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How Fox News Created a New Culture of Idiots

Cable news has created an entirely new breed of blowhards -- and the style has infected banking and even the arts.

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Given the thinness of the arguments, the honest bankers are perhaps those who resort to cosmic grandiosity. Thus Lloyd C. Blankfein, head of Goldman Sachs, quips — with a definite whiff of Rockefeller or Beveridge or Rhodes — that bankers are “doing God’s work.” Blankfein may not be an asshole, but this is an asshole remark, even if it was mildly ironic. It implies notjust that bankers are “doing good things” but that their work is somehow within God’s plan or somehow brings them closer to God. Even if the comment was merely a joke, it was a “fuck you” type of joke, given that it was made in public in the wake of a crisis that had just upended millions of lives. It suggests complete obliviousness to how others will hear the remark, though not simple cluelessness. The man is hardly an idiot, and so his obliviousness is better seen as expressing a sense of entitlement, in this case, apparently of an unspecified God-sized kind.

This attitude among the new bankers stands in marked contrast with bankers of an earlier era. Consider the former Goldman CEO John Whitehead, a member of the civic-minded “Greatest Generation” that ably steered the dynastic wealth of Rockefeller and the like toward the social good. In lamenting that executive compensation today discourages the long view, and so has “got to be changed,” he explains why Blankfein, and by implication the new generation, “doesn’t get it.”

[Blankfein] never thought that if the public is losing their jobs and we’re in a recession, it isn’t a very good time to talk about the justification for a $60 million bonus. He doesn’t get it! . . . He says, “ I’m the CEO of the best financial service firm in the world. And I’m the CEO, I’m its head man. I deserve to be paid more than anybody else. And I’m prepared to fight for it, and boast about it. Because I’m proud of it.”

But, much as with Bar Patron 1, Blankfein’s appeal to deserts rings hollow in an industry that almost drove the global economy off a cliff.

We might put the general lesson this way: the banker’s position of high reward is a privilege. The position itself exists only because of societal need and design. That any particular banker holds a given position is in large measure good luck. Since many people are hardworking enough and smart enough to do the job (again, financial markets worked better from a crisis-avoidance point of view before they became mathematically sophisticated), any given banker is replaceable: it would be equally well for society, or indeed better, if someone else took his or her place, especially if he or she is very talented, since talent is more important in medicine, teaching, or science. For those who do work in finance, the enormous benefits are a societal gift but with conditions attached. The financial system needs to be organized so that it reliably works to the benefit of real people in the real economy. When this requires significant reorganization—including such things as reserves requirements, international securities taxes, the segregation of investment and finance, expansion of IMF and ECB last-resort lending capacity, breaking up “too big to fail” banks — then bankers have no reasonable complaint. If a given banker doesn’t like the gift, he or she can give it back (and seek work at Starbucks, a good high school, or a biology lab).

The banker’s sense of special entitlement is therefore akin to that of our imagined failed asshole artist. Neither the banker nor the failed artist has produced the goods, and yet both go on complaining about not getting what they deserve, seemingly unable to grasp how this could be a colossal, delusional mistake.

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