What Exactly Is The Occupy Wall Street Movement All About?
The Occupy Wall Street movement has gotten a lot of press lately. Basically, the movement amounts to a mass of people who are pissed off about the direction the country is taking and have decided to set up shop not only near Wall Street but all over the nation. And that’s fine, so far as it goes. I understand and share some of their frustrations. But what I don’t particularly like is their approach. Who exactly are they trying to influence? Congress? State governments? Then why are they protesting on Wall Street? The movement is bound to fail unless they can focus their message much more efficiently and direct their ire towards people who can actually do something about it.
What’s The Message, Exactly?
But what is their message, exactly? I’m not entirely sure, other than the general consensus among protesters that “enough is enough.” That’s great and all, but you aren’t going to persuade anybody to come around to your point of view if you can’t even collectively define what exactly that point of view is. Thus far, I’ve see a pretty wide range of “demands” put forth by by protesters ranging from the absurd (you do realize eliminating free trade but then opening your borders are completely contradictory ideas, right?) to the reasonable, from the overly-generic to the specific.
Since nobody can seem to agree, I’ll do my best to try to synthesize the most common demands I personally have heard to the best of my ability.
- Reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act – This is one I can definitely get behind. The Glass-Steagall separated investment banks (which took risks with investors’ capital in the financial markets) from commercial banks (which accepted deposits from consumers). The 1999 repeal of this act made it legal for investment banks to essentially use deposits to gamble in the market. This clearly violates one of the key tenants of free trade capitalism: that is, the parties involved in a financial transaction should bear the full brunt of any negative potential consequences of said transaction. Unfortunately, in the current system consumers themselves bear the brunt of any disasters, not the banks. A deregulated banking system is clearly contrary to the ideals of free-trade capitalism. Thus, free trade should be restored by way of intelligent bank regulations. And to those of you who believe free trade means no regulations, please go read an economics textbook.
- Punish the “criminals” – This one is both stupid and childish. For the most part, what bank executives did was not illegal. If you want to make it illegal and enforce it going forward fine, but prosecuting executives who acted in good faith (or even not-so-good faith) is counter-productive.
- End free trade – I do not think ending “free trade” is an intelligent response to the current economic climate. I could write dozens of posts about why ending free trade isn’t a good idea (and I probably will in the near future), but all I’ll say here is that I believe tariffs on principle should be as low as they reasonably can be and that we should demand transparency and fair dealing from our trading partners. Selective tariffs can absolutely be used to force trading partners to do what we want them to do, but for the most part I think that’s a bad idea.
- Open Borders - Yes, this idea does completely contradict the one above. Whether you’re locating manufacturing facilities in cheaper countries or allowing anybody to immigrate to the United States, you’re going to get the exact same economic result: lower productivity, lower wages, and social turmoil. If you want to be protectionist, you have to close your borders. Similarly, if you want free trade, you’ve got to open your borders. Why both Republicans and Democrats can’t understand this simple fact is beyond me. You can’t have both!
- Guaranteed living wage – I have no idea what this means. Guaranteed no matter what? What about people who just don’t want to work? I agree there should be some sort of social safety net, but this demand is just stupid. You have no moral right to receive compensation higher than the value you provide.
- Universal healthcare – I would love to see a public option. I don’t think that means you need to completely do away with the private system, though.
- Immediate debt forgiveness for everyone – I have actually heard this from several different sources and the fact that anybody could possibly think this is a good idea quite frankly disturbs me. The financial crisis was a result of a very small percentage of individuals, businesses, and governments who couldn’t afford to pay back what they owed. What do you think would happen if EVERYBODY stopped paying off their debt? Silly.
- Limit the ability of corporations to contribute to political candidates – Amen. In fact, this limit should be extended to rich individuals as well. No man, woman, or company should be allowed to exert undue influence on the political process. Then again, even if protesters get their way on this point, companies will figure out another way to accomplish the same thing, so the point is probably moot.
- Eliminate corporate personhood – I think this one stems from a common misconception that the law recognizes corporations as “people.” It doesn’t and never has. What it does do is recognize corporations as independent legal entities, meaning passive investors can’t be held legally responsible for corporate actions beyond that represented by their ownership stake in the corporation. Think about it: if it wasn’t for corporate personhood, if a company you owned through a mutual fund in your 401k did something illegal, the FBI could seize your home and private assets even though you had nothing to do with the illegal acts committed. That’s an extreme example, but the point is that eliminating corporate personhood would make saving for retirement practically impossible for most Americans of modest means because the financial markets just wouldn’t work all that well. And since corporate officers can still be held personally liable for illegal acts committed in the service of a corporation, I see no real need to bother with this at all. It’s a straw man issue.