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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

What Does It Mean

Mindless Protest…or Something More

What to make of the “occupy” protests?

Is it the fad of the moment; the “trust fund” demographic playing at protest against the consumer and corporate culture they quietly and passionately embrace? It can be hard to be credible as part of the 99% while sipping a double macchiato from Starbucks and resist the autumn breeze in your Patagonia fleece.

On the other hand, it’s hard to warm to a Treasury Secretary in a Democratic administration who hasn’t always paid his taxes and seems intent on insulating Wall Street from real scrutiny and real reform. Beyond sullying parks from New York to Portland, we must credit the 99% with raising the issue of income disparity to the national conversation.

But what to make of a “movement” with no goals and no leader? Maybe it’s just mindless anger addressed toward a political and business culture that seems more and more remote from the daily existence of many Americans or it may just be – may just be – the vanguard of a new progressive movement; the type of which has always come in our history on the heels of capitalism behaving badly.

Three examples, all in the news in the last two weeks, that should take even the cozy and comfortable down to the occupied zone.

Former New Jersey Senator and Gov. Jon Corzine’s political afterlife found him settling in at a “futures brokerage firm” that recently declared bankruptcy after it was disclosed that $633 million of the firm’s client’s money had gone missing. I can understand accidentally dropping a $20 bill, but $633 million? More than 1,000 employees of MF Global were cut loose on Friday. Corzine, a Democrat who once ran Goldman Sachs, obviously knows both the ways of Wall Street and Capitol Hill. He may soon know the ways of a federal crossbar hotel.

As Robert Mintz reported in The Guardian, the MF Global meltdown is most likely another example of an inadequate regulatory system that failed to assess the risks that greed will run.

“One of the hallmarks of the financial crisis was the degree to which firms became so highly leveraged that a run on the bank became almost inevitable,” Mintz wrote. “The level that MF Global was permitted to leverage itself should have raised red flags, but didn’t.”

Greed has also been batting clean-up in the epic demise of the one-time blue chip franchise that used to be the Los Angeles Dodgers. Like the Corzine caper, Frank McCourt’s looting of the Dodgers has yet to be fully documented, but it seems pretty clear he turned the team’s cash drawer into a personal slush fund. McCourt will eventually lose his team, Dodger fans will undoubtedly lose another season and the sleazy owner will walk. Being greedy is rarely a crime, apparently.

That brings us to Nancy Pelosi. The House minority leader and former Speaker of the House has some explaining to do today after a truly devastating piece last night on the CBS broadcast 60 Minutes. Correspondent Steve Kroft, reminding us of the old Mike Wallace, asked Pelosi how she could justify having what is in effect insider stock information that allowed her and her husband to benefit handsomely on an initial public offering. Kroft’s report also examined the benefits of insider information in the hands of current Speaker John Boehner and House Financial Service Chairman Spencer Bachus.

None of the lawmakers, of course, sat for an interview to explain themselves, but the bumbling answer Pelosi gave when Kroft confronted her during a news conference was a classic of the “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you must be wrong” variety. The lawmaker’s ultimate defense, again of course, is that the insider information members of Congress have access to, and can trade upon, is not illegal. It’s just wrong.

It can be difficult to see a popular uprising as it unfolds. It took us a while to catch on to the Arab Spring. When the end came, the Soviet Union collapsed much faster than anyone could have predicted. The backlash against the greed and excess of the Gilded Age of the 1890’s unfolded over more than a decade through the administrations of three presidents – Theodore Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson. The raw speculation and lack of regulation in the 1920’s ushered in the regulatory reforms of the New Deal.

We’re still sorting out – and will be for a long time – the real consequences of the financial and housing meltdown of 2008. I’m not sure I completely agree with those, like Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs, who contend we are on the cusp of a new progressive era that will, as Sachs wrote Sunday in the New York Times, will usher in an age of renewal.

I also don’t know if the Occupy crowd watches 60 Minutes or cares a fig about the future of the Dodgers, and I don’t have a clue as to whether they have any substance to offer to the national debate, but they do seem to have identified simple and time-honored truths – greed is not good and a modern representative democracy will not function well when those in positions of real power behave so very badly.

In another context, I’m reminded of the famous words of the lawyer who finally put Sen. Joe McCarthy in his place. Joseph Welch, with guts and eloquence, glared at McCarthy during the famous televised hearings and asked, “Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

A good question for Corzine, McCourt, Pelosi, et al. Indeed, they have no sense of decency.

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