Reflections From The Political Prism
The Occupy Wall Street (Occupy Washington/ Occupy Cleveland/ . . .) movement appears to the world as a formless mass. No manifest agenda, no means by which its goals might be accomplished if it has any, no effective decision process by which to decide on a course of action, and no relation to the institutions or persons who might be agents for the change they seek, whatever that may be. And yet the movement is a powerful presence.
What are we to make of this? Futile populist venting? Hippies? Utopian community? Bitter victims of demonic economic forces? How can we compare the Occupiers?
The most apt comparison is to the Old Testament prophets, crying out in anguish and anger. Wall Street is merely the symbol – albeit an appropriate one – of all the clear and present evils the Occupiers bewail: poverty and gross inequality coupled with reckless greed on the part of the powerful; lack of accountability and responsibility; the breakdown of moral order which allows the plunderers to flourish while the innocent suffer.
The Occupiers see the nation as under the sway of reckless, self-seeking monsters. They call on the American people to throw off their dazed confusion and assert their humanity in the cause of economic, social and political renewal.
Until America has wakened, until its ethos has effectively turned toward justice, it is futile to enunciate any agenda, to push toward any specific goals. Until there is an effective mass pointed in the right direction, any practical steps are bound to be half-way measures or empty expressions of resolve, blunted by the resistance of those who support the status quo.
If we agree with the spirit of the Occupiers, it rests with us to bridge the gap between anger and action and fulfill the Occupiers’ vision of a just society. This requires self-education, reasoned and critical discussion and defining of goals to build a firm foundation for political change.
A Tale of Two Buildings
Those who have visited the University Hospital campus on Euclid Avenue have seen a new building which houses the Seidman Cancer Center. It is a marvel. The curved glass front wall leads our vision to the heavens, while reflecting the light of the heavens back to us. But the best feature is the way in which the external architecture fashions the interior. The space just inside the front wall is open from top to bottom, allowing for a lobby and a mezzanine bathed in light that streams through the glass front wall. The overall effect is one of warmth, welcome and comfort – just what is needed by patients afflicted by the dread disease that brings them to the Center.
If you were to look across Euclid Avenue through one of the large windows of a Seidman Center examining room, you would see what looks like the world’s junk pile of tin cans. But what you would see is a building – the Weatherhead School of Management Peter B. Lewis Building, designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry and financed to the tune of $37M by Gehry’s long-time acquaintance, entrepreneur Peter B. Lewis. The building is most often likened to an air liner that has crashed head-first into the ground. Sometimes it is said to look like a bobsled run. In short, it is a monstrosity. If its puerile idiosyncrasies could be seen from a distance, they might prove to have some aesthetic value, but the building is crammed in the middle of a crowd of traditional structures, allowing for only a close-up view or the view of its rear end sticking above the roof-tops, as mentioned above. Why was it built in this way? Apparently to satisfy Mr. Gehry’s ego.
Does all this have any political point? You betcha. It goes back to Ayn Rand, novelist and would-be philosopher, who espoused, in her words, the total separation of government and economics. Among her avid followers were Alan Greenspan, idolized long-time chairman of the Federal Reserve, and other government regulatory officials. The commitment to laissez-faire that they absorbed by listening to Ayn Rand played a large role in the “What, me worry?” attitude of government regulators when the private sector was ravaging the economy.
Ayn Rand, in turn, supported her hands-off doctrine by extolling the accomplishments of the Great Man – the creative genius or the talented entrepreneur, unfettered by ordinary members of society and the government that represents them. Architect Howard Roark in The Fountainhead best exemplifies this conception.
Frank Gehry, a prime representation of Howard Roark in real life, has shown that a renowned architect, when left to his own devices, can create an architectural monstrosity. Alan Greenspan and company have shown that champions of finance, when left to their own devices, can create an economic monstrosity. The Weatherhead building is an apt metaphor for the Great Recession.
Where Were the Parents?
In the endless debates about causes of the Great Recession, one group of interested observers argue that blame lies entirely with the government agencies for their dereliction of duty and bad policy-making. To be sure, government agencies were guilty of dereliction, but that doesn’t erase the role of the financial industry in making subprime loans, bundling them into securities whose toxicity was concealed, and so on down the line of reckless and fraudulent behaviors. The gung-ho critics of the government assume a scenario in which hormone-raging adolescents lust after profits at every turn and in the process ravage the nation’s economy, while the adults who should be supervising them are looking elsewhere.
The critics’ presumption seems to be that we must accept the free market as it is – that boys will be boys, if you will – and if the financial industry wreaks havoc on the economy, the government is totally at fault for giving them the wherewithal to do so.
But the important truth lies one step further. If free enterprise will always seek maximum profit in any way it can, no matter how reckless and rapacious – if that is its nature – then it must be regulated, thoroughly and carefully. That is the lesson of the recent catastrophe. The Dodd-Frank Act is the major effort in this direction; whether it will be effective or not remains to be seen. In any case, we must be eternally vigilant and not let ourselves be bamboozled by apologists for the self-seeking free market.
Why am I beginning to think that Herman Cain is America’s Berlusconi? The differences, of course, are profound and obvious, but I sense that for both of them politics is a foreign country which they have adventured into for fun and profit – at least until their shortcomings catch up with them (which in the Italian’s case has already occurred).
Cain, as we know, blames many of his misfortunes on the liberal press. But as many observers have pointed out, liberals would be delighted to see a featherweight like Cain face off against Obama. So their best course of action is to sit on whatever dirt they have until Cain is nominated (if that happens). Meanwhile, it’s: “Give ‘em hell, Herman!”