I confess I'm a one percenter.
I guess I'm one of the folks that the people down on Wall Street are pointing their fingers at. I don't blame them, I'm upset too.
That said, none of us — neither the one percenters nor the 99 percenters — can either ignore or deny the ripple of unrest disturbing the calm of America's social waters in the form of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has spread in the course of the last month to hundreds of communities in the United States, and many others around the world.
The first occupation in a New York park in September started slowly, but has been gaining momentum (and a great deal of worldwide media coverage) over the past few weeks, coinciding with corporate earnings announcements and the inevitable weighing in from Washington and various and sundry political contenders and pretenders. Then it seemed to boil over when — adding insult to injury — the mega-banks announced a barrage of new fees, in particular those imposed in response to the new Federal Reserve regulation effective October 21st which halves debit card swipe fees, and most particularly the new usage fee coming to millions of Bank of America debit card holders this January.
So, could a five dollar a month fee fan the flames of a movement as broad and as fervent as Occupy Wall Street? It certainly played a part, but let's consider a more complete narrative with regard to both BofA and the financial crisis in general.
The protesters around the country are riled up about a variety of things, sometimes in a quite disjointed and confusing way. It's also true that the movement has had many causes. Consider some recent political pandering. This week Mitt Romney told a Las Vegas newspaper that we should allow the foreclosure juggernaut to "run its course and hit the bottom," arguably without much regard for those who'd get flattened in the process. John McCain and Mitch McConnell spent more time on the US Senate floor attacking the President for the type of bus he is using on his national tour drumming up support for his jobs proposal than trying to find solutions that put people back to work. Rumors are swirling that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is preparing to deliver a speech on Friday to discuss how to "make sure the people at the top stay there." None of this really addresses the root causes of the Great Recession, or of the popular discontent that we are seeing now.
[Related Article: Obama Blasts BofA's New $5 Fee]
The unchecked greed which led to the meltdown, the foreclosure crisis, the stark and growing income disparity between the rich and everyone else, years of government gridlock and a host of other social and economic problems have had some role in fomenting what appears to be a durable and growing mood of unrest. Even the largest wildfire usually starts with a small spark or a single match, and I think it fair to say that the spark in this case may well have been the behavior (and hubris) of the big banks.
Putting the Bank of America Announcement into Context
The new fees were part of a series of events that led the average consumer to see the debit card fee increase as an affront; a slap in the face, and perhaps the straw that broke the camels' back. First, in late 2008, BofA teeters on the edge but is bailed out by the taxpayers in the form of largess from the Fed. Then, it's effectively bailed out again by Warren Buffett, who invested $5 billion in the bank in August. Then, after getting past the technical difficulties of the process, it begins aggressively foreclosing on homes all over the country. Then — the icing on the cake — in the first week of October, the bank discloses it voluntarily paid a total of $11 million as part of a separation agreement to Sallie Krawcheck and Joe Price, two executives thrown out by dint of a management restructuring, even as the company says it will begin firing as many as 30,000 employees over the next several years.
For those who doubt that there was genuine fury and furor among consumers that came to a head with the announcement of the new five dollar fee, I give you Ms. Molly Katchpole, the BofA customer who launched an online petition within a few days of the bank's late September announcement, that asked the bank to reverse its decision.
"Tell Bank of America: No $5 Debit Card Fees" was signed by over 150,000 angry people within a week of its first posting. I'm not sure I can remember any petition that garnered so many signatures in such a short period of time. I would say that's a pretty viral exclamation point!
Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America, has defended the fee decision.
[Related Article: As Occupy Wall Street Grows, Scope of Grievances is Great]
It's Time for an Attitude Adjustment
It's not just the lousy five bucks. It's the "Thank you, Screw You" attitude that's really lighting up the nation. Americans who are graduating from college without job prospects and with huge loans to pay, as well as those who are losing their jobs and their homes in unprecedented numbers, are feeling that the banks that did them in were bailed out on the backs of the 99 percent. They all also know that the fat cats who were in charge of this mess keep getting fatter. They are still making big salaries and big bonuses. Even as bank profits (billions though they may be) have slipped, the amount of money they pay out to employees – the bonus pool – has not dropped at a commensurate rate. And some banks, notably the one that has just instituted a certain $5 debit card fee, are actually spending more on their employees. Paul R. La Monica, of CNNMoney, writes, "BofA posted a 22% year-over-year drop in revenue for the first three quarters of 2011. Despite that, the bank said that 'personnel' expenses were up 7 percent. And this is from a bank that recently announced plans to cut 30,000 jobs!"
I may be a one percenter but I'm not a mega-banker. If my business fails, I will lose a great deal of money. Indeed, I may even get wiped out. But I don't wreck the economy, there's no taxpayer largesse to bail me out and I definitely don't get a fat bonus.
But let's not get sidetracked. This column is ultimately not about whether or not the Occupy Wall Street movement is correct or justified. It's not even about the actions taken by Bank of America or any of the other big banks that I believe have contributed mightily to a very real and developing protest movement. I'm not here to pass judgment.
Rather, I'm simply pointing out that given our country's recent economic history, movements like Occupy Wall Street — and the Tea Party for that matter — are inevitable. These collectives are hard to pin down on the issues because they are more a reflection of popular discontent with an overall system, rather than a focused campaign in favor or against a particular policy.
Stephen Stills was right: There's something happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear. And if banks and the government don't wake up to that fact, and truly acknowledge and respond to the real anger that has been created among the general populace of this country, we are only seeing the dust cloud that precedes the oncoming storm.
Adam Levin is Chairman and cofounder of Credit.com and Identity Theft 911. His experience as former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs gives him unique insight into consumer privacy, legislation and financial advocacy. He is a nationally recognized expert on identity theft and credit.