Steve Jobs was a wealthy man. Yet the crowds that have descended on Apple stores since his death Wednesday night have shown only gratitude for his vision, not resentment of his money. “I came not just because I work on Macs,” graphic designer Effie Latif told the New York Post, but out of respect for Jobs’s drive. “Even when he was sick, he was working for the company, was so dedicated.”
When word of Jobs’s death got out to the Occupy Wall Street protest in Lower Manhattan, where some protesters have used Apple’s products to disseminate their message, “the typing stopped.” It would be easy to say that Occupy Wall Street’s grief over Jobs’s death is a sign of the movement’s hypocrisy. In their first official statement, didn’t the protesters say that they stand with people “who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world”? And aren’t they demonstrating against the “1 percent” of the population to which Jobs belonged?
But the protesters’ affection for Jobs isn’t necessarily a sign of bad faith or ignorance. Rather, it could be a healthy discernment, however poorly articulated. The point is not that Jobs was “this different, quiet billionaire,” as one protester put it, but that he lived by the rules through which free-market capitalism should work. When Apple released a product that people rejected, such as the Apple III or the Lisa in the early eighties, the company suffered the consequences. Apple could not expect tens of billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury or from the Federal Reserve to save it from its own mistakes. Apple was not too big to fail. Before the iPod, the company was struggling. Apple had to make itself too good to fail—and that’s exactly what it did.
Contrast the capitalist world in which Jobs lived with “capitalism,” as the U.S. government has applied it to the big banks against which the Zuccotti Park crowd is—imperfectly—protesting. If you’re a bank or an insurance firm, and you create a product that your investors and your regulators can’t understand in a crisis, you aren’t punished, as Apple was when it released products too complex for its customers. Instead, you get rewarded with bailout money. It’s hard to argue with the Zuccotti protesters’ manifesto on this point: “They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity.”
In the past few years, surviving banks have “succeeded” not by giving people needed or wanted products, as Apple did, but through their ability to hold the entire global economy hostage. Imagine if Apple and Microsoft executives, instead of competing against one another, had banded together to deliver taxpayers an ultimatum: give us tens of billions to stay afloat, or else we’ll blow up the whole economy. Does anyone think that strangers would be leaving flowers, photos, and bitten fruit?
If this is capitalism, we should all be protesting it. The good news is that it’s not. We’re in this mess—with unemployment holding at 9.1 percent—because the capital markets are utterly broken, and have been for some time.
Who broke the markets? Both parties in Washington. Republicans and Democrats treated financial firms as a class protected from capitalism for years, so long as the banks would keep feeding debt to American homeowners and consumers. To maintain their protected status, large financial firms fed some of the spoils right back to the politicians, in the form of campaign contributions and revolving-door jobs. The Dodd-Frank law, an attempt by the Obama administration and Congress to ensure that massive financial bailouts are a thing of the past, only tied Washington and Wall Street even more closely together. It hasn’t solved the problem any more effectively than the protesters have.
Politicians of both parties should be wary about painting the Occupy Wall Street protesters as “dangerous” or as wagers of “class warfare,” as Mitt Romney did earlier this week. They should be careful, too, in confusing the hard-core, overnight campers in Zuccotti Park with people who go to work every day but share the protesters’ post-TARP alienation. Tom Dematteis, a pizzeria owner and Navy veteran, told the Wall Street Journal Tuesday that “it was his first time protesting and he didn’t plan to camp out,” but that “he believes the financial system . . . doesn’t work for average Americans.” One of President Obama’s rivals might do well to address the fear and anger expressed in the protests. After all, on Thursday, Obama said: “The American people understand that not everybody has been following the rules; that Wall Street is an example of that.” If that’s still true more than a year after Obama signed Dodd-Frank, then the president is accountable.
In the long term, what’s far more “dangerous” than a motley group of civil dissidents—and far more expensive than a few million dollars in NYPD overtime—is a bipartisan policy of pretending that the financial crisis and the enormous harm that it has done to America is somehow over and done with. The financial crisis, and government’s response to it, remains with us, as does the debt that spurred the crisis. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.