As police and the city council in Dunedin wrestle with the niceties of whether city bylaws take precedence over the Bill of Rights Act, encampments continue to spring up around the world under the common banner of "Occupy" and are now in 70 major cities and at almost 1000 sites worldwide.

Some criticism has concentrated on protesters' perceived double standards, charging them with enjoying the fruits of capitalism (because they wear clothes and shoes and eat food manufactured by global corporations) while presuming to deride it as unsustainable and corrupt.

"We all know now that no self-respecting Occupy Wall St protester would be caught dead without his or her hand-held device, preferably an Apple iPhone or iPad," wrote William Cohen, a former investment banker, and the author of Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World.

The profound cynicism that underlies that observation probably reveals more about the writer than the subject, but public opinion is more sympathetic. Surveys by major publications have shown support for the protests running at 2 to 1 in the US.


The greater danger that those clamouring for change face comes from powerful public figures who profess support but then make it heavily conditional. Former US President Bill Clinton provided the perfect example of that false friendship when he remarked that the protests were "on balance ... a positive thing", but added that the protesters "need to be for something specific, and not just against something because if you're just against something, someone else will fill the vacuum you create".

It's an idea that would have many New Zealanders nodding sagely. Deeply embedded in our national discourse is the idea that it is illegitimate to criticise without offering an alternative.

Yet it is not incumbent upon the protesters to redesign the world's economy and social organisation on the fly and while sitting in public parks. Indeed, the very idea that there can be a quick fix to the economic problems that beset the world should be vigorously resisted.

Presuming to suggest that the way we organise the creation and distribution of wealth is both corrupt and unjust does not carry with it an obligation to abjure frozen vegetables and health care.

The groundswell of opinion that is shaking the entire planet is not against the existence of capitalism but against the greed of those who pull its levers. In America, the after-tax income for the top one per cent of households has almost tripled since 1980.

The practitioners of the transactions that precipitated the global financial crisis inflicted damage on the lives and aspirations of ordinary Americans that outstripped the havoc wrought by the 9/11 bombers by several orders of magnitude, yet they were not hunted down and shot; they were bailed out by the taxpayers.

In this country, the picture is different only in degree. A UN report this week ranked us fifth in the world in our achievements in health, education and income. But in terms of income equality, we are 24th among the 34 OECD countries - barely a generation ago we were near the top. This week our largest banking group reported a 25 per cent increase in profits and foodbanks reported empty shelves in the face of increased demand.

The protesters gathered in parks and plazas around the world are giving voice to a widespread malaise that is no less valid for being inchoate. But those on capitalism's upper floors - including politicians now on the campaign trail - would be foolish to believe that the push for change will ease up any time soon. They need to engage in meaningful dialogue about the way the world turns.