Tuesday, October 18, 2011
The Culprits Show No Remorse
John Ford’s classic western Stagecoach is set in the Southwestern territories in the 1880s, but in at least one respect it is a reflection of the year it was made, 1939. The villain was a banker.
He was one of nine people on that fateful coach, and he was trying to make off with most of the bank’s deposits. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, he makes a disparaging remark about the prostitute, played by Claire Trevor, prompting John Wayne to respond with one of his signature lines:
“Back where I come from, mister, a man doesn’t talk like that to a … lady.”
It’s a telling sign of those times that a banker was considered less socially respectable than a lady of the evening, but given the pain that Wall Street and the banks had recently inflicted on the American public, the sentiment was entirely understandable.
That sentiment is belatedly bubbling to the surface again in the Occupy Wall Street protests, and the wonder is that it’s taken this long. There is no dispute that bad behavior and shoddy business practices by banks and investment firms have been primary contributors to the current economic misery. What surprises me is the lack of humility and contrition from the people in that sector. Far from acknowledging that remedial action is necessary, they are defiantly demanding that they be left alone to do it again. If I didn’t know better, I’d think they were closet Marxists, trying to ignite a revolution.
Anger and resentment are no substitute for good policy, but they can be a catalyst for developing it. The Wall Street protests at least recognize the corrupting influences of corporate wealth on public policy even if, for now, they propose no concrete measures to deal with the problems.
Contrast that to the Tea Party, which shares very little ideologically with the Occupy Wall Street crowd other than a bilious dislike of the bailouts and guarantees the federal government offered corporations and financial institutions in 2008-09. The Tea Party, however, continues to support Republican candidates who oppose all meaningful attempts to regulate the industries that got us into this mess.
As far as I can tell, the Tea Party position amounts to letting business do whatever it wants, then doing nothing, governmentally speaking, when the reckless behavior of big business precipitates a crisis. I guess the idea is that the Invisible Hand of the free market will take care of the problem, though believing that calls for a greater leap of faith than any religion requires of its adherents. The recent bailouts may not be defensible from the standpoint of justice, but hoping that, left alone, something good would have risen from the ashes would have been playing Russian roulette with the country’s future.
Just about any business, left unwatched, will begin to slide down the slippery slope of dangerous, unethical or dishonest practice in the pursuit of near-term profit. Public opinion can be a partial counterweight, but laws and enforcement are a more consistent mitigating factor.
Back in the 1930s most of the financial wizards at least had enough humility and awareness to realize that they had forfeited, for the time being, the expectation of having their way. A president and Congress of the same party wouldn’t have listened to the money men anyway, and those politicians passed laws and regulations that led to three quarters of a century of financial stability and prosperity. I’d like to believe that historians looking back on us in 75 years will be able to say the same, but I lack the Tea Party ability to make that leap of faith.