The Blind Men and the (Economic) Elephant

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant” by American John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) recounts a traditional Hindu tale still used as a caution against focusing too narrowly on one aspect of the truth and failing to see the “big picture”. It’s a mistake many if not all of us have made at one time or another.

Right now I believe this poem is being played out in the public square via the contrasting, but in some ways overlapping, goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement and those of the Tea Party which preceded it. These two movements, I think, have more in common than they may realize, but see themselves as polar opposites because each focuses on different aspects of the economic “elephant in the room” — the squeezing of the middle class.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a WALL!”

The Occupy Wall Street movement’s original goal appears to have been to protest special treatment given by the federal government to the financial sector of the economy and the disproportionate influence of big business upon the political process. The perception is that ever since the 2008 financial collapse and the ensuing Great Recession, banks and big corporations have received numerous handouts and bailouts while ordinary people suffering loss of their jobs, homes, health insurance, etc. as a result of decisions made on Wall Street are left out in the cold. Further “demands” have since been added by a loose coalition of left-leaning groups, but the core message remains.

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a SPEAR!”

Meanwhile, the Tea Party arose shortly after Obama’s election to protest the federal government’s overspending and reckless accumulation of debt; its name was intended as an acronym for “Taxed Enough Already”. It, too, has broadened to encompass a wide variety of generally right-leaning groups and individuals who share a common conviction that the government itself is the prime cause of the nation’s economic problems. Bloated budgets, overtaxation, disproportionate or unmerited benefits promised to favored groups (public employee unions, illegal/undocumented immigrants, etc.), intrusive regulation that impedes creation of private sector jobs — these are the things the Tea Party, in general, stands against. This movement sees overreliance on government as a threat to personal freedom and a big reason why so many people fail to take responsibility for themselves, their families or their communities.

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a SNAKE!”

How does each movement view the other? If comments in the legacy media and blogosphere are any indication, Tea Partiers tend to regard OWS, at best, as a movement of gullible, easily manipulated and spoiled leftists who refuse to take responsibility for themselves and are seeking a scapegoat for all their problems. At worst, they see OWS as a conscious effort by socialist or communist masterminds to incite class warfare and civil unrest. Occupy Wall Street, meanwhile, has envisioned itself from the beginning as a liberal counterpart of the Tea Party. They see the Tea Party as an attempt by big business and the rich to protect their own wealth at the expense of the middle class and poor, by taking away government programs and benefits the vulnerable have long relied upon, reducing the influence of labor unions, etc.

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he:
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a TREE!”

So which side is right? They both are, to some extent. Although it may be safe to say that most participants in this blog (including myself) lean more toward the Tea Party than OWS, I think we realize that big government is not the sole cause of all our economic problems. We also realize that curbing federal and state spending — while it will certainly be helpful to our economic health in the long run — won’t be painless by any means. Moreover, it’s hard to deny that big business and the financial sector often demand government handouts of their own — tax breaks, regulatory exemptions, and other targeted economic incentives — while decrying individuals who do the same (some of whom may have lost their jobs or their livelihood due to decisions made by these very same companies). And while individual responsibility and wise choices (such as not getting into debt and marrying before having children) can reduce the likelihood of poverty, it is no guarantee of success. One can do all the “right” things and still lose one’s job, lose one’s home, or end up in poverty or close to it (it happened to me not all that long ago). Hence the anger and fear which helped ignite both movements.

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a FAN!”

At the same time, Occupy Wall Streeters should face the fact that government’s resources are not infinite, and that every benefit it promises to one person is taken from someone else through taxation. Well-paying private sector jobs with good benefits generally aren’t created by poor or even middle-class people; they are created by the wealthy who have money to invest in technology, facilities, and hiring. To rail against the “1 percenters” and demand additional burdens upon them may be to cut off the very source of the economic security they long for. Furthermore, with debts mounting throughout the world there may simply be no choice but to accept a reduced or less secure standard of living in the future. A proper balance between government and the private sector must be restored; the question is how it will happen — through the democratic process and rational decision making, or via a violent economic upheaval with potentially devastating consequences (a la Greece).

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a ROPE!”

Like the wise but blind men, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street touch upon different parts of the same beast that threatens the economic future of the American middle class. One may have a clearer view of the situation than the other, but both have valid points. The media, which thrive on conflict, prefer to present both movements as implacable enemies locked in a fight to the death. However, as Catholics who recognize that no individual or group now on Earth is free of original sin and that there is no such thing as a political Messiah, we should try to focus more on the big picture and have compassion for all those caught up in conflicts or economic forces they may not fully understand.

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

12 Responses to The Blind Men and the (Economic) Elephant

  • I find it hard to think that the Occupy Wall Street Movement consists of much more than the usual Left rent-a-mobs, college kids out for a good time, hard core Leftists, and roving anarchists like those who show up at World Bank meetings. To try to discern a coherent message out of this over hyped agit-prop is probably a waste of time, but it seems to boil down to putting everybody on cradle to grave welfare and making the government pay for everything. Oh, and a common trope is debt forgiveness, especially, surprise!, student loan debt. I do not view this as in any way comparable to the Tea Party movement which is a serious political force in this land. The Occupy Wall Street movement is, if it is anything other than an opportunity to have a street party, the last reactionary impulse of a Leftist statism that is visibly failing and has no ideas on how to get government spending and debt under control, and to improve the economy. As a political movement it will be an anchor straight to the bottom except for politicians in most deeply blue political enclaves. The bailout of the banks in 2008 was a very bad idea. Reacting to that by conducting bailouts of everyone is simply lunacy and I think most voters understand that.

  • This is a good article and I do believe that there are points to be made for the OWS – however, it is being said that SEIU and other Union organizations are bussing in illegal aliens and paying them to protest. The illegal aliens don’t speak English and don’t know what they are there for but they are getting paid and that’s all that is necessary. In Wisconsin Union bosses bussed in people from all over the country to protest and the protest was not peaceful – they aggressively stormed the State Capitol just as they aggressively stormed the property of a banker while his young son was along inside of the house, terrified. In the interviews i have seen and heard, it seemed that most of the OWS protesters had no idea why they were there or what they were protesting – Pelosi blesses them though and says that they are focused and that they arose ‘spontaneously’ which I don’t believe is true, while she againt depicts Tea Partiers as violent and insists that they spat at her and her cohorts though that was proven to be untrue…

  • Perhaps I didn’t make it clear in my post, but I do think the Tea Party is closer to the truth than Occupy Wall Street.

    However, I still think the basic concepts of OWS that big business and the financial sector have sought government handouts they do not deserve and that they should be held to account in some fashion for their role in the financial collapse, is valid. If other leftist groups hijack that idea for their own purposes and add other less worthy ideas to the agenda, that is another problem altogether.

  • Agreed Elaine. I have always been appalled by Government bailouts of any business enterprise. It defeats the whole purpose of free markets where any enterprise should be free to succeed or fail. This video of course is quite eloquent on the pernicious effect of such attempts to rescue big businesses or banks:

  • I remember this poem from my Catholic school days almost 50 years ago. I found your application of it entertaining and thought provoking. While thoroughly enjoying this read, I felt I owed you my simple thoughts as you provoked :). What is clear among many things vague concerning OWS is the Marxist ideology which serves as its “organizing” focus and energy. There is nothing redeeming in an ideology of hate and envy. I would dare say that OWS is blindly inspecting a donkey, not an elephant.

    The TEA party as I view it has an unarticulated Chestertonian recognition of the despicable marriage of big government and big institutional interests, Hudge and Grudge. In one limited sense can an argument be made of a commonality between TEA and OWS: the physical occupation of “wall street” is but a physical symbol of only a part of the TEA party grievances. In that sense the TEA party is the elephant, and the OWS the blind men. May we elect our elephants over their jackasses.

  • I still think the basic concepts of OWS that big business and the financial sector have sought government handouts they do not deserve

    First, if the government subsidy was something the businesses “deserve” then it wouldn’t be a “handout” would it?

    Second, the TEA Party folks have been unhappy about unearned government benefits given to “big business and the financial sector” long before any leftist community organizer dreamed up OWS.

    …and that they should be held to account in some fashion for their role in the financial collapse…

    A punitive ex post facto law is what the mainstream OWS agitates for, among TEA Party folk it’s only their fringe element that talks that way.

    P.S. In my personal experience, “they’re all alike” and “stop the bickering” are shibboleths of the politically ignorant and uninvolved.

  • I didn’t say “They’re all alike”. I said they are looking at different aspects of the same problem. Yes, the Tea Party is more right than OWS but I think we ignore at our peril the very real concerns that are beginning to attract ordinary people — not ONLY the usual suspect leftist rent-a-mobs — to OWS.

    And how is seeking a proper BALANCE between government and the private sector, instead of regarding one as the root of all evil and the other as entirely good and able to do no wrong, a sign of “political ignorance”?

  • The Tea Party movement began as a truly grassroots effort made up of sincere and honest middle class Americans. It quickly got high jacked by conservative PACs and the Republican Party.

    The OWS movement began as an AstroTurf creation of left wing PACs and members of the Democrat party (with a wink from the White House) and hopes to attract the left wing version of the same middle class discontent that the Tea Party tapped into.
    Both groups are right on what the problem is, and both groups are either clueless or just dangerously wrong on what the solution is.

    Perhaps if the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on economic and social justice were a little more well known, then a solution would be more apparent.

    Lassaiz faire capitalism (which many in the conservative and libertarian movement are advocating as a solution to our nation’s problems) is just as morally bankrupt as the socialist/communist garbage that the left wingers are advocating.

    I know good and sincere folks on both sides of this issue, and neither side seems to see where the common ground is. Like the commentary above states, the media and the political players have turned this into a fight between two groups of middle class partisans.

    I see it as a fight between the Koch Brothers and George Soros.

    Look at the front groups on both sides and follow the money trail. I have.

  • “The problem ain’t what people don’t know. The problem’s what people know that ain’t so.” Will Rogers

    It’s not laissez faire, anymore. It’s “Wall Street” gaming the byzantine system their politician allies set up for them.

    It’s the opposite of free markets. The current Great Recession – no end in sight – was caused by crony (dem and GOP big guv types) capitalism, and central control gone wild with too much discretion causing massive, widespread financial damage with their 100%-wrong track record since 1913 when the (the plutocrats and the politicians:see Jeckyl Island conspiracy theorist half-sane investigative work) Fed and Fed income tax were imposed.

    Wall Street and the politicians are in an unholy alliance. The unions and Fed EPA/CAFI regs bankrupted GM and its bank (now Ally Bank) and Chrysler. And in the nationalization, the guvmint stole from GM investors to pay off UAW bosses and thugs.

    The “banks” (seems that would be every corporation that isn’t a saloon), e.g., Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Bank of America (among the largest Obama funding bunglers) would not have made and securitized 2,000,000 loans to subprime, no document check, no income check, option ARM, Alt-A, low-to-moderate income liar loans (the US home ownership rate rose to 69% from 65% in the 1990′s to 2007) were it not for their politician-allies’ creations the Fed, FDIC, FHA, FHLMC, FNMA, HMDA, CRA, HUD, VA, etc.

    Clinton repealed Glass-Steagall; Clinton and Greenspan refused to regulate (e.g., credit default swaps) the OTC derivatives markets; Clinton/Greenspan’s Long Term Capital Management bailout set the bail out precedent; Clinton, Cuomo, Bush, et al decided everyone regardless of repayment capacity (50% of FHLMC/FNMA home loan purchases must be to low-to-moderate income, CRA-types) should own a house; Greenspan kept interest rates too low, too long; etc.; etc.

    And, why did the Fed save Bear Stearns, and then allow Lehman Brothers to go belly up? That caused the October 2008 financial melt-down (liquidity crisis) which caused the precipitous creation of TARP, etc.

    Re: The bail out = TARP was 98% repaid: plus 5.5% dividends plus warrants-related capital gains to the government. In fact, JPMorgan Chase Bank was forced to take TARP $$$ so the “dead sisters” wouldn’t appear dead. AIG was provided over $80 billion (?) so it’s losses would be contained and not bust thousands of Wall Street counter-parties and filter down to you and me. And, US money market mutual funds (MMF’s) were about to “bust the dollar”, and so the US gov provided them with FDIC-like guaranties so John Q Public didn’t suffer $$$ losses. That was almost without cost, and it prevented ruinous runs on MMF’s.

    OTOH, $4 trillion in new debt and $2.5 trillion in Fed QE’s filled the coffers of whomever who will never repay.

    The OWS imbeciles want everyone to get paid $20 an hour and to get free everything all the time.

    There are two main problems not only with with the BAIL OUT but also the WS/Washington cabal: 1. the markets will not clear or properly function; and 2. the lying idiots (in the Congress and on Wall Street) that caused massive devastation are largely still in place.

    A stopped clock is right twice a day . . .

  • This is complex stuff. My insticts are against bailing out losers. I’m generally mistrusting of hastily written law and the method by which these bailouts and infusions were passed troubles me. I appreciate the attempts at providing a “cliff notes” to the arguments.

    With regards to the protests, everything written in the MSM about the Philadelphia “ocupation” on Friday is a lie. I was there at 4 pm. There were no more than a hundred or so people at City Hall. It was a “diverse” group, if by diverse you mean sixty-somethings and twenty-somethings who’s only “occupations” are protesting.

    Protesting what though? I really can’t say. Democrisy (that’s how one sign bearer spells it anyway) was a big theme but, with no better or more explicit description, I don’t really know what, if any, visions pass through their pierced and unkempt heads. Corruption is a big theme but the three speakers I heard seemed to think that it was Bush and “Congress” that are to blame… Though maybe I’m unfairlt presuming that they don’t realize that it wasn’t the present Congress that passed the bailouts.

    The funniest thing I heard was from a lawyer on the train who remarked “the last time Philadelphia was occupied was by the British and I’m guessing no one walked by openly mocking them.”

  • You’ve hit the nail on the head here.
    Not all poor (or middle class) are virtuous, nor are all rich (or middle class) perfidious sinners. Without a government that seeks to induce its citizens first to strive first for the Kingdom and God and His Righteousness (and hence, virtue), there is going to be one distortion after another as unworthy ends of sinful men, rich and poor, are given the means of government to acheive them. You’ve identified greed in both camps, acedia among many poor and avarice among many rich. That doesn’t exhaust the list of sins that our (U. S.) people–having been given every possible worldly blessing and many spiritual ones–have turned to and inflated with their money (even our poor are richer than most of the other inhabitants of Earth) and their staggering leisure time.
    Not only that, after the wrath blows through, there’ll be sinners who have held on to their one-percenter riches and sinners who still expect to be fed and entertained (and have all the sex and drugs they want) without accepting any personal responsibility.
    It’s not a pretty picture. I do think, however, that more and more people are beginning to suspect that neither camp has all the answers. That’s worth something.

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