What Can Public Policy Teach Occupy? by Larry Rosenthal

By Larry Rosenthal

“Tent sites available.” – Sign observed at OccupyCal, Sproul Plaza, November 16, 2011

The Occupy Movement gifts us with provocative opportunities for policy teaching and learning. What started in September as a mild distraction quickly became a focal point for our community-classroom here at the Goldman School of Public Policy. Occupy is a natural topic for many courses at the School. For others (like our current rendition of Public Policy 101), it threatens to become the only topic. Few items on my syllabus this fall cannot be reified and intensified via reflection upon Occupy and its evolving meaning.

Our students, faculty, staff and alumni dedicate their lives to social improvement. It is only appropriate that we take an abiding interest when the social-improvement discussion suddenly becomes headline news. If only by energizing and broadening that discussion, Occupy is a timely addition to the civic culture we in the policy community have always occupied.

One motivating question driving the School’s participation in the movement should be: What can public policy teach Occupy?

The conversation at our School should address both the content of that curriculum and the ways we can best deliver it.

Some possible points to frame that syllabus:

  • Dear Occupiers: Welcome to the cause for social improvement. We’ve been waiting for you. There is much work to do.
  • Incrementalism is public policy’s currency. Yet we aren’t averse to bold reforms when the institutions themselves need upgrading.
  • Compared to informed policy work, occupying is rather easy. Allocate your resources accordingly.
  • Path-dependence is real. None of Occupy’s initiatives starts on a blank slate. Comprehending the policy history of current arrangements takes time and careful study.
  • Money indeed corrupts candidates, parties, and the policymaking process. But when it comes to threats against the social safety net and public education, money tends to corrupt the raiders in far greater measure than it does the defenders.

Just some initial thoughts – I welcome everyone’s comments, revisions, and additions.

When the police cleared Zuccotti Park earlier this week, Rabbi Arthur Waskow of NYC’s Shalom Center wrote: “You cannot evict an idea whose time has come.” But when it comes to ideas, Occupy is an early work in progress. Who better than the public policy community to help sculpt and refine the ideas driving resurgent progressive voices. That work is our stock and trade. (In fact, many of us are quite preoccupied with it.)