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The Coffee Summit

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MM: You think representative democracy is the best system we’ve got?

ES: Yes! I say that without any hesitation. Because it works. It works.

MM: But it hasn’t worked. That’s why we’re here. The people at Zuccotti Park believe the system is broken. They see this huge inequality. That you can go to college and not be guaranteed a job at all. That our life prospects are very slim. People don’t feel represented.

ES: You’re mixing a lot of issues. Let’s be a bit more rigorous with our thinking. Globalization, the fact that we’re now competing in the world—many people think this is a good thing. Two billion additional people are part of the economic system that, until thirty years ago, was uniquely ours. The good news about that is that many more people, over time, will participate in the upside. The downside is that we here are finding the terms of our own engagement shifting away in a way that many of us find unfair. That is separate from campaign finance. Yes, they’re indirectly related, but you have to separate the issues that you focus on.

MM: At Occupy Wall Street, or occupy anywhere, people don’t see these as separate issues.

New York: Eliot, right before you got here, Manissa asked, “Are we making them nervous?” Can you give us some perspective on how Wall Street might be perceiving this movement?

ES: Let me say this—and don’t forget, I was not exactly Wall Street’s favorite—finance is an important part of our lives. The question is how you do it. The notion of being able to borrow money, to put money into a checking account, to earn interest, to borrow in order to buy a house or set up a business—this is what makes things happen and work.

New York: Is that what the U.S. financial system actually does?

ES: That’s the issue. Has the finance system become something else? Is it now a process of creating things like CDOs-squared, mechanisms to gamble as opposed to using finance properly? A guy like Paul Volcker, an extremely wise person, he would say, “Wait a minute, guys, here’s how we need to reform it.” Now, Volcker is as Establishment as you can get—he was chairman of the Fed for umpteen years, right? He’s a banker, through and through. But he understands what needs to be done. And so you can’t really generalize about how they feel.

MM: The discussion at Occupy Wall Street is dramatically different from this discussion. Sure, there are a lot of people who are thinking about how to reform the system. But there are also a lot of people asking why all of their value has to do with their employment or how much money they make?

ES: Can I say this? People shouldn’t think of themselves that way. There are some people who are always going to value themselves based upon the size of their paycheck. That’s their choice.

MM: The value of my paycheck, it also has to do with how much power I have in the world, right? Money and power—these things are very connected. Occupy Wall Street is trying to disconnect the two.

ES: Let me ask you a question. Looking at the last century, who do you think has been an effective voice for these values?

MM: This movement does not necessarily have a historical precedent. The movements in Spain in Greece are thinking about the same questions we are. Questions like, How do we create communities that aren’t based on capital and valuing things in terms of money? How do you create those sorts of communities? That’s what is exciting about being in a space like Zuccotti Park: It’s a place where you have the chance to radically reimagine the world.

New York: How are you reimagining it?

MM: It’s saying: We’re actually here in this space. We’re going to try and figure out our problems ourselves. How to run a country of 300 million people like that is an open-ended question. But I think talking; letting people make decisions about their own lives; letting people take part in local, neighborhood forms of governance—these are some ways to start.

ES: Look, some people tried to dismiss this movement early on because it doesn’t have specific demands. I said that was irrelevant. The point now is to be speaking with passion about dissatisfaction and setting an agenda for the conversation. But eventually, to succeed, you do need to have some sense of how you change things. Otherwise you’re going around in a circle.

MM: Success means different things to different people—

ES: —at different points in time—

MM: What Occupy Wall Street has already done is create a space for people to come together and voice dissent in a way that has not been possible in this city, or this country, for a long time.


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