Oct. 29, 2011 -- Historically, America's greatness as a country could be measured by the social mobility of its citizens. If you worked hard enough at a well-defined goal, you could get where you're going, no matter who you were or from where you started. Case in point, the election of Barack Obama—but is it really true that anyone can make a billion, and/or become President these days?
Increasingly, the United States is a place of less social mobility. If as a society we persist in continuing to favor the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle class, America as we know and love it will be no more.Like a river that's been dammed up, legislative obstruction thwarts natural mobility. The Obama administration has tried to ease the burdens that a toxic economy has created for middle-class consumers, and Congress has blocked him at every juncture. There was the American Jobs Act proposal, which would have, among other things, put many Americans to work almost immediately refurbishing critical and eroding infrastructure—blocked. And a few weeks before that, there was a thwarted attempt to put a director in place for the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which would act as a watchdog for banks and other financial organizations that have been costing middle class Americans a lot more money lately.
The President keeps putting forward proposals designed to do something—anything—to ameliorate the situation of America's rapidly shrinking middle class, but partisan ideologues and obstructionists in Washington have dam(n)ed that river, restricting any mobility that may still be possible.
It doesn't take a political scientist to tell you that Congress has been deliberately and very effectively gridlocked. Like many other observers, I do not believe that Obama's proposals would have entirely solved the problem, but I do believe that they would've helped. I'd really like to believe that sooner or later some of these initiatives will be taken seriously and become law–but I'd also like to believe that peanut butter has no calories.
Regardless of your political affiliation or ideology, we can all agree that something has to be done by someone at some point. We can endlessly debate about appropriate methods, the cost of any program designed to benefit the middle class or the average consumer, the wisdom of yet another regulatory bureau such as the CFPB, and the number of angels dancing on the head of this particular pin. However, the gridlocked Congress has now found a corollary in the real world. The Occupy Wall Street movement is steadily growing both here and abroad. It's getting noisier, and the situation is becoming more fraught with danger, at least in the sense that clashes like the recent one in Oakland seem unavoidable.
Going back to the river, there's another effective way to stop a natural flow—by tapping the river to funnel too much water to too many places. Sooner or later, the river dries up. In other words, the disorganization of the flow will eventually stop it. Not so many years ago the American talent for organization was one of the wonders of the world and the river flowed, bringing a high standard of living to America's middle class, but most recently chaos seems to reign.
For example, Wall Street's reaction to the Dodd Frank Act that among other things limited bank fees—passed when Congress was still doing something other than obstructing the President to assure he'd be a one-term threat to the one percent. I would characterize that reaction, whether warranted or not, as supremely disorganized and the results were disastrous. Within the space of a few weeks just prior to the date the fee-limiting sections of the law went into effect, many banks jacked up various fees, invented new ones, and announced them bluntly as by fiat.
Although some of those fees could be justified by any sensible or dispassionate economic analysis, the chaotic way that the banks reacted universally angered consumers. They felt battered, exploited, and worst of all dissed—particularly in light of the fact that the mega-banks (deemed by Washington as too big to fail) had very recently been bailed out by taxpayer money. Bear in mind that although the crisis that precipitated that bailout could be ascribed to many things, one of which was certainly the disorganization of the securitization markets created by those same banks.
And thus the Occupy Wall Street movement sprang up, not necessarily in reaction to the above situation but to what it typified. The most recent poll that I've seen indicated that 54% of Americans sympathize with Occupy, with only 23% against it. Given the state of the economy, the deadlock in Congress, the palpable and growing income inequality in America, and the disorganization of private sector initiatives, one might assume that Occupy will grow to 1960s dimensions and either bust the dam or sufficiently lift the river to flow over it. So now you have our attention. Tell us what you REALLY want!!
Even to those I know who've spent time in Zuccotti, it is difficult to know what the movement hopes to accomplish beyond a general "change" that middle class America can bank on. It's hard to figure out who's running what, what the goals of the movement are, or who actually speaks for it. That's because Occupy is being governed by committee, sorta.
If Occupy is to become truly effective, it needs to buck the growing American trend of disorganization. It needs to focus on what issues are really important, and put aside all of the other things that might legitimately be complained about in 21st-century America. Whatever Occupy wants to change about America, it should adopt some tried-and-true American methods of getting it done—good organization, effective communication, and—dare I say it—significant fundraising.
Controversial as it may sound, (Lord, forgive me for saying this) Occupy might learn more by looking to the right rather than to the left or the center. The Tea Party, literally within months of its creation, was capable of defining very precise goals, organizing brilliantly around many state and federal races in 2010, raising a hell of a lot of money, and taking Congress away from the Democrats. Their first and simplest goal was to stop Obama, and for the most part they have. They have thus already had a profound effect on American society.
By contrast, at Occupy there are countless placards about countless issues. The movement needs to pick a battle and start fighting for all it's worth. Maybe it can challenge the idea of corporate personhood, maybe the war will focus on the Supreme Court's Citizen United decision—whatever it is, it needs to offer a glimpse of what the world will be like if and when the demonstrators get what they want.
Congress is in a rut, and right now it seems as if Occupy is spinning its wheels, digging into some very slippery sand, bringing to mind some wise words from Bishop Gerald Burrill—"the only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth."
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.