Black and White Keys

  I sat down hesitantly at the piano bench on Read more

Betsy DeVos is the new Cathie Black

Now that Betsy DeVos has successfully bought herself a Read more

The 99% are not idiots.

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In typical Wall Street fashion, this week brings more claims that normal people just can’t understand complicated financial transactions. Epitomized by Greg Smith’s claim that Occupy Wall Street “doesn’t know what it’s talking about”, these smarter-than-thou proclamations typically go unquestioned by the media pundits and politicians. As they accumulate, a picture emerges of Main Street as unwitting victims of complex, out-of-control Wall Street schemes. It’s time to bust wide open the myth that everyday folk are too small-brained to understand what has happened to them in the last few years.

Wall Street knows best, right?

The idea that Wall Street is just too smart to be regulated by mere mortals is, of course, the best justification for the corrupt, captured boys club that is the banker-regulator revolving door. If the only people smart enough to rein in Wall Street are the insiders that worked there, the rest of the citizenry can effectively just sit back and trust Wall Street to regulate itself. No other industry – from the restaurant business to public education – enjoys such a cozy regulatory experience. (On the contrary, school districts across the country have taken to hiring corporate-minded hard-liners to reform them fearing that career insiders are too entrenched!) In reality, the combination of poor judgement, short-sightedness and outright fraud of the last four years demonstrates that calculated greed combined with a healthy dose of incompetence characterized boardrooms on Wall Street. Ben Bernanke, who even admits to having been blind-sided by the housing crisis, is hardly the epitome of clear intellect!

People (brain) power

It was the 99% that had to inevitably pay the price for Wall Street’s incompetence, through a series of bailouts originally billed as a housing rescue plan but ultimately enacted as a stop-gap bank-enriching measure. How quickly TARP funds slid into CEO bonuses and bank mergers rather than writing off toxic debt and saving people from foreclosure! Despite the failure of programs like HAMP to bring true debt relief to struggling borrowers, people across the country have banded together to prevent home evictions and build networks of debt resistance, while simultaneously lobbying for principal reduction and criminal prosecutions for Wall Street frauds. Through collective action, consumers band together and build buyer’s clubs to incentivize sustainable and compassionate production while boycotting destructive and abusive businesses that contribute to climate change and don’t pay workers a fair living wage. A team of Wall Street defectors called Occupy the SEC wrote a moving 400-page response to the 2008 financial fraud calling for specific reforms that would put markets at ease and encourage fair, sustainable growth. This is people brain power in action.

From victims to victors

The financial crisis exposed the cruel heart of our crony, casino capitalist system in which the rich prosper at the expensive of the many. Yet, our feeling of victimization may be the strongest impediment to reining in the control of the big banks and corrupt politicians. In Iceland, citizens took to the streets demanding the arrest of those who crashed their economy, a campaign that ended not only with bankers in jail but with a new crowd-sourced constitution, major sovereign debt forgiveness and renewed economic growth. This didn’t come from witty insiders reforming the banks or from theoreticians in ivory towers laying out a master recovery plan, but from the stubborn insistence of everyday people to not fall victim to a rigged system that didn’t represent their social, economic or political interests. The 99% has the power to both demand accountability from Wall Street and build a more just and equitable country here, and we’re absolutely smart enough to do it.

 

It’s not radical.

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It’s not radical to say there’s too much money in politics today.

It’s not radical to wish there were less homeless families and more families in foreclosed homes.

It’s not radical to speak out against corrupt politicians who bail out their bank donors.

No, that’s patriotism.

It’s not radical to move your money out of banks that evict grandmothers.

It’s not radical to take to the streets in protest with grandmothers kicked off their health benefits.

It’s not radical to think that education should be free and accessible for all.

And it’s definitely not radical to sit down before the powers of your university in protest — though they may pepper spray you for it!

No, that’s bravery.

It’s not radical to demand real democracy where people’s needs are put before corporate greed.

It’s not radical to be a police officer against racist stops and searches.

It’s not radical to refuse to buy products from companies that abuse their employees or threaten them when voting time comes.

And it’s not radical to envision a world in which we want to live and to build it in the very belly of the dying beast of today.

No, that’s not radical.

That’s only human.

#OccupyWallStreet

A vacation from taxation?

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Here’s a deligthful coincidence: In the same week, Mitt Romney’s VP candidate Paul Ryan declares “Let’s make this country a tax shelter!and I find myself in the world’s most notorious offshore haven: Cayman Islands.

I came down here in search of Romney’s hidden money among the 137 entities that Bain Capital and its numerous subsidiaries and shell companies use to evade taxes and hide earnings. I expected to find the highly-unequal and poverty-ridden society of haves and have-nots that is characteristic of the Global South. Instead, I found a pristine and highly-functional island of diverse, good-spirited folks. 3.3% unemployment. Nearly no poverty.

So I have to agree with Paul Ryan when he says we should be more like Caymans, although perhaps we draw some different conclusions about how. For starters:

  • Tax the bankers. Massively. In Caymans, they have no problem charging high-level executives $20,000 in work permit fees alone to cook books on their island. (On the other hand, primary school teachers pay no fees.)
  • Use tax revenue to make citizens’ lives nicer. Like “musical performances at airports/boat terminals”. And “Life skills and vocational training for young parents” (Both in the budget here.)
  • Stop wasting money on wars. Caymans doesn’t fight any.
  • Universalize health care. Caymans’ Health Insurance Law requires all employers to insure their employees regardless of them being temporary or long term work permit holders, part or full time, or domestic workers.

 

So while havens like the Caymans undermine progressive taxation across the globe to the tune of more than $32 trillion, the island itself has one of the most progressive tax structures in the world: the super-rich pay dearly for their exploits while regular working folk get off mostly scot-free from taxation (those free-loaders!)

 

Of course, this is all only possible because the onshore world is massively subsidizing life in the Cayman Islands. Roads don’t build themselves. Police and firefighters are employed by governments with somebody’s money, and in this case the money is clearly either coming from tourism or finance, or some combination of the two. The myth of “tax competitiveness” is just that: a myth. If the United States became a tax haven, who would subsidize it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back in Brooklyn

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Back in Brooklyn after 3500 miles across the country of my birth. I barely recognize it anymore after 4 years in New York City: long, rolling hills with trees of many-colored leaves. Rickety fences lining old dirt roads. Back-country rest stops with rusted gray ‘FOOD’ signs and ghost-town alleys with emaciated old tire frames & trailer hitches strewn across them. Good, plain people moving in slow motion against the roaring rapids of modern civilization in SUVs and semi trucks racing down I-80.

I’m glad to be back in Brooklyn, where I feel activated. The quiet plains of Nebraska and the cornfields of Iowa stretch across my mind even as the screeching breaks of a B44 bus echo outside my window. It reminds me that I’ve always lived in between the comforting spaces that others gravitate towards. And when I look at them from the outside, I pull myself inside and wrap their realities around me for a short time. But before long, this gypsy is slipping out onto the road again under the cover of night.

A response to Joe Nocera

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Joe Nocera writes that Occupy has neglected to engage with the “larger world”. The truth is the opposite: While we grow solidarity and unity among all oppressed people, the political establishment fails to contemplate the needs of the 99% and its most vulnerable. Instead of financial reform and accountability on Wall Street, they wage a bi-partisan attack on worker’s rights and social services. Instead of opening access to higher education and curbing pollution, they choose to throw the next generation of Americans under the bus.

Occupy changed the conversation about income inequality and corporate greed in this country, and in its second year we’ll escalate the demand for economic justice and an end to money corrupting our political system.

Occupy: A Template for a New Kind of Leadership

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In the early days of OWS, many media outlets quickly converged on Zuccotti Park to figure out who the real “leaders” of OWS were. (I know because I was often branded as one of them.)

As those of us living and working in the encampment knew, this effort was mostly fruitless because Occupy doesn’t have traditional leadership: hierarchical, top-down, representative and empowered. But it’s undeniable that there was some kind of leadership structure that existed even from the first moments of Occupy. What I will argue is that the structure was a new form of leadership to match the longings of a new generation of dreamers.

We wanted leaders that were:

  • Accountable to us.
  • Honest about who’s influencing them.
  • Not reactionary, but thoughtful and bold.
  • Diligent, get-shit-done types, 1-part-delegator-3-parts-do’er.
  • Humble and honest, not ego-driven.
  • Could balance consensus + autonomy without getting too mired in either
After the encampment ended – or more accurately was trampled and beaten down with Bloomberg’s bully fist – people began to hypothesize that the leadership structure would evolve differently now that OWS’s most active organizers and pushers had to provide physical meeting space as well. There was a strong desire not to see the movement “institutionalize” or “professionalize” and lose the accessibility and openness that characterized our early experiment in direct democracy. Small-group meetings became more important, and strategy as well.
Around that time, I wrote a couple remarks on how to be a leader at OWS. It came out of a frustration I was feeling that some ideological purists were trying to dictate what a horizontal movement could and couldn’t look like, ignoring the realities of how we were organizing and what was working. Here it is (originally posted here):
  1. Start an open collective, affinity group, Working Group, whatever.
  2. Be open, inviting, non-exclusionary.
  3. Build consensus. Slowly, or quickly, but intentionally.
  4. Don’t talk shit.
  5. Listen a lot.
  6. Don’t expect fame or glory. If you’re doing things right, you won’t get it. If you do, you won’t like it.
  7. When you get frustrated, take a break. Leave town for a few days. Don’t burn out.
  8. Don’t speak for the movement, speak WITH it.
  9. Make your intentions absolutely clear. And your actions. Report-back often to your group and to the broader community (GA).
  10. Have fun. Laugh. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
It’s interesting to ponder whether any of our so-called “leaders” today in Washington or elsewhere would satisfy even half of the criteria of this new template for leadership. Of course, at 9% approval rating , I think that question has already been answered…

 

It’s time for a Debt Holiday, America.

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Friends,

Do you remember the buzz around Washington this time last year when a bunch of corporations were pleading – with high-priced lobbyists – to Obama and Congress to pweeeease give them a tax holiday? They claimed that allowing them to go tax-free on trillions of dollars in profits would “regenerate the economy”, “create jobs” and all of those other carrots the 1% loves to dangle in front of us. You did it in 2004, they exclaimed, now just do it again one more time and we promise we’ll pay our fair share and not stuff our money in Cayman or Swiss accounts or any of those naughty things. 

In 2004 it failed. After slashing taxes to nearly nothing for them, companies returned the favor by slashing thousands of jobs. In 2011, Congress was smarter and finally played tough dad for a minute. No holiday for you.

Now it’s 2012. We (the 99%, I mean) are gasping for breath as we just-barely stay afloat on our sea of personal debt: college, car, house, credit card, you-name-it-we’ve-got-it debt. Our government sent the lifeboat, but to the wrong sinking ship.

So let’s just say it, people: It’s not time for a corporate tax holiday. It’s time for a debt holiday.

Let’s stop paying our student loans. We’ll start with 3 months. See how the banks like that. Call it a National Debt Holiday. Watch consumer spending rise. Watch jobs created. Watch rents get paid. In some markets they call that a “correction”. Our demands cut off their supply.

When the few spine-equipped, good-intentioned congresspeople we have in Washington advocate for some relief for the people, they quickly get bombarded with corporate lobbyists and their corporate media-spin friends calling it entitlement and handouts. So let’s not expect our leaders to be able to bring it to us. We have to demand it. With non-payment.

After 3 months, we’ll see if we get some principal reduction. We’ll see if we get some regulation on the absurd schemes banks use to prolong debt for honest, paying customers. We’ll see if we get some meaningful reform to bankruptcy law so that people can finally get above-board and the debt collectors will fall back.

 

You are not a loan. We are not alone. #StrikeDebt

Let’s talk about “entitlement”

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Citigroup: $2.5 trillion ($2,500,000,000,000)
Morgan Stanley: $2.04 trillion ($2,040,000,000,000)
Merrill Lynch: $1.949 trillion ($1,949,000,000,000)
Bank of America: $1.344 trillion ($1,344,000,000,000)
Barclays PLC (United Kingdom): $868 billion ($868,000,000,000)
Bear Sterns: $853 billion ($853,000,000,000)
Goldman Sachs: $814 billion ($814,000,000,000)
Royal Bank of Scotland (UK): $541 billion ($541,000,000,000)
JP Morgan Chase: $391 billion ($391,000,000,000)
Deutsche Bank (Germany): $354 billion ($354,000,000,000)
UBS (Switzerland): $287 billion ($287,000,000,000)
Credit Suisse (Switzerland): $262 billion ($262,000,000,000)
Lehman Brothers: $183 billion ($183,000,000,000)
Bank of Scotland (United Kingdom): $181 billion ($181,000,000,000)
BNP Paribas (France): $175 billion ($175,000,000,000)

Source: 2011 GAO Federal Reserve Audit

I’m back online.

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As we near the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, I am lavishing myself with a (second-in-a-single-year!) vacation from work by spending some time face-lifting my website. Hope you enjoy it!

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