The Promise of Occupy Wall Street

October 18th, 2011

A protester holds a sign at the Occupy Wall Street protest last weekend

In 2009 when the Republicans looked like they were about to vanish from the political scene in the United States I was debating online with one of my regular Republican sparring partners and I said something about how the Republicans didn’t stand a chance in the next elections.

He said simply: “we’ll see. There is a great stirring out there.”

He turned out to be right, and 2010 followed 2008.

It’s hard to tell what the ultimate effect of the Occupy Wall Street movement will be on American politics, but it’s clear that the protestors are tapping into something significant and that this could have huge implications for our politics. A month into the movement, protests broke out yesterday in 951 cities across 82 countries.

Most of the criticisms of the movement center on a lack of clarity on their agenda, but a few things seem clear: they’re protesting a system where entrenched special interests call the shots and everyone else pays the price.

No matter what side of the political fence you’re on, it should be clear that the U.S. political system has still not dealt with the problems that led to the Great Recession and the underlying economic and political institutions that enabled those problems. Three years after the economic collapse, we have a real unemployment rate that is close to 15%, a huge deficit problem, the highest spending in years, the lowest taxes in a few generations and a Congress that would rather spend their time casting symbolic votes for a Balanced Budget Amendment than actually coming up with a plan that asks for sacrifice on the part of anyone except the most vulnerable in our society. Their solution to deal with the unprecedented deficits is to give even more tax breaks to the wealthy and dismantle the already frayed American social safety net that so many people fought so hard to create.

The ultimate result of the Tea Party elections in 2010 is that the Congress has been taken over by a small minority of zealots who have done nothing to deal with the problem that most Americans are concerned about: the persistently high unemployment rate. Since the March 2009 lows, the stock market has been on a tear as corporate profits have steadily increased, but the unemployment rate has stayed stubbornly high and now close to 1/3 of Americans are underwater on their mortgages. Meanwhile, the banks that hold these mortgages get money at zero interest from the government which they then turn around and gamble in rigged capital markets that almost guarantee profits.

Moderate legislation to control those banks is opposed by that same small band of ideological zealots who protect these powerful interests and their cowardly Democratic friends who live in fear of being called Socialists for breaking up a cartel that lets four institutions control almost 40%  and ten institutions control 60% of the assets in this country.

Three years after the Republicans were defeated soundly in the 2008 elections, the Bush tax cuts still remain in effect even though the numbers of people who would rather see tax increases on the top 2% before they see cuts in government spending ranges from two-thirds to three quarters of American’s. Once again, even attempts to increase those taxes to the levels they were during the greatest economic boom in twenty years is decried as Socialism.

Meanwhile, the trends on income disparity are even more dramatic. From 1952 to 1982, the percentage of wealth made by the top 10% remained fairly steady at around 35%. Beginning in 1982 the percentage of income made by the top 10% began to increase dramatically. By 2007, at the height of the Bush economy, the top 10% earned more than 50% of the wages in America.  During the same years, middle class incomes remained stagnant and poverty actually increased.

Republicans continue to say that the country is “broke,” but they oppose any attempts to cut back on our military presence around the world while our internal infrastructure continues to crumble and (does anyone see a pattern emerging?) any attempts to make investments in America are decried as Socialism.

Enough already.

Anyone but the Fox addled (and that is apparently a significant segment of America) can see that the Tea Party missed the mark: that the problems of this country don’t end with cutting taxes and starving government; that it’s a galling contradiction to vehemently oppose the bailout and then completely punt when given a chance to support regulations that would prevent the need for the next bailout; that the real problem  is a system that is so controlled by special interests that it makes real change almost impossible, no matter who is in control of Congress.

Many of these problems are intractable and systemic, but others can be remedied with some common sense measures. Occupy Wall Street and their supporters should push for a constitutional amendment rolling back the Citizens United case. I’ll leave the drafting to the lawyers, but an amendment should give the government the power to regulate campaign contributions, should stipulate that corporations are not entitled to the same rights as citizens and that giving money to political contributors shall not be considered speech. Constitutional Amendments are extraordinarily difficult to pass, but the prolonged effort needed will help to create a movement and politicians who believe that giving money is the same thing as speech and corporations are people,” will have to answer for that.

Unfortunately, it may be a long time before conditions are right for Congress to revisit financial reform, but that shouldn’t stop Occupy Wall Street and their allies from pushing for it. 

There are a few premises that should be self evident to anyone who thinks about it for a moment or two:

  1. If a bank is too big to fail, it is too big to exist
  2. Allowing four companies control 40% of the assets in the country isn’t healthy
  3. Banks should not be able to run what are effectively hedge funds out of the back door of their banks.  Make a choice: you are either a hedge fund or a bank. Not both.

Regarding income inequality, when the top 1% control 35% of the wealth in a country and the top 20% control over 85% of the wealth in a country, that is a real problem and it needs to be dealt with. Not only should the rich be paying higher taxes in this country, but the upper middle class should be as well. 

As I said initially, it’s far to early to predict the effect of Occupy Wall Street on American politics. The demonstrator’s demands may not fit within the range of possibilities of our sclerotic political system, un which case they will become an interesting footnote in American history. Still, this movement has potential and I’m cheered by the fact that the Left is finally waking up in this country and that there may finally be a counterweight to the corrosive efforts of the Tea Party.

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3 Responses to “The Promise of Occupy Wall Street”

  1. George Bryant Says:

    Phil,

    As usual, the clarity of your thinking continues to boggle my mind!

    Congratulations on making so many diverse thoughts clearly fit together
    so well. That someone of your age “gets it” so well, gives me hope!

  2. J. Furnari Says:

    Comrade Phil – Thanks for helping us set an agenda…any agenda…seriously, all we had were drum circles, shanty town tarps and clever signage…lost at sea…

    Signed Lovingly,

    Mindless “sqatting for free in the same hood “banksters” pay 3gs a month to live in” Stoners

  3. Milazz Says:

    Thanks Wall Street Joe.

    I made fun of the Tea Baggers too, and now they have veto power over all legislation in the country.

    Here’s hoping the “mindless stoners” can have as much success as the toothless rednecks who put Boehner in power.

    Milazz