Tag Archives: Elizabeth Warren

Memo to the Occupiers

Occupy Wall Street has many on the left cheering.  That includes me, albeit with reservations.

As someone who devoted a good portion of his life to fighting  injustice—or as the late liberal icon and state legislator Robert Hagan was fond of saying “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”—I have a natural affinity for the folks camped out in New York and other cities around the nation and the world.

On the other hand, as someone who has spent the past 24 years striving to affect change by working both inside and outside the “system” I listen to the white noise that’s emanating from the protesters and all I can say is: “Really?”

Really, you have managed to garner the attention of the media around the world and you can’t figure out what the hell it is you want?

Really, leaders of the protests—to the extent there actually are any—are offended that the media is even asking what the hell you want?

Really, the best answer you can give is this kind of mumbo jumbo as reported in the New York Times:

The General Assembly has already adopted a “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City,” which includes a list of grievances against corporations and a call for others to join the group in peaceful assembly. To many protesters, that general statement is enough, and the open democracy of Zuccotti Park is the point of the movement.

Really, if that’s the point, you guys should all pack up your stuff, grab a low fat, grande latte on your way out, and go home, because you’re wasting everybody’s time.  Worse yet, you’re actually helping the very comfortable miscreants you’re supposedly there to afflict.

Let’s be serious, anyone who thinks the traders and financiers walking around in $5,000 bespoke suits in the offices overlooking the protests gives a damn about marches, chants, signs, or the invective that’s hurled at them as they arrive and leave in their limos and Town Cars each day is, in a word, delusional.  I’ve dealt with people like them, they know they’re evil, they enjoy it, they revel in it, and believe me, they’re laughing at the protesters all day, every day, including on the weekends whether they’re at their Beach House in the Hamptons or flying off to the islands on their Gulfstream Vs.

In fact, when they hear words like these from the occupiers they literally laugh so hard that Dom Perignon flies out of their noses:

In Boston, Meghann Sheridan wrote on the group’s Facebook page, “The process is the message.” In Baltimore, Cullen Nawalkowsky, a protester, said by phone that the point was a “public sphere not moderated by commodities or mainstream political discourse.” An Occupy Cleveland participant, Harrison Kalodimos, is even writing a statement about why demands are not the answer.

Yup, I can see the boys at City Bank reading this stuff in the NYT and then saying: “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOh we’re so scared of a public sphere not moderated by commodities” Give me a break.

Even someone as smart as Paul Krugman, whom I respect and with whom I usually agree, has been taken in by the “protest is enough” claptrap that, at least for the moment, defines OWS.

You see, until a few weeks ago it seemed as if Wall Street had effectively bribed and bullied our political system into forgetting about that whole drawing lavish paychecks while destroying the world economy thing. Then, all of a sudden, some people insisted on bringing the subject up again.

And their outrage has found resonance with millions of Americans. No wonder Wall Street is whining.

OK, Paul, Wall Street is whining, but guess what, they’re also winning.  That’s because they have bribed and bullied the political system, including the Obama Administration, into doing nothing either to punish them for the damage they’ve done to the economy or to stop them from doing it again.

While I’ll grant that the outrage being expressed does resonate with a vast majority of Americans, that outrage means nothing if it’s not converted into action that brings about real change.  That’s what turns a protest into a movement that fundamentally alters and improves the world we live in.

History provides many examples of how this works: Ghandi’s crusade to dismantle South Africa’s pass laws in the early 1900s; the labor movement’s battle to organize industrial workers in the ‘30s; Dr. King’s drive to secure passage of the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights statutes; the anti-Vietnam war movement that brought down LBJ.  Even this year’s protests in Ohio against SB 5.  All started as protests with clearly defined goals that turned into effective movements.

The same can be said for the Tea Party.  Derided as yahoos and know-nothings when they emerged to protest corporate bailouts and President Obama’s health care reform plan, they coalesced into a movement built on easily understandable demands: smaller government and lower taxes.  Their mantra was adopted by dozens of GOP Congressional candidates in 2010 and played a major role in ousting the Democratic majority.  Since taking power, the Tea Party members have been driving the legislative agenda in Congress—including killing virtually every initiative proposed by the President.

So, here’s some advice for the occupiers wherever you are.  Learn from history.  If you want Wall Street and the new Robber Barons to stop laughing at you, figure out the things they fear and hate the most, then make those things happen.

That’s a principle Tom Friedman of the New York Times grasped in a recent column.  He suggested that OWS demand that four reforms be imposed on the financial services industry.  Nice try, Tom.  Unfortunately, as you point out in the very same column, Wall Street owns Congress, having purchased it with $3.2 billion in campaign contributions over the past 20 years.  As long as that’s the case, it will be a very cold day in Zucotti Park and the other places the OWSers are congregating before the change they’re seeking occurs.

So what should the protesters demand or do?  Here’s two suggestions for starters.  First, fight for real campaign finance reform that reverses the Citizens United decision and takes the “For Sale” sign off the Capitol and the White House.  Renew the push for publicly financed campaigns started a couple of decades ago by folks like Fred Wertheimer.  Look, it’s a proven fact that politicians respond to the people who write the checks that finance their campaigns. So it’s logical to believe that if those checks come from Main Street rather than Wall Street the people with the power to reform the financial system might actually do it.  Now that’s something the fat cats will really hate.

Second, the protestors should head to Massachusetts and do whatever it takes to make Dr. Elizabeth Warren Senator Warren in January of 2013.  There’s no one Wall Street hates more, which should be motivation enough to support her campaign.  There’s also a practical reason: her willingness to fight for working families.  Elect her to the Senate where she can team up with a principled colleague like Bernie Sanders of Vermont and they can use the body’s arcane rules to grind business to halt—either to force passage of reform legislation or block bills that favor Wall Street.

Accomplish these two goals and the OWS will have taken a huge stride in going from “Really?” to really making a difference.

Leo Jennings

On Violence and Class Warfare

“Class warfare.”  Lately, it is breaking out everywhere.  The phrase, that is.  Over the last 10 days commentators, pundits, comedians, and, finally, Democratic politicians have gotten into the game.  Elizabeth Warren, the new wonder woman Democratic Senatorial candidate in Massachusetts went viral with her plain-spoken rebuke of the Republicans’ use of the term “class warfare.”  In an amateur video made by one of her volunteers she explained how factory owners benefit from the roads and the schools that the rest of us pay for:  “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody.”

And just last Wednesday, in a move that seemed inspired by the popularity of Warren’s Youtube video, Obama gave an inspiring speech in front of a bridge to somewhere — the home districts of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell:  “There’s a lot of people saying, ‘this is class warfare.’ Well, if saying that billionaires should pay the same share in taxes as a plumber or a teacher is class warfare, then you know what? I’m a warrior for the middle class.”  Obama has been urged by dozens of columnists, including Sally Kohn of the Washington Post and Chris Weigant of Huffington Post to take the language of class warfare seriously, and to fight hard on the side of the not-rich.

Why? Because there is a war going on, and the working- and middle-classes are losing.  Last week America’s most widely read economist, Paul Krugman, gave us four reasons why “class warfare” is top down, rather than bottom up.  You can see a great visual distillation of Krugman’s point with this cartoon from Clay Bennet.

It turns out that this kind of class warfare—the kind that comes from the top down — is pretty bad for the economy. You can read from the IMF report that shows the negative economic effects of the wealth gap, or take a gander at new September CIA rankings for income inequality.  The survey is based on the “Lorenz curve,” in which “cumulative family income is plotted against the number of families arranged from the poorest to the richest.”  It ranks the US as 39th worst out of 136 counties surveyed.  The people of Yemen, Pakistan, Poland, Egypt, and Vietnam, just to name a few, suffer less disparity between the rich and the poor than we do.

In the Wealth of Nations, the economist Adam Smith weighed in on the problem of the rich accumulating too much profit.  He railed against the “merchants and masters” who complained about high wages, but not their own high profits:  “Our merchants and masters complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.”

In the meantime I find the invocation of the term “class warfare” completely fascinating, in part, because, as columnist Robert Mentzer argues, the term “class warfare” actually gets us talking about class.  On the other hand, when the term is used, it is usually referencing some change in wealth distribution, and not actual warfare—nothing akin to real battles, pitch-forks, or heads on a pike.  When was the last time that the working class was organized enough to do any real bodily harm to the capitalist class?

The last time the term “class warfare” was used often and sincerely to refer to a violent revolution by workers was during the Gilded Age in the US and Britain.  The best example comes from the the son-in-law of Karl Marx, Edward Aveling, in a published lectured titled “The Curse of Capital”:

You will ask:  ‘Will you not have a frightful struggle and will it not end in bloodshed?’  Possibly.  I do not know.  ‘Is it not setting class against class?’  Yes;  and Socialists mean to devote their lives to setting class against class.  We preach class warfare.  We hope it may not be a warfare of bullets and steel, but if it is class warfare even this, alas! is possible.  It is a warfare of the labour class against the capitalist class.

 That was some real class warfare being proposed by an English radical at the height of the trade union movement in Britian, in 1884.  But good luck finding similar moments in American history.

Here, most working-class radicals have stayed away from violence.  One of America’s most violent working-class incidents, the Haymarket Affair, took place in the midst of a massive (and, we should remember, successful) national movement for the eight-hour work-day.  After two workers were killed at a protest outside the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in May of 1886, Chicago anarchists called for a rally to protest the deaths of the slain workers in Chicago’s Haymarket square.  During the rally, which had been calm and peaceful up to that point, someone threw a pipe bomb at a police line.  Police and some of the protesters opened fire, killing crowd members as well as other officers.  Eight anarchists were tried, found guilty, and hung.

Just before he was hung, the anarchist August Spies shouted, “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” The Haymarket Affair was one of those moments in which class warfare became truly violent, and from the top-down as well.  Reading the last words of the Chicago anarchists, who were likely falsely accused, poorly tried, and tragically executed, I am led to reflect upon the execution of Troy Davis last week.  After he was killed, my friend Robert Perkinson, who is a prison scholar and the author of Texas Tough, posted a photograph in his facebook feed from the 1930s of a banner hanging out of a window in New York City that read:  A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY.

While he was not actively engaged in class warfare, Troy Davis is a casualty in the war on the working class.  His execution is just one more terrible reminder that when class warfare becomes violent, that violence tends to flow from the top down.  As Cynthia Tucker wrote in Grio last week,  “If Troy Davis had been a high school principal or a funeral home director or the proprietor of a soul food restaurant, he probably wouldn’t have landed in the middle of an investigation into a police officer’s murder. Had he been a member of Savannah’s black middle-class, he likely would have been treated with a bit more deference by the criminal justice system.”

For many of us who believe that the death penalty is wrong, and that Davis’s execution was particularly wrong, it has been a sobering week.  We can take some comfort from the fact that the national discourse has turned powerfully and seriously towards class.

As for class warfare, most of us who are fighting with, for, and in the working class are not about to issue—or answer—a call to arms.  But if it is a war of words that is in the offing we have a lot to say.  We will not be silent.

Kathy M. Newman

The Working Class and the Great Capitulator

When I began writing this piece its focus—and the act that earned Barack Obama the moniker “Great Capitulator”—was his decision to cave into Republican senators and Wall Street fat cats and withdraw his nomination of Elizabeth Warren to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  The CFPB, conceived by Warren in 2007, was a key component of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and has been vilified by big money interests and their toadies in Congress from the moment it was proposed.

Professor Warren, who chaired the TARP Oversight Committee and was fiercely critical of the too-big-to-fail banks and brokerages that raked in billions in bailouts funded by working-class tax dollars, is widely recognized as the nation’s premier consumer advocate and most persuasive voice for reform of the financial and credit markets. Along with being an outspoken fighter for working-class families victimized by predatory lenders, Warren is the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard, where she has taught bankruptcy, contract, and commercial law since 1992.  By any measure she was, as Mr. Obama noted in announcing her appointment, the person most qualified to chair the CFPB.

Republicans and Wall Street shared that view, as was made obvious by their vehement opposition to her nomination.  The last thing they wanted was a loud and coherent voice for reform—especially because the only other regulators with enough guts and independence to speak truth to Wall Street’s power, the FDIC’s Sheila Bair and the SEC’s Mary Schapiro, no longer held their positions.  It seems Mr. Obama, who appears to cower in the shadow of Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin, didn’t want to hear her voice either.

While his surrender on health care, his abandonment of the Employee Freedom of Choice Act, and his decision to “stimulate” the economy by directing more money to Wall Street than Main Street were all slaps in the face to working-class Americans, I was prepared to argue that allowing the GOP and the financial industry to kill Warren’s nomination was the most egregious of the cowardly acts that have characterized this presidency, because it ended any hope that the institutions who are blithely destroying the American Dream would finally be forced face a worthy adversary with a bully pulpit who knew how to use it.

Man, was I wrong.

I was wrong because the Faustian bargain Mr. Obama struck with John Boehner and the modern day Know Nothings who comprise the Tea Party in order to gain an extension of the nation’s debt ceiling makes his previous betrayals seem piddling.  And don’t be mistaken, the betrayal doesn’t lie in the fact that he caved on the issue of whether deficit reduction should be achieved via spending cuts alone or through a combination of cuts and revenue increases.  It lies in the fact that he engaged in the debate at all.

Rather than lending credence to the specious argument that the deficit is the most pressing economic problem facing the nation today, the president should have said that the best, the only way to deal with our long term fiscal dilemma is to grow our way out of it by doing what it takes to put people back to work.

He should have embraced the philosophy that has guided Democratic presidents for nearly 80 years: that tough economic times call for more spending, not less. Spending on infrastructure projects, the development of alternative energy sources, research and development, job training and education.  He should have demanded that we invest in America’s greatest asset: Americans.

Instead, by embracing the ridiculous notion that cutting trillions in spending is the cure-all for what ails the body politic, the Great Capitulator has all but guaranteed that the investment needed to fuel both recovery and deficit reduction will never be made.

Whether wittingly or unwittingly—and it’s hard to say for sure which because this administration has a penchant for committing tactical errors as well as for turning its back on its core constituency—Mr. Obama has now put himself in a rhetorical box that will make it impossible for him to credibly argue that the government should spend money to stimulate the economy, even as working-class families find themsevles staring into the barrel of double-dip recession.

While some may compare Mr. Obama’s decision to join the Republicans in attacking the deficit to Bill Clinton’s partnering with Newt Gingrich to substantially alter the welfare system, there is one very critical difference between the two: Mr. Clinton never abandoned the core Democratic principle that government had an essential role to play in making life better for the American people.

Mr. Obama, for reasons known only to him, has done exactly that.  He is now in league with idealogues whose real goal has nothing to do with reducing the deficit and everything to do with dismantling what’s left of the social safety net that has been woven by a succession of Democratic presidents and Congressional leaders since 1933.

In so doing, he has abandoned the constituency that played a key role in his 2008 victory and renounced the principles and philosophies that constituency holds dear. Throughout 2010, Working-Class Perspectives warned Democrats for ten months that they could not expect working-class support and that people would stay home. Guess what happened.

 

The Democrat operatives running the Obama reelection campaign calculate that the working class has no place to turn politically, and they are trying to gather narratives to place a positive spin on his capitulation.  No doubt, how the members of the working class, people of color, seniors, women, and union members react to this latest betrayal may well determine who occupies the Oval Office in January of 2013.

 

If it’s not Mr. Obama, the Great Capitulator will have no one to blame but himself.

 

Leo Jennings