Occupy Wall Street’s message: more than a sound bite
By David Callahan
The opinions expressed are his own.
If you’re like most people who are uneasy with the outsized power of finance, chances are you can’t boil down your concerns to a pithy sound bite. So why is there such ridicule of the protesters “occupying” Wall Street for lacking a coherent message?
Three years after the 2008 financial crisis, it is still hard to neatly encapsulate the problem with letting bankers and traders dominate American economic life. Once Congress passed the Dodd-Frank reform law last year, most political leaders and commentators moved on to other issues, leaving behind an unfinished debate about Wall Street’s influence.
Now, thanks to protests in New York and a growing list of other cities, this debate is percolating once more. And guess what: the supposedly incoherent protesters actually have a pretty strong critique of what is wrong with America’s financialized economy.
Angus Johnson, one of the most astute bloggers following the protests, wrote recently that if you think that the protesters have “no message, you’re not paying attention.” They clearly believe that there is “something seriously broken” in America’s economy and politics and that “an accelerating concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small minority” is to blame.
That reading jives with my own visits to Zuccotti Park – aka, “Liberty Square” – just blocks from the New York Stock Exchange. The clear thread linking a mish-mash of grievances – on everything from education to healthcare to corporate campaign cash – is that the wealthy are running America at the expense of ordinary people.
If this sounds radical, the hyperbolic blathering of dreadlocked twentysomethings, consider that a slew of top political scientists have been saying the same thing for nearly a decade. For example, one of the most authoritative recent studies of democracy and inequality, by the Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels, found that “the preferences of people at the bottom third of the income distribution appear to have no apparent impact on the behavior of their elected officials.”
The protesters are not just on the right track with their sweeping critique of inequality, they are also in the right place. The financialization of the U.S. economy is closely linked to America’s drift toward plutocracy. The triumph of “shareholder value” over all other goals for the modern corporation was brought to us, starting in the 1980s, by Wall Street’s leveraged buyout kings and private equity sharks, as well as by bonus hungry traders obsessed with near-term gains. In turn, a narrow focus on the bottom line has undermined American workers – and the middle class writ large – by justifying any and all cost-cutting measures that can boost quarterly earnings, from foreign outsourcing to slashing benefits to busting unions. Nearly all the forces typically blamed for rising inequality – globalization, new technologies, declining unionization – have had a more devastating impact on U.S. living standards thanks to Wall Street greed.
Meanwhile, as one of the biggest sources of campaign money for both parties, and a major bankroller of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the financial industry has sought to both block restraints on its own risky behavior and kill policies that could redress rising inequality – such as tax hikes on high earners. A 2009 study estimated that the finance and insurance industries spent $5 billion between 1998 and 2008 on political donations and lobbying.
Wall Street’s unchecked power explains why it was free to blow up the economy with over-leveraged bets on shady mortgage-backed securities. And its enduring power helps explain why not a single top banker or trader has faced criminal charges for this catastrophe. Instead, unionized school teachers and lazy food stamp recipients have somehow become the main problem facing America.
What the protesters understand – more than the commentators ridiculing them – is that the United States is still on the path to plutocracy. Dodd-Frank may curb some of Wall Street’s worst excesses, but the greedheads who took down the U.S. economy remain all-powerful and inequality is actually getting worse amid soaring corporate profits, near-record unemployment rates, and deep cuts to government spending.
One seemingly weird thing about these protests, among many, is that the bid to “shut down” Wall Street is coming three years after the financial crisis. But this, too, actually makes sense: people turn to protest when the political system fails to deliver change or accountability. That is certainly the case here, with Obama’s presidency in tatters and all signs pointing to a return to business as usual.
Just maybe, though, the protests will open up a new debate on how to reform – or better yet, replace – an economic system that is failing so many ordinary Americans.
David Callahan is a Senior Fellow at Demos and editor of Policyshop.net, the Demos blog.
Photo: A protest sign lays beside a sleeping Occupy Wall Street protester in Zuccotti Park in New York October 1, 2011. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi