WASHINGTON — In one of those long, rambling Alex Jones films, hip-hop artist KRS One summed up some substantial misgivings to be had with Occupy D.C. rather nicely when he said that if you have a problem with your burger at McDonald’s, you don’t go complain to the guy slapping on the cheese. You go to talk to the franchise owner. In relationship to America’s economic woes, Congress is pretty much the guys with the cheese. Whether what McDonald’s is using is in fact cheese is another topic, but there you go.
Last October I took a lot of time to ask about why National Review and Amanda Carpenter at The Washington Times had invested so much of their time trying to smear the, like, five anti-Semites who they managed to find footage of at the protests, as opposed to, say, the plethora of liberal Jews who inevitably showed up to the event in Zucotti. Although someone at the McPherson Square camp — not three blocks from the White House — had constructed a Sukkot, still there were the general accusations of anti-Semitism from the Breitbart set. The whole charade was indicative of the kind of atmosphere in Washington where what these people, you would think, would call anti-Semitic was brushed aside. For more of this, look at the uphill battle faced by former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-IN) as he waited to get the defense secretary nod. Even though the Hagel announcement will not come until next Monday, last Friday Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin had already broken the story. The White House is floating it early to congressional leaders to soften the blows from people like Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) et al.
These stereotypes of the Occupy protesters in general were pretty crude. Indeed, it takes quite a short-term memory to repeat long platitudes about the financial sector, as a part of the human megaphone. At the time I began this write-up I painted the Ron Paul-ites present as part of the Occupy status quo, but my goodness, I was wrong It had been years since I was able to romanticize the notion of protesters in Washington bringing a list of grievances. Again, the “real owners” are not in the Capitol or the White House, folks, and to be fair, even a good deal of them don’t even work on Wall Street.
One of the most clean-cut people I spoke to in McPherson was a guy named Matthew Patterson, who was working full-time but said he came down there after work from 5 p.m. till 11 p.m. He said, “I think there have been a lot of misconceptions about what this event is about here, and I think that part of that is because the biggest interests in our country do have well-financed PR and attack machines that do try to discredit genuine movements like this .”
“The conception that this is un-American for people to come out here exercising their First Amendment right — the goal that our government should be accountable to we the people — is absurd. This is the most American thing I’ve ever been a part of, and I think every single person who believes in our Constitution should be out here,” he added.
“When you feel that the system’s rigged against you and you feel that real wages have been declining or stagnating for this long, when we’ve been bailing out Wall Street and the big interests, and our money that we’ve worked for as taxpayers is now going to these guys, while they’ve — while they’ve only wrecked our economy, I think that’s where the anger comes from.”
I asked, “How do you respond to people who say, you know, that the protesters aren’t specific enough? What do you think about? I mean, is that — do you think aren’t? Or is it very broad-based, or are there a lot of things that are matter of consensus?”
Said Mr. Patterson, “We always operate by consensus. Obviously, each person here is here by free association [ . . . ] We don’t have a well-oiled PR machine where we have one spokesperson. If you take the time to listen, you’ll find the common thread. In my entire time here — I’ve been here since the first day. Every single person I’ve talked to here has echoed the sentiments that I’ve had, which is that our government, our corporations, our parties, our media should all be accountable for what they do here. I think that’s the common thread.”
I said,”I was wondering if I could pick your brain about some campaign finance reform, specifically about, like, contributions from hedge funds and, you know, our friends at Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan and the six major I-banks in general. I mean, what do you think can be done to dimish the influence of those contributions? Should they banned? Is money speech, as some have contended?” I was referring to the Citizens United decision, which has since received skepticism by right-wing figures such as Newt Gingrich and former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, both of whom seemed to agree at the last national Republican convention that the anonymity, if not the amount, of the contributions was problematic to the system.
Mr. Paterson replied, “Well, I’ll tell you — one thing that I strongly believe in is that corporations are not people. And when you look at what the Supreme Court did in 2010, ruling that corporations are citizens; they’re people of this country; and that money equals speech in this country; therefore there can be unlimited corporate money spent to influence the outcomes of elections to buy politicians, that’s something that’s not right.
“There’s other options as far as helping publicly finance campaigns so independent parties and third-party candidates can have a voice and we have don’t this monopoly of two parties in our country. There’s a lot of options to be looked at, but we in this park have not charged any specific policy options yet. It could come over time, but I think it’s too early for that, but there’s a lot of things that could be done.”
Jesse Jackson showed up, and I asked him the same question, although severely flubbing it out of nervousness generated by some review I read of “Shakedown.”
TB: “How can we limit the influence of the financial services industry on politicians in the Senate, the House?”
Jesse Jackson: “By finding and having hearings on their campaign finance committees. There’s too much money involved in campaigns, too much money.”
TB: “Limit contributions?”
JJ: “Yeah. And those –”
TB: “Publicly funded campaigns?”
JJ: “– who invest money determine the legislation. They determine regulation. So it’s time to put a huge focus on public financing of campaigns.”
I spoke to a group of American University students, who by the very nature of their being a certain age, were probably representative of many of the motivations people have had to camp out in McPherson Square for the past few weeks. They didn’t give me their names, so I’m just going to make up names for them.
John Brown: “I think a lot of it is a lack of influence on the political process and an overabundance of corporate influence in the political process. I feel like — and this is a minute ago — that there’s — capitalism is a great system in a lot of ways, but when it goes unchecked and unregulated, you end up with people who have a vested interest in making more money. And when they already have a lot of money, they can invest that to keep making more money. And so that’s how we’ve gotten point in the political — by putting it in the political process and ensuring that they’ll keep making more money.”
I asked him what sort of regulations he would like to see.
JB: “I’d like to see higher taxes on the superwealthy. I mean, there’s been a lot of talk about people who make, you know, more than $200,000, more than $400,000 a year, which is good. But I mean, what about people who make millions of dollars a year or billions of dollars, you know? And there aren’t that many of them.” Just this month the Senate-passed “fiscal-cliff” bill indeed raised taxes on $400,000 earners.
Mr. Brown continued, “But 10 percent of America’s population controls something like 75 (percent) to 80 percent of its wealth. And that’s what makes capitalism an — and that kind of capitalism is anti-democratic because suddenly you have a system where people are voting with their dollars, but most of the people have no dollars to vote with, and a minority, a very small minority, of the people have all of the political influence.”
TB: “It seems like a lot of people — when people speak against corruption in capitalism, [the criticizers of the people who speak against corruption in capitalism] treat it like it’s an attack on meritocracy itself, like on a system where the just and the able are rewarded and are rewarded thus financially. But why do you think people are reacting that, that they treat regulation of an industry as an attack on the ability of the just and the able to achieve success and have an incentive to produce things for everyone?”
JB: “I think because it’s an easy argument to make, and I think that’s why. I mean, I’m a democratic socialist, but . . . I mean, welfare and socialism is important, and you know, that kind of having a touch of that. But I mean, capitalism’s also important. I mean, you’ve got to strike a balance. I would never call for a completely socialist state and I would never call for absolutely no — you know, like a libertarian state –
TB: “Like Somalia!”
JB: — where capitalism is totally free to whatever it wants. I don’t think either one will work. But somewhere in the middle, where you have a regulated capitalist economy and a lot of social programs, I think, is just right. You need that.
“And the people who make the most out of society, they didn’t make it on their own. They’re a product of this society. They should have to give back. I mean, that’s why I think there should be higher taxes on the superwealthy. Because they should have to give back according to what they take. And that money, they didn’t just make that themselves.
People spent that, so that came from someone else. Someone gave them that money, so they have — I mean, it is a cycle, and so they have to feed back in, I think, to the cycle. They have to promote.”
Another man said, “You know, Monsanto, they’re actually in Iraq. So after the invasion — or a great example of kind of what I think is completely repugnant about the government — where — you had, you know, L. Paul Bremer as the head of the provisional government and, you know, putting in these place decrees really. It wasn’t voted on by the Iraqi people. He has instituted over 80, you know, orders for post-war Iraqis, where it created the conditions, created the intellectual property laws, you know, the patent laws that allowed Monsanto to then come in and to, you know, make massive profits off these Iraqi farmers who unbenknownst to them were given Monsanto seeds by USAID. You know, once those seeds are in the ground, I mean, you’re paying for them for pretty much forever.
“And you know, that whole sort of system actually is one example: that entire system where, you know, it’s corporations — they’re not literally deciding policy. But when there’s not much divide all the time between these corporate interests and these political interests is pretty abominable.
“And you know, corporations., they make tons of profit, which they can then spend on campaign contributions or, you know, on political ads now. With Citizens United, a lot of restrictions are gone, these previous restrictions. And I think you have these, you know, government officials and stuff who are able to use the law to create favorable conditions for corporations.
“Or with the IMF — you know, what we see there is the IMF is kind of like a doctor that, you know, will save your life but cut off your foot, you know, in payment — where it goes into countries, Greece, for example; or a lot of South America: Argentina, Bolivia in the past. And you know, these countries are messes economically. What the IMF does is say essentially, you know, we’ll help you out here with this money, but you know, we’ll use these structural readjustment programs to impose these neoliberal trade policies that are extremely harmful for countries that don’t have a strong labor organization — they don’t have strong domestic industries — that allow — for example, this wasn’t IMF-imposed, but you know the policies were similar — I don’t believe it was IMF-imposed; I might be wrong — in Cote d’Ivoire where Cargill — you know,the agrobusiness company — has horribly exploited the workers there for, you know, the coca resources [...] But in general that whole sort of political culture where that’s acceptable, where that’s a regularly done thing, i think is something that needs to end as soon as we can, you know, bring it to an end.”
A woman seated nearby said, “Well, I think that Sandra was saying earlier about it easy argument to make that, like, attacking capitalism is like attaching, you know, hard work. I think the reason that that is such an easy argument to make is because everyone secretly hopes that they’re going to be that 1 percent someday, and like, they don’t want to regulate corporations or, like, tax the rich because they kind of hope that that will be them. And they want — you know, well, I wouldn’t want as much money as possible.”
“Or not so secretly,” suggested a man seated next to her.
Said another woman in the circle, “I know. It’s not a secret. They’re like, well, when I’m rich, I don’t want to be stifled.
Abbie Hoffman: “A big part of American culture, I think, is the idea that someday you’ll be the super — you’ll be that guy in the mansion.”
TB: “And then you can finally put your knee on someone else’s kneck? You know, like your old boss or something.”
‘Emma Goldman’: “Right, yeah. It’s like fraternities.”
‘Abbie Hoffman’: “Hey, now. Yeah, hey, don’t hate.”
AH: “It’s almost like a distortion of the American dream, or like, it’s the nasty side.”
‘John Brown’: “It’s the commercialization of it. “
‘Emma Goldman’: “People want to believe it, but it’s not really — it’s not going to happen to them.”
AH: “It could. It could. It’s possible. It’s not probable, but they’re going for that — you know, I’m going to be the 1 percent who makes it to the 1 percent.”
Said a bystander, “Yeah, but I think it’s also — it’s not a sustainable thing. And ‘sustainable’ is a word that gets thrown around a lot. It’s sort of, you know, the green movements.’
TB: “Did people really let the wealth gap in the United States spiral out of country since the ’60s and ’70s because they wanted to be so not just rich and well-off and comfortable compared to the rest of the world but even just relative to their neighbors in the United States?”
AH: “I mean, we’re a system based on competition. I think that’s certainly.”
EG: “We’re just really focused on individualism. Like, it’s a good thing but it’s also, like, to our detriment.”
AH: “Individual freedom to an extent of, like, being able to do whatever you want at whatever price to whoever else is around. And it doesn’t matter. If I can pay for it, I don’t care how it affects you. It’s my right to do it. It’s sort of a selfish thing.
TB: “It seems like we just publicly subsidize gambling, like we’re literally operating casinos as just a way of turning profit. And it’s an esoteric game for a very small group of people, and it doesn’t produce products. It’s obviously not moving money to the sectors of the economy where it’s needed most, in my opinion.”
Said again the bystander I did not bother to nickname, “Yeah, that’s what it used to be. Well, we reward — I don’t know about the most, but what’s extremely well-rewarded in this culture is moving money around, just playing around with money to maximize everyone’s profits.”
TB: “Just moving it anywhere, you think?”
Said the bystander, “I mean, if I think of it as just moving it anywhere, then that wouldn’t be the best financial strategy. But it’s certainly moving money around, and that’s not creating anything.”
EG: “Like taking risk to have great reward.”
AH: “I was reading about a man who just made a tremendous amount in the recession because he,like, bet against the economy. And like, the Occupy Wall Street proters, like, went by his home, and he just, like, sent out a press release or something along those lines just saying how it was a completely ridiculous movement.”
Said the bystander, “And the U.S. government has really kind of created a system that currently allows for, you know, virtually unlimited profit for banks because, you know, the government, like, lowered interest rates to pretty much zero percent for these banks to borrow money. And the idea was that, you know, OK, they borrow money at zero percent interest rates, and then they’ll be more willing to lend money; you know, they won’t be foreclosing.
‘That was the idea. It was supposed to benefit people. It hasn’t happened. What they do is they have been buying U.S. Treasury bonds, which you know, that you get interest on that. So you can just borrow money, buy bonds. You know, it’s just — where; like, what — why the entire systemis just designed, you know, to help these people. I think it’s awful. It’s really bad.”
I had been monitoring the McPherson Square campout of Occupy D.C. for a few weeks, and by October 15 — when I first wrote down these interactions — there were more tents out in the park than ever. The People’s Library was set up, complete with issues of Socialist Worker and Left Turn. There was a carefully named “comfort” tent with medical supplies, just like the flagship Zucotti Park manifestation of the Occupy demonstrations.
There are good reasons to be leery about the possible co-opting of these demonstrations against corporate greed, and particularly greed in the financial services industry. The end-the-Fed advocate out there with whom I spoke admitted that an outcome of adopting a gold standard for our currency would be unlikely to raise employment or lessen economic disparity in the United States.
I actually interviewed a couple of obvious end-the-Feders, the ones that The Washington Times said weren’t out there at all.
‘Van Hayek:’ “I was here last weekend for a march, and one of the chants we had going during that was, ‘Banks got bailed out; we got sold out.’ So I would say the majority of people here at least in my experience are against the bailouts and against bailouts in general on principle [...] The main reason I’m against them is just the fact that trickle-down economics has proven not to work, you know? The idea is that in saving these banks that money will eventually return to the lower classes and the working classes and the middle classes of the economy and stimulate growth in that area. And that hasn’t happened.
“And what’s ended up happening is that the banks have turned record profits ever since the bailouts, as have other industries, and it’s not trickling down to the people that need it most. And that’s my problem with.”
TB: “Why would ending the Fed — what would that do? Would that decrease the wealth disparities, or what would that do?”
VH: “Well, my problem with the Fed is that — it has to do with the way the money supply works in the economy in that every dollar that comes into existence is already debt owed to a bank. And the Fed is really just a private bank. It’s not owned by the people of the United States. And that’s the problem I have with it. What we should have is a government that can print its own money that isn’t backed by debt that’s owed to a bank. And I’m not sure specifically how to solve that right now, but I know it’s not something that I like.”
TB: “I noticed a lot of people are really upset that the banks have all this money and these major corporations have all this money. And then people — you know, they’re creating jobs with it, at least not with the rate that, you know, the population’s expanding and stuff. Do you think that’s there’s any, like, conflict between the requirements that Congress and many people want to put on the banks to have larger and larger capital reserves, so when they mess up they can control their own consequences instead of having to get bailed; and the other demand, that is in fact they need to take their money and then invest it and take risk and then create all these jobs? Do you feel that there’s, like, a conflict there between those types of demands?”
Milton Friedman: “I’m not a big proponent of trickle-down economics as far as that goes. So I don’t really see that plan working. As far as investment goes — at least as far as I’ve seen — when investment is made, it’s usually in a foreign country, where land is very cheap and they can buy –
TB: “Labor, too.”
MF: ” — labor, exactly. They can buy a really nice house with a good bit of land. And you know, I mean, it’s –”
TB: “That’s not going to go down in value. Land at least never does.”
MF: “No, exactly. Well, I mean, like, the thing is I recently actually went to India. And I mean, when I was there, it was absolutely amazing to see the massive skyscrapers of telemarketers — just I mean, bigger than anything we have here, just of telemarketer buildings in India. And you know, the thing is we all kind of know that that money didn’t come from them; that was our money that was shuffled into their economy over the past decade.”
“And I personally have no problem with, you know, exchanging wealth and stuff. But when we’re talking about the stuff we’re in . . . you know, and we’re sending how much money to other countries in order to build out their economies. I mean, that’s my main problem with it as far as the investment side of it goes.”
“I mean, regulations — yes, I support regulation so that they should be able to — you know, they should definitely be regulated in how much they can lend. I don’t believe in fractional lending at all, but however, another point is I definitely hate the bailout idea, the very idea that that — I mean, that that is even an option for something that’s not like the — you know, the major food producer in the country or, you know, something like that, where everybody would starve if it didn’t happen. I mean, I think it’s absolutely insane.”
The International Business Times aired a set of graphs that quite thoroughly dispense with the insipid claim — even by voices as apparently sympathetic as Al Gore’s own — that the protesters are not being specific enough. As the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, making promises that the American Jobs Act would get unemployment below 9.1 percent, which would effectively happen two months later without the bill’s passage, anyone capable of so much as squinting could see that the real statistics about joblessness are a pure manipulation, as one’s finally giving up and resigning yourself to the dole gradually put one out of that “regular” unemployed category. Altogether hearing bystanders, pundits, reporters and especially electoral losers like Al Gore complain about how the protests weren’t specific just felt like impatience.
I even heard a lot of sneering from a crowd — one I would have perhaps years ago associated with MoveOn.org, named for a now-irrelevant political sex scandal — that the consensus, not plurality system of Occupy Atlanta blocked civil rights-era legend and now Congressman John Lewis’ addressing them. Rep. Lewis did yeoman’s work fighting the evils of segregation in the vicious 1960s South, but if the iron was not yet hot, there was no point in striking it yet. The most closely associated Occupy politician, Elizabeth Warren, eventually rode to victory in Massachusetts, having never spoken at a rally but having faced Karl Rove’s bizarre Crossroads ad.
The protest proved successful in pushing forward the surtax on incomes over a million dollars, cutting the odds of monthly account fees, and causing legions of Americans to move their money into credit unions. Even in December 2009, when the Bush-era tax cuts on the top 1 and 2 percent were extended, polls showed a slim majority of self-identified Republicans supported their repeal. By late 2010, four-fifths of the general population support the millionaire surtax, as do surely even more of the people who took the enormous hassle of assembling overnight in public spaces. That brand of protest is one of the best reasons why the Constitution pays lip service to freedom of assembly. In McPherson Square, at least, what was so strikingly different than the tea partyers of Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally is that the Occupy Wall Streeters contain some of the same very elements: the gold standarders, the end-the-Feders — even though those voices were marginalized.
The protesters in Cairo during the Arab spring proved obviously enormously influential on this movement, with The Occupied Wall Street Journal trumpeting a timeline of influence to the movement that traces everything as far back as Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation early this year. October 18th, Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig was giving a teach-in in McPherson Square, lightly browbeating a protester for his refusal to work with the tea party. And I was there listening to Mr. Lessig, even though he was looking very hip to the crowd.
In Egypt, Coptic Christians were the subjects of merciless persecution, seeing their churches bombed and their adherents murdered semi-routinely. But at the time of the actions in Cairo, those emblematic images of Christians circling praying Muslims to defend their right to pray in public rightfully stood as testimonials to the power of people against the elites, who endlessly, ruthlessly exploit divide-and-conquer tactics. Back then, before President Morsi’s Islamists drummed out regular elections, it looked like Egypt could unite around a cause bigger than cause, and that Americans could unite around a cause bigger than money. Now taxes on the wealthy are higher than the Bush era, and Congress is more unpopular than ever.