What's the rule? Two stories equal a trend, right? Well this week saw at least two stories from pretty big names in New York journalism stories with Populism (definitely with a capital 'P') as their central theme. The inspiration? You guessed it, those Wall Street bonuses.
First up, Kurt Anderson in New York Magazine:
Populism has gotten a bad odor, and not just among plutocrats—for most of the political chattering class, it is at least faintly pejorative. But I think that’s about to change: When economic hope shrivels and the rich become cartoons of swinish privilege, why shouldn’t the middle class become populists? What Professor Hacker calls “office-park populism” will be a main engine of any new cyclical progressive renaissance. The question is whether we’ll elect steady, visionary FDR-like national leaders—Bloomberg? Obama?—who can manage to keep populism’s nativist, Luddite tendencies in check.
I think practical-minded political majorities can be brought together to fix the big, important things that have nothing to do with religious faith or sex. In polls, between 60 and 70 percent of people now think “it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have health-care coverage” “even if taxes must be raised.” Universal health coverage, protecting everyone against the mammoth downside economic risk of illness, would empower people to take constructive economic risks, freeing them to move to new jobs or start new businesses. We could enact de facto compensation caps for top executives, either by limiting the tax deductibility of CEO pay or, as in Britain, by making CEO pay subject to a shareholder vote every year. We can raise—and certainly not further reduce—taxes on the extremely well-to-do.
We’ve had a bracing, invigorating run of pedal-to-the-metal hypercapitalism, but now it’s time to ease up and share the wealth some. We can afford to make life a little more fair and a lot less scary for most people. It’s not only a matter of virtue and national self-image. Because the future that frightens me isn’t so much a too-Hispanic U.S. caused by unchecked Mexican immigration, but a Latin Americanized society with a high-living, blithely callous oligarchy gated off from a growing mass of screwed-over peons. I think we need to put up with the Republicans’ complaining about “class war!” now in order to avoid a real one later.
Michael Thomas, writing in the New York Observer, is a bit less happy about populism but sees it as a definite possibility:
I’m pretty sure I hear, just over the horizon, the first unmistakable intimations of the thunderous wing-beating of gilded chickens swinging onto final approach. If this is so, two words, already spelled out above, will explain why: Goldman Sachs.
The profits—and the concomitant $16.3 billion in bonuses—that the big investment/trading house generated from its 2006 paper-shuffling provide what the wealth-haters have been looking for: wretched excess. That is to say, someone’s excess that can be politically compared to someone else’s wretchedness; excess on the part of the 0.1 percent that makes the 99.9 percent remnant, to a man, look at its lot, collectively and individually, and feel wretched.
The way we live now, a thrust toward politicization finds initial expression as “news.” Hence, the front-page story in The New York Times on Christmas Day about bonus-crazed traders vying for Ferraris and bonus-addled hedgers buying $5 million Manhattan condos for their kids. This is “reporting” as propaganda: stuff that will inspire even people well disposed toward finance capitalism to run a thumb along the pikestaff blade and make sure the tumbrel wheels are greased.
Welcome to 2007, folks. The year we all turn into Lou Dobbs.
American Roulette [New York Magazine]
Spotlight on the Wealth Gap: Goldman's Wretched Excess [New York Observer]