Sunday, November 06, 2011

Wall Street’s Hippie Culture

It has been amusing to me to hear some of Wall Street’s current crop of Masters of the Universe dismiss the Occupy Wall Street protestors as a “bunch of hippies”. What is funny about their doing so is this.

At age 67, I am old enough to have known some actual hippies and their philosophy, which they often distilled down to the single expression: “Do your own thing, man.” But isn’t that precisely what these investment bankers also offered—and still are offering—as their own philosophy, and isn’t it that philosophy which got us into the terrible economic mess the OWS people are now protesting?

It certainly seems so to me. What the investment bankers and their apologists told us again and again over the past three decades is that regulatory restraints on their behavior were bad. They repeatedly told us that if they were simply allowed to do their own thing that something they called “the market” would prevent them from engaging in antisocial behavior and that a great and widely-shared prosperity would result.

So deeply did they believe in this philosophy that they set about creating think tanks and resident experts to push the philosophy in the news media and before congressional committees and in other forums. They drew upon wealthy ultraconservative financial backers to provide the financial support for their proselytizing on behalf of this philosophy. And so persistent were they in their efforts that their philosophy, at first gradually and then with ever-greater force, took hold across our entire society as one after another restraint on their behavior was either prevented from coming into existence or wiped from the books.

As do many proselytizers, they needed an old written and somewhat inaccessible text to use in offering appeals to authority in response to common-sense questions about why their philosophy should be followed. To meet this need, they offered up The Wealth of Nations and its decent and careful author, Adam Smith.

But, as often happens when an old text is used to justify a new philosophy, they quoted the text and its author selectively. In fact, they were so selective that, to listen to these anti-government types describe them, all of Adam Smith’s philosophy and all of his 600-page treatise came down to the single concept of the invisible hand. They insisted that Smith’s philosophy was the following: everyone should just pursue his or her own individual self-interest and that the result would be generalized prosperity. In other words, they said, Smith’s message was that we should all just do our own thing.

So successful were they on pushing this concept that the average American has no idea that Smith also favored usury laws and bank regulation and a tax system under which the rich paid a higher tax rate than those making less than them–or that he worried that the government might become the captive of the wealthy and be used largely to protect their property interests instead of promoting the public good.

And so it came to pass that the investment bankers were allowed to do their own thing and create the terrible economic mess we have on our hands today: the very mess that the people in the park are protesting, the very mess which we taxpayers across the country had to rescue them from, the very mess which cost so many people their jobs and their pensions and their homes.

But even after this massive and very public failure of their philosophy, from the lofty heights of their glass towers the bankers look down on the protestors with disdain and call them hippies.

There is much irony in this, isn’t there?

For while I didn’t much agree with the philosophy of the original hippies, at least I’ll give them this: unlike this bespoke-suited new generation of hippies, they didn’t go running to the government to save them if their philosophical choices ended up making a mess of their lives.

David N. Brown

Medina, Ohio

No comments: