October 18th, 2011
Having been interested in the Occupy Wall Street movement for a while, my brother Scot and I decided to join them on their October 15th march from Zuccotti Park to Washington Square Park (and then onto Times Square). Admittedly, we were weekend warriors. We participated a little, we talked to some folks, I shot the video you see above... OK, we wound up cutting out much of the march by hopping an A train to Washington Square Park, and we didn't have time to make it up to Times Square for the evening rally. But it was still great to be there, and this is what I took away from it...
I think no matter what you think the Occupy is or isn't - you could probably find evidence there to support your hypothesis. We saw Teachers, Teamsters, Auto Workers, Anti-Nukes, Doctors, Veterans, Native Americans, Migrant Workers, Free-Tibeters, Environmentalists, Socialists, Hippies, Suits, Employed and Unemployed, Young and Old, Black and White and everything in between.
Somebody's sign read "We're Here, We're Unclear, Get Used to It!". The central message was... that there is no one central message. This is a movement purposely without leadership, as the occupiers are quite certain their leaders would either be jailed or slandered anyway. People trying to understand the protest get quite frustrated by this, but like the sign says: Get used to it!
But a common thread does run thru this group: They are NOT the wealthiest 1% of Americans. So despite this group's size and diversity, they feel under-represented. They feel they have very little power to affect change in their own Democratic government. They can see very clearly how large corporate interests have made the United States their playground. They feel that 1% have a monopoly on policy and an immunity to prosecution. They also see a national debt that is downright unmanageable, healthcare that is practically unaffordable, 2.5 wars that we can no longer afford but have no end in sight, their own country living on borrowed money, domestic jobs and resources being pipelined overseas, unemployment and inflation rising, salaries shrinking, bought politicians caught in a moronic cycle of partisan bickering, and the entire banking system exposed as a pyramid scheme with 99% of Americans placed quite firmly at the bottom.
How do you boil all that (and more) into a single message? And why pick on Wall Street?? Well, if you've read this far, please read this little true story that I call...
A Tale of Two Shitty CEOs
A quick peek at just two of Wall Street's top dogs back when the shit first hit the fan.
As of the year 2000, Merrill Lynch Corporation was generally considered the largest and most powerful Wall Street Investment firm. Boasting profits in the billions, and employment in the tens of thousands, it was referred to as Wall Street's "Thundering Herd". But by 2007, as the sub-prime crisis swept through the global financial market, Merrill Lynch announced losses of $8 billion. Merrill CEO Stan O'Neal was responsible for steering his Titanic into a massive sub-prime iceberg. Merrill's Board of Directors instructed him to name his successor and step down. He was given a golden parachute of $161.5 million (in addition to his $28 Million annual salary) just to walk away.
O'Neal appointed fellow Harvard man John Thain to be his replacement. Upon joining Merrill Lynch, Thain received a $15 million signing bonus. The firm announced that Thain would receive at least $50 million a year and could be paid as much as $120 million a year, based on the company's stock price. But Thain's tenure wouldn't even last one year: by September 2008, in order to avoid bankrupcy, Thain found himself desperately negotiating Merrill's sale to Bank of America.
Even though Merrill was careening toward bankrupcy, Thain couldn't keep his playboy corporate lifestyle in check. In his ten months as CEO he spent $1.22 million in corporate funds to renovate two conference rooms, a reception area, and his office, including $131,000 for area rugs, a $68,000 antique credenza, guest chairs costing $87,000, a $31,000 commode, and a $1,100 wastebasket. Just prior to closing Merrill's sale, he accelerated approximately $4 billion in bonuses to Merrill brass. Speculation mounted that TARP funds were used for the bonus payments. After being dismissed by Bank of America, Thain countered he was owed a $5-$10 million bonus - which he likely would have gotten had NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo not called public attention to his extravagances.
So while things in the real world continue to spiral out of control, Wall Street execs continue to reward each other with taxpayer money for a job poorly done. Since being ousted from Merrill, Stan O'Neal now serves on the Board of Directors for Alcoa (salary undisclosed), and John Thain accepted a position as CitiGroup CEO (salary $7 million/year).
For me, it's not hard to figure out what the Occupiers are mad about. The real question is: What will be the outcome? Will they continue to grow or will they pack it up and go away when the weather gets cold? How will this shape the upcoming election year? Will these protests open the kind of dialog the protester in my video spoke about, or will this whole thing be a mere blip in the continuum of the Wall Street way of life?