Finance and the Economy: Occupy Wall Street in Historical Perspective [November 14, 2011]   [open pdf - 304KB]

"Wall Street and Main Street--the financial system and the real economy of goods and services-- are bound together. If businesses large and small had to fund investment projects out of their own pockets, society would be significantly poorer. The financial system aggregates the savings of millions of households and allocates them to the most productive uses. The importance and value of this function are almost universally acknowledged and are axiomatic in market economics. Nevertheless, the benefits of certain forms of financial intermediation to the real economy are not always apparent. American politics has a demonstrated history of attacks on Wall Street and financiers whose great personal fortunes appear disproportionate to their contribution to national prosperity. This tradition, which goes back at least to Thomas Jefferson, accuses high finance of siphoning off resources that could be better used elsewhere. A recurrent critique is that 'swapping pieces of paper' is not only less useful than, but morally inferior to, actual production of goods and services, and that great concentrations of wealth represent a threat to democratic values. For all their lack of a unified, coherent program, the Occupy Wall Street protestors can be seen as the latest in a long series of anti-financial sector critiques. This report presents examples of political statements about the fundamental costs and benefits of finance and recent economic research that points to aspects of financial activity that may not be advantageous to the real economy. The report does not attempt a comprehensive survey of either literature, but provides a reminder of the breadth of the historical debates that have shaped congressional oversight of financial institutions and markets. Some of the political remarks excerpted here strike the theme of conflict between the real economy and the paper profits derived from financial speculation, and include claims that the temptations of the latter draw resources away from the former, or that speculators misappropriate the rewards that would otherwise accrue to hardworking businessmen, farmers, and wage earners."

Report Number:
CRS Report for Congress, R42081
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