Monday, December 12, 2011

My response to Occupy Wall Street

Last week I published a summary of my interpretation of Occupy Wall Street. The movement has sprung up in many cities and appears to be similar in all of these. This is my response to those movements.

First, let me say that I get it. There's a lot of frustration out there. People are out of jobs and worse yet, they feel their future has been stolen by financiers who haven't been and won't be punished for their incompetence. People like Patrick Meighan have been arrested (read his story here) and jailed over non-violent protests. I know that there have been some criminal acts committed by some of the Occupiers, but that doesn't change the message these people are trying to bring (it doesn't excuse it, but that's a different story).

I also agree with parts of the message of the Occupy movement, the financiers should be punished. The banks should have been allowed to fail and the people creating the mess should certainly not be in charge of the business that I involuntarily bailed out. And like them, I'm not convinced that the system can work itself out - I'm just that cynical.

But I also know that we live in the United States of America, a country with a system of laws and that we have to obey those laws. Even if politicians and bankers committed fraud and theft, that doesn't give me the right to break laws. If someone refused to leave when instructed by police, they deserve to be arrested. When Mr. Meighan (same story as above) was arrested, he complained in his blog that in most situations of this type, "the police just give you a ticket and let you go. It costs you a couple hundred dollars." One thing that is different in his case is that he would have gladly taken the ticket and ripped it up and never left the park he occupied. Police have an obligation to enforce the law (which he acknowledges in his blog) and in that case that meant physically removing the Occupiers and cleaning out the park.

I also know that it's possible to move up in the world. I grew up in a not-too-priviledged environment. I won't go into the details, but my college was paid on a combination of scholarships and grants (until I lost the grant because I made too much in a below-minimum wage job). I have worked at one job or another (and sometimes two at the same time) since 1973. My father taught me that there is always a job available for someone who was willing to work. This past weekend, I heard that Scheider National Trucking needs to hire 41,000 and Pizza Hut needs to hire 28,000. These may not be jobs that people want or may not pay as much as their last job, but they are jobs. And they pay at least minimum wage.

I decided sometime back to adopt the slogan "Think Globally, Act Locally." What that means to me is to elect the kind of representatives who push an agenda of personal responsibility. I believe this is the only way (if there's a way) to fix our national problem. By encouraging people to work, even at low-paying jobs, to pay off debts and to support the family, politicians begin encouraging a way out. As for acting locally, charity begins at home, helping the people in your community. I can't help Mr. Meighan in LA, but I can help the single lady in our church who sells real estate and hasn't sold any in a while. I can help the people who will come to me in February through April to file their tax returns (without charging them) so they can get the refunds and credits that are available under current law. I can help the couple whose husband is in a wheel chair and unable to work.

So while I understand the Occupy movement, I can't say I agree with it. I believe that instead of protesting, the occupiers would be better of returning to work and starting their own personal recovery. That's my thoughts, what are yours?

Thursday, December 08, 2011

What is Occupy Wall Street?

I've been trying to wrap my head around what's going on in the Occupy Wall Street movement. It's gotten a lot of attention from the press, yet there seems to be very little understanding about what is really going on. Some of the bloggers I read have published stories about crime in the Occupy movement, stories that have seem limited airtime on national news. But my goal has been to avidly read every story I could find, to determine what it's all about. These people are exerting a lot of time and in some cases money, I'd like to find out why. In this post, I'll try to explain what I've learned. In a later post, I'll give my thoughts and opinion on that information.

Two of the best stories I've read come from Bloomberg Businessweek, both available online here and here. While there are more stories out there, these stories do a better job of explaining the movement than most. I encourage reading them. I also plan on reading a book described in the article titled "Debt: The First 5,000 years" by David Graeber, the so-called "Man behind the mask."

The article says that Graeber "as been an anarchist since the age of 16." What's unique is that Graeber would not mind being an anarchist. He admits that "most people don’t think anarchism is (just) a bad idea. They think it’s insane." But unlike most people, "Graeber’s father, (has) seen it work."

The Occupy movement is made of a lot of other individuals, each with their own view of what is going on. As a group, they are still trying to define what all of this means. But there are groups within the movement that have similarities and they attract people sympathetic to their views (I doubt we see many Reagan conservatives at these rallies). They are against money in politics and the crushing effect of "debt: mortgages, credit-card debt, student loans, and the difference in how the debts of large financial companies and those of individual borrowers" get settled.

If there is one defining trait of the Occupiers - it's that. It's the "where's MY bailout" story. Where's the bailout for the middle-aged man, who took out first and second mortgages, credit cards and bought the American Dream on payments, then lost his job in the 2008 fiasco and saw his interest rates skyrocket, while the Bank paid executives huge salaries? Where's the bailout for the college graduate who took out student loans, now can't find a job to pay them back?

The timing of the movement, amidst this overwhelming debt by individuals, bail-outs and unemployment has been the triggering action to bring these people together. Top that off with a conservative movement that wants to cut all forms of aid because they think it's the only way to recover and they hate big government and the movement ignites. The Occupiers "oppose cutbacks and austerity of any kind." (Wikipedia defines austerity as budget cutting, lower spending, reduction of benefits). This comes from the anarchy that Graeber's father saw in Spain after the IMF mandated spending cuts, austerity that is now being imposed on Greece, other nations and even individuals in the US.

What bothers me the most about watching the movement from the sidelines is the similarities between this movement and some movements I've watched from afar in Egypt, Libya and France. Movements in those countries started not as political movements, but as movements by unemployed. When large numbers of people become unemployed and can't find work to pay for basic necessities, they look for answers and frequently rise up against the government. Instead of answers, they see the government keeping them down. I've read other articles that compared debt to slavery, this idea feeds the movement as well.

At the end of the article, reference is made to a policy recommendation in Graeber's book calling for "jubilee" - a forgiveness of all international and consumer debt. I understand the term and have even written about it (although I referred to a city of refuge). I thought it was uniquely Judeo-Christian in concept, but the article says that jubilees occurred "in ancient Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt." The article goes on to say that the "alternative, ... was rioting and chaos in years when poor crop yields left lots of peasants in debt."

Is that where we're headed? Rioting and chaos (which we've already seen)? Is anarchy, or small democracy the answer? Must banks be run as non-profit organizations? Should all debt be wiped clean every seven years? I'm not sure I have the answers, but I'll give my opinion in my next post.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

When Hubert met Rose

This is the story of how my father-in-law was introduced to my mother-in-law. I've heard the story told numerous times and it always warmed my heart.

The story starts in 1955, when Hubert Lawrence became a widow. He and his 17 year old son Tommy were living alone after the death of his first wife Della. Tommy worked at a local mill as a doffer, someone who replaced bobbins in the machines where the (mostly) ladies were sewing. One of those ladies was Rose.

Apparently, Tommy had a mischievous streak. Something that he did aggravated Rose that day and she told him "I'd like to be your mother for just one day." It's never been clear to me if she knew his mother had died a few weeks earlier or not, but I can just imagine her pointing her crooked finger at him as she said it (her finger probably wasn't crooked then, but it was all the time I knew her).

That night, Tommy told his father that there was a lady at the mill who wanted to meet him. So Hubert went to meet Rose at the boarding house where she lived. When she told the story about his big shoes clomping up the stairs to the porch, you could hear the sound it made.

About five weeks later (sometimes this was as short as five days when Rose told the story) he picked her up in his car to take her for a ride. When she asked where they were going he replied "to get a marriage license." I guess that served as a proposal.

Her answer was a simple "oh, ok" (which I guess meant "yes") and a day later they were married at the preacher's house. Unknown to them at the time, her brother Claude got married the same day in the next state about 45 miles away.

Now some will question the romance of this short courtship, but somehow it must have worked. Hubert and Rose were married just short of 40 years before he passed away on Dec 3, 1994. She lived alone for 17 years and her blue eyes always sparkled when she told this story. On November 26, 2011, Rose met Hubert again in heaven.