Sen. Sanders: Wall Street protesters just might fire up Washington leadership

By:  By Joel Banner Baird
The Burlington Free Press

Politics and Government Occupy Wall Street protests in this country have underscored serious shortcomings in our economic and political systems - and could embolden Congress and President Obama to dismantle corporate privilege, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. said Monday morning.

Speaking from his Burlington office, Sanders, called for trust-busting of the sort carried out by President Teddy Roosevelt ("a good Republican") in order to restore a healthy, competitive financial sector.

Public outrage is well justified, he said; and cited two sobering statistics:

-- The nation's six largest financial institutions now have assets worth more than $9.4 trillion - about 65 percent of our Gross Domestic Product.

-- Three of the four largest of those corporations have actually grown in size since they were bailed out two years ago with taxpayers' money.

"If they are too big to fail, then they're too big to exist," Sanders said.

During an extended interview, the senator described parallels between the impulses driving Occupy Wall Street - and his own work to spur Congress and the White House to make systemic changes in how Americans create wealth.

Burlington Free Press: This has been a perennial concern of yours for years, hasn't it?

Senator Bernie Sanders: Sure: I've been talking about it for many years, but it hasn't been out there.

BFP: Explain how your aims - if not your methods - are similar.

SBS: I am very supportive of the protests because they are focusing attention on an issue that needs a lot of discussion: not only the greed of Wall Street and the reckless behavior that has caused this recession, but also the growing inequality in the United States.

It's important for more people for understand that, both in terms of economics and in politics, there's something very wrong when so few own so much and have so much political power - and when so many have so little political power and money. That's what these protester are focusing on, and I think that's a good thing to do.

BFP: How does Wall Street consolidate money and power?

SBS: One example from a political a perspective: when Wall Street wanted more deregulation, over a 10-year period, they spent $5 billion in lobbying and campaign contributions to do away with Glass-Steagall (Act), to do away with the regulations that had prevented them from getting into this hyper-speculative mode. Five billion dollars to get what they wanted! That's extraordinary power.

BFP: You mentioned the six largest financial firms in the U.S. controlling more than half of the country's worth.

SBS: They also issue about two-thirds of the credit cards in this country, and about half of the mortgages. So, what we're looking at is folks with tremendous economic power, and obviously with that economic power goes tremendous political power in terms of their ability to spend huge amounts of money on lobbying and campaign contributions. It was spent to make sure that the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Bill (passed in 2010, ostensibly to regulate financial markets) was as weak as possible.

BFP: You seem to be the most prominent voice in Congress calling for reform. Is it lonely out there?

SBS: While I would not say I'm the only person by any means - there are some other allies on this or that issue - I think it is fair to say that the response from Congress to what's been going on at Wall Street is extremely disappointing.

There's no question: Congress is very, very heavily influenced by Wall Street. Just go to your computer and find out where money comes from. A lot of money for campaign contributions, a lot of money for both political parties, a lot of money for the president, comes from Wall Street. That's the simple truth of the matter.

BFP: The protests seem more expressions of emotions than outlining any alternative.

SBS: People are angry because they understand that the greed and illegal behavior of Wall Street caused this recession, and this recession has led to the loss of millions and millions of jobs. People have lost their life savings, people have lost their homes; people have lost their futures.

And now, three years later, after the American people, against my vote, bailed out Wall Street, unemployment is at 16 percent - real unemployment - and you know what's happening to the people on Wall Street?

They're doing better than they ever did. Their compensation packages now are at record levels.

People see an extremely unfair situation: the people who caused the problem are now doing phenomenally well, while the average person is suffering and has seen a decline in his or her standard of living or has lost a job. People say that's not right; that's just not fair.

BFP: What can we, as a country, do about the financial giants?

SBS: The answer has got to be that you've got to break them up. If they are too big to fail, then they're too big to exist. They should be broken up so that we don't have to bail them again when they collapse again.

And number two: because they have so much economic power, I think they've got to be broken up because that's not what a competitive economy is about.

BFP: Are there lessons in history we need to re-learn?

SBS: Monopolies (in the early 20th century) were broken up by good Republicans like William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt. Standard Oil was broken up, the railroad trusts were broken up. So I think we can learn a lesson from Teddy Roosevelt who broke up the trusts: that should be one of our goals.

BFP: Then what?

SBS: When you have 25 million Americans today who are either unemployed or underemployed, and if you understand that real unemployment includes those people who have given up looking for work and are working part-time when they want to work full-time - that's 16 percent of our population.

It goes without saying that we need a major, major jobs program. We need to put millions of people back to work. I agree with some of what the president is proposing; disagree with certain other aspects. But he is certainly talking about the need for a jobs program. I would go further.

BFP: What kind of jobs?

SBS: Rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, I think, is the fastest and best way to create jobs. Look at our roads, bridges, water systems - go down to Rutland and talk to the mayor there about his water system - wastewater plants, rail: We are falling behind much of the rest of the world in terms of high-speed rail.

A good jobs bill will address all of those things; it will make this country more productive, more internationally competitive and create, over a period of years, millions of decent paying jobs.

BFP: These are tough times. How can we afford to pay for a massive jobs program?

SBS: We need to ask the wealthiest people in this country to pay more taxes. I say use that money to invest in infrastructure and in the process, create jobs for working families.

BFP: Is this what you were talking about as a "tax surcharge" earlier this year?

SBS: In fact, I introduced that legislation in March - and it's now being used, with some changes, by the Democrats. This is a a time when the people on top are doing phenomenally well - and their effective - i.e. their real - tax rates are the lowest in decades. It's what Warren Buffet, a billionaire, is talking about when he says he ends up having an effective tax rate lower than a nurse or a police officer.

BFP: Back to the protests: Are they arising from some kind of long-dormant activism?

SBS: Short answer is: I think so. These protesters are giving a voice to a lot of discontent and frustration and anger. And a lot of that anger has to do with the fact that people perceive that the middle class is collapsing - not only for their own generation, but their worries about their kids. You talk to people out there say, ‘Well, maybe I'm working longer hours for lower wages - but you know what bothers me more, I worry that my kids are going to have a lower standard of living than I do.'

BFP: Will this emotional response gain clarity and a sharper political message?

SBS: I think the answer is yes - that may well happen. When the President or the Democratic Congressional leadership talk about asking the wealthy to start paying their fair share of taxes - is that unrelated to these protests? No, I don't think it is.

BFP: Are you planning to attend any of the rallies?

SBS: I think at this point, at least, my perception is that the protesters want to stay away from elected officials. They want to run their own show and be independent, and I think that's absolutely appropriate: a good idea. If I were invited to speak and I could go, yeah, I would. But I think at this point I think it's absolutely fine that grassroots people do it themselves.

BFP: How would you sum up the protesters' message?

SBS: The protesters are talking about the extraordinary unfairness of the current economic situation. It's an important theme from a moral perspective, and a political perspctive and an economic perspective.

BFP: How about any concrete change emerging from them?

SBS: This is what I think: When elected officials begin to look out their windows and they see people all over the country going into the streets talking about income and wealth and equality; talking about the collapse of the middle class - it gives them, the elected officials, more courage to begin raising these issues in Washington and state legislatures, with the knowledge that there are a lot of people back home sharing those concerns.

Sometimes it's hard to be way out in front. But when they pick up the morning newspaper, or they watch television and they see people saying: ‘Enough is enough - we're sick and tired of Wall Street ripping off America.' Well, you know what? It makes it easier to go on the floor of the House or the Senate or the state legislature and say ‘We've got to do something about this. We've got to do something about this.'

The fact that there seems to be a growing consciousness of these issues will make it easier for elected officials to stand up to big-money interests.

BFP: Could that be a hopeful sign?

SBS: I think it is.