The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘Occupying Wall Street’

EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER THE LAW

The focus of the Occupy Wall Street movement is about inequality. Without saying whether they are right in their assessment of current day America, this is a critical matter and would be a fundamental shift from the way our Founding Fathers envisioned this country’s functioning.

 In the 19th Century, the Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville published his monumental analysis of the new American society in his book, “Democracy in America”. One of his statements, which most resonated with me was, “The great thing about America is that the laws apply equally to all people.” This was obviously a tremendous departure from the way things worked in Europe where there were three classes of people: The Aristocracy – who were above the law; The Class of Merchants, Tradesmen and Farmers – who were subject to the law; and the large group of the Impoverished – who ignored the law.

 What must have been most frustrating to those in the bottom two classes was that there was no possibility of ever moving into the Aristocratic class since membership was determined by birth. They could, no matter how gifted or how hard they worked, ever hope to attain top status. And that was one of the main reasons that so many emigrated from Europe and came to America. At least here – with equality for all – they had the opportunity to allow their talents and hard work reward them in due measure.

 Well, who is it that makes our laws? Congress. They have the responsibility to uphold the Constitution as part of their Oath of Office – and to ensure that the laws apply to all equally. Do they? Well, let’s look at the record – including some rather startling information that has come to media attention in the last few days.

 Something that the OWS contingent might take heart in is that a man by the name of Raj Rajaratnam was convicted recently of making illegal profits through “insider trading”. In other words, he profited from information which he – unlike the general public had – owing to his connections and the people he knew within various corporations. He profited to the extent – according to the allegations – to the tune of many millions by acting on this information and taking positions in stocks. This is a clear violation of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1933 and 1934 – and it was for these infractions that he was convicted and sentenced to 11 years in prison. This sort of behavior strongly supports the OWS belief that the Wall Street “fat cats” have an advantage that is denied the general population.

 The startling media attention recently that Members of Congress (and their staffs) regularly trade on “inside information” to their own profit makes me wonder. If Rajaratnam was guilty and should go to jail for breaking the law – why should Members of Congress not face the same fate? The answer is simple. They should. But they have “exempted” themselves from the same penalties that all the rest of us Americans face if we do the same thing. Sounds a lot like the old European system where Congress is “the New Aristocracy”.

 Well, this may not sound like a big deal to most of us. After all, very few Americans actively trade stocks on a regular basis. But let’s look at something more fundamental and to which we can all relate. That is the subject of retirement benefits.

 We, the average person, pay into the Social Security System from the time we start working. The average person who graduates High School at 18 works about 50 years and (based on the proposals to raise the retirement age) will be able to collect a monthly benefit at age 68. That benefit will be between 10% – 40% of her previous salary. (The higher their salary – the lower the percentage benefit they will receive). For most of us – the actual payout will be about 20% of what we earned while we worked.

 Now let’s contrast that with the Retirement Plan that Congress has voted for themselves. 

An individual who serves for 20 years in Congress is entitled to a retirement benefit of up to 80% of their highest salary! And they don’t have to wait until they’re 68. They can start collecting as soon as they have completed those 20 years of “service” – if they are at least 50 years old. (By the way, the current salary which Congress voted themselves for this year is $174,000). Members in Congress in “leadership” positions earn even more.

 So let’s see how this works. You work 50 years and collect 20% of salary. Congress works 20 years and collects 80% of salary. What happened to equality under the law?

 Just a thought. If the people who are Occupying Wall Street really wanted to make a change in the basic fabric of today’s America and level the playing field – maybe they should be Occupying Capitol Hill. Even better, they should be out looking for individuals to replace our current Congress with people who truly believe that all Americans are “Equal Under The Law”.

  

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OCCUPYING WALL STREET

What’s this protest all about? I’m sure that most of us have wondered. I am no stranger to dissent and to protest. I was actively involved in the 1960’s in the student movement protesting the War in Vietnam. So I believe it would be fair to say that I am approaching this latest protest with an open and inquiring mind as to what it’s about and what the protesters hope to accomplish.

 Unlike the anti-Vietnam War Movement – which was a single focus issue – the OWS protest seems to attract people with different objectives. If there is one underlying issue – it seems that there is a sense that the “99%” – feel financially dis-enfranchised as opposed to their nemeses – the “1%”. Recently, a mini-version of this protest came to the Las Vegas Strip and I made a rare foray down there in order to gain a better sense of what the participants were thinking.

 I had the opportunity to speak with two members of the Las Vegas protest. I asked both of them what they were protesting. Both responded the same way. “It’s unfair that there are super-wealthy people at the top of the ladder and then there are all the rest of us at the bottom.” (For some reason – not supported by fact – they seemed to feel that Wall Street “fat cats” were the ones at the top. The facts suggest that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, sports and Hollywood celebs and quite a few Members of Congress are actually at the top of the heap). Nevertheless, I asked each of them the following question.

 “If, by some miracle you happened to find a magic lamp, you rubbed it and the genie said that if you wanted to – you could be one of the “super wealthy” – would you accept his offer?”

 The first person with whom I spoke was a young woman in her early 30’s. She had been laid off by the Board of Education from her position as a teacher and was struggling to get by. Her answer to my question represented what I took to be a deeply-felt sense of ethics and what is right. She said, “Absolutely not.”

 I responded, “As I understand it – you see the world as a “them” and “us” contrast. You feel you are part of the “us” contingent and, based on your answer to my question, don’t want to be part of the “them” group. So you are, in essence, just where you want to be. I don’t understand, therefore, what it is that you are protesting.”

 Apparently she didn’t like that comment because she walked away.

 The second protester was a young man whom I guessed to be in his early to mid 20’s. He didn’t choose to share his background with me so I don’t know about his education or work history. My only observation about his appearance was that he must have invested an extensive amount of money and pain in body art. I asked him the same question about the genie.

 He thought for a few seconds and said, “Of course I would. You’d have to be stupid not to take that deal.”

 I responded, “So as I understand it, you don’t really have a problem with the super-wealthy – as long as you’re one of them. It’s only the fact that you aren’t and perhaps don’t have enough self-confidence to try to become one – that is the basis for your protest.”

Apparently he didn’t like that comment because, like the young lady with whom I had spoken earlier, he also walked away. (I guess I need to improve my interviewing skills).

 So what’s the takeaway from these two interviews? Well to be honest, I am not an experienced pollster and I think it is foolish to assume any absolute understanding of what the protesters are upset about based on two random interviews, but here’s my feeling.

 I believe that one of those nasty “seven deadly sins” – ENVY – is at the core of all of this. “I don’t believe I have the ability to be a big success – so I’m going to throw stones at those who have demonstrated that ability and have become successful.” Frankly, this attitude amazes me. It is the exact antithesis of the optimism of the immigrants who flooded into America – thinking, hoping and most importantly, believing they could make it big in this new country.

 You don’t have to have a PhD or be a genius to make it big in the USA. I can think of no better example than the guy who invented the “Hula Hoop”. It was a huge success and the inventor became wealthy – with an incredibly simple product. Surely there are more “Hula Hoop” stories to be written. But those stories will only be written by people who make the effort.

 When we’re born most of our physical characteristics have already been determined. Sure, we’d all like to be super models or brilliant athletes – but in large measure – whether we have that potential is largely out of our control. We are dealt a hand. We have two choices in playing our cards.

 We can bemoan our fate that we didn’t inherit super athletic genes and complain about how unfair life has been to us. That’s a very sad and unproductive way to spend your time on planet Earth. It’s hard to be happy if you think you’ve been cheated by nature and your parents. 

The alternative is that we can analyze our hand and play it to the very best of our ability. Most of us are not going to make it into the “Super Wealthy Club” – but at the least we can take pride in the fact that we have done our very best – and that is quite an achievement.

 Is there a better example of a person who was unlikely to succeed because of her sex and race than Oprah Winfrey? What a terrific beacon she has set ablaze – a beacon which can light the way for the rest of us. I congratulate her and applaud her story – and don’t begrudge her a penny of the empire she has forged. She earned it! And that may be the most important lesson that the OWS protesters need to learn.

 

 

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