In Memory of the Day Wall Street Lost its S**t

This week, I’ve been showing Inside Job in my college classes as a springboard for a section on research and argument.  While I generally like the film, I concede that it has some problems and for fear of coming across as too liberal, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time trying to come up with a conservative rebuttal (even though the documentary actually goes after Obama as much as Wall Street and George W. Bush).

In doing so, I’ve read probably a dozen far-right screeds (like this one) alleging that the film is awful because… um… well, that part’s not exactly clear, but it seems to have something to do with the film showing about ten seconds of Barney Frank, compared to over an hour of conservative economists swallowing their gilded feet.  I’m going to assume for now that yes, Barney Frank is a baby-eating, pinko devil who held a gun to bankers’ heads and forced them to give predatory loans to poor people already crusted in their own filth and stupidity.

OK, moving along…

What I find disturbing is the number of articles alleging that the Wall Street tycoons who steered the economy into a trashcan overflowing with syringes and soiled baby diapers didn’t actually do anything wrong!  After all, most of what they did was legal, they were motivated by profit, they did profit, and so in a sense, they did exactly what they were supposed to do.

Granted, that’s a bit like a dentist pulling out your tooth by removing your jaw then handing you the bill, but I must be missing something, right?  I mean, despite the banal/robotic expressions and sesquipedalian phrases, these guys apparently invented a mystical world where mortgages abound like golden geese, financial conflicts of interest don’t exist, and you can buy titanic amounts of insurance for something you don’t even have (aka a credit default swap).  Surely, I must just be too intellectually shallow to grasp how bankers making billions while the market crashed and home ownership tanked was actually just the silver lining on an unholy amalgamation of overbearing liberalism with sheer happenstance.

(Note to self: I think Joe Biden has a bridge he wants to sell me.)

So far, I haven’t found a single conservative review expressing even a dash of concern over income disparity in the United States where CEOs make about 100 times what their workers make (in Britain, I think it’s only about 12 to 1).  The prevailing thought is that this is simply a natural byproduct of healthy capitalism.  Never mind that these are probably the same swinging dicks who couldn’t tell the difference between sympathy and empathy during the Sotomayor confirmation (hint: they’re two totally different words!); I’m pretty sure the Great Recession kinda dismembered that whole “You have pay top dollar to get top talent!” argument.

Before you (yes, YOU!) go accusing me of being a hemp-loving Rage Against the Machine socialist, I’ve never implied, said, or believed that wealth should be distributed evenly.  In fact, I don’t think it should.  I happen to work [more or less] by choice in a profession that doesn’t pay worth a damn, but I don’t think that profit and integrity/morality/goodness are mutually exclusive.  Hell, if I’m going to be honest, I don’t want to make as much money as the next guy; if things were going to change, I’d probably like to make more than he does.  A lot more.  And I recognize that this is a normal product of human psychology and a natural, necessary component of ambition—not to mention my addiction to gold-plated baby shoes (never worn).

But let’s examine another sign post of conservative economics: the belief that a free market naturally eliminates bad/unsafe products and fixes disparities in workers’ pay through some kind of Zen-like karma magic.  Have a factory job that doesn’t pay you enough?  Thinking about knocking over a convenient store?  No problem!  All you have to do is get really, really good at pulling levers and another factory will hire you for more money.  After all, companies need quality labor in order to compete; thus, you may use their gentlemanly conflict is to your advantage, or some such fanciful bullshit.

To better illustrate, let’s apply this same idealistic head-in-the-sand reasoning a bit more broadly.  Suppose you have an ice cream shop that starts mixing their previously delicious ice cream with the bones of dead innocent circus animals.  Before long, people will simply stop going there and it’ll go out of business.  Problem solved.  Therefore, it’s in the best interests of corporations to “do the right thing,” even if it’s not for purely wholesome motives, because it’s good for business.

OK, believe it or not, the overwhelming problem with this kind of reasoning isn’t that it’s stupid.  It’s that it assumes our fellow human beings aren’t stupid!  In a world where Sarah Palin almost gets to the White House and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is as popular as Game of Thrones, I fully expect to find the bones of circus animals in my ice cream.  Moreover, I’m kind of surprised when I don’t.  And I’m very surprised when there aren’t front page articles on magazines in grocery stores, alleging how said bones will help you look younger and healthier with skin that, like Alexander the Great, emits a naturally pleasant odor (sure it did, Plutarch!).

The point is that even if we pretend outsourcing doesn’t exist (hint: it does) and all of us start the race on the same line (hint: we don’t), the only way you can expect this to be maintained in the natural world is if the world itself does the fair/right thing with some kind of laxative-free regularity.  And I seem to remember reading somewhere that it doesn’t.

Now, an easy and common counter-argument to this is to point out that politicians, like CEOs, are human beings—meaning they’re flawed and corruptible.  Therefore, giving one greater power and hoping he/she will graciously protect me from the other doesn’t make a lot of sense.  That’s a decent point (despite being bullshit) and would probably be valid if, instead of regulation, I was proposing fascism.  But I’m not.

It’s interesting that the far-righters saying that we should fear a big, centralized government don’t seem all that concerned about big, centralized corporations.  As far as I’m concerned, both could stand to have their wings clipped.  What I can’t figure out is why that’s not the conservative position (or everyone’s position, for that matter).

I vote in elections and live in this country and in so doing, I accept the consequences if the candidate I like loses to a different candidate.  I’ll bear the effects of that without complaint (just kidding) and wait until the next election to do my small part to change things.  Yet even if corporations decide not to buy elections with the Supreme Court’s blessing, here’s something else to consider: don’t unelected corporations actually have a greater impact on our daily lives than politicians?  Obviously, I’m not saying that all businesses should be subject to general elections; I’m just saying that it’s naïve to think that we could exist for long in a largely corporate-owned country (no matter who’s in the White House) without some kind of checks and balance.

Once you accept that, you simply need to look for candidates who have the best (or in the case of Obama v. Romney or Democrats v. Republicans, the least bad) record in that area. That’s a point I wish Inside Job had made more clearly, rather than spending most of its time showing a bunch of Wall Street idiot-savants behaving under free rein exactly as you’d expect them to.

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