Did Occupy Wall Street Pick the Wrong Address?
Troll through today’s writing tips and you discover that essays are the worst way to fame and fortune. Well, maybe not as bad as heavy footnoting. I guess Christopher Hitchens missed that memo.
In late winter, I was asked by the Passy Press to write an essay and this is the story of what happened next.
First the “mise en scène.” Since “essay” comes from the French word “essayer” (to try), it must be okay to say “mise en scène” for set the scene. I bet Hitchens would have.
The Passy Press is a limited distribution website (300 subscribers with a waiting list) located in Paris. It is named for the publishing house run by Benjamin Franklin while he was Ambassador. Here is a link to its mission statement. Revive the pamphlet tradition in 1000 words or less: thesis, supporting argument, solution. The last would prove the hard part.
We discussed the idea — Did Occupy Wall Street get the wrong address? – and I wrote a draft. There was a good deal of pre-publication back and forth, with my ego taking a heavy beating. Bloggers don’t have editors (you might have noticed) so our humility skills are wanting when faced with pushback. After a round or two of “darling killing,” we got to solution writing. (Kill your darlings means getting rid of what the writer thinks are the best “bons mots” because they actually “suce,” which means suck.)
The invisible editorial board finally settled on the second try – or maybe the third — and, in April, here is what was published.
Did Occupy Wall Street Pick the Wrong Address?
On September 17, 2011, a group called Occupy Wall Street set up camp in New York City. Their protests against greed-driven financial excesses ultimately focused on the sins of the Top 1%. Though Wall Street was far from blameless in the 2008 financial meltdown, Occupy Wall Street might have found more harm to the country in Washington, D.C. — Occupy K Street, perhaps?
Like Wall Street, K Street is a business — one that requires fighting or pretending to fight so long as the combatants are paid to do so. Governance, policy, influence and elections are all components of the lucrative business of K Street, Washington’s leading industry.
The business of K Street includes:
- Elected officials, candidates for office, their handlers, spokespeople and staffers;
- Election strategists, fundraisers, flacks, direct mailers and opposition researchers;
- Lawyers, lobbyists, organizers, spinners and coalition builders;
- The two political parties;
- Journalists and commentators who cover them; and
- Think-tankers and academics who develop policies for them — policies that are often store-bought on behalf of their financial patrons.
According to Opensecrets.com, lobbying was a $3.23 billion business in 2014, but since many K Streeters are not required to register as lobbyists, this is an undercount. Almost $3.77 billion was spent on the 2014 elections with another $2.35 billion spent on the 2012 presidential election. These are big numbers and the amounts are growing steadily, but the billions of dollars spent annually on K Street pale in comparison to the cost to the nation of the progress foregone by the quest for more money.
Former Defense Secretary, Robert M. Gates, has suggested that political paralysis in Washington is “the most serious threat to U.S. national security.” This stagnation is, perhaps, driven by the paradox that the K Streeter’s worst enemy is his best friend because, without him, the K Streeter is out of business. Is it any wonder that the political middle has vanished in favor of the hard left and hard right? It is far easier to get yourself paid if the struggle can be portrayed as a Manichean zero-sum game.
For example, a compromise might long ago have solved the immigration problem if the undocumented were allowed to stay but not vote. You won’t hear that idea from K Street because the issue is too valuable to allow it ever to be resolved even if the impacted people for whom the battle is being fought might prefer the compromise. Consequently, both sides of the issue would be outraged, but has anyone asked the undocumented?
Despite staggering unpopularity, the Congress, the two political parties, the federal government and individual government leaders appear to carry on largely unscathed by failures obvious to all. Some argue that Washington cannot be fixed because of the magnitude of its ineptitude, but what if Washington’s failures result not from ineptitude but from motivation of the players?
The Supreme Court Citizens United v. FEC decision has thwarted the efforts of those who would try to restrict campaign contributions to solve the problem. Efforts to end Gerrymandering are challenged and obstructed at every turn as well. Even the parties themselves are being overtaken in importance by outside groups that often achieve greater power and influence by raising more money with which to pay more K Streeters.
How might we try to swing the pendulum back from today’s extremes? Changing behavior is especially difficult when people’s livelihoods are at stake, but we could begin with the 537 elected federal officials who take oaths of office, in one form or another, to support and defend the Constitution and with the candidates who run for those offices. Use public opinion to “encourage” them to make a pledge that elaborates on the meaning of their oath of office for the public good – rather than the benefit of K Street.
Politicians pay attention when three key elements are in place: the voters demand it as a precondition to being elected; there is a watchdog monitoring compliance; and violations will be publicized. Whatever anyone thinks of Grover Norquist and his no-tax-increase pledge, we must acknowledge its effectiveness.
Calling attention to the problem, drafting the pledge, publicizing it, getting candidates to sign it and monitoring compliance will require leadership organization and money, which must come from the private sector. The “pledge” should be an easily understood code of conduct for federal officials and held up as a standard to be espoused by all candidates for federal office. The standards should be compelling enough for universal adoption and simple enough for violations to be tried in the court of public opinion.
If the voters, and perhaps even major donors, were to demand compliance with the new standards, the politicians would be sure to follow because there is nothing they fear more than not being reelected. In so doing, the K Street machine of self-aggrandizing influence could potentially diminish the polarization that is stifling Washington today.
Well, there you have it. There were over 100 comments, the best of which, as selected by the editorial board, can be seen here. In general, those who commented liked the characterization of the problem – the business of Washington – but felt the pledge inadequate to the task of solving it.
I recovered from the earlier ego beating, thanks to the observations of many distinguished figures, not least Paul Volcker and Jack Hennessy.
The first proposed solution — that resides, today as then, on the cutting room floor — was a gathering of wise people to form a commission to propose multiple solutions. The pledge might or might not have been a part of it. This was rejected because it seemed unlikely to deliver results in time for the next election. Fair point.
While few agreed with the proposed solution, none thought it excessive. And all agreed on the problem as one well worth solving.
Sometimes the right question is as useful as the right answer.
All in all a great experience and I thank the Passy Press for the opportunity to share my thoughts with its distinguished readers.
brandy, June 28, 2015 at 12:38 am said:
Campaign Money – Public Treasury – and ONLY – funding of campaigns. NO PACs, NO outside the Campaign support. Media – traditional/social – held liable for publication or allowing posting of political literature would be civilly liable. OR Any n all money But full daily – prior to print deadline – publication of all receipts and expenditure by campaigns with linked posting of front/back of checks – cash prohibited.
all checks with donors’ personal name and signature. If a canidate is being bought then we know who by.
Shutting off the money might dry up K St which would be easier than stifling with regs.
No public funded pay for elected office holders or apppointed cabinets Scty. If One can’t afford a term or two away from One’s career you aren’t competent enough for the Publics’ trust. Term limits would be self imposed (self deporting from The Swamp)!
Haven Pell, June 28, 2015 at 2:08 pm said:
Civil liability for publication of political literature by bloggers would free up 100% of my time for my fading sports career. Open the door for a porn-only internet.
A problem in need of attention is “government service as a stepping stone to a future career.” See Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Demographics suggest that we might soon have half a dozen or more former presidents, who will be the world’s most effective lobbyists. It seems unlikely all will be well behaved since we don’t even know what we expect of them.
brandy, June 28, 2015 at 1:18 am said:
Having posted my comment, i detoured to Passy Press for the letters about Occupay DC…. W/o assuming any any clairvoyance, John Cogswell letter is satisfying.
I’m a long admirer of Mr Volker as I started my enterprise, Lea-Hamco Ltd, in the midst of the Nixon/Carter inflation run up to Banana Republic status. My first inventory loan was 2% over prime or appx 25%. I should of framed one of those monthly invoices.
Haven Pell, June 28, 2015 at 2:20 pm said:
For those who dislike clicking, here is John Cogswell’s letter referred to above. He assumes that I oppose Citizen’s United, which while incorrect, brought us all a thoughtful presentation that I had not seen anywhere else. Being slightly misinterpreted was well worth the price. I do oppose PR campaigns designed to limit the opposing party’s sources of funding. I favor a level playing field in the competition of ideas. I doubt proponents of overturning Citizens United would be well disposed to stopping unions from contributing to campaigns.
From: John Cogswell firstname.lastname@example.org
To: Nick Gardiner email@example.com
Date: April 25, 2015
Subject: Re: New Essay Expose on Our Federal Government & What to Do About It
Haven Pell is to be commended for illustrating a few of the serious problems facing America and suggesting a pledge of common principles as a first step in remedying a failing nation.
I agree with Haven Pell’s comments but write to comment on his ambiguous reference to Citizens United, which leaves the reader uninformed.
While Pell did not opine on Citizens United, he seemed to support the notion that restructuring political contributions would mitigate the problems he outlined. He likely disagreed with Citizens United because it “thwarted” that effort. If this is a fair interpretation, then Pell has joined a multitude of others, which, based on unsupportable assumptions, ill-advisedly opposes Citizens United, a landmark Supreme Court decision reaffirming fundamental freedoms within the First Amendment. This multitude is not unique in its concern over money in politics and the need for an acceptable solution. The Athenians checked money influence by selecting leaders with a lottery. James Madison concluded there was no solution and that “Destroying the liberty [of some factions is] worse than the disease”, a remark cited in Citizens United. I support Citizens United but believe it should be accompanied by legislation requiring full and prompt disclosure of contributions and expenditures.
Space does not permit an adequate discussion of issues related to Citizens United but I can make a few observations. First, this multitude assumes that messages sponsored by the wealthy are not welcome. There is no evidence to support this. In fact, the messages of the wealthy may be exactly what America needs.
Second, the multitude assumes that the average voter will be overwhelmed by messages of the wealthy and be unable to filter out the good ones from the bad. This assumption is contrary to the fundamental premise of our republic that each individual voter is a sovereign individual and knows best how to filter the good from the bad messages. A contrary conclusion does not demand repeal of Citizens United but overhaul of our constitutional system.
Third, even if the messages of the rich are correctly deemed to be unwelcome, then the question is who decides what messages are harmful. The multitude assumes that there exists an agency or person who can decide what messages are good or bad and can filter them for the people by controlling whose money is being spent. This assumption wrongfully assumes that such agency or person has wisdom superior to that of the people and will never become a tyrant thereby preserving a status quo the people might later prefer to change. This truth is confirmed by the
efforts of Harvard Professor Lessig who has acknowledged the irony confronted by him in his effort to use Citizens United to repeal Citizens United and deprive others of the ability to restore it in the same manner.
Fourth, the multitude assumes that a large corporation engaged in the business of printing news or broadcasting messages (known as the media) delivers worthy messages compared to the alleged unworthy messages delivered by private corporations or persons who commit their own funds to compete with the media. There is no evidence that the messages of media corporations are more worthy than the messages of non-media corporations or persons.
Fifth, the multitude assumes that the average aspirant for public office is able to comprehend the unique and complex election rules that currently affect 71 distinct entities, apply separate rules for 33 different types of speech in federal elections containing do’s and don’ts, and contain 568 pages of regulations, 1278 pages of explanatory materials and 1,771 advisory opinions. Do we really wish to require our future leaders to risk criminal sanctions by a federal prosecutor who, in his discretion, determines to file charges against those trying to help our country? Does anyone believe these rules will shrink in the days ahead? Does anyone believe every candidate should understand this bureaucratic mishmash?
Lastly, the multitude assumes that equalizing the financial resources of candidates is reason enough to prevent others from exercising their First Amendment rights to spend more. While leveling the playing field sounds like a good thing, such a policy is without justification in conditioning the First Amendment rights of one citizen on the unaccountable judgments of another.
It’s time for people to defend Citizens United and at the same time seek disclosure laws. Sincerely yours,
John M. Cogswell
President, Campaign Constitution
John Cogswell started his education in a one-room schoolhouse and is a trial lawyer living Buena Vista, Colorado.
Livingston Miller, June 28, 2015 at 1:20 pm said:
Well done, Mr. Pell and congratulations. But am I the only one who actually prefers the current stark contrasts between the parties and the issues? There is something to be said for a clean and clear cut win without compromise. For example ACA for Obama or Trade Authority for Boehner and McConnel.
Haven Pell, June 28, 2015 at 2:00 pm said:
Thank you, Livy. I don’t think you are the only one to prefer stark contrasts. Nor should you be. How else would questions be flagged for resolution? Might an answer be found in the desired length of the contest? Unlike sports where there are clear winners and losers, celebration and tears in a specific period of time, these fights go on forever. In sports the obvious payoff (there are others) comes from winning. In politics the payoff ends when you win. I am still groping here as I was groping for an effective solution in the essay. A payoff for a win instead of a payoff for endlessly dragging things out deserves exploration.
Mark Moore, June 29, 2015 at 2:11 pm said:
Excellent work on the piece! I like your sports analogy for the winning/losing and stark and wide differences of opinion and policy. Living in Vermont I often see even more extreme views and uncompromising adherence to ideology. For instance, the ACA is seen here as a massive compromise on the only possible solution for the healthcare issue (in the opinion of many), Single Payer.
My analogy for the single payer crowd is: getting to the roof is the goal and they stand next to the house jumping, hoping to make it to the roof in one big leap. All the while they ignore the ladder offering steps toward the goal – The ACA would be one of those steps. Statesmen use steps and compromise to make progress and do the work of the people – politicians and their supporting K St. crews jump up and down.
We need more statesmen and stateswomen in public office; people who don’t change job description the moment they are elected from “do what is best for the country” to “get reelected”. The rub – those two things are often at odds.
Haven Pell, June 29, 2015 at 2:17 pm said:
Mark, if you can live with the pay scale you can be the libertyPell analogies editor. Brilliant. Love the jumping up and down. Single payer would likely spawn a market for optional additional private coverage as it has in other countries. No harm in that. A basic level of care for a reasonable price but, if you want the latest and greatest, you insure yourself to pay for it. A call for statesmen…. alas.
Letter From Paris - Liberty PellLiberty Pell, December 18, 2015 at 2:12 pm said:
[…] By way of full disclosure, the most careful readers will recall that last spring I wrote an essay for The Passy Press entitled Did Occupy Wall Street Pick the Wrong Address? […]