The New Frontiers
CNBC described them as “anti- American, bizarre freaks.” Fox called them “anti-capitalist.” Rush Limbaugh labeled them a “parade of human debris.” The House majority leader, Eric Cantor, warned against “mobs ... pitting Americans against Americans.” Listening to the ministrations of the media and conservative commentators, one couldn’t help but think that the Occupy Wall Street protesters were nothing more than a band of unwashed hippies seeking the overthrow of the free market.
Sorry to burst their bubble, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. For the past week, I’ve been walking over to the demonstrators’ Zuccotti Park encampment with a group of schoolmates from Stuyvesant, acting the part of an informal observer for The Wave and witnessing what I think is a transformative moment in our nation’s history. It’s a highly organized operation — there’s a food distribution area, a library, a press center, a meeting place — and by no means an assemblage of rioters-in-waiting.
What’s more, the occupiers are not the aging 60s radicals the right loves to lampoon; they are a new generation: college kids who are victims of the usurious interest rates banks have placed on student loans, middle-classers who have lost their homes to foreclosure and eviction, jobless who have spent years searching for work in vain.
They’re in New York rather than Washington because this is where all the power lies, in the hands of the plutocrats and oligarchs who have impressed government into their service as an instrument of domination and an endless source of bailouts. It’s the scene of the crime, where the Wall Street crowd pushed the economy over the cliff and caused mass misery, but suffered not a whit. It’s where 30 years of deregulation and a regressive tax policy allowed the top one percent of income earners to grab 40 percent of national wealth and the 400 richest Americans to seize a bigger piece of the pie than the bottom 150 million.
There is good reason to hope that this is where we begin to rectify these gross injustices and, more broadly, rein in the excesses of untrammeled capitalism. The protesters are animated by the passion of men and women fighting for their futures. Despite the deplorable behavior and sheer brutality of the NYPD, which seems to be confused by the First Amendment, they have pledged to stay on Broadway and Liberty Street for as long as it takes.
What they lack, though, is a single set of demands, a gap that many pundits have tried to fill with their own suggestions. I’ll do that myself in this column. My first set of recommendations relates directly to macroeconomics. The Congress should revisit last year’s overhaul of financial regulations, the Dodd-Frank Act. Dodd- Frank needs to be strengthened, with stricter limits on proprietary trading and the sale of derivatives. The Glass- Steagall Act, New Deal-era legislation that forced banks to separate their commercial and investment components and that was repealed in 1999, should be reinstated. Big Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup must be broken up into more manageably-sized companies whose collapse would not threaten the health of the overall economy. Most importantly, we have to do something that hasn’t been done: prosecute corporate executives for risky and illegal activities that led to the crisis of 2008.
Beyond confronting corporate greed, we have to focus on building a broad middle class and constructing a ladder of opportunity that gives the poor a fair shot at the American Dream. Social welfare programs need to be expanded. Education, a quality-affordable education, should be a national priority. Infrastructure spending must be ramped up. Companies that ship jobs overseas should be penalized and labor law should be relaxed so that unions can recruit new members more easily. How do we pay for it all? Abandon the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and slash military expenditures — after all, there’s no point to having the world’s best defense if we have nothing worth defending. Make the Buffet Rule, which would make the wealthy pay their fair share, the guiding light of the IRS. Take the cap off the FICA tax.
None of this can happen unless the demonstrators in Zuccotti Park take their frustrations to the ballot box and remove from office corporate flunkies on both sides of the aisle.
We have to cleanse our political system of outside interests and bring our representatives closer to the people. That means term limits for politicians, the re-enactment of campaign finance reform, and a willingness to challenge Supreme Court-mandated corporate personhood.
If that doesn’t work, I worry for us all and my mind flashes to scenes from Europe. London has experienced bloody riots, Athens has seen repeated clashes between police and citizens fighting austerity, and cities all over Spain are in the grip of the indignados. The United States itself has an ugly past when it comes to this sort of thing, from Haymarket Square to the Bonus Army. We don’t want that again, let’s pray our leaders can do more than listen.
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