Occupy Wall Street needs to occupy Congress and lobbyists

Barry Ritholtz
Columnist October 17, 2011

There is an unfocused financial rage in the United States.

It was born in the late 1990s on an unholy trinity of accounting swindles, the dot-com collapse and analyst scandals. It grew on a housing boom and bust that created 5 million (and counting) foreclosures, leaving more than a quarter of bank-financed homes worth less than their mortgages. It matured on a growing wealth disparity that eviscerated the middle class and brought back the plutocracy of the 1920s. It reached its peak with the bailout of reckless bankers, who were rewarded for their irresponsibility with what may be the greatest wealth transfer in human history.

Ritholtz is chief investment officer of Ritholtz Wealth Management. He is the author of “Bailout Nation” and runs a finance blog, the Big Picture. View Archive

And now it seems to be finding its voice with the movement known as Occupy Wall Street.

Like the tea party, OWS began as a loose collection of people who knew they were getting a raw economic deal but were unsure precisely why. They both started with a surge of grass-roots politics. Both tapped into the national zeitgeist, feeding on the unfocused background radiation of economic angst. When the tea party burst onto the national stage, I had high hopes they would address some of the persistent economic problems that our two-party political system was ignoring. But the direction of the tea party tilted hard right, shifting from the economic to the partisan. Obamacare and taxes — neither of which were responsible for our laundry list of economic woes — became their focus.

That shift created a vacuum waiting for a group of angry Americans to fill it. At first, it did not look like OWS protesters were going to be the ones to step in, especially since the media was mostly ignoring them.

Credit “The Daily Show” with changing all that. Jon Stewart’s team showed a video of a senior New York police officer pepper-spraying young protesters for no apparent reason. New York City may not be Libya, but that clip of abusive police behavior — and the young women collapsing in obvious agony — ramped up the mainstream coverage. What Rick Santelli’s infamous rant on CNBC did for the tea party, the NYPD pepper spray video did for the Wall Street protesters.

Now, the founders of OWS must consider what to do next. They surely do not want to let the momentum and energy dissipate. They see the tea party as hugely influential but highly partisan, and up until now the tea party has been less willing to criticize corporate interests than has OWS. An, the founders of OWS are aware of how the tea party was jiujitsued by the political establishment. They want to avoid a similar fate.

What Occupy Wall Street needs most to become as focused and influential as the tea party is a simple set of goals. Not a top 10 list, as that becomes unwieldy and unfocused. The movement needs a simple three-part agenda that responds to some very basic problems regardless of political party. It must address the key issues, have a specific legislative agenda and effect lasting change. By staying focused on the foibles of Wall Street, and on issues that matter, it can become a rallying cry for an angry nation.

I suggest the following three goals:

1. Bring back real capitalism (no more bailouts).

2. End “too big to fail” banks.

3. Get Wall Street money out of the legislative process.

Let’s look at each one:

No more bailouts. Bring back real capitalism!

The United States used to be a capitalist system. Companies lived and died on their own successes. “Corporate welfare,” the term coined by the late Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), was introduced in 1971 with the bailout of Lockheed Aircraft. Thus began a run of corporatism, not capitalism. Some companies, less than successful in a competitive marketplace, chose instead to feed at the public trough. Innovation, execution and hard work were replaced with lobbying, crony capitalism and bailouts of failure — all of this paid for by taxpayers.

“Socialism for bankers, wrenching capitalism for the working stiff” is not a slogan you are likely to see on a bumper sticker. But that’s what the United States had morphed into by then.

America needs to end this system of spoils. There should be no more bailouts, no more crony capitalism, no more government-determined winners and losers. We simply cannot live in a society of privatized gains and socialized losses.

End “too big to fail.” Restore competition.

As George Shultz once said, “If they’re too big to fail, make them smaller.”

The current economic approach of “too big to fail” is itself a failure. It reduces economic competition, concentrates risk and raises costs for consumers.

I agree with William Black, law and economics professor at the University of Missouri, who notes that the “too big to fail” moniker is misleading. We should start calling these firms by the more accurate phrase “systemically dangerous institutions.” “Too big to fail” makes it sound like size is the problem; we should be focused on the systemic problems of these companies, regardless of size. “Systemically dangerous institutions” is an accurate phrase and appropriately pejorative.

“Too big to fail” has also brought a different set of problems: The bailouts have made the top 10 systemically dangerous institutions an even bigger, less competitive oligarchy. We need to bring back competition by limiting the size of these firms. We can do that by capping their deposits, in terms of total percentage or specific dollar amounts. There are many ways to accomplish this, including a Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. cap on deposit insurance. And if the OWS people were smart, they would bring former FDIC chairman Sheila C. Bair into the discussion.

Take Congress back from Wall Street.

Whatever changes come, they will only be temporary if the current system of spoils is allowed to continue.

The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly on campaign finance reform, finding against voters and in favor of corporate interests. The only way to take the government back is a constitutional amendment.

The United States has become a “corporatocracy.” Campaign finance and lobbying money has so utterly corrupted Congress that we might as well put elected officials up for bid on eBay. Even the state attorneys general have become targets of aggressive lobbying, most recently in Florida. We must become a democracy again, where one person/one vote matters. To do that, Wall Street money must be taken out of the process.

The only way to accomplish that and have it withstand Supreme Court review is a constitutional amendment mandating public financing of congressional elections and criminalizing the purchase of politicians. We need to marginalize lobbyists and make voters the most important people in the nation.

A national campaign to get that amendment on every ballot in every state is a very doable goal.

These are all doable, measurable goals that can have a real impact on legislation, the economy and taxes.

Amending the Constitution to eliminate dirty money from politics is an essential task. Failing to do that means backsliding. Whatever is accomplished will be temporary without campaign finance reform.

Ritholtz is chief executive of FusionIQ, a quantitative research firm. He is the author of “Bailout Nation” and runs a finance blog, The Big Picture.

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