The Thrill is Gone
It used to be that indifferent wealth building and outsized risk was sexy. For thirty years, the world of high rolling high finance was the object of admiration and envy. The chants of “Wall Street sucks” some ten thousand strong in front of City Hall last week signify that the days of glamour and greed are over. Inarticulate and ineffectual as that phrase might be, it reveals the increasing rage building against Wall Street titans. In the wake of the deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression, economic hardship has become too real for too many.
Wall Street’s ”burn baby burn” ethos isn’t looking so hot these days. The thrill is gone baby. The thrill is gone away.
Last week, Wall Street’s ruling class, the risk managers of the mortgage securities division at Goldman Sachs were skewered to a well-done temperature by a suddenly alive and outraged Senate Committee.
Question: Where was this “you done wrong” stance when the Street paid themselves millions on the backs of the downtrodden and newly homeless? Where was the outrage and effective action when the industry cannibalized itself and then walked away with the Golden Goose? The rage of our elected officials on display across TV Land America seems too little too late to help those in foreclosure or destitute from loss of income directly due to the excessive greed of a select few.
So what was this humiliating display of Goldman Sachs princes falling from grace all about?
The current anger at Wall Street seems to be channeled almost exclusively at one firm and that nefarious place called “Wall Street.” Goldman Sachs has come to represent for many critics, the Great Satan in modern America. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi called Goldman the “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” His attack of the Big Bank established lines of battle between those who believe the investment banking giant can do no wrong (Warren Buffet & junk bond king Michael Milken) and those who believe they are modern day Dillingers (Taibbi and most of America.)
In case you missed it, the Securities and Exchange Commission suddenly awakened from its decades long “see-no-evil” stupor and brought civil charges against Goldman Sachs for allegedly deceiving clients by selling bad debt called “synthetic CDOs” and then profiting on their client’s investment faux pas. These “exotic” financial instruments were once ironically termed “weapons of financial mass destruction” by Goldman’s most vocal supporter, Warren Buffet. (Buffet invested 5 billion dollars in GS in the fall of 2008.)
Goldman’s defense: Our investors are big boys capable of making their own decisions. Translation: “We are not responsible for your ignorance…suckers!”
Taibbi points out in a recent UK Guardian article that the philosophy behind their defense is the medieval business model of “caveat emptor.” He writes, “The investment bank’s cult of self-interest is on trial against the whole idea of civilization - the collective decision by all of us not to screw each other over even if we can.”
Goldman’s greatest critic is indeed correct that the investment giant’s “cult of self-interest is on trial,” but this is not exclusive to Goldman Sachs. They are simply the most visible and seemingly “best” practitioner of unrestrained profit-seeking at the expense of the greater society. Goldman Sachs is not on trial literally (at least not yet). The entire business model of profit-at-any-cost (Atlas Shrinks) is “on trial” in the eyes of the public.
For years, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. As a culture, we have defended a business model of profits-before-people that has come to bite us in the bloomin’ arse. The model has been reduced to an inane battle of “conservatives versus liberals.” Just curious: Since when is it “conservative” to take the food out of a baby’s mouth and the roof over a hard working family’s heads? Since when is it “liberal” to establish a morally restrained code of behavior that embodies the Golden Rule? All these absurd labels prove is that as a society we force people into tiny boxes for our tiny minds to comprehend and then completely miss the point.
The Point: Are we survival-of-the-fittest capitalists in a deadly game of Darwinian magnitude? Or are we morally responsible and socially conscious capitalists who have personal boundaries in the pursuit of profit which we won’t cross? In other words: In the quest for money, is there anything at all that we won’t or can’t do?
Libertarians or Randian greed-mongers would say no. In the purity of the “free market,” there is nothing we should not be able to do. Theirs is a Wild West philosophy of lawlessness, predatory mortgages, and under-the-radar “derivatives.”
The chances of Goldman Sachs breaking a securities law and being convicted of fraud are pretty slim. They are too “clever” and too connected to behave criminally. Goldman does not have to break laws to profit; they simply change laws to their advantage-circa Robert Rubin, Hank Paulson, and the New York Federal Reserve Bank. The purity of our democracy is the real issue, not Goldman’s alleged “fraud.”
Law of the Land
While in Wyoming traveling from Yellowstone National Park some years ago, the owner of a lodge asked me if I wanted to go grizzly bear hunting. I replied, “I thought it was illegal to shoot grizzly bears.” The cowboy smiled, “We make our own laws here.” Looking around at the rugged and wild expanse of nature surrounding me, it was easy to understand his conviction. He could have killed me too and no one would have ever known.
What struck me most about his question was that he and I were of such contrasting worlds. I, a city girl, was comfortable with society’s rules. He, a wilderness child, had no respect for anyone else’s law. The fact that he thought I would share his love for the indiscriminate killing of innocent animals astonished me. We held a completely different moral view.
It reminds me of a conversation with a former mortgage trader from one of the big banks just after Lehman’s fall. He had been skiing in Aspen in 2007 and overheard two mortgage brokers ranting about a deal they failed to close. “F***ing Bitch,” they swore of the cautious widow who refused their loan. My friend was weary of the business and said, “I made my money; it’s not fun anymore.” His was a rare conscience in the world of finance-one where he gave up “the fun” to become part of Vermont’s middle class. The price of easy money became too high for his morally conscious mind.
What is really on trial with Goldman on the hot seat is our cultural ambivalence to greed. There is no such thing as easy money or “money for nothing” - that is the great American myth. There is always a price to pay when we throw care and responsibility to the wind.
We live in a shared society, not an island apart from the world. We are part of a complex and extensive global community. Everything we do from polluting the environment to polluting the economic system comes back to haunt us. In our adolescent materialism, we forget there are consequences for our actions.
For the record, “Wall Street” is not the few blocks stretching downtown that last week’s protestors symbolically walked. Wall Street is an amorphous destination that exists as much in our minds as it does behind the gold and glass plated doors of 200 West Street. It stretches from one end of the nation to the other - south, north, west, east and everywhere in between. It reaches every continent on earth and directly affects every nation. It operates through every bank, insurance company, corporation, lender, and financial advisor. It includes the stock exchanges and bond markets in New York, London, Hong Kong, Chicago, and around the world. Wall Street is not a “place” at all, but a global economic system. The question is do we want to support a system that creates value for society or destroys it?
The myth of the “free market” is that we should have no laws. We should be able to shoot grizzlies and each other with impunity in our current economic philosophy. No one will really know if we “screw” each other over. As long as we do not leave a trail of emails behind, it’s your word against mine. Who would ever know?
Our market values do not emulate our societal values. We live in a ”free society” within a complicated system of laws designed to protect us from the tyranny of each other. I can no more “kill” you, than you me, without legal consequences. Yet I can sell you bad debt hidden in between thousands of pages and laugh at your stupidity as you writhe in agony from economic disaster. The double standard of our flawed morality makes little sense.
Greed is looking ugly these days. “The great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity” is greed itself. Unbridled greed is primitive, crude, crass, dangerous, socially obsolete and not in the least bit sexy. To paraphrase that great philosopher, B.B. King:
The thrill is gone baby.
The thrill is gone away.
You know you done us wrong baby.
You’ll be sorry someday.
Taibbi writes of the task facing the modern world to make a collective decision once and for all, “not to screw each other over” just because we can.
Goldman Sachs is not the source of the problem. The real source is the primitive and socially unconscious business model they embody and we embrace. The acceptable for-profit survival of the fittest model where we “take the money and run” without responsibility for our actions. The model where it is not only “okay” but “good business” to leave dead bodies in our wake. The model where if I survive and you fail… I win!
After all, they shoot grizzly bears don’t they?
Monika Mitchell - Executive Director firstname.lastname@example.org