Occupy the SEC: Moving From the Campsite to the Weeds of Regulatory Reform

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The surest way to rankle a supporter of the Occupy Wall Street movement is to repeat the common claim that the movement has no defined goals, a criticism that has dogged the group since its inception. But last week an offshoot of the movement, called “Occupy the SEC,” undermined that characterization when it submitted a 325-page letter to federal regulators filled with concrete criticisms and proposals for the final implementation of the so-called ‘Volcker Rule.’

The letter offered detailed responses to the hundreds of queries that regulators posed to the public on the possible effects of the rule, which bars federally-supported banks from making speculative trades or owning private equity or hedge funds. It was also an example of the Occupy movement participating in the regulatory process alongside the lobbyists for big banks whom they supposedly despise. In fact, the letter shows that it’s members not only have a high level of financial sophistication, but also a respect for what a modern capitalist financial system can bestow upon society.

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The reaction in the media was generally positive, if not a little condescending. Felix Salmon of Reuters, in an article headlined “Occupy’s Amazing Volcker Rule Letter,” concluded with the proclamation, “This letter is many things, but inchoate it is not,” which, of course, implies one should expect a less-than-sophisticated document from Occupiers.

But why should such an intelligent, sober response to a serious issue come as such a shock? The Occupy Movement is arguably one of the most successful political forces of the last decade. It has undoubtedly changed the trajectory of the national discourse since September, and a movement like that doesn’t achieve such momentum without having some serious intellectual horsepower behind it.

What should have come as more of a surprise than the cogency of the response was the fact that Occupy the SEC is willing to petition it’s government through official channels — the very same channels that Occupy Wall Street alleges have been completely hijacked by corporate forces. There’s nothing explicitly contradictory to its parent’s published beliefs in Occupy the SEC’s chosen method of protest. Though Occupy Wall Street governs itself without hierarchy, it doesn’t promote anarchy or the overthrow of capitalism. But Occupy does imply that the official channels of protest and reform have been so corrupted that extraordinary action – like permanently taking over public spaces – is necessary.

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But you don’t spend several months reviewing arcane financial regulatory statutes and writing a 325-page comment letter without a strong faith that the letter can make a real difference, so it seems that Occupy SEC represents a more optimistic wing of the movement. However, Akshat Tewary, a lawyer and member of Occupy SEC, believes that some of the more radical elements of the Occupy movement and his group can work together. He says, “On the one hand you have someone who wants to take an anarchist approach, they’re saying the system itself is untenable, and there’s no point in using the system. That’s fine. I don’t see that as mutually exclusive to working within the system.”

Caitlin Kline, a former derivatives trader, argues that Occupy the SEC would never have formed without the structure of the larger movement in place. Alexis Goldstein, who had previously worked as an analyst for Deutsche Bank, argues that when pushing for reform, you have to pursue every possible avenue to affect change. “Just because you think the system is broken doesn’t mean you should never try change it where you can,” she says.

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We can leave it to the members of Occupy SEC and the larger group to decide whether its choice of tactics and broader philosophical outlook can coexist within one organization. Regardless, it is always a welcome sight to see citizens with no direct financial stake in the process take serious interest in new laws and regulations. Despite the recent nostalgia for the duller, more simpler banking system of yesteryear, in some ways, we’ll never go home again. The global financial system is becoming more complicated, and as it does, the regulation of that system will become more involved and therefore opaque. Now more than ever we need an active advocacy network to keep regulator’s feet to the fire.

And if the past forty years have taught us anything, it’s that attempts to remove corporate influence from politics will never be completely successful (even if you consider it desirable). Therefore, we will never have too many informed, concerned citizens who pay attention, show up, and do the dull, unglamorous work of making sure our laws make sense.