A Year of Stucknation: More Stuck than Ever, a Movement is Born

Sunday, October 23, 2011 - 08:39 PM

Zucchotti Park, Occupy Wall Street, protesters (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

I started writing the column Stucknation a year ago, and over that time I have had the chance to touch on a wide range of issues including:

  • the inability of Washington, or a bailed-out Wall Street, to deal with the foreclosure crisis as Main Street bleeds out.
  • the pending domestic and international public debt bubble, and the role of global capital in speculating on it while defunding local, regional and nation governments through the legal and criminal use of off-shore tax havens.
  • U.S. multinational corporations' success at avoiding effective taxation ANYWHERE, and their success of shifting-cost to average Americans with only one address the cost of our military (while that force projection makes their stable global operations possible and profitable).
  • the epidemic of global double-digit youth unemployment while capital is hoarded via speculation.
  • the wholesale destruction of wetlands and forest and the under-investment in basic infrastructure that made the northeast so vulnerable to post-Irene flooding.

Debt and redemption?

So where are we now? So far the only new momentum appears to be the spontaneous Occupy Wall Street movement and a call for corporate responsibility from Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.

From its humble beginnings in Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street has gone global. It has created a round-the-clock witness for some of the ongoing criminal enterprises down on Wall Street that the government usually just winks at.

Long before there was our Republic, young people have gravitated to center cities when scarcity was upon the land in hope of bettering their circumstances. This time, their utopian vision quest for a more equitable distribution of wealth and power comes at at time when both have never been so highly concentrated. We are in the era of New Age Feudalism and the global Hedge Fund vassals.

Many of the denizens of Zuccotti Park have tried the narrative favored by their parent's generation - going to college and incurring debt - only to find that they could not find a job to pay off the cost of education.

Logically that led them to question the very nature and provenance of their debt and, by extrapolation, the globe's increasing slavery to borrowed funds that shackles the ambitions of nations.

So who, and what, determines the cost of debt and therefore, how much time it takes for the indentured, a country or a young student, to be free of it? Why its defined by the flow of capital that trumps national boundaries in pursuit of the holy rate of maximum return on investment.

Whether it be nations balancing their books, or a young person planning their future, the question of what capital costs controls just who or what actually "owns their future."

Up to now, politicians have been mostly unable to stand up to the debt profiteers. In fact, for decades on the instruction of lobbyists, those in office have worked on their behalf. As revealed in the aftermath of the 2008 collapse, the very lawmakers making the decisions on how to move forward had often gotten special treatment from the same corrupt enterprises that had brought the nation to ruin. No one was charged. It was just business as usual.

So why not come to Lower Manhattan and change the world. The so-called leaders were missing in action or helping provide cover for the status quo. At least that's the conclusion I came to after reading Ron Suskind's vivid "Confidence Men," a new book that chronicles the first years of the Obama presidency.

In Suskind's detailed account, it becomes clear that President Obama, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and current Secretary Timothy Geithner were all about protecting the status quo when it came to the nation's largest banks and the debt cartel. Winning their future was job one.

Suskind quotes President Obama as telling the top brass of the nation's biggest bank that he was "not out there" to go after them and that he was "protecting" them, but needed some help with window dressing on their super-sized compensation.

"If I'm going to shield you from public and Congressional anger, you have to give me something to work on these issues of compensation," Suskind quotes the president.

Suskind reports that at the Obama big-bank summit on compensation, "no suggestions were forthcoming from the bankers on what they might offer, and the president didn't seem to be championing any specific proposals," Suskind writes. "[The president] had none; neither Geithner nor Summers believed compensation control had any merit."

Even if you dismiss Suskind entirely, you just have to recycle the very same statistics candidate Obama used against a lame-duck President George W. Bush. They show an economy that continues to benefit the top one percent and corporations, and a growing underclass with fading prospects. Now things are far worse. Consider that nearly a third of American households with a mortgage are "underwater" - owing at least 20 percent more than the house is worth.

All this is playing out as our presidential selection burlesque ramps up. There's no contest on the Democratic side, so we are left with an intramural Republican debate focused on party members, a fraction of the electorate fighting over their ideological tree fort.

President Obama and his Republican opponent will raise hundreds of millions of dollars from the same corporate interests that have profited from wrecking the country and global economy by end running patriotism or social responsibility. President Obama and his GOP opponent will engage in a phony debate that will generate lots of distracting heat but no light.

What President Obama and the Republicans can't address is actually what's happening that keeps us stuck. In our era of global speculation there's no countervailing force that acts in the public interest on a worldwide scale as a check on corporate power and reach. Each country is on its own to try and hold corporations accountable. And unfortunately here in the U.S., the corporate interests are the politicians paymasters.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is calling for corporations to break this cycle by turning off the money spigot for politicians in 2012. He also is leading by example by setting up a substantial local economic development mechanism that will help fill the financing void for small neighborhood businesses left by banks that no longer lend.

Great wealth has pushed its advantage and has co-opted our politics and media. As a result its only in the street protests like Occupy Wall Street that these issues surface.

In Professor Jeffrey Sachs' new book "The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity" Sachs sums up our pivotal national and global moment best.

"At the root of America's economic crisis lies a moral crisis: The decline of civic virtue among America's political and economic elite. A society of markets, laws, and elections is not enough if the rich and powerful fail to behave with respect, honesty and compassion toward the rest of society and toward the world. America has developed the world's most competitive market society but has squandered its civic virtue along the way. Without restoring an ethos of social responsibility, there can be no meaningful and sustained economic recovery."

We have seen the fruits of unbridled greed unhindered by government or regulatory constraint. The abandoned homes, the deserving small and mid-size businesses shuttered for lack of credit, the millions of idle Americans.

It's all portrayed by a cheerleading business press as just part of the "tic toc" of capitalism. This has been superficially depicted more like the result of a natural meteorological phenomenon than the deliberate consequence of market choices that thrive off reckless speculation without social conscience.

Any meaningful national political debate that ignores these issues will be an empty exercise that will only prolong the nation's stagnation and economic dislocation.


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Comments [2]

Harrison Bergeron from NYC


Lot's of good insights and analysis, as usual from you.

I would like to add that another part of the problem is that we Americans have demanded so much more and more from our central government, thereby yielding more and more power to a distant small minority in political power, making our leaders less accessible to us and more dependendant upon large donations to keep them in power.

So it's at least partly our own fault.


Oct. 25 2011 01:05 PM

The history of the growth of the power of corporations over the years [US corporations were originally creatures of individual states, and subject to their control,] has also been the parallel history of the evolution of our government from a democratic republic into a 'corporatocracy'.

I find it instructive to note that corporations, essentially artificial 'persons', have worked diligently to obtain many of the rights of citizens. The most recent of these has been in the area of donations to political entities.

And I find it interesting that corporations, noting the relative unimportance of the right to vote*, have made no move whatever to obtain it for themselves.

* The individual vote is a poor and insignificant utensil when compared to the individual lobbyist or campaign donation.

Oct. 24 2011 09:58 AM

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