Stretching back into the election, the idea of ‘Wall Street’ has been flung around with little regard as to what is actually being referred to. Because of the depersonalized nature of an abstract concept such as “Wall Street”, it has become a convenient catch-all for our economic woes. Search op-eds and commentary sections of blogs, newspapers and other publications and you’ll find a plethora of like minded shouts all echoing their disgust with Wall Street CEO’s, greed, irresponsibility, corruption, and on and on. But what is this Wall Street, what is this glistening metaphoric cancer that so seemingly fed upon dreams of wealth and power, only to find itself killing the host? Maybe part of the problem is the way in which the question has been approached; everyone seems to refer to Wall Street as a thing. Maybe the question isn’t what is Wall Street, but who.
To begin with, further defining the ‘what’ sense might make it easier to reach who. The term Wall Street acts as the umbrella of the financial industry. Everything from the evil hedge funds and derivatives traders, to fund and capital management, down to your personal financial advisor with many in between. Often left out are the financial departments of virtually every company, listed on the stock exchange or not. (Yes hippies, even Apple) The term ‘Wall Street’ has become synonymous in its operational context with the term ‘The Man’. Both denote intangible single identities, an aura, a presence, a force that possesses its own will. Personifying an entire industry (or in The Man’s case, the government) makes a much bigger target for which to wag the finger and place blame. People crave an answer to ‘why’ during times such as this, its far easier to point at a concept such as Wall Street and say, “that’s why”. But whatever, this isn’t English class or philosophy. The point is this perception is twisted and biased, and personally, I believe that the personification of concepts and ideas has become the worst problem in American politics, but that’s for a different piece.
Wall Street, in its realest and basest sense, is just people. People who get up and go to work every morning, just like you. They’re your neighbor, your golfing buddy, your sister, your college roommate, hell, even you. It’s an important concept to grasp and understand. Deceivingly simple but easily overlooked in the stampede to explain Just. What. Happened. Behind the graph, the ticker, the rating; inside every Morningstar and Yahoo Finance analysis and beneath every earnings and performance report is a person or persons doing their job. To be sure, it is not the evil conspiracy to rob you and this nation blind that many seem to make it out to be. It simply so happens that these people’s job is to trade on the markets. Whether it be stocks, bonds, commodities, interest rates, derivatives of these or anything really. These markets and their products are not inherently dangerous as many persuade us to believe. Yes, they require steady trained hands to produce the desired positive results, but tell me a profession that doesn’t? From a lawyer to a welder, the same concepts of training, education and personal experience combine to produce their respective final products. An elegant defense of a defendant, or the strong skeleton of an automobile; or, in the Wall Street man or women’s case, the well diversified portfolio. To be certain, something went wrong in the financial markets, but that detours from my purpose here, and not only requires the next decade’s worth of economic research and publications, but far more expertise than I possess. Funny that in the middle of a swirling hurricane of economic factors, so many claim to know the exact direction the winds came from, even funnier that the winds come from different directions depending on your political sensibilities. We’ve only begun to understand the Great Depression in the last few decades, and our knowledge of the last small recession are just now coming into focus; how could we possibly fully understand a recession we’re currently in the middle of? But, I do know where something went wrong in the way that we describe the idea of financial markets, the idea of Wall Street.
You see, it’s very hard to demonize a person, especially when that person happens to look just like your neighbor. You know him, John down the street. His wife Ellen and him both work on ‘Wall Street’…in Chicago, Illinois at the CME. They met as financial analysts for an investment bank when they were younger; two kids now, they might even play with yours on the weekend. They throw a barbecue or two in the summers, even go to church sometimes. Good People. But wouldn’t you know, their insatiable greed and appetite for power has brought an entire world economy to its knees. Their evil plan backfired, or so pundits and politicians would have you believe. There are certainly people who’s greed and judgment are to blame and were wrong, but this isn’t about the Bernie Madoff’s of the world. Putting a face to misfortune, invoking the ‘us versus them’ mindset and sprinkling a bit of a post apocalyptic potential future is not only a great way to get elected, but its a great way to drum up support. A great way to get ratings, to push through policy and an even better way to get what all the preceding perpetrators really want, to be the loudest voice in the room.
That’s what this entire national blame game and lambasting of an industry is really about. The masses want to see blame, trials and punishment; and that’s just what they’ve been getting. Watching a bank CEO squirm in a seat while a Senator from such and such sub committee scolds him like a child makes for great entertainment. The gladiator matches of class warfare. Meanwhile, these show trials have given the proper atmosphere to pass through half assed and fully assed legislation with merely a wince from a public far too convinced that soup lines are in their future. With a Congress this inept, vindictive and selfish, a media only too happy to be their bull horn, and a public either too ignorant or too willing that they believe both, maybe a soup kitchen isn’t so improbable after all.
So next time you hear someone blast Wall Street for their evil and greed, ask them a simple question: By who do you mean Wall Street? Their answer’s impersonal vagueness might surprise you, and should concern you.
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