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Shaping History

October 07, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Community, Ecology, Economy, Martin Zehr, Politics

It’s Easier to Occupy Wall Street Than It Is to Change It

by Martin Zehr, aka Mato Ska

Writing about Occupy Wall Street is unquestionably an exercise in futility. Those of us in the baby boomer generation have the impulse to wrap our arms around them and sigh in recognition of the sense of exasperation, desperation, and righteousness that engulfed us in our youth. We understand that when things get worse and we have no control of events, we want to stop the world from its “normality.” When political leaders fail to inspire us with a common vision, we seek a new identity, a new vision, and a new world. There is no question that the election of President Obama has resulted in neither hope nor change. And we know: “It’s not fair!”

Those of us removed from the protests are watching our own biographies unfold again and we grasp to see it done right this time. Fix this thing here, do this thing there, and every little thing is gonna be alright. But, as soon as we intrude in the drama, we become interlopers in the “movement.” We are, in point of fact, outsiders who fail to grasp the dynamic and the new zeitgeist that has reconfigured the world around us. 1968 comes to our minds as the global social order heaved and the world was challenged for not living up to our standards and expectations. Today, we see turmoil in the Middle East, North Africa, and Greece. In 1968 it was France, Czechoslovakia, China, and Vietnam. But that was then and this is now.

Words, nothing but words. The young people out there pitch their tents, we pitch our rhetoric. We are on the outside looking in. Greens send a message of support saying “Right on! Now join us and finish the job by getting elected.” But, even Greens are aware of how closed the electoral system is and how difficult real reform is. Revolution appeals in its apparent ability to wipe the slate clear. Occupy Wall Street abounds with anti-capitalism. All revolts seek to sweep clean the vestiges of the old. We have witnessed that the old order has a logical continuity after the smoke of revolution clears. The Thermidor stands erect through habit, through economics, through culture and through history. The people seek normalcy — the simple ability to live our individual lives without the trauma of changes that turn our worlds upside down.

Today, young people fear the future and old people fear the present. Fear has intruded and we seek a return to normalcy. “FIX IT!” is the cry. We don’t like it. Young people seek to reconfigure the forces that stand in the way. Old people seek to protect what we have. Politicians posture and feed the lions of change for their own advantage. Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are both expressions of the fear and frustration of people. We are all abandoned on a runaway train and none of us like it.

But, we are being spoon-fed, and the same fear that evokes protest paralyzes logical thinking. It pushes us to grasp for straws and look for simple solutions. We find ourselves repeating the rhetoric of the cable stations and radio talk shows. We take our politics from comedians and actors as if they had some God-given insight. Our panic has spread and we invite it to grow. It has stretched to various degrees to cities and universities across the country.

The stock market remains open. Wall Street has always been occupied during work hours. Banks seek to confront the cold economics and people scream at them. Ninety percent of Americans work and continue to go to their jobs. But even they feel the fear. Those of us unemployed and over sixty are weary and worried that the future is behind us, not in front of us.

There really is a point where a society begins to disintegrate. The social contract is violated. The fear overrides all other emotions. Fear of climate change and catastrophic weather, fear of economic insecurity, fear of impending doom for humanity and the planet that envelops us. The words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt come to mind: “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” It shuts down our strongest attributes as human beings. It shuts off communication with those we share a common destiny with. It makes us live behind locked doors and see every new face as a threat to us.

We have dug ourselves into this hole. Those who would seek to blame others fail to distinguish between what has happened in the past and what we can do together to fix what is broken. What it took to break the economy is not the same as what it takes to fix it. Structural reform enables us as a society to reconfigure the institutions that have so much influence in our lives. Working WITH our neighbors enables us to pool our resources and energy for constructive purposes. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. We need to be tough and resourceful. We need to find new solutions. We need to move forward with a new vision and not backwards.

We have not yet faced the Depression or the World War of our prior generation. We know that many of us will need to help others. We know that things to come will not be as “good” as things in the past. Let’s not project beyond our ability to predict what is to come.

Let’s talk to others and meet with others. Let’s take to the streets and work in the elections. Let’s do so with candor and vigor. Find our own voice that speaks to our own concerns and needs. Let’s build new organizations and establish new mechanisms that go beyond opposition and venture into creation. Occupy Wall Street, by all means. But recognize that it will still be there when all is said and done. It is simply the concrete expression of the economic activity of billions of individuals around the world.

How we work together will prove as important as what we do to try and solve the problems. If we are willing to listen we can learn. When we utilize the strengths of some and the distinct strengths of others we find that new alternatives emerge. I have worked in banking. I have worked in public schools. I have worked in a hospital. The success of each setting is not simply what we do as individuals as much as it is what we can accomplish together. In a Multi-Disciplinary Treatment Team the array of professionals who interact daily with the patient come together and review the patients’ progress and problems. They discuss behaviors and issues. They look for the appearance and the realities behind the appearance. They share perceptions and develop hypotheses of appropriate interventions that address the realities.

This goes to the issue of developing bioregional entities in planning and resource management. The model for development that we need in economic development, in housing, in resource management, and in food supply cannot come through globalization. We have broken the law of diminishing return and are now paying more than we are benefiting from our outsourcing, our contract out, and our importing from China. Developing regional mechanisms means we can get an accurate picture of what is needed in our communities. The streets provide no solution through demonstrating. They can provide us a public forum, but the power remains in the multinational corporations unless we reconfigure the bodies which make the decisions that impact our lives.

When we sit across the table we can define our needs and concerns and establish priorities within our communities that are based on working with our neighbors, rich and poor, and moving forward in a decisive manner. “The era of big government is over” — so President Clinton told  us. But still we are economically paralyzed and politically misled. Our voices are drowned out, not only by corporations but also the countless advocacy groups that fund the duopoly and work to maintain the status quo. We have learned painfully that demonstrations will not demilitarize our economy or prevent military interventions. We have learned that poverty will not disappear by the Federal government declaring war on it. We have seen how public education in urban schools in the last fifty years has shown a steady decline in the face of numerous efforts by the federal government.

We have also seen how the city of San Francisco has established medical care as a priority with its own model of health care in its Healthy San Francisco program and community clinics. We have seen how water planning in Texas and New Mexico can be inclusive of users and stakeholders, utilizing the science and including the impact of decisions on the environment. We have seen how cities and counties, like El Paso and Orange County, are using new technologies in water treatment and desalination to increase the water supplies to their communities. We have seen investment firms establish distinct priorities to promote green development in our communities through private firms like Progressive Asset Management. We have seen the success of the state bank in North Dakota. Other models are out there and are developing today. Newer ones can emerge.

To go from Wall Street to Main Street means we are constructing the new scenarios for our future together. It means that we are listening and working to define solutions to problems. It means that we put our money (and our time and our energy) where our mouth is. It means that we no longer wait for someone else to “FIX IT!” but are developing the tools that we as a society need to fix what’s broken. Let’s not obscure that fact that in spite of the massive impact of Tahrir Square, the net result was still military rule. Our challenge is whether or not we can create as well as we criticize. Can we make the future better than the past?

None of us are secure on our own. But no one is expecting that. The scripts of childhood, to be independent, need to be developed into the mature grasp of our mutual dependence on one another and our capacity to heal and help others. We are not simply observers subject to the torrent of history. We are the shapers of it as well.

Martin Zehr is a Green Party member who lives in San Francisco and has been active in water planning in the Middle Rio Grande region of New Mexico. He writes political articles on the need for third parties, the contemporary failures of public education, the Kurdish national movement, and water management and urban planning. He was given the name Mato Ska in a traditional ceremony, and is a Peace and Dignity runner.

6 Comments to “Shaping History”


  1. Of course, it is more important to do than to talk. But if like me you are far from the centres of action, then to write is to offer support.
    The significance of the ‘Occupy’ campaigns is that they are based on the realisation that ‘Wall Street’ is more powerful than the White House. The marchers accept that the plutocrats are more important than the President and the Congressmen and the Senators. The mistakes of 1968 were that demonstrators believed that it was more important to demonstrate against the members of national/international government. In 2011 the plutocrats remain untouched: in the USA, 3.1 million people surviving and thriving on $10.9 trillion.
    Since 2007, more and more people have realized that the financial crises have been caused by the unregulated transactions of the managers of investment funds and commercial banks. The sub-prime fiasco was precipitated by these managers lending billions of dollars to millions of clients who had no declared income, and no chance of repayment. These managers who had enticed people into debt, building upon their dreams of a better life, devised insurance schemes that covered their risks of default. These financiers won if the loans were repaid and if they were not! Under any other circumstances, this would be called ‘criminal entrapment’.
    The criminals have been identified, and the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ campaign has pointed the finger. If all those who had been entrapped, joined the demonstrators, it would be the largest act of protest in the USA.
    The Occupy campaign, and the 99% marchers, may not be anti-capitalist. But they are certainly pro-reform. The campaigners are angry, not afraid nor in a panic. They have finally realized the extent of the financial con-trick that has entrapped them.
    The onset of cuts in spending, and benefits, by the government has followed the financial crises. We have all come to realize that the tricks of the bankers have led to their bankruptcy, and to their bailout by the government and our loss of benefits.
    Here is a puzzle. The government is entitled to print money. In fact, whenever it requires money to fund its programmes, it could print the money and pay the bills. But for some reason it does not do this. Instead it borrows the money from the Federal Reserve Bank and affiliated private banks. The government depends completely upon Wall Street and the Federal Reserve. It owes them $15 trillion. It pays interest of $500+ billion each year. Whenever there is a budget deficit, the government pays the interest, and cuts services. This means that cuts in services are not due to lack of income, but due to government priorities. There is growing pressure to return to ‘print money, no loans’.
    The Banking system is ‘fractional reserve banking’. It is based on ‘leverage’. A bank may have cash deposits of $1 million. According to the assets available, the bank can offer loans totaling $70 million. The bank does not have this as cash; it is a balance sheet entry, for which we pay interest. This seems to me another fraud. The bank is lending out money it does not have! while pretending that they have. The traders are living in a fantasy world, expressing their contempt for their clients by drinking champagne on the roof of Wall Street while laughing at the marchers.
    The Occupy – Wall Street/ Federal Reserve- campaigns are designed to reform the banking system, and change the priorities of the bankers. The Wall Street plutocrats take all the profits, $10.9 trillion a year. And block all payments to benefit the majority.
    43 million people lose their jobs because the plutocrats demand the payment of their shares. ‘Wall Street’ as representative of the plutocrats has to be occupied by the unemployed, the poor, the homeless so as to show the plutocrats the consequences of their greed. The Wall Street plutocrats have to be reminded that they are not doing god’s work, but the work of Mammon. Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve Bank, has to be occupied because they are the centres of power in our plutocracy. The traders and the plutocrats have to be persuaded to change their ways. A bonus to one financier of $1.6 billion, absolute luxury. $1.6 billion to pay 1.6 billion people absolute poverty! Occupy. Talk. Debate. Negotiate. Share. Care. Cooperate. Change.

    go to http://www.kelvynrichards.com…….A Discourse: Social Ecology

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  2. Martin Zehr says:

    Some info for kelvyn . Investments cannot be made without the risk being incorporated in the terms of agreement. Banks are structured to make loans and to cover losses from loans. Losses from loans include both the principal and the interest. when a loan defaults after the time when most of the interest is collected the loan has a better chance of being paid off. No loan is paid off until both the principal and the interest due is paid in full. When the asset value of the property used to secure the loan is less than the amount due on the loan, the bank has to use its reserves to pay for the loss. Its capital reserves exist to balance losses. Interest reflects risk. Banks used to require 30% down payment on 30 year mortgages so that the equity would decrease the loss in the event of a default. Repossessed cars would always take a loss because the bank is not able to sell the vehicle at a sufficient price to pay off the loan. The deficiency balance is rarely ever collected since the collateral is sold and the amount collected from the sale is applied to the unpaid loan balance. But neither banks nor consumers would suggest that car loans be stopped. When the value of housing crashes this means that the amount that banks can collect from the sale of foreclosed property and homes increases their losses. The impact of loans being underwater means that what is owed on the loan is less than the property value of the asset used to secure the loan. The risk to banks increases and the committment of the borrower is decreased. Banks do not print money. Losses have to be covered. It is not simply accounting. It is the real circulation of capital. Students are provided loans and given terms where it is possible to defer payments, based on projected difficulties of repayment. Panic in the situation needs to be put in the context of the opportunities to defer payment on the loan. Or to say it another way, until the loan is paid off it will remain an obligation and will be reflected in the person’s credit history and his or/her ability to borrow money in the future. Past performance is important in predicting future reliability.

    Reforming lending practices will also involve increasing equity put down by lenders in their loans. It will also have to address losses due to devaluation of the property, be it a car or a home. Increased numbers of defaults, and repossessions and foreclosures, creates a situation where banks cannot ascertain with clarity the risk involved in loans. That is why they are holding tight and not openly engaging in mortgage lending. I defend the criticism of the bundling of mortgages and their sale. I understand the need to defend the legal requirements in foreclosure and the need to recognize that there has not been a valid transfer of ownership in too many cases. The way I see it is it is not simply Wall Street that is to blame. It is also the SEC, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the Congressional subcommittee and the borrowers who do not borrow in good faith.

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  3. Thanks for the note Martin. While it is true that customers of banks are required to fill in agreements about their accounts, I want to suggest that many do not read nor understand the agreement. When I was working, with a monthly salary, I assumed that my bank would look after my money and keep it safe. It is only recently that the penny has dropped that by signing any agreement I am giving the bank permission to bundle my money as part of a loan to others, and that if there is default, my money will be lost. Not once has this been explained to me.
    It is also very difficult to grasp that banks do not deal in piles of cash, only in electronic entries. As I understand it, the global ‘money supply’ comprises 3% cash, and 97% electronic………real as against make-believe. The bank traders and clerks are playing a giant computer game.

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  4. Martin Zehr says:

    Electronic transfers of funds are based on real cash deposits. Transfers of the bundled mortgages poisoned the international banking system because of the speed of their transfers and the impact of the bursting of the housing bubble on their asset valuation. If one can blame banks for lending to unqualified borrower, one can also blame unqualified borrowers for not entering the agreement with a full understanding of the terms of the agreement with the banks. That is why attorneys represented borrowers at a home closing in the past.

    The mortgages became security for future loans and moved and sold for a given price. Credit ratings were compromised due to a system of the seller paying the rater. Banks were provided with an escape clause in regards to high risk loans to borrowers because they were able to move them by selling them in bundles without a loss. The importance of the transfer lie not in the fact that someone else now held the deed to the property, it was the fact that the mortgage loans were no longer tracked for their value based on a local market familiar with the bank. Instead, those now holding the mortgages no longer had any grasp of existing market values of the properties used for security.

    Borrowers faced the economic recession without a committment to fulfilling the terms of the agreement made at the time of the purchase of the home. People walked away from upside down mortgages. With ARMs (adjusted rate mortgages) they were assured that it would be harder to pay in the future from the beginning. NO SURPRISES there. They made a decision not only about the home values (that they would continue to rise), but also on their ability to sell the property in time to pay off the amount due.

    The lack of due diligence is something that was absent by the banks. Failing to maintain sound accounting and accurate ratings spread a virus with the wall broken down between commercial lenders and investment banks. The same can be said about student loans that were provided to all comers.

    The structure of student loans provides opportunities for a grace period and forebearance on payments that in normal times enabled loans to be paid off. With the rising costs of tuitions and fees and the economic crisis, there needs to be more co-signers on these loans to assure their repayment. There needs to be a limitation on the amount of the loans. Repayment terms need to be structured differently into new loans. It has been suggested that an adjustment in income tax rates also could be utilized for cost recovery. http://wbro.oxfordjournals.org/content/8/1/71.abstract

    Those who wish the banks to take their losses quietly ignore the fact that they will do so and respond by simply cutting out student loans in the future because of the increased risk. And the government will in turn reduce its engagement as the budget costs rise beyond its capacity to fund. If you think the Federal government is prepared to take over student loans from start to finish you fail to realize the extent of university and bank involvement in loan processing, accounting, collections and administrative tasks required for these loans.

    The reforms needed will take things back to a situation where MORE security is required as a prerequisite for the bank’s investment. Higher credit score requirements and reappraisals of property values for mortgages will inevitably slow investment in new home sales. (As we have already seen) Increasing the tools for collection by making student loans exempt from bankruptcy was already passed by Joe Biden (And will continue to see new tools made available as losses increase). The current reforms have slowed the movement of money. The failures of student loans and credit cards will slow it more.

    There is no such thing as a free education. Somebody is paying for it. And those who don’t pay for it only make it worse for the others who come after them. It only looks like a computer game from the outside. At times, Occupy Wall Street seems to think it is a computer game that they can just reboot at their convenience. Get it now?

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  5. The bundled mortgages were ‘toxic’ because they were sold to people who had little or no prospect of paying them off. They were sold the dream, and now have to confront a nightmare.
    I accept that loan money is based on cash money: 97 to 3. This is called leverage? The bank does not necessarity have the money in the bank. It can write the amount of the loan into a balance sheet. What has to change is that loan banks must secure their monies to more cash reserves. $1000 for a $1000?
    If it is all played as a computer game, then it is easy to forget the clients and disregard the concerns of the borrowers.

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  6. Martin Zehr says:

    But. what is going to happen is the increasing of down payment requirements and raising required credit scores for loans and mortgages. Commercial banks have the capacity to establish sound policies for mortgages. 30 year mortgage loans with 30% down worked successfully for years. Political pressure for single family loans comes not only from Wall Street investment bankers but also from developers, home housing construction industry, chain construction material outlets, construction workers, home buyers, and social justice groups. All of us need to be cognizant of the alliances of social and economic forces promoting given policies and not presume there is only one policy that defines social justice. Single family home construction has resulted in a a weaker focus on housing complexes and compounds with mixed use zoning. Other options are possible. see http://grimmeister.wordpress.com/2007/11/23/green-housing-complexes/ The market for these residential models could increase through public policy. San Francisco is an example of inflated home prices due to single housing that constricts new construction. This article suggests solutions. http://www.spur.org/publications/library/article/bay_area_housing_market
    It suggests: “Public policy created to speed up multi-family project entitlements could significantly help reduce the inherent risk involved with such projects. Additionally, reducing the fees and exactions placed on new housing could increase the number of financially feasible residential projects.”

    Thanks for your considered dialogue on these complex issues. Your approach would clearly make you part of the solution and not part of the problem.

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