NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The first time I wandered by the Occupy Wall Street protest in lower Manhattan, I was almost moved to yell at them, to make myself heard over the bongo drums: "What took you so long?!" I'm still baffled that the first major organized protests against the outrages of Wall Street took place three years after the financial crisis.
Well, now we have a protest proportional to the provocation, and it's about time. I think the reason OWS has resonance is that it is not organized by a specific group of grievants, like the underwater homeowners who protested at the banks a few years back. It is broad in its discontent, a bit like the larger Vietnam-era protests. In that sense it shares a good deal with the Tea Party, which also reflects a vague dissatisfaction with the direction of the country. The difference is that the Tea Party is directed at "big government" and taxation -- even of the very wealthy, whose interests the Tea Partiers have embraced, and who have financially embraced the Tea Party in return.
The Wall Street protesters don't have Koch money to back them, but they don't need it. They have public sentiment at their back. Their common denominator is rage at Wall Street and income inequality in America. At Liberty Plaza, you see a lot of placards referring to the protesters belonging to the "99%" -- a reference to the fact that 23.5% of America's income is concentrated in the top 1% of American households. That, and anger at Wall Street, are two subjects that many, if not most, Americans can agree upon. It's easy to make light of the protesters, as a Florida banker did
on Friday, or as Erin Burnett did in her much-ridiculed CNN segment a few days ago. But I think that it's a mistake to underestimate the strength and vitality of the protests, and the extent to which they mirror public opinion.
I have to admit that the vagueness of the discontent, the failure to make specific and achievable demands, is a downside to the protests. (Though I did see a sign talking up Dodd-Frank, and another with the plaintive plea "Regulate!") While it's true, as the
New York Times
opined on Sunday, that "it is not the job of the protesters to draft legislation," it's a shame to see such raw energy being expended without specific goals. The protesters could use a bit of direction, some schooling in the specific reforms that need to be enacted. There have been "teach-ins" by the likes of Joseph Stiglitz, the eminent economist, and journalist Jeff Madrick, which is a start.
In that spirit, I've come up with a list of specific, concrete issues that I'd like to see screamed aloud at Liberty Plaza. So, come on, people, get with it! Start chanting. ...
Carry carried interest to the dumpster!
(Or words to that effect.) Tax
like his secretary. Get rid of the carried interest deduction that allows managers of hedge funds and equity funds to be taxed at a lesser rate than wage slaves. It won't raise a bucket-load of cash, but it's an open sore that needs to be eliminated. What will raise buckets of cash is ratcheting up taxes on people earning over $250,000 a year, which the protesters should also be screaming about.
Break up the big banks!
The idea that some banks are too big to fail is an outrage. Break them up, just as President Obama told Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to do -- and he refused, as revealed in Ron Suskind's new book,
. Right now, the only reason companies break up is because it's demanded by major stakeholders, to "maximize shareholder value." Well, what about the rest of us? Don't we have a stake in how these banks behave?
Shove the fees up your ...!
Whatever. Get rid of the $5 debit card fees that
Bank of America
plans to begin charging. Cut back on consumer-gouging fees in general. Here is an issue that would appeal to a broad swath of Americans, even Tea Partiers (though they'd never admit it). As a matter of fact, there is actually a movement afoot for BofA customers to transfer their funds elsewhere. That's a splendid idea, very much the "vote with one's feet" activity that free-market economists always talk about.
Force the banks to lend!
While we're on the subject of the big banks, how about some action? How about loosening up the purse springs? They were rescued by our tax dollars, our TARP funds. Require them to increase their lending, whether or not they paid back the TARP money.
Fire Timothy Geithner!
While we're on the subject of the big banks and TARP and banks not being broken up and not lending, how about grappling with the common denomenator and firing Tim Geithner? I know that's a bit obvious, but it needs to be said, and loudly. Obama shouldn't have appointed Geithner Treasury secretary in the first place, and should have fired him at the end of his first year in office, as had been anticipated. But it's not too late to send him packing. He's just too close to Wall Street.
Strengthen the CFPB!
Don't let the Republicans castrate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The protesters, as their numbers multiply, should try to put some steel in the spine of President Obama, who disgracefully failed to appoint Elizabeth Warren as head of the CFPB, and seems willing to throw this new agency under the bus.
Gary Weiss's forthcoming book, AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, will be published by St. Martin's Press on Feb. 28, 2012.
Gary Weiss has covered Wall Street wrongdoing for almost a quarter century. His coverage of stock fraud at BusinessWeek won many awards, and included a cover story, �The Mob on Wall Street,� which exposed mob infiltration of brokerages. He uncovered the Salomon Brothers bond-trading scandal, and wrote extensively on the dangers posed by hedge funds, Internet fraud and out-of-control leverage. He was a contributing editor at Conde Nast Porfolio, writing about the people most intimately involved in the financial crisis, from Timothy Geithner to Bernard Madoff. His book "Born to Steal" (Warner Books: 2003), described the Mafia's takeover of brokerage houses in the 1990s. "Wall Street Versus America" (Portfolio: 2006) was an account of investor rip-offs. He blogs at garyweiss.blogspot.com.