Forty years ago, during the height of the Vietnam War, I worked on Wall Street. Every day at lunch time, the hawks faced off against the doves. The demonstrations often turned ugly; fistfights were common.
While I don’t condone violence, either then or now, I am 100 percent in support of the current uprising staged on my old stomping grounds against corporate greed, self-serving politicians, unemployment and the variety of other valid reasons that have spawned popular dissent.
In recent days, union members, including nurses and teachers, have joined the nationwide ranks of the discontent.
“Our workers are excited about this movement. The country has been turned upside down,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. Closer to home in San Francisco, several hundred marched around the financial district, chanting, “They got bailed out, we got sold out” and “Join our ranks, stop the banks.”
If I still lived in New York, I’d be right there in lower Manhattan, too. Almost every American except for the Wall Street and Capitol Hill crowds have been adversely impacted by some form of corporate malfeasance or political lobbying that works against the common good. Millions of Americans were victimized by the housing crisis wherein the home equity they had built up over years vanished within months.
Many are to blame. Start with George W. Bush, whose idea it was to boost minority home ownership by 5.5 million units. In the process, he and the banks, who smelled a killing, eliminated down payments.
Mortgage and Wall Street investment bankers, knowing that deregulated markets would allow them to get away with outrageous abuses, loaned money at sub-prime rates to the marginally employed and offered deferred payments to borrowers who could barely scrape together meal money. In one case documented by the New York Times in its five-part series about the mortgage meltdown, a California worker with an annual income of less than $15,000 purchased a $450,000 home.
The end result: The economy came within a hair of collapsing. Luckily for the bankers, the federal government, whose Treasury Department was headed by Goldman Sachs executives, bailed out the banks — but not the little people.
Consider this: At the time Merrill Lynch collapsed under the weight of its own criminal actions, the Chief Executive Officer was Stanley O’Neal. On his watch, Merrill in 2007 took a $16 billion quarterly write-off and eventually entered into a distressed sale deal with the Bank of America. Through his negligence, O’Neal single handedly bankrupted one of Wall Street’s most venerable firms, which dated back to 1914 and once managed $1.8 trillion in customer assets. He should be in jail. Instead, O’Neal is playing golf somewhere in paradise while he lives in luxury off the proceeds from his $250 million golden parachute.
Most Americans realize that the corrupt political system has marginalized them into nothingness. The idea that the United States is a democracy is only true in the strictest sense of the word. As we learned in civics class, your vote is indeed equal to mine. The problem is that neither of them count for much.
With luck, the movement playing out on Wall Street today will be as effective as the Vietnam protests of years ago. At the least, collective political action will help raise awareness that, I hope, could lead to tangible changes.
Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. He blames Republicans, Democrats, bankers and lobbyists for the lingering economic crisis. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org