latter event can only function to the extent that weather cooperates.
At Davos, the food is bad. In downtown Manhattan, by contrast, volunteers chopped up fresh ciabattas, and the park is lined with falafel, hot dog and gyro vendors.
Davos is a highly branded event, with the name of banks plastered all over. By contrast, Occupy Wall Street is a brand vacuum. At Zuccotti Plaza, one guy stood with a placard directing people to ATMs in the area run by credit unions and community banks.
Davos is filled with Type-As who don't sleep. At Occupy Wall Street, you'll find people sleeping in broad daylight.
At Davos, central bankers are lionized. Here, they're loathed. As at Tea Party events, there's a high level of antipathy toward the U.S. central bank. Global Resource Bank, which imagines a sort of joint ownership for the world's assets, said "GRB shareholders change toxic fiat money to vital ecocredit." (Speaking of joint ownership and the Fed, when I witnessed a transaction involving a bag of herbs, I was tempted to stop and instruct the dudes that this is precisely how the U.S. central bank works. It provides a substance to some well-connected people, essentially for free, with the expectation that they will share it among their peers, thus contributing to a general feeling of well-being.)
There are some similarities, however.
At both events, many opinions are aired, including some seemingly radical ones. But the discourse tends to fit in a relatively narrow range. It's as hard to find someone at Davos who thinks globalization is a bad idea as it is to find someone at Occupy Wall Street who thinks it is a good idea.
Both are very much made-for-media productions. Davos is like a mid-winter camp reunion for financial journalists, at which the scribes make ironic comments to one another on the sidelines of earnest discussion. Circling Zuccotti Plaza, I ran into a half-dozen journalists I know.
A final similarity worth considering: At Davos, amid all the globaloney, there is discussion of serious issues that merit consideration and resonate in the outside world. The same can be said here. Among the most common slogans seen on buttons and stickers in lower Manhattan are "We are the 99 percent" and "the 99 percent serves the one percent." Establishment Democrats and administration officials may not trek to lower Manhattan to demonstrate solidarity with the protesters. But they are pitching proposals -- the Buffett Rule, a millionaire's surtax -- and preparing to run a campaign that highlights the huge and rampant disparities in wealth, access and government.
Daniel Gross is economics editor at Yahoo! Finance.
His most recent book is Dumb Money: How Our Greatest Financial Minds Bankrupted the Nation