A few months ago Nassim Taleb, author of the Black Swan, an influential book about the crucial importance of unpredictable, unforeseen events on our financial system was asked whether the hundreds of thousands taking to the streets in Greece was a Black Swan event. He replied, “No. The real Black Swan event is that people are not rioting against the banks in London and New York.”
They are now. Not rioting perhaps but vigorously protesting. Occupy Wall Street is moving into its second month. Twenty thousand strong demonstrated in New York City this week. Similar demonstrations are spreading nationwide.
In the 1976 movie, Network, anchorman Howard Beale tells his viewers,
Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!… You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”
We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take this anymore. That is the message of the sit-ins by U.S. Uncut, the protests against Bank of America, the occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C. to protest the war, Occupy Wall Street and the growing numbers of #Occupy demonstrations around the country.
We’re mad at the devastation wrought in the last four years by the toxic combination of unrestrained greed and concentrated wealth. Twelve to fifteen million families have received foreclosure notices. Seven to ten million more are unemployed. Median household income has fallen to its lowest level in more than a decade while the poverty rate is at a 17-year high. The number of homeless in New York City rose to an all-time high last year—higher even than during the Great Depression—with a record 113,000 men, women, and children, many of them comprising whole families, retreating night after night to municipal shelters.
We’re mad at Wall Street for taking our money and giving nothing back. This Administration has given Wall Street nearly $10 trillion in various programs, from insuring money market accounts to the Fed’s buying of troubled assets to loaning money to banks at near-zero interest rates.
Wall Street has used the bailout to enrich themselves. In 2010, it handed out $149 billion in bonuses and compensation, near an all time high. But it did not pass that largesse down. While bank profits have risen 136 percent since the financial crisis bank lending has fallen by 9 percent.
We’re mad at the 1 percent of the country who make decisions that enrich themselves while impoverishing the rest of us. From 1980 to 2005, more than 80 percent of the increase in personal incomes went to one percent of the population. One percent of Americans now take in more than quarter of the nation’s income every year. In New York City, home to Wall Street, the top 1 percent took for themselves close to 44 percent of all income in New York during 2007 (the last year for which data is available). According to the Fiscal Policy Institute the wealth of this 1 percent derived almost entirely from the financial services sector. To qualify for inclusion on the 2011 Forbes list of the richest 400 Americans you need to be worth at least $1 billion. In 2009 those 400 had average incomes of $227 million.
“We are the 99%” is a fitting slogan for the new movements.
Labor vs. Capital
We know who the enemy is. The Michigan teachers recently released a video showing CEOs marching into classrooms and literally taking desks away from children, a visualization of the impact of a $1.8 billion reduction in corporate taxes coupled with a $1 billion cut in education funding the Republican legislature enacted. Six hundred pilots marched on Wall Street to protest the refusal of the CEOs of their airlines to bargain in good faith.
We are beginning to reframe the debate, shifting from a focus on deficits to the more fundamental issue: the relationship of labor and capital.
One indication of the new mood is the willingness of opinion leaders to use heretofore impermissible language to describe the crisis. One of the nation’s leading economists, Nouriel Roubini informs the Wall Street Journal, “Karl Marx had it right. At some point, Capitalism can destroy itself. You cannot keep on shifting income from labor to Capital without having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand.”
Another reflection of the new mood is the emergence of a new kind of folk hero. People like New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman who last August rejected a proposed nationwide settlement that would have absolved the country’s biggest banks from future lawsuits in return for a paltry $20 billion. As Matt Tabbibi of Rolling Stone points out, “in 2008 alone, the state pension fund of Florida, all by itself, lost more than three times that amount ($62 billion) thanks in significant part to investments in these deadly MBS.” (mortgage-backed securities)
Mr. Schneiderman’s audacity led to his being kicked off the executive committee of state attorneys general in charge of the case. “Ever since,” the New York Times explains, “the four-member Correspondence Unit in Mr. Schneiderman’s office, in a building wedged between the New York Stock Exchange and the New York Federal Reserve Bank, has been dealing with a flood of mail. It is, by all accounts, a spontaneous and grass-roots eruption of thank-you notes.”
“I’m just doing my job,” says Schneiderman. “At heart, Americans are not cynical people. I think they want to believe that there’s one set of rules for everybody, that there are still good cops on the beat to keep things honest.”
Yes we do. Which makes us furious when Kathryn Wylde, the Fed Board member who ostensibly represents the public, tells the Times that Schneiderman should cease and desist his attacks on Wall Street. “It is of concern to the industry that instead of trying to facilitate resolving these issues, you seem to be throwing a wrench into it. Wall Street is our Main Street — love ’em or hate ’em. They are important and we have to make sure we are doing everything we can to support them unless they are doing something indefensible.”
Unless they are doing something indefensible?
The 2011 Academy Award for best documentary went to Inside Job, a searing indictment of Wall Street. Its director, Charles Ferguson told the audience, “Forgive me, I must start by pointing out that three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by financial fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that’s wrong.”
Seven hundred Wall Street protestors were arrested in a single day. They were disrupting traffic. The CEOs of Wall Street firms disrupted the lives of hundreds of millions.
Conservatives have been remarkably successful in persuading us that government is the enemy. The 99 percenters know that is true only inasmuch as the government is captured by the 1 percenters. We are angry at government, but what makes us more angry is that in this system you get the government you pay for and 99% of us are not doing any buying.
We’re mad at government, but we haven’t given up on governance, on the right to make the rules.
Last week the General Assembly of Occupy Wall Street adopted a declaration of principles that will inform the new rules.
As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.
As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.
From that declaration of principles a program will emerge. Conversations about the elements of that program have already begun. Grassroots driven fundamental change is not without precedent. We can look to the Arab spring. #Occupy Wall Street was self-consciously inspired by the occupation by Egyptians of Tahrir Square.
But we can also look to our own history. At the end of the 19th century a political movement arose to confront many of the same concerns that torment us: concentrated wealth, corporate power, the influence of money on democracy. The populist uprising led not only to the passage of state and national laws (e.g. anti trust legislation, minimum wage and maximum hour statutes) but several Constitutional amendments. In 1913 the 16th Amendment allowed an income tax; the 17th Amendment, ratified the same year required the direct election of Senators; the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, gave women the right to vote.
Five New Rules
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The conversation about program will go on for months. To contribute to that conversation I offer five new rules: two of them Constitutional Amendments and three of them laws.
1. Corporations are not persons.
The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868 gave blacks the constitutional right of citizenship: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
In 1886, in a case that had nothing to do with corporate personhood, the court clerk wrote a headnote to the case that contained these fateful sentences, “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.”
Since the case itself never addressed the question these words did not comprise a legal precedent. Nevertheless, from then on the Supreme Court has considered the question settled. Some 65 years later Justice William O. Douglas observed, “the Santa Clara case becomes one of the most momentous of all our decisions. Corporations were now armed with constitutional prerogatives.” And they made the most of these new prerogatives.
The 14th Amendment, written to protect weak and largely defenseless ex-slaves, was mostly used to protect big and powerful corporations. Of the 150 cases based on the 14th amendment the Supreme Court heard between 1886 and 1896, 15 involved blacks and 135 involved business entities.
In the next 20 years, relying on the 1886 “precedent” the Supreme Court steadily expanded the number of Constitutional rights accorded to this new type of person. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) offers a partial list: in 1893 the Court accorded corporations the right of due process under the 5th Amendment. In 1906 it extended to them the protection against search and seizure in the 4th Amendment. In 1908 it extended to corporations the 6th Amendment right to a trial by jury.
By the 1940s Justice Felix Frankfurter could accurately declare, “Artificial or not, corporations have won more rights under law than people have– rights which government has protected with armed force.”
In early 2010 the Supreme Court gave corporations the right, as persons, to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.
Does it need to be said that unlike a real person, a corporation lacks a conscience. It is guided neither by ethics nor morality but rather by laws that required its Boards to elevate the maximization of profits above all other concerns. Does it need to be said that if a person makes a decision that kills or maims people he will go to jail. If a CEO makes such a decision he, at worst, receives a golden parachute.
A wonderful sign at the Occupy Wall Street protest reads, “I won’t believe corporations are people until Texas executes one.”
We need a constitutional amendment consisting of four words. Corporations are not persons.
2. Money is not speech
In 1976 the Supreme Court ruled that money is speech and therefore protected by the First Amendment. Today members of Congress now spend 25-40 percent of their time begging for money. Political scientist Thomas Ferguson observes, “Public opinion has only a weak and inconstant influence on policy. The political system is largely investor-driven, and runs on enormous quantities of money”.
When states or the federal government have tried to make elections fairer the Supreme Court says no. Vermont passed a law to cap campaign expenditures for state offices. The Court struck it down.
Congress tried to close a loophole in the campaign finance law that allowed billionaire candidates to spend an unlimited amount of their own money on their own campaigns. The Court struck down the law. Speaking for a 5-4 majority, Justice Samuel Alito told Congress that trying to “level electoral opportunities for candidates of different personal wealth” is not “a legitimate government objective.”
The Supreme Court rulings declaring money is speech and corporations are persons make for a lethal cocktail. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland state senator and law professor at American university points out that Fortune l00 corporations had profits in 2008 totaling about $600 billion. If they spent only l percent of their profits on elections, a trivial sum to protect and foster their interests, the total comes to $6 billion. That is more money than was spent for and on behalf of all congressional and presidential candidates in 2008.
We need a Constitutional Amendment consisting of four words. Money is not speech.
3. Tax Financial Transactions
In 1936, John Maynard Keynes first proposed a financial transactions tax. “The introduction of a substantial Government transfer tax on all transactions might prove the most serviceable reform available, with a view to mitigating the predominance of speculation over enterprise in the United States.”
Economist Dean Baker suggests that a modest tax (0.25 percent) could easily raise more than $100 billion a year. “A small increase in trading costs would be a very manageable burden for those who are using financial markets to support productive economic activity. However, it would impose serious costs on those who see the financial markets as a casino in which they place their bets by the day, hour or minute.”
4. Tax all income as ordinary income
Billionaire Warren Buffett has commented on the unfairness of having a lower tax rate than his secretary. That is so because most of his income derives from dividends and capital gains taxed at half the rate as income from work. (I think it altogether fitting that economists use the term “unearned income” to describe this kind of income.)
In 2007 the 400 Americans with the highest income—nearly $345 million—were taxed at less than 17 percent, less than half the ordinary income tax rate of 35 percent because most of their income was derived from investments. If we were to require that all their income be taxed at the 1999 tax rate of 39.6% this alone would generate an additional $300 billion in revenue over the next 10 years.
5. Declare a moratorium on foreclosures
Foreclosures hurt individuals, neighborhoods and the economy. Dumping millions of homes on the market depresses the overall value of all real estate, increases unemployment and disrupts lives and neighborhoods.
The most effective way to stop the tidal wave of foreclosures is through permanent, sustainable loan modifications that reduce homeowners’ mortgage principal and interest rates to market value. In a 2010 report, National Peoples Action proposed one strategy. “Across the country, some 11 million homeowners are $766 billion under water with their mortgages. Paid off over 30 years this means $73 billion a year needed to reset all underwater homeowners’ principals and interest rates would be about half of the $143 billion the top six banks alone are getting ready to pay in 2010 in bonuses and compensation. Even if the top six banks were to absorb the full cost of modifying all underwater mortgages in the country, they would still have $70 billion left for bonuses and compensation.”
The Wall Street occupiers have taken a stand against monied democracy and corporate power. We would do well to join them. Make your voices heard. And demand new rules that will honor the 99% and restore democracy to the nation.