There was plenty of finger pointing last Tuesday morning as WNYC's talk show host Brian Lehrer led a spirited discussion with a live audience on the subject of "Occupy New York." The most contentious topics were accountability for U.S. income disparity, and the causes of our financial crisis. Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer accused the Federal Reserve of lack of oversight; New York Federal Reserve Deputy Chairwoman Kathryn Wylde blamed international economic pressures; and Occupy Wall Street protester Jesse LaGreca blamed a non-representative democracy.
Yet despite their bickering, the panelists agreed that the income disparity in America is unacceptable; that the economy needs to improve; and that accountability is lacking. Amid the rapid-fire disagreements, there was a common struggle to grapple with the complex, systemic causes of our country's wobbly moment.
In an effort to poke a hole in LaGreca's arguments, business columnist Greg David asked, "What does accountability mean to you?" It's a fair question. Accountability is often vaunted as the unimpeachable principle missing from our country's response to recurring recessions and the widening income gap. And when we look at past bailouts of "black swan" level crashes and the moral hazard inherent in having institutions that are "too big to fail," it's clear that our system of accountability needs to be reconfigured. But how? In the heat of the debate, LaGreca defined accountability as investigations of bankers and corporate leaders, rather than a more global approach.
When Lehrer drew out LaGreca on the decision-making process underway at Occupy Wall Street, it became clear that LaGreca envisions the movement as a testing ground for a new form of accountable government. LaGreca is looking for a unicameral legislature (similar to Occupy Wall Street's General Assembly) where a 51 percent majority would be enough to pass a bill, thus ending the filibuster. He wants to eliminate political parties entirely and convert our system into a direct democracy.
With such a system, LaGreca contends, we would cut out the problems of campaign finance, party platforms, and special interests that stand in the way of true democratic consensus. Without party platforms or corporate interests to consider, he says, leaders would be accountable to their voters. With this new idea on the table, the meaning of accountability and its place in society has shifted.
LaGreca's plan is idealistic, and maybe impractical. Still, while parsing blame is a necessary step towards injecting accountability into the political-economic climate of the United States, it is clearly insufficient. We need more of the big-picture discussion that Lehrer was able to spark on Tuesday in order to truly confront and deal with the systemic lack of accountability.
[PHOTO CREDIT: Timothy Krause (CC).]