Although I came of age in the era of protests — the 1960s — and participated in a few myself, I am having trouble figuring out the Occupy Wall Street protests. These protests, which are proudly leaderless and disorganized, take aim at the big banks and other financial institutions on Wall Street and have spread to demonstrations in other cities, including Chapel Hill, N.C. (which has a long history of protests).
But it seems to me that the protesters are blaming the beneficiaries of policies when they should be targeting the creators of policies — Congress and the executive branch of government. The rich have gotten richer, the income gap has widened and economic wealth has become more concentrated not because banks and investors have taken advantage of opportunities but because the government has paved their paths to these new economic realities. Tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, deregulation of banking and forceful pushing of questionable home loans are all federal policies. Banks and investors have taken advantage of these policies, but who could blame them? The last thing this economy needs is a ban on taking on opportunities.
Wall Street — as a term meaning American corporate thinking — can be blamed for some policies that are not good for the nation as a whole and are particularly bad for certain segments of the population. Corporate policy has frequently been criticized as being too short-sighted, looking no further than the next quarterly report when wise business practices would be looking ahead to the next year or the next decade. Satisfying investors and the corporate board is not as important in the long term as satisfying customers as a whole. The short-sighted focus on the next earnings report also ignores larger economic good, such as environmental benefits and domestic employment.
So, yes, I see the anger at Wall Street and the frustration of young people with large student loans but no jobs, but the first policy change needs to come out of Washington, not out of Wall Street. Or so it seems to me.