The “Best Men” Fall
How Popular Anger Grew, 1929 and 2009
By Steve Fraser
Obtuse hardly does justice to the social stupidity of our late, unlamented financial overlords. John Thain of Merrill Lynch and Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers, along with an astonishing number of their fraternity brothers, continue to behave like so many intoxicated toreadors waving their capes at an enraged bull, oblivious even when gored.
Their greed and self-indulgence in the face of an economic cataclysm for which they bear heavy responsibility is, unsurprisingly, inciting anger and contempt, as daily news headlines indicate. It is undermining the last shreds of their once exalted social status — and, in that regard, they are evidently fated to relive the experience of their predecessors, those Wall Street “lords of creation” who came crashing to Earth during the last Great Depression.
Ever since the bail-out state went into hyper-drive, popular anger has been simmering. In fact, even before the meltdown gained real traction, a sign at a mass protest outside the New York Stock Exchange advised those inside: “Jump, You Fuckers.”
You can already buy “I Hate Investment Banking” T-shirts on line. All the Caesar-sized salaries and the Caligula-like madness as the economy crashes and burns, all the bonuses, dividends, princely consulting fees for learning how to milk the Treasury, not to speak of those new corporate jets, as well as the government funds poured down the black hole of mega-mergers, moneys that might otherwise have spared citizens from foreclosure — all of this is making ordinary Americans apoplectic.
Nothing, however, may be more galling than the rationale regularly offered for so much of this self-indulgence. Asked about why he had given out $4 billion in bonuses to his Merrill Lynch staff in a quarter in which the company had lost a staggering $15 billion dollars, ex-CEO John Thain typically responded: “If you don’t pay your best people, you will destroy your franchise. Those best people can get jobs other places, they will leave.”
Apparently it never occurs to those who utter such perverse statements about rewarding the “best people,” or “the best men,” that we’d all have been better off, and saved some serious money, if they had hired the worst men. After all, based on the recent record, who could possibly have done more damage than the “best” Merrill Lynch, Wachovia, Wamu, Citigroup, A.I.G., Bank of America, and so many other top financial crews had to offer?
Keep reading How Popular Anger Grew at TomDispatch.com→