The importance of Occupy

By Felix Salmon
September 18, 2012

On September 7, Occupy the SEC followed up its fantastic comment letter of last February with an equally perspicacious and detailed update. At 15 pages, the new letter is much shorter than the 325-page original, but it still packs a heavy punch, and it arrives at exactly the right time: just as the SEC and other regulatory agencies are trying to work out how the Volcker Rule should look, especially in the wake of the JP Morgan London Whale fiasco. (All of which was, embarrassingly, entirely Volcker-compliant.)

Meanwhile, the Occupy Bank Working Group, which got a flurry of publicity back in March, is still going strong, working on something which has the potential to be much more far-reaching than any letter. It takes time to build a new kind of bank, which is their ultimate ambition, and they’re not there yet. But they’re moving in that direction, and if Andrew Ross Sorkin had talked to any of them before filing his column today, he might not have been so dismissive with respect to the legacy of Occupy. (“It will be an asterisk in the history books, if it gets a mention at all.”)

In fact, Occupy was hugely important: it provided an overarching frame, and context, which could then be applied in a myriad of different situations and geographies. When Mitt Romney dismisses 47% of America as “victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them”, it’s impossible not to think of Occupy, the self-described 99%, and the fact that it was emphatically not a call for government handouts. In reality, it was much closer to a call for a genuine equality of opportunity — something that Romney should be supporting, rather than opposing.

But Sorkin isn’t interested in the effects that Occupy has had on political discourse, or even on regulatory rule-making. He’s looking for some very narrow things indeed:

Has the debate over breaking up the banks that were too big to fail, save for a change of heart by the former chairman of Citigroup, Sanford I. Weill, really changed or picked up steam as a result of Occupy Wall Street? No. Have any new regulations for banks or businesses been enacted as a result of Occupy Wall Street? No. Has there been any new meaningful push to put Wall Street executives behind bars as a result of Occupy Wall Street? No.

And even on the issues of economic inequality and upward mobility — perhaps Occupy Wall Street’s strongest themes — has the movement changed the debate over executive compensation or education reform? It is not even a close call.

Actually, I think that Occupy the SEC did change the debate over breaking up the banks. Certainly its letter was very widely read in Washington, where Congressional staffers are constantly inundated with lobbyists’ position papers but see very little from, well, the 99%. But more generally, Occupy was clearly opposed to the entire Washington system, and so it’s rather silly to point to the fact that the Washington system hasn’t done much in the past year, and use that as evidence that Occupy was a dud.

Speaking personally, I find it impossible to read the unemployment numbers on the first Friday of every month without thinking about the protestors at Occupy; if nothing else, they did a fantastic job at putting a face on otherwise dry statistics.

But what Occupy has really given us is something much more important than that. It’s a new way of looking at the world we live in — a viewpoint characterized by equality and respect for all, combined with an unapologetic anger at where we’re at. That’s a viewpoint it’s pretty much impossible to find on Wall Street, or among Andrew Ross Sorkin’s sources. But it’s also a viewpoint held by millions of people around the country and the world. It’s probably too much to hope that Sorkin might start taking it seriously at some point.

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Comments
12 comments so far

The importance of Occupy is noting how magnificently they’ve been ignored. The end.

Posted by ottorock | Report as abusive

OccupytheSEC and the Alternative Banking Group are two of the most fascinating iterations of the Occupy movement. They may not have achieved widespread recognition, but they have managed to sustain their own ongoing work and analysis and show no signs of slowing down.

Bravo to Felix for recognizing this heterodox group of financial analysts.

Posted by HenryClarke | Report as abusive

” It’s probably too much to hope that Sorkin might start taking it seriously at some point.” (FS)

You, FS, Sorkin and OttoR will take OWS/TEA a lot more seriously when the Sorkins, Blankfeins, Dimons and Paulsons of the world are looking up the barrels of guns – and not until then. The prior Occupy stuff will either go down in history as the equivalent of Harper’s Ferry, or as nothing at all. Events will dictate which.

IMO OWS people are making a big mistake by trying to make things better by working within the system. They should try to make things worse so the system is weakened to the point of being vulnerable to revolutionary change. Nothing less will matter.

Posted by MrRFox | Report as abusive

Lest anyone get their hopes up that the FSC actually will pay any attention whatsoever, check out the banners at http://financialservices.house.gov/

“Dodd Frank Burden Tracker” and a Report Card with all “F”s

A lesson in using public dollars to support a partisan (or in this case, industry) message.

Posted by martin6666 | Report as abusive

ottorock:
Ignored by whom? If it isn’t such a big deal, why are there always massive police presences kicking them out from where ever(NYC, Oakland, Austin and on)? Wouldn’t it be better, in your eyes, if the cops and politicians just ignored them?

Posted by PhilPerspective | Report as abusive

Thanks, Felix, for recognizing this and for not being yet another shill.

Posted by joanneleon | Report as abusive

You get the Banzai7 thumbs up for this…

Posted by williambanazi7 | Report as abusive

Occupy is emphatically not a call for government handouts? How can you believe that, Felix? Underlying a huge amount of the Occupy movement’s demands is a (mathematically false) undercurrent that all sorts of wonderful programs for the 99% can be financed solely by taxing the 1%.

A link to Occupy’s international manifesto is below. It is littered with phrases such as “universal basic income guarantee”, “free child care for everyone”, “progressive reduction of working hours without reducing income”, “maximum income should be limited”, and “an absolute end to fiscal austerity policies”. It is absolutely a call for a laundry list of government handouts with a strong implication that they are paid for by taxing someone else.

http://occupywallst.org/article/internat ional-assembly-globay-may/

Most of the ideas that aren’t calling for government handouts just show a basic lack of economic literacy, such as the working hours reduction noted above, a call for a ban on genetically-modified crops and a mandated dramatic reduction in agrochemical usage (let’s help the poor by raising food prices!), and a broad attack on free trade.

I don’t even see the general framework as terribly novel. It reads like the further left, less economically rational side of European social democratic parties – i.e., more French than German, or more 1960′s Labour Party than Labour Party of today.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive

Thanks Felix. I found Sorkin’s posting on OWS distasteful in the extreme. Why has the NYT continued to allow him to hold a position on a propaganda network (CNBC) while “reporting” for the Times? His bias is obvious. I do not trust his reporting, and I can’t imagine why he has been allowed to stay.

Posted by maynardGkeynes | Report as abusive

I work as an independent Financial Advisor, and I am ashamed of some of the things I see in my own industry. The Madoff and JP Morgan Chase type scandals taking place right under Fed’s nose has resulted in the Fed trying to show the taxpayers that they are really “on top of things”. They are doing so by over-regulating the little guys, increasing our costs, decreasing means of earning an income, while the bigger dishonest people in the industry just keep moving forward. The fact that Jamie Dimond also serves on the Federal Reserve Board of New York (effectively he regulates his own bank), you can see the “arms length” regulatory environment no longer exists. They are diverting attention aways from themselves by cracking down on the smal, effective, hard working people who do a good job for people.

Posted by PatrickFNJ | Report as abusive

What does “perspicacious” mean? Really, I am a poor white girl with a mere bachelors degree and never heard this word. Is this a new way to eliminate the every day curious readers?

Posted by susette | Report as abusive

So Occupy is about supporting our ‘safety nets”? I thought, just saying, I thought they were representing outrage at the careless and utmost greedy way in which Wall Street and its investors behave, and act like accountability is out of the questions. OK I am wrong.

Posted by susette | Report as abusive
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