I Am the 99%. How About You?http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2011/10/10/i-am-the-99-how-about-you.aspx Brian Stoffel
October 10, 2011
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%"
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 ...
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
What, then, are we left to do?
It's all about education
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.
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
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.