This is an increasingly polarized era, and not because of the oft-discussed, but frankly unremarkable partisan divide. Rather, our poles are Dickensian. These are the best of times and the worst of times, depending on the economic universe in which you live.
For the masters of the investment universe, the recession was harrowing but brief and, ultimately, quite profitable. Last year was among Wall Street's best on record and most of the biggest banks are doing rosy business this year, too, save Bank of America. There are many reasons for that success, but largest among them is a suite of policy decisions made in Washington. A combination of bank bailouts, aggressive monetary policy and the Treasury's refusal to hold banks accountable for the bad mortgages on their books have propped up the financial sector.
I needn't dwell on the familiar and dismal reality for everyone else--unemployment stuck at 9 percent, and nearly double that among African Americans; a record 3.8 million foreclosure filings in 2010, with 2011 on track to set another record; poverty rates reaching new highs each year as well, driven by the soaring rates in black and Latino communities. These rising trend lines are pushed up by the same forces juicing Wall Street's profits: the policy choices made in Washington. Democrats have mustered a defense of jobless insurance over the past couple of years, but not much else to help those who make a living through labor rather than speculation.
President Obama stepped into the breach of this split reality yesterday and offered a full-throated, populist oath: He will force the handful of people his policies have enriched to finally "pay their fair share" toward getting everyone else on track. "I reject the idea that asking a hedge fund manager to pay the same tax rate as a plumber is class warfare," the president declared, flaunting his anger at Republicans on Capitol Hill. "This is not class warfare," he later added. "It's math. The money is going to have to come from someplace."
And so the president has outlined an aggressive plan to reduce the deficit by raising revenues alongside the spending cuts he and his party have conceded. Of course, the conversation remains framed around deficit reduction rather than emergency intervention to save millions of families struggling to make it through this week. But Democrats and progressives have still praised the president's proposal, because it at least signals a willingness to challenge, at last, two generations of Republican dogma that asserts tax cuts for the rich are good for the country.
Not that any of this will be of immediate consequence. Washington will be more of a debating society than a center of policy making between now and November 2012. The real decisions have already been made: Congress must cut at least $1.5 trillion from the budget by Thanksgiving. A hope among House Democrats that new money for job creation will somehow shake loose in the process seems fanciful. What remains is a debate over who will pay what share of the $1.5 trillion bill--either the growing number of people who depend upon the social safety net or the super rich who are still enjoying Bush-era tax breaks. Here's hoping the president keeps the courage of his convictions on that question as the debate moves forward.
But whatever happens, what ought to be clear by now is that the interests of those of us not living in Wall Street's universe are not adequately represented. Nor will they ever be--until we demand it. A new movement will begin issuing that demand today. In a series of direct action protests, thousands of homeowners, union members and progressive faith leaders will start demanding, loudly, that the bankers who broke the world do their part to fix it.
The New Bottom Line campaign begins today in Washington State, where local community groups will target the statewide chamber of commerce and JP Morgan Chase to raise awareness about corporate tax loopholes. It will move on to 10 cities hit hard by the twin foreclosure and jobless crises, where local organizers will focus on specific policy choices that can revive their economies by holding banks accountable for their behavior.
"The nation's banks are sitting on a historically high level of cash reserves of $1.64 trillion, but they refuse to help the country," said LeeAnn Hall, who leads Washington's Alliance for a Just Society and is a board member of Colorlines.com's publisher, the Applied Research Center. "It's time for a new bottom line: banks must pay their fair share of taxes, end the mortgage crisis by agreeing to principal write downs for all underwater homeowners, and help create jobs through small business loans."
Importantly, as we move into the campaign season that Obama's speech reflected yesterday, the New Bottom Line campaign will insist that Wall Street accountability remain a part of the discussion. It's long past time we all care less about the political fates of Democrats or Republicans and more about forcing both of them to pay as much attention to homeowners and workers as they do to Wall Street donors and lobbyists. So the campaign will use the election to raise state and local ballot initiatives, divestment campaigns and legislative packages that will force both national and local politicians to answer the most pressing question of our time: Who do you represent, the people or Wall Street?