Arun Gupta was enraged as he learned the details of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's plan to fix the U.S. banking system with $700 billion in taxpayer funds. The 43-year-old copy editor and freelance journalist, who publishes his own alternative newspaper, The Indypendent, needed to channel his angst but couldn't find a live protest to attend. So on Sept. 22, he sent an e-mail to some politically active friends in New York. Within days, they'd planned a protest against the bailout in New York and at 80 other locations in the U.S. on Sept. 25.
"I couldn't sit back while this plan gets rammed through Congress," says Gupta. "We live in a digital world, but change has to happen in an analog world. We married the two—the Internet helped us organize like wildfire." Gupta, now working with the online organization truemajority.org, says he expects hundreds and possibly a thousand protesters to converge at the protest near Wall Street. Protesters plan to build a pile of "citizen junk" that the government should also purchase in front of the iconic bull sculpture.
Much of the populist outrage against the bailout is building on the Internet, in blog posts, and Web sites. And not all of the posts are created by left-wingers like Gupta. The Internet is now swirling with petitions, debates bordering on rants, and biting satire about Paulson's plan and its potential consequences. The calls to arms come from across the political spectrum—from right-wing enemies of taxes to libertarians and left-wing progressives. They demand that Congress amend, scale back, or scrap the plan altogether.
The anger fueled much of the political theater in Washington this week. Yet Democrat and Republican lawmakers are working behind the scenes to bat out a deal (BusinessWeek.com, 9/24/08) with Paulson and the Bush Administration.
A lot of the online rage is channeled in the form of signatures on petitions and electronic letters to members of Congress. Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent-Vt.) is circulating a popular one on the left-wing blog Huffington Post. The 1.9-million member Service Employees International Union is also circulating a sign-on letter to Congress that reads in part: "No deal. No blank check." StopTheHousingBailout.com reasons: "A bailout tells responsible Americans that they are suckers."
The anger is coming from right-leaning groups as well. The National Taxpayers Union's "No More Bailouts!" petition reads: "Bailouts that keep mismanaged organizations afloat delay natural corrections to unsound business practices.…Enough is enough. No more bailouts. Not with my tax dollars."
The conservative site townhall.com features a similar petition. Right-wing blogger Patrick Ruffini, meanwhile, urges Republicans to vote against the bailout, since "God Himself couldn't have given rank-and-file Republicans a better opportunity to create political space between themselves and the Administration."
"Other People's Financial Excesses"
Then there are the more humble, makeshift calls to action, like a Web site called Tax Payers Against a Wall Street and Mortgage Bailout Petition, set up by a man named Thomas Roach. Readers can sign on to a letter to President George W. Bush and others politely asking, "Please do not support the efforts to bail out mortgage holders and mortgage lenders with my tax dollars. As a responsible citizen, I do not believe it is right for you to ask me to pay for other peoples' financial excesses."
The Project on Government Oversight and the National Taxpayers Union are criticizing Paulson's proposal to prevent any judicial or legislative review of his bailout moves. An open-government group called the Sunlight Foundation posted the full text of Paulson's proposal and Senator Christopher J. Dodd's (D-Conn.) counter-proposal on PublicMarkup.org, where readers can read and comment on each.
Other online manifestos are less earnest. A letter fashioned after the iconic Nigerian hoax e-mail is circulating in in-boxes. "I am Ministry of the Treasury of the Republic of America," the letter from "Paulson" reads. "My country has had crisis that has caused the need for large transfer of funds of 800 billion dollars US. If you would assist me in this transfer, it would be most profitable to you.…We need a blank check.…Please reply with all of your bank account, IRA, and college fund account numbers and those of your children and grandchildren to email@example.com."
Meanwhile, on a site whose name defies publication, if not linking, users are posting pictures of their personal junk next to the tagline, "Hey Washington, can you buy my bad investments, too?" The total asking price of the "pile" submitted by users—which includes reading glasses and a book called The Boys and Their Mama for a combined $12,254.90, and $24,000 in student loans for art school—is approaching $500 billion.
Opposition on Social Networks
Not surprisingly, bailout critics are also having their say on social networking Web sites. There are almost 300 members in the Facebook group "Just Say No to the Government Bailout." The anti-tax group Taxfreesociety.com is also "organizing moral opposition" to the bailout through its new Facebook group, "Stop the Bailouts!" The group administrator says the purpose is "to utilize the latest social networking tools" to voice opposition.
Then, of course, there's YouTube. Bailout-related videos include straightforward clips of Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke calling on Congress for the bailout. Others, however, include rants by amateur newspeople, including a group called the Young Turks. The news-style segment, "This Is How The Bail Out Will Screw You," has had more than 24,000 page views.