Monday, October 10, 2011

Correspondence on Occupy Wall Street, 2

My friend Brendan Hogan responded to my column on Occupy Wall Street here. He suggests that under the bitter experience of oppression (that young people can not get employment, are now, despite an education which required going deeply in debt, fighting poverty; there is some broad analogy with the poor farmers of the great depression) have checked out on the system and are protesting. I agree with him, but about a predatory financial system, I would say that they have checked in or woken up to fight it…

My own experience is that people rarely engage in protest, particularly with large numbers of police around, without their own, individual reasons. And however bad the education which Brendan emphasizes (see also Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of America: the Reapartheidization of American Schools), each knows why she is there. It is always wise to ask and listen…

This morning Amy Goodman had several protestors speaking movingly of why they are there. See here and here.

And finally, the diversity and intensity of feeling in the letters below, not mainly of the protestors themselves, testify to the “99%”:

“Hi Alan,

This from the NYT here. While marginally better in terms of reporting, the title is still condescending. Their quote of the criminal defense lawyer is just left hanging as well, and they did not interview anyone from the movement itself. I have seen some quite articulate statements, like this one, here.

I am sure that there were plenty of people at anti-war rallies in the sixties who probably had a sense of injustice, had been victimized through losing a brother or sister, or sensed the inequality of who was actually doing the fighting and who were getting the deferments, without having the most articulate understanding of international affairs. This has been my experience at all rallies, anyway, that there are varying levels of discursive powers among the participants.

Sometimes I have cringed at what I have heard people express.

One other thought that crossed my mind is that people have been so alienated for so long and the decline in the standard of living that they have checked out and their everyday alienation is enough motivation for them to come together to demand a better life. They know they are suffering through no fault of their own while rich people get away with murder. This is enough warrant for them.

However, an entirely different frame that just occurred to me, and which shows the mendacity of the structure of the Times article is that IN SPITE OF deteriorating public schools over the last thirty years as administrators (managers) take a larger slice of the pie while encouraging teaching to tests that allows for quantifiable outcomes assessments as opposed to curriculum that enables fundamental intellectual capacities.

That is, things have gotten so bad that even with the obstacles to establishing a critical and inquiring mind institutionalized in our school system, marginalized and alienated people can still name the problem with acute epistemic veracity and go to where the problem is located, Wall St.

Anyway just some thoughts, sorry so long, did want you to see the Times article in relation to your blog post and the youtube video.

Best wishes,

Peter Minowitz sent the op-ed column here from the Washington Post from Hernando de Soto which makes the complete scam fostered by Phil Gramm and Larry Summers – the removal of Glass-Steagall Act which made consumer savings, held by separate banks, into investment pseudo-properties, and led to the financial madness which continues – very precise. It reminded him of Adam Smith. America will have to be cured by restoring real credit, and of course, by jailing and outlawing the practices of bankers and politicians who have made themselves rich off corruption. Recall Egypt where Mubarak flourished for 29 years; the slow and steady accretion of protest, all across the country, is, unsurprisingly viewed by much of the elite with fear…

A former student sent me a vibrant text message from the underground:

“Amigo, thinking of you often. I’ve spent the last 4 wks organizing in NY and arrested 2X. I had [his son] with me 2day, fantastic day.”

Saludos, amigo. It is an American green revolution with texts, twitter, and facebook…

My friend and student from the Netherlands Paul writes hopefully and skeptically about the protest. I think the Occupied Wall Street Journal is already here, and love the protests springing up everywhere including Denver. Those who are moving, as the workers and students who are joining show, speak for all of us.

“Dear Alan,

Aron Gupta is right: the Great Awakening has begun!

I do not want to put my hopes on the Occupy Wall Street movements, and yet I agree wholeheartedly that the beginnings of the revolution are here--98 percent. My feelings of reservation stem from an open question: who are the protesters (revolutionaries)?”

One might respond here: we are the ones we have been waiting for. No one will make this change or become a revolutionary, violent or, hopefully, nonviolent, except starting from where each of us is.

“Indeed, your message captures the fact that The NYT reports so belatedly and poorly on these people--so the answer will not likely come from the corporate business presses. But in Egypt the people created their own press events, and when social media outlets were shut down by the state criminals associated with Mubarak, finally, the streams of people in the streets began to swell. Taking away The NYT, on this, could lead to a genuine street protest movement. I consider communication technologies (including the NYT, FaceBook, Twitter) as part of the Ideological State Apparatuses [this is a concept of Althusser’s which may mistakenly give too much control to the elite]. In order to identify the actual people, the concrete revolutionaries, and their awakening, it is high time that we deny any more time to the corporate/incorporated information and communication technologies. Reclaim the Streets! By the way, I thought Gupta takes a line also present in the works of Hardt and Negri... But I could be mistaken.

Thank you for your messages: I will continue to forward (not) a few of them, sometimes with a brief translation, to the Netherlands.



And lastly, a letter from my friend Ilene Cohen who walked around the protest, also recognizing that the Times at last, through columnists like Krugman and op-ed writers like Ann-Marie Slaughter, see here and here, and the editorial page is at last beginning to honor what the protestors have been saying:

“October 8, 2011

More power to the Occupy Wall Street young people, and they are mostly so young, younger than my own children. I walked downtown this morning to Liberty Park (officially Zucotti Park) near the site of the World Trade Center. To pay a visit, see what it looked like (I hadn't been, just been watching Democracy Now), and to give a little old lady support. When I asked a crossing guard a how far to Liberty Street, he said, just a few blocks; you'll see the people.

See them I did. This park was filled with sleeping bags and the sleeping. My first stop was at a table near the entrance to chat with a terrific young man. We got to talking about the mostly unsympathetic media coverage. But then he lit up: "Did you see Krugman?" I assured him I had, left a donation, and moved along. His last words were that there was going to be a general assembly meeting in Washington Square Park at 3 this afternoon. I said I'd be there (I live across the street). More about that to follow.

Back at Liberty Park, I picked up a copy of the Occupied Wall Street Journal and checked out the tables representing different groups—unions, doctors, people who's traveled from afar. Along the south wall/fence of the park was the "library." This was a bare bones operation, sleeping bags on the ground and lots of people sleeping. I walked around, stepping carefully over the bags and the handwritten signs, so as not to disturb.

Some hours later, at 3, I headed across the street from home to Washington Square Park. I don't know exactly when the park filled up but it did. We were asked to sit on the ground. Apparently there wasn't a permit for amplification, so the system used was one I'd never seen before (took me a while to figure out what was going on). The speaker would say a few words, e.g., "Hi, Everybody," and then, "Sound check." At which, a nearby group would repeat, "Hi, Everybody," and then a group farther away would say "Hi, Everybody." And so it went, obviously using a technique well rehearsed over the weeks, that a person speaking unamplified could read an audience of at least a thousand, three and four words at a time. Disciplined. Representatives of the various committees spoke, announcing the times of the weekly meetings, all in Liberty Park. Indeed, one group meets at "the library." It was beautiful.

Most of those present were student age. But I'd say at least 10 percent of the attendees were, like myself, "mature." I thought, good for them for turning out (as Gail Collins put it in today's Times). My generation for sure hasn't done well by them. And nor has a younger generation: just think of Eric Cantor and Paul "kill Social Security" Ryan. [Cantor has a villainous statement today about how the protestors are un-American. Nancy Pelosi had an acid comment – “Didn’t hear anything from him about the Tea Parties spitting on Congresspeople. He was leaning out a Capitol window.” Both are, of course, protected by freedom of assembly. The Tea Party was broadcast widely by the commercial media. Occupy Wall Street has for three weeks being under a veil of silence].

Stealing their futures. And the futures of plenty of older people, too. Hence my opening with Joe Nocera (column below) On the evening news, George saw a group of students who'd come up from Berea College in Kentucky (if you don't know it and want to be bowled over, check out the Web site here. These inspiring young people are our future, but you'd never know it from the way we're laying the groundwork for them but also for so many others. The hard-core, formerly employed now unemployed.

I don't worry (too much) about my own retirement, but I'll tell you that I am angry and depressed about the theft of America from others by the twenty-first-century plutocracy, which owns our government and, alas, mostly is our government. These Occupy Wall Street youngsters have my support. And check out the editorial in tomorrow's NY Times:

"As the Occupy Wall Street protests spread from Lower Manhattan to Washington and other cities, the chattering classes keep complaining that the marchers lack a clear message and specific policy prescriptions. The message — and the solutions — should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention since the economy went into a recession that continues to sock the middle class while the rich have recovered and prospered. The problem is that no one in Washington has been listening.

At this point, protest is the message: income inequality is grinding down that middle class, increasing the ranks of the poor, and threatening to create a permanent underclass of able, willing but jobless people. On one level, the protesters, most of them young, are giving voice to a generation of lost opportunity. . . .

Extreme inequality is the hallmark of a dysfunctional economy, dominated by a financial sector that is driven as much by speculation, gouging and government backing as by productive investment."

Great editorial. (If only they could do as well on Israel and Palestine.) Third following is a short account of today's general assembly as Washington Square Park. And here's the Web site.

The last speaker at today's event closed with "Occupy Everything!" It had a light tone, but, again, as the NY Times put it so well, "Extreme inequality is the hallmark of a dysfunctional economy." Somebody had better be paying attention.


October 7, 2011
Revenge of the Gougers

The hardest part about writing about Bank of America’s dunderheaded plan to impose a $5-a-month fee on debit card users is deciding which of the many juicy angles to pursue. “Have Bank of America’s Managers Lost Their Minds?” asked The American Banker earlier this week. That’s one good angle.

Then there’s the “are we really supposed to start using cash again?” angle. Or the Durbin angle — Senator Dick Durbin being the Illinois senator whose amendment to the new financial reform law, imposing a steep reduction in bank interchange fees, “forced” banks to search for ways to make up for the lost revenue. There’s even a presidential angle, with President Obama saying on Monday that banks didn’t have “some inherent right” to a certain level of profits — and then more or less withdrawing the remark the next day.

Me, I’m going with the gouging angle. The revenue that Bank of America, and many other banks, is seeking to replace with its new fees is lucre that a more honorable profession would never have touched in the first place. Indeed, 30 years ago, banks themselves would have turned their backs on it. Of course, back then, banks viewed customers as people to be helped, not marks to be taken advantage of.

It was, to be sure, a different world then, with regulated interest rates, the Glass-Steagall Act preventing banks from getting into lucrative trading and a sleepy business model that valued a steady dividend over a highflying stock price. As interest rates were deregulated, Glass-Steagall abolished and investors demanding that bank stocks perform like Internet stocks, that ethos changed. Banks began looking in some dark corners for new revenue; this is when hidden fees began to creep into credit-card agreements, for instance.

In retail banking, two new fees became crucial. One was overdraft fees, which gouged the least-sophisticated, least-wealthy customers by charging them $35 or so whenever their accounts were overdrawn.

The second source was interchange fees, which gouged merchants who accepted debit cards. Though merchants at first resisted debit cards, they eventually caved because banks made them so ubiquitous. Banks pushed debit cards in part because they are much less expensive to process than checks (which banks lose money on). But banks also got hooked on the absurdly high interchange fees they charged merchants — an average of 44 cents per transaction, even though it costs literally pennies to process a debit-card transaction.

In the summer of 2010, the Federal Reserve told the banking industry it could no longer charge overdraft fees unless customers “opted in.” To its ever-lasting credit, Bank of America, unlike its competitors, did not run a big scare campaign to persuade customers to agree to the opt-in. It chose to forgo the revenue, which amounted to some $3.3 billion, according to Credit Suisse.

The Durbin amendment tackled interchange fees. It called on the Federal Reserve to cap the fees at a level that “reasonably” accounted for the cost of processing transactions. Although the Fed’s final number was still ridiculously high — well over 20 cents — it will, nonetheless, cost Bank of America another $2 billion.

The news that Bank of America will impose the new debit card fee has infuriated many of its 50 million customers. But the bank insists that it’s not trying to alienate its customer base. Rather, a spokesman told me, the fee is part of “a much larger reconfiguration of our consumer business.” Next year, it plans to roll out a series of new offerings, most of which will be fee-based. Customers will be able to evade the fees only by maintaining large balances at all times.

One suspects that these new fees will only generate more anger, for they will make plain what has long been hidden: that, fundamentally, retail banking makes its money by gouging the have-nots. Post-financial crisis, the essence of big banking has not changed. It’s just become more obvious.

President Obama got it right the first time: Banks don’t have an inherent right to oversized profits. No industry does. Banks play a special role in society, and they get special protections from the government. In return, government has the right to impose special responsibilities.

Every person needs a bank, no matter how rich or poor. The government will never force Bank of America — or any other bank — to reduce or eliminate its fees; it doesn’t have the nerve. But, at the least, it could insist that banks display their fees in a uniform way so that customers can compare how they’re being gouged and make banking decisions on that basis. That kind of reform could stir competition and bring down fees.

This, of course, is precisely what the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is supposed to do — and would do if the Senate
Republicans would ever allow a director to be approved.

But, sigh, that’s a column for another day.

October 8, 2011
Protesters Against Wall Street

As the Occupy Wall Street protests spread from Lower Manhattan to Washington and other cities, the chattering classes keep complaining that the marchers lack a clear message and specific policy prescriptions. The message — and the solutions — should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention since the economy went into a recession that continues to sock the middle class while the rich have recovered and prospered. The problem is that no one in Washington has been listening.

At this point, protest is the message: income inequality is grinding down that middle class, increasing the ranks of the poor, and threatening to create a permanent underclass of able, willing but jobless people. On one level, the protesters, most of them young, are giving voice to a generation of lost opportunity.

The jobless rate for college graduates under age 25 has averaged 9.6 percent over the past year; for young high school graduates, the average is 21.6 percent. Those figures do not reflect graduates who are working but in low-paying jobs that do not even require diplomas. Such poor prospects in the early years of a career portend a lifetime of diminished prospects and lower earnings — the very definition of downward mobility.

The protests, though, are more than a youth uprising. The protesters’ own problems are only one illustration of the ways in which the economy is not working for most Americans. They are exactly right when they say that the financial sector, with regulators and elected officials in collusion, inflated and profited from a credit bubble that burst, costing millions of Americans their jobs, incomes, savings and home equity. As the bad times have endured, Americans have also lost their belief in redress and recovery.

The initial outrage has been compounded by bailouts and by elected officials’ hunger for campaign cash from Wall Street, a toxic combination that has reaffirmed the economic and political power of banks and bankers, while ordinary Americans suffer.
Extreme inequality is the hallmark of a dysfunctional economy, dominated by a financial sector that is driven as much by speculation, gouging and government backing as by productive investment.

When the protesters say they represent 99 percent of Americans, they are referring to the concentration of income in today’s deeply unequal society. Before the recession, the share of income held by those in the top 1 percent of households was 23.5 percent, the highest since 1928 and more than double the 10 percent level of the late 1970s.

That share declined slightly as financial markets tanked in 2008, and updated data is not yet available, but inequality has almost certainly resurged. In the last few years, for instance, corporate profits (which flow largely to the wealthy) have reached their highest level as a share of the economy since 1950, while worker pay as a share of the economy is at its lowest point since the mid-1950s.

Income gains at the top would not be as worrisome as they are if the middle class and the poor were also gaining. But working-age households saw their real income decline in the first decade of this century. The recession and its aftermath have only accelerated the decline.

Research shows that such extreme inequality correlates to a host of ills, including lower levels of educational attainment, poorer health and less public investment. It also skews political power, because policy almost invariably reflects the views of upper-income Americans versus those of lower-income Americans.

No wonder then that Occupy Wall Street has become a magnet for discontent. There are plenty of policy goals to address the grievances of the protesters — including lasting foreclosure relief, a financial transactions tax, greater legal protection for workers’ rights, and more progressive taxation. The country needs a shift in the emphasis of public policy from protecting the banks to fostering full employment, including public spending for job creation and development of a strong, long-term strategy to increase domestic manufacturing.

It is not the job of the protesters to draft legislation. That’s the job of the nation’s leaders, and if they had been doing it all along there might not be a need for these marches and rallies. Because they have not, the public airing of grievances is a legitimate and important end in itself. It is also the first line of defense against a return to the Wall Street ways that plunged the nation into an economic crisis from which it has yet to emerge.

October 8, 2011, 7:23 pm
Wall Street Protest Moves to Washington Sq.
Robert Stolarik for The New York Times

Demonstrators marched from Zucotti Park in Lower Manhattan to Washington Square Park on Saturday.

Hundreds of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators streamed across the threshold of Washington Square Park on Saturday afternoon after a spirited but conflict-free march from the financial district.

As a throng of protesters filled the historic public space, at the heart of Greenwich Village, a chant rose up — from voices young, old and in-between — casting their movement as an intractable majority fed up with the nation’s financial inequities.

“We are the 99 percent,” they yelled, referring to the movement’s slogan. Some banged drums. Others poked placards with various slogans toward blue skies on an unseasonably warm October weekend. Septuagenarians were in the crowd; one man walked a toddler on his feet.

They arrived about 3:20 p.m., some 75 minutes after leaving the encampment they had established three weeks ago in Zuccotti Park, in Lower Manhattan. They zigzagged up Broadway, west on Barclay Street, north on Church Street, west on Franklin, north on West Broadway until LaGuardia Place, and along the way many spoke of the significance of the moment and of an effort seemingly gaining strength as it enters its fourth week.

In fact, at one point, as some police commanders tried to steer the procession along Sixth Avenue, the marchers disagreed and stayed on West Broadway, passing through the central corridor of SoHo and its bookstores, cafes and restaurants. The police did not resist.

“This Saturday is interesting because now there are two parks holding protests,” said Max Fox, 23, an editor at The New Inquiry, an online magazine, who has attended Occupy Wall Street marches over the past two weeks. “It shows we can partially divide and still have significant presence in two parts of the city.”

Added Marika Kandelaki, 31, an artist: “I like how it’s expanding. It’s a good move to take it to different parts of the city. Hopefully this is just the start and people will continue to meet and rethink public space. Make the public really public.”

Despite the energy and optimism, no one missed the heavy contingent of police officers — or forgot how a series of past police actions lent an air of tension to Saturday’s march. Thick lines of officers flanked the main entrance of the park when the marchers entered. Rank-and-file officers, dressed in dark blue shirts, stood in pairs on the outer edges of the crowd. Others, in clusters of even more officers, guarded entrances and exits. Four commanders, in white shirts, were spotted on top of one of the columns at the northern end of the park, looking down on the crowd.

And on the blocks surrounding the park, police vans were parked all over with the countenances of police officers seated inside staring through the windows. Officers on horseback, too, were stationed around the park.

Many were aware that the park had a curfew that would arrive early Sunday morning. On Friday, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said the number of officers present would be driven by the marchers’ actions, which he said he could not predict.

“We, obviously, would like advance notice of what they are going to do,” Mr. Kelly said. The park, he added, was a “regular park, a city park,” and said it had a curfew that he believed began at midnight.

Asked what he predicted would occur when that moment arrived, Mr. Kelly said, “I don’t have a crystal ball, but people will leave the park at the appropriate time, that is what I would anticipate happening.”

Christopher T. Dunn, of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said his understanding was that the park was open nightly until 1 a.m.

Mr. Dunn, who has walked with the marchers on several occasions, in an effort to minimize conflict with the police, said he was watching Saturday’s events closely. He added that he would be at the park if tensions erupted on Sunday morning.

On the Web site, a schedule laid out both the intentions of the group to take to Washington Square Park for a “second general assembly,” between 3 and 5 p.m., as well as other events in Zuccotti Park on Saturday evening.

And despite speculation on Friday that Zuccotti Park might be abandoned by the protesters, it remained a vibrant encampment, with activity spilling onto the sidewalk and along Broadway and Liberty Street.

Just after 3 p.m., Justin Sane, of the band Anti-Flag, which is known for anti-corporate sentiments, stood near a tall metal sculpture at the southeast corner of Zuccotti Park and played a few songs on an acoustic guitar, including “This is the End,” from the band’s album “For Blood and Empire” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” by the Clash.
As the crowd sang along, he thanked them, saying, “You guys have beautiful voices; you sound like a choir of angels.”

Karen H. Dashow, a notary public, said she had come to take testimonials from people about their notions of an ideal world — and create legal documents by notarizing them.

“It’s not about what we don’t want,” Ms. Dashow, 39, said of the movement. “It’s about what we want.”

Running her stand, marked by a yellow balloon, from 3 to 5 p.m. each day since Thursday, Ms. Dashow, 39, said she had collected 41 petitions.

One of those who had her thoughts notarized was Puja Gupta, 28, who put no limits on the demonstrators’ ambitions for betterment. “I do hereby declare that I am a whole and complete human being,” she wrote on a official-looking form.

Other manifestos capturing people’s visions for the future ran the gamut. They included: “All beings shall reach enlightenment”; “Health and education is a right for all citizens”; and a vision of having “cars running on potatoes.”

Larry Martin, a professor of social sciences at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, was there with five students from a black college fraternity at the State University at Binghamton. He said the movement was gaining in diversity.

“We are coming because this is the spark of an economic abolitionist movement,” said Mr. Martin, equating this struggle to the country’s antislavery movement.

One of the Binghamton students, Anthony Steward, 20, a junior, said of the Occupy Wall Street effort: “It’s not going to go away. It’s a small representation of a long-term project.”

Smack amid the throngs of people, Eve Silber, who said she was part of Occupy Wall Street’s community affairs committee, stood with a stack of fliers in her arms and passed them out with vigor. The words on them encouraged prudence: Stay sober; respect people and property; keep the park clean.

“We’re here to present ourselves as those who could be accountable and seen as people who can make this world better,” said Ms. Silber, a jazz artist and music teacher.

Rob Harris, Colin Moynihan and Natasha Lennard contributed reporting.

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