My article on how Occupy is working on reforming U.S. policy (or getting policy to work the way it should), for The Nation:
Walking by Zuccotti Park, you might think that Occupy Wall Street had vanished into thin air. But if you walk a few blocks further, to the public atrium at 60 Wall St, you’ll find working groups deep in conversation. The work of Occupy continues, in New York City and across the country as well. Indeed, some Occupy groups have begun campaigns with a specific goal: policy reform.
One of the most substantial examples of policy efforts within Occupy is a group called Occupy the SEC, which for months has been meeting twice weekly to review the 298-page Volcker Rule through a diligent, line-by-line reading and analysis. The group’s goal is to submit a public comment to the Securities and Exchange Commission examining potential loopholes in the rule. When implemented, the Volcker Rule, part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, will restrict American banks from making certain forms of speculative investments, such as proprietary trading.
Alexis Goldstein, one of the founding members of Occupy the SEC (OSEC), worked on Wall Street as an information technology expert and business analyst for years. One day, she realized she was extremely unhappy in her job, which she says made her obsess about money instead of pursuing a meaningful life. Now, Goldstein is using her knowledge of Wall Street to tackle what she sees as a dangerous lack of financial regulation. In the fall, she gave a public teach-in at Occupy Wall Street, explaining how derivatives work, what Glass-Steagall was and how it got repealed, and how Wall Street avoids regulation. “Who usually submits public comment on bills in Congress?” Goldstein said to the crowd. “The companies who are going to be regulated. And what do they say? ‘It’s too strict! Too much regulation!’”
OSEC hopes that their hard work will provide an objective voice outside the finance industry. The group consists of lawyers, current and former financial professionals and people with experience in politics. “I felt like I really wanted to do something action-based, around financial reform,” said twenty-five year old OSEC member Elizabeth Friedrich, who works for a nonprofit that does community economic development. “I think banks didn’t really expect a public reaction like this to the Volcker rule—but the [Occupy] movement has really opened things up and motivated people.”
After meticulously reading the Volcker Rule, the group has determined that there is one significant loophole that could potentially allow banks to subvert the rule by allowing a blanket exemption for repurchase agreements, also known as “repo lending.” On the NYC General Assembly website, OSEC describes how repo lending works:
“Repo lending is best described as the financial equivalent of a visit to the pawnshop,” the blog post explains. “An asset is deposited with a lender in exchange for cash, with an agreement that at some point in the future a slightly larger amount of cash will be repaid and the initial goods returned. The pawnshop provides a way to exchange a valuable-but-illiquid asset (a grandfather’s watch) for a source of short-term liquidity (next month’s rent). Repo provides much the same function for banks—except that instead of a watch, one deposits bonds or other securities, and instead of next month’s rent, it is used to fund today’s trading activity.”
“Repo has been used to get around certain accounting rules in the past,” Goldstein told me. “The Lehman Repo 105 is an example, where they used repo to hide some of their assets. MF Global has also used Repo in a disingenuous way, called ‘repo-for-maturity’—they considered something a sale even though it was just a loan, which allows them to not have to report it on their balance sheet. We’re concerned about [banks] using repo in a way that it behaves like a form of proprietary trade.”
Though the SEC declined to comment in regard to the work Occupy the SEC is doing, their press contact told me that they receive over 40,000 comment letters a year. The staff reads every single one and is required by law to take the letters into consideration, she said. All letters will be posted on the SEC website.
OSEC’s has had to call the SEC and the FDIC for clarifications on the questions they are required to answer in their comment letter (which are drafted by the regulating agencies’ staff). Friedrich told me that the SEC gave “very vague” responses to OSEC’s inquiries. “It seems like more power rests with the Fed than the SEC. The Fed really shakes hands with the banks—there are direct relationships between private hedge funds and investment banking and the Fed. It would be great to see the SEC get stronger,” Friedrich added.
“We hope to make a strong enough and technical enough case that the regulators will consider our arguments,” said Goldstein. “Our great hope is that they would, in the final rule, actually incorporate some of the things we suggest. Maybe more realistically, we hope to spread the word about what we think is problematic and encourage other people to do this.”
Occupiers in Washington, DC have taken on a seemingly impossible policy task: reducing the budget deficit. The “99 Percent’s Deficit Proposal” was drafted by Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers, long-time activists who have worked on economic justice, anti-war, anti-torture, military budget and drug policy reform issues, and who were involved in the October 6th group that began organizing an occupation in DC’s Freedom Plaza in the spring. Their plan is rigorously researched and extremely comprehensive.
“October 6th was chosen because it was the first day of the 11th year of the Afghanistan war and the first week of a new federal fiscal budget—connecting the dots between economic issues and war spending,” Zeese and Flowers told me in DC a few months ago.
In drafting the deficit reduction document, they said, “we identified fifteen key areas of crisis—each of the areas has evidence-based solutions and the majority of Americans support them.”
The 99 Percent Deficit Plan calls for a myriad of solutions designed to balance the budget, including taxing the highest-earning households in America; cutting government spending by reducing the military budget; negotiating better prices with Big Pharma; ending corporate tax breaks; writing down underwater mortgages to market value; creating jobs through a massive public works program; improving Medicare; writing off student loan debt; returning Social Security tax to cover ninety percent of all income as it did in the early ‘80s and allowing communities to have greater control of development through non-profit land trusts. Each suggestion is backed by research with sources provided. Economist Jeff Madrick said he found the plan comprehensive, serious, sincere and intelligent onCountdown with Keith Olbermann last November.
The Occupy movement, Flowers and Zeese explained to me, is “not just about resistance”—it should also be focused on solutions. “Our long term goal is [to] end corporate rule, shift power to the people—[make] a more democratized economy.”
Within Congress itself, Representative Ted Deutch (Fl-D) has proposed the OCCUPIED Amendment (“Outlawing Corporate Cash Undermining the Public Interest in our Elections and Democracy,” H.J. Res 90), which aims to overturn the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations to donate to political campaigns on the basis of the idea that corporations have the same rights as individuals. In December, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) filed S.J. Res 33, the Saving American Democracy Amendment, a companion bill to the OCCUPIED Amendment.
“The Supreme Court overturned a century of precedent by ruling in Citizens United that corporations have a constitutional right to spend unlimited amounts of cash to influence elections,” according to the official website for the OCCUPIED Amendment. The OCCUPIED Amendment aims to “[restore] to Congress the authority to write campaign finance laws that regulate and disclose all contributions and expenditures by all individuals and all types of organizations in our elections.”
And on the West Coast, the ReFund California Coalition is building on the momentum of Occupy through an innovative approach to pushing policy reforms: “It is advancing a model for bridging the gap between non-hierarchical mass mobilization and strategic policy advocacy,” wrote Manuel Rosaldo, a Bay Area Occupier and doctoral student in sociology at UC Berkeley, in an e-mail to me. ReFund’s member groups include labor unions and community-based organizations, and they work together to push for policy reforms. “For example, Refund is investing a lot of money in focus groups on how to message ballot initiatives aimed at raising tax revenue for public education and other services,” Rosaldo explained. ReFund organizes mass mobilizations that are focused on pushing policy makers, business leaders and educators to sign a pledge in support of five concrete policy reforms: an increase in income taxes on California’s wealthiest; the closure of Proposition 13’s corporate property tax loophole; the implementation of a federal sales tax on Wall Street financial transactions; the reduction of underwater mortgage debt; and the reversal of “tuition increases, layoffs, and cuts to public education and essential services—ensuring good jobs that provide healthcare and a dignified retirement.”