For the Sake of the American Dream, Start Companies AND Protest

[ An Occupy Wall Street protester -- photo by Paul Stein via creative commons license. ]

Lon Harris, now the senior director of content at, was previously the editorial director at Mahalo and at This Week In, both companies started by LAUNCH founder Jason Calacanis. This is Lon's response to Jason's editorial on the Occupy Wall Street protests

By Lon Harris

In his editorial about the Occupy Wall Street protests, Jason Calacanis laid out a number of arguments. The crux of his case:

-- Sure, these protesters have a point. Greedy bankers bankrupted the country and then demanded taxpayers bail them out, a demand that complicit, corrupt politicians (yes, of both parties) were only too happy to oblige.

-- These protesters should stop protesting and should instead start companies so they can help to popularize a new form of less self-involved, more gregarious and forward-thinking American capitalism.

I think most sane, informed Americans who are paying at least some degree of attention to current events would agree with that first part. If you're not yet convinced of its veracity, I recommend Matt Taibbi's "The Great American Bubble Machine" in which he famously refers to Goldman Sachs as a "vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."

It's the second part of Jason’s argument that caught my attention, and indeed seemed to cause some general disagreement. I think this happened for a few reasons, which I will attempt to lay out as cogently as possible considering the chaotic and ever-changing nature of this debate.

Here's a quick distillation of Jason's central thesis:

Radical is creating disruptive services that let you accumulate massive wealth while creating jobs and social good. Then when you become part of the 1%, you can use your wealth to really change the system by creating awesome movies, improving education or eradicating diseases from the planet.

This rests on a few basic presuppositions. Mainly, that the people protesting on Wall Street or in front of City Hall in Downtown L.A. or attending any one of the multitude of "Occupy ___" protests around the country could just as easily be working on their elevator pitch or networking with angel investors. Could they build wealth rather than offer a critique of how the super-wealthy behaved?

Sure, a few probably could. I'm sure burgeoning developers and designers out there could collaborate on some new apps if they weren't making signs and getting arrested.

But not everyone wants to start a company, or even has the ability to do so. Some people are just too old or have too many fiduciary responsibilities to drop everything and start a company. Other people went to school before they knew the thing they were studying was no longer really needed (I say this as a guy who took more than one journalism course), and are now stuck with crippling student debts that make taking on MORE debt seem impossible. Some are ill or are caring for ill relatives. Some are single parents unwilling to let Snooki and The Situation raise their kids so they can focus on learning Python.

And some people just don't have an awesome idea for a new company right now, and would rather work diligently for someone else for a fair wage, learn more about their chosen industry and do their own thing in their free time.

America was once, not so long ago, a place where there were both entrepreneurs and people who worked for those entrepreneurs, and both groups were able to live free of sickness, hunger and want. Or maybe it wasn't, and we all just pretended it was. But that's the kind of country I think we all should be striving for, if possible.

My sense of the so-called 99% movement is that people just want to return to that era, where a person without great Steve Jobs-ian ambition and intellect could get an education OR LEARN A TRADE and then decide for themselves what path their lives should take. And could do so with confidence, knowing that if you work hard, you'll be able to take care of yourself and your loved ones. Maybe even take a vacation now and then, or buy a new XBox when your old one craps out.

I capitalized "learn a trade," by the way, because the idea of well-paying skilled labor is a crucial concept that has been lost amidst years of middle-class indoctrination about how every young person MUST go to college if they are to make anything of themselves. The world needs plumbers and electricians; we need to make sure these are jobs a person can do to support his or her family. Some people will want these jobs and be better suited for them than for the 22-hour days and eager risk-taking that comes with starting your own business. It’s in all of our mutual self-interest to ensure that these people can thrive.

Not everyone in the 99% should have to join the 1% for America to work better than it does now. That's not even mathematically possible.

By saying that it would be more productive for protesters to give up occupying various downtown areas and instead start companies, Jason is applying a dialectic to a situation where it doesn't really work. Surely some people could start their own companies AS WELL AS protesting the way the current economic and political system is structured.

One question that occurs to me (for which there really isn’t a definitive answer, at least not yet) is whether or not the OWS movement is capitalist or anti-capitalist in nature. Certainly, the right-wing and Tea Party sympathizers have desperately tried to paint it as anti-capitalist, or Marxist, or socialist, or whatever the buzzword for "the villains on the Left" is this week.

Yet most of the rhetoric associated with the movement seems to imply a fundamental acceptance of the capitalist model, paired with a desire to make the system less dysfunctional. Reading "We are the 99%" blog posts really drives this message home -- it's mostly people who bought in to what's called "The American Dream" as shorthand, only to have greedy banks and corporations snatch it away.

Here's a woman saying almost exactly this:

These people aren't against the system itself. They don't want to bring down America. They just want some sense of fairness restored to the system as it is, and they want a chance to just participate and be heard. Instead, they have been marginalized by corporate money (particularly in the aftermath of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision) and ripped off by their own banks and financial institutions.

They have been promised that hard work and a good education are what it takes to succeed, then devastated by a lack of opportunities, then told by sneering political candidates that if they're poor, well it's their own fault. It's not really surprising that things have reached a boiling point.

Naturally, there are things I think the movement could do better. As others have argued, the protesters could make their case to those on the sidelines by dressing less like protesters and more like professionals, for example.

In general, I think the rhetoric has focused too much on things like the right of citizens to protest, or the issue of police brutality. These are important issues, to be sure, but the rallying cry of “This is what democracy looks like!” or the outraged videos of police pepper-spraying peaceful protesters are in serious danger of crowding out the real message.

This isn’t about how important protests are; it’s about how banks, corporations and corrupt government policies are disenfranchising and bankrupting everyday Americans, and taking proactive steps towards rectifying -- or at least shedding light on -- that situation. But these aren’t arguments AGAINST the protests themselves. More like suggestions, in the hopes that their successes are long-lasting and significant, rather than just moral victories.

So... Jason's not wrong. He's just half-right. YES, some of the passionate young people we have seen making their stand in Manhattan should start their own companies. I have no doubt many of them will, just as many of the "hippie burnouts" it was so easy for the establishment to dismiss in the '60s went on to start amazing companies and brands. (Hey, Ben and Jerry's ice cream is delicious.)

But does that mean they also shouldn't be out in the streets getting everyone's attention by blocking bridges and ensuring that the latest iPhone news or GOP primary debate isn't loud enough to drown out their voices? Of course not. Do both!