Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What Occupy Wall Street Wants


I've seen a lot of talk about how the Occupy Wall Street movement has no direction and no purpose. "What do these people even want?" Now personally I have no trouble in deciphering what the Occupiers want. Its in their name. They aren't "occupying" the White House, they aren't "occupying" the Pentagon, and they're not "occupying" any police headquarters. They are occupying Wall Street. It would seem safe to assume that their gripe is with Wall Street. In the years following the collapse of the housing market, taxpayer bailouts of those institutions, and the Great Recession - it almost seems silly to ask them "Why Wall Street?"

The 'why' of it is simple. Wall Street institutions, banks, and corporations have been at the center of every problem we've had in the last decade, and if you wanted you could look back and find those same institutions skulking around our military and economic problem for the last 40 years. Banks like Lehman Brothers, Bank of America, and Wachovia were responsible for the fall of the housing market through intentionally predatory lending practices and the trading of toxic assets. Wall Street institutions like Bear Stearns, CitiGroup, and Goldman Sachs bet on those same mortgages and when they lost big, claimed that our economy depended on their success and demanded we rescue them. Corporations like BP ignore basic safety and environmental precautions in order to drive up profit, resulting in global ecological disasters. Throughout all of this, the executives in charge of these companies get hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses and absolutely no reprimand from our leaders. It would be naive to think that their 'above the law' status and the fact that they are the biggest contributors to most national politicians is unrelated. Everything goes back to the money.

That is where Occupy Wall Street comes in. They believe that if you want to improve this country, you have to fix the money. Fix Wall Street. Fix Wall Street's involvement in our democracy. Fix Wall Street's ownership of our leaders. That is what the Occupy protests are about.

"But they aren't proposing any laws or regulations! They aren't working within the system! Why don't they just vote?!" That's the point. They voted. They elected a President who promised to end or limit the power of lobbyists. He didn't. He can't. The system is broken. No political movement is immune to the involvement of Wall Street's money. No laws are written in this country without a lobbyist signing off on it. It's how Health Care Reform quickly became about mandating everyone to buy existing insurance policies instead of a public option. Its how the Clean Air Act was filled with loopholes and buyouts to allow certain corporations to pollute more. Nothing is sacred. Nothing is safe until the money is fixed.

So its easy to see what Occupy Wall Street wants in a general sense; take the money out of politics! But what about those laws and regulations that are so important to our system? We know the why, but what is the how? I've taken the liberty to come up with 5 real, actual, verifiable legislative decrees, laws, or regulations that you'd find basically everyone in the Occupy Movement would applaud.

NOTE: I realize that some in the movement say things such as, "We don't have any demands", or "Universal debt forgiveness for everybody, everywhere, immediately." Those are both, for lack of a better word, ridiculous. If you're in a protest, it has to have an endgame. If you borrow money, you have to pay it back. The following are things that any reasonable member of the Occupy movement would applaud. I'm not interested in the conservative media's cherry-picking of the fringe as a means to label the entire movement.

NOTE 2: Click on each heading to go to a link with more info on the specific law or regulation. Yes, I'm using Wikipedia links here. If you don't trust Wikipedia, google the listed laws and read them for yourself. Wikipedia is just a good starting point.


1. Reinstate Provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act
The Glass-Steagall Act, also known by its official name of The Banking Act of 1933, is a law that regulates banking institutions. In 1999 certain provisions of the law were repealed, the most telling of which is the law that separates investment banking (securities, mergers, acquisitions, derivatives, and commodity trading) from commercial banking (banks that your or I would deposit or withdraw our funds from). This led to banking institutions becoming so large and labyrinthine that their inter-connectivity assured that a failure in one sector of the economy would effect every other economic sector. This time it was the housing market, but it could have just as easily been any other commodity or security. It could happen again, and without this regulation in place it almost certainly WILL.

Another gripe among Occupiers is that we, the middle and working class, do not get as much of a say in the democratic process as the wealthiest of Americans. There are many reasons for this, but the most obvious is the Electoral College. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is a contract that, if enough states sign on, would mean that our President is elected by the people and not by a group of elitist Washington insiders. The details are in the link, but it effectively makes the Electoral College obsolete, allowing the people to actually elect the President instead of special interests who have the ear of the Electoral College.

Citizens United refers to the Supreme Court decision that made the absurd assertation that corporations should be allowed to fund political campaigns as if they were a citizen. It amounted to a ruling that claims that corporations count as people, as far as political contributions were concerned. This 2010 decision officially made corporate electioneering a legal, everyday practice. Corporate stranglehold on our democracy has not been this open and obvious since Theodore Roosevelt took to trust-busting. Corporations, lobbyists, and special interests now have the same rights as citizens when it comes to funding elections. They don't even have to be based in the United States. The safety net that protected us from plutocratic control over our democracy has been cut, and it needs to be repaired.

If you are reading this you may or may not know that the abuses and practices that led to the financial meltdown are, in most cases, not technically against the law. There is no definitive National law against Insider Trading, for instance. Anyone arrested for such unscrupulous practices is usually arrested for 'obstruction of justice' or 'securities fraud'. The laws that do exist to regulate and prevent this kind of financial crisis are poorly defined, bloated, full of loopholes, and effectively impossible to prosecute. They were written this way thanks to lobbying by, guess who, Wall Street institutions. While this is a broad and difficult task, here are two suggestions:
From the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act, this is a 298 page 'rule' meant to prevent federally-backed banks from making risky or toxic trades. It is 298 pages long because it includes dozens of loopholes and the ability to avoid the regulation entirely. If we don't want banks that we own a share in making toxic trades, there should be no loopholes.
The Securities and Exchanges Commission, or SEC, is the primary regulatory body for Wall Street institutions. It is a bloated, corrupt, and ineffectual organization that is filled with Wall Street insiders who benefit from a lack of a strong regulatory body. If we don't have a strong and effective SEC, Wall Street will continue to pillage our economy.

This is a law that would place a tax on corporate contributions to political campaigns, action committees, and advocacy campaigns. The wording of the bill says that this tax would be 500%, but I think any reasonably large amount would work. Again, the purpose here is to keep campaign contributions to small, personal, individual amounts. Corporations should not be able to effectively 'fire' our representatives with the threat of taking away their funding. Elected leaders should be beholden to the American people, not just those with enough money to 'buy' their own politicians.

Or....

Publicly Fund All Elections
This is in its own category because it would fix all the above problems in one fell swoop, more or less. If we remove private funding from elections we eliminate money from the equation entirely. For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, it would mean creating a large public fund that each candidate could draw from, meaning that elections would be funded by the American people instead of through corporate, private, and special interest donations. With the threat of having their funding removed, politicians could act based on empirical data and facts rather than where their money comes from.

If you're at all familiar with how American politics work, you'll realize the second reason I put it in its own category - it will never pass. This is the kind of program that would cost hundreds of millions, if not billions, of taxpayer dollars. With Republican Presidential candidates making a pledge to veto any tax increases, and other Republicans signing a pledge to never vote on a tax increase, funding a large new government program seems highly unlikely. Not only that, but Congress would have to effectively vote away their political advantage. They would have to vote on a law that would stop millions of dollars from flowing into their bank accounts. Once again, it always comes back to the money.

In Conclusion...
That is why people are in the streets. They want the money out of politics. They tried voting. They tried writing their elected officials. They tried petitioning their government. Now they are exercising their rights in the only way they have left - "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."