Yesterday when I was downtown interviewing protesters at the Showdown in Chicago, which continues today, I asked Keith Scribner, president of UE local 1174, how the protests against the big banks were different from the healthcare protests earlier this year. He looked at me with this surprised expression and confessed that he was entirely unprepared for that question.
I tried to explain what I meant, making note of how the tea party protests and the townhall participants screaming about a takeover of our healthcare system garnered a whole bunch of media attention. How did he see their “grassroots” as different from the grassroots movement he was a part of that day? Still, I got nothing.
Was I the only one who remembered those sticky August days?
A member of the media who was packing up his video camera within earshot nodded sympathetically and said he knew what I was asking about. Poor guy; he probably had to spend his summer interviewing those anti-everything teabaggers.
At least the people protesting at the annual conference for the biggest bank lobby in the country Monday had a target: The American Bankers Association and their efforts to shut down badly-needed reforms were clearly in need of a little shame, and the coalition of groups gathered in downtown Chicago this week were not shy about handing it out.
At that moment Leah Fried, an organizer with UE, stepped in. A savvy source I had first met when covering the sit-in at Republic Windows this summer, she warned me against passing judgment on the movement’s popularity until after Tuesday.
“This is just getting started,” she said of the public backlash to financial institutions. “People are really angry… They’re furious at the banks; they’re furious about the bonuses. They’re disgusted by the attitudes of these bankers lobbying against financial reforms.”
I asked her if perhaps the issues of derivatives and complex financial instruments weren’t too esoteric to be applied to a regular Joe’s everyday life. She said no, not when people’s houses and businesses are at stake.
Fair enough. I admit that her words, along with the passion of protesters of every shape and size blocking the entrance to Goldman Sachs’ Chicago headquarters at that moment, left me feeling more optimistic about the chances of real financial reform. Regardless, I hope those protesters in Chicago — as well as others fighting for financial reform — can learn from the mistakes made over the healthcare debate this summer.
There’s no doubt that the recent pressure from progressives helped to keep the public option on life support. Great, but that’s not what we were asking for. We wanted the single-payer, Medicare-for-all system.
Here’s the thing, though: President Obama does not see the single-payer system as viable, even though countless doctors and economic experts said that it would save the most amount of money and cover the most amount of people, two major goals stated by the president in his pursuit of healthcare reform.
Which brings us back to the banks. Obama does not want to break up the big banks, even though scores of experts and former government officials say it is the only way to prevent another collapse, a goal the president laid out for his reform package.
So, will today’s protester in downtown Chicago calling for the break-up of the big banks be in the same boat as the activist with the single payer sign from this summer?
Perhaps not, and here’s the one-word reason why: Teabaggers.
Yes, while those paranoid, vaguely racist folks often use hypocritical statements tied together with a bunch of crazy non sequiturs to rail against anything progressives propose, a backlash against regulatory reforms would be too much. After all, other than hatred and distrust of Obama, the only thing that consistently united teabaggers over the summer was a denouncement of the bank bailout.
Why did they cling to this somewhat libertarian sentiment? Well, it was tough to argue against, and considering how terrible these newbie protesters were at making a rational argument, they needed something to fall back on.
Herein may lie the key to success for those protesting the big banks. The only argument supporting them is one of pay-offs and/or ignoring the issue entirely. Take for example the reasons former labor secretary and professor of public policy Robert Reich gives for the toothless-ness of the financial regulation legislation now in Congress:
Two things. First, America’s attention wandered. We’re now focusing on health care, Letterman’s frolics, and little boys who hide in attics rather than balloons. And, hey, the Dow is up again. The politicians who put off Wall Street regulation for ten months knew that the public would probably lose interest by now.
Second, the banks keep paying off Congress. The big guns on Wall Street increased their political donations last month after increasing their lobbying muscle. Morgan Stanley’s Political Action Committee donated $110,000 in September, for example, of which Democrats got $43,000.
That’s about all you can counter arguments for financial reform with: hush money and distraction.
As is often the case the truth is far more terrible than the fiction cooked up by political operatives, and activists who truly believe new financial regulations are necessary must use those truths to their advantage. Thus, “bailouts” should be the new “death panels.” “Too big to fail” should be the new “government-run healthcare.” “Derivatives” should be the new “taxpayer-funded baby killing.” This time we must learn from the real failure of the Office of Thrift Supervision, rather than the imaginary failure of Medicare that exists only in a neocon’s dream.
What’s important to remember here is that bailouts, the “too big to fail” doctrine and derivatives are real, while the teabagger lingo was based on absolute falsehoods. While in both the teabaggers’ and the bank reformers’ cases, the people have numbers on their side, there is a significant difference. Those gathered in Chicago this week have the facts and common sense that the teabaggers lacked. One cannot laugh off bank reform as partisan bickering.
And the truth is not as obscure as it first appears. Any consumer of any financial product, be it a mortgage or credit card or bank account, knows that what they’re signing is incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t a finance lawyer. It’s easy to see how companies are incentivized to become too big to fail: They can borrow at lower rates because investors know the government will pay them back if the company cannot. And I think we can all agree that trading imaginary products is not a good base for the American economy. These things are not esoteric.
That is why we can win this one. The thing is, we need to kick it into high gear before it’s too late.
The doctors getting arrested for demonstrating for single-payer are brave, but operating in vain. Their fight is over. But there’s still time to demand true reform on Wall Street. And while everyone likes doctors, derivatives traders and mortgage brokers don’t evoke that same warm, fuzzy feeling.
While Congress seems to be blinded by the mini-, reelection bailouts they’re getting from the financial industry, and former regulators are cravenly lobbying against reform just as hard as the banks themselves, some in positions of power hear what the crowd in Chicago is saying. FDIC Chair Sheila Bair told protesters yesterday that while she spent some time pressuring bankers to accept a new consumer protection agency, she also hopes “to see other measures being taken that will create a more resilient, transparent and better regulated financial system, including an end to the ‘Too Big to Fail’ doctrine. Yes, no more bailouts. No more bailouts.”
No more bailouts indeed; Bair is onto something. It’s called a bandwagon, and this time it’s the people, not political operatives, steering it.
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