New Internationalist

Wall Street wants your gratitude

Issue 454

Our US columnist Mark Engler is riled by the shamelessness of the financial élite.

International progress in recovering from the economic downturn of recent years has been sluggish. But there is growth in at least one sector: the shamelessness of the global financial élite.

Facing criticism from an Occupy movement that has rallied under the slogan ‘We Are the 99%’, the remaining one per cent has responded. And, at least here in the US, it hasn’t been pretty.

Earlier this year, the New York Times offered a glimpse into a world in which extreme privilege, political ‘access’ and stunningly out-of-touch perspectives on reality collide. In a meeting with Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, more than 20 top donors, many of them from Wall Street, angrily vented about feeling unfairly blamed for creating the recession and demonized for their well-merited wealth. One donor suggested that, in the same way that Obama once delivered a powerful and healing speech on race, the president now give a speech on inequality.

Not to highlight those left behind, mind you. He wanted a speech defending the rich.

Since then, some at the top have moved beyond self-pity and launched an aggressive campaign to convince the world that we should thank them for their services.

Between 1978 and 2011, despite dramatic productivity increases, wages for working people stagnated. Yet the country’s most affluent prospered. CEO compensation grew by more than 725 per cent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The top 10 per cent of Americans now control more than 70 per cent of the country’s net worth.

<A href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/">DonkeyHotey Under a CC Licence
The top 10 per cent of Americans now control more than 70 per cent of the country's net worth. DonkeyHotey Under a CC Licence

How do they justify their gains? Multimillionaire Edward Conard, a former colleague of Mitt Romney (caricatured on the left) at Bain Capital, has stepped forward as the unmuzzled mouthpiece of Ayn Randian entitlement. Conard tells reporters that the concentration of wealth at the top should be twice as large. That way, ‘art-history majors’ pursuing their pointless fancies might feel compelled to join the ranks of investors. For, he argues, our economic progress depends entirely on those moneyed few who seed markets for financial gain. (And who needs art, anyway?)

God didn’t create the universe so that talented people would be happy,’ Conard explained to journalist Adam Davidson. ‘It’s hard work. It’s responsibility and deadlines, working till 11 o’clock at night when you want to watch your baby and be with your wife. It’s not serenity and beauty.’

Conard seems unaware that, within a stone’s throw of his Manhattan town house, countless people, native born and immigrant alike, work punishing hours – often holding down multiple jobs in the low-wage service sector – to support families they too rarely see. Suffice it to say that, while they are among the many who supply the consumer demand critical to a functioning economy, they will not retire – as Conard did – at age 51.

Wall Street executives, somehow still baffled by the popular indignation they face, blame the Obama administration for producing ‘a hostile environment for job creators’. They ignore all the president has done to shield them from criticism and accountability. In 2010, despite recent bailouts, JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs chiefs received $17 million and $9 million bonuses, respectively. Obama did not exactly erect a protest encampment. He stated: ‘I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth. That is part of the free-market system.’

Another relevant fact: despite the wanton abuses that led to the crash, prosecutions of financial fraud by the Justice Department are at a 20-year low.

Earlier this year, Obama toured the country holding $35,800-per-plate fundraising dinners, trying to regain the support of corporate leaders. Conard, for his part, admitted last summer to having set up a shell company for the purposes of secretly donating $1 million to a political action committee backing Mitt Romney.

Raise an objection and the financial élite will grumble at your presumptuousness. It seems pocketing productivity gains and using the proceeds to hijack democracy hasn’t quite satisfied. They’re holding out for your gratitude.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website: DemocracyUprising.com

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