The Occupy Tea Party Platform, Part I: Reforming the Financial System

Yesterday I suggested that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street arose from a common impetus of the people fighting back against The Man holding them down, be The Man government or big business. I proposed that this common impetus could be seized to become the birth of a new political movement looking out for the best interests of the people rather than government or business.

Of course, if it were that simple, our political system wouldn’t be so gridlocked in the first place. So let’s start with OWS’ concern about the depredations of Wall Street, because it most clearly illustrates both the problem and the opportunity. Both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have at least some of their roots in outrage over the huge bailouts given to big banks, but at the same time, who’s going to rein in Wall Street if not the government?

The question is really one of saving Wall Street from itself. It’s as much in Wall Street’s best interest as anyone for the economy to be humming along smoothly. Ask Lehman Brothers or the hordes of other banks that went down as a result of the financial crisis whether they enriched themselves at the expense of everyone else. Individuals who made money from the constructions that precipitated the financial crisis may have gotten off relatively scot-free, but that’s a different problem from “Occupy Wall Street”.

Wall Street’s problem is that, in their zeal to make money, they sometimes throw common sense to the wind and bamboozle themselves into the equivalent of a pyramid scheme. They delude themselves with a bunch of fuzzy math that says that, in aggregate, these investments are an awesome, can’t-miss proposition, even if there are enough not-so-can’t-miss investments hidden in there that the fuzzy math obscures that can still send the entire construct crashing into a heap. Wall Street may have swindled each other and the public, but first and foremost, they swindled themselves. The biggest problem with untangling the financial crisis is that Wall Street failed to do what one would think it would do regardless of what anyone tells it to.

Painting “Wall Street” as the monolithic villain of the story is probably unfair unless you’re arguing against capitalism itself. At least in theory, big investment banks are the engine that drives the system of capitalism, lending the money that allows people to do everything from starting a business to buying a home. If you’ve ever taken student loan money or saved for retirement, your money has probably been tied up in what Wall Street does, and you’re counting on them to make sure you get it back in one piece. Ideally, Wall Street does this precisely by working for its own benefit, because that benefit should be passed down to the people whose money has passed through there, through lower or higher interest rates. It could be said, if you wanted to oversimplify, that a bank’s role is to temporarily redistribute money from those who have it to those who need it, in the hopes that the same money will eventually flow back in the other direction.

Of course, part of the reason why that’s an oversimplification is that banks have what might be considered a weird definition of “need”. Banks are obviously not in the business of simply handing out money to the poor; arguably, getting into that business is what precipitated the housing crisis. Rather, banks lend out their money to people who will (hopefully) use that money to make more money, both powering the economy and allowing them to pay back that money with interest.

The problem is not that Wall Street is too powerful in and of itself. The reason why Wall Street was able to bamboozle itself was because certain specific banks became so big they could effectively act with impunity. Even that isn’t really a bad thing in and of itself, because lost in all the talk of all the risky loans banks handed out is that without risk, there’s no reward. The problem comes when banks become completely isolated from any negative consequences of their actions at the peak of their power, with nothing stopping them from bringing down the entire economy once they’re big enough to potentially do so, because the government will bail them out if they do. The alliance between government and business isn’t even all that great for business.

The answer isn’t to burn down Wall Street entirely, or even for the government to put up barriers to confine it, reducing the incentive for success. What’s needed is some way to keep Wall Street from bringing down the economy without restricting their ability to grow it. That means transparency, not control; rather than tell Wall Street what to do, let’s make sure we know what it is doing. We need independent watchdogs who can keep an eye on what Wall Street is up to and determine whether or not it’s working, watchdogs who can be trusted not to be in Wall Street’s pocket, but can speak up whenever it starts undermining itself – and who will be listened to when they do. And rather than bailing out banks that are “too big to fail”, the government should instead mitigate the damage by protecting such banks’ assets, getting everyone off the bus before it crashes, possibly by liquidating those assets on other banks or even taking them on itself. If the government does need to resort to bailouts, we need to make sure our taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely.

Wall Street needs a check on its power the American people can trust, not one that can’t keep up with it, only seeks to build its own power at Wall Street’s expense, or worst of all, actually makes it easier for Wall Street to abuse its power.

The Tea Party Occupies Wall Street

The funny thing about the “people’s movements” that have energized both sides of the aisle and challenged their respective parties over the course of the past three years is that they’re not inherently incompatible.

In fact, they largely stem from the same source. The Tea Party was a reaction to the perceived encroaching dominance and enriching of government; Occupy Wall Street was a reaction to the perceived encroaching dominance and enriching of big corporations. Both at least portrayed themselves as movements of the people against those with a lust for power and money, and even to the extent they were single-issue movements – the Tea Party excessive taxation, OWS Wall Street’s role in the economic crisis – it was still possible for someone to sympathize theoretically with both positions. Indeed, part of OWS’ message is precisely that big business has taken over the government.

Although both movements are largely associated with a particular political persuasion, the Tea Party positioned itself as a libertarian movement independent of the two major parties, while even some conservatives felt Occupy Wall Street had a point, even if they disagreed with their methods. It was possible to be a Democratic Tea Partier and a Republican occupier of Wall Street. To be sure, the diehards of each political persuasion could probably never be convinced of that, claiming the former to be fakes or the latter to not be “real conservatives”.

Still, I see in the compatibility of the two movements hope for moving beyond our tense ideological divide. A lot of people across the country saw outrage in their particular economic situation, and a lot of people across the country saw outrage in the general economic situation, enough so that they felt the need to demonstrate their outrage. It’s a shame that OWS seems to have lost a lot of its momentum, unable to seize the momentum of the initial protests into a long-term political movement like the Tea Party, and it’s also a shame that the Tea Party itself may be sputtering out as the Republican Party has settled on its most moderate plausible candidate for President, but in that may be opportunity. Had both movements remained strong they might have become irreconcilably opposed. Now, though, if we can take these two different currents of populist outrage and find a way to articulate a coherent, populist message and platform from the both of them, we can effectively give voice to the broader position of the people, and in so doing, create a better chance to “take back the country” than either movement could have done alone or in opposition.

This unified, populist platform, with the potential to strike fear in the heart of both parties, might have among its guiding principles:

  • The liberty of the people shall not be infringed.
  • The people will fight for their freedom and their livelihood against all who would take it.
  • Government should not take our hard-earned money so they can intrude into every aspect of our lives.
  • Wall Street should not be able to make themselves rich at the expense of everyone else.

If I had to distill the message sent by the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street into a single sentence, it might be: We won’t let anyone else screw with us. Whether the enemy is government or Big Business, the people are willing to fight back against the both of them. And considering how huge the people are compared to government or business, that’s a force that will prove impossible to ignore.

Over the next several days and weeks I’m going to look at how this position might play itself out in practice. I’m going to look at various issues and consider what a policy based on the best interests of the people would decide. At no point will I give more power or money to government or big business unless there is no way for that to come at the expense of the people and there is no alternative. As such, I won’t always advocate things either political party is backing right now. In so doing, I hope to give structure to this new populist movement, to recommend concrete strategies for people to advocate and follow and guiding principles for voting and activism.

It’s time to move beyond pointless division and allow all of us to move forward as Americans, truly and passionately, as more than a buzzword for politicians who are about to realize just how much they didn’t actually want it to happen, and if nothing else, set an example for a Congress seemingly unable to do so.