Monday, October 10, 2011

Managing the Message

What the Occupy Wall Street crowd should be saying when they talk about their plight

By John F. Wasik (Reuters)

A demonstrator from the Occupy Wall Street campaign stands with a dollar taped over his mouth as he stands in Zucotti Park near the financial district of New York September 30, 2011. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson Are the thousands who have taken to the streets in the “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) protests a bunch of anarchistic slackers or do they have a point?

If they’re protesting their personal financial situations or prospects for the American Dream, they have plenty to howl about, but the “99 percent” crowds could use some message management.

When I recently visited the Chicago OWS spin-off in front of the Federal Reserve Bank, they were decrying everything from predator drones to corporations in general. There were fewer than 100 people there, although their theme was similar to the New York demonstrations.

Instead of yelling at people ensconced behind financial district edifices, though, protesters could be making some more constructive demands. I’d like to humbly offer a few suggestions:

  • Demand that big banks give ordinary citizens the same rates they receive from the Federal Reserve on loans. Borrowers can’t re-negotiate their college loans the way a big corporation or bank can, because they have access to interest rates that are nearly zero. Moreover, students can’t consolidate high-rate private loans with lower-rate federal borrowing, so the plums of high finance are out of their reach. Those who graduated from college may be staring down decades of paying off debt — an average of nearly $23,000 per student; those with professional degrees are wincing at six-figure burdens.
  • Demand that Congress permit regular folks to discharge student debt in bankruptcy. It’s somewhat of a consolation that graduates can get lower payments based on sparse income or employment if they have federal loans, but they still have to repay those loans. If they file for bankruptcy, they can’t discharge those debts, which are like albatrosses. Not so with the megabanks, who not only received a multi-trillion-dollar bailout, but got the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve to buy their bad debt and toxic securities. There’s a solid reason why the delinquency rate for student loans is almost as high as credit cards.
  • Demand that Congress pass a stimulus plan to create infrastructure, education, research and clean energy jobs instead of investing in two wars that three-quarters of the American electorate thinks are senseless. If the job market were robust, none of these protesters would have to worry. Like previous generations, they could work, pay off their debts and buy things like appliances, furniture and homes. They could afford to have children and provide them decent educations. That was the American Dream. The younger generation is not getting the job opportunities their parents or grandparents had. They are faced with average 15 percent unemployment. It’s much higher for minorities. Even if they can get a job, wages are depressed due to the recession and many are underemployed, working several jobs or are part-timers.
  • Instead of targeting financial districts, focus on specific congressmen and senators blocking financial/bankruptcy reform and job creation.

Unless more people get in the face of politicians, one thing is certain: it will be continue to be a raw deal for the middle class. Now is the time for the protesters to take their demonstrations out of financial districts and into the offices of their elected representatives. All of this reminds me of when Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Henry David Thoreau in jail, who was imprisoned for not paying a poll tax. Emerson asked his friend why he was there. “Why are you not here?” Thoreau replied. Maybe we’re not quite on the streets today in spirit, but most of us were there some time ago in personal financial solidarity — whether we choose to admit it or not.

No comments: