On a visit to Fool HQ this week, Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, Liar's Poker, The Big Short, and more, said that the Occupy Wall Street protests "could be the beginning of something quite large." They have a point, Lewis said -- "but they don't know what it is."
I walked away from lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park near Wall Street on Wednesday thinking much the same thing. The gathering there -- and, increasingly, those around the country -- are gaining steam in the form of more protestors, union and student groups, and big-ticket endorsements from "mainstream" academics and journalists.
When the CEO of the largest asset manager in the world (BlackRock (NYSE: BLK ) ) sympathizes with you -- heck, when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke sympathizes with you -- you've stumbled onto something large.
A colleague and I took a handheld video camera, a digital camera, and our notebooks from Alexandria, Va., to New York to see for ourselves what this protest movement was all about.
And yes, to acknowledge a criticism tossed at Occupy Wall Street since it first began on Sept. 17: Some of the protestors are misguided and uneducated about economic issues. The early soundbites on television would have you believe that this was a sort of airhead-hippie convention (see: Erin Burnett), but don't believe it.
We spoke with a good number of highly articulate and well-educated people who weren't there to simply shake their fist at The Man. They offered nuanced, pro-capitalist, pro-reform arguments for what they see as a financial system marred by conflicts of interest and perverse incentives.
Painting a clear picture of the typical OWS protestor is impossible. The demographics skewed young, but it was a mix of genders, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds. For as much as it has been hailed as a liberal movement, I saw a substantial Ron Paul/libertarian contingent.
The protestors' demands are similarly complex. Despite reports to the contrary, there isn't an "official" list of demands, and you could tell just by walking around and striking up conversations that talking points hadn't been disseminated.
The group's ideas are fragmented, even messy. Some people we spoke to demanded vague and politically (and economically) impossible things like "make college free." One young woman we spoke with just said she was against "greed" over and over again.
But we heard some very smart ideas from articulate, nuanced protestors. Here are the three that most resonated.
1. Vote with your feet.
Matt Cropp, a Ron Paul-supporting protestor from Vermont, caught our attention because he was holding a seemingly odd protest sign -- a poster listing the street addresses of nearby credit unions.
He said he made the sign because the closest ATM to Zuccotti Park was inside a branch of Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) -- one of the very institutions they're protesting. Cropp's message was simple: Vote with your feet. Forget Bank of America and the other bailed-out banks, and take your business elsewhere.
Cropp, articulate, clean cut, and in his late 20s, was singularly focused on credit unions because of their charters as nonprofit cooperatives. He argued that credit unions can perform the same simple banking functions (taking deposits, making loans, and so on) while serving the communities in which they operate.
This is how a free market should work: If people dislike the product at one institution, they should take their business elsewhere.
2. Public education should include personal finance.
James from New York City, a graduate student in neuroscience, told us that personal finance should be required in the curriculum of every public school in America. His idea was to have it in high schools, and although he acknowledged that kids wouldn't love taking that class, "we need it in the same way most people aren't interested in science but we agree that people need to know about this stuff to have a functioning society."
One criticism I've read about these protests is that they deflect any personal responsibility for the mortgage and housing mess -- it's all Wall Street's fault. That's why James' sentiment is so powerful: It acknowledges the terrible mistakes of Americans trying to live outside their means, while providing a forward-thinking solution. It also happens to be a solution we've proposed before on Fool.com.
Several of the protestors we interviewed expressed dismay at the short-term bonus culture of the financial system. James put it best:
People here [Wall Street financiers] seem to not have enough consideration of what the long-term consequences of their actions are. They're worried about getting their bonus this year. They know that if the company goes down because of what they did last year, they'll be riding away and their bonus can't be taken from them … as long as what you do doesn't get caught before you get your paycheck, you're fine. That's a real problem.
Everyone should be thumbing their noses at the short-term thinking so pervasive on Wall Street, from the quarter-to-quarter horse race to the compensation practices.
Short-term-itis is a mindset. When Michael Lewis was asked which banker should be brought in front of the Occupy Wall Street protestors, he rightly said "none" -- the problems we face now are more complex than one person or one institution. Dick Fuld, head of Lehman Brothers when it went under, may be a villain in this narrative, but pinning him with all the blame would be incredibly destructive. The problems are deep. The problems are systemic.
Where to from here?
The protest, the protestors, and the problems they're protesting are complex. But when the top 1% of the population owns 40% of the wealth of the country, populist movements will thrive. By one measure of income inequality, the U.S. ranks 90th worldwide, between Uruguay and Cameroon.
That was an abstraction until three weeks ago, when Occupy Wall Street and the accompanying We Are the 99% blog sprouted up. The more they attract articulate people with specific ideas, the more steam this movement gains.