The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: financial reform

Do You Hear the People Sing?

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FOR THOSE POLITICAL AND FINANCIAL LEADERS who don’t necessarily like hearing that the status quo is under deep suspicion by citizens, communities, and groups worldwide, here are a couple of other headaches for you. Your problems are growing.

Universities have always been seedbeds of reform and activism, but many will be surprised to learn that on campuses across Europe, in Tel Aviv, and New York, students of economics have gained ground in raising their opposition to their peers and mentors who feel that their field is a science and that there is little can be done. Not so, says the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics – a fancy name but with a gutsy mandate.

We want to ultimately create a space in which economic solutions to society’s problems can be generated.  United across borders, we call for a change of course in economics.

You can’t get much more resolved than that and I trust capitalist leaders are listening.

The student’s movement, and those like it, are saying it’s time to take economics out of the sterile lab and into the highways and byways of where people actually live. And they are driven by anger. Following the economic crash of 2008 and the financial sector’s quick return to business as usual, these movements called for change, only to be ignored across the board by those in the very field they were studying in universities across the globe. Of course economics is something of a science and these students are learning their craft, but it is also about people and populations, environmental degradation and poverty, community decline and the lack of political will. They are marching to the call that it’s time science and humanity came together for economies that actually work and don’t just leave these challenges in stasis.

In another development, on May 22, a conference titled, “The New Populism” is being held in Washington D. C. and features the highly popular Senator Elizabeth Warren as its keynote speaker. It’s a tough conference for the financial and political elites to ignore when people like Warren are participating.

Two years of polling has revealed that Americans are becoming increasingly more populist in political outlook and community-driven in their economic priorities. They, too, are angry and starting to fight back over what they perceive as huge indulgences among the elite when so many citizens have fallen by the wayside following the economic meltdown. It was their hope that things would change following the financial calamity, but when corporate and political leaders managed to protect their increased financial rewards from legal scrutiny, people began organizing at significant enough levels to capture national attention.

In so many ways, Elizabeth Warren has unleashed the floodgates of populism and is a rarity – a popular politician prepared to take on the system and call it to account. Her bestselling book and frequent pointed questions at committee hearings have given confidence to citizens who previously stood on the fringe in their anger, but who now have come together to accomplish exactly what Warren has called for – a citizen’s alternative to the prevailing elitism. The website populistmajority.org unveiled some polling that, if true, speak to new tensions ahead. Among the findings:

  • More than half of those polled think the problems that led to the financial crisis have not been fixed
  • Two-thirds believe that Wall Street financial institutions actually make it harder to find good jobs
  • Two-thirds believe there should be more government oversight of financial institutions
  • Nine out of ten believe it is important to regulate financial services in order to ensure fairness toward customers
  • 83% believed financial leaders should be held accountable for actions that result in considerable negative effects on society in general

It’s no accident that most of the interest in the movement finds its source on the centre-left side of the political spectrum, yet the targets of their outrage including well-known Democratic and independent leaders like Bill Clinton and even President Obama for coalescing around the financially comfortable when so many have been thrown under the financial juggernaut.

As you would expect, there are many naysayers, and yet these two movements – students of economics and populism – are gaining a level of attraction and attention unseen in years. And they are going right after the heart of economic and political indifference. Their real power might not be in their astute arguments but in the sense of fervor they can create in societies growing restless for economic and political change. Even if they are doomed like those manning the ramparts in Les Miserables, shouting: “Do you hear the people sing? Singing the song of angry men? It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again,” they will ultimately usher in a movement of social and financial equality that can yet capture the hearts of a citizenship remained dormant too long. The next generation is coming and hopefully it gains success before we have wasted our human future.

The Real Economy Chooses Reform Over Resentment

In America, things perhaps reached the boiling point in March 2009. That was when the Obama administration bailed out AIG with over $150 billion and the company then proceeded to award its top executives with $165 million in retention bonuses and treated them to a $440,000 spa retreat at the prestigious St. Regis resort. Citizens, who were losing their jobs in record numbers and watching their life savings reduced to nothing, were so angered that a number of them traveled by bus to the estates of the AIG executives to speak their minds – kind of like the present Occupy Wall Street movement. The executives were forced to hire private security guards to protect themselves.

Politically the resentments of that crucial time manifested themselves by protesters punishing those politicians who appeared to be in the back pockets of the financial industry. Significant political careers ended in the election shortly thereafter.

But it didn’t end there. The anger spilled over into the areas of trade and immigration. In both the US and Canada, strings of free trade deals were either put on hold or were passed against strong opposition. It was as if things were just going back to business as usual, only this time a number of citizens decided to draw a line. Yet despite these actual developments pundits and observers continue to castigate those citizens who are saying enough is enough. This can be a truly ignorant and unfeeling world. Or as Chuck Baldwin noted: “Along with their compatriots in the propaganda press corps, they know that no matter how loudly we scream, how much we protest, or how angry we become, the system is rigged to protect them.”

One aspect of the lunacy of those critical to the Wall Street protest movement has been the tendency to see the various marches as a knee-jerk reaction, when in reality is has been building for two decades. It would be more accurate to report that despite not having been listened to for a lengthy period of time, the protest movement has, in fact, carried out their protestations in ways that are peaceful, thoughtful, and not without a certain dignity in difference. I could see last week that there were certain “professional” anarchists attempting to infiltrate the protests, but they couldn’t find purchase because the demonstrators weren’t there to cause violence but to press for change. Their future success will depend on their ability to fend of the permanent vigilantes from both the demonstrations and digital venues like Facebook pages.

There is an ancient Russian fable about a peasant who has suffered for many years but whose neighbour was rich and living more and more comfortably each year. Eventually the rich neighbour bought himself an expensive cow – something they peasant could never afford in a lifetime. The peasant prays to God for help, and when God asks in return what the peasant would like done, he receives the answer, “Kill the cow.”

There is nothing in the Wall Street protests that comes close to resembling such sentiment. They are angry, to be sure. Frustrated? Absolutely. But they have effectively made the point that those growing frustrations have been angling toward financial reform, not revenge. In doing so they are allying themselves with what a real economy would pursue: an unbiased and critical review of mistakes made and how best to get economies back on the right track. Returning to the same-old, same-old is hardly an effective prescription for future economic health and prosperity. This is the key point of the present protests – instead of attempting to violently overthrow the current financial order, they are asking that it reform itself and construct a model of solid fiscal practice that would once again begin to build prosperity throughout all society instead of being channelled to just a few.

We are in a difficult time of transition, where we are unsure how it will end. The unfeeling critics are banking on the belief that it will all fade (all this while they profess the collective desire to see the Arab Spring succeed). In that blind obduracy these critics only succeed in fuelling the fires of discontent. They take the position they do because of two clear realities: 1) the don’t comprehend what it’s all about; and 2) they must do all they can to protect the status quo. In other words, the real economy is hardly an issue to them but a false one that continues to build on the sands of systemic failure.

These protesters deserve our support because they behave responsibly and they successfully remind us that the purpose of the Occupy Wall Street movement is not to exact revenge but to elicit from the powers that be the kind of restructuring that treats wealth as an investment in society and not an enticement to seclusion. There’s a certain élan to how they are acting. They know what the “real” economy is and they’re trying to get to it as peacefully and reverentially as they can. It’s unfortunate that such a respect doesn’t run both ways. But then again, there was nothing “real” about the old order the critics are trying to preserve anyway.

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