Tuesday, October 18, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Occupiers reach state

The protest movement of the season, an adaptation of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, reached Arkansas’ urban centers last week. Several hundred demonstrators, mostly young as far as we could tell, marched to the financial towers in Little Rock and Fayetteville and pronounced their unhappiness with . . . what?

Greed is the only word that seems to fit. “Corporate greed” was the most familiar utterance, but other manifestations of avarice as well came in for disapproval.

Devoid of leaders, by design apparently, the demonstrators did not have a coherent message beyond that, nor do they as yet have a program for correcting it. That is the trademark of the whole movement, which has spread in a little more than a week from Manhattan to cities across the country and to four continents.

Greed is a good thing to be mad about. Politicians and economists disagree about the precise sequence of events and the exact dynamics that have kept most of the industrial nations in thrall for what will be four years next month and that produced the great economic collapse of 2008. But every theory rests on greed—untrammeled selfishness that ignores risk, the lessons of history and the greater public good. They disagree only on who the big greedheads were and are.

The principal targets of Occupy Wall Street have been the big banks, brokerages and mortgage houses that took advantage of the effective end of government regulation and the cries for a pristine free market and rushed to make every last buck they could through whatever investment artifice they could dream up, heedless of all the dangers that 150 years of market and government history had taught.

They knew intuitively that government would bail them out if history repeated itself, indeed would have to bail them out or see the country sink into another great depression. Of course, the government did save them. Many rewarded themselves for their solid faith in the government by giving themselves giant bonuses.

That was the genesis of the Tea Party movement. The political extremes, left and right, were outraged at the bailouts. But that was in the fall of 2008 and the early months of 2009, when the economy was shedding more than 700,000 jobs every month. The movement metamorphosed from there into many forms—hatred of the young president who inherited the mess, the efforts to reform the nation’s eroding health-insurance system, the whole conservation movement and almost every government undertaking to protect the people—from air and water rules to food safety.

Big social and economic movements always go skittering off in weird directions sooner or later and the Occupy Wall Street (or Little Rock or Fayetteville, or Des Moines) movement no doubt will, too, like the Tea Party did.

But will it have some salutary effect, or even any significant effect for good or bad before it dissipates? The Tea Party is credited with the giant upheaval in 2010 that brought the Republican Party to power in the U.S. House of Representatives and produced major Republican gains in many statehouses, including Arkansas. We are not sure it deserves so much credit, but it deserves at least a little even here in central Arkansas.

While the Tea Party and the Wall Street protests share a common fountainhead—President George W. Bush’s big financial bailouts—the analogy stops there, at least as far as we can judge. There was one protest in the Little Rock march against the Federal Reserve, a nonsensical target of many tea partiers and the perennial libertarian presidential candidate, Ron Paul, but the Federal Reserve protester and his friends seemed to be only tolerated by the rest. The Fed’s chief contribution to the collapse was longtime chairman Alan Greenspan’s pivotal support for removing the tethers from commercial and investment banks so that they could lend any way that was instantly profitable and trade any kind of security they could dream up.

What the core protesters resent is not the existence of the central bank but the government’s continued coddling of the banks, investment houses and corporations in general. In that, the Wall Street protesters have a better grasp of historical forces than the Tea Party or the central voices of either party. Tea partiers lamented encroaching socialism. Remember the rowdy town hall meetings in Arkansas where tea partiers screamed that the health-insurance bill was plunging the country across the last divide into a socialist state?

These protesters know that the reverse is true. The country has been heading pell mell toward an oligarchy, not socialism. Almost every tax change the past 30 years, nearly every economic restructuring in Congress and nearly every U.S. Supreme Court decision affecting commerce raised the well-being and power of corporate and moneyed interests. The Citizens United decision, which gave big financial interests unfettered power to buy elections, was the consummation. Our favorite sign at the Little Rock rally was a hand-lettered placard that said, “I couldn’t afford a politician, so I made this sign!”

Even the health-insurance law they call Obamacare exemplifies it. Democrats writing the act turned away from the single-payer system envisioned by Harry Truman and pushed for 50 years by reformers like Edward M. Kennedy and instead embraced the insurance-industry plan crafted first by Richard Nixon and supported by a line of Republican corporatists from Gerald Ford to Mitt Romney.

So the “Occupy” movement, we believe, is healthy. May it grow and resist the importunings of the Kochs and the great selfish interests that acquired the Tea Party movement and bankrolled its candidates from Little Rock to Philadelphia.

But change the political dynamics of Arkansas or the United States? Alas, we don’t think it will.

That takes money.

—Ernie Dumas