John Colson: Hit and Run
December 10, 2010
Every now and then I am pulled up short, gasping, staring wildly into the dim reaches just this side of the horizon, wondering … just wondering, about something I heard, or read the day before, or saw on a street corner and been struck dumb by the sight.
Just such a moment of stunned clarity hit me one morning recently, as I was sitting in my trusty Lincoln rocker, listening to NPR, sipping coffee, finishing breakfast … the truth is, I can’t recall the exact moment when the fuse began to burn and quickly reached the dynamite lying at the base of my skull.
All of a sudden, I was pissed off by Wall Street, pissed off by the entire structure of American finance, which has spread like a wildly infectious virus to just about every part of the world.
I am not, I should point out, talking about pure capitalism, the true market economy, in which people pay in some way for the goods or services provided by another.
We now refer to this kind of thing with a quaint phrase, “the barter system,” and it is viewed as a throwback to a simpler time when people lived closer to the natural world and, in terms of commerce, acted in ways that could be easily understood and explained.
So, fine for the good ol’ days, but we’re living in the here and now, and it is the present-day financial system that’s got my goat. That the “new ways” evolved from the “old ways” is not, in my eyes, proof of anything other than the fact that greed has a more powerful influence on human behavior than wisdom.
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Now that I think further on it, I think my “eureka!” moment actually took a couple of days to mature and ripen in my head and soul, but it started with a New Yorker magazine article with the delightful title, “What Good Is Wall Street?” (Nov. 29).
The author, John Cassidy, takes a romp through the whys and wherefores of the current Wall Street gestalt, interviewing CEOs from Citigroup and other wolves in the financial woods, and citing articles by experts who question whether the output of value from The Street is worth the trouble it can cause.
Cassidy shines some light on the inner workings of the breed known as Streeters, whose main business has become, simply put, the movement of money and the earning of fees attached to that movement. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less, just that. These functionaries take the value of what is actually produced and consumed and make bets on which way this thing or that service will rise or fall, and they make money on those bets.
Oddly, the Streeters have devised ways to make money no matter which way the fortunes fall. If the economy strengthens and expands, they make money on that. If it weakens and contracts, they make money on that.
The rest of us, of course, suffer mightily from all this. Even when economies expand and corporations get fat, they tend to reward their stockholders, hide the excessive profits in off-shore accounts, relocate manufacturing facilities to the place where they can get the cheapest labor, and get defensive when anyone questions the value of all this sleight-of-hand.
One of the doubters is a Brit named Lord Adair Turner, chair of England’s top financial watchdog agency, who referred to much of the Streeters’ so-called work as “socially useless activity.”
Lord Turner, and others, concede that there is some value produced by Wall Street. But it is not much of a value, and certainly not enough to justify the danger represented by the culture there, which is a culture of money-changers and little else.
Even the Bible, an intriguing enough book but one I don’t often mention, had little good to say about this breed.
So why have we sold our collective global soul to this bankrupt culture?
Why do we give them the power to bring nations to their knees, to starve people whose only interest is in living a decent life, to render homeless so many who have done nothing to deserve such treatment?
If you’ve got an answer, I’d love to hear it.