The Occupy Wall Street movement should spend today doing a nice little victory lap, because it seemed for all the world like its members were ghost-writers on President Obama's State of the Union speechwriting staff. Though he never directly mentioned the movement itself, Mr. Obama spent a great deal of time on Tuesday night underscoring many of Occupy's most central themes: income inequality, tax fairness, and the need to rein in the illegal and immoral behavior of the nation's largest financial institutions.
Talk is cheap, of course; despite all of Mr. Obama's high-flown rhetoric, his administration is reportedly prepared to cut a disgracefully easy deal with the five banks most directly responsible for the financial meltdown, giving his so-pretty words a hollow ring:
Five banks – Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citibank and Ally Financial (formerly GMAC) -would pay the federal government $25 billion. About $17 billion would be used to reduce the principal that some struggling homeowners owe, $5 billion more would be used for future federal and state programs and $3 billion would be used to help homeowners refinance at 5.25 percent. Civil immunity would be granted to the banks for any role in foreclosure fraud, and there would be no investigations.
There are several reasons why this is could be a terrible deal. For one, the dollar amount is inadequate in relation to both the tremendous loss of wealth via mortgage fraud and the hefty balance sheets of these massive companies. Furthermore, the banks might be allowed to use investor money instead of their own funds – this makes the penalty even lower. Beyond all that: it's extremely hard to justify the absence of investigations and punishment for mortgage fraud that was so widespread and so damaging to people's lives.
There are also many other, more serious problems besides a lack of punitive action. The small amount of money – and the federal government's recent inability to truly help underwater mortgage holders, of which there are currently 11 million – means that the victims of mortgage fraud might not see enough relief. And perhaps most importantly, with no real punishment for widespread damaging fraud, what are the incentives on Wall Street not to engage in similarly destructive practices once again?
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Yeah, kind of makes Mr. Obama's proposed Financial Crimes Unit seem like drovers sent out to catch the horses three years after the barn door was left open, doesn't it? The hope of getting justice for the crimes that brought down the economy has been feeling more remote with each passing day – if there ever was any real hope to begin with – and the soft plea about to be copped by the worst offenders appears to sound the death knell for any such action. Funny how that part didn't find its way into the speech. “We'll get 'em from now on,” seems to be the theme.
Sure you will.
Still, I suppose fluffy rhetoric has its place in any speech, especially a straight-up campaign speech like this one. It certainly did Mitt Romney no favors. His campaign has all the timing skills of a bad comic on open-mike night; by releasing his tax returns on the doorstep of the State of the Union, thus revealing his extravagant income, off-shore financial havens and amazingly low tax rate, Romney became the poster-child for everything the president was talking about on Tuesday night. This will serve the president's re-election campaign well in the general election, but Mr. Romney still has a Gingrich problem to solve before he gets there. The Florida GOP primary is five days away, Romney's once-epic lead there has dwindled to practically nil…and if he loses that one, the stench of panic emanating from RNC headquarters will be palpable.
So, sure, words have their place, especially in politics.
Not everyone out there is talking without doing, however.
A few nights ago, Jacob Burris, the campaign manager for Arkansas Democratic Congressional candidate Ken Aden, came home to find the family cat dead in front of his house, its skull crushed, its eyes hanging out of their sockets, with the word “LIBERAL” scrawled on its body. Mr. Burris' four children were with him when he made the grisly discovery.
Kermit Womack, a talk show host for radio station KURM in Arkansas, has been releasing the addresses of political opponents he doesn't like over the air. While no firm, direct link has been established, it can be assumed that someone decided to take violent action after the location of Mr. Burris' home went out over the air. It was a cat, this time…but given the gruesome nature of the act, Mr. Burris must correctly be wondering if it could have been one of his children.
Not everyone out there is talking without doing, you see. The best lack all integrity, the poet said, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity. It will take more than empty pages to counteract the hatred, violence and extremism that is sweeping across this nation.
Take note, Mr. President. Note it well.