On #OccupyWallStreet

Under the radar, there has been a steady and sustained protest in recent days in Lower Manhattan, the heart of the financial industry. Under the general title “Occupy Wall Street,” a rotating group of a few hundred protestors is holding a sit-in in the midst of the headquarters of some of the country’s biggest financial corporations.

What’s important about this protest, to my mind, is not the particular goals, tactics or supporters. While the protest itself has drawn criticism or indifference from many corners, it illuminates two important points. First, the financial sector in this country has been taking up a larger and larger share of the economy as the rest of us have fallen further and further behind. Second, the big banks and investment firms who helped cause the crisis and the recession haven’t been fully reined in or held accountable.

That matters, and people around the country get it. We talk to thousands of Americans in their neighborhoods every week, and they understand the real-life effects of Wall Street’s outsized power: the failure of the economy to create good jobs at good wages, the powerful influence of corporations in our politics, the difficulty of keeping a roof over your family’s head.

Sheila Bair, the former head of the FDIC, made this point in front of a skeptical audience of banking industry bigwigs in March:

I would like to propose to you a radical-sounding notion. And it is that increasing the size and profitability of the financial services industry is not – and should not be – the main goal of our national economic policy…

In policy terms, the success of the financial sector is not an end in itself, but a means to an end – which is to support the vitality of the real economy and the livelihood of the American people… let’s be completely honest – in the period that led up to the financial crisis we did not get the job done.

The crisis didn’t begin with the collapse of a few investment firms in 2008. For too long, as wages stagnated, working people had to replace wage growth with debt, and that debt turned into gambling chips at Wall Street’s casino. Instead of serving its most important economic functions, the financial sector got caught up in ever-more-convoluted ways to repackage debt. It was a short-sighted, risky game with a strikingly tiny number of winners, but its eventual collapse left us all losers, with consequences like bailouts, destroyed housing and retirement savings, and a crippling, stubborn recession.

What Working America does every day is reach out to people where they live and educate them on these critical economic issues. We want to make sure working people know that we are stronger together and that we can build power to counterbalance the seemingly overwhelming influence of the finance industry.

It’s easy to get distracted by arguing over who the Occupy Wall Street protestors are and what policy choices they’re fighting for. But at the bottom, they’re a symptom of concerns that go beyond one park in Lower Manhattan.