The Occupy Wall Street movement is already showing signs of being commandeered by the great Main Street street fight between “left” and “right” -- also known as “us” versus “them.” Don’t fall for the distraction: The 99% really need to occupy common ground; there’s plenty of it to occupy.
Wall Street deserves universal wrath. In 2008, financial companies like Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) , Citigroup (NYSE: C ) , AIG (NYSE: AIG ) , and Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) privatized profits and socialized losses when they received a monster public bailout. Not only did they show no remorse or humility, they still believed they deserved whopping big salaries and bonuses.
Forget arguments about “capitalism” or “socialism.” That behavior exemplified some other “ism” -- probably financial cannibalism. Of course, we can’t just blame them. Politicians enabled the outcome, so the powerful political class is a huge part of our current problem.
The American people got mugged and then were left to suffer the consequences for years since. Having gained nothing but a horrible economy and a terrible case of post-traumatic stress disorder is a legitimate reason to be angry. However, hopefully most of us 99%ers can find some common ground with one another and keep our reason despite our anger.
This is not pro-market
Certain folks want everyone to think that the “free market” is about big corporations making big profits, regardless of how they make them.
Somehow, folks who oversimplify this line of thinking tend to start believing other irrational things, too. For example, that it makes perfect sense for CEOs to make 350 times the salary of the average worker, even if they’re not very good at their jobs. Or that corporate welfare in the form of subsidies, artificially low tax rates, and other big-corporation goodies is somehow “free market” policy.
Such behavior is not pro-marketplace, it’s pro-big business, and there’s a major difference. For example, for all the howling about the Solyndra scandal and “green energy subsidies” (the horror), I have a funny feeling the screamers are failing to address the fact that Big Oil has gotten plenty of government help.
For example, in May, the Senate voted down an attempt to cut $21 billion in tax-break-related subsidies for giant oil companies like ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) to produce oil in the U.S., recoup the costs of paying foreign taxes, and write off certain drilling and development costs.
Giving any industry a “break” over others actually doesn’t reflect a fair marketplace; it distorts the marketplace. And let’s not even get started on regulatory capture. These are ways the powerful always win.
This is not pro-worker
Certain folks want everyone to think big corporations are always evil. For example, now that the unions are involved in Occupy Wall Street, the dialogue could skew in that direction. However, let’s not forget all those “evil corporations” actually employ an awful lot of people here in the U.S.
Unions serve a great purpose: pointing out true worker abuse. They’re also awesome watch dogs for issues like out-of-control CEO pay.
However, unions have a negative tendency. They sometimes detach from economic reality in their zeal to ensure workers get the goods. Remember the old “killing the goose that laid the golden egg” fable? Consider how close the U.S. post office is to bankruptcy; that’s a prime example of the damage union demands and expectations can do over the long term.
That’s not pro-worker, that’s pro-economic nihilism.
Furthermore, the word “profit” is not necessarily a dirty word. Ultimately, “profit” is simply the difference between business success (solvency) and failure (bankruptcy).
Your favorite mom-and-pop establishments are trying to turn a profit; are they evil? Are they even more evil because they often can’t offer worker benefits, and Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX ) spends more on employee health care than it does on coffee?
Pro politics is the problem
The current political scene spreads rancor and enables the imbalance of power and situations where only some people are treated “fairly.” Those who are advocating taking the money out of politics are on the right track.
Dylan Ratigan has started an effort to “Get Money Out” of politics. Starbucks’ founder and CEO Howard Schultz has also appealed to CEOs to cut off political donations until Washington gets its act together. Although that’s a great idea, maybe Cypress Semiconductor’s founder and CEO T.J. Rodgers gave the most righteous response; he was already “on the Schultz plan” because he doesn’t give to political candidates in the first place.
Shareholders can help by supporting resolutions demanding corporations disclose political spending. Some of the companies that fielded such resolutions this year included Northrop Grumman and AT&T (NYSE: T ) .
Along these lines, though, for all the outrage about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, let’s not forget another massive campaign contributor: unions. The Center for Responsive Politics’ top 10 list of highest contributors from 1989 through 2010 only included one corporation (AT&T). The rest were unions and special interest groups.
Let’s hope “the 99%” will stop fighting with each other and start fighting the power on all sides of these issues. It’s time to start agitating for ethics and fairness, and fight corruption and injustice on all sides instead of constantly taking sides. As long as the people are distracted by arguing with one another, the people in power always win.
Let’s try to occupy some common ground.
Check back at Fool.com for Alyce Lomax's next column on environmental, social, and governance issues on Wednesday, Oct.26.