Wednesday, October 12, 2011
The Occupy Wall Street movement has gained momentum as it spreads to affiliate movements across the country, including in San Diego (Usha Rodrigues has a post about the protest in Athens, GA, and Frank Pasquale has thoughtful observations about the movement in general here). As I alluded briefly in a prior post,the movement highlights some of the difficulties in mobilizing disparate individuals into collective action. You may not have thought the Occupy Wall Street movement was about contracts, but I think it is, at least in part.
Many of the problems arising from the financial crisis and the mortgage crisis (which are mentioned in the movement’s first official declaration ) originated from contracts – contracts that were hard to understand, contracts that were too long, contracts that contained aggressive and surprising terms. Contracts conferred legitimacy on transactions that later turned out to be problematic.Contracts were and are part of the problem in another way. The growing anger and frustration exhibited by the Occupiers of Wall Street stem from a general feeling of helplessness.
Contracts contribute to that feeling. Consumers have given up reading contracts – there are too many, and they are too long and convoluted. If all consumers actually read each contract they “agree” to, the economy would grind to a halt. Imagine– every time you download music, log on to Facebook, rent a car, check your bank balance. You’d never get anything done. Can you imagine if everyone who bought a house read all the paperwork that they signed? It takes an hour just to sign through all the different documents. The lender and the broker and all the various drafting parties don’t actually want you to read the documents – they just want you to sign them. (Heck ,the lenders don’t even read their own documents if the robo-signing controvery is any indication).
Some contracts scholars defend standard form contracts by stating that if the majority of consumers don’t like certain terms, they will push back. It’s the familiar, the “market will respond” argument. The assumption is that if enough consumers really don’t like terms, we will eventually hear about it. The problem is that, given the coordination problems associated with mobilizing individuals who are strangers to each other and dispersed across the country, we may not hear a clear, unified message. More troubling, we won’t hear about mass scale dissatisfaction until mass scale societal harm has already occurred. The “market will respond” argument is a regressive argument, not a progressive, improving one. The Occupy Wall Street Movement is a reaction, not a preventative movement (and David Brooks of the NYT thinks it is a weak one because of it).
But, you might ask, in a free society and in a free market,shouldn’t we respect what two parties voluntarily agree to do? To a certain extent, yes. But it depends. It depends upon the meaning of the word voluntarily. It depends upon the meaning of the word agree. And it depends upon whether (and how and how much) what the contracting parties agree to do impacts the rest of society. Contracts are the vehicle through which banks and other financial institutions carry out their business. They were the tools that lent legitimacy to socially harmful practices. The agreement of two private actors shouldn’t be enforced if it threatens the well-being of society, violates important policy principles, and cripples the economy.