It’s been seven months since protesters gathered at Zuccotti Park in New York, introducing the slogan “We are the 99 Percent.” This week, editor Janet Byrne has gathered some of the best writings on the movement into The Occupy Handbook, featuring essays by authors like Chris Hedges, Paul Krugman, Amy Goodman, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jeffrey Sachs, and Nouriel Roubini. In this excerpt, Michael Lewis has a back-and-forth with Michael Lewis.
What was your first reaction to the Occupy movement?
Some blend of glee and relief. Glee because, by both temperament and occupation, I have a rooting interest in socially disruptive behavior. Relief because I had begun to think such protests might never happen. Given the provocation—intense and effective political pressure from Wall Street to codify two sets of economic rules, one for people who work at giant Wall Street firms, the other for people who don’t—I was surprised it has taken as long as it has for people to hit the streets. The chief cause of the financial crisis was what the government didn’t do (regulate) rather than what it did (subsidize homeownership), and so it seemed strange to me that, until now, the most potent political reaction to the financial crisis has been an antigovernment backlash. It was as if, after some infectious disease killed a million people, the only political reaction was a popular uprising to prevent the manufacture of antibiotics.
Have your feelings about the movement changed?
I think it is a bigger deal than I did when it first started. It’s true in many cities that the campsites are being broken up, and the protesters dispersed. But it’s pretty clear that they hit a nerve. People didn’t like them living on their streets, but they liked what they stood for.
I would probably reorganize the movement around a single, achievable goal: a financial boycott of the six “too big to fail” Wall Street firms.
What evidence do you have to support any sweeping statement about American public opinion?
Did you see Obama’s Kansas speech? [On December 6, 2011, President Barack Obama gave a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, the city in which, on August 31, 1910, Theodore Roosevelt gave his “New Nationalism” address.] Clearly the White House strategy people have decided to fight the next presidential election on the issues that preoccupy the Occupy movement: radical economic inequality and the grotesque distortions in our politics that it causes. Plus various polls all showed that the American people more or less supported the movement—to the extent that many of the 1 percenters simply assumed they were 99 percenters.
The big complaint about the movement is that it doesn’t know what it wants. If someone put you in charge of the movement, what would you have it do?
I’m not certain that they’re wrong to be as woolly-minded about their goals as they seem to be. By not being too explicit about what they want, they attract anyone who is upset about anything. But if I were in charge I would probably reorganize the movement around a single, achievable goal: a financial boycott of the six “ too big to fail ” Wall Street firms: Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo. We would encourage people who had deposits in these firms to withdraw them, and put them in smaller, not “too big to fail” banks. We would stigmatize anyone who invested, in any way, in any of these banks. I’d try to organize college students to protest on campuses. Their first goal would be to force the university endowments to divest themselves of shares in these banks.
Do you really think that could work?
Yes. I think we could create a run on a bank.
If you are so sure that the movement is both important and just, why did you not yourself join them?
The one tent I own is too big. It would have stood out.
Any other reason?
I have small children.
What does that have to do with anything?
It’s the excuse I use to get out of doing anything I don’t really want to do. People seem to accept it.
You are evading the real question. You have written not one but two books about the financial crisis, in which you point out the evils of the current financial system. Since the Occupy movement began, your only contribution has been to write two short satirical pieces in which you designed a strategy for the 1 percenters to keep their money and continue to recruit Ivy League students. Why do writers think it’s okay to be all talk and no action?
Okay, I’ll tell you what happened. Twice I wandered around Occupy camps—in Washington and in San Francisco. There was one giddy moment when I thought I should get up and give a rousing speech about the evils of credit default swaps. After that, I just felt absurd. I was of no use.