Occupy this: One of my friends works on Wall Street. One camps in Zucotti Park.
The 1 percent and the 99 percent are both partly right – and both are partly to blame for America's current state. Wall Street workers and occupiers alike have lost that crucial companion – responsibility – in their personal and public lives.
Cape Town, South Africa — I have a number of friends on Wall Street. Some are camped out in Zucotti Park trying to sort out their next shower. Others are showering just fine in their Soho apartments, but are pestered by protesters on their way in to work. As for me, I’m trying to sort out which one of these groups I “side with.”
You see, my friend who works for a Wall Street bank comes from an immigrant family, worked hard against plenty of odds, and is as kind as anyone I know. She did not bring about the financial collapse of 2008 and did not seek to profit at other people’s expense. In fact, the company where she worked at the time went out of business, leaving a lot of decent bankers out of work.
I’m mad about what happened on Wall Street (the greed, the irresponsible risk-taking, the misleading investors) and what it means for America today. But I also have trouble seeing my friend and the other bankers I know as part of an evil cabal plotting against “the other 99 percent,” even if they did get hefty bonuses last year.
As for my friends in Zucotti Park, the story is not all that different when it comes to who they are as human beings. Many of them worked hard to get through school and are now frustrated by debt and a lack of decent jobs. They’re sincere and well informed in their indictment of a system that’s rigged in favor of a wealthy few (even though the university we all attended was partly financed by Wall Street investments and buttressed by generous donations from the Street’s elite). And their protest actions come at a personal cost.
It’s tempting to pick sides against the “crooks” or the “mob” in this fight. Life can be fragile. Things go wrong all the time, often by human doing. And if other people are anything like me, we humans are an imperfect lot. Who, then, is to blame for the state Americans find themselves in now?
Conservatives blame big government: Get Washington bureaucrats and career politicians out of the way so that the markets can do their job, families can regenerate values, and individuals can take charge of their lives. Liberals blame Wall Street and the corporate elite: Get big money lobbyists and their greed out of Washington so that government can get (back) to the business of ensuring equal opportunity for all.
One vision relies on virtuous individuals scaled up into a good society, the other on good institutions radiating down onto virtuous people. Both are partly right.
Big government does rein in certain bad behaviors and expand opportunity for people in need, but it can also get in the way of market efficiency and personal freedom some of the time. Big business, helped by high finance, does innovate to solve problems and grow wealth, but also gets infected with the need to maximize short-term profits at all costs – sometimes by cutting corners, socializing risk, or maneuvering within the tax code.
Meanwhile, the trouble still remains that neither individuals nor the institutions we create are sufficiently virtuous to make the whole thing right, and we’re all stuck in this testy experiment of building a democratic republic together.
That’s where the answer may lie: As a society of people inextricably woven together, it’s time we saw that we are all part of the problem and part of the solution. As the philosopher and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr points out, there is a righteous will in every heart to do right by our fellow human beings when we see them face-to-face and a selfish impulse to ignore their basic needs when they are out of view. The trick is to call out those humane tendencies by penetrating through to the very real consequences of our actions that are felt by other human beings.
To my friend at the Wall Street firm, I’d ask: When the complex financial instruments like credit default swaps flash across your screen, do you know that you’re not just trading to maximize your company’s profit but are also investing workers’ pensions, representing a family’s hard-earned retirement? In the long run, have excessive leveraging and subprime lending been worth the human toll?
Change will take a measure of government regulation (some already in effect and some in the pipeline) as well as greater ethical consciousness on the part of my Wall Street friend and her colleagues.
To my friends camped out in Zucotti Park, I’d ask: In what ways do you also profit from Wall Street’s “excess”? How do you benefit from the products and investments of big businesses like Apple and Google? And in what ways are all of us furthering unseen injustice at home and abroad in our headlong demand for cheap goods, cheap credit, and a more comfortable life?
Can those of us in the “99 percent” be sure that we might not also fall prey to those self-centered impulses that led our country astray if we were the titans of Wall Street or Washington?
Finally, to the politicians who (mis)represent us: Are you making good on your stated commitment to serve the needs and interests of all your constituents when you take part in an electoral system where the wealthiest among us fund campaigns and seek access and influence in return? Wouldn’t we be better off if the voters owned elections by making small donations matched with public funds, as in the Fair Elections Now Act before Congress?
In Americans’ clamor for rights – and in our need to be right – Wall Street workers and occupiers alike may have lost that crucial companion – responsibility. Bankers, protesters, politicians, and bystanders must act ethically in their personal and public lives. And that begins with you and me.