Robert Reich: Occupy Wall Street Isn’t the Left’s Tea Party
Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was secretary of labor during the Clinton administration. He is also a blogger and the author of "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future."
...In the early decades of the twentieth century, the Democratic Party had no trouble embracing economic populism. It charged the large industrial concentrations of the era – the trusts – with stifling the economy and poisoning democracy. In the 1912 campaign Woodrow Wilson promised to wage “a crusade against powers that have governed us … that have limited our development … that have determined our lives … that have set us in a straightjacket to so as they please.” The struggle to break up the trusts would be, in Wilson’s words, nothing less than a “second struggle for emancipation.”
Wilson lived up to his words – signing into law the Clayton Antitrust Act (which not only strengthened antitrust laws but also exempted unions from their reach), establishing the Federal Trade Commission (to root out “unfair acts and practices in commerce”), and creating the first national income tax.
Years later Franklin D. Roosevelt attacked corporate and financial power by giving workers the right to unionize, the 40-hour workweek, unemployment insurance, and Social Security. FDR also instituted a high marginal income tax on the wealthy.
Not surprisingly, Wall Street and big business went on the attack. In the 1936 campaign, Roosevelt warned against the “economic royalists” who had impressed the whole of society into service. “The hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor … these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship,” he warned. What was at stake, Roosevelt thundered, was nothing less than the “survival of democracy.” He told the American people that big business and finance were determined to unseat him. “Never before, in all our history, have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred!”
By the 1960s, though, the Democratic Party had given up on populism. Gone from presidential campaigns were tales of greedy businessmen and unscrupulous financiers. This was partly because the economy had changed profoundly. Postwar prosperity grew the middle class and reduced the gap between rich and poor. By the mid-1950s, a third of all private-sector employees were unionized, and blue-collar workers got generous wage and benefit increases....
Which brings us to the present day. Barack Obama is many things but he is as far from left-wing populism as any Democratic president in modern history. True, he once had the temerity to berate “fat cats” on Wall Street, but that remark was the exception – and subsequently caused him endless problems on the Street.
To the contrary, Obama has been extraordinarily solicitous of Wall Street and big business – making Timothy Geithner Treasury Secretary and de facto ambassador from the Street; seeing to it that Bush’s Fed appointee, Ben Bernanke, got another term; and appointing GE Chair Jeffrey Immelt to head his jobs council.
Most tellingly, it was President Obama’s unwillingness to place conditions on the bailout of Wall Street – not demanding, for example, that the banks reorganize the mortgages of distressed homeowners, and that they accept the resurrection of the Glass-Steagall Act, as conditions for getting hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars – that contributed to the new populist insurrection....
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