Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street: 'We're Mad As Hell and We're Not Going to Take It Anymore'

The CEOs of Wall Street firms disrupted the lives of hundreds of millions. Why are protestors the ones who are getting arrested?

A few months ago Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, an influential book about the crucial importance of unpredictable, unforeseen events on our financial system, was asked whether the hundreds of thousands taking to the streets in Greece was a Black Swan event. He replied, “No. The real Black Swan event is that people are not rioting against the banks in London and New York.”

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They are now. Not rioting perhaps, but vigorously protesting. Occupy Wall Street is moving into its second month. Twenty-thousand strong demonstrated in New York City this week. Similar demonstrations are spreading nationwide.

In the 1976 movie, Network, anchorman Howard Beale tells his viewers,

Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!… You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”

We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take this anymore. That is the message of the sit-ins by U.S. Uncut, the protests against Bank of America, the occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C. to protest the war, Occupy Wall Street and the growing numbers of #Occupy demonstrations around the country.

We’re mad at the devastation wrought in the last four years by the toxic combination of unrestrained greed and concentrated wealth. Twelve to 15 million families have received foreclosure notices. Seven to 10 million more are unemployed. Median household income has fallen to its lowest level in more than a decade while the poverty rate is at a 17-year high. The number of homeless in New York City rose to an all-time high last year—higher even than during the Great Depression—with a record 113,000 men, women, and children, many of them comprising whole families, retreating night after night to municipal shelters.

We’re mad at Wall Street for taking our money and giving nothing back. This administration has given Wall Street nearly $10 trillion in various programs, from insuring money market accounts to the Fed’s buying of troubled assets to loaning money to banks at near-zero interest rates.

Wall Street has used the bailout to enrich itself. In 2010, it handed out $149 billion in bonuses and compensation, near an all-time high. But it did not pass that largesse down. While bank profits have risen 136 percent since the financial crisis bank lending has fallen by 9 percent.

We’re mad at the 1 percent of the country who make decisions that enrich themselves while impoverishing the rest of us. From 1980 to 2005, more than 80 percent of the increase in personal incomes went to one percent of the population. One percent of Americans now take in more than a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In New York City, home to Wall Street, the top 1 percent took for themselves close to 44 percent of all income in New York during 2007 (the last year for which data is available). According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, the wealth of this 1 percent derived almost entirely from the financial services sector. To qualify for inclusion on the 2011 Forbes list of the richest 400 Americans you need to be worth at least $1 billion. In 2009 those 400 had average incomes of $227 million.

“We are the 99 percent,” is a fitting slogan for the new movements.

Labor vs. Capital

We know who the enemy is. The Michigan teachers recently released a video showing CEOs marching into classrooms and literally taking desks away from children, a visualization of the impact of a $1.8 billion reduction in corporate taxes coupled with a $1 billion cut in education funding the Republican legislature enacted. Six hundred pilots marched on Wall Street to protest the refusal of the CEOs of their airlines to bargain in good faith.

We are beginning to reframe the debate, shifting from a focus on deficits to the more fundamental issue: the relationship of labor and capital.

One indication of the new mood is the willingness of opinion leaders to use heretofore impermissible language to describe the crisis. One of the nation’s leading economists, Nouriel Roubini, informs the Wall Street Journal, “Karl Marx had it right. At some point, capitalism can destroy itself. You cannot keep on shifting income from labor to capital without having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand.”

Another reflection of the new mood is the emergence of a new kind of folk hero. People like New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who last August rejected a proposed nationwide settlement that would have absolved the country’s biggest banks from future lawsuits in return for a paltry $20 billion. As Matt Tabbibi of Rolling Stone points out, “in 2008 alone, the state pension fund of Florida, all by itself, lost more than three times that amount ($62 billion) thanks in significant part to investments in these deadly MBS.” (mortgage-backed securities)

Schneiderman’s audacity led to his being kicked off the executive committee of state attorneys general in charge of the case. “Ever since,” the New York Times explains, “the four-member Correspondence Unit in Mr. Schneiderman’s office, in a building wedged between the New York Stock Exchange and the New York Federal Reserve Bank, has been dealing with a flood of mail. It is, by all accounts, a spontaneous and grass-roots eruption of thank-you notes.”

“I’m just doing my job,” says Schneiderman. “At heart, Americans are not cynical people. I think they want to believe that there’s one set of rules for everybody, that there are still good cops on the beat to keep things honest.”

Yes we do. Which makes us furious when Kathryn Wylde, the Fed Board member who ostensibly represents the public, tells the Times that Schneiderman should cease and desist his attacks on Wall Street. “It is of concern to the industry that instead of trying to facilitate resolving these issues, you seem to be throwing a wrench into it. Wall Street is our Main Street — love ’em or hate ’em. They are important and we have to make sure we are doing everything we can to support them unless they are doing something indefensible.”

Unless they are doing something indefensible?

The 2011 Academy Award for best documentary went to Inside Job, a searing indictment of Wall Street. Its director, Charles Ferguson, told the audience, “Forgive me, I must start by pointing out that three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by financial fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that’s wrong.”

Seven hundred Wall Street protestors were arrested in a single day. They were disrupting traffic. The CEOs of Wall Street firms disrupted the lives of hundreds of millions.

Conservatives have been remarkably successful in persuading us that government is the enemy. The 99 percenters know that is true only inasmuch as the government is captured by the 1 percenters. We are angry at government, but what makes us more angry is that in this system you get the government you pay for and 99 percent of us are not doing any buying.

David Morris is co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis, Minn., and director of its New Rules project.