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To End This Financial Crisis, Americans Are Going to Have to Get Angry

FDR alone didn't pull America out of the Great Depression. The passion of ordinary citizens did. Can we do it again?
 
 
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Editor's note: Sometimes it's the small gesture that defines the end of an age. Richard Fuld, CEO of Lehman Brothers, the single financial firm the Bush administration allowed to collapse into bankruptcy in what may someday be thought of as the slow-motion Crash of '09, made one of those gestures recently. Just to be clear, we're talking about a man who, between 1993 and 2007, took home a tidy $466 million in pay. (That's no misprint, though it's a pay level that it would take factories of workers cumulative lifetimes to reach.) Then, in 2008, the year his firm would collapse, Fuld was awarded another $22 million in what was called "retirement pay."

But that's the big picture. Here's the small one that catches our shape-shifting moment perfectly. Fuld was recently outed for "selling" his wife their jointly held $14 million, 3.3 acre Florida beach-front mansion -- one of five houses the two of them owned, including their 8-bedroom main domicile in Greenwich, Connecticut -- and the lovely touch is the selling price: $100. That's right, one hundred bucks "in a possible attempt," writes the British Times, "to move assets beyond the reach of infuriated investors of the collapsed bank." Smooth move, Dick! Just petty and sleazy enough for a $488 million man.

Fuld and the other CEOs, who lived fabulous lives in their many mansions and passed out money as if it were sand, have been slow to grasp changing times. After all, as late as last December, according to the Wall Street Journal , John Thain, CEO of Merrill Lynch, "let it be known" that he expected a $10 million bonus in a year in which the company he oversaw had a nifty $28 billion in losses. Like Fuld, these men have proven remarkably tin-eared as well as lead-fingered and, in a season of catastrophe for their firms and for so many Americans, they still managed to pass out a staggering $18.4 billion in bonuses.

It helps, of course, to have a memory. I mean a real memory, a deep sense of what happened once upon a time. Steve Fraser, TomDispatch regular and expert on American Gilded Ages, who has written Wall Street: America's Dream Palace, a superb history of our country's kaleidoscopic range of attitudes toward Wall Street, knows that this country went through such a moment with just such a set of tin-eared former titans once before. And while the two moments, 1929 and 2009, differ in striking ways, it's instructive to know how it all fell out for the Richard Fulds of another age. -- TomDispatch editor, Tom Engelhardt

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."

 
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