Sunday, October 16, 2011

On Common Ambitions, Or, Occupy Wall Street Likes Capitalism – Sort Of

Well I’m finally back here at work after another recent series of personal adventures; in the middle of all the fun I’ve been finding time to get down to my local “Occupy” event, and for those of you who have not been keeping up I thought we’d take a moment today to compare a bit of Fox-driven perception to the reality I’ve been seeing.

What I’ve been told to expect, at least in certain quarters of the public space, are dirty filthy hippies with no jobs or ambitions hoping to destroy America while having deviant public couplings fueled by the free distribution of dangerous psychotropic drugs.

Sadly, I’ve found that there’s not really much truth in that description, even as tiny bits of it do ring true; but with a manifesto in hand and a few conversations under my belt we’ll see what we can do to create a picture that will surprise a lot of the 99% who already support Occupy Wall Street, even if they don’t know it yet.

Individuals or individual states may call themselves what they please: but the world, and especially the world of enemies, is not to be held in awe by the whistling of a name. Sovereignty must have power to protect all the parts that compose and constitute it: and as UNITED STATES we are equal to the importance of the title, but otherwise we are not.

-- From The Crisis, by Thomas Paine (emphasis is original)

So before we go any farther, let’s set a few conditions to this analysis: I have only been down to Occupy Seattle in person for a total of about six hours over three visits, and even though I try to follow things nationwide on the twitter and the various Livestreams, there’s obviously a lot being missed that’s not going to be reflected here.

Beyond that, we need to recognize that there is a lot of “frogs jumping out of the wheelbarrow” within the Occupy movement; by that I mean people with a lot of different grievances have come together, and even as many agree on one issue or another, many do not – which probably sounds familiar to many of the folks who populate the Tea Party movement as well.

And I’ll tell you something else, just to get the conversational ball rolling: despite what Glenn Beck might imagine in his wildest fantasies, there are a lot of folks in the Occupy movement who are indeed capitalists, even as they may eschew the term themselves; as evidence to support that proposition we’ll have a look at the statement adopted by The General Assembly.

If you know nothing about the Occupy events, let’s start with the setting: in the case of Occupy Seattle, the event has been taking place at Westlake Park, which is dead square in the middle of downtown; the 1/10th acre triangle is home to a couple of speaking platforms, a fountain, a big feeding and medical tent, and then several smaller groupings of sleeping bundles and a single group with a tarp over their sleeping bags (since I last visited, that “tarp over sleeping bag” tent is gone, thanks to the Seattle Police Department; 10 were arrested in the process).

You can’t use bullhorns to be heard above the street noise, and that’s why you’re seeing those videos of people chanting in unison whenever anything’s said: the “speaker” offers a sentence, then the members of the crowd (who are, collectively, “The General Assembly”) repeat the phrase for everyone else (it’s called “the people’s microphone”); hand signals are used to offer immediate feedback to what’s being said, and votes are used to make decisions, just like an old-style New England town hall meeting.

For The General Assembly to adopt anything, from a plan of action to a Statement, requires great deliberation and discussion, and on my second visit there was an ongoing deliberation as to whether the group should negotiate with the Mayor to move the encampment to City Hall.

Out of the New York City process, as we’ve mentioned before, came a Statement; right off the bat it would tell you this:

We come to you at a time when corporations – which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality – run our governments.

That doesn’t seem like a ringing endorsement of capitalism, and neither do the parts of the Statement that reference taking bailouts “with impunity”, even as Executives receive “exorbitant bonuses”, nor the comments about the destruction of the farming system or the issues raised regarding “the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless nonhuman animals”; there’s a whole lot more I could cite to make this point, but what you need to take away from this couple of paragraphs is that there is a lot to be said against how we do capitalism, and these folks are voicing some of the same complaints we’ve all had lately.

Despite all that, there are some very telling portions of the statement for those who think Occupy Wall Street is intent on recreating Mad Max in Manhattan; here are a few (not in their original order):

They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.

They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.

They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.

They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay.

They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.

They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.

They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.

They continue to block generic forms of medicine that could save people’s lives in order to protect investments that have already turned a substantive profit.

They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.

They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.

They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit.

They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press.

They have donated large sums of money to politicians supposed to be regulating them.

So what am I reading here?

I believe I’m reading something created by a community of people who expect to get an education, find work, and own a home. I believe they expect to find equal pay and safe working conditions at that job, and then they’d like to have some say in how the economy of our country works.

I believe they expect safe products, and access to reasonably priced, but still profitable medicine, and a safe environment that they might be able to pass along to future generations.

I believe they don’t like it when the rules of the game are written by referees who have been bought off by one of the teams.

And if you put all that together, my nervous Conservative friends…I believe you’re looking at a bunch of capitalists who want to take The American Dream and make it work a whole lot better than it does today.

I believe, when you hear them talking about corruption in government, and bank bailouts, and the need for affordable health care, and making American jobs available for an American future, they’re looking to do something about the same kinds of problems that also keep nice Conservative folks up late at night – and when you put all that together, I think you’re gonna find out that, Conservative or Liberal, Progressive or Tea Party, we, all of us, really are the 99%.

So put aside all that Fox “fear porn” stuff for a few minutes, think about the things that are making you upset about this country today, look at what these folks are saying about a lot of the same issues, and see if you can’t find a place for yourselves in this 99%.

Then get down to an Occupy event near you and see where it goes (and by now they are, almost literally, everywhere, including Taipei, Taiwan): ask questions, join The General Assembly for a session, maybe even move the conversation a bit yourself.

It’s free speech, it’s people seeking a redress of grievances in a peaceful assembly, there’s voting…hell, the only way this could be more representative of Truth, Justice, and The American Way is if everyone down there was wearing a Superman suit; so go on down there, be a patriot, speak your piece, do some listening, make some new friends, and let’s see if we can’t build a better planet, one Occupy at a time.

Monday, October 3, 2011

On Imperfection, Or, How Do You Choose A New Bank?

Like a lot of people these days, we have come to the conclusion that it’s time to change our lousy bank.

And it wasn’t even like we chose badly, either – we were customers of Washington Mutual for almost two decades, and we loved ‘em: they were nice people to deal with, they didn’t constantly hammer you every time you came in to the branch with desperate sales pitches, and they didn’t even charge you for using another bank’s cash machines.

It turns out, however, that all that beneficence came at a cost: WaMu made a lot of money making sketchy mortgage loans, and when it all came crashing down, we found ourselves customers of JPMorgan Chase, who we now hate with the fire of a thousand suns.

But it turns out choosing a new bank ain’t all that easy – and that’s where you come into today’s conversation.

"I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras "right" for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested...Looking back on it, I feel I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three city districts. We Marines operated on three continents."

--From a speech delivered by General Smedley Butler to an American Legion Convention, New Britain, Connecticut, August 21, 1931

We had a chance to do a refinancing deal which would lower our mortgage interest rate quite considerably at about the same time that WaMu went down, which we did, and although we thought we’d be doing business with our old bank, we got the news of the Chase takeover in all the confusion as the bank collapsed.

Our new friends at Chase were quite anxious for us to set up an “autopay” arrangement, which we did; three months later they were threatening to take our house for failure to make the payments.

When we had to explain to them that the money was right there, sitting in the account, and that they were failing to collect the payments every month, we knew we were going to have a problem with Chase.

Remember this scene from Seinfeld?

Jerry: I don't understand, I made a reservation, do you have my reservation?

Agent: Yes, we do, unfortunately we ran out of cars.

Jerry: But the reservation keeps the car here. That's why you have the

Agent: I know why we have reservations.

Jerry: I don't think you do. If you did, I'd have a car. See, you know how to
take the reservation, you just don't know how to *hold* the reservation and
that's really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them.

I actually got to have a variation of that same conversation with the Loan Officer who set up the autopay in the first place, when he asked why we hadn’t been making sure they were collecting the money more carefully, which was a lot of fun, if I might say so myself, even as he clearly hated it. I also made him call Chase Customer Service, in our presence, to fix the problem, which he hated even more.

As you might guess, we don’t have autopay anymore, and from time to time a teller will ask if we want it…and that gives us a chance to tell the story to any other customers who might be nearby, which they always seem to find, shall we say, “relatable”.

But what with all the new fees and the generally lousy atmosphere in the branches these days, not to mention the fact that we’ve come to view Chase as essentially pirates on a financial sea, looking to rob us blind, it’s time to cut ship and move on – and up to this point, that’s actually been a bit of problem.

See, the thing is, we’re having as much trouble finding a bank we like as the Tea Party is settling on a Presidential Candidate – and for the same reason: every one of ‘em has some sort of fatal flaw.

Fun Fact: the NYPD arrested 700 or more people today for marching in the traffic lanes of the Brooklyn Bridge – and in this video, you can see the NYPD leading the marchers onto the traffic lanes of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The standard answer to this question is to choose a Credit Union, but that doesn’t work for us very well as the local Credit Unions don’t really have a presence outside the local area. (We live in Seattle and travel up and down the West Coast from time to time, so this is a bit of an issue for us.)

We have the same problem with banks like Sterling Savings or Umpqua Bank, which seem to have nice reputations, as banks go – and that leaves us having to choose from one of the banks we all hate.

At the moment, the “candidate banks” are basically down to The Usual Suspects: Bank of America, US Bank, Key Bank, and Wells Fargo.

Now we have some personal opinions of our own about each of these banks, but what I want to happen today is that you give us your opinions about each of these admittedly flawed choices: in other words, which one might be the least of the worst?

Think of it as a chance to vent – and if you have a bit of inside dirt on one of these banks that would tell us about fees or cutbacks, or anything else, for that matter, let it fly.

Think of this as an exercise in community “comment carding” – and keep in mind that with Occupy Wall Street and all, there are going to be a lot of folks like us who want a different bank, but won’t be able to make what might be the best possible choice, so let’s see if we can’t also comment to that larger audience as we go along.

Monday’s coming, and that’s a good day to get out of a bank…so let’s see if we can’t get a discussion going that helps a few folks do exactly that.

What do you think it symbolizes?