Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs called for Americans to reclaim the political system as he spoke at Columbia and then at the Occupy Wall Street protest on Saturday.
“Wall Street isn’t going to fold its hands because there are a few thousand people protesting … but I think it’s a start. And I think it’s a very important start,” he said.
In the Satow Room in Lerner Hall on Saturday morning, Sachs called America “a big, noisy, complicated place” where citizens have to fight to make their voices heard—which is what he said the protesters are doing. “I think it’s worthwhile to be part of it and to demonstrate solidarity with it,” he said.
During his lecture in Lerner, Sachs explained why he felt the movement had credence and talked about its basis in underlying economic and political issues, especially the forces of globalization. That speech was quite different from the more emotional one he gave later in the day to the protesters down in Zuccotti Park, who responded with cheers and “twinkling,” or wiggling fingers to signal agreement.
In his first speech, Sachs specifically blamed the ideology of President Ronald Reagan, who “represented a set of forces and ideas that has done more damage to this country than just about any other in modern times.”
Reagan, he said, “had a famous line in his inaugural speech which is, ‘Government is not the solution. Government is the problem.’ And I’ve really come to think that if you believe that, please don’t become a president.”
Sachs began his second speech in the middle of Zuccotti Park with short, sarcastic stories. One began, “Mr. Paulson went to his friends at Goldman Sachs. He said let’s make a derivative so we can cheat some banks.” Another started with, “I’ll read you another story from the Wall Street Journal. These people are more confused than anybody on this planet.”
Sachs utilized the “people’s microphone” expertly, with protesters echoing each of his lines so that people far from him could still hear his speech. Some giggled at the humorous way the story unfolded, amused by the slights he made about Wall Street bankers.
Most of all, Sachs’ speech commended the protesters for their efforts to point fingers at what he called Wall Street’s corrupt leadership.
“That’s why we’re here on Wall Street. It’s not because we’re envious. It’s not because we think wealth is bad. It’s because of you! It’s because we think you cheat. It’s because we think you don’t follow the law,” he said.
In both his Lerner and Wall Street speeches, Sachs suggested that Americans need to prove to politicians that they can’t be bought. He challenged presidential candidates to refuse donations from individuals of more than $99 and use that as a strength.
Michael Cook, 29, who is a graduate student studying sustainability through the Earth Institute, attended both speeches and called Sachs’ suggestion to presidential candidates a “great metaphor.”
“My worry would potentially be that that person would be torn apart in major media,” he said. “To me, the question is how do you use that without being torn down in a way that you are being discredited, by you know, my grandmother or somebody else that would watch other sources of media.”
But Sachs shied away from suggesting the next step for the movement. Moshe Granit, 63-year-old resident of the Upper East Side, felt the professor could have been more specific.
“There has to be meat to all of this, some more detailed ideas that people can hold to and make these changes step by step and make practical. Otherwise the other side will drown us in this theoretical discussion,” he said.
Lauren Jacquisch, a New Jersey native currently working as a nanny in Providence, agreed.
“But, at this point, with all the judgments made on the people that are actually here in the mass media, I think it’s pretty wise for him to make general outlines that people can agree on,” she said.
Ryan Bae contributed reporting.