Harold Meyerson
Opinion writer November 16, 2011

The tents are gone from Zuccotti Park, though tents, and their attendant grunge, were hardly what Occupy Wall Street was about. The pathologies of the streets that came with urban encampment have been, if not dispelled, at least dispersed. The pathologies of the suites — the day-to-day conduct in America’s boardrooms and largest banks — remain.

What goes on in the suites, much like what went on in the streets, isn’t illegal — at least, not most of it. Consider, for instance, Goldman Sachs’s announcement last month that it was setting aside $10 billion in compensation and bonuses for employees — a move that raised a lot of questions, though none of them on matters of legality. Goldman’s 2011 performance has been less than stellar: The day of its announcement, its stock had fallen 43 percent since the year began; its profits had decreased by 70 percent during that time as well. But compared with Goldman shareholders, its bankers were doing just fine, thank you: Their compensation for the first nine months of this year came to 44 percent of the company’s revenue, financial columnist Nils Pratley calculated, which averaged out to $293,000 for the January-through-September period. And that average factors in Goldman’s lower-paid clericals and assistants.

Harold Meyerson writes a weekly political column that appears on Thursdays and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

A raw deal, then, for the shareholders, but what of the rest of us? Incomes at Goldman and its peers have soared over the past quarter-century not because they’ve modernized the U.S. economy — Silicon Valley was funded by venture capitalists. As for funding cutting-edge manufacturing, Wall Street is similarly absent. “It’s very hard to raise money for a capital-intensive manufacturing start-up,” Hank Notthaft, who has started and run a number of successful Silicon Valley firms, told me this year.

For most Americans, finances have become an ordeal even as Wall Street made more and more money that was disconnected from endeavors that would boost the economy — and was connected to some, such as offshoring, that shrank it. This was bad for the nation but still, for the most part, legal. Then again, illegality is — or at least begins — in the eye of the prosecutor. And as Catherine Rampell noted in her New York Times blog this week, the number of federal prosecutions for bank fraud have fallen each year since 1999, according to an analysis of Justice Department data by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. From roughly 3,300 prosecutions then, just 1,365 are expected for fiscal 2011.

Given the number of mortgages that banks had to have misrepresented during our housing bubble, that’s mind-boggling. It strongly suggests a loosening of laws, enforcement and norms of business behavior as banks’ political and cultural power grew.

And still, law enforcement seems inclined to let off banks for their misconduct. Most states’ attorneys general have been trying for months, with the support of the Obama administration, to cut a deal with the five largest U.S. banks, in which the banks would pay roughly $25 billion to homeowners (part of which may come as refinancing assistance) as compensation for their legally dubious robo-signed foreclosure notices, in return for effective immunity for fraud and other misdeeds in the devising and selling of those mortgages. The attorneys general of New York and Delaware — Eric Schneiderman and Beau Biden, respectively — have opposed the accord, saying they want to investigate what the banks may have done with those mortgages (something, astonishingly, that no law enforcement agency had investigated until they came along). With California Attorney General Kamala Harris, theyare holding up the deal until the investigations can be completed and the banks agree either to a bigger settlement or a waiver of immunity.

Total up the systemic failures in law enforcement and public policy that led to the devolution of our once-vibrant middle-class democracy, and is it any wonder that people took to the streets and sparked a movement to remake our country? Occupy Wall Street’s challenge — and, more important, the challenge confronting the much larger number of Americans who embraced OWS’s clear-yet-fuzzy message — is to channel its rage and hopes into strategies that will alter the course of American capitalism. As the great organizer Bayard Rustin put it, from protest to politics.

meyersonh@washpost.com

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