The financial titans of Wall Street still regard themselves as the Masters of the Universe portaryed in Tom Wolfe's 1987 book Bonfire of the Vanities. And why wouldn't they? They and their peers in the top 1% have 40% of the nation's wealth. Their interests are represented in Congress and in the Executive branch of our government, no matter WHICH party is in control, to the near exclusion of the interests of the American people who are given only a choice of which Wall Street tool for which to vote. They have 24-hour news stations touting their interests.
And yet these powerful titans, for all their wealth and power, have a gripe about the students so drowning in college debt that it will never be paid off and they will never be able to start families and buy a home; about the tech workers who had to train their offshore replacement and were then booted out of their jobs; about the people over fifty who can't find jobs because they've been told that despite the fact that they did their last one effectively for years, now in a different company they're told that the exact same job is "too fast-paced" for them. Why do the have-everythings whine about the have-nothings?
Because the vast unwashed for whom they have such contempt have the audacity to say mean things about them.
The modern lords of finance look at the protesters and ask, Don’t they understand what we’ve done for the U.S. economy?
The answer is: yes, many of the protesters do understand what Wall Street and more generally the nation’s economic elite have done for us. And that’s why they’re protesting.
On Saturday The Times reported what people in the financial industry are saying privately about the protests. My favorite quote came from an unnamed money manager who declared, “Financial services are one of the last things we do in this country and do it well. Let’s embrace it.”
This is deeply unfair to American workers, who are good at lots of things, and could be even better if we made adequate investments in education and infrastructure. But to the extent that America has lagged in everything except financial services, shouldn’t the question be why, and whether it’s a trend we want to continue?
For the financialization of America wasn’t dictated by the invisible hand of the market. What caused the financial industry to grow much faster than the rest of the economy starting around 1980 was a series of deliberate policy choices, in particular a process of deregulation that continued right up to the eve of the 2008 crisis.
Not coincidentally, the era of an ever-growing financial industry was also an era of ever-growing inequality of income and wealth. Wall Street made a large direct contribution to economic polarization, because soaring incomes in finance accounted for a significant fraction of the rising share of the top 1 percent (and the top 0.1 percent, which accounts for most of the top 1 percent’s gains) in the nation’s income. More broadly, the same political forces that promoted financial deregulation fostered overall inequality in a variety of ways, undermining organized labor, doing away with the “outrage constraint” that used to limit executive paychecks, and more.
Oh, and taxes on the wealthy were, of course, sharply reduced.
And what about the current situation? Wall Street pay has rebounded even as ordinary workers continue to suffer from high unemployment and falling real wages. Yet it’s harder than ever to see what, if anything, financiers are doing to earn that money.
Why, then, does Wall Street expect anyone to take its whining seriously? That money manager claiming that finance is the only thing America does well also complained that New York’s two Democratic senators aren’t on his side, declaring that “They need to understand who their constituency is.” Actually, they surely know very well who their constituency is — and even in New York, 16 out of 17 workers are employed by nonfinancial industries.
But he wasn’t really talking about voters, of course. He was talking about the one thing Wall Street still has plenty of thanks to those bailouts, despite its total loss of credibility: money.
Money talks in American politics, and what the financial industry’s money has been saying lately is that it will punish any politician who dares to criticize that industry’s behavior, no matter how gently — as evidenced by the way Wall Street money has now abandoned President Obama in favor of Mitt Romney. And this explains the industry’s shock over recent events.
As the protests continue to grow, and they will, because you cannot throw 99% of your population in the garbage (and yes, you so-called 53%-ers, you are on their list too, you just don't know it yet) and expect them to sit meekly by. When one in five working-age Americans is out of work and the rest know that they are one bad quarter, or one merger, or one bad management decision away from joining them; when older people are being told that Social Security and Medicare are on the chopping block and they just have to work longer -- and then find that no one will hire them; when young people emerge from college with six figures of college debt and no job market; one of two things will happen. Either they will take to the streets with the contemporary equivalent of pitchforks and torches, or you will have to have your bought-and-paid for goons mow them all down in the streets. So far we have only seen the first. I hope to Goddess that we don't see the second one, but I fear we will. Because those "elite" for whom no amount of wealth is enough to fill the dark, empty hole in their souls will never stop trying to fill it, no matter what they need to do in order to keep trying.