Sunday, October 2, 2011

Who Should Occupy Wall Street?

Have you been following the recent protests in New York City in the Wall Street area? Have you seen notices of similar demonstrations in other cities such as Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago? Some, such as Mayor Bloomberg in New York, have called the mostly young groups misguided, while others such as Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont have called for them to expand their protests further to DC. The protesters who call themselves variously, "anarchists, Socialists and the other 99%" have stirred up nascent societal discontent, however. They have been rather vague on demands, but seem to be trying to raise awareness of vast cultural disparities in our nation.

In recent days they have been joined by groups of airline pilots, and members of unions, such as SEIU, the Federation of Teachers, and the Transport workers have promised support. Troupes of gray hair elderly members have joined with the marchers in lower Manhattan. Celebrities such as Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon have stopped by to show support. MSNBC and Jon Stewart have run footage of alleged police brutality with mace and pepper sprays used on peaceful protestors or helpless restrained young women. Saturday, as they occupied the Brooklyn Bridge, more arrests were made at the bridge which was closed, while the protestors were forcibly removed.

Are these mostly young and heavily unemployed twenty-somethings speaking to and for the rest of us? What do you think? Many who came of age in the turbulent 60s as I did, see parallels to the anti-war and civil rights protests of that era. Then, young people -- mostly college students -- spoke out against the war, rallied against the draft, demonstrated for equal rights and against government regulations which were seen as too restrictive. Then, many could neither vote nor legally drink until age 21, but they could be drafted and go to war and die in Vietnam. Thousands joined in marches in the South to integrate lunch counters, schools, parks and public places, while others endured deprivation after trying to register to vote. Some were killed or beaten in these efforts. Are the times today as turbulent and as disruptive as those were some fifty years ago? No they are not -- at least not right now. But some signs are seen as disturbing. Then we were seen as living in separate worlds of black and white, rich and poor. The seventies and the eighties saw many of those divisions start to blur as the middle class expanded and racial boundaries decreased. Prosperity reached many and poverty and hunger became less of a problem. The Great Society brought us Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and food stamps -- all of which raised vast numbers into healthier more productive lives.

Today we have many who saw this 70s era as one of profligate spending with money we did not have on bounty we neither needed nor deserved. They saw society as rewarding those who worked hard but not those who may have tried but not succeeded. They treated the corporation as a person of merit worthy of high honor and low taxes. They viewed few services as moral imperatives and did not believe that health care is a right to be provided to all, despite the fact that we are the only major industrialized "civilized nation" not to offer health care for all in some way. The corporations, many of which once hired employees for a life time with a gold watch and a pension after 40 years, now treat employees as disposable, and still off shores their jobs, despite entreaties from states. Still other states brag of stealing plants from other locales, with promises of tax breaks and no-union shops. Is the dollar so powerful that fair wages, decent working conditions and loyalty between employers and employees no longer are meaningful? Was this the climate that inspired anarchy eons ago?

Yet some are doing very well as Wall Street continues to pay out millions in bonuses, the big banks continue to become bigger as they merge and gobble up smaller ones. Although hedge fund managers see continued boosts in income, most of the country cannot share in their bounty. 25 top hedge fund managers made over a billion dollars as the saw their economy bounce back. Wall Street is a target due to the unrealistic world people there appear to live in. The New York Times asked recently -- are there no consequences for failure? Do we not see those who caused the crises of 2008, still in charge? Did any agency head get fired, whether at (Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) or Moody’s or S & P for allowing false valuations to persist in portfolios? Did we not see the large financial groups bailed out by our government attempt to pay out bonuses with our tax dollars, until they were made to stop by the Administration? Who pays a price for failure at the corporate level? We have seen the head of UBS whose bank was swindled out of billions of dollars resign and receive promised millions in bonuses. The head of Hewlett Packard was forced out for incompetence after almost running the company into the ground in less than a year, yet he receives compensation worth more than $15 million dollars.

Yet who bails out the homeowners, now under water on their loans, whose lender will not refinance? Where are these funds when a homeowner cannot get a lowered interest rate or reduced house payment on a home loan worth only a few hundred thousand dollars. But with large numbers of young and mature people unemployed and college graduates often under-employed, are we heading in the direction seen in the sixties? People of color have unemployment rates at least twice that of the national average. With foreclosure rates continuing to increase and banks appearing to refuse to renegotiate, even with available federal funds, more people are losing their homes and becoming more desperate. Savings accounts are paying little interest and individual retirement accounts (those replacements for the pensions of yesteryear) remain shadows of their once healthy balances. The stable middle class, as a group, is shrinking while incomes flatten, home values plummet and living costs continue to rise (see table for Household income for States.) Only a handful of states, mostly along the Eastern seaboard, noted household incomes in excess of $60,000. Sixteen states, mostly in the South and Midwest indicated median incomes of around $45,000, while the US median sat at just about $50,000. Students graduating from college face huge multi-year loans they cannot repay because their job -- if they have one -- pays too little. States, which once welcomed immigrant workers and seldom questioned their arrival papers, now are passing questionably legal limitations on free movement and education for those of foreign origin, no matter what their work status might be. The job pie has gotten smaller. Who gets the rights to enter this smaller market?

The Wall Street protesters refer to themselves as the other 99%, meaning the vast majority who are not the super rich. The 1% who own most of the wealth in this country and who are continuing to get richer pay proportionately little in taxes. The top 1% take home 24 percent of the income in the US. The average CEO earns more than 500 times the income of his (and they are mostly male – sad to say) employees. At a time when we need to add jobs in this country, is it really too much to add taxes to these disproportionate earnings?

When we have unemployment, underemployment and rising numbers of homeless families, shouldn't there be a moral imperative to help the needy? If our country continues to move into increasingly divisive haves and have-nots, as more and more families continue to live on the edge of survival incomes, and Congress continues to fiddle while the country figuratively burns, we may well see the "99%ers" rise up in towns and cities through out the land. Choices need to be made. We can either solve this crisis, creating jobs and providing services, or look sadly back in shame at missed opportunities.

What do you suggest we as a country should do now? We have it pretty good in the Metro area. What about the rest of the country where lives are more difficult, how should we help those areas? Do you think the protesters will raise awareness or just be dismissed as meaningless? Do you support them?

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