Complex Systems and Occupy Wall Street

Yaneer Bar-Yam

November 18, 2011

I am impressed by the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement and its objectives. As the head of an institute whose work is to bring to light central issues at stake nationally and globally, I would like to express my support and help clarify the scientific basis of their demands.

I find it ironic that the OWS movement should be accused of not having sufficiently clear demands.

On the contrary, their statements are focused directly on the central problem of undue influence. The press is missing the point. The OWS movement is in no way a fringe effort. Rather, OWS is an expression of a general concern for financial and economic well-being.

For example, the OWS movement’s calls for reduced influence of special interests on federal regulations correspond directly with our scientific findings on the deeply disruptive role of deregulation of the banking industry [1], the commodities markets [2], the stock markets [3], as well as regulation of the agricultural industry, especially ethanol subsidies [2].

Government actions have undermined financial stability resulting in the recent financial crisis. These actions have disrupted economic growth and opportunity, and even the global food supply. This is not a fringe view. It is the view of many professionals inside and outside the "system," and is embodied in the report of the bipartisan Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) [4], the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act [5], and UN statements on the right to food [6]. Yet the process of restoring essential stability and growth continues to be delayed, undermined, sidetracked, and diluted.

The OWS protests are not on new ground. Their views about the undue power of "special interests" and particularly the financial industry have been a concern for many years. The role of special interests in influencing elected and appointed officials and regulatory agencies has been decried for 100 years.

In 1913 Woodrow Wilson wrote,

"If the government is to tell big business men how to run their business, then don't you see that big business men have to get closer to the government even than they are now? Don't you see that they must capture the government, in order not to be restrained too much by it? Must capture the government? They have already captured it."[7]

While "regulatory capture" has been around for a long time, the shortsightedness of recent actions by regulatory agencies has reached new extremes.

What is new is that in 2011 OWS decided it is time to ensure that action is taken and they are willing to put themselves in physical discomfort and at risk to make it happen. In view of the ineffectiveness of existing institutions to take necessary actions, this is amply justified and to be commended.

I hope to see more expressions of support for OWS and their positions forthcoming from academic/scientific/professional communities who can contribute their knowledge and resources to this cause.

See also: Guide to scientific results


[1] Y. Bar-Yam, D. Harmon, V. Misra, and J. Ornstein, Regulation of Short Selling: The Uptick Rule and Market Stability. Report presented at the Securities and Exchange Commission (February 22, 2010).

[2] D. Harmon, B. Stacey, Yavni Bar-Yam, and Yaneer Bar-Yam, Networks of Economic Market Interdependence and Systemic Risk. arXiv:1011.3707, November 16, 2010.

[3] M. Lagi, Yavni Bar-Yam, K.Z. Bertrand, Yaneer Bar-Yam, The Food Crises: A Quantitative Model of Food Prices Including Speculators and Ethanol Conversion. arXiv:1109.4859, September 21, 2011. [PDF]

[4] The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Report, Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (January 2011).

[5] Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Public Law 111–203 (July 21, 2010).

[6] O. De Schutter, Key chance for G20 to tackle negative impacts of biofuels and speculation on human rights, United Nations (October 31, 2011).

[7] W. Wilson, The New Freedom: A Call for the Emancipation of the Generous Energies of a People, (Doubleday, Page, & Co., 1913).



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