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Showdown in Chicago: When the Personal (Finance) Gets Political

Is your Fidelity relationship manager a Ditto head? Does your accountant have a crush on Rachel Maddow? Will the BankAmerica call-center staffer vote Republican? These may not be top-of-mind questions for the average American citizen busy feeding her 401 (k) statements into a shredder. But protestors on the streets of Chicago today are demonstrating a new meaning for the '60s and '70s slogan "the personal is political.''

Back then, activists used the slogan in battles about segregated lunch counters, draft numbers, and abortion rights -- or about Afros and orgasms. Now the angry Americans in Mayor Daley's town are talking about personal finance. They want credit-card regulations, decipherable mortgage statements, and protection for retirement savings. Instead of Jerry Rubin or Gloria Steinem, this crowd's got legendary agitators Sheila Bair ("No more bailouts!'') and Dick Durbin ("It's time for a showdown!'')

The Chicago protests are focused on the American Bankers Association, which is holding its annual meeting there and makes a handy stand-in for a wide range of 21st century robber barons, from the Treasury Department to Wall Street. Of course the protesters want more than regulations; they want jobs and homes and golden years.

Bankers are time-honored targets of social movements. (Cue Pete Seeger!) And lunch counters, draft boards, and abortion rights are nothing if not economic issues. (Afros and orgasms have their financial dimensions, too.) But in the last quarter century, battles over bank issues seemed somewhat quaint to many. Issues of financial equity moved from the streets to the Human Resources department in the Kiplingers-SmartMoney era of "personal finance,'' introducing worker-investors and other new hybrids.

So where are we now? What will it look like as we mix very personal finance (a nation of 401 (k) investors) with movements to fix financial systems? At the very least, we need new lingo. Forget Labor and Capital, even Wall Street and Main Street aren't very useful categories.

Calling all mortgage marchers, citizen-investors and anti-derivative guerrillas! What does "personal finance" mean now?

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