Occupy 1 Year
The last time I wrote about Occupy, I wrote about America having a dire case of Stockholm Syndrome. I wrote about large swaths of people across the country that were in many ways taken hostage by the image of wealth and the powerful figures in our midst that embody it. I wrote about a very human lust for prosperity, wealth, power, and control—a lust so strongly felt that it had successfully convinced many of us in this great nation that the rules of the game were fair, simply because they had been enshrined in the codex of the Law. This lust to be loved by the beneficent oligarchy of America convinced many of your fellow Americans that it was not the vagaries of laissez-faire capitalism that lead to the collapse of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, and the inevitable bailout—the 700 billion dollar Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP)—that saved our interconnected global financial system from the brink; it was not Dick Fuld or Henry Paulson or George W. Bush or Timothy Geithner who caused scores of Americans to see their livelihoods and homes taken from them.
No, it was your fault.
Yes, you. All of you. Blame yourself. You took on more debt than you could handle. You forced banks to write you terms for mortgages that you could never reasonably pay, so blame those officials who propped up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, thinking that they were doing America a favor. You swaggered in to your college guidance counselor’s office and demanded those loans in order to pay for your tuition. Blame the politicians you elected who kept driving up our debt, spending on “useless” earmarked projects at the state level. Blame those liberals who clamored for funds for renewable energy projects, sustainable farms, educational initiatives, health care reform, and NASA. Nevermind our just wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevermind the military-industrial complex. Nevermind the continued deregulation of our financial system. We are America, and greed is good for business.
This is the position of the deficit hawks in Washington and their sympathizers across the country. This is the position of the Koch Brothers and Americans for Prosperity and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. You can almost hear the din of church bells ringing in the background, and the puritanical pastor reminding you of your original sin. Lash yourself 100 times before you even think to lash a successful captain of industry. You aren’t the CEO of a major investment bank, so how could you pretend to judge one?
That was one year ago. Where are we now?
Occupy successfully changed our national conversation, redirecting it to the institutions, financial and political, that contributed to the economic meltdown of 2008. It went further, pointing out the broad connections these institutions have to issues as far ranging as the environment, fair labor practices, education, campaign finance reform, tax code reform, civil liberties, and even social positions such as same-sex marriage & abortion. Occupy realizes correctly that all of these seemingly disparate issues are actually far more related than any of us care to admit. When a politician takes campaign contributions from one Super PAC that is against same-sex marriage (“Pro-family values” in politicalspeak) and another set of donations from the anti-regulatory U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there is a tacit handshake that is made; a Manchurian Candidate of sorts is formulated by a conglomeration of lobbyists and wealthy donors to represent their concerns, which may only incidentally align with those of the greater populace.
Thus, Occupy rightly positions itself as a non-partisan social justice movement, a public loudspeaker for the concerns of the vox populi, and one of the last bastions for such a loudspeaker that isn’t the Internet—a medium which, might I add, is also under threat from those same moneyed interests, worried about losing valuable zeros at the end of their paychecks due to the pirating of their intellectual content. I would go further to claim that Occupy has metamorphosized into a global social & economic justice movement, whose goals cross national boundaries and are not immanently realizable because there are so many wrongs to be righted in the world.
Still, it is important for Occupiers to remember their roots, and why taking Wall Street to task is integral to our cause.
The financial crisis of 2008 sent shockwaves around the globe, left many out of jobs and homes, depressed economies, scared businesses from hiring new employees, and produced massive distrust in both financial and government institutions. The crisis has its roots in three main causes:
1) Collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, which are essentially various forms of debt repackaged into levels of risk (or tranches) and sold off for fees to other investment banks, hedge funds, and so on, allowing the banking institution to move risk off of its books and onto someone else’s so it can absorb more risk. This “financial innovation” is so complicated that even individuals who work with it directly have issues explaining exactly how it functions.
2) Sub-prime mortgages, or less-than-kosher debt, that institutions like Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac, Bank of America, and other lenders lent out to individuals who were highly unlikely to be able to pay back. Once bankers realized how much CDOs were desired by the market, these were used to fuel the debt necessary to create them, at the expense of average Americans who had little idea what they were getting into.
3) Credit default swaps, which act as bankruptcy insurance against a corporate entity or a given bet gone sour. AIG was a huge underwriter of these, and when CDOs started going bad and institutions started tapping AIG for the swaps it had written, AIG soon realized that it would not have enough capital to redeem the sheer volume of swaps they had contracts for.
Individuals at the federal level such as Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (former Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs) and Timothy Geithner did their best to staunch the bleeding for the financial industry, but largely left the American public to deal with the fallout. These government officials are not blameless. Paulson’s response throughout the crisis was inconsistent and was blamed for deepening the panic that gripped the market during the early days of the crisis.. First, he auctioned off Bear Stearns to JP Morgan Chase at a deeply discounted rate. Then, he allowed Lehman Brothers to fail, displaying it publicly as a sacrificial lamb to show the populace the “moral hazard” inherent in making large irresponsible bets, a “hazard” these institutions would not skirt. His actions following that flew in the face of that claim. Paulson had government officials orchestrating mergers that would keep certain institutions afloat. Finally, with the problems on his docket insurmountable and the market in free-fall, he and Geithner formulated TARP to end the panic and prevent the total collapse of the market we know and love.
It should be noted, as Andrew Ross Sorkin does in “Too Big To Fail”, that many of the more solvent and careful investment banks, such as Jamie Dimon’s JP Morgan Chase, were vehemently opposed to taking taxpayer money, fearing increased oversight and regulation, not to mention that they would run the risk of being seen as “weak” by their peers and the market at large. In the end, all of the major financial institutions in America assented, agreeing that to throw off the scent of predatory short sellers, they should all look weak together. (Not to mention that when someone throws a bag of money at you in the middle of a fiscal panic, your first thought isn’t necessarily going to be “Get this away from me!”)
Yes, that’s right. At the midnight hour, the banks banded together to save each other for the good of America and the financial system that blessed them with hundreds of millions of dollars in executive compensation packages.
The same could not be said of their behavior in the years since 2008. For Wall Street, the party never ended, it was merely deferred. TARP funds were misallocated to pay executive salaries and bonuses still in the pipeline, which included benefits such as personal use of company jets and chauffeurs, home security, country club memberships, and professional money management, as well as lobbying and campaign contributions. Although initially lower in the years following the crisis, executive compensation has since returned to pre-2008 levels.
There was and has been no retributive lashing of the self on the part of Wall Street. You may have heard apologies under duress when CEOs of the major financial institutions were brought before various Senate committees, but they are as empty as the pleas of a schoolyard bully, begging not to be sent to the principal’s office after being caught red-handed. “It was an isolated incident! Honest! It’ll never happen again!” (How sick and tired are you of hearing that, by the way? “It’ll never happen again.”)
There has been no reigning in of nasty spending habits or “creative” financial practices—the still-developing LIBOR bombshell and the up-to 7 billion dollar “London Whale” debacle on the part of JP Morgan Chase are evidence enough of business as usual. Insider trading is still de rigueur. The motto of Wall Street is still “Cheat, just don’t get caught doing it”.
Criminal charges have not and will not be brought against any of the deal makers integral to the crisis in part because nothing they did was explicitly illegal—their affiliated lobbying arms have been hard at work wooing and grooming politicians since the Reagan administration to make sure that this was the case. As such, the only criminal charges you can bring against Wall Street tycoons were that they were criminally clever in how they presided over one of the biggest financial downturns of in U.S. history and managed to get away with it with only slap on the wrist and a pat on the head from Washington. “Boys will be boys. Keep bringing home the bacon, guys!”
Meanwhile, post-2008, the American public began its Sisyphsian ordeal once more, trying to push a boulder of private debt incurred whilst seeking the American Dream up a very steep hill that seems to get steeper every time the ground falls out from under us, our collective fates in the hands of powerful old dogmatic white men with deep pockets, wealthy friends, and flexible consciences. It is sad to hear the moralizing rhetoric on the right side of the aisle; on Fox News or your conservative outlet du jour. They spout the same meaningless epithets as they did during the Great Depression or the Savings and Loan crisis of the 70s-80s, chiding anyone who dares question the Very Smart People of this country, while neglecting to realize that these same people—some of whom who lauded the wealth that a freer-market would bring us—were some of the ones who contributed to the causes of our current national—if not personal—position.
Their crimes may go unpunished, but those responsible should never be forgotten or forgiven.
Their crimes should especially not be forgotten in the midst of an election season where voters are asked to choose between two models of economic policies. Romney’s plan lines the coffers of the wealthy with money at the expense of social services and promises to further deregulate the market by undoing the already milquetoast Dodd-Frank reforms and rolling back the Affordable Care Act, only to funnel the “savings” back into the military-industrial complex or god-knows where else. Meanwhile, Obama, who has a slightly more compassionate streak, presents a position that still falls short of a progressive reformation of the tax code, lacks provisions for increased regulation and oversight of the financial services industry, and overall feels like another watered-down attempt at compromising with the ever uncompromisable GOP. This is less than we need or deserve from a President that campaigned on changing the status quo and fighting back against those who brought world markets to their knees with bad bets.
A thorough discussion in America must be had regarding the ever more polarized political parties and their discourse, and whether there is a third or fourth path that needs to be taken in order to break the hold of these parties upon our system of governance. When a plurality of Americans think that Congress is doing an atrocious job, taking too many vacations when there is work to be done, squabbling over petty social concerns with simple answers, engaging in “fuzzy math” and obfuscating the truth simply to disprove the numbers of the other side, then we have a dysfunctional government that seeks self-aggrandizement at the risk of its own destruction. The forthcoming “fiscal cliff” and the drastic cuts it promises should we fall off of it offers just one recent example of what is at stake if we as a country allow intransigence and obstructionism on the part of our elected officials to rule the day. The image game needs to stop for the good of the country, though especially so on the right, where most members of Congress are terrified of losing their jobs to their more radical, more dogmatic rivals. The decision of Representative Olympia Snowe and other faux moderate Republicans like her to bow out of running in their respective districts citing extreme partisanship indicates a drastic shift to the right on the part of the GOP.
Compromise is not strength on the right. It is a weakness tantamount to surrender, political suicide in states where their gun-toting, bigoted, misogynistic constituents fly Gadsden flags, ignorant of the symbolism of the coiled snake on its bright yellow face—how it was originally used by Benjamin Franklin in a political cartoon for the express purpose of unifying the 13 colonies against the British during the War for Independence. Unity of ideals against a common enemy, not just American stubbornness, was what made our nation free.
It should be clear that humans, isolated in any environment that rewards them lavishly for making big money and bigger bets; that actively teaches individuals that there is no such thing as empathy and altruism, only self-interest and competition; that shows them that they can skirt regulations if they are clever enough and pays them to do it (regulatory arbitrage is the technical term); that makes them truly believe that they, not humankind, but their subset of humankind, are special snowflakes at the top of the food chain; that such an environment cannot produce individuals that care about the world outside of their high-rises, government buildings, and skyscrapers.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was right where he said that the rich are not like you and I—nor should they be, necessarily, as America should be a place where anyone can strike it rich with the right combination of luck and diligence. But at what cost? At the cost of your humility? At the cost of your humanity? When you cannot look at a homeless man on the street without feeling a sense of overwhelming disgust? When your basic position boils down to “Screw you, I’ve got mine”? When you tell a young person in the most competitive job market in decades to “get a job”? When you accuse your fellow countrymen of envy when they criticize your avarice, instead of taking a moment to look at the systems and conditions that allowed you to get and stay where you are, and how those very same systems may look very different to a black man, or a woman, or a lesbian, or a disabled person, or an immigrant, or a mentally ill person, or a war veteran, or a poor person?
Sometimes, I honestly think one of the best, most immediate solutions for the financial Gods of Mt. Olympus in the Financial District and beyond would be to invite them down from their lofty perches and marble & oak offices and put them in a soup kitchen once a week, or get them to mentor young adults from single parent households, or have them do some community organizing in an impoverished neighborhood. Anything to offer a break from the constant inundation of groupthink through mass e-mails, meetings, and team building exercises. The fact that any of us are still able to feel sympathy and pity for them despite what their professions have wrought should serve to give those of us who rally against their practices a reason to sleep at night, even if we spend it poorer.
…And so the fight continues with Occupy at the fore. Lobbyists from the American Bankers Association are spending millions rallying support against a tough version of the Volcker Rule, meant to crack down on excessive speculation and proprietary trading by large financial institutions. Thankfully, some of the gifted minds at Occupy The SEC have been working hard to deliver pointed comments on why watering down the rule would be a terrible idea, and I thank them on behalf of those of us who are less-than-keen on their financial jargon and know-how. The provision of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 (NDAA) allowing for indefinite military detention of broadly defined “terrorists” has been blocked by New York State Federal judge Katherine Forrest, thanks in no small part to the actions of individuals like Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky, and other Occupy supporters. On a recent Reddit thread, even Obama stated that he would be in support of an amendment to reverse the devastating effects of the Citizen’s United ruling on our campaign finance system, an important issue to many Occupiers. Local Occupy groups have been working tirelessly in their neighborhoods and communities across the country and the globe in order to protect worker’s rights, prevent unjust foreclosures, and to stand up for the many of us who feel marginalized and ostracized by the systems of power in our respective environments.
Movements take time to build and expand, and it is undoubtedly difficult to sustain any kind of a movement in a society where they make it so easy to be bored, disgusted, and cynical that any tangible change can actually be wrested from the hands of our corporate masters. Our society exists somewhere between the dystopian views of Orwell and Huxley; the corporate-owned surveillance state continues its attempt to peer into & control every aspect of our lives, while we do our best to distract ourselves from our relatively powerlessness through social media, reality television, and escapism.
But we are not powerless. Not when we stand united against the forces that seek to control and dictate our lives; against the bankers that illegally foreclose on our homes and drive us into debt slavery trying to pay off our student loans; against the fork-tongued politicians that demand austerity in order to save America while reaping millions in subsidizes for their pet projects; against the ignorant men who believe they alone should be able to determine a woman’s right to choose; against those that would seek to stop us from engaging in a civic duty as basic as voting through the legislation of ID laws that prevent those on the fringes of society from participating in the national discourse; against the lobbyists seeking to buy candidates and elections for their self-serving wealthy donors; against those who would seek to brand us as terrorists and jail us for taking a stand and rallying loudly against the dehumanizing injustices of our political and economic systems.
We will resist, and we will continue to resist, or we will die resisting.
Edit 1: Sun Sept. 16th, 2012 — Hyperlinks and minor changes