So far there has been tepid reaction by official Washington to the protests against Wall Street that have spread throughout the nation. This may prove the point of both those on the right and the left that the leaders of our big political and economic institutions just don’t get it.
The rescue by the government of the big banks and failure of the 2009 stimulus bill to create more jobs are cited by conservatives as evidence that those in government are clueless. Meanwhile, those on the left cite high bank fees and the failure of businesses to expand hiring (despite strong profits) as evidence that business needs to be regulated even more.
It is too early to tell if the Occupy Wall Street rallies will fuel the liberal equivalent of the Tea Party movement. At the very least, however, they show that a segment of the public thinks that businesses have been unfairly coddled by the government and aren’t being sufficiently responsive to consumers.
Credit unions could capitalize on this development by doing more to emphasize that they didn’t need TARP money and have lower fees. They have been hiding their attributes under a proverbial bushel basket which is why their share of the financial services marketplace (6%) has remained unchanged for at least two decades.
The time has never been better for credit unions to gain more members and more clout. If they don’t take advantage of this alignment of the stars, one might say of them what Israeli statesman Abba Eban said of the Arabs: “They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
That’s especially true in light of recent economic data.
Since June 2009, when according to many economists the recession officially ended, inflation-adjusted median household income declined 6.7% to $49,909. During the recession, from December 2007 to June 2009, median annual household income fell 3.2% to $53,518.
That data, contained in a study by former Census Bureau economists John Coder and Gordon Green, show the stark reality of the challenges facing the nation’s middle class, the target audience for credit unions. Think about it, people have lost more ground since the experts told us that things were getting better.
However, definitions of what constitutes the end of an economic downturn can be suspect. In June 2009 unemployment was 9.5%. It then shot up to 10.1% that October and since then has been all over the place.
At the same time, many businesses, including some of the big banks, are reporting strong profits. What many of these firms aren’t doing is hiring. Here’s how one observer described the situation.
“The absence of effective state, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power.
"The prime need is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise. We grudge no man a fortune which represents his own power and sagacity, when exercised with entire regard to the welfare of his fellows.”
Those weren’t the sentiments of an antibusiness rabble rouser. Rather, they were remarks by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, 17 months after he left the While House. In that speech, he outlined his vision for a New Nationalism.
The Occupy Wall Street movement shows there is a similar sentiment among an increasingly vocal segment of the public today. The gains of the Republicans in last year’s elections (fueled in part by the Tea Party’s activism) reflect equally strong frustrations with the government’s performance.
Political and business leaders often don’t set the agenda as much as they follow the wishes of with the biggest wallets or the loudest voices. That’s why watching the response to the latest round of antibusiness and antigovernment protests is so fascinating.