We Found the Money—and It's on Wall Street
It must be glorious. You crash the economy, get a taxpayer bailout and hand out record bonuses. You poll less favorably than Congress and have every reason to be on defense, but instead you are consolidating economic power and expanding your already overwhelming political might. You then insert politicians of your choice in office, and they unleash a fierce attack on working families, going directly for the last barrier standing between you and total triumph--organized workers. And you have the pleasure of watching your masterpiece unfold from a yacht or country club, martini in hand. A Hollywood scriptwriter would have trouble dreaming up such an outlandish tale, but this is a true story, concocted in lower Manhattan.
In this insecure moment for most Americans, conservatives have forcefully advanced a narrative that names government as the problem. But when we look into the heart of the crisis we find massive and unaccountable corporations driving wages down and health insurance costs up, shipping jobs overseas and failing to contribute their fair share in taxes. Government is not the problem but rather the prize, and right now it sits in a trophy case on Wall Street.
In the Populist Moment, Lawrence Goodwyn’s landmark account of the American agrarian revolt in the late nineteenth century, he describes tipping points when masses of people gain a sense of “collective self-confidence.” He explains how this growing collective certainty allows movement members to experience a “new plateau of social possibility.” Though it would be a far stretch to say we’ve reached this point in the United States today, the incredible show of force and spirit taking place in Wisconsin (as well as in the Arab world) has awakened a sense that we can transform our politics—if we move from fingers on a keyboard to feet in the street. So, as we defend the people’s bottom line, we need to be clear that behind every Scott Walker or John Boehner are corporate elites pulling the strings. And while we have an obligation to directly challenge politicians, we also must do more than rhetorically challenge the corporate executives running the show.
We need to get to the root of the issue of budgets—we’re facing a revenue crisis. There is simply not enough money in our cities and states to support the investments needed to rebuild the American middle class. The good news is this: we know where the money is. And though politicians might tell you differently, it’s not in Grandma’s pension. It’s not in the homes of families fighting off foreclosure. And it’s not in the pockets of American schoolchildren or schoolteachers. It’s on Wall Street.
Jacob Lew, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told the New York Times that the “easy cuts” are behind us. “Easy cuts” are those that impact the poor and less powerful. The hard cuts—the ones that are so hard that few in statehouses or Washington are talking about them—would mean ending tax breaks and free rides for Wall Street and the corporations they finance. These cuts are hard not because they hurt everyday people but because they would force elected officials to go toe-to-toe with the economic elites who finance their campaigns. And because too few politicians have the stomach for this fight, it’s clear we’ll have to lead it ourselves.
To do this, we need to hold elected officials accountable and directly challenge the moral abuses of major corporate powers. We get in trouble when we're doing only one or the other and missing half the fight. Right now the mix is uneven. That’s why we need to move from directing most of our energy toward the pawns of the corporate class to going directly to those calling the shots. Imagine if every time we organized a protest at a statehouse or on Capitol Hill we also marched on a bank or the headquarters of a corporation that is impeding an economic recovery for American families. It’s critical that we make this shift, because if this battle simply pits people against politicians, it allows those with the most power to be absent from the story and therefore absent from any real accountability.
At the same time, we do need to advance big ideas at city halls, statehouses and in Congress—ideas that will reshape our relationship with corporations and generate the revenue needed to rebuild America. Though it feels like we have our hands full playing defense, we need to advance assertively new proposals around regulation and revenue. This will force the other side to expend energy on defense and help position our ideas for those moments when we have the power to push them through. It’s a delicate dance, but until we can do both we're fighting with one hand tied behind our backs.
Striking this balance is exactly what community organizations from across the country are planning to do by launching a Make Wall Street Pay campaign on March 7. Instead of working within the margins of a debate about spending cuts, everyday Americans are ready to go where the money is and put that money back to work with proposals about how to generate revenue for cities, states and the nation. Taxpayers from coast to coast will launch campaigns to ensure that Wall Street and other corporate powers become full-fledged members of the taxpaying public. We can change the conversation from spending cuts that cost jobs and prolong the economic crisis to revenue-generating ideas like state taxes on big bank foreclosures or a federal tax on financial transactions. In doing so, we’ll force elected officials of both parties to publicly make a choice: support the American people or defend Wall Street CEOs.
We're going on offense to change the debate. Join us as we march from bank offices to state capitols to Wall Street and the big corporations that are behind the attacks on the American people.
© 2011 The Nation