The “Occupy Wall Street” movement is kicking up a lot of dust, and that cloud is growing. The protest apparently has spread to the nation’s capital, and to communities as far south as Florida and as far west as Oregon.
Americans are understandably frustrated with fat-cat CEOs and stagnant unemployment numbers, and they have decided to make their voices heard. But this Occupy Wall Street movement should seriously look at itself and ask what exactly it’s protesting — and to what end. Aside from taking shots at convenient targets and typical villains, these protests don’t seem to have much purpose.
That is not to say these folks don’t have a right to be angry. They should be. This also is not to say that Americans should sit back complacently while the economy continues to drift along listlessly. We should all push for change, and have a right to be heard.
But the sad reality is that the Occupy Wall Street crowd has missed the point and is wasting an opportunity to be part of the solution. At best the group is a distraction and at worst they are simply part of the problem with our broken-down economy.
The movement has no leadership. The protests don’t need a ringleader telling folks where to stand, or an anointed one to win a presidential nomination. But it does need a person or persons who can intelligently articulate what’s going on and why, prioritize demands and give riled-up protestors something concrete to focus on. Which leads me to my next point …
The movement is a mishmash of ideals. Is the goal to raise taxes on corporations or wealthy individuals? Is it an effort to spur job creation or claw back profits from big business (which just so happens to provide big employment)? Does Occupy Wall Street want an end to globalization, even if it means no more borrowing from China, slower exports and $10-per-gallon gas? Do we want to protect government jobs or erase the national debt? The goals are not only disparate — they also are contradictory.
Some even think a policy mission is unnecessary. More troublesome is the fact some people think it’s not important for protesters to have clear goals — just simply to show their solidarity and outrage at the status quo. Well, maybe misery loves company, but it’s hard to imagine moving beyond the current mess if nobody has any solutions or a sense of urgency to enact those ideas. Some hope Occupy Wall Street is just the incubator for future solutions, but if there isn’t direction by now, there might never be.
Villains are oversimplified. If the difficulties of our day were easily identifiable and easily solved, Occupy Wall Street wouldn’t even exist — because logical people could have fixed things already. A sign like “We are the 99%” is a great placard, but is it true? Is there really an evil cabal of a few thousand Americans keeping the poor, huddled masses under their thumbs? Former BofA CEO Ken Lewis, who got a $125 million payday when he left the smoldering wreckage of a financial company in 2009, is as good of a poster child as any. But do we really believe he and a handful of others are wholly to blame for the 2008-09 crisis? And even if so, do we still blame him now that it’s 2011? What about the gym teacher from Las Vegas who took out a “liar’s loan” he could never afford on a $500,000 house? Let’s be honest about the culpability of the American public here with its shared addition to debt and living beyond its means.
Victims are oversimplified. By some estimates, as many as 8 million jobs were lost. Tens of millions more are stuck with homes worth a fraction of their value. Retirement portfolios and 401Ks are at best back to where they were several years ago, and millions of seniors have been forced to delay retirement. Inflation seems to be on the march as wages are stagnant. The list of economic headwinds is long and unpleasant — and touch us all. What makes one unemployed worker apply for another job or retraining, and another picket Wall Street to have his job benefits extended beyond 99 weeks? What makes one homeowner stay in his home for the school district or the community and another walk away with a “strategic default?” Let’s not pretend there are no solutions here, and that everyone who has it tough has no recourse other than a Wall Street sit-in.
Lots of hindsight, little insight. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but the bank bailouts already were approved by Congress. So why are we occupying Wall Street now to call attention to the fact that fat cats at Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) and Citigroup (NYSE:C) got paid while taxpayers got the shaft? Yes America, you should be furious we paid 100 cents on the dollar for toxic mortgage-backed securities — but you should have been furious three years ago.
Business and capitalism are not the problem. We are all angry and frustrated. It seems like the rich just keep getting richer and the middle class has fewer avenues for success than ever before. But hard times for middle America does not mean end times for banking, investing and capitalism as we know it. We are a nation that always has believed that our success is only limited by our talents. Once we start rooting against corporations and the wealthiest 1%, what incentive do Americans have to aspire to be the best? Surely rich folks can pay their fair share — but what’s “fair” is debatable. There are things we can do to aid hiring and raise wages, but how do we protect the autonomy and profits of a well-run corporation? For every blood-sucking investment banker, there are 10 small-business owners who just want to build a great company. If you believe that all CEOs or big businesses are part of the problem, you aren’t giving the American economy enough credit.
Congress is indeed the problem, or at least part of it. Want to get pissed off at someone? Try our bought Congress, which has been bribed with pork and campaign contributions for decades. Officials are now frozen like deer in headlights because the problems take compromise and critical thinking to solve. It’s time for Americans to speak out at the ballot box instead of wasting their time wearing Guy Fawkes masks.
We need more unity, not more divisions. There are many differences between us in this time of crisis. It’s not just arguments over how much the “haves” should have and what our obligation is to the “have-nots,” either. We are faced with difficult questions about the role of government as a regulator, as a social safety net and as an engine of economic growth. Throw in flashpoint social issues like gay marriage and immigration, and it’s a tumultuous time in America right now. That’s why the Occupy Wall Street movement disappoints me so much — because more than ever, we need to think about how to make America great for everyone once more. Big businesses and the rich included.
Some say the Occupy Wall Street protests are a different flavor of the Tea Party movement — that it is a true groundswell of popular feeling among “regular” Americans. Others claim it is a crucible for our nation as the old system of big business and elite politics is being challenged in earnest.
I, for one, indeed hope that Wall Street learns some hard lessons from the financial crisis — and that American politics and business policies are forever changed to protect all Americans and not just a privileged few.
Whether Occupy Wall Street is the vehicle for those changes, though, is a vastly different question.
Jeff Reeves is editor of InvestorPlace.com. As of this writing, he did not own a position in any of the stocks named here. Follow him on Twitter via @JeffReevesIP and become a fan of InvestorPlace on Facebook.