by Kevin Joseph Ryan
When I set out in the pre-dawn hours last Saturday morning for the Occupy! Goddard Conference in Plainfield, based around the phenomenon of Occupy Wall Street, I had little idea what to expect. Would we sit around singing Kumbayah, how would people react to a conservative reporter embedded in their midst? What I found was a welcoming crowd of over 350 impassioned Vermonters who certainly understood that something is wrong with the nation in 2012, were hungry to soak up an understanding of what that something is and a dedication to do whatever it might mean, to create a better world. I certainly did not agree with all the causes and solutions presented during what turned out to be an eleven hour conference, but I learned enough is going within the movement once best known for it’s problematic tent cities, that one Truth North Report could not cover it all.
In Part of I of this series, which should see print here over the next week in future editions, I’d like to introduce the keynote speaker of the conference, whom Goddard College felt could best focus the day, Les Leopold, the populist economic author published by White River Junction based Chelsea Green Publishing. Chelsea Green does not operate without bias in their approach. They live by a motto of “bringing the politics and practice of sustainable living to the world,” a phraseology which carries a charged concept for many conservatives. Neither is Les an unbiased man. He doesn’t like Wall Street much. He thinks Government can play a strong role in the economic recovery and no one would mistake him for a conservative. However, what is fascinating about Leopold is his strong dedication to motivating people to be active in government policy, educating themselves to how finance works and organizing themselves to change the world. Last Saturday, I sat down with Les to discuss these topics and his perspective.
Les Leopold is an MBA from the Princeton Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and appears to dedicating his life to teaching others to stay awake in a confusing world of criss-crossing political philosophies and financial mis-information. He remains unconcerned with who he teaches and is proud to boast that he accepts invitations to speak on right-wing radio as well as being published in the Huffington Post.
Some background research on Leopold revealed some of what he presents in his books, The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor, and The Looting of America: How Wall Street’s Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs. He has said that Wall Street is little more than a casino. He does not believe that they are focused on real economic activity, but rather profiting via an arcane system of rules developed in conjunction with government overseers, beginning with de-regulation during the Reagan years. It would come as little surprise that a college touting itself as “Progressive Education for Creative Minds” would pick him as a speaker. I cannot say I am supportive of all of Les Leopold’s observations, but he is certainly astute on the point that the average man would benefit greatly by a greater understanding of where the crooks are, and what they’re up to. If you ask Leopold, the main problem is there needs to be more innovation to create that understanding, and that’s what he brings to Occupy.
“I got into this topic and heard about these complicated financial instruments…I saw a school district in Wisconsin that lost a ton of money…200 million dollars in a matter of months.” Leopold pointed out. “What the hell happened?” he asked himself. He told me it took until after the 2008 financial crash to even get hold of information one would understand about the economy with only a layman’s perspective. He told me that with his organizations, “we (now) do popular educations on economics,” and he had come to teach Occupy how to approach that issue, and how to better organize themselves.
One such innovation was his proposal to establish what he calls “99% clubs,” a more formal meeting system for Occupiers. The Occupy movement, from an outsiders perspective, based on the television coverage of last fall’s “occupation” of Zuccotti Park in New York and other tent cities around the U.S., is a troublesome commune of anarchists and activists of the Left-Wing, with strange hand signals and arcane rituals, such as it’s “General Assembly” meetings. While that description is not entirely off base, what Leopold suggests is, “I got to that 99% club because , my concern was, as you probably heard today, the occupy Wall Street has its own culture…its own political culture, a little bit of youth culture……which is great, but, in the New York area, for example, maybe max 2000 people in Occupy Wall Street, maybe a couple hundred more in the various committees, there might have been a million people in the greater metropolitan area that were incredibly sympathic and would have been eager to become part of something…. I’m trying to encourage the activists who worry about that stuff to start worrying about it.”
Leopold continued as to what he saw as some of the challenges to expansion for the Occupy movement, “See I it think that’s just fine for what they’re doing and let them go as far as they can go, but to build a larger mass movement…they have their own culture their rules and operations, and let them do it the way they want to do it…people a little bit more like me, or my friends and neighbors around , who want to do something, obviously have full time jobs, families and everything else, they may want to see an organization with more defined leadership…or they may want to have small committees, they may not have time for general assemblies…and I think we need to have a lot of room for a lot of different people.”
Leopold felt that Occupy needed to somehow find a way to become even more inclusive. “The way I would put it is that the 1% and the 99% (an Occupy distinction) is a state of mind….There are some people, who make a lot of money, who really don’t like the way things are set up…the point is, the 1% stands for, ….’I’m worries about the structure of our economy, I think the way finance is set up right now, is exactly the opposite of the way the allied leaders wanted it to be set up at the end of world war II…to prevent lots of international finaical crisis, its set up to be fragile, highly profitable for speculators and very dangerous for populations.'”
What does Leopold think is the solution? “The necessary condition is education…..we can’t change something if we don’t know how it works. As long as finance is a sort of mystical thing, we don’t know. We need to learn it, share it, and teach it. Mass education becomes critical. We have to increase our financial IQ dramatically…. If you tackle this issue, you’re tackling the most important issue of not only our generation, but possibly the next generation.”
While Les Leopold may find little in common policy-wise, with say, House Speaker John Boehner, apathy and confusion in remain the most potent tools for poor political policy, and promoting the general welfare would be well served by a much better informed public than we have today. I’d bet Les would agree on that idea.