Occupying Democracy: Spitzer, Wilde on Confronting Inequality

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In a special event at the Greene Space, Brian Lehrer hosted former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, Crain's business journalist Greg David, President and CEO of the Partnership for New York City Kathryn Wylde, and Occupy Wall Street organizer Jesse LaGreca for a dialogue (not diatribe) about the direction of the Occupy protests and the country at large.

The discussion, held in front a live audience, often turned contentious between Spitzer and Wylde, as well as LaGreca and David, who disagreed about root causes of the financial crisis, the nature of Occupy as compared with the Tea Party, and what were the long-term solutions to our economic woes.

"The idea that if we cut wages to the bone, cut spending to the bone, if we just don't invest anything else and just trust these 'job creators' to do the jobs for us, it just hasn't happened," LaGreca said. "It's not going to happen, and we really need to shift away from that paradigm."

LaGreca's bottom line was that trickle-down economics, as he saw it, hadn't served the country well for the past 25 years. Concessions made to "job creators" in the form of bailouts, deregulation, and lower taxes have not done much to create jobs.

Occupy Wall Street sees corporate greed, but Greg David is hesitant to call it that.

"The purpose of a corporation is to make a lot of money," David said, "and by making a lot of money, by maximizing its profits, many good things happen in the economy."

Eliot Spitzer agreed that the purpose of a corporation is profit, but pointed out that government policy over the past few decades, which has been heavily influenced by business interests, often favors the profit margins of those interests above all else. "When we also let corporations then dictate the rules of society by which they operate, then crisis occurs," Spitzer said.

Kathryn Wylde noticed a tension between the positive historic impact Wall Street has had on the national economy—as well as the tax revenue governments enjoy—and the course correction sought by protesters like LaGreca. 

"Wall Street has been the goose that laid the golden egg, not just for New York, but for the country," Wylde said. "There's a threat that if we do too much, we increase the unemployment problem in the country, we increase the wealth disparity, because people won't get the beneifts of support services paid for by these profits."

Wylde wasn't sure how you punish Wall Street for financial crises without shaking up the American economy for the worse. But there was one area of regulation that should Wylde said should be tapped—if anyone could figure out how to make it happen.

"Clearly the biggest failure in financial regulation was the failure to deal with outrageous compensation," Wylde said. "It's a real failing and I think it's because nobody in this country knows how to do it."

For his part, former Governor Eliot Spitzer said he would raise taxes on the highest earners if he were still in office, but everyone on the panel agreed you have to do more than just raise taxes.

"You do tax the wealthy," Spitzer said, "you do try to lift the bottom, you do invest in education, you do invest in infrastructure...It requires capital. The problem is, the same [business] interests, they lobby vociferously against the very expenditures that would make this possible."

Spitzer lumped David and Wylde into this lobbying group of corporate "interests" that block spending on infrastructure. Wylde vehemently denied the accusation.

"You love to stereotype," Wylde said.

"I'm not stereotyping, I'm talking fact," Spitzer retorted. "F-A-C-T, fact."

What does Occupy Wall Street say? What's their list of demands? Higher taxes, more spending, debt forgiveness—we hear a lot of ideas from protesters that they don't necessarily all agree upon, but what's one that they can all rally around?

LaGreca kept coming back to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.

"One of the things I did not see in the Constitution was corporate personhood," LaGreca said. "I saw welfare, I saw taxation, I saw tariffs. I didn't see corporate personhood anywhere."

In an ironic turn, LaGreca said the Court's decision, which treats money as speech, was inconsistent with the way city officials and police have tried to remove protesters from Zuccotti Park. "I can buy a tent with money, so how come my tent doesn't count as speech?"

Brian Lehrer asked LaGreca straight up if Occupy Wall Street, as their number one demand, could get behind a constitutional amendment repealing the Citizens United ruling. LeGreca said it wasn't for him to choose a primary directive for the movement, but that it was definitely something they could all agree on.

Watch the full video of the morning's event below.