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My Latest Preoccupation

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Ladies and gentlemen of the Preoccupied movement, allow me to redirect your attention to another location, because Wall Street is getting stale (word on the street is it's getting too cold for you to stay there anyway, and the object of your preoccupation enjoyed a nice little rally recently and is fairly stable as I write this, which is not so bad for anyone). Here's another cause worth fighting for: the hard-working people of Rhode Island and their hard-earned pensions. As The New York Times put it: "The smallest state in the union, it turns out, has a very big debt problem."

I read this with interest by BlackBerry and was aghast that this was actually happening. Towns such as Central Falls have had to file for bankruptcy due to a bare cupboard -- there simply is not a dime left in the pension fund of this industrious town. And people with lifelong careers in risky service endeavors such as police work and firefighting were told they'd get a mere sliver of what they were owed. If this is not worth being preoccupied with, I'm not sure what is.

And since we are watching what is happening in Greece so closely, it's probably worth a hard look at what is happening right here at home. If this is happening to our smallest state (population: 1,052,567), it can surely happen to any of the others, in a one-size-fits-all version of fiscal disaster. In Pennsylvania, the capital city, Harrisburg, filed for bankruptcy last month to pay off Wall Street. And Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, according to The New York Times, is thinking that rolling back benefits would benefit his state.

With Bernie Madoff back in the news through his family (Ruth and her living son in one corner, Mark Madoff's widow in the other), it's hard not to recall the anger we all felt when we heard news of his Ponzi scheme, screwing with people's lives and savings all in the name of his own greed. It's tough to swallow that our own local governments are seemingly engaging in activities similar to those from one of the most evil criminal minds of all time: using money that folks have spent their lives putting into a system that they had faith in. Instead, places such as Rhode Island took taxpayers' money and ran it right into the ground. According to the Times piece, "In most places, as in Rhode Island, the big issue is pensions. By conventional measures, state and local pensions nationwide now face a combined shortfall of about $3 trillion."

And lest you think Rhode Island is all jazz festivals and mansions, think again. I was shocked to read that the state has some of the worst infrastructure problems in the nation, with terrible roads and bridges and an unemployment rate that shot up faster than any other state during the start of the recession in 2008. And the work is not coming back anytime soon; the textile mills and jewelry manufacturers have hit the poorly paved highway and left town. Much like Detroit and other places, there are more people out of work in Rhode Island than gainfully employed, making the need for pension protection even more important. But citizens of Rhode Island are being asked to behave like some modern version of Joan of Arc; one fourth-grade teacher said she would work past retirement age if it meant, in the words of The New York Times, "the elderly would get the medical care they need."

I have more than a passing fascination with Rhode Island as I went to college there, but it's not my alma mater that has me nostalgic; it's a craving for a time when hard-working people did not have to worry that their very own lawmakers were wreaking havoc with their savings. I might have to join the Preoccupied movement with my very own platform and picket sign -- and it would say "Reinstate Glass-Steagall Now." For those of you not familiar, the Glass-Steagall Act (named for two members of Congress) was passed in 1933 after the 1929 crash of the stock market to separate investments from commercial banking activity. In the era following the great crash and ensuing Depression, bad banking activity was thought to be the reason for the demise of the markets. Quite simply, "commercial banks took on too much risk with depositors' money."

But true to form, many in the banking and investment communities found the act too restricting, and it was repealed in 1999. Maybe it's now time to take another look at this act and any others that would regulate what is happening to our savings, pensions and futures. I myself am completely preoccupied, and beyond concerned, with what is happening not just on Wall Street but also on Main Street, from sea to (a formerly) shining sea.

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