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Editor's note: A previous version of this article referred to allegations of fraud against US Bancorp. We regret the error.
"What do we want?" "500 different things!" "When do we want it?" "Nowish!"
Thousands of people are occupying the Wall Street area as I type this, and have been for many days. The simplest way to describe it all is that masses of people are protesting the status quo, specifically the behavior of corporate America. The message has been compelling enough to keep drawing new people, and it's spreading to cities across America and the world. But many are mocking it, or at least chuckling at it all. Fair enough. There's some cause for head-shaking. But don't write the protests off: There's a lot of truth behind them.
One criticism is that the movement has been disorganized. Well, that's not surprising, especially as it snowballs into something bigger than initially expected. Organization is happening, though, and the NYC General Assembly recently issued a "Declaration of the Occupation of New York City," listing many grievances and a few calls to action.
There's no doubt critics will find something objectionable in it. For example: "[Corporations] have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right." This strikes me as silly, because students with debt knowingly took on that debt, much as homebuyers opt for mortgages.
Despite the quibbles one might raise, there are plenty of hard-to-refute truths at the declaration's core:
- "They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage." It's true that many people took on mortgages they couldn't afford, but it also appears that banks encouraged this, and that banks such as Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) used document-processing mills that allegedly engaged in fraud to expedite foreclosures and eject people from their homes.
- "They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses." It's true that banks such as Goldman Sachs took bailout money and paid out many millions in bonuses to its bigwigs. Columnist Matt Taibbi has noted that in 2009, Goldman reported $13.4 billion in profits and paid out $16.2 billion in compensation and bonuses.
- "They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions." A report from the advocacy organization American Rights at Work found that corporate opposition to unions has intensified over the past 20 years. It has accused companies such as Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) of illegally targeting union supporters. FedEx (NYSE: FDX ) has been accused of classifying as independent contractors workers who seem to be proper employees, in order to avoid various labor laws.
- "They have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them." Visit OpenSecrets.org and you'll see that among the top political contributors from 1989 to the present are AT&T (NYSE: T ) , Altria (NYSE: MO ) , and United Parcel Service (NYSE: UPS ) , as well as many other well-known companies and associations, including unions. AT&T has contributed more than $41 million, overall.
These are just a few of many grievances, and just a few examples of many things that don't seem to make America a better and stronger nation.
Capitalism isn't evil
But all is not lost within a system of capitalism. In many ways, it serves us quite well, offering entrepreneurs and workers the chance to build businesses and to prosper.
And while many things seem to get worse from year to year, such as outlandish executive compensation, some things actually get better. For instance, not so long ago, investors were mostly at the mercy of traditional "full-service" brokerages, which charged arms and legs per trade and offered financial guidance that was often compromised by conflicts of interest. Enter the discount brokerages, which offer very inexpensive trading commissions and gobs of free research and guidance to help investors make the best decisions.
Even the severely problematic initial public offering process has been improved upon a bit, with some companies, such as Google, bucking the standard operating procedure and going public via Dutch auctions. By contrast, the standard operating procedure is good at making banks many millions of dollars -- and in some cases, such as LinkedIn's recent debut, seems to really fleece the company going public.
Don't dismiss the protesters. They're making lots of good points, and I think that most of us would agree that our current system leaves at least some room for improvement, if not a lot of room.
Don't let the protesters' efforts be wasted on you. Be inspired. Hope for a better future and consider what role you might play in making it so. You can vote your conscience on proxy ballots for the companies in which you own stock. You can vote with your wallet, too, when you see companies doing things you don't like. You can remind companies you're interested in that they can actually make good money by doing the right thing.
And you might even join the protesters -- on Wall Street and in many cities besides New York.
Be an informed citizen and investor: Read up on corporate governance issues and corporate hanky-panky via our own Alyce Lomax's articles.
Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Google and Verizon Communications, but she holds no other position in any company mentioned. Click here to see her holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Bank of America, Google, FedEx, Altria Group, and United Parcel Service. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of FedEx, Google, and AT&T. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.