"Thank God for young people," gushed an ebullient Michael Moore to the mostly undergrad crowd at a recent New School event in New York called "Occupy Anywhere." Moore, in all his t-shirted, baseball capped, beer bellied glory, waxed rhapsodic over the Occupy movement that is taking America by storm.
Moore continued, "Occupy is one of the most remarkable movements that I have seen in my lifetime. It's spreading like wildfire. It's so uplifting and heartening that so many Americans all over the country are just deciding they are going to occupy. It has alleviated despair in this country, killed apathy and changed the conversation in a profound way."
No matter what you think of Michael Moore or the Occupy movement, Moore is right - OWS has changed the conversation in America - a conversation that was co-opted by a fanatical and self-serving few and needed to be changed. Thank God for those with the guts to stand up and say, "No," the tide of democracy needs to be turned towards justice. A friend, a literature professor at a local university said simply: "Michael Moore is crazy!" She wouldn't expound any further. Yet I found Moore's conversation at the New School remarkably sane, even if I disagree with part of his basic premise that Wall Street is the face of evil - for the record, having been part of that world myself - it's not. Sorry to tell my professor friend that Michael Moore is good for America, because the more (no pun intended) the conversation is expanded to include all ideas and views--the more we rescue democracy.
Let's start with money and the pursuit of profit played out in the mortgage mayhem that brought us here. Before observing the New School panel of Michael Moore, Patrick Bruner (OWS), Rinke (Colorlines.com), William Greider (The Nation) and Naomi Klein (activist-journalist) sponsored by The Nation - I was down on Wall Street, 45 Wall to be exact, at the fabulous Museum of American Finance. If you have never been there, go! The museum presents the history of American financial markets, from the days of Dutch "windhandel" through the scandalous imperfections of the gilded age, the brilliant innovations of the 20th century and the most compelling speakers of the 21st. It charts the human progress and challenges that make up, arguably, the greatest financial system in the modern world.
It's interesting to note that in the early days of our nation, the same argument took place of whether "stock jobbers" and speculation were the root of all evil- a heated and angry conversation between no less than the founding fathers themselves, with George Washington and Alexander Hamilton on one side supporting "moneyed interests" and Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe speaking against them. Hamilton believed that those who held the purse strings were smarter than common folk, simply by virtue of being rich. You might find this view prevalent in many firms on Wall Street. Up until March 2008 and the collapse of the fifth largest investment bank in the world, Bear Stearns, many of us "common folk" believed this too. Yet as the remaining four investment banks disappeared before our eyes over the course of the next six months, that view seemed absurd. The most shocking discovery for most Wall Street observers was that the nation's smartest and brightest financiers did not understand the products they sold or the enormous damage their business practices posed to the system. It was a lesson in the limits of a "free market" to any capitalist watching. The free market is only free when well-monitored and regulated.
Suddenly the two century-old wisdom of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, who warned against the undemocratic control of the banking system by the money monopoly, was remarkably prophetic. Hence the Michael Moore and Occupy perspectives about "taking democracy back from controlling corporate oligarths" seem unmistakably Jeffersonian.
Back to MOAF: The discussion before the tie and jacket Wall Street crowd centered around "the Financial Crisis and the Government Response to it," and featured New York Times journalist Gretchen Morgenson and New York political bigwig Richard Ravitch. Morgenson elaborated on how the government bailouts favored the biggest banks and financial institutions and left everyone else in the economic chain out. She said this was responsible for the rage emerging from Occupy and elsewhere: "There was no shared burden." Ravitch agreed and noted that in 1975 when New York City faced bankruptcy, all parties from labor unions, to political parties, to Wall Street shared the burden and worked together to save the city.
Back to the New School: an hour later I was at the sneaker and jeans Nation event. The Nation is weekly magazine and long-standing bastion of liberal thought known for its grass roots philosophy of economic and social justice. An articulate spokesperson for the OWS movement, Patrick Bruner detailed how the Occupy movement was a leaderless effort of direct democracy. "[America] has a great history behind us of direct democracy, egalitarian values and a long history of resistance against oppression." The 20-something Bruner remarked that," 85% of the class of 2011 moved back in with their parents. Our youth are aware that their futures have been stolen." Bruner furthered expressed the OWS belief that the country is not "broke" as the government claims. He declares: "It's not true. We are the richest country in the world. We have to pay for their mistakes." The activist spoke of the psychic break that occurred among the Occupy supporters against, "greed and wealth inequity, because of what they did to us."
So let's talk about "what they did to us." Morgenson claimed that in the 2008-2010 bailouts orchestrated by the Federal Reserve, U.S. Treasury and Congress, no one was required to sacrifice except homeowners, consumers, small business owners and the unemployed - those who could afford it the least. She stated that if sacrifice had been required at the top of economic food chain, "We wouldn't have this anger toward policy makers. " The Times writer expressed her view that borrowers were not "living high and taking European vacations." She noted that during the mortgage bubble as household debt grew to 130%, middle class incomes remained flat. "People were using equity extraction to make ends meet and pay for rising costs of healthcare and education while other people made a fortune at their expense." She called the "quasi" GSE's like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, "An inefficient way to deliver a housing subsidy that enriched [bankers] personally" and created a "democracy deficit and extreme levels of economic inequity" with official government support. When the Occupiers speak of "what they did to us," they are referring to the unshared burden that Morgenson details. The sacrifice has been shouldered by America's middle class and seems to be a complete victory of corporate lobbyists over public interest.
Michael Moore called this political moment in history: "The no kidding around moment." Naomi Klein agreed and claimed it was "both thrilling and terrifying." The Nation writer spoke of the need to develop a coherent narrative that answers the question: "What do we want to build in the rubble of this system?"
This was the most important question of the evening and remains the crucial one of our time - a question a democratic nation such as ours must answer together. One thing is for certain, it must include a financial solution that involves every level of the economy and doesn't leave any group out. We have a defining moment before us to right the wrongs of our past: the collective apathy, greed and gluttony that brought us here can be replaced by fair and democratic justice. Morgenson suggested job creation through small business support and relief for homeowners and borrowers. The Occupiers are demanding access to affordable education and equal opportunity for employment. That doesn't seem too much for an amazing nation like America to accomplish. Only it has to be more than a conversation - it has to lead to genuine action.
The New York City police emptied Zuccotti Park at 1am on Tuesday morning in a surprise raid on protestors. That act is very likely to backfire and garner more support for protestors. Americans, no matter what side of the question they are on, appreciate freedom of speech and the right to actively dissent. These are held as sacred American rights. Any obstruction of these will only create more sympathy for those who were forcibly removed from what has been renamed by Occupiers as Liberty Square.
This is definitely the no kidding around moment of our time.
Monika Mitchell is renowned thought leader and former Wall Street executive who writes about socially responsible business and finance at Good-b - the leading news source for better business for a better world.