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WSJ Bloomberg’s Broken Windows

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In 1982, two social scientists—George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson—published an article in the Atlantic in which they argued that a city window left broken is an invitation to further disorder. Their message was as simple as it was unconventional. Sweat the small stuff (graffiti, aggressive panhandling, petty crime) and you'll stop problems before they grow bigger.

In the three decades since, mayors and police chiefs across America have transformed their cities by taking the broken-window message to heart, especially in New York. Now Occupy Wall Street has taken a high-profile part of Manhattan and turned it into an anarchist campground worse than the Tompkins Square Park of the 1980s, when it stood for the worst of New York—encampments of the homeless and a haven for drug dealing. The OWS protesters seem to have no fear of Michael Bloomberg: A sign at one entryway warns hizzoner that if he tries to interfere, he will be the one arrested.

For most, the Occupy movement has been a lark. For Woodstock wannabees, it's a romantic trip back to the Vietnam War protests they weren't around for. For television cameras and leftish documentarians, it's a feast of crazy signs and even crazier behavior. For a certain kind of Democrat, it's the answer to the energy of the tea party ("We are on their side," President Obama said of the Occupy movement to ABC News just three weeks ago).

The president is by no means alone. The mayor of Oakland, Calif., Jean Quan, issued words of support for the Occupy movement that sprang up outside her City Hall, claiming that sometimes "democracy is messy." Indeed it is: According to the San Francisco Chronicle, eyewitnesses claim her husband was among those who helped close the port down last week.

Ditto for Mayor Vincent Gray in the District of Columbia. On Friday a mob from Occupy DC attacked the Washington Convention Center where a conservative group was holding its meeting. The police did not protect them, and some who called for help claim 911 operators hung up. Earlier in the month, the D.C. government issued a press release boasting that "a fired-up Mayor Gray" had spoken in a freedom march that had "merged with separate demonstrations in support of DC voting rights and the Occupy Wall Street movement."

In short, instead of seeing "broken windows," too many of our urban leaders have persuaded themselves that the drugs, sexual assault and vandalism that have accompanied the Occupy movement are all "isolated incidents." In New York, Mayor Bloomberg says that he won't tolerate the kind of violence they had in Oakland. Of course, this is the same mayor who complains that the protesters have no right to erect tents when the whole of Zuccotti Park is blanketed with them.

Thus far too, those looking for the fallout have focused mostly on the political. Pollster Doug Schoen has warned his fellow Democrats that support for the Occupy movement will come back to bite them. George F. Will made the same point from the other side: "Conservatives," he wrote, "should rejoice and wish for it long life, abundant publicity and sufficient organization to endorse congressional candidates deemed worthy."

Until very recently, however, few have paid attention to the economic ramifications. In this, Bloomberg News is way ahead of its owner: A recent story noted that the same people assailing the lack of jobs and protesting income inequality are devastating local businesses. The owner of a café near Zuccotti Park told the reporter that the 103 jobs he created when he opened in June are now in jeopardy.

There's no denying that local businesses are suffering. Still, the economic ramifications of these protests go well beyond the painful drop in sales receipts that neighborhood merchants are suffering. Longer term, there surely is a broken-window aspect to urban investment, which raises important questions our occupied mayors seem largely oblivious to.

What company thinking of moving to Texas or even Connecticut, for example, will be persuaded to stay in Manhattan after witnessing the mayor's impotence here? How many trade groups or associations are going to move their big meetings from the nation's capital after they've seen the lack of police protection at the convention center? Who's going to sink money into Oakland—which clocked in below Flint, Mich., on a recent Forbes ranking of cities by job growth—when they see a mayor unwilling to call in the cops even after businesses have been openly attacked?

Our progressive mayors may think themselves reasonable when they turn a blind eye to the public disorders that have characterized the Occupy movement. In fact, they are sending a signal that imperils the urban development they so profess to love. For the message they are sending to business is this: When the crazies come for you, you're on your own.


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