Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ninety Nine Percent of the Time It Works Every Time

My week began walking out of the BART station at Embarcadero in San Francisco and heading towards the water and my hotel. A few steps out of the station, I encountered several Occupites (my term for the participants in the various ‘Occupy’ protests around the country and across the world) huddling over coffees and under blankets in the chilly evening air in front of the San Francisco Federal Reserve building on Market St. As I am wont to do, I read all of the placards and posters to see if from them I could divine any notion of precisely the focal point of outrage / angst / etc or what was being proposed in lieu of the source of the grievance.

Let’s set the record straight. The present financial system, wired into our laws and modern social concessions since the birth of the industrial revolution is working very well. For those who are the current heirs of its architecture, there is no crisis. In fact for many of them, they made reckless bets for a decade or more and, when the ‘crisis’ metastasized in ’07 and ’08, they went to the government that they had long ago bought, demanded to have their behavior exonerated and rewarded, and, without a glance, the government gladly paid them using the full faith and credit of the very Americans who now call themselves 99%. And to be clear, when the U.S. Department of the Treasury demanded that banks issue 1 share of Common stock for every $2 of TARP funds repaid, only Citibank complied, according to the Inspector General’s report, while all other recipients balked and walked. And after receiving over $250 billion, the reason most frequently given by banks seeking to have favorable repayment terms was concern for the ‘stigma’ associated with having to receive Federal intervention.

Like many others, I have read the OWS statements, blog posts, and commentaries on every side – from Huffington Post’s ‘Dignitarian’ piece to neo-con screeds – and have been fascinated to see that the closest thing that comes to an actual system critique and, as a result, a demand (or at least recommendation) is the repeal of the misnomer repeal of Glass-Steagall Act (the Banking Act of 1933). Ironically, this Act’s relevance, popularized by an incorrect Wikipedia entry describing it, was the same Act that: a) seduced Americans to place their money in bank holding companies with an illusory ‘guarantee’ in the form of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (neither an insurance for depositors in the truest sense, nor a Federal entity); and b) allowed the Federal Reserve far greater flexibility to participate in both government and commercial debt issuance and pricing. One wonders if any OWS Occupite has actually stopped and realized that their anti-Gramm-Leach-Bliley position actually strengthens the incumbency of the Fed and the centrally controlled monetary system? While we can agree that the conflict of interest avoidance of Glass-Steagall may be laudable and necessary, being 99% right in hitting a target means you MISSED.

The other piece of the consensus OWS message – the call for the humanization of humanity and the removal of human treatment for corporations – makes tons of sense and is an issue as old as the corporation. And it was this issue that lead me to wonder who lives at 11400 West Olympic Blvd, Suite 200, the address of the registered url I wondered if they / it were / was a person or a corporation? While researching the OWS structure, I was: a) intrigued to find the Alliance for Global Justice – 501(c)(3) corporation – which, while doing a lot of really interesting things is, itself, a corporation; and, b) was fascinated by the fact that AFGJ charges 7% for use of its tax exempt status. In his discussion about meeting with the ‘Finance Committee’ for the OWS movement, Chuck Kaufman seems to admirably describe an impulse to engage but seems to miss the point that, by using the tax exempt corporation, the message of the OWS must avoid lobbying, political action, and several other prohibited acts that are potentially required should OWS actually ever seek to change the system.

This brings me to my bewilderment surrounding the notion that OWS is ‘transformational’ and a sign of some new awakening in the U.S. that, in the minds of some, is a continuation of the Arab Spring. If we use the agency of incumbent systems – a call for the return to a reflex born in the chaos of the Great Depression – and muffle our message to insure tax exemption for our donors – precisely what transformation do we expect to see in ourselves or the systems around us? For change to come, we actually need some contextual learning to actually know what is really behind the impulses we see as unjust, the degree to which we are complicit in supporting the same, and the awareness of what will be required at a systemic level if transition and transformation is possible.

To contribute to this dialogue, a group of friends in San Francisco have proposed building a financial literacy curriculum that addresses these themes by examining, among other things, the Four Pillars that support our current financial system:

1. Fear Arbitrage – the centrality of insurance (a Protestant innovation based on the doctrine of pre-destination and apocalyptic judgment from the Almighty) as the primary utility in our economic system (remember that the first Federal Reserve Bank was principally organized by life insurance companies, not bankers);
2. Unitary Currency – since the formation of the Central Banks in Europe and the U.S., and fully inculcated with the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement, the notion of a singular currency by which we all transact and through which we all denominate value;
3. Commodity of Humanity – throughout the Industrial Revolution, the notion that humans are free units of productivity who must stand in subservient opposition to ‘capitalists’ and, when completed with their ‘useful life’ are to be relegated to some lesser state; and,
4. Dominion over Earth – the presumption that all matter and energy is the domain of those who harness and exploit it.

So long as these Four Pillars are unconsidered – a state currently fully manifesting in the OWS and the systems it protests – transformation will be as fickle as the steam on a latte blowing off a cup in Justin Herman Plaza. And speaking of Justin Herman, the man for whom the SF OWS protest location is named…his use of Federal Funds for the redevelopment of the city of San Francisco involved some rather controversial ‘class warfare’ behaviors that would make most Occupites cringe.

Far from transformational, the historicism-anemic vector of the OWS movement suggests that we’re more of a 1790’s France on our way to the Revolution of 1848 leading to… well, France as it is today. So here’s an idea. Let’s look at structural transformation that actually builds a future that we’d want, not reproduce a failed exercise of ‘enlightenment’ that has found itself at the edge of dissolution once more.

1 comment:

  1. David,

    I'd grow my wisdom teeth back to have been a fly on the wall at the many conversations between Peter Maurin and John Moody, (late 1920s and early '30s). Peter, a 'distributist comunitarian'... Moody, a Wall Street leader...

    Peter had poured the zeal of his youth into the Paris-based Silon movement, seeking to reconcile ideals of the French Revolution with Catholic Social Teachings of the late 19th century Papal Encyclicals, which were drafted in response to Engels and Marx. Peter went on to embrace Personalism, with it's elaborations on individual responsibility, and co-founded the Catholic Worker, with Dorothy Day (who Abbe Hoffman called, 'the first hippie'). To this day, the Catholic Worker, a decentralized movement of independent affiliates, do not opt for tax exemption.

    Maurin's proposals for the growth of a new system from 'within the shell of the old' drew as much on his own historic literacy as the deeper moral questions which were the common ground he held with Moody. For all their disagreement on economic structuring, their mutual religion rallied their friendship, bridging what they otherwise might have represented to one another. Maurin, an adamant advocate against the Four Pillars, and for alternatives to them... Moody, a key proponent of the Pillars...

    Today's OWS perspectives are no reflection on who won or lost the Maurin/Moody exchanges. The jury is as out of their hands now as it was then. But I count it as a humanizing example that they sat, together, at length, giving each other much more than the time of day, giving their views on where humanity itself is in the long processes of it's histories.

    We're no exception today. Occupations still end where common ground begins.


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave