A proposed demand for Occupy Wall Street

Let's tackle the debt that actually matters VIDEO

Topics: American Spring, Wall Street, Great Recession, Bank Bailouts, U.S. Economy,

A proposed demand for Occupy Wall Street (Credit: iStockphoto/kryczka/Salon)

The establishment press’s primary “problem” with the Occupy Wall Street protest is that those silly kids don’t have a concrete demand. Or they have too many demands. Or their demands aren’t realistic.

This is silly. The movement’s “demand” is economic justice. Its goal is plainly to remind everyone that the bloated, obscenely profitable financial industry is sitting on vast piles of money while everyone else struggles, and to focus outrage about that situation where it belongs. Groups aligned either directly or in spirit with Occupy Wall Street have spent years issuing tons of demands (a financial transaction tax!) that the elites dismiss as unreasonable and the objective press ignores as unrealistic.

Some people have tried to step back from those demands already made and coded as “liberal” in order to find some sort of great middle ground. Matt Langer proposed two simple demands that focus on “process,” and not “politics”: Publicly financed elections and the elimination of paid lobbying. Noble causes, but only indirectly related to the economic injustices being highlighted and protested. (And “paid lobbying” means not just big money industry groups, but also labor, environmental and civil rights groups, and low-income advocacy organizations.)

We are probably not ever going to see the wholesale nationalization or forcible breaking up of the world’s mega-banks, and whatever strict regulations we place on their actions will be weakened by future Congresses or faulty regulators.

The solution, if I may take a page from the official Washington Grown-Ups’ Handbook, is tackling the national debt. Not the federal debt, though. The people’s debt.

Household debt is at 90 percent of GDP. Any stimulus proposal — even “dropping money from helicopters” — would result in a massive transfer of money from indebted Americans to cash-engorged banks, rather than the spending spree that would theoretically put us back to work.

The original progressive movement kicked off when a bunch of very indebted people got pissed off at Wall Street. Those populists were largely farmers (and they hated the gold standard, which artificially limited the money supply) but today Americans of all stripes and occupations and backgrounds are swimming in debt of all kinds — most of it owed to hugely profitable financial institutions that are, on the whole, better off than most of us.

You Might Also Like

The big fix then was bimetallism, leading to inflation. Inflation would probably be helpful now. But a “MORE INFLATION” demand will probably not inspire a a mass movement, especially those on a fixed income. It doesn’t help that we’ve been trained for years to consider “inflation” a great, unmitigated evil.

So my immodest proposal is simply this: Individuals and households in the bottom 99 percent who owe debt to any large financial institution that received federal government support during and after the 2008 crisis should see their debt forgiven. That would certainly stimulate the economy, as most people would suddenly find themselves with a great deal more money to spend on iPads (and food, and clothing, and housing, and healthcare). The debt can be forgiven by decree or if the government really wants to it can step in to pay it itself; I don’t much care either way. (Though it’d be nice to see it just wiped off the books, to enrage the banks.)

Let’s wipe the debt of the 99 percent off the books, tell the financial sector to eat it, and get on with our lives.

I’m by no means the first person to come up with this demand. David Graeber, author of “Debt: The First 5,000 Years,” proposed the idea on “Democracy Now” last month.

Even some economists have begun calling for mass debt relief. I think it’s perfectly suited to both the Occupy Wall Street demonstration and the “We Are the 99 Percent” movement that’s arisen from it.

Debt forgiveness has the primary benefit of uniting the members of “the 99 percent” who have been mocked by the elite press for being young college graduates (it’s their own fault, we’re told, for not getting business degrees or going into Wall Street themselves!) with the shrinking middle class and struggling lower classes who may have never participated in a protest in their lives, but who are largely furious with the state of the nation and the influence of the rich on the government. The “Tea Parties” may have been a conservative movement-sponsored right-wing phenomenon, but when the Tea Parties polled well for a time it was simply because plenty of non-right wing people were pissed that banks were “bailed out” and regular people weren’t. So let’s get on with this long overdue bailout.

A demand for mass debt forgiveness for 99 percenters is simple enough to explain in a sound bite and radical enough to appeal to the majority of Occupy Wall Street participants, from the anarchists to the liberal arts school graduates to the union workers to even the drum circle drummers. If the demand picked up mass popular support (and why wouldn’t it?) to the point that that radical-sounding idea became less radical-sounding, then the movement will have accomplished more than simply shutting up and voting would have on its own. (The conservative movement didn’t reorient the modern Republican Party by politely voting for whatever Republican had the best shot at winning any given election, after all.)

The problem with the proposal — basically “moral hazard” — is precisely the problem with the government’s de facto policy of not allowing the financial industry to collapse under the weight of its colossal greed. If you believe Americans should be taught “the hard way” not to live “beyond their means,” forcing credit card companies to take a haircut on the money they’re owed would certainly lead them to limit consumer debt-spending in the future. Banks would rather receive regular payments from fixed-rate mortgages than trick people into ARMs if they thought the government was likely to step in on behalf of borrowers rather than lenders. In other words, forcing the financial sector to feel the pain of the rest of us would help align our interests. It would no longer be profitable to rip us off if the government stepped in to halt the Great Rip-Off.

I don’t pretend to speak for Occupy Wall Street. This is simply my suggestion. But if the elites want a demand, I say give ‘em a demand.

Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>