For the past few days, I've been trying to wrap my head around what it is -- exactly -- that protesters are trying to accomplish with their "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations.
Even the man responsible for starting the protests, Adbusters Editor-in-Chief Kalle Lasn, wasn't quite sure what the rallying cry would be. "The demand could be some stupid lefty thing like 'overthrow capitalism,'" Lasn said back in September. "We're hoping it's something specific and doable.”
Now in its third week, this nascent movement seems to have found its motto.
"We are the 99%"
In case you’re wondering, if your household takes in less than $1.5 million per year, you, too, are in the bottom 99% of income earners, according to statistics from the Tax Policy Center.
Protestors point to data like this -- from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities -- to demonstrate their anger. The chart shows the share of income growth that was captured by the top 1%, and the bottom 90%, of wage earners over several time periods.
Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Of course, there are varying explanations for this stunning reversal: the growth of the global economy, the outsourcing of American jobs, and the development of labor-replacing technology among them.
Understanding the situation, the protesters' concerns, and their detractors' counterpoints leads me to a quandary.
Caught between a rock ...
At its root, I don't think people are protesting solely because they're jobless, or have lost their homes. These things happen.
Here's my theory: I believe the problem is that we detest large disparities (of any kind) within groups. And there's no reason not to feel this way: We're hard-wired for it.
If you were to create a timeline of humanity's existence on earth and put it on a football field, the amount of time that we've been living in civilizations -- roughly the last 10,000 years -- would be equal to a golf ball. The other 99% of the time, we survived in tribes.
Our psyches haven't evolved out of this yet: We are designed for tribal living.
One of the tenets of tribal existence is interdependence between the individual and the tribe. Sure, there is a social order, but all experiences are shared. When there’s a drought, everyone -- from tribal leader to newborn -- must cut back on food.
It's not that it would be cruel not to feed others in your tribe. It's that it would be suicidal. Everyone relies on everyone else. This is the framework we are born with.
... and a hard place
But trying to re-create society in a tribe's image would be akin to putting toothpaste back in the tube; it can't be done. We know all too well what happens when communism is given a try, Americans are tepid at best when it comes to socialism, and we've enjoyed far too many fruits of capitalism's efficiencies to throw it out the window.
What, then, are we left to do?
It's all about education
In an essay he penned this summer, reflecting on the country's downgrade from a AAA rating, founding Fool David Gardner asked, "Which message do you hear from your state government more often? Is it (a) financial literacy is a critical study -- a gift even -- for our youth, and we are every day testing and graduating kids who know what they're doing with money, or (b) 'You could be next. Gotta play to win' ... your state lottery?"
As David pointed out, "A nation of financially illiterate citizens who are democratically electing their government seems to me to be hoping for lottery odds that things will 'all work out.'"
What's more is the fact that learning how to wisely handle finances is usually far easier than the trigonometry or chemistry we require all students to be proficient in upon graduation.
From where I sit, educating our nation's youth (and a large portion of its adult population) in economics would address the protesters' concerns on two levels.
First, citizens would be forced to accept personal responsibility for the decisions they have made. Too many times, I've seen signs and heard interviews with protesters clamoring over the loss of their houses.
Certainly, some banks have fouled up the foreclosure process, but that doesn't change the fact that the end result was inevitable.
While I can certainly sympathize with their plight (I bought a condo at the height of the bubble that's fallen significantly in value), no one held a gun to anyone's head and forced them to make purchases they shouldn't have been making in the first place.
Holding Wall Street accountable
Furthermore, becoming educated about economics and the stock market is about more than simply making money; it's about being part of the decision-making process -- or at least it should be.
If you have money in a mutual fund, a retirement plan, or even a pension, it's highly likely that you are actually a part owner in several companies. But because you've turned that money over to the "pros\" to invest for you, you've essentially forfeited your right to vote on company issues.
Managing an entire portfolio isn't for everyone, but should you chose this path, you are part owner of a company; with that designation, you have a say in things like corporate governance and executive compensation. Fellow Fool Alyce Lomax has written extensively on how shareholders can demand that boards straighten out their crooked policies.
But all too often, even those of us who do manage our own portfolios simply shrug our shoulders when it comes to corporate governance. I've thrown more proxy statements in the garbage than I can remember; I'm not sure if I've opened a single one.
But imagine if all the teachers and firefighters and factory workers and writers (and anyone else who directly or indirectly has money in the stock market) devoted the same amount of time voting on corporate measures as we do on following our favorite football team.
I'll bet there'd be a lot more model CEOs like Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) late Steve Jobs, Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Larry Page, or Whole Foods' (Nasdaq: WFM ) John Mackey -- who all took in salaries of $1 recently.
I also bet there would be far fewer severance packages that bordered on insane, like the one Leo Apotheker got at Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) or Baxter Phillips received when Massey Energy was sold to Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE: ANR ) .
In the end, all of us -- the 1-percenters and the 99-percenters -- must find a solution. Because as Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz tells us:
The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn't seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late.