Our Municipal Dollars, Ourselves

"They don't know how to fix this," said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg about Occupy Wall Street on MSNBC yesterday, according to the Daily News. "They want their government to fix. They don't even know what the problem is, much less how to fix it, but they know that things aren't working well." He says that like it's a bad thing.

Here's how it's not. Creating enduring conversations around complicated issues is one of the hardest things to do in politics, and Occupy Wall Street has managed to do it. Bloomberg and others go on about how Occupiers need to get their ideas poured into legislative vessels and get themselves elected-- as if those are the only way to participate in politics. They're not. Politics presents plenty of roles to play, and what's happening in Oregon right now with municipal banking reform shows how that's the case.

We have to go back to last year, when the Oregon legislature passed a bill, HB 3700, that takes on one of the reasons that local governments don't put more of their public funds into local credit unions -- those institutions can't hold much money. Banks can accept public funds over and above the FDIC $250,000 limit if they provide sufficient collateral. But under existing law, credit unions can't. HB 3700 changes that through a statewide credit union depository pool.

That's the legislative mechanism. Still, it needs money. To go into effect, five Oregon credit unions have to prove commitments from local governments. As part of his mayoral run, state Rep. Jefferson Smith, a veteran of the progressive movement as part of the Bus Project (you may have seen his TED talk), has started an online petition aimed at getting Portland to trigger that mechanism. Smith tapped into the momentum around Move Your Money, a push with roots in the bank bailout days that started, as these things do, with a dinner with Arianna Huffington. The push reached prominence around Bank Transfer Day three weeks ago that was championed in the Occupy Wall Street world. "As thousands and thousands protest Wall Street and 99% of Americans face a challenging economy," wrote Smith on, yes, the Huffington Post, "many of us have been asking ourselves, 'What locally can we do to help?'" In HB 3700 he had the raw materials for an answer.

Zip ahead to last week, and during a Portland City Council meeting, an activist named Todd Olson, identifying himself with the Oregon chapter of Move Your Money, called for the city to take some of the $22 million it has in Wells Fargo and putting it in local banks. Portland, said Olson, "should do business with banks who demonstrate scruples and commitment to local economic development." Mayor Sam Adams seemed charged up by Olson's testimony, running through the numbers of where Portland keeps its money, citing HB 3700, and asking for more information on municipal banks and responsible banking ordinances, two ideas that Olson mention that other states are considering or doing. When the Oregonian reported on the exchange, it noted the mayor's spokesperson saying that "Adams had been looking into the issue before Smith made it one of his own causes." That's just your normal local political spat, circa late November in the year 2011.

"Banking is now a salient political issue," testified Olson before the city council. "Where local governments choose to bank is a political and social act."

It sure is. Now. And it would take a hearty dose of self-delusion to think that Occupy Wall Street hasn't contributed to creating a moment where wonky discussions of credit union collateralization are perfectly normal. That's true even if the folks in Zuccotti Park aren't the ones churning out white papers. That's how change politics works. And if Bloomberg thinks that "things aren't working well," another option would be for him to help figure out sensible responses, instead of chiding Occupy Wall Street protestors for not presenting end-to-end solutions wrapped in a bow, without anyone else's participation. That's a rather sad view of how change happens.