Wall Street versus America
Peter Hoh sends this powerful essay by a Lehman Brothers veteran, denouncing his former life. Excerpt:
It was in May 1961 that a series of circumstances took me from the hushed precincts of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I was working as a curatorial assistant in the European Paintings Department, to Lehman Brothers, to begin what for the next 30 years would be an involvement—I hesitate to call it “a career”—in investment banking. I would promote and execute deals, sit on boards, kiss ass, and lie through my teeth: the whole megillah. In consequence of which, I would wear Savile Row and carry a Hermès briefcase. I had Mme. Claude’s home number in Paris and I frequented the best clubs in a half-dozen cities. But I had a problem: I was unable to develop the anticommunitarian moral opacity that is the key to real success on Wall Street.
“Anticommunitarian moral opacity”? Whatever does he mean? Here’s a clue:
I have lived what now, at 75, is starting to feel like a long life. If anyone asks me what has been the great American story of my lifetime, I have a ready answer. It is the corruption, money-based, that has settled like some all-enveloping excremental mist on the landscape of our hopes, that has permeated every nook of any institution or being that has real influence on the way we live now. Sixty years ago, if you had asked me, on the basis of all that I had been taught, whether I thought this condition of general rot was possible in this country, I would have told you that you were nuts. And I would have been very wrong. What has happened in this country has made a lie of my boyhood.
The author expects there to be significant violence ahead. I don’t see that. It seems hysterical, actually. But maybe I’m wrong.
UPDATE: The philosopher John Gray points out that the stability that we take for granted (and that makes someone like me suspect that predictions of violence against Wall Street and its tribe are overheated) is actually not the normal condition of our civilization. Excerpt:
In different ways utopian thinkers and believers in gradual progress both look forward to an end to history as it has always been.
The response to the current crisis in Europe shows the continuing hold of this myth. History, many seem to think, is something that happens only to previous generations. We, the product of centuries of progress, could not conceivably be repeating the follies and delusions that led to disaster so often in the past.
Yet if you step back a little and look at the situation from a more detached perspective, it seems clear that no solution to Europe’s problems can be found within existing institutions. Rather like the planter’s house Koestler read about in the book on termites, European structures are eaten away by debt. Wherever Europe’s elites turn for support, the pillars begin to shake and crumble.
Our leaders insist there is no alternative to propping up these deeply eroded constructions since their collapse would cause a financial and economic earthquake. This may well be right, but shoring up a structure that is inherently unsound only ensures a larger collapse some time later.
Eventually every utopian project comes to grief. And while it started as a benign creation, the European project has long since acquired an unmistakably utopian quality. The efforts that are being made to renew the project are only accelerating its demise.
He’s talking about the European Union project, but I wonder to what extent this insight could be applied to our political and economic institutions and relations in the US.