BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company.
Can you regulate human greed?
PAUL VOLCKER: No, but you-- human greed isn't going to go away but you can put some limitations on it, for sure.
BILL MOYERS: And..
CARNE ROSS: We are the most powerful agents of change. But we have to take the initiative back ourselves. We actually have to do things rather than voting for others to do them.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Well here we go again. The old game of congressional creep. After months of haggling and debate, Congress finally passes reform legislation to fix a serious rupture in the body politic. The president signs it into law, but then we discover the fight’s just begun, because the special interests immediately set out to win back what they lost when the reform became law. They spread money like manure on the campaign trails of key members of Congress. They unleash hordes of lobbyists on Capitol Hill, cozy up to columnists and editorial writers, spend millions on lawyers who try to rewrite or water down the regulations required for enforcement. And before you know it, what once was an attempt at genuine reform creeps back towards business as usual.
It’s happening right now with the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform and Consumer Protection Act -- passed two years ago in the wake of our disastrous financial meltdown. Especially vulnerable is a key provision of Dodd-Frank known as the Volcker rule -- an attempt to keep the banks in which you deposit your money from gambling your savings on the bank’s own, sometimes very risky investments. It will come as no surprise that the financial industry hates the Volcker rule and is fighting back hard.
Just look at these headlines:
“Bank Lobby’s Onslaught Shifts Debate on Volcker Rule.” “Big Banks are Winning on Volcker.” “Lawmakers Pushing for Weaker Volcker Rule Reap Wall Street Cash.” “Banks Act to Skirt Volcker Rule on High-Risk Trades.”
According to Bloomberg News, the financial industry’s success “demonstrates that four years after Wall Street helped cause the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and prompted a $700 billion taxpayer bailout, its lobby is regaining its power to blunt or deflect efforts to rein in the banks.” Those are discouraging words. So to find out more about what’s going on, I thought, why not go right to the source, the man after whom the Volcker rule was named. Educated at Princeton, Harvard and the London School of Economics, Paul Volcker has been a formidable figure in government for more than 30 years, serving two terms as chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1979 to 1987.
He’s also advised the U.N and the World Bank, he headed President Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board. Paul Volcker, welcome to the show.
PAUL VOLCKER: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: These headlines and many others suggest that they're going to win this one. That they're going to get a weaker Volcker Rule.
PAUL VOLCKER: I think there's a certain amount of confusion here. A lot of the criticism is over the complexity of the thing and, essentially it's down to a lot of details. But the basic rule, of course, is incorporated in the law. And I think when you get all finished with this Sturm und Drang in the Congress now, I think you're going to have a reasonable interpretation of a law and an interpretation that can be reasonably followed by the banks and enforced by the regulators.
BILL MOYERS: In laymen's language what does the Volker Rule stop the banks from doing?
PAUL VOLCKER: Stops them from doing speculative trading. And when I talk to your people on the street in New York or have a reading and make a speech and I say, “You know, is it appropriate to have a rule that banks that are protected by the U.S. government should engage in speculative trading? I'm-- when they're effectively subsidized? Using your deposits to go speculate?” And they all cheer and say, “Of course not.”
BILL MOYERS: I know.
PAUL VOLCKER: I mean it's just kind of common sense. The point is that this kind of trading affects the culture of the whole institution. And when it becomes important in the institution, that you've got some very highly paid people for taking this kind of risk and speculating, people elsewhere in that commercial bank, traditionally conservative people, worried about credits, being careful, say, “What's going on here? I mean I want to get better paid too and I want to take some more risk. And maybe I'll make some riskier loans. And then they'll pay attention to me.” And it really is, I think, rather destructive of the culture of the institution.
In addition, when it's clear that this activity almost inherently creates conflicts of interest. And we have enough conflicts of interests in banking institutions anyway traditionally. But this is a conflict of interest not between two customers, but a conflict of interest between the bank making money and its customers' interests.
BILL MOYERS: My understanding is that, in essence the rule says they can't take my deposit that I put into their bank and gamble with it, right? Use it in the casino of--
PAUL VOLCKER: Well, it's not quite as direct as that. They can take whatever money they have, including money that they have from you and any other depositor and make bets on it in terms of changes in the value of securities. They’re making bets on the market.
But is it appropriate policy to subsidize what are essentially non-essential activities that may benefit the executives and the stockholders and the traders, but it’s not part of the essential public purpose of banks for which they are protected by the government.
PAUL VOLCKER: And there's no doubt, since the repeal of so called Glass-Steagall, which prohibited all trading, and that was a little more than 10 years ago, this has become a big business for a half a dozen big banks.
And these risks were a contributing factor in some of the difficulties in the financial system. But during the collapse of the system, some of the investment banks decided they better get a banking license. And the government gave them a banking license, so they now have access to the government support. And that's part of the problem. And they like it. They like the government support.
BILL MOYERS: Why do they like it so much?
PAUL VOLCKER: Because it provides them-- it provides their customers with a certain degree of comfort.
BILL MOYERS: Because they?
PAUL VOLCKER: They will be protected.
BILL MOYERS: By the Federal Deposit Insurance?
PAUL VOLCKER: Yeah, deposit insurance to some extent. I think even more important, the feeling that the central bank is there as a letter of last resort. And if they get in trouble they can call upon the central bank. And I'm sure looms in the minds of a lot of people is that, when push comes to shove they'll get rescued one way or another if they get in trouble.
Now the Dodd-Frank Act tries to rule out the idea of a government bailout. That is probably the single most important provision of the Dodd-Frank bill. But there's a lot of skepticism about whether it will really work. The bill says it prohibits the Federal Reserve or the FDIC from bailing out a failing bank.
BILL MOYERS: Says it fairly clearly, doesn't it?
PAUL VOLCKER: Says it rather directly and it says the stockholders will not benefit, the management won't benefit, creditors will be put at risk. In effect it says you've got a failing financial-- a big financial institution that people worry about the effects of the whole system, they get in trouble, the government can take it over. And at the end of the day that institution will be liquidated. And the government will get any money back that it put into it, because it will be the most protected lender. So that is a system which I think is a fair system. Whether it works or not has never been tested.
BILL MOYERS: But why is so much attention focused on the Volker Rule?
PAUL VOLCKER: Well, I think it's coming now to the point where it begins to take effect as a legal matter.
BILL MOYERS: In July, right?
PAUL VOLCKER: In July, so I think that has kind of focused attention. And there are-- a group of big banks that are actively involved in this. And they're afraid that it will curtail more ordinary trading activity, not just a proprietary trade. I understand that concern. I think that concern is overdrawn. I think you can make the regulation, and they will make the regulation, in a way that's rather sensible.
BILL MOYERS: So are you are saying that speculation by banks, increases the compensation of the CEO and that becomes an incentive--
PAUL VOLCKER: Oh yes.
BILL MOYERS: --for taking greater risk? And then also if--
PAUL VOLCKER: Increase-- it certainly increases the incentive of the guy doing the trading. Who, you know, typical compensation practice, he gets part of the profit.
BILL MOYERS: And if they know the central bank is going to help them cover their loss if things go badly, then that removes--
PAUL VOLCKER: That-
BILL MOYERS: --any, right.
PAUL VOLCKER: --removes one resistance to trading. Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: And so the Volker Rule would stop that kind of--
PAUL VOLCKER: Well, stop.
BILL MOYERS: --speculative--
PAUL VOLCKER: It would permit ordinary trading to go on but take away the big speculative-- big or small speculative activity.
A couple of important elements here, from my point of view in enforcing this. The chief executive officers, the management and the directors of these banks have to understand, yes, this is a law. And your bank is not supposed to be engaging in speculative trading, proprietary trading.
And, in your own interest you want to control your traders, but you have to make sure you have the internal control systems that are translated into the individual traders so they know the limits of what they should be doing.
And then without tracing every transaction you have to have a reporting system so that the regulators can look and say, “Are there telltale signs of the rule being violated?” So you get the understanding at the top and you get the reporting at the bottom, so to speak. And you ought to be able to have a satisfactory control system in my view. And that's, I'm sure what the regulators are aiming to do.
BILL MOYERS: Can you regulate human greed?
PAUL VOLCKER: No, but you-- human greed isn't going to go away but you can put some limitations on it, for sure.
PAUL VOLCKER: I would have been in favor of relaxing Glass-Steagall. I would not, at that time have gone quite as far as getting rid of the whole thing. There was a whole ethos in the market, in the country, among economists, that somehow this fancy new financial system which developed around the same time, it's broader than Glass-Steagall. That somehow the markets would take care of themselves. And they wouldn't-- less risky rather than more risky. Now that turned out to be an illusion. And we're paying the price of some of those illusions.
BILL MOYERS: Well, that's an old shibboleth, isn't it? That the markets will correct themselves?
PAUL VOLCKER: I-- in my view, yes. But, you know, these were fancy new markets. Mathematicians were running them. The whole profession of so called financial engineering developed where people were adapting financial techniques, financial so-called algorithms, to financial markets. And I think they forgot one very essential point. Financial markets are run by human beings and not a physical phenomena.
All these mathematicians were used to dealing with physical phenomenon. And when you-- the simple one, when you know, when you flip a coin it comes up 50 percent of the time heads, 50 percent of the time tails. And you can't change that. That's a physical phenomenon. But when you begin, somebody can put their thumb in the process, then you have a different answer. And, I'm afraid the mathematicians didn't take account of human psychology, quite frankly.
BILL MOYERS: Let me play you one thing that a Republican Congressman Michael Grimm said.
REPRESENTATIVE MICHAEL GRIMM: I think the Volker Rule's a terrible idea. And I think it should be repealed. Proprietary trading. You know, as we just heard, was not a driving cause in the financial crisis and this rule, I think, is going to do little more than add needless costs and complexity to an untold number of financial transactions. So with that being said, it's my opinion that the regulators have also been a bit overzealous in proposing the rule and somehow found a way to take an-- you know, with-- through incredibly creative ways, actually, to make a terrible rule even worse.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think?
PAUL VOLCKER: Well, I don't know anything about Representative Grimm's background. Maybe he's a financial expert. Maybe he isn't. But I think, obviously he's totally wrong.
BILL MOYERS: But Wall Street argues that the rule would raise costs. And the office of the comptroller of the currency has said compliance and capital costs alone could reach one billion dollars a year.
PAUL VOLCKER: Costs, actual costs, no. It's not-- you have to make some weird assumptions to come up with that kind of--
BILL MOYERS: But you yourself have said that the rule is a little dense.
PAUL VOLCKER: It's complicated by its nature, but I-- you know, I go home and look at my insurance policy. When is the last time you read the 32 pages in your insurance policy in fine print? You'd say it's a terrible, complicated thing. We can't have insurance. It's so complicated because it has to cover every possible contingency.
I think what you want, as I said, and I think what the regulators have said, you want to make sure the bank itself has an adequate control system that is respectful of the law. And you have a system in place that ex-post, will reveal, certainly flagrant violations of the restriction.
BILL MOYERS: Why can't it be said that simply? I mean I read the other day that the law that set up our banking system in 1864 ran to 29 pages. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 went to 32 pages. The Banking Act that transformed American finance after the Great Depression, the so called Glass-Steagall Act, was 37 pages. But that Dodd-Frank, which contains the Volker Rule, passed after the most recent crash is 848 pages long.
PAUL VOLCKER: Look, let me introduce you to the facts of life, Mr. Moyers. Modern life.
BILL MOYERS: I'm open.
PAUL VOLCKER: You know Washington. Washington was kind of a one-horse town then. None of the national law firms were there. None of the national trade associations were there. Because lobbying was a primitive business back then. Sure, there were lobbyists. But Washington wasn’t getting rich back then on lobbyists. And now you have lawyers crawling over all these, not just this law. Any law. And now, God knows how many millions of dollars have been spent on legal fees and on lobbying expenses, on this one provision of Dodd-Frank, and there are other provisions.
BILL MOYERS Well, they’re all over Congress. I mean, it’s a coordinated bipartisan campaign. Three Democrats and three Republicans are co-sponsoring the effort to beat back the rule. The Sunlight Foundation reports they’ve received altogether large sums of money from the financial sector. One Senator alone has received $3.6 million dollars from the financial industry in the last two years. All designed to try to dilute the rule you say is the heart of the problem.
PAUL VOLCKER Look, there’s no question in my view there’s too much money in politics and too much money in legislation these days. And nobody knows that better than you. Things have changed a great deal. I don’t know what we do about it. It’s a much bigger issue than the Volker Rule.
BILL MOYERS: Let me play for you something that Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase said the other day on Fox News.
MELISSA FRANCIS: A lot of people wanted me to ask you about the Volker Rule. I know you wrote comments on how it should be different. What do you think?
JAMIE DIMON: So there are two parts. The part where they said no proprietary trading we're fine with. We've never had an issue with that. The part about market making is the part that everybody's writing long issues about. Like being an aggressive market maker. We are a store. Okay, we-- when you come to JPMorgan, we give you great prices in corporate bonds, you know, FX, interest rates.
Most of the business is driven by clients and we have the widest and deepest capital markets in the world. And so, remember, when the client calls up JPMorgan, if we don’t give them the best price, we don’t get the business. But the best price is a huge benefit for them. That’s not insult.
And we don't make huge bets. So I understand the goal to make sure that these companies don't take huge bets with their balance sheets, but market making, just like these stores down the street, when they buy a lot of polka dot dresses they hope they're going to sell. They're making a judgment call. They may be wrong.
So protecting the system, I agree with. But, you know, starting to talk about the intent, I tell every trader we have to have a lawyer, compliance officer, doctor, to see what their testosterone levels are, and shrink. "What's your intent?" No, we're going to make markets for our clients to give them the best products, the best services, the best research and the best prices. That's a good thing in spite of what Paul Volcker says.
PAUL VOLCKER: Despite what I say. Comparing these banks with putting polka dot dresses in the store for the Christmas season-- that's not the business banks are in. They're not in the business of stocking and this kind of stuff. They are buying and selling. If they're buying and selling in response to the customer, they can do it. That's what the law says.
BILL MOYERS: Well, what did you hear his chief objection to being?
PAUL VOLCKER: Well, I didn't hear it because he said, "We want to do market making," and I say, "Yeah, okay, do your market making, but don't mix up proprietary trading in the market making." You know, he's a very responsible banker, really. But he's gotten, I think a little overboard here because we're going to permit market making. But the United States government isn't protecting the dress shop. That's a big difference.
BILL MOYERS: But if you were a banker would you want the government to force you out of proprietary trading?
PAUL VOLCKER: No. If I was a banker I wouldn't want to-- of course I wouldn't. But you've got great advantages if you're a government regulated bank. Take the two big remaining investment banks. We used to call them investment banks. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Both during the crisis got a banking license. Why'd they get a banking license? They wanted the protection of the government in the middle of the crisis. Now the crisis is over. If they want to do proprietary trading, they want to do a lot of other things, very simple, give up their banking license. They never had it before. So--
BILL MOYERS: Surrender their government umbrella?
PAUL VOLCKER: Yeah, get rid of the government umbrella if you want to do this.
BILL MOYERS: So your main point is that if they want to engage in speculation they just should not expect the government to cover their losses?
PAUL VOLCKER: They shouldn't be a bank. Yes. Because the implication is that government provides some protection. And before the investment banks got a banking license, there may have been five banks in the United States, very big ones, that carried on this business in a very active way. It's not the whole banking system. There's lots of trading that goes on by non-banks. You're not inhibiting market trading. You're not inhibiting making a market for customers. That was not the intent of the rule.
BILL MOYERS: I read, I actually read a statement by the community banks, small banks, in support of the Volker Rule.
PAUL VOLCKER: Yes. Yeah. Look, I find lots of bankers coming up to me kind of on QTC, you know, "We really think it's a good idea," but, you know, they're not hiring lobbyists at the-- running the banks. But, you know, there's a lot of support for it.
BILL MOYERS: After the calamity of 2008, the public clearly wanted to prevent banks from engaging in the same kind of risky activities that brought on-
PAUL VOLCKER: Right.
BILL MOYERS: And yet here the public still wants that and yet the lawyers-
PAUL VOLCKER: The public wants the Volker Rule. No doubt about that. I have not yet found an audience, and I address a lot of audiences that say, “No, you're wrong. We don't like that.” They recognize the simple argument when you talk about the general public.
BILL MOYERS: What's the argument they recognize?
PAUL VOLCKER: They recognize that banks shouldn't be speculating in their money, as you put it.
BILL MOYERS: “Forbes” magazine has a good word for you. There was an article last month, and I'll quote it, “While the Volker Rule will surely put a damper on bank trading profits, it will force many firms to go back to the basic blocking and tackling of the financial services business, acting as intermediaries for their clients. It may also help the Fed, shareholders and taxpayers sleep better at night.” How about that?
PAUL VOLCKER: God bless Mr. Forbes or whoever wrote that.
BILL MOYERS: Are you--
PAUL VOLCKER: That kind of captures the essence of it, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: I like that term, going back to the “basic blocking and tackling of the financial services business.” That's what you've been calling it.
PAUL VOLCKER: That’s what I’m saying. And you shouldn't run a financial system on the expectation of dependence of government support. We're supposed to be a free enterprise system we're running. And the problem of course is once they get rescued, does that lead to the conclusion they'll get rescued in the future?
It's a tremendous worry about that. Called moral hazard. They will act in a risky way because they're going to be protected. And, put it very simply, the great cry, “too-big-to-fail,” the government had to rescue them. So let's get rid of too-big-to-fail. Very popular cry and call for reform, which the Volker Rule is one little part of that.
BILL MOYERS: So are you sleeping better at night?
BILL MOYERS: No, but I mean by that-- get-- here you've got this--
PAUL VOLCKER: Well--
BILL MOYERS: --onslaught of banking lobbying and money pouring into Congress to stop the Volker Rule. And the predictions in the press are it's going to be diluted.
PAUL VOLCKER: Well, I think-- you know, I read those predictions a year ago when the law was first passed and there were objections. And I saw all these headlines about it was being diluted. Why are they here now when it's close to regulation time? Because it wasn't diluted. Much to their surprise when the regulators came up with the rules, it was an effective rule.
It may be too complicated. It may not be simple enough. I hope that can be changed. I said that from the beginning. Because I think the essence of the rule-- which is in the proposed regulation, the essence of it is manageable. And it'll be manageable for the banks. And it will be effective.
BILL MOYERS: Paul Volcker, thank you very much for joining me.
PAUL VOLCKER: Good-- thank you.
BILL MOYERS: You just heard Paul Volcker say that even he thinks the rule named after him is too complicated and could stand a little streamlining as long as it doesn’t pull the teeth from the original law. Other supporters of the Volcker Rule also think the same thing – including Congressman Barney Frank, the co-sponsor of the Dodd-Frank Banking Reform Bill, and Sheila Bair, the outspoken former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. All three see the need for reform but basically believe in the banking system. Others, like my next guest, think it needs to be scrapped and rebuilt as part of a new vision of democracy -- one that, much like Occupy Wall Street, calls on each of us to become an agent of political change.
Like Paul Volcker, Carne Ross is an economist, but he’s also a trained diplomat who was on his way to the top of the British Foreign Service. He was the speechwriter for Britain’s foreign secretary, and went on to become that country’s Middle East expert at the UN Security Council. He became disillusioned and distraught by the march to war in Iraq and his own role in selling it. He quit -- although not before giving secret testimony to an official inquiry probing how intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was deliberately misused by American and British officials.
Since then, Carne Ross has founded Independent Diplomat, a non-partisan, non-governmental organization that offers advice on negotiating strategy and international law. He’s also working with the Occupy movement to create an alternative banking action group.
His new book couldn't be more timely. There it is – The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st century. Talk about anticipating the spirit of the moment. This is a call for change everywhere, by everyone convinced that governments are in thrall to the one percent. Carne Ross, welcome.
CARNE ROSS: Thanks for having me.
BILL MOYERS: You're either very fortunate or very prescient or both to have worked on this book for several years and to have it come out right in the midst of these global uprisings. What did you see happening, at the time, that led you to think something was going on?
CARNE ROSS: The sort of fundamental inspiration for it was something that is occurring to people across the world. And is now kind of manifesting itself in these popular protests, both in the West and in the Middle East.
It's about disillusionment. A fundamental disillusionment with the nature of government. That government whether autocratic or, indeed, democratic is not working, is not solving some problems that are fundamental, that are really very concerning. Whether it's inequality, environmental protection, or indeed, economic volatility. Those three things are real problems, functions of the globalized world. And they're not being sorted out by the current structure.
BILL MOYERS: But is there anything new about that? I mean, the United States was born in a sense of disillusionment with the reign of the crown. I mean, right on down through to our day. This has been happening.
CARNE ROSS: I think it wasn't true 20 or 10 years ago. I think after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a real sense that liberal democracy, free markets, you know, governed by governments to an extent was the answer. That was the universal answer. That was the end of history. That is clearly not the case. And we have mounting frustration. I think the problems have risen to such a level, and the disillusionment with the system has risen to such a level that we're almost, at the moment, a paradigm shift to a new form of politics.
We have to accept that government is no longer fixing things for us. Whoever's in charge, whichever bunch of politicians has taken over government, they will not provide the answer, however well-meaning they may be. We have to instead take on the burden ourselves. That is a fundamental cultural change. And I think it requires a real examination of our own role in our political circumstances.
BILL MOYERS: When we went down to Occupy Wall Street, soon after it broke out, what we discovered is so many reasonable and what we used to say upright citizens, who have lost faith in the ballot, in voting.
CARNE ROSS: Yeah. It's a very common feeling. I'm very struck in Occupy. It's very ordinary people. It's not kind of extremists or radicals. And the pretty common feeling is that government is not the answer. There are some who feel that we need to press government, you know, for better legislation. But there's an awful lot of people who feel that that is just impossible, given the way that Washington has been co-opted by special interests. It's basically implausible to expect good legislation to come from Washington.
And having worked in government, you know, very closely, in you know, in government foreign policy, but also in international institutions like the U.N., I simply don't believe that these mechanisms are competent to solve our global problems, our national problems.
BILL MOYERS: Do you understand the paradox you represent to us? I mean, here's a man who, if I understand correctly, at 12, you said to your parents, "I want to be a diplomat."
CARNE ROSS: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: At 29, the British Foreign Office put you in charge of the Israeli-Palestinian section, right? At 32, you were the point man for your government on dealing with Iraq, at the United Nations. This is a long way talking, being part of Occupy Wall Street, talking about grassroots democracy, from the world of diplomacy. What happened?
CARNE ROSS: Well, it's a hell of a journey. I mean, it's been a tough ride. And my wife will testify to that. And without her, I could not have done it. But I think, actually, that journey illustrates how I've got to this philosophy. You know, I was actually in government. I was writing for my Foreign Secretary. I was writing those claims that we were managing the world. I remember writing them.
You know, we have an answer to the problems of world trade, to the global environment, to poverty in Africa. You know, I'd write these very, very compellingly-written, convincing speeches, explaining how we would do it. And we weren't. We were wrong. I was wrong. You know? These were -- these speeches were written in a vacuum. They were just claims. They weren't actually proof of output.
And when I got deeper into the system, I began to see why. Because government is fundamentally detached from the reality that it is trying to manage. It cannot manage and predict highly complex events. I saw this in the invasion of Afghanistan, which I was involved in, and of Iraq, where, you know, we make these assumptions about the rest of the world, which are grossly simplistic.
BILL MOYERS: You were the point man for your government in the United Nations on Iraq. That meant you dealt with the whole issue of weapons of mass destruction. Because it was at the U.N., the weapons inspectors were finding evidence contrary to what George W. Bush and Tony Blair were saying. And you were disillusioned by that, right?
CARNE ROSS: I was disillusioned by many things. The claim of a W.M.D. threat was a gross exaggeration of what little we knew. I mean, our internal assessment was that Iraq was not a threat. And then suddenly, our politicians required us to say that it was. And literally black was turned into white.
And the same intelligence assessments that I had worked on, you know, were edited over and over again to tell a completely fallacious story. But my real concern over Iraq was, in fact, not that. It was that we ignored alternatives to war.
You know, I really believe that war is the last alternative that should be taken. And in fact, there were better alternatives to war which were totally ignored. Because government oversimplified things. There were, actually, very technical, complex things that we could have done to the Saddam regime to undermine that regime that were never tried.
BILL MOYERS: One alternative was economic sanctions.
CARNE ROSS: Well, economic sanctions are, as a blunt instrument, and in, you know, what we're doing to Iran now, I don't believe are particularly effective tools. I think they harm the wrong people. In Iraq, we harmed the civilian population grotesquely. And Iraq is still suffering from that.
BILL MOYERS: You were greatly repelled by the suffering of innocent people in Iraq?
CARNE ROSS: Well, to my shame, I, you know, I did it, when I was working on sanctions. You know, those were the sanctions that I helped implement. I negotiated those at the U.N. Security Council. I think only afterwards was I really confronted with the reality of what these sanctions had done to ordinary Iraqis.
They damaged the Iraqi population very fundamentally and very severely and in a very widespread way. And whatever, you know, there's a lot of controversy about particular statistics. But I think there's no question that we did enormous damage to ordinary people in Iraq.
BILL MOYERS: Thousands of children died as a result in Iraq, as a result of--
CARNE ROSS: Yeah, it's very, very shocking--
BILL MOYERS: You write about that very powerfully.
CARNE ROSS: Well, because I feel some sense of personal responsibility for it. And I think this --
BILL MOYERS: You’re hard on yourself in here. You're flagellating yourself.
CARNE ROSS: Well, I think it's one of the problems of the system. That the officials in it don't feel responsibility. I mean, a lot of people suffered in Iraq, because of sanctions. Who is responsible for that? Who is accountable for that? And I kind of feel that at least I can say, "Well, I was part of it, therefore I am responsible." I mean, you know, that responsibility doesn't bring any great price to me, you know? I've not been sent to court or pay a fine or anything for it. But at least I can say, "I was directly involved."
And I do think that sense of amorality and irresponsibility in government, of detachment from the consequences of your decisions, is a real problem.
But to go back to hitting Saddam, I don't -- I'm not talking about comprehensive sanctions. I'm talking about very specific, targeted sanctions to undermine individuals in the regime and the specific pillars of the regime, like the Republican Guard. There are lots and lots of things that could have been done, involving freezing his financial assets. These were never attempted. It's been done elsewhere. And it was never attempted on Iraq. And I still am wondering why that was.
BILL MOYERS: Much of what came to disillusion you about your experience in government, at about the age I was disillusioned, too, inside government in Washington. I didn't go quite as far as you. I haven't given up on government. And I keep wanting to believe that it can be made an instrument of "We the People," as our constitution--
CARNE ROSS: Yeah, I want to believe the same thing, believe me.
BILL MOYERS: But I haven't joined Occupy Wall Street. That is a long journey.
CARNE ROSS: Yeah. Well, as I say, in intellectual and emotional terms, it's been very logical for me. I mean, you know, the Iraq War was a very big jolt for me. It was a very painful experience to leave the government. And I think before that, I really did believe in the kind of omniscience and the sense and the effectiveness of government led by decent, sensible, rational people.
That experience, but indeed earlier experiences, too, convinced me of the opposite. Now if that is the case, it's-- you know, it's very painful to abandon that set of beliefs. It's very comforting to believe the government has got things in grip. But if they don't, what is a more plausible politics? What is a better method of addressing our politics, our problems? And I think actually it's entirely logical that one should look to self-organized action as the answer. Ideally, with other people, always consulting, always negotiating, always acting nonviolently. That is precisely the mechanism of political change that I'm proposing in the book. And that is actually the most effective mechanism of political change.
BILL MOYERS: Did I hear you say you're part of a working group on Occupy Wall Street?
CARNE ROSS: Yes. Quite early on, I set up a working group on alternative banking, which is trying to examine what an ideal bank would be that would be better than the current system. Because one fundamental idea of the book is that rather than accept that the existing system is all we have to work with, we should set up alternative systems.
The bank we want would have many characteristics that we don't really see in the current banking system. It would be democratic. It would be transparent. It would be owned by its customers as well as its employees. It would employ practices of lending that would minimize, if not remove the systemic risk that the current profit-driven banking sector exposes all of us in the economy to.
BILL MOYERS: And you said this group that's working on this alternative system is a disparate group? Can you just sort of describe the diversity?
CARNE ROSS: Well, it's got young people, students. It's got folks who've been sleeping in Zuccotti Park until the eviction. It's got novices like me, who know nothing about the banking sector. And it's got real financial experts, writers about finance and economics, as well as real dissidents from inside Wall Street, people who are part of banks, quant traders, derivatives traders. It's a pretty extraordinary group of people.
BILL MOYERS: Just give me a sense of what's in your head about an alternative bank.
CARNE ROSS: All the elements of the bank, the ideal bank that we're talking about, the Occupy Bank, has been done before. They're present in mutuals, in credit unions, in community banks. But what we're trying to do is, you know, very boldly, very ambitiously, try to imagine all of these characteristics in one bank. And available to everybody, country wide, which at the moment, credit unions, for instance, are not able to be. You know, we want something that is as plausible, as easy to use, if not better, than the current for-profit banks, on the high street, that people and businesses use today.
BILL MOYERS: You talk about the methods of democracy. How do you-- how is that taking place?
CARNE ROSS: In the beginning, very interestingly, when everybody showed up, the lot of people showed up, everybody wanted to give their speech about what was wrong. Me, too. You know, "What's wrong with the economy? What's wrong with banking? I've got to have my say." But once that people had had their say, we, you know, we got down to work.
We've invited real experts from credit unions. People who'd run community banks, professors of finance. We've invited them to come and, you know, advise us. And many of them have responded to that invitation.
BILL MOYERS: So where are you now?
CARNE ROSS: Right now, we're actually putting out a call to say we would like to partner with or even perhaps acquire banks, who would like to work with us to implement this, to set up a national Occupy Bank with the characteristics I've described. We know that alone we can't do it. You know, for instance, we couldn't get a federal charter. It was take us years to years and years of work.
BILL MOYERS: But wouldn't you then have to have the very structure that you find so objectionable, which you write about regularly in your book, consistently in your book, hierarchy. You have to have a hierarchy, somebody has to say yes and no.
CARNE ROSS: Well, in a different way. I mean, all-- in my view, all hierarchy is humiliating to both the leader and the led. But I think you can design institutions, including banks, that are fundamentally democratic. Where the all the members, all the owners, all the depositors, customers, and employees are consulted on major decisions. They may elect a smaller group to make day to day decisions on the basis of principles that they've all agreed.
And this is a really, really important idea of the book, that we've lost agency. We feel out of control. We don't have control over even our workplace.
BILL MOYERS: You mean we individuals have lost our own political agency, our own moral agency?
CARNE ROSS: I think in all kinds of ways we've lost it. I think we've, we feel absolutely detached from the things that most matter to us. And we feel, we can't really affect us, that we're affect them. We're completely impotent. When, in fact, the truth is the opposite. We are the most powerful agents of change. But we have to take the initiative back ourselves. We actually have to do things rather than voting for others to do them.
BILL MOYERS: You make the point in your book, that people prefer democracy. But they're less and less happy with the practice of democratic government. Why do you think that's so?
CARNE ROSS: Well, I think the distinction between democracy and the current form of government is a very important one. I think the current form of representative democracy, where you have a very small group of people taking decisions for a very much larger group of people is fundamentally imperfect, it's fundamentally vulnerable to corruption, whether legal or illegal. And I think I'm afraid that's what we've seen. You see all too often that legislation reflects the interests of special interests, particularly big corporations, the banks, for instance, rather than the interests of the common man, of the mass .
What I'm talking about instead, what I'm proposing instead is a much more, much lower level democracy, people to people democracy, direct democracy of mass participation in decision making.
BILL MOYERS: In "The Leaderless Revolution," you list nine principles for action. What's your purpose there?
CARNE ROSS: The book is all about political method. It's not about a blueprint for where we're going to go. It's about doing politics differently. And I suggest nine things that you should bear in mind, nine principles that should govern that action. It doesn't say what the action should be addressing. But it says "These are the ways that you should go about it."
BILL MOYERS: Number one, "Excavate your convictions."
CARNE ROSS: Without really knowing what you care about, it's very difficult to find the energy to do anything. And I think actually in contemporary politics, it's very difficult to know what you really care about. You're bombarded all the time with politicians telling you what to care about. But what is the thing you really, really care about? And once you've identified that, that will give you the strength and the fuel to-- for the long journey to try to address that thing.
BILL MOYERS: Number two, "Who's got the money? Who's got the gun?"
CARNE ROSS: This is where you need to step back and analyze the situation. Who has the real power over the problem that concerns you? Who's got the money and who's got the gun is a pretty good start for your analytical technique.
BILL MOYERS: Number three, "Act as if the means are the end."
CARNE ROSS: This is purely quoted from Gandhi. I didn't come up with this myself. He was convinced that actually the form of politics that you choose is actually the end. You know, if you just vote for somebody, you've not actually done anything. If you use violence to create a particular political end, all you're doing is promoting violence.
So actually you need to embody the principles that you wish in the goal that you seek, whether it's equality, transparency, democracy, in the form of change that you are pursuing, in the very method. And this is what the book is about. It's about a method.
BILL MOYERS: You were quite impressed with Gandhi's salt march.
CARNE ROSS: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
CARNE ROSS: Well, he in protest of British colonialism, he organized a 200-mile march, of lots of people, to go to a coastal city in India to make salt. And the reason he did that was because the British charged poor people, ordinary Indians a tax on salt, as a way of keeping them down. And Gandhi felt the salt belongs to all of us, and ordinary people were forbidden from making salt.
So he went and made salt. And this was the perfect political protest, because not only did it draw attention to this great injustice, but it actually physically embodied the change that needed to happen, which was ordinary people making salt. And it was immensely powerful.
BILL MOYERS: Number four, "Refer to the cosmopolitan criterion."
CARNE ROSS: That is the idea that instead of, you know, assuming that we know what others want, like the golden rule does, you know? Which says we should, "Do unto others as we would like them to do unto us." That to me is a very solipsistic moral maxim. Instead you just ask them. I mean, these days, you're connected on the internet. You can find out what people over there think. And they will tell you very clearly and persuasively. And often very different from what you assume they're going to say.
BILL MOYERS: Number five, "Address those suffering the most."
CARNE ROSS: This again is not from me. It's from Karl Popper, the Austrian philosopher who gave us the open society. He believed that no government, no authority can decide what, can know what makes people happy. In fact, we don't even know ourselves often. But the one thing you can measure - happiness is not measurable. You know, it's not something that's empirically testable, but suffering is.
Actually, the indices of suffering, starvation, absence of water, mortality. These things are very measurable. And actually addressing suffering is much easier than trying to make ourselves happier. You can do far more. You can actually-- to lift a very large number of people from poverty takes very little. And therefore, you would have actually much more effect with your politics. It-- there's also kind of behind a moral imperative. I mean, you know, personally, I think those suffering the most should be our primary concern.
BILL MOYERS: Six, "Consult and negotiate."
CARNE ROSS: Don't just roll over people. If you take them for granted and try to do your thing without taking account of what they want, you won't succeed. And I've seen this in international negotiations, which exclude people. The agreements that follow from that won't work. This is what we're trying to do in Independent Diplomat is get ordinary people's voices into that process. But that consultation will produce an outcome that might work, because you have included people in its construction.
BILL MOYERS: Seven, "Big picture, little deeds."
CARNE ROSS: Big change, change in the world - saving the global environment, you know, stopping economic volatility-- overwhelming goals, overwhelming problems. You know? How the hell can little me do something about that? This idea is simply that you bear that overall strategic goal in mind, but you do something small every day to reach it. And that is a plausible and effective form of political change and will actually solve the problem, if we all do it.
BILL MOYERS: Eight, "Use nonviolence."
CARNE ROSS: In researching the book, I read a lot about nonviolence, which is not doing nothing. It's not pacifism. It's actually a series of techniques, which are very powerful and persuasive, and can achieve, you know, extraordinary ends but without relinquishing the moral high ground by using violence.
And you know, all kinds of - the most fundamental and extraordinary political change has come about nonviolently. I think in this country about, you know, the struggle for female emancipation, for civil rights. These were nonviolent movements. If you want to change society, you can't do it violently.
BILL MOYERS: And yet number nine, "Kill the king."
CARNE ROSS: Yes. You know, a slightly colorful way of saying, "It is really hard to change things." It is really, really hard. And I think this is one of the, you know, the fundamental ideas of the book. You know, somebody promises you that clicking on a petition will change a problem, they are lying. That is simply not true. So to take on any problem, you've really got to focus. And in chess, the objective is -- there's one objective, which is, "Take the other guy's king." And that's what you've got to keep in mind, all the time.
BILL MOYERS: "The Leaderless Revolution" you call it. But can any movement be leaderless, seriously?
CARNE ROSS: I passionately believe that it should be. Not only that it can be, but it should be. Occupy is leaderless and successfully so. It is many things. It is not one thing. It is a lot of people spontaneously acting upon their own convictions. And that is what makes it powerful.
The moment you have one person standing up and saying, "It's about this agenda," you weaken the movement. And I think this is actually a new form of politics for the 21st Century. I do not think this will be the exception. This will become the rule.
Personally, I feel that now is the time, particularly as we enter the presidential election season, we need to move from words and protests to action, to actually building new systems that embody these values. That is the most powerful form of political change for me.
BILL MOYERS: But, you know, Barack Obama did this splendidly in 2008, using social media to organize, mobilize people for the change that we can believe in. What's happened since then?
CARNE ROSS: Well, there was a kind of, you know, it was a bit of a slightly misleading the way that he put it. I mean, I don't want to sound critical of the president, who I respect and admire. But he wasn't actually calling for mass action to create political change. He was calling for mass action to get him elected, which are two fundamentally different things.
And that is, I think the great disjunction in contemporary representative politics. Is that politicians say, "Get me elected and I, individually, will solve these problems. That is change you can believe in." And actually, it's not plausible anymore. And, but what was interesting about that campaign was, I think, people really connected to the idea of mass action for change. And that's what I, you know, my book and others are proposing, that actually that sense of passionate commitment is exactly what we're missing, of action really meaning something, rather than just this very sterile, inconsequential act of voting.
BILL MOYERS: You ask us in your book to imagine the world without institutions. And with all due respect, that's very hard to do.
CARNE ROSS: Well, I understand that. I mean, I'm talking about very gradual. I think this is more evolution than revolution. I'm not saying we should overthrow institutions. I think, though, we have to recognize that our current institutional political set up is not working. And indeed, the form of the company and the economy today as a purely profit-seeking entity is not working.
So we have to change all of these things from the ground up. That's what I'm saying. I'm not particularly against institutions, though I hate hierarchy. I think when institutions and organizations flow from people's real convictions and are truly democratic, they can be very good things. I wish that our contemporary institutions were more like that.
BILL MOYERS: You're going to strike a lot of people as either an anarchist or a Saul Alinsky reborn.
CARNE ROSS: I would be flattered to be called a Saul Alinsky reborn.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
CARNE ROSS: Because he, you know, inspired a lot of people to do things. And if my book can do that, I would be absolutely honored and thrilled.
BILL MOYERS: You still believe individuals can signify?
CARNE ROSS: I believe they're the by far, the most important thing, you know? Because actually we are, you know, what embody - we are what the world consists of. There are seven billion of us now. We're not a system. Actually, we're just a bunch of individuals. And we comprise reality. Therefore, why don't we, you know, just realize that. And say, "Crikey, well, I can start from changing something. I can change my own reality. I can, you know, inspire those around me." And thus, we can actually begin to change the whole system. That’s an extraordinary possibility.
BILL MOYERS: The book is The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century. Carne Ross, I've truly enjoyed our conversation.
CARNE ROSS: Me, too. Thank you very much for having me.
BILL MOYERS: You will have noticed that our two guests are hopeful men. Paul Volcker, as formidable an establishment figure as there is, thinks common sense will yet prevail in Congress. Here’s to him! But frankly, ranchers praying for rain to end the drought in Texas probably have better odds.
As for Carne Ross: he says you can’t count on the system to do the right thing, and he imagines a different way of politics and commerce altogether, more accountable to democracy and diversity than to powerbrokers and players at the top. That’s a long reach in a country whose political system is biased against reform. But as we’ve been reporting for the past two weeks, there are some answers blowing in the wind. Just last week, "The Wall Street Journal" reported on how a movement to challenge big banks at the local level has gained momentum around the country. The Los Angeles City Council is considering an ordinance that would gather foreclosure and other data on banks that do business with the city. Officials in Kansas City, Missouri, passed a resolution directing the city manager to do business only with banks that are responsive to the community. And here in New York City, legislation is pending to require banks to invest in local neighborhoods if they want to hold city deposits. Similar actions are underway in other cities.
Of course, these activists are up against one of the country’s most powerful industries. Lobbyists for the financial sector spent nearly half a billion dollars last year. But as you can see, these activists are beginning to get traction locally. And they don’t seem put off by the magnitude of taking on Goliath with slingshots. In the closing pages of his book, Carne Ross asks them – and us – to remember something too many have forgotten-- "that we are at our best in adventure, compassion for others, and the aspiration for something greater.” Only when confronted by unfathomable challenge, he writes, “only then are we truly alive.”
That’s it for this week. If you want to find out more about how Carne Ross would change the world and its banking system, you can ask him yourself. This Tuesday, we’ll be hosting a special live chat with Carne Ross. Learn more and start submitting your questions at BillMoyers.com
And because April is National Poetry Month, spend some time on our Poets & Writers page for interviews and performances, including poems by the great Adrienne Rich, who died just this past week. That’s at BillMoyers.com
Coming up, a dynamic woman of ideas and action: Angela Glover Blackwell.
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: America can see its future. And it's a five-year-old Latina girl. It is a seven-year-old black boy. What happens to them will determine what America looks like. And many of the young people who are already 18, 19, 20 are going to be the workers of the near future.
BILL MOYERS: That’s all for now. See you next time.