Occupy Wall Street from Africa
Logging onto Facebook has turned into such a surreal experience. As the Occupy Wall Street movement grows across America, my news feed has been overcome by links, videos, articles, and photos from friends all across the nation expressing their satisfaction and voicing their guesses as to what will happen next in Liberty Square. Even from Africa, the movement can't be ignored. I'm not overtly political, and I especially don't care to participate in American politics, because I feel as though the time I invest in order to understand the complexity of the system does not lend itself to the most benefit. In today's world, I think the most actionable way to create change in the world is through the private sector. However, this movement is bigger than American politics. It's essentially the much larger story of how our free market economy has failed us and millions of people around the world, and how our markets no longer serve the people's common interests. When I read or listen to the voices of the Occupy Wall Street protest, my thoughts tend to go towards one of two ideas: the internet's role and the banking sector as a whole.
First of all, I continually marvel at the extent that the internet has penetrated my life; so much so that I, an ex-pat American who feels little faith and dedication to the American government, can receive real-time updates to a movement happening all across the country so that I stay informed and most importantly, identify with my fellow peers halfway around the world. Sure, while I'm not able to watch inspirational videos such as this one, this, or this one because of a slow and expensive internet connection, reading the transcript of the Occupy Wall Street movement's requests still brought a tear to my eye. I'm not absurdly sensitive either - it's just that it's been so long since I've felt faith in my country, and it feels good to see the change that the world needs originate in part on my home turf.
Secondly, as I write this post from the office of a microfinance institution in Ghana, I wonder about the future of banking in the world's economy. For example: in Ghana, most people have very meager choices when it comes to banking, and financial diversity is a concept that doesn't exist. If you were to bring your next paycheck to a bank in Ghana, you would have one of two choices:
Throw it into a savings account that would charge exorbitant fees for withdrawal with as low as a 1% interest rate, or;
Put it into a current account that would only be accessible by your physical presence at the bank, causing many people to travel hours to simple withdraw their own money.
As Ghana's inflation rate continues to jump, for most people it's better to simply live paycheck to paycheck or stuff their money under a mattress, rather than leaving money in an institution far from home, where the value in a savings account would slowly but surely drop.
It's obvious to me that banking is an irreplaceable necessity - money makes the world go round, and pouring money into places that really need it through investments and transactions is the single most important thing we can do for poverty alleviation. Even in the US, where the financial sector makes up a large amount of the GDP, it's important to realize that all banking is not inherently evil. While I agree with many of the Occupy Wall Street demands and sentiments, I still wonder what will fill the hole in our economy left by investment banking and an incredibly diverse financial sector. Does banking need to disappear all together in order to create a fair economy, or do government regulations need to be instated to better protect the American people? Will our democracy allow for a more - insert American curse word (i.e. socialist) - economy?
Photos courtesy of Jessica Teore.
If Occupy Wall Street is all about creating a more fair and just economy, I think the first step is better financial education. For example: in Ghana, we require first-time clients to attend a three-day business course that teaches them simple cost-benefit projections, goal-setting, and other topics that are relative to their businesses and skill-levels. Likewise, those taking out loans or other financial products in the States should be able to give a clear reason and understanding for taking out the loan, instead of using their own capital. If more Americans were educated about sub-prime mortgages, I wonder if some parts of the financial crisis could have been prevented.
I'm actually in the middle of reading Too Big to Fail, by Andrew Ross Sorkin*, right now, and it's the first time I've actually understood what even happened during the financial crisis. While I remain hopelessly confused by derivative trading and valuation (I'm not alone - it seems that even Alan Greenspan can't really understand how some derivatives were being valued!), I find it alarming that most Americans do not understand how the financial crisis came to be. I think that most Americans feel above learning about their different financial options - perhaps a skill set that seemingly doesn't need to touched until 401ks and Roth IRAs - but in reality, an individual's finances should be a required, government-sanctioned part of public education. This includes readable, explicit, unambiguous transparency regarding regulations, lawmakers, and other factors that directly affect the US economy. In short, Americans should not be left in the dark again.
Where are you in the world right now, and do you agree with the Occupy Wall Street movement? What can this movement do to create a more fair and sustainable marketplace?
*Note: This book is a literary masterpiece. After reaching out to every expert, watching every bias documentary, and reading every op-ed, I still didn't understand what had actually happened until I started reading this.