It was Dylan who sang "Money doesn’t talk, it swears." Money like power also corrupts absolutely. Yet, it also funds a cure for disease and, without it, even Mother Teresa could not have accomplished her good works. While money doesn’t buy happiness, it sure can put a smile on your face. The Bible says the "Love of money is the root of all evil," but it also is the engine that drives capitalism. The business of Wall Street is to make money by any means within the law. It’s when we expect something more that we get disappointed.
I don’t pretend to know much about economics. My professors tried real hard to change that without much success. I have a feeling I’m just like most Americans. Hell, in a moment of candor in the last election, even John McCain told us he didn’t understand economics. That’s one of the biggest reasons he didn’t get elected.
When it comes to the economy, Americans usually put their faith in the so-called experts. We worshipped Alan Greenspan until we found out he also didn’t know which end was up or didn’t care. For a lot of years, we got away with our economic ignorance. We even bragged about it. The greatest economic system in the history of the world would see us through. Yeah, and nobody ever loses money investing in property, and the American economy is recession-proof, and the moon is made of green cheese.
We depended on the shouters on CNBC for financial advice. The louder they were, the more we listened. We believed in deregulation because the Wall Street crowd was supposed to be the real American heroes and we just had to stay out of their way and good things would happen. Gone were the days when Americans secretly cheered Bonnie and Clyde every time they held up a bank. Bankers were now the good guys. The bigger the bank, the more we trusted it.
We laughed at how easy making money was in America. Hell, any idiot could plunk his or her cash in the stock market and wind up a millionaire. It was so easy, we got angry we weren’t allowed to invest our own Social Security funds in the stock market. We were getting shortchanged. Get the government bureaucrats out of the way and, like Huey Long said, "Every man a king." Your 401(k) was going to let you retire a millionaire.
Our world collapsed like a house of cards. We discovered there were more shysters on Wall Street than geniuses. Deregulation let loose a jungle where only the con men survived. And we were trapped by our economic indifference and ignorance.
A national dialogue is going on, but our only contribution is our anger because we don’t understand what the hell happened. Our naive belief in unfettered, free-market capitalism did not lead to a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but instead to debtors’ prison.
In some cases, we have replaced one set of myths for another. Wall Street has gone from hero to villain, but it doesn’t get at the truth any more than our simplistic belief it would take care of us. Wall Street takes care of itself first, last and foremost. If this crisis has taught us the reality of the stock market, then for future generations it will have been worth it.
Wall Street needs regulations to make it behave in our interests. It is not naturally a moral entity anymore than we would be without laws. Capitalists will always look for ways to increase profits. It is what they do in the absence of good regulations.
We need to stop acting like Claude Rains in "Casablanca," who was shocked when people acted in their own self-interest. (Stop pretending like you wouldn’t have taken the contractual bonus money, too, if you had the chance.) Don’t let Congress off the hook for leaving you vulnerable in a deregulated financial jungle. Don’t listen to the same deregulators tell you the answer is even more deregulation. Greed will always be with us.
Greed is what lubricates our economic engine, not an impulse to do good works. We can’t change human nature, but we can regulate it. We have a lot of catching up to do to understand the implications of our economic meltdown. We can no longer trust the experts to do our thinking. There has been far too much grandstanding on the issue.
As that well-known South Philadelphia philosopher, Ozzie Myers, once said, "Money talks and bs walks." Ozzie could have been describing today’s Congress.