Rich People Broke America and Never Paid the Price

Lehman Brothers collapsed ten years ago, exposing a rotten system run only by greed. In an alternate universe, things actually changed.

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Sep 11 2018, 6:00pm

(Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

What will you be doing on September 15, this year? Saturday marks ten years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the largest bankruptcy in US history and the trumpet that sounded the start of a global economic crisis. Clever financial "products" broke, setting off a cataclysm of joblessness and homelessness across the country and abroad in the aftermath of which we still dwell. This is important. Former Lehman employees will reportedly be having secret celebrations. Yet if there are mass marches or liturgies of mourning planned, I haven’t heard about them.

Maybe there's still time to make some kind of ritual up.



The obvious, minimum observance, I would think, would be a mass march down Wall Street and around the Lower Manhattan’s Financial District. I know, from my traipsing around with Occupy Wall Street, how cathartic such rituals of return can be. Even if much of high finance has decamped to Midtown Manhattan or somewhere else along the high-frequency trading wires, that old downtown of America's largest city has more symbolic heft. The march might be raucous and wild, like most marches were in the Occupy days. But the generation that came into adulthood during the crisis has grown older. Maybe they would be more inclined to something quiet, like holding up their student loan bills with the silent resignation that survival has taught them. Or perhaps they would brandish their parents' foreclosure filesor some other document marking them as the first American generation to be less well off than the one before it.

Then again, Americans have had many marches of questionable utility lately. In his forthcoming guide How We Win, veteran activist George Lakey encourages organizers to avoid marches and rallies altogether in order to take more creative—and effective—action. The goal, instead, might be to hit Wall Street where it hurts, like with a "move your money" campaign in which those who still have accounts at big banks transfer their savings over to community-owned credit unions. The more courageous among us might opt for a debt strike, agreeing together to stop debt payments, stemming the banks’ cash-flow until some demand or other is met.

But then we would have to think of a demand.

The trouble that makes this occasion so awkward to memorialize is the lack of imagination about it. After the Great Depression, Americans got Social Security, financial reforms, protections for unions, and a massive federal jobs program. After the Great Recession, they got corporate bailouts and Obamacare, plus a few new regulations now in the process of being undone.

Sure, markets have rebounded; banks and investors are swimming in profits again. Unemployment is way down, even if wages are still mainly flat. But the basic ingredients of the decade-old crisis are still there, and some prognosticators are expecting another collapse sooner than later. Nothing has really changed, but what if it had? There would be more to celebrate.

Consider a universe, for instance, in which September 15 has become an opportunity. Emboldened by the loss of an establishment candidate in the last election, lawmakers choose that day to pass the most ambitious economic reforms in a generation. The package enables credit unions to grow so as to challenge investor-owned banks head-to-head, and it sets out simple limits so that, within five years, “too big to fail” will be a thing of the past. It updates century-old antitrust laws to reign in all sorts of corporate excess, including that of the online platforms whose power has undermined small retailers and local news organizations. It streamlines the process of lending to startup cooperative businesses, owned by their workers or customers. On top of this, a new sovereign wealth fund is formed, making every American a co-owner of a chunk of the economy—a new reality about which their monthly dividend checks serve to continually remind them.

Perhaps we can then be forgiven for giving in to the temptation to march. Congress sets up a desk on the National Mall where people can pick up their first check straight from their representatives. Sure, it’s a gimmick, but legislators might win approval ratings like they haven’t seen in decades.

Maybe, in yet another universe, it didn't take us a whole decade to get the message. There, during the early aftermath of the crisis, public outrage brought about a set of commonsense reforms that both simplified and strengthened financial rules. To protect themselves from the banks' wrath for doing so, politicians engineered a constitutional amendment that strictly constrained political contributions from the wealthy. This move opened the door to a wide range of reforms that had been quietly blocked by the wealthiest Americans for decades. The size of Wall Street relative to the rest of the economy has begun shrinking; the rate of small business creation has already skyrocketed. By forming cooperatives together for purchasing and services, these businesses have started to gain economies of scale that enable them to compete globally.

Things haven’t been perfect in this alternate reality. But in it, we’re ready to regard September 15 as a day of mourning, because at least the suffering it caused finally compelled America to change. When redemption is genuine, it becomes easier to mourn.

The universe we actually find ourselves in, of course, seems in some respects stranger than any of these alternate ones. A lot has happened since 2008, but few things have been as bizarre as the refusal to meaningfully correct the system that destroyed millions of jobs, homes, and dreams—and enabled the spread of authoritarianism around the world.

This has been a brutal decade. Whatever we do on September 15, we must resist the impulse to forget how it began.

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