On Monday night, I joined a few hundred people in a Midtown Manhattan auditorium for a discussion hosted by The New Yorker, called “Main Street vs Wall Street.” Editor David Remnick was the moderator and the panelists were John Cassidy, who writes on economics for the magazine, Jill Lepore, a professor of American History who writes on that subject for the magazine, former NY governor Eliot Spitzer (my mother wrote on my Facebook page that “Eliot Spitzer should be boycotted” when she saw I was attending), Priscilla Grim, who works on The Occupied Wall Street Journal, and Arun Gupta, editor of The Indypendent.
On the way in, I heard someone say, “I’m kind of torn, because I should be at the General Assembly right now. I’ve gone almost every night.”
As things started off, my companion muttered to me, “Alright, let’s listen to liberals talking about liberals.” And to liberals, I thought to myself. Then again, I reflected later, that’s not a bad thing. Discussion within a group of like-minded people has often led society in new directions. (Which, by the way, is the overwhelming message I hear coming out of Occupy Wall Street, as I spend more and more time there.)
Remnick started out asking Grim, the youngest person on stage and therefore, by extension, somehow speaking for my generation, why it was important that Occupy Wall Street has no leader. And she nailed it: “Because,” she said,” if there’s a leader you can take him out but this way, it lives inside all of us.”
The discussion turned to populism, its roots. The word itself, according to Lepore, was coined in 1890 by a journalist writing about the People’s Party. Lepore pointed out that populism has traveled between the Left and the Right throughout the twentieth century. The Ku Klux Klan, she said, considered themselves populist. Nearly everything Lepore said was brilliant, but the thing most people will remember from that evening is the moment when she sneezed shockingly loud into the microphone. “Sorry…” she said.
As Gupta began to pipe up, it became clear that this debate was going to be comical. Remnick was squirming in his seat at the ideological language – “jargon,” he called it – that Gupta was freely employing. But then Remnick took out his Editorial Gavel, which he rapped sternly if a discussant got out of line. The message was clear: this event is hosted by the New Yorker and we will be objective, curious, and lighthearted.
Turning to Cassidy (who, a little bird told me, often tries to slip ideas about Marx into his pieces, only to have Remnick edit them out), Remnick asked, “What good is Wall Street?” Tell us, dear economic realist, why we need the finance world to have the society we live in.
Cassidy looked bored (yet dashing, in his all-black clothes). He rattled off his argument: the banking system should support the economy by helping projects get investment, but banks got too big and they were forced to try to create wealth themselves through trading.
Then Spitzer jumped in like a firecracker. The bailout, he said, was a failure of the Obama administration. Banks were in the palms of the White House hands, and they should’ve made demands. Specifically: mortgage reform, the return of the Glass-Steagall Act, reforming corporate pay, that banks stop lying to their clients, and that banks do what they are supposed to do. Bam! Spitzer said it better than the alleged Occupy Wall Street member (who said, twice I think, that she Did Not Speak For Or Represent The Movement). And, Spitzer added, Obama made poor decisions because of the advisors he surrounded himself by – Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner, and Robert Rubin. They had a bias toward Wall Street, said Spitzer.
It seems, Remnick added – somewhat defensively, I think – that the President is stuck because politics are so influenced by money.
And Gupta pointed out that Obama received lots of corporate money during his campaign – to which Spitzer responded that both Roosevelts received no campaign financing from wealthy corporations.
Why, Cassidy interjected with genuine curiosity, is this movement occurring now? If inequality has been deepening since the 1970s, then why are people becoming outraged only now? He thought that it was likely a reaction to the absurdity of the bailout of 2008. But I thought to myself that it might be something more – a sort of activist generational cycle, playing itself out.
Other questions that were raised included the existence of the “99 percent” slogan (the origin, Grim postulated, may have been an article by Joseph Stieglitz in Vanity Fair a year or so ago), and, of course, whether Keynesianism was a solution (mixed responses), and, well, plenty of other things. Toward the end, Grim seemed distracted, unable to respond articulately to questions. Remnick had to press her to say what kind of concrete change she envisioned the movement giving birth to.
At one point, Lepore made a comment to which everyone give pause, some murmuring approvingly. Populism and protest, she said, are about squelching loneliness, both on the Left and the Right. It has to do with people coming together, face-to-face, to say, hey, things suck for me, do they suck for you, too?
Meanwhile, down at Zuccotti Park, the occupiers were finishing a general assembly, and pulling tarps over their encampment in anticipation of rain. The whole world awaits their next move.