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We continue to get a ton of email about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Some people think that the protesters are self-indulgent, entitled whiners who simply want a handout; I’ve suggested that the reality is more complicated than that, and that “compassion ought to be our default position,” even if the protesters have not done a great job to this point in establishing their narrative and goals.

One MNB user wrote:

I sometimes find it laughable when baby boomers – which it appears all of the users that wrote in response to the young 99% protester are – try to chastise our generation as lazy, dumb, self-entitled whiners. What gets me the most is that some of our current economic problems transpired from their GREED. Greed to invest in multiple houses and flip them for a quick profit. Greed to tap into their home equity to buy boats and BMW’s or go on fancy vacations when their house prices skyrocketed – prices that were inflated by the greed of realtors’ commissions and the entire real estate industry. Greed in stock options, credit-default swaps, etc.

While it’s not fair to blame these events on ALL baby boomers, so it is not fair to criticize younger people trying to better themselves in today’s economic climate. NO ONE can argue that today’s job market is harder than it’s ever been for a baby boomer in their lifetimes. I met my wife in college, where we graduated from school with a combined $30k in student loans 6 years ago. However, with a strict budget that includes a mortgage and 2 car payments (because we need reliable transportation for our long commutes) we have cut the debt in half.

Yes, we’ve been ‘lucky’ enough to have jobs since we graduated. But my wife started as a secretary making $10 an hour, and has worked her way up in the same company for the past 7 years to a high level sales executive. The only reason I obtained my job was because I had 3 years of retail management experience and 7 years overall in retail, because I WORKED 50+ HOURS A WEEK WHILE GOING TO SCHOOL FULL TIME, SUPPORTING MYSELF AND PAYING AS MUCH AS I COULD TOWARDS COLLEGE. I’m so tired of being called lazy by greedy middle-agers and their cushy six figure jobs. Owning your own business is the way to go, and something I have much respect for across all ages and aspire towards one day. The current corporate scene is all about GREED, getting patted on the back, and everyone looking out for #1, in all but a few select companies. In my opinion, THIS is what the 99% stand for.

On top of this, I’ve seen my current company decrease its staff by more than HALF, even though sales have only been down slightly. Meanwhile, the remaining workers are doing double the work for the same pay, while the company has doubled its profits! And I’m still making only slightly more than I was when I was hired out of college 5 years ago. How can one remain positive in these types of conditions?

But another MNB user wrote:

What strikes me about the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is the attitudinal change over time.  My early Baby Boomer generation grew up with the attitude that if we didn’t like our situation then do something to change it or shut up.  That worked for me 5 out of 6 times.   The “Occupy Wall Street” people seem to feel the way  to change the situation is to Protest the circumstances and force someone else to change those circumstances.  Now watch different self interest groups and politicians try to get control of this movement for their own purposes, which of course may or may not be of any help to the protestors.

From another MNB user:

Kudos to you. I agree that compassion should be our first reaction.  We have a very serious problem in this country and in the world.  With globalization has come the ability and affordability of corporations to move to where the lowest labor costs are and to reduce salaries to the lowest geographical region.  Improvements in transportation have allowed this to happen.  Capitalism must be regulated or it will not work. All economists agree on this, the amount of regulation is the issue.  With globalization and the elimination of labor unions and lack of them in third world countries the middle class - those making solid money for labor, requiring little if any education, have all but disappeared. Add to this the influx of illegal immigrant labor into low middle income jobs, for example the meat industry, construction and others which then removed even more jobs for less educated laborers that at least paid above minimum wage and you have created a serious problem for America.

I do not pretend to have the knowledge of economics and logistics and finance to know the answer but it seems to me that it is a fact that the gap between rich and poor is widening and that the middle class is shrinking. When it is gone,  if current laws and regulations remain unchanged the middle class will be gone as a significant portion of America, then who will fund the economy.  It seems to me that we need to have a significant increase middle income jobs whether they be government jobs or jobs created by funds made available from the current excesses in finance and business. I would suggest that if financial companies that produce nothing have billions and billions to fund bonuses then perhaps some of those billions should be taxed (seized if you wish to use that word) and used to fund jobs. $1,000,000,000 would create 20,000 jobs at $50,000 each.  I realize how simplistic this is but it seems that the money is in America and doesn't seem to be doing much good.  

As to college loans, we should eliminate all loans and provide college education for those who are qualified at no cost if they will spend X years in public service.

Again - something does need to be done about our government, our businesses and our people.  We need to decide what will be important to the future or our great country.  I completely agree that anyone who is willing to work hard and sacrifice can become wealthy in our current system. But not everyone can.

Another MNB user chimed in:

Always enjoy the discussion.  Today in the continuing saga of discussion of what are being portrayed as protesters, I couldn't help getting caught up in the use of the word compassion and an argument that it be the prevailing 'feeling' or connection we should have with these folks.

When I get hung up on a word like that (Compassion), I tend to look it up.  Here's what Webster's says about compassion: "a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering."

After reading, re-reading and re-reading again the same comments over and over again, I fail to see "misfortune" or "suffering."  Thus, its really hard to have a strong desire to alleviate something where there is no compelling argument that it exists. 

The argument began with one that was contrary to compassion and then closed with one that pleaded its presence until an succinct argument of misfortune could be articulated.  I'm confused.  It’s not the first time.  In the meantime, I suppose I can have compassion for their suffering from the inability to articulate their undefined suffering.  However, that's hardly being stricken by misfortune or real suffering.

Another MNB user offered:

I agree with your position that "Compassion should be our default position." I also agree with the general position taken by most the responses you posted that the protester and all of us, for that matter, need to take personal responsibility for our decisions.

$60,000 in student loans is a lot of debt. Your ability to repay that debt should have been considered before the debt was amassed. That said, assuming this person started school 4 or more years ago, our current economic situation is very different than it was when they started school. Recent graduates are now competing with a flood of experienced candidates for jobs with lower salaries and fewer benefits. At the same time, the real cost of living (groceries, gasoline, utilities, etc) has increased at historically high rates. This is all exacerbated by the cumulative effects from exporting our manufacturing base and a fair proportion of our service sector.

It's not the first time in our history that we have been faced with such challenges and it's likely to be difficult for some time but to we need to take a lesson from earlier generations and face these challenges with an entrepreneurial spirit. If we're dissatisfied with our current position, concerned about our future, etc., the question we need to ask ourselves is how can I improve it. It's our ability to create opportunities, when few seem to exist, that has allowed this country to flourish in the past and will assure our prosperity in the future.

From another reader:

Don’t whine – are you kidding???  My kids fully expected to pay their loans back.  However, the financial institutions who changed their position on loan repayments are causing enormous difficulties for many college graduates.  Both our sons graduated with lots in student loans to pay back.  For the first son, he was allowed to defer his loan several times until he found a job AND was then allowed to make payments based on his income.   The second son chose the same institution from which to borrow.  Just after he graduated, the rules changed.  He was allowed to defer once then was expected to make full payments each month.  When he contacted the bank to let them know he didn’t make enough money to pay $500 a month, they basically told him to come up with it or they would have to go after the co-signers – you guessed it, the parents!  When he asked the bank if he could pay a little each month, the answer was yes but a late fee would still apply due to the lack of full payment.  Let’s see – with a job making $10/hr – pay rent, eat and have health insurance or pay the student loan – hmmmmmm – what to do, what to do?

Another MNB user wrote:

“Compassion should be our default position”……………really ? really ?

Let me suggest that an overabundance of ‘compassion’ got MOST, (NOT ALL) of these disgruntled youth in the positions they are in.

Parents who coddled and shielded their children from the realities of adulthood. School teachers who wanted to make everyone ‘feel good’. Relatives building (false) promises of self worth. Parents who told their children all they needed was a college education to live the ‘good’ life. Compassionate parents who told their children to not settle for jobs that will pay the bills but to ‘pursue their passion’ (when they had none in the first place). Reality check: How many students go to college with a career plan???

These protestors will be the first to tell you that they want your (government) money, not your compassion. That we adults/parents are to blame as we were the ones who inculcated these false hopes and dreams. Now that the ‘protestors’ can’t drain any more money from their parents, they are off the richer feeding grounds. (Most of our legal process is all about finding those with the deepest pockets to sue/attack). Hey, doesn’t everyone have the right to enjoy life like “the rich and famous”.

My compassion is heartfelt for those who have accepted their responsibilities and DON’T complain. For those who truly want to better themselves though effort and skills that HAVE THE BEST CHANCE of succeeding.. My compassion is heartfelt for our parents and grandparents and the pioneers who TRULY STRUGGLED and pushed on against all odds. The people you would feel compassion for left their jobs to ‘party in a park’ because they could no longer party on campus anymore.

I think the operative phrase here is “tough love/compassion”.

From still another MNB user:

I can only add this to your well explained and thoughtful analysis Kevin......AMEN. Well done and thank you for explaining so well what others thought but could not say as well. I'm amazed in the difference in peoples attitudes when they have a job or don't have a job. Many with a job think the protesters are just lazy people not willing to work. Wrong ! There are so many capable people willing to work if they just had a chance at a job.  Twenty five years ago China was an ancient country. We, America, created jobs for them, today China is a wealthy country because we market all of the products they manufacture and our people here in these United States walk the streets looking for work. I've probably not said this well but I think you get my point.

The fact is people don't like these protester groups. But, this group of protesters is different this time. Companies in the USA have lowered the wages of workers via " new hire rates " lowering the income of middle income people, yet senior managers like the two fired from Bank Of America two weeks ago that split, I think about 12 million bucks. It just isn't right.

Yet another MNB user wrote:

Great opinion about having compassion.  Not all recent college graduates are whiney liberals.  As with most things, people that live sheltered, protected lives eventually have to face up to reality at some point in their lives.  On one hand, I don’t have much sympathy for folks who feel they should be entitled to a stress free life, free health care, etc. without working for it.  But on the other hand, I’ve been the recipient of the backlash of short sighted wall street corporate greed…having been laid off after 18 years even though I had all sorts of corporate awards on the shelf for the major contributions and return on investment that I had made over my career.  Innocent people do get hurt.   However, these are really two separate subjects….a bad economy brought on by mutual corruption in government and private sector……and what I like to call “taking personal responsibility for your life”.   We shouldn’t mix the two up even though one could hypothesize that the lack of personal responsibility is the root of all our current political and socio-economic problems in this country.

My daughter graduates soon from a state college here in Iowa.  I too graduated during the recession of the early 80’s and I cautioned her to make as many contacts as she could since that is what it took for me to get a job out of college.  It took me six months to find a job.  My wife and I were what Jeff Foxworthy calls “Kraft macaroni and cheese broke” for many years as I climbed the ladder and we raised our kids.  Eventually I made enough money to pay off my loans, buy a house and cars, and all the other stuff we wanted but didn’t really need (computers, cell phones, and now iPhones).  My daughter went to a job fair this week and has ALREADY secured a job.  She served 4 years in the Navy before going to college AND she chose a challenging degree that has application in the world of today.  You see, she had a plan to pay for her college and that plan also helped her stand out from the rest of the crowd for a position.  It speaks LOADS about her character.  The entry level job pays very little but it has a few nice benefits…one of which will be more networking potential to climb that ladder, fully paid health care, and they will help pay her student loans.  So I guess my daughter is proof that young people who are willing to have a plan and goals and work hard to achieve those goals, well, they will do just fine even in a bad economy.  I’ve always asked my kids to think about the consequences of their actions and what they can do now that will benefit them in the future.   It’s nice to see that pay off for them.

Yes, I’m convinced we need government and private sector reforms to improve the economy of the country.  It’s going to take some serious leadership in government to fix what is broken.  But at the same time, we need to teach the up and coming generations that there is no such thing as a “free lunch”.  We need to teach them to demand LESS government in our businesses, not more.   We need to unleash the entrepreneurs in this country.   There really needs to be less barriers for small business.  And for the unscrupulous who step out of line and break laws….swift and harsh punishment!   Not a spot on TV and the potential for a lucrative book deal later!   Could Steve Jobs or Bill Gates have flourished today?  Try to start a business in your basement and see how fast the local town authorities and jealous neighbors come down on your head!  That’s just not allowed anymore!   And I say that is a shame for America.

Another MNB user wrote:

I feel as though it is unfortunate that there is a percentage of readers that will read Goldman Sachs story and still not get “it” or will blow it off as “so what, it’s the company’s right to pay these bonuses”. All they may ever see is what they want to believe and that the American OWS protestors are just whiny people who need a shower.

Another reader chimed in:

In your discussion of the Washington Examiner op-ed piece comparing protesters to our Military, you correctly wrote: “And I would respond to this by suggesting that in its own way, this op-ed piece represents the height of cynicism. It suggests that nobody should ever complain about anything, or point out any sort of perceived inequity, because nobody is at risk as much as our troops.”

However, you committed the same fallacy when justifying Protester anger due to the salaries at Goldman Sachs.  And I would respond to this by suggesting that in its own way, this comment represents the height of cynicism.  It suggests that capitalism is permanently and irreparably flawed because nobody else will make as much as the fortunate few at Goldman Sachs.

To be honest, I don’t think my comment implied that at all.

And, from another MNB user:

The problem with the protesters is it is difficult to find a voice for what they are protesting.  The conservative movement is hilariously referring to them as socialists, when if you really listen to them, they are protesting the socialization of consequences of concentrated wealth.  Wall Street created complex wealth generating devices by scamming the populace into the fantasy of eternally inflating real estate values, and when the fantasy crumbled, the COSTS of their cataclysmic deception were socialized as the government mortgaged the taxpayers’ futures to prop up the institutions that caused the problem—with no return of the ill-gained wealth.

Conservatives rail against environmental regulation, saying it retards growth, but the energy companies make huge profits while the costs of their production: depleted resources, depleted soil, fouled water, high levels of mercury, heightened levels of asthma are all burdens born by society, socialized costs assumed with no help of profit by the rest of the masses.

Would I like to be part of the 1%?  You bet, but not at the price of others having to live in and pay for the mess I make getting there.

To the 1% I would advise that no society with wealth concentrated in the hands of a few has prospered for long.

From another MNB user:

I admire your response to your emails about the Occupy Wall Street crowd. The next generation is really going to have some tough choices. I don't envy them.

Thanks ... and thanks to everyone who weighed in on this subject.

There is unlikely to be any sort of consensus about this new protest movement, especially because it brings into question issues of politics and culture.

But let me simply suggest that whether you agree with the protesters or not, it makes more sense to take them seriously, to not diminish their efforts by calling them whiny or spoiled or socialists.

There are some parallels to the antiwar movement of the mid sixties. It took some time for that movement to get traction, and yet it eventually helped to reshape the country. And it did so with social media, without smart phone, without the Internet - all tools that are likely to help the movement get greater traction faster.

This will have an impact on our lives and our businesses. Attention must be paid. And they should be taken seriously.
KC's View: