There’s something missing from Glenn Greenwald’s otherwise excellent essay on the Wall Street protests and the response to them on the left. And it gets to something fundamental that has divided the left since President Obama inherited the TARP program from George Bush and Hank Paulson. It’s hard to describe this in precise fashion, but it comes down to a general versus partial indictment of modern capitalism and American institutions. Back in the first months of the Obama administration, much of the energy on the left was focused on nationalizing the banks. There was certainly a case for doing so, particularly in individual cases. But few people were looking at details. The banks needed to be nationalized as punishment for their sins, not because nationalizing them would necessarily be the best way to protect the taxpayer. I took a look at the arguments on both sides and took them very seriously. I came to the conclusion that wholesale nationalization would be more expensive (almost impossibly expensive) and would guarantee a huge permanent loss of money. It was also highly risky, in that it could have led to many unintended consequences at a time when the markets were in a panic and the economy was shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs every week. And it would also be slow and could prolong a period of frozen lending. To me, Geithner’s Plan seemed eminently more sensible and quite a lot less risky, at least in the short term. There was naturally a risk that putting things back together without some serious reforms would be a lost opportunity that could come back to bite us later.
Many people did not care about short-term risk at all, nor did they even contemplate the costs to the taxpayer. They wanted to use the opportunity of an epic collapse to usher in some creative destruction. I saw the emotional appeal of that, but I was more concerned about stopping the bleeding and doing an honest and prudent risk/reward analysis. Goal number one was to get the banks lending again. And that meant that the banks needed to be recapitalized.
The truth is that as badly as Wall Street behaved in the lead-up to the collapse, and as badly as they behave now and always behave, our livelihoods depend in large measure on Wall Street. When banks stop lending, we lose our jobs. When the stock market collapses, we lose our retirement savings. What we need is not to do away with Wall Street but to regulate it aggressively. And doing so is a political matter that is made almost impossible because of the power Wall Street wields to prevent strong regulation.
Wall Street and corporate money in general pervades our political process and heavily influences both political parties. And despite efforts at campaign finance reform, the problem has grown much worse over the last decade. Anyone looking at the Democrats to solve this problem is going to be disappointed. Even where the Democrats are attempting to do the right thing (such as increasing marginal income tax rates on the wealthy) they are easily thwarted. So, I see the desire and the need for some kind of movement that doesn’t rely directly on politics. Neither political party is capable or really even willing to create a fairer system or to truly protect us from the excesses of global capitalism.
In any case, I understand the motive behind the #OccupyWallStreet drive, and I can see why people are seeking non-political avenues to express their discontent. But I’m bothered by the lack of specificity in the movement. Greenwald says I should be able to understand it.
Does anyone really not know what the basic message is of this protest: that Wall Street is oozing corruption and criminality and its unrestrained political power — in the form of crony capitalism and ownership of political institutions — is destroying financial security for everyone else?
Is that really the point? Is Wall Street oozing corruption and criminality in a way that it was not last year or the year before that? Is it less accountable than it was before the Dodd-Frank bill passed? Or, is it more that people are sick of seeing how much these bastards pay themselves as they ship our jobs overseas and try to whittle away the safety net?
I suppose the answers to those questions will depend on whom you ask. But I get the feeling that people like Greenwald consider Wall Street investment firms and banks as criminal organizations by definition, rather than by circumstance. Or, to be more precise, there are many on the left who don’t believe in capitalism to begin with. They didn’t believe in it before the September 2008 crash, and they especially don’t believe in it now. And without getting into a defense of capitalism, I have to say that I’m not comfortable with a movement that has no more coherent message than ‘capitalism sucks.’ I don’t even like the name. You’ll occupy Wall Street until _____ happens?
Now, Greenwald suggests that people like me just don’t like to see people expressing their opinions outside of the bipartisan conversation in Washington. There is some truth to that. I see the president trying to mobilize people to pass a Jobs Bill and then I see a lot of the energy on the left going into something that isn’t helping move the ball down the field. But, honestly, the protests on Wall Street can be helpful if enough powerful interests get nervous enough to throw us some scraps. I don’t mind that the protests are unrelated to the legislative calendar nearly as much as I just think a generic condemnation of an undifferentiated Wall Street is too incoherent to be meaningful.
I understand that this is the beginning of something. Maybe it will flower into something beautiful. I don’t want to criticize people who have gotten off their butts and mobilized to try to change things for the better. But, in the end, we have a political problem. We can all try to imagine what will happen if the current iteration of the Republican Party wins the Trifecta next year. If you take your eye off that ball for too long, the worst will come and we’ll long for the days when Wall Street was relatively well-behaved.
Obviously, there is no easy choice here. Warding off the worst to protect a rotten status quo isn’t too exciting. But things can get much, much worse.
I’m glad people are angry enough to try something different, but the movement needs to move beyond blocking traffic to advocating for some concrete changes. And, frankly, I don’t see any consensus on anything beyond that Wall Street sucks. That’s not good enough for me. Wall Street isn’t going anywhere no matter what else people might accomplish.
What’s missing from Greenwald’s essay is any sense of what he would like Wall Street to do.