Please Just Keep an Open Mind

Aside

The first key to wisdom is frequent and assiduous questioning.                                                                                                                                                                      — Peter Abelard (1079–1142)

My friend Don Butterfield is the spokesman on a two-minute introductory video for the High-Rise Safety Initiative. (See the home-page of http://highrisesafetynyc.org and the video, “For the Safety of All New Yorkers,” which you can also find on YouTube.) Visit the website and read a little bit of what’s on the home page. And take a minute or two to watch the video.

The High-Rise Safety Initiative is a New York City ballot proposal to investigate the collapse of World Trade Center 7 on Sept. 11, 2001, and any similar collapses that may take place in the future. I hope New York City residents reading this will consider signing the petition before July 3rd to help get the proposal on the ballot this November.

My approach to the issues around 9/11 is to ask a lot of questions. I wouldn’t bother doing that if I already had all the answers. I don’t. So I ask a lot of questions.

Do I ever draw conclusions? Sure. But tentative ones. Provisional ones. I hedge my bets like that because, frankly, I have the somewhat childish fear that, if it were to turn out that the official story of 9/11 is true and accurate in every detail, then people would giggle at me for ever being foolish enough to question it.

I think most people have that same fear of being ostracized or ridiculed, that same need for approval and acceptance. No one likes to be scorned as a fool or a crackpot. But this case is so important that I feel like I have to take the chance. If people want to laugh at me for asking too many questions, I’ll handle it. I hope you’ll consider joining me in that endeavor—just asking some pertinent questions.

But before you do, it might be helpful to get some background on the case, in addition to what’s on the Initiative website. I’ve read a fair amount of material from both sides of the story, that is, from the perspective of those who adhere to the official theory and from the point-of-view of those who challenge and criticize it.

Let me suggest that you check out the 2008 final report of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on the collapse of World Trade Center 7. (NIST is a bureau within the U.S. Dept. of Commerce.) The version that I read can be found toward the end of the widely read book, Debunking 9/11 Myths. It consists of selected sections of the full report. It is only 12 pages long. After reading it, ask yourself if you find it convincing.

It bears repeating that I do not have all the answers. But I do have so many unanswered questions about the official U.S. government theory of 9/11 that I believe we absolutely must have a new investigation of what happened on that terrible day 13 years ago.

Jerry

My response to “What Is the New Populism?”

Re: “What Is the New Populism?” by Robert Borosage

To Portside Editors:

Doesn’t the “New Populism” need and deserve a new political party to achieve its goals? Like, say, a party called…the Populist Party?

That sounds like a good idea to me. After all, why should we expect the Democratic Party to pass Populist legislation? The Democrats sold out organized labor on NAFTA in the ‘90s, caved in to the Bush administration on the illegal invasion of Iraq in the ‘00s, and joined the Republicans in bailing out the big bankers who caused the Crash of 2008. Why would any sensible Populist trust them?

Yet it is not so much what Robert Borosage includes in his speech that makes me so doubtful about his message, but rather what he leaves out. He doesn’t mention proposals that are certain to be crucially important to Populists.

For example, he doesn’t say a word about Single-Payer national health insurance. He says nothing about repealing the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments, which would surely help millions of workers form unions to raise their standard of living. There’s nothing in his speech about a carbon tax to combat global warming, or about getting rid of NDAA Section 1021 and other attacks on traditional American guarantees of liberty. Yes, he does mention the initiative for a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Seattle. But that development is largely thanks to new city council member Kshama Sawant — who happens to be a Socialist, not a Democrat.

Let’s not get bamboozled by the phony-baloney Democrats (and Republicans) anymore. Go to www.populistclubofnewyork.wordpress.com to learn more.

Sincerely,

Jerry Kann     25-60 42nd St., #1F   Astoria, NY 11103    JerryKann99@Yahoo.com

P.S. I am already a registered Populist and have been for years. In 2008, Ralph Nader ran on a Populist line here in New York, and I was happily one of the volunteers on that campaign. So it’s interesting to note that Borosages’s piece starts by identifying the problem in our country today: “Too few people control too much money and power…” This is almost a direct quote from Nader’s Green Party campaign for President in 2000.

The “Affordable” Care Act: The Best Illustration Yet of Why We Need a New Major Political Party

TV, radio, and newspapers are always telling us that the Democrats and Republicans in Congress are sworn enemies. They are locked in a battle to the death. They despise each other, and they have fundamentally different ideas about where they want to take the country.

It’s a lie.

The truth is, they agree on just about everything, especially when it comes to the big ticket items. They only pretend to disagree. It’s all an act. They’re faking the whole goddamn thing.

They don’t pretend very well—the act is very crude and easy to see through—but they are very consistent and they religiously stick to the script. Only a few members of Congress ever speak the truth about what’s really going on.1 What’s more, major media play along and report all the noisy theatre and windbag rhetoric as if it were an honest debate about real alternatives.

Worst of all, a lot of voters pretend to believe the lies peddled by their own parties. Many “conservatives” pretend to buy the free-market ideology that they get from the Republicans, and “liberals” pretend they’re dumb enough to believe the lies they hear from the Democrats.

But when it comes time for Congress to vote on legislation and for the President to sign it, suddenly the D’s and R’s come together. They always manage to come up with something nice and juicy for the big banks and corporations and the speculators and the war profiteers. Republican or Democrat, they always seem to make sure that the people who are already very rich get even richer. And who gets screwed in the process? The vast majority of Americans—the people who do the work and pay the taxes.

For a list of examples of how this evil practice has worked over the years, see the footnote at the end of this article.2 But for the best example of all, take the Affordable Care Act.

On this issue of healthcare “reform,” what do the Republicans say they want? To de-fund the ACA and stick with the old health insurance system, which has been very profitable for the big insurance companies for decades. What do the Democrats say they want? A new system under which people who have no money get squeezed for an average of $328 a month by a private, for-profit insurance company for a health insurance plan they can’t afford. (Full disclosure: I do not have health insurance coverage of any kind. Neither of my two jobs offers coverage and I don’t have any disposable income, to speak of. I cannot possibly afford a private insurance policy that costs $328 a month or anywhere close to it.)

If these financially strapped people refuse to sign up for one of the plans on offer, they’ll get nailed for a tax penalty by the IRS. If they can’t scrounge the money to pay the penalty by April 15, they will undoubtedly go into debt to the government. More debt! More bills they can’t pay! And all to support a new system that will probably be even more profitable for the big insurance companies than the old system was.

No matter which of the two major parties “wins” this “fight,” the big insurance companies will be the real winners. They will remain very rich or get even richer. Their top directors and shareholders will continue making money hand over fist, as usual, or they’ll also rake in billions of dollars in new profits. And millions of Americans who are already struggling will get even poorer.

That’s a pretty weird outcome for a country that’s supposedly based on democracy and majority rule, isn’t it? But wait. It gets weirder. Because you almost never hear about the best option of all—a Single-Payer national health insurance plan. The U.S. government, under this plan, would be the “single payer” for all health insurance claims, while most physicians and hospitals would remain in the private sector. The plan is often called “Medicare for All” because it would simply extend the very successful Medicare system, which now exists for older people, to everyone.

Under Single-Payer, the high cost of healthcare would disappear because the profiteers—the big insurance companies—would be phased out over a period of 10 to 15 years. And why shouldn’t they be phased out? Their tremendous greed is what caused the healthcare crisis in the first place.

But the Democrats and Republicans in Congress made damn good and sure that Single-Payer did not get any traction, or even a mention. In May 2009, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing where 16 groups had been invited to testify about proposals for managing health insurance in the United States. Not one of the 16 would be testifying about Single-Payer.

Luckily, in the gallery were eight people of conscience who made sure that the audience watching the hearings on C-SPAN and the reporters in the hearing room got an earful about Single-Payer. Russell Mokhiber of Single Payer Action, Katie Robbins of HealthcareNOW!, Dr. Margaret Flowers, Kevin Zeese and several others literally stood up for a truly rational and fair national health plan. As the hearings began, they stood up, one after another, and forcefully made their case for Single-Payer before being arrested.

This is how desperate things have become. This is what the two major parties have done to the highest deliberative body in our supposedly free country. The Senate wouldn’t even allow the best idea to get a hearing! Even if a reasonable person can have doubts about Single-Payer, is it therefore right to keep it from even being discussed? Is it fair? Is it honest? Is it democratic?

Naturally, blaming the two major parties for this state of affairs is not the same thing as blaming all their members in Congress. There are a precious few individual exceptions, a handful of honest, courageous people. Dennis Kucinich really was sincere when he said he was dedicated to a public, not-for-profit health insurance system for this country. He was one of the last hold-outs standing up to the stupendous vote-buying power of the big insurance companies. The very fact that he held out—when most of his colleagues were busy selling out—shows that he was sincere. But during the winter of 2010, as the vote on the ACA approached, Obama and the rest of the Democratic Party leadership all piled on Kucinich and bullied him into voting Yes. They thus destroyed one of the few good people they had left.

A few Republicans are probably just as sincere about their own beliefs—“free” markets, “free” trade, limited government, and so on. Most Republicans, however, don’t believe any such thing. Any candid observer can see that, because their actions speak much louder than their words. If they really did believe their own P.R., they’d fight “big government” by opposing the biggest, costliest armed forces in the world. They’d support an international free market in labor, allowing workers to cross international borders as easily as corporations do. And they’d be honest about their assessment of Obamacare and give up the ludicrous charge that it’s “socialism.”

The Affordable Care Act is not, as the Republicans pretend to believe, a government take-over of the health insurance industry. It’s a health insurance industry take-over of the government. It’s not socialism. It’s fascism.

It’s very instructive to look at how the insurance companies reacted when the ACA was passed. I cannot find a transcript or audio of the interview I heard on NPR the morning after Congress passed the Act, but I do recall the NPR reporter suggesting that this legislation represented a “windfall” for the insurance industry. Did the industry spokesperson respond indignantly and complain about how much money the big insurance companies stood to lose from the enactment of the ACA? No, not at all. She calmly went into an explanation of how the ACA was going to work. And she certainly did not deny that the Act was going to lead to windfall profits for insurance companies.

The name Liz Fowler hasn’t come up much in the few days since October 1, but that name draws over 20,000 hits on Google and 14,000 on Bing, mostly in stories from 2010 and 2012. Take, for instance, a story by progressive stalwart Bill Moyers (with copious quotes from the man who brought us the Edward Snowden revelations on the NSA, Glenn Greenwald; see http://billmoyers.com/2012/12/13/washington%E2%80%99s-revolving-door-is-hazardous-to-our-health/). The story notes that Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee (yes, the same committee at whose hearings the “Baucus 8” caused such a ruckus and got arrested for it), is a big fan of Fowler’s. ”After Obamacare passed,” Moyers writes, “Senator Baucus himself, one of the biggest recipients in Congress of campaign cash from the health care industry, boasted that the architect of the legislation was none other than Liz Fowler.” Moyers also informs us that Fowler once worked for WellPoint, the largest health insurance company in America. She then had her brief but momentous stint working for the Obama administration. Where does she work now? Johnson & Johnson.

All this chicanery cries out for action. Yes, we have to keep digging on important issues like health insurance in America, in order to separate the truth from the propaganda. But there comes a time when you have to take action.

The time has come, it seems to me, to go beyond merely “speaking truth to power.” The time has come to simply take the power away from the people who have abused it. This can be done legally, constitutionally, and non-violently. People who support the Medicare for All idea must run for public office. They only need to speak truth not to the powerful, but to the voters.

The voters have gotten so used to being lied to that, at first, they will blow the raspberries and wave these new candidates away. But after awhile they’ll begin to see that these candidates are really telling the truth. Finally, some of those voters will say to themselves: Hey, what have I got to lose? I think I’ll vote for one of those Single-Payer advocates. Soon the idea will catch on. Hey, you can vote for a decent, honorable person instead of a scoundrel. And you have a shot at sweeping the scoundrel out of office in the process!

It can work. It does mean actually competing with the Democrats and Republicans—not cozying up to them. It means conflict. But, once again: it’s legal, it’s constitutional, and it’s non-violent. And it’s probably the only thing that’s going to work. We must give it a serious try as soon as possible.

1    Senator Dick Durbin must have startled quite a few of his colleagues when he said, “Frankly, the banks run this place.”

2   Some of the instances of give-aways to the big corporations and the upper-bracket “earners” include:
—Barack Obama’s refusal to let the Bush-era tax cuts for the rich sunset late in 2010, when he still had a chance to get it passed while the Democrats ostensibly controlled Congress. (See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/16/AR2010121606200.html) Naturally Obama could have let taxes go up on the wealthy and negotiated for preventing them from going up on middle-income taxpayers, but he chose not to do that. If the Democrats—including, of course, the President—can’t deliver on one of their progressive promises even when they have the opportunity to do so, then it’s pretty clear there’s no meaningful difference between the two major parties. And, once again, take note who the real winners were: the fat cats. They did just as well with a Democrat in the White House as they did with a Republican.

—The Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999. The bill was passed by Congress and signed into law by Democrat Bill Clinton, and overturned the Glass-Steagall separation of investment and commercial banking that had worked so well since it was established by Congress in 1933. The FSMA led to a giddy celebration among the Wall Street bankers—and to the Crash of 2008 a few years later.
—The Obama campaign’s promise to end the Iraq war in 16 months. May 2010 came and went seemingly without a soul even whispering about the Democratic President’s obvious failure to do anything to end the occupation of Iraq. Instead, Obama & Co. kept the war going until the end of 2011, exactly as the Republican George W. Bush had arranged, and no doubt pleasing the contractors and mercenaries who got another year-and-a-half to do business in that ruined country.
—The big bank bail-out of 2008. Congress at first rejected the Bush administration’s proposal to gift-wrap $700 billion and send it to the very Wall Street bankers who had caused the crisis. (It’s interesting to note that more Democrats than Republicans in the House voted with a Republican President on the bill. Party lines? What party lines? See http://articles.latimes.com/2008/oct/04/business/fi-bailout4) But within minutes of the vote in the House being announced, the market took a nose-dive and ended the day almost 800 points down. Suddenly both parties got the message. Within a few days the Senate passed, in effect, another version of the bill that the House had already rejected (which may not even have been constitutional, since appropriations bills are supposed to start in the House, not in the Senate; see Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution) and the House dutifully passed it in short order. You’ve hardly ever had a better example of the tail wagging the dog—the tail being the Wall Street gang and the dog being their loyal puppies in the U.S. Congress.

#     #     #

We Need a New Political Party

March 21, 2013

 

The time has come to create a new major political party.

A new major political party. An independent party big enough to compete with the two existing major parties, the Democrats and Republicans—and hopefully big enough, someday, to sweep them both out of power.

The two major parties are not permanent fixtures of the landscape. They’re not immortal. They’re not in power as the result of some law of nature or an act of God. They’re fallible and corruptible. And they’ve outlived their usefulness.

Both major parties are corrupt beyond redemption. They’ve been taking bribes from the Big Business bosses for so long that now they really only represent rich people and the big banks and corporations. Many Americans have been faithfully voting Democrat or Republican for years, or for decades, and they will be shocked at the suggestion that those two parties need to be broomed out of office. But in fact, their time has come. They’ve gotta go.

In order to save American democracy, we need thousands and thousands of honest, smart, articulate, angry people to run for public office. We need candidates who have never run before, but who have always known deep down that they have something valuable to contribute. We need new blood, and lots of it.

Why do these new candidates need a party? Well, why do workers need a union? Why do community activists need a club? Such organizations give people a way to divide up the work and to give every member a chance to participate. Sure, a person can run for office as a lone wolf, as a full independent. But that’s a very hard way to do it, perhaps much harder than it needs to be for most people. Doing politics takes time and effort. And money. And organization. That’s what a political party is for.

How many people could be brought together in such a party? Well, millions of people want a single-payer healthcare system that covers everybody, not one that excludes some folks and forces everybody else to buy health insurance from a private insurance company. Millions also want labor laws that make it easier to form unions—to raise their standard of living and give them more power in the workplace. And certainly millions want to bring all the troops and mercenaries home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and even from many other U.S. bases all over the world that pointlessly stand guard against rival superpowers that don’t exist anymore. There are millions of Americans who agree on all these issues, but the Republicans and Democrats keep throwing up roadblocks. What’s the obvious solution? Form our own party and do the job ourselves.

What’s It All About?

 Politics is about power. It’s about competition just as much as it’s about cooperation and compromise. Yes, it would be wonderful if all of us—rich and poor and middle-class alike—could converge in a gigantic group hug and agree to share our resources and responsibilities. But the world at present is dominated by a very small, fabulously wealthy group of people who want all the money and power for themselves. For a long time they only hoarded money, but for the past 20 or 30 years they have been hoarding political power as well. They have become a grave threat—a near-mortal threat—to American democracy.

But there is a way to save our democracy. We can do it by using the democratic process itself. Competing for power in elections—competing for the support of our fellow citizens and indeed for the support of people of goodwill all over the world—that is the instrument we can use to save democracy in the United States.

Nowadays it’s fashionable to be cynical about electoral politics. That’s not surprising, considering how completely the Democrats and Republicans have sold out to the big corporations. Many people seem to feel it’s a waste of time even bothering to vote. But feeling discouraged and giving up altogether are two different things. There is no reason to give up, when there is such vast potential for working people to take public power into their own hands. If thousands of activists take responsibility for their own future, if they finally graduate from being voters to being candidates, then we can transform and renew American democracy. And we can win. If we are the 99%, it shouldn’t be any great trick to win elections by a simple majority of 50% plus one.

Some people—particularly those in the Occupy movement—seem to have given up on the electoral process entirely. We should abandon the old system, they argue—not so much overthrow it as leave it behind. We must not try to reform the old politics but instead simply ignore it and build new institutions. Also, many Occupy participants want to rely entirely on direct action—demonstrations, marches, and acts of civil disobedience—rather than engage in party politics of any kind.

Maybe they’re right. I’m proud to be a member of Occupy in New York City and in my own neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. I’m certainly willing to consider Occupy’s non-electoral, “non-partisan” approach. After all, I can’t knock success. Occupy Wall Street captured the attention of the world in the fall of 2011, before it was violently put down. And indeed the day may come when the corporate state becomes so powerful that civil disobedience will be our only possible way of fighting back.

But that day hasn’t come yet. Direct action, as effective as it has been in many countries, is not our only possible means of resistance. We’ve hardly even begun to tap the potential for creating a large, dynamic, growing political party of working people. We’d be downright irresponsible not to try to bring that potential to life.

What’s more, it’s not very likely that the millionaires and billionaires who have taken over the government will be content to live and let live. They’ve shown disrespect for the rule of law and contempt for the general welfare of the people. They attack us without provocation. They attack union members, journalists, and peaceful protestors. We can’t just wish ’em away. We have to take action.

When Malcolm X toured Africa in 1964, he saw that several nations on that continent had won their freedom the same way the United States had won its own freedom from Great Britain: They made up their minds they wanted independence from their colonial overlords, and then they threw them out. They marshalled their own power. “Power in defense of freedom is greater than power in behalf of tyranny and oppression,” said Malcolm upon his return to the U.S., “because power, real power, comes from conviction which produces action, uncompromising action.”

Electoral politics is one means of asserting power. It is lawful. It is constitutional. It is non-violent. And it has the potential to be very, very, very—well, powerful.

If people who call themselves “progressives” really do want progress, they have to take the struggle to the next level. They have to assert themselves. They have to compete with those very rich, pathologically greedy people who have bought up the services of both major parties. They can no longer rely on Democrats who have lied to them and betrayed them again and again and again. They have to declare their independence and break free.

This Can’t Wait

Back in October of 2000, Ralph Nader showed up at the first debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush. The event was put together by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a private organization formed by the Democratic and Republican national committees and a few big corporate sponsors. At that stage Nader, the Green Party candidate for President that year, was polling at around 4% or 5%, which translated to about 4 or 5 million supporters. (Democrats often complain that Nader “took away” votes from Al Gore, as if those votes somehow belonged to Gore and his supporters. But Democrats know deep down that by 2000 they had driven away many loyal voters by acting so much like Republicans that many people couldn’t tell the difference anymore.)

That night Nader had a ticket to a screening of the debate and an invitation for an interview with Fox News, both set to take place on the campus of the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Yet when he tried to enter the compound, as a supposedly free man in a supposedly free country with every right to be there, he was approached by a representative of the Debate Commission and a Massachusetts state trooper—and threatened with arrest.

Nader and the Greens were using the democratic process to challenge the fat cats and to speak up for the 99%. What was the response? Police state tactics. A threat of arrest when no crime was being committed. All Nader had to do was show up and the major parties and their corporate bosses freaked right out. They were terrified of an honest man daring to meddle in an election process that they obviously thought they owned.

The Greens had taken all that talk about “the land of the free” at face value and acted on it. Who stood in their way? An unelected, unaccountable, corporate-funded “commission” and a state trooper. The corporations and the cops. Sound familiar?

That was twelve years ago. We were already living in a corporate police state in 2000, but a lot of people must have been looking the other way, trying not to see what was already so plain and evident. They can’t look away anymore. The actions of the corporate elite are just too crazy, their tactics too crude, their guilt too obvious, and their wanton destruction of our country too hard to ignore.

The corporate bosses who run American politics do have a lot of money. But so what? We have ’em outnumbered by a staggering margin. They’re just people, and they’re vulnerable. And we can defeat them. And we can do it democratically. We just have to make up our minds that we can do it. That’s the first step.

                                   

 

How Elected Community Councils Can Make New York City Government More Democratic and More Responsive

How Elected Community Councils Can Make New York City Government More Democratic and More Responsive

by Jerry Kann—–Green Party candidate for New York City Council in District 22—–Astoria, Queens

June 23, 2005

The basic idea of the Community Councils is not new. Other members of the Green Party have proposed it, and probably all political parties in New York have put the idea forward at some time in the past. But it first struck me as a change that is absolutely necessary for New York City in 2001, during the battle over new power plants in Astoria and Long Island City. There were many public hearings on the proposed plants. Sometimes hundreds of residents showed up, almost all of them saying very emphatically that they did not want the power plants in this area. Yet somehow every single one of the proposed power plants was approved by the state government—as if the wishes of Astoria and LIC residents meant nothing at all. This made me angry. It still does.

I know many people will dismiss this as just the usual griping on the theme of “not in my backyard.” No one wants an air-polluting power plant in their neighborhood—or a waste transfer station, or a sewage treatment plant. So we are told that somebody has to make this sacrifice, and we’re scolded like children for objecting to the city’s or the state’s plans. But it is almost always the same people who are expected to make sacrifices. Usually, although not always, it is poor people in poor neighborhoods. One example is the sewage treatment plant on the Hudson, in West Harlem. While the public park that tops off the plant and overlooks the river is very pretty, the powerful odor from plant is still something no one would want near their home. Yet somehow the plant was dumped on the relatively disadvantaged inhabitants of West Harlem and not on the well-to-do residents of the Upper West Side.

We have seen this happen time and again in New York, as for instance with the small power generators based in West Queens and the South Bronx, areas with very high rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases. As for Astoria, a relatively middle-class area, residents get the shaft from power plants because the old infrastructure for the plants is here and has been here for over a hundred years. Naturally it would cost billions to build new infrastructure in other parts of the city. But shouldn’t that be the cost of doing business for the extremely profitable electric power industry? Why must the people in Astoria pay the price in terms of negative impact on their health and safety?

If New York had elected “Community Councils” based in City Council districts, city residents would have more direct say-so and oversight on important matters that affect their health, their safety, their level of taxation, and other things that directly affect their lives.

The Current Community Boards Are Insufficient

Most of the members of the Community Boards are decent, well-intentioned people who care about the neighborhoods they serve. Also, their staffs are generally made up of competent, responsible people who probably should be kept on under any new system we set up. But the current Community Boards are less than perfect, for several reasons:

• They have very little power Their role is more or less advisory. If they object to proposed city planning, that cannot stop the plans from going through.

• They are not particularly representative Community Board 1 in Queens covers an area that includes the Queensbridge Houses, one of the largest public housing projects in the country. Most of the residents there are African-American, and yet Board 1 had (as recently as a year and a half ago) only one African-American member. (There are two today—on a board with almost 40 members.)

• They are oriented toward the Borough, not the City Under the old Board of Estimate system in place until 1989, Borough Presidents had substantially more influence over how the city was run than they do now. What is needed today are Boards or Councils based in City Council districts, oriented not toward the fairly meaningless Borough Boards but toward City Hall, where the real decision-making power lies.

How the Community Council System Would Work

In each City Council district, we might elect a relatively small number of people—say, ten or twelve, or perhaps an odd number to prevent ties and deadlocks. They might be elected at-large or within “wards” (sections of the larger district). This second option is probably better, since it would ensure that the different small neighborhoods within a given district—which are often very different indeed—would be represented. (A walk around City Council District 22 illustrates the tremendous diversity of our area, and probably the same could be said of many other districts. There are ethnic differences, and sometimes very stark differences in terms of how poor or well-off people are. Two Coves has community concerns that may not be relevant for Astoria Heights, and vice versa. Issues that are important in Old Astoria might be very different from those in North Queensview. And so on.)

A dozen or so elected representatives in each City Council District shouldn’t seem extravagant to anyone. New York’s 51 City Council districts contain about 160,000 residents each. That’s a lot of people. Certainly a town of 160,000 in some rural county upstate deserves a city council or a town board. So why shouldn’t the same number of people living in New York City have an elected Community Council in their own “little city” of Astoria or Woodside or Jackson Heights? (Or Greenpoint or East Harlem…and so on.)

The Council should meet at least monthly. And an important part of those meetings would be a report from the district’s member of City Council—our representative at City Hall. This would ensure that everybody would be more up to speed on issues that concern us all. And perhaps they ought to be paid. A small stipend of perhaps $500 or $1000 a year would make the members more accountable to their constituents, since the people in the communities would certainly expect their Community Council members to justify that stipend by reaching out to their fellow residents and making themselves available. (If people think this is a grand sum of money, you only need to do the math. The cost of a dozen Community Council members in 51 City Councils districts citywide, paid $1000 annually, would amount to a little more than $600,000—not even one-tenth of one percent in a total budget of $48 billion.)

How the System Would Improve Our Quality of Life

Some of the benefits of the Community Councils would include:

• More help for City Council—–The offices of City Council members are overworked and understaffed. City Council would be better informed and better supported in its work if they were assisted by a body such as the Community Council in their district.

• More responsiveness from City Council—–Certainly a City Council member who has to report to his or her constituents twelve times a year will be more responsive and more accountable.

• Help in making Local Laws—–The Community Councils could bring their knowledge of their neighborhoods to bear in helping to make Local Laws. They could propose legislation that City Council (as it’s presently set up) cannot formulate now, due to lack of information and input from residents.

• Better organization and increased clout in dealing with Albany—– Much of the local authority that New York City lost in the fiscal crisis of the 1970s can come back to the city now. At that time New York’s population was about 7.1 million. As of the 2000 census, it is over 8 million—more populous than it has ever been in history, thanks in large part to increased immigration. (About 40 percent of New York City residents today are foreign-born; in Astoria the figure is about 50 percent.) Neighborhoods have more residents, less crime, and a better tax base than they had 30 years ago. Now is the time to rev up the organization of New York’s 51 little cities and start demanding what we deserve from New York State—such as the billions for city schools already awarded to us by the courts but denied to us by the governor.

• Shining a light on corruption—–A Deputy Commissioner of Buildings in the Giuliani administration, one Richard Visconti, in 1998 issued a so-called “technical memo” that allowed cell phone companies to skip the approval process to start putting up cell phone antennas on rooftops all over the city. The legal process calls for public hearings in the communities where the companies want to build the antennas. If it weren’t for the courage and tenacity of the Astoria Neighborhood Coalition, headed up by activists Evie Hantzopoulos and John Campos, we might never have found out that the cell phone antennas were installed illegally and without timely review by the residents of Astoria.

• Making everybody more accountable—–When SCS Energy (a Massachusetts-based power company which goes by the locally adopted name of “Astoria Energy”) first proposed a new natural gas-burning power plant at the north end of Steinway Street, they had to submit to local hearings held by the state Dept. of Public Service and Dept. of Environmental Conservation in April 2001. The proposal was for a huge plant with capacity of 1000 megawatts. Elected officials from West Queens held several very well-publicized rallies protesting a much smaller proposed plant (with capacity of 88 megawatts) that was eventually built on the East River next to Silvercup Studios. But while freshman Assemblyman Michael Gianaris and City Council candidate Peter Vallone Jr. were able to show up at those rallies protesting the smaller plant, they never organized rallies to protest the much larger plant at the site on Steinway Street. In fact, on the evening of the hearings for the bigger plant—which were attended by dozens of out-of-district building trades workers and covered for TV news by Channel 2 and Channel 4—Gianaris and Vallone Jr. were nowhere to be seen.

Obviously it would be helpful for people in Astoria to be able to question their elected officials about matters like this more regularly and more often—not just once a year at a Town Hall at the Museum of the Moving Image. If this were the case, we might be able to find out why it was so important to protest a very small power plant project…but OK to do nothing to protest a project that was more than ten times the size.

We would lose nothing by making our system of city government more democratic and making our elected officials accountable to the people who do the work and pay the taxes. Throughout American history, more democracy—more power for the average person—has improved life for everybody. From the abolition of slavery, to the gains of the organized labor movement, to the winning of the vote for women, to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s…these changes made our country a more fair, decent, and humane place to live. We can be confident that more democracy for our communities would have the same civilizing influence on life here in New York City today.

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A Fast Word about American Fascism

Fascism was different in the twentieth century. It was more open and obvious and in-your-face. Hitler and Mussolini had their own political parties that made lots of big, noisy promises that they mostly followed through on. And when they came to power, no one had any illusions that they would be promoting political choice or democracy.

But in our country—in the United States in 2012—our whole system is based on the illusion that there’s a meaningful choice between the two major political parties. The elected officials of both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are, by and large, well-paid flunkies for big banks and corporations. Everybody knows that. Yet almost everyone buys into the myth that great “partisan” battles are going on in Washington at all times, that the D’s and R’s are forever going at it hammer and tongs over their “differences.”

People believe this myth—or say they believe it—because they must be listening to what elected officials and candidates say and paying almost no attention to what they do. What the D’s say is designed to sound like the polar opposite of what the R’s say, and vice versa. But what each party does…pretty much amounts to the same thing.

One example of how this works (out of dozens I could cite) is Barack Obama’s decision to stick with the Bush tax cuts for rich people in December 2010. Here he had yet another chance to prove that he represented a “change” from the rule of Bush and the Republicans. Between Election Day and the swearing in of the new Congress, Obama had a Democratic majority in the House, and he could have thrown out those tax cuts. Instead, he caved in to those who wanted to keep the cuts going for another two years. He did exactly what the Republicans wanted him to do. Or rather, both D’s and R’s did exactly what the fat cats in the top tax brackets wanted them to do.

When that happened, millions of registered Democrats should have been furious. Maybe they were. But if they were, they didn’t speak out about it. When they saw their own choice for president—a “Democrat”—acting just like a Republican, they seemed to accept it as if such behavior were normal and sane.

Millions and millions of Americans watch these Orwellian rituals over and over again, and they nod their heads in agreement, mindlessly—almost out of habit, or out of desperation to convince themselves that the lies they’ve just heard have something to do with reality. It’s like a vast opium dream. It’s deranged, and sick, and it’s destroying our country.

There’s almost nothing of substance that the two major parties really disagree about, and the more alike the Democrats and Republicans become—that is, the more they end up passing laws that are good for rich people and bad for everybody else—the harder they have to pretend to be fighting each other.

There are other illusions and static that we have to contend with. For instance, it’s very hard to see who’s giving the orders in American fascism, probably because no single individual is in charge—not even the president. It wasn’t always this way. President Richard Nixon was probably the last president who was something like his own man. He really did give orders, and his staff usually obeyed. But U.S. presidents since the time of Ronald Reagan seem much more like actors playing a part. Front-men. After-dinner speakers. Stooges.

Nixon himself was a kind of fascist, but he wasn’t like our present-day American fascists. It’s true that he had more in common with Adolph Hitler than any recent U.S. president— the temper tantrums, the paranoia, the maniacal need for real individual power. But the fact is that our country was much less fascistic in his times than it is today. The relative power of corporations versus the power of organized labor, the peace movement, the feminist movement, and even the civil rights movement (which by the time of Nixon’s presidency had won most of its big gains) was altogether different then. Ordinary people had more power, and corporations had less. There was more democracy.

All the progressive citizens’ movements were much stronger 40 years ago than they are today, and the big corporations—powerful as they were then—are now the absolutely dominating force in American society. Government responded to the people, at least a little, back in the 1960’s and early ’70’s, and while Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon really did have their hands dug deep into the actual operations of government, their successors are much more hands-off. The post-Reagan presidents have become merely the public face of the government. To the extent they are the hands, they seem to be merely the hired hands.

What’s more, the fascism of recent presidents has been remarkably successful at building up the power of the giant corporations. Just look at what they’ve delivered: bailouts for big banks…more and more funding for “defense,” with bigger and bigger profits for defense contractors…more and more secrecy in government…more give-aways and handouts to Big Oil, Big Finance, Big Insurance, Big Media. The rhetoric and the theater of recent presidents has varied a little: this one talks a lot about “the middle class,” that one pretends to be a “Christian”…one smiles a lot, another is always trying to “look tough.” But for all the differences in style, Reagan and his successors have been very much the same in terms of substance. They’ve all been very skillful in manipulating and exploiting the 80 or 90 percent of the people who do the work, while helping to funnel the money up the ladder to the big corporate bosses on top.

American fascism does not really need a charismatic leader. There is no cult of personality, no Big Brother or Führer who is supreme leader for life. Presidential candidates compete for corporate cash (and even augment it with lots of smaller donations from hopeful voters, as Barack Obama did in 2008), and generally the best fundraiser wins. But when the time comes for the actor to leave the stage—after four years or eight years—he doesn’t try to make himself a dictator. He bows, he smiles, he exits. Then his replacement comes on stage. And the show goes on.

Still one more important difference between old-style and new-style fascists: speed. Hitler was in a big hurry to conquer the world…and he burned out. Or rather, he was so manic and belligerent that he created his own opposition. He dared people to stop him, and they did. The American fascist, on the other hand, takes his time. He tries to carry out what Ralph Nader has aptly called a “slow-motion coup d’état.” He gets up, he shaves, he puts on a blue suit, and he goes to the office, where he conducts the exploitation of the people and the destruction of the Earth at a steady—but leisurely—pace. He plans far ahead—years, decades into the future. And he doesn’t burn out. Why should he? He’s not a lone dictator, but a more or less equal member of the Committee. He shares the work. Success or failure doesn’t all depend on him. He might work late some nights or handle a rare crisis over the weekend, but generally he can afford to pace himself. He can keep the fascist project going—slowly, yes, but relentlessly.

Oscar Wilde once remarked that the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings. That’s the dilemma of working people: we go to work, and most of us have to check our politics at the door. We have to wait until after work for a Labor Party meeting or a Green Party meeting or a gathering of Occupy Queens. But the people who own the world actually have the luxury of devoting a pretty fair chunk of the workday to politics—that is, to bribing elected officials, bribing media hacks and pundits, bribing tenured academics. They want the biggest bang for the buck, so they’re undoubtedly very selective about how those bribes are disbursed. But they can afford to be selective and meticulous. They have the money…and they have the time.

Those they can’t bribe directly, such as most people who work for “progressive” non-profit organizations, they set limits for. Strictly speaking, they threaten, albeit very quietly: “Hey, professional liberal: You like your job? Then don’t make waves. Spout progressive rhetoric all you like. Do ‘community organizing.’ But don’t get political. When Election Day gets close, you lead cheers for some Democrat who’s pretty much the same thing as the Republican. When a progressive of true courage and integrity—like Nader—comes along, attack him. Keep your nose clean, and do as you’re told.” It may seem unfair to characterize the political activity of so many people like this. But it squares with the truth. There is a bizarre combination, in most liberals, of progressive “belief” and slavish obedience to the Democratic Party, no matter how much that party abandons progressive values. The Democrat leadership gets more and more beholden to the corporate elite every election cycle, and yet millions of devoted “progressives” vote Democrat without a murmur of protest. Many of them are doing excellent work in their fields, but they wreck the good work they do by kowtowing to the Big Business powers that be. They don’t fight. They obey.

Fascism in America is not overtly racist, as Nazi and Japanese fascism were. America is too polyglot, too ethnically and racially diverse, to tolerate Nazi-style attacks on, say, African-Americans. No U.S. government is likely ever to conduct a genocidal race war of the kind the Nazis carried on against the Jews. This is the case even though the terrorism of the KKK and other hate-mobs was still going on as recently as the 1960’s, and even though there are probably millions of Americans who would support openly racist government policies. But the top managers of the U.S. economy probably will never support a militant racist for the presidency. They might even support a Black man for the job.

Indeed, they already have. The evidence is Barack Obama himself, an African-American who won the “money primary” as far back as 2007, raising millions in campaign funds from Wall Street, and often under the direction of such financial big-shots as George Soros. The soft, toothless regulation of the Dodd-Frank financial “reform” law is evidence of what a good job Obama has been doing for Wall Street. Crude right-wing propaganda denounces Dodd-Frank, of course, but no intelligent, informed person of the Right or the Left really believes that propaganda. Democrats in Congress know Dodd-Frank is weak and ineffectual and no serious threat to Wall Street. Republicans know it too. But the D’s pose as the courageous fighters for working people, and the R’s pose as the defenders of the sacred institution of free enterprise. Both poses are as phony as a Goldman Sachs derivative, and the more pathetically phony the act appears, the harder they try to sell it. Republican? Democrat? What difference does it make? And talk about a safe bet for the bankers! “Heads, we win. Tails…we win.”

In short, it’s all about the money, and the role of race and racism are secondary. For Adolph Hitler, it really was largely about his obsession with the Jews. But it’s very hard to picture the corporate bosses allowing a few racist Republicans to rock the boat too much. Race hatred will probably be with us for a long time, but not as a primary weapon of the people who pull the strings of the political puppets in Washington.

American fascists might finally object to being compared with the Nazis on the grounds that the American variety is “soft” fascism. It’s nasty, yes…but tolerable. But tell that to the civilians killed in Iraq from 2003 on—conservatively estimated at 100,000 or more—or to the families of almost 5000 U.S. personnel who died in the Iraq war. Tell it to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have lost their homes in the continuing mortgage crisis, while the bankers who caused the crisis had their losses covered by the taxpayers and even collected record bonuses. And tell it to the many Americans outraged by a recent act of Congress that effectively suspends the right of habeas corpus and allows the military to arrest and imprison any U.S. citizen indefinitely, without pressing charges or bringing the accused to trial. Journalist Chris Hedges is suing President Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and calling for a federal court to declare the new law unconstitutional. Hedges recently said that if the “indefinite detention” provisions remain on the books, it will be the last step on the road to “corporate fascism.” Hard, soft, or in-between, we can now answer the question we all saw on political buttons and protest signs during George W. Bush’s second term: “Is it fascism yet?” Yes, it’s fascism now.

Despite all these differences between the fascism of the 1930’s and that of the 2010’s, they have one absolutely crucial characteristic in common: their dependence on the big private corporations.There was no nationalization of Krupp or Thyssen or Siemens or other huge industrial enterprises in Nazi Germany. The big corporations went along with the whole Nazi project and generally did what they were told, but they remained in private hands. In this Hitler was only following the Italian model. Mussolini (or his court philosopher, Giovanni Gentile) defined fascism as a system in which the government and corporate interests are more or less the same thing: “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.”

Public intervention in the economy designed to benefit the working majority at the expense of a fabulously wealthy, over-privileged minority might have mass popular support. It might even have the potential to become law democratically, as in the case of much of the New Deal legislation of the 1930’s. But today in the U.S., the dominant propaganda on television and in the newspapers seems to echo Mussolini: “The corporate State considers that private enterprise in the sphere of production is the most effective and useful instrument in the interest of the nation.”

The big corporate interests that have taken over the U.S. government use our elected representatives to give corporate rule the appearance of legality. The attempt to suspend habeas corpus is a case in point: a whopping Congressional majority of both parties passed that bill even though it contradicts any reasonable reading of the Constitution and departs altogether from once-respected traditions of American law and jurisprudence. For Congress to throw away precious civil liberties seems downright weird and irrational.

Yet maybe their actions are very rational indeed, if not especially honest or honorable. Members of Congress depend very heavily on big corporate campaign contributions in order to keep their jobs. So they seem to be content to violate their own oaths of office and to tear up the Constitution if it will keep the corporate money flowing. They’re behaving like drug addicts terrified of losing their connection. They’re addicted to corruption. And it’s no surprise at all that their new authoritarianism emerged in 2011, a year of uprisings against corrupt governments all over the world.

The American fascists have had a great deal of success up to now. They command unimaginable wealth and power, and seem to have our government officials in their pockets. They have a completely dominating influence on media, information, and pop culture. Many of them are smart, dedicated, and ruthless. That’s a pretty tough combination to beat.

But certainly not impossible.

What about Wall Street? My questions to the President

What follows is a letter I wrote to the White House back in 2010, with some questions about the President’s speech in April of that year at Cooper Union in New York. This was the speech in which Obama pitched his proposals for financial sector reform. I read it, and of course I had questions, as you can see in the letter below.

After that comes the White House response, which arrived about eight months later. Following that is the text of the President’s speech, for your reference.

As I’ve learned to my chagrin over the years, asking questions is the easy part. Getting answers is something else altogether.

Jerry Kann _______________________________________________________________________

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

August 9, 2010

Dear President Obama:

A few weeks ago, I read your speech on regulation of the financial industry, which you delivered at Cooper Union in New York back in April. I write with a number of questions.

1) Early on in the speech you mention the need “to enact a set of updated, commonsense rules” for Wall Street.

Why do you speak of “rules” rather than laws? Does the U.S. government enforce “rules” differently than it enforces laws? More leniently, perhaps? With more room for interpretation? If that is the case, why do the folks on Wall Street deserve this special treatment?

2) Further on, you discuss the massive bank bailout of 2008, stating that “much of that money has now been paid back.”

When I read that, I immediately wondered: *how* much? How much of the bailout money had in fact been repaid by the day you gave your speech? I think it would have been a very good idea for you to point to a fairly precise dollar figure of what the banks still owe the taxpayers. You might also have mentioned when repayment in full is expected, or indeed mandated by the appropriate act of Congress. I think the people would appreciate hearing such specific information from you directly.

3) You go on to state that in recent years millions of American consumers have been “duped” and “misled” by Wall Street speculators. You even go so far as to say that “a few companies made out like bandits.”

Is this just a metaphor?! Or are you saying that the directors of these companies are literally thieves? If you are in fact saying that, I would certainly agree. After all, the big bankers seem to be the ones who created the financial crisis in the first place, and yet strangely they seem to be the ones who have reaped the biggest benefits from it. But if they stole, why aren’t you calling for them to be prosecuted? Doesn’t justice demand that?

These (and related) questions are still relevant and need to be addressed. I get the feeling that the vast majority of Americans were not really consulted about the nuts and bolts of the financial reform bill that recently passed Congress. What I have read so far about the bill leads me to believe that we need much more discussion and debate on this issue, and almost certainly additional legislation to properly regulate the banking and financial services industry. I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Jerry Kann
25-60 42nd St., #1F
Astoria, NY 11103

P.S. You can consider this an open letter, since I will probably be posting it on one or more spots on the Internet sometime soon. If and when I do, I’ll follow up by also posting your answers to my questions.

_______________________________________________________________________

April 13, 2011

Mr. Jerry Kann
Apartment 1F
25-60 42nd Street
Astoria, New York 11103

Dear Jerry:

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me. I value your
comments and inquiries.

I greatly appreciate the outpouring of messages from Americans across the country and around the world. Some comments are supportive, others are critical, but all reflect the desire of Americans to participate in a dialogue about our common concerns and challenges.

To learn more about my Administration or to contact me in the future, please visit: www.WhiteHouse.gov. Thank you again for writing.

Sincerely,

[signed] Barack Obama

___________________________________________________________

President Obama’s speech of April 22, 2010, on Financial Sector Reform

Thank you very much. Everybody, please have a seat. Thank you very much. Well, thank you. It is good to be back. (Applause.) It is good to be back in New York, it is good to be back in the Great Hall at Cooper Union. (Applause.) We’ve got some special guests here that I want to acknowledge. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney is here in the house. (Applause.) Governor David Paterson is here. (Applause.) Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. (Applause.) State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli is here. (Applause.) The Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg. (Applause.) Dr. George Campbell, Jr., president of Cooper Union. (Applause.) And all the citywide elected officials who are here. Thank you very much for your attendance. It is wonderful to be back in Cooper Union, where generations of leaders and citizens have come to defend their ideas and contest their differences. It’s also good to be back in Lower Manhattan, a few blocks from Wall Street. (Laughter.) It really is good to be back, because Wall Street is the heart of our nation’s financial sector. Now, since I last spoke here two years ago, our country has been through a terrible trial. More than 8 million people have lost their jobs. Countless small businesses have had to shut their doors. Trillions of dollars in savings have been lost — forcing seniors to put off retirement, young people to postpone college, entrepreneurs to give up on the dream of starting a company. And as a nation we were forced to take unprecedented steps to rescue the financial system and the broader economy. And as a result of the decisions we made — some of which, let’s face it, were very unpopular — we are seeing hopeful signs. A little more than one year ago we were losing an average of 750,000 jobs each month. Today, America is adding jobs again. One year ago the economy was shrinking rapidly. Today the economy is growing. In fact, we’ve seen the fastest turnaround in growth in nearly three decades. But you’re here and I’m here because we’ve got more work to do. Until this progress is felt not just on Wall Street but on Main Street we cannot be satisfied. Until the millions of our neighbors who are looking for work can find a job, and wages are growing at a meaningful pace, we may be able to claim a technical recovery — but we will not have truly recovered. And even as we seek to revive this economy, it’s also incumbent on us to rebuild it stronger than before. We don’t want an economy that has the same weaknesses that led to this crisis. And that means addressing some of the underlying problems that led to this turmoil and devastation in the first place. Now, one of the most significant contributors to this recession was a financial crisis as dire as any we’ve known in generations — at least since the ’30s. And that crisis was born of a failure of responsibility — from Wall Street all the way to Washington — that brought down many of the world’s largest financial firms and nearly dragged our economy into a second Great Depression. It was that failure of responsibility that I spoke about when I came to New York more than two years ago — before the worst of the crisis had unfolded. It was back in 2007. And I take no satisfaction in noting that my comments then have largely been borne out by the events that followed. But I repeat what I said then because it is essential that we learn the lessons from this crisis so we don’t doom ourselves to repeat it. And make no mistake, that is exactly what will happen if we allow this moment to pass — and that’s an outcome that is unacceptable to me and it’s unacceptable to you, the American people. (Applause.) As I said on this stage two years ago, I believe in the power of the free market. I believe in a strong financial sector that helps people to raise capital and get loans and invest their savings. That’s part of what has made America what it is. But a free market was never meant to be a free license to take whatever you can get, however you can get it. That’s what happened too often in the years leading up to this crisis. Some — and let me be clear, not all — but some on Wall Street forgot that behind every dollar traded or leveraged there’s family looking to buy a house, or pay for an education, open a business, save for retirement. What happens on Wall Street has real consequences across the country, across our economy. I’ve spoken before about the need to build a new foundation for economic growth in the 21st century. And given the importance of the financial sector, Wall Street reform is an absolutely essential part of that foundation. Without it, our house will continue to sit on shifting sands, and our families, businesses, and the global economy will be vulnerable to future crises. That’s why I feel so strongly that we need to enact a set of updated, commonsense rules to ensure accountability on Wall Street and to protect consumers in our financial system. (Applause.) Now, here’s the good news: A comprehensive plan to achieve these reforms has already passed the House of Representatives. (Applause.) A Senate version is currently being debated, drawing on ideas from Democrats and Republicans. Both bills represent significant improvement on the flawed rules that we have in place today, despite the furious effort of industry lobbyists to shape this legislation to their special interests. And for those of you in the financial sector I’m sure that some of these lobbyists work for you and they’re doing what they are being paid to do. But I’m here today specifically — when I speak to the titans of industry here — because I want to urge you to join us, instead of fighting us in this effort. (Applause.) I’m here because I believe that these reforms are, in the end, not only in the best interest of our country, but in the best interest of the financial sector. And I’m here to explain what reform will look like, and why it matters. Now, first, the bill being considered in the Senate would create what we did not have before, and that is a way to protect the financial system and the broader economy and American taxpayers in the event that a large financial firm begins to fail. If there’s a Lehmans or an AIG, how can we respond in a way that doesn’t force taxpayers to pick up the tab or, alternatively, could bring down the whole system. In an ordinary local bank when it approaches insolvency, we’ve got a process, an orderly process through the FDIC, that ensures that depositors are protected, maintains confidence in the banking system, and it works. Customers and taxpayers are protected and owners and management lose their equity. But we don’t have that kind of process designed to contain the failure of a Lehman Brothers or any of the largest and most interconnected financial firms in our country. That’s why, when this crisis began, crucial decisions about what would happen to some of the world’s biggest companies — companies employing tens of thousands of people and holding hundreds of billions of dollars in assets — had to take place in hurried discussions in the middle of the night. And that’s why, to save the entire economy from an even worse catastrophe, we had to deploy taxpayer dollars. Now, much of that money has now been paid back and my administration has proposed a fee to be paid by large financial firms to recover all the money, every dime, because the American people should never have been put in that position in the first place. (Applause.) But this is why we need a system to shut these firms down with the least amount of collateral damage to innocent people and innocent businesses. And from the start, I’ve insisted that the financial industry, not taxpayers, shoulder the costs in the event that a large financial company should falter. The goal is to make certain that taxpayers are never again on the hook because a firm is deemed “too big to fail.” Now, there’s a legitimate debate taking place about how best to ensure taxpayers are held harmless in this process. And that’s a legitimate debate, and I encourage that debate. But what’s not legitimate is to suggest that somehow the legislation being proposed is going to encourage future taxpayer bailouts, as some have claimed. That makes for a good sound bite, but it’s not factually accurate. It is not true. (Applause.) In fact, the system as it stands — the system as it stands is what led to a series of massive, costly taxpayer bailouts. And it’s only with reform that we can avoid a similar outcome in the future. In other words, a vote for reform is a vote to put a stop to taxpayer-funded bailouts. That’s the truth. End of story. And nobody should be fooled in this debate. (Applause.) By the way, these changes have the added benefit of creating incentives within the industry to ensure that no one company can ever threaten to bring down the whole economy. To that end, the bill would also enact what’s known as the Volcker Rule — and there’s a tall guy sitting in the front row here, Paul Volcker — (applause) — who we named it after. And it does something very simple: It places some limits on the size of banks and the kinds of risks that banking institutions can take. This will not only safeguard our system against crises, this will also make our system stronger and more competitive by instilling confidence here at home and across the globe. Markets depend on that confidence. Part of what led to the turmoil of the past two years was that in the absence of clear rules and sound practices, people didn’t trust that our system was one in which it was safe to invest or lend. As we’ve seen, that harms all of us. So by enacting these reforms, we’ll help ensure that our financial system — and our economy — continues to be the envy of the world. That’s the first thing, making sure that we can wind down one firm if it gets into trouble without bringing the whole system down or forcing taxpayers to fund a bailout. Number two, reform would bring new transparency to many financial markets. As you know, part of what led to this crisis was firms like AIG and others who were making huge and risky bets, using derivatives and other complicated financial instruments, in ways that defied accountability, or even common sense. In fact, many practices were so opaque, so confusing, so complex that the people inside the firms didn’t understand them, much less those who were charged with overseeing them. They weren’t fully aware of the massive bets that were being placed. That’s what led Warren Buffett to describe derivatives that were bought and sold with little oversight as “financial weapons of mass destruction.” That’s what he called them. And that’s why reform will rein in excess and help ensure that these kinds of transactions take place in the light of day. Now, there’s been a great deal of concern about these changes. So I want to reiterate: There is a legitimate role for these financial instruments in our economy. They can help allay risk and spur investment. And there are a lot of companies that use these instruments to that legitimate end — they are managing exposure to fluctuating prices or currencies, fluctuating markets. For example, a business might hedge against rising oil prices by buying a financial product to secure stable fuel costs, so an airlines might have an interest in locking in a decent price. That’s how markets are supposed to work. The problem is these markets operated in the shadows of our economy, invisible to regulators, invisible to the public. So reckless practices were rampant. Risks accrued until they threatened our entire financial system. And that’s why these reforms are designed to respect legitimate activities but prevent reckless risk taking. That’s why we want to ensure that financial products like standardized derivatives are traded out in the open, in the full view of businesses, investors, and those charged with oversight. And I was encouraged to see a Republican senator join with Democrats this week in moving forward on this issue. That’s a good sign. (Applause.) That’s a good sign. For without action, we’ll continue to see what amounts to highly-leveraged, loosely-monitored gambling in our financial system, putting taxpayers and the economy in jeopardy. And the only people who ought to fear the kind of oversight and transparency that we’re proposing are those whose conduct will fail this scrutiny. Third, this plan would enact the strongest consumer financial protections ever. (Applause.) And that’s absolutely necessary because this financial crisis wasn’t just the result of decisions made in the executive suites on Wall Street; it was also the result of decisions made around kitchen tables across America, by folks who took on mortgages and credit cards and auto loans. And while it’s true that many Americans took on financial obligations that they knew or should have known they could not have afforded, millions of others were, frankly, duped. They were misled by deceptive terms and conditions, buried deep in the fine print. And while a few companies made out like bandits by exploiting their customers, our entire economy was made more vulnerable. Millions of people have now lost their homes. Tens of millions more have lost value in their homes. Just about every sector of our economy has felt the pain, whether you’re paving driveways in Arizona, or selling houses in Ohio, or you’re doing home repairs in California, or you’re using your home equity to start a small business in Florida. That’s why we need to give consumers more protection and more power in our financial system. This is not about stifling competition, stifling innovation; it’s just the opposite. With a dedicated agency setting ground rules and looking out for ordinary people in our financial system, we will empower consumers with clear and concise information when they’re making financial decisions. So instead of competing to offer confusing products, companies will compete the old-fashioned way, by offering better products. And that will mean more choices for consumers, more opportunities for businesses, and more stability in our financial system. And unless your business model depends on bilking people, there is little to fear from these new rules. (Applause.) Number four, the last key component of reform. These Wall Street reforms will give shareholders new power in the financial system. They will get what we call a say on pay, a voice with respect to the salaries and bonuses awarded to top executives. And the SEC will have the authority to give shareholders more say in corporate elections, so that investors and pension holders have a stronger role in determining who manages the company in which they’ve placed their savings. Now, Americans don’t begrudge anybody for success when that success is earned. But when we read in the past, and sometimes in the present, about enormous executive bonuses at firms — even as they’re relying on assistance from taxpayers or they’re taking huge risks that threaten the system as a whole or their company is doing badly — it offends our fundamental values. Not only that, some of the salaries and bonuses that we’ve seen creates perverse incentives to take reckless risks that contributed to the crisis. It’s what helped lead to a relentless focus on a company’s next quarter, to the detriment of its next year or its next decade. And it led to a situation in which folks with the most to lose — stock and pension holders — had the least to say in the process. And that has to change. (Applause.) Let me close by saying this. I have laid out a set of Wall Street reforms. These are reforms that would put an end to taxpayer bailouts; that would bring complex financial dealings out of the shadows; that would protect consumers; and that would give shareholders more power in the financial system. But let’s face it, we also need reform in Washington. (Applause.) And the debate — the debate over these changes is a perfect example. I mean, we have seen battalions of financial industry lobbyists descending on Capitol Hill, firms spending millions to influence the outcome of this debate. We’ve seen misleading arguments and attacks that are designed not to improve the bill but to weaken or to kill it. We’ve seen a bipartisan process buckle under the weight of these withering forces, even as we’ve produced a proposal that by all accounts is a commonsense, reasonable, non-ideological approach to target the root problems that led to the turmoil in our financial sector and ultimately in our entire economy. So we’ve seen business as usual in Washington, but I believe we can and must put this kind of cynical politics aside. We’ve got to put an end to it. That’s why I’m here today. (Applause.) That’s why I’m here today. And to those of you who are in the financial sector, let me say this, we will not always see eye to eye. We will not always agree. But that doesn’t mean that we’ve got to choose between two extremes. We do not have to choose between markets that are unfettered by even modest protections against crisis, or markets that are stymied by onerous rules that suppress enterprise and innovation. That is a false choice. And we need no more proof than the crisis that we’ve just been through. You see, there has always been a tension between the desire to allow markets to function without interference and the absolute necessity of rules to prevent markets from falling out of kilter. But managing that tension, one that we’ve debated since the founding of this nation, is what has allowed our country to keep up with a changing world. For in taking up this debate, in figuring out how to apply well-worn principles with each new age, we ensure that we don’t tip too far one way or the other — that our democracy remains as dynamic and our economy remains as dynamic as it has in the past. So, yes, this debate can be contentious. It can be heated. But in the end it serves only to make our country stronger. It has allowed us to adapt and to thrive. And I read a report recently that I think fairly illustrates this point. It’s from Time Magazine. I’m going to quote: “Through the great banking houses of Manhattan last week ran wild-eyed alarm. Big bankers stared at one another in anger and astonishment. A bill just passed… would rivet upon their institutions what they considered a monstrous system… such a system, they felt, would not only rob them of their pride of profession but would reduce all U.S. banking to its lowest level.” That appeared in Time Magazine in June of 1933. (Laughter and applause.) The system that caused so much consternation, so much concern was the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, also known as the FDIC, an institution that has successfully secured the deposits of generations of Americans. In the end, our system only works — our markets are only free — when there are basic safeguards that prevent abuse, that check excesses, that ensure that it is more profitable to play by the rules than to game the system. And that is what the reforms we’ve been proposing are designed to achieve — no more, no less. And because that is how we will ensure that our economy works for consumers, that it works for investors, and that it works for financial institutions — in other words, that it works for all of us — that’s why we’re working so hard to get this stuff passed. This is the central lesson not only of this crisis but of our history. It’s what I said when I spoke here two years ago. Because ultimately, there is no dividing line between Main Street and Wall Street. We will rise or we will fall together as one nation. (Applause.) And that is why I urge all of you to join me. I urge all of you to join me, to join those who are seeking to pass these commonsense reforms. And for those of you in the financial industry, I urge you to join me not only because it is in the interest of your industry, but also because it’s in the interest of your country. Thank you so much. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. Thank you.