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”.