Wall Street (Unlike)

Posted January 8, 2011

Categories: Articles

Tyrants are ruthless. They throw people in jail, execute them without trial, suppress the press. They can rule for decades. They can attempt to set up dynasties. But in the modern age, tyrants have a shelf life. We live in an age of activism, and tyrants are always looking over the shoulder to make sure the military is behind them, the human rights community isn’t breathing down their neck, or their “adoring masses” aren’t camped out in the public square demanding their exit from history.

Our leaders in the United States aren’t tyrants. Instead, we face the tyranny of “business as usual.” Here’s an example from a recent report, America Loses, from my colleagues at the Institute for Policy Studies. In 2004, Congress passed a bill that allowed U.S. corporations to repatriate their profits sitting in overseas accounts. It was supposed to be a deal: the government wouldn’t tax the profits and the corporations would use the money to create jobs. The corporations went ahead and brought home more than $100 billion, the IRS looked the other way, and you want to know how many jobs were created?

Worse than zero. The 13 companies profiled in the report actually cut more than 60,000 jobs. And now the corporations are asking Congress for yet another tax holiday, and this time they promise, really promise, to create jobs. Yeah, right.

Another example is Apple, which, under the late Steve Jobs, touted itself as the “think differently” brand. But that was just a marketing niche. It was business as usual in its manufacturing process over in China. “Disguising himself as an American investor, journalist-playwright Mike Daisey visited the Foxconn complex and documented dozens of reports of abusive labor practices, including the widespread use of child labor, the intimidation of employees seeking redress for workplace injuries, and more generally an oppressive combination of lengthy shifts, constant surveillance, and authoritarian management,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Peter Certo in An Alternative Eulogy for Steve Jobs. “The Foxconn Daisey described was essentially a private-sector partner to the Chinese government’s program of oppression: it kept would-be activists busy, monitored, and under control.”

During the Arab Spring, Tunisians and Egyptians and Yemenis and Bahrainis all poured into their public squares to demand the ouster of their tyrants. Now, inspired, Americans are pouring into their public squares to demand the end of a different kind of tyranny, the tyranny of Wall Street, of business as usual.

Wall Street hasn’t been listening. Investment bankers are more worried that their bonuses, which averaged over $125,000 a person last year – or more than twice the median household income in New York state. And corporations haven’t gotten the message either. “You know, everybody in Germany roots for Siemens,” the CEO of General Electric Jeffrey Immelt told 60 Minutes. “Everybody in Japan roots for Toshiba. Everybody in China roots for China South Rail. I want you to say, ‘Win, G.E.’”

GE has already won, in a sense. It has more money in offshore accounts – $94 billion – than any other U.S. corporation, and Jeffrey Immelt has personally made $56 million in executive compensation over the last five years. GE workers haven’t won, though. The company has dumped 32,000 U.S. workers since 2004, and that’s bad news for the U.S. economy. No wonder that few Americans are rooting for GE.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is a protest uniquely suited to a generation schooled in social media. There are no leaders: it’s crowd-sourced. Nor does it have any specific demands beyond a thorough reorientation of American priorities. It’s as if thousands and thousands of people have “unliked” Wall Street (not that they “liked” Wall Street much to begin with).

The movement is growing. Labor unions have signed on. Celebrities are flocking to Liberty Square in New York City. The Democratic Party is trying to hitch its wagon to the protests, if only to get the president’s jobs bill through Congress. Protestors from overseas are joining in to give the benefit of their recent experiences. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the movement siphons off some disgruntled tea partiers whose populism has veered leftward.

Like the World Social Forums and their credo of “another world is possible,” the Occupy Wall Street protests are free-form, creative, sporadically anarchic, and multi-issue. They have also taken on the character of their location. In California, protestors are focusing on the state’s budget crisis. Here in Washington, DC, the protest had a strong anti-war emphasis, and one segment was involved in an anti-drone protest at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum.

Wall Street analysts like to talk about “corrections” in market behavior. In periods of “irrational exuberance,” millions of people think that the value of IT companies will rise forever or that sub-prime mortgages get traded around in an endless daisy chain of speculation. Then the market comes down from its tab of Ecstasy, and it crashes. The correction sets in.

Perhaps the same language can be applied to U.S. society as a whole. The political and economic elites indulge in their own all-night party of irrational exuberance that rewards financiers with profits and politicians with lobbying dollars. They legally steal as much as they can until the other 99 percent gets fed up and comes over to turn off the music and turn on the lights. Party over. And the system corrects itself.

Or does it?

Occupy Wall Street isn’t calling for piecemeal reforms. It’s not interested in becoming yet another correction. It doesn’t have a laundry list of demands. This can be a profoundly unsettling experience for NGOs in Washington (“but what do they want?”), for politicians around the country (“why aren’t they supporting our plan?”), and even for those who oppose the movement (“why can’t they just demand something that we can ridicule already!”).

When the tyrant resigns or goes into exile, the crowd exults. Then begins the difficult task of preventing the tyrant’s cronies from seizing power. Then begins the challenge of building something new.

For many years, the progressive movement has said the system here in this country is broken. But our effort to fix the system has been seriously under-resourced, as if we were trying to repair a malfunctioning jet engine with a pair of toothpicks.

Occupy Wall Street doesn’t necessarily have better tools. But it has a lot of hands and a lot of energy. And that’s what we need to build something new.

Ten Years On

October 7 was the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan. The country is no closer to stability, even with nearly 100,000 U.S. troops still there. Suicide bombers struck near the U.S. embassy in Kabul in mid-September. Afghan authorities routinely use torture on detainees, and it’s difficult to imagine that U.S. officials don’t know about it. Opium production is expected to rise next year by 61 percent.

The president laid out his drawdown plan in June, but it’s more like a stay-the-course approach. Even Republican presidential candidates are calling for a more rapid exit strategy for the Pentagon. In addition to the lives lost, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cost U.S. taxpayers $11.6 billion a month.

But the United States also wants to make sure that the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline is started by 2012 and finished by 2014 according to schedule. Building the pipeline requires stability, and stability requires security forces. “If the pipeline is constructed and U.S. companies begin producing in Afghanistan, its importance to the West will only intensify, as will the desire to keep Afghanistan ‘open for business,’” write FPIF contributors Antonia Juhasz and Shukria Dellawar in Afghanistan’s Energy War. “If Afghanistan does not have the internal capacity to provide this ‘openness’ itself, the United States and other foreign governments may feel forced to do so on its behalf – utilizing their own troops.”

Island Politics

The Pentagon wants to realign its military presence in the Pacific. But it’s encountering opposition both at home and abroad. Okinawans have been demanding a reduction of the military footprint on their island. So the United States and Japan signed an agreement to transfer 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam, or Guahan in the Chamoru language, at a cost of $27 billion, according to FPIF contributors Christine Ahn and Hyun Lee. “According to Lisa Natividad of the Guahan Coalition for Peace and Justice, the infusion of these additional marines, their families, and support workers to Guam’s population of 170,000 would grow the island population by 30 percent,” they write in Of Bases and Budgets. “‘It will double the existing military presence on the island and will eclipse the Chamoru population,’ says Natividad.”

At home, meanwhile, Congress is looking to make cuts in the Pentagon budget. “Key members of Congress like Senators John McCain and Carl Levin have already signaled their anxiety about the high price tag of a planned ‘strategic realignment’ in Asia that involves, among other things, an expansion of the U.S. military base in Guam and an upgrading of facilities in Okinawa,” I write in my piece for TomDispatch, Why 2012 Will Shake Up Asia and the World. “In response to a question about potential military cuts, new Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has confirmed that reducing U.S. troops and bases overseas is ‘on the table.’”

Then there’s nowhereisland, a rock in the Arctic that artist Alex Hartley has turned into a performance piece and a challenge to the whole concept of the nation-state. “Simon Anholt, a resident thinker, crewmember, and expert in ‘nation branding,’ similarly frames nowhereisland (which he spells ‘Now-Here-Is-Land’) as a response to the inanity of a world plagued by transnational problems yet governed by merely national entities,” writes FPIF contributor Peter Certo in A New Experiment in Open Source Citizenship. “‘We live in a world of nations,’ he writes, ‘so it’s not surprising if you see the world as something that’s made up of nations. But it’s not. … Countries are an invention, unlike most of the challenges we face today, which are very real indeed.’”

Open Briefing, Reviews, Letelier-Moffitt

We have two books to recommend this week. FPIF contributor Chris Bartlo reviews the latest from Noam Chomsky, an updated reflection on 9/11. Wendy Call’s No Word for Welcome looks at how a Mexican village has responded to globalization and the Trans-Isthmus Megaproject, a book that FPIF contributor Tania Arroyo calls “full of color and life.”

This week also sees the launch of Open Briefing, the world’s first civil society intelligence agency and a project with which FPIF is proud to partner. “Policymakers rely on access to timely and accurate information upon which to base their decisions,” says Open Briefing’s Chris Abbott. “In the spheres of defense and security, this information is largely secret and held back from the public domain. This leaves the process open to political manipulation and creates a public unable to engage properly with these issues or hold policymakers to account.” Open Society is designed to provide the public with the tools to shape defense and security issues.

Finally, you have one last chance to attend the annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award here in Washington, DC. Join progressive legislators Tammy Baldwin and Raul Grijalva and legendary singer-songwriter Peter Yarrow in honoring the Wisconsin progressive movement and the Migrant’s Shelter in Mexico. If you can’t attend, consider making a donation to help defray the costs of bringing our honorees to Washington.

FPIF, October 11, 2011

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