Occupy Wall Street: If Banks Are Too Big to Fail, Are People Too Small to Matter?

October 19, 2011

occupy wall street
Protesters affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement rally in Foley Square before marching through Lower Manhattan (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Originally posted to The Guardian

Occupy Wall Street protesters are understandably angry at the support given big business, while individuals struggle against high unemployment, costly health care coverage and shrinking social services.

A little while ago, opponents of universal health care coverage in the United States claimed that it was a “moral hazard.” The argument characterized people as lazy and irresponsible, prone to “abuse” the system at significant cost to society but none to themselves. The logic and economy of preventative care was largely ignored, as was the fact that access to health care is a human right.

Fast forward to Occupy Wall Street, a grassroots movement protesting the failure of government to hold corporations and financial institutions accountable. The US government’s bailout of banks, mortgage companies, insurance companies and the auto industry over the last three years is demonstrably a moral hazard. Why should powerful corporations behave responsibly when they are “too big to fail” and the government – using taxpayer dollars – will step in to protect corporations and their highly paid executives from the consequences of their recklessness and greed?

The US government’s increasing deregulation of the banking industry over the last two decades created the conditions in which greed could thrive because accountability and independent oversight were deemed superfluous. The argument – promoted by US economists such as the former head of the Federal Reserve Bank – was that regulation was unnecessary as banks and the market would “self-regulate.”

Corporations promote the concept of self-regulation and voluntary codes of conduct. “Trust us” is their motto. But cases of corporate actors behaving badly are plentiful and, absent laws and regulations, cases of corporate actors being held accountable are rare. Whether you are the victim of human rights abuses perpetrated by oil companies in the Niger Delta or the target of predatory lending practices in the United States, justice is elusive. The harm is real.

But it is not just corporations that are acting irresponsibly. Government is, too.

The people occupying Wall Street are taking to the streets because government is behaving as though it is unaccountable. The average household income for the bottom 90% of Americans is $31,244. Yet every member of Congress is in the top 10% income category. Nearly half are millionaires; in the Senate, more than two-thirds are. These wealthy members of Congress are making decisions that directly impact the accountability and bottom line of publicly listed companies. Corporate executives and government officials are cosy bedfellows.

Occupy Wall Street protesters are demanding a more accountable government – a government that regulates businesses, respects human rights, responds to the people it governs and ensures access to effective remedies for those whose rights have been abused.

The US system of democracy was founded on the principle that government is responsive to the people it governs. That principle hasn’t always been applied in practice, but more people have been enfranchised over time. Yet somewhere along the way we have lost sight of this. For too long politics has been the almost exclusive purview of the privileged. Respect for fundamental fairness, equality, dignity and justice has been pushed aside.

To reclaim the moral high ground and legitimacy as leaders, politicians must put respect for human rights above the pursuit of profits.

Those occupying Wall Street and their supporters are articulating a vision of the world as it should be – a world as described by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his “Four Freedoms” speech, in which everyone, everywhere, enjoys freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. His words struck a chord 70 years ago and still resonate today.

On Wall Street, young people are joining hands with longtime activists to demand that the US government address the needs of its people. Lawmakers need to respond, at a minimum by ensuring that regulatory agencies exercise more effective oversight over corporations and financial institutions.

And it may well be that Congress and the courts will need to revisit the 2010 Citizens United rule, which allows corporations to make direct contributions to candidates and finance election-related ads as if they were individuals — a rule that disregards the extraordinarily deep pockets of some businesses and the potential distortions to the electoral process that spending may cause.

It’s time for a government of the people, by the people and for the people, as Abraham Lincoln envisioned in the Gettysburg Address. And those people are not the legal fiction of corporations as “persons” but rather flesh-and-blood human beings seeking the promise of the four freedoms.