No matter where you are on the planet today, chances are that your country is in the midst of a financial crisis brought on by the unethical behavior of investment banks and other financial institutions. The banking crisis was the cue ball that brought us the credit crunch which, in turn, beckoned the housing crisis and bailout of the automotive industry. In Europe, entire nations—Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Ireland—are facing bankruptcy, due largely to the shenanigans of banks.
At the recent inquiry, or inquisition, of Goldman Sachs top-managers in Congress, one investment banker, speaking of his clients, said quite simply, “They wanted risk. That’s what we gave them.” In a way, he’s right. Americans, always risk takers, are high on “casino capitalism.” We gave the investment banks the rope to hang us with. Everyone, bankers and investors alike, was infatuated by the age-old temptation of easy money. We are just as gullible today as we were 80 years ago, in the era of the Roaring Twenties. Comparing then to today is a sobering exercise.
The era of the Charleston and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby witnessed an orgy of speculation, an unprecedented addiction to money and profit never before witnessed in human history. Speculating on stocks and addiction to the ticker-tape machine was a national pastime—unless, of course, you were one of Steinbeck’s unlucky Dust Bowl farmers in the The Grapes of Wrath or one of James Agee’s subjects in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The high-rolling twenties brought us gangsters, tycoons, corruption, and unimaginable riches followed closely by even more unimaginable poverty. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a 1936 speech, characterized the decade as “nine crazy years at the tickers and three long years in the breadlines.”
Following World War II, a traumatized but eager ‘Greatest Generation’ of young men returned home to restart business and make a decent living. In these happy days of the fifties and sixties, businessmen, there were very few businesswomen at the time, were considered humble and responsible pillars of their communities: Steve Douglas (My Three Sons) or Ward Cleaver (Leave it to Beaver) types of men who divided their time between running businesses and the Lion’s Club, the Optimist Club, the PTA, and the Rotarians. Every American town, including LaFollette, proudly greeted visitors with a large sign at the city limits touting its business and community engagement. Remember the one we used to have? To be a ‘Young Rotarian’ and a member of the local chamber of commerce in those days was synonymous with the term good citizen.
But by the time I graduated from college in 1986, the whole country was addicted to casino capitalism: making money with money, hand over fist, every man for himself. I was in the army at the time, at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. At 5 a.m. in the morning, over ham and eggs, my artillery buddy was preoccupied with reading the financial page. “Gary, I get up to 14- percent return on my money. I’ll retire by 50.” Clearly, the Wall Street generation had replaced the Hippie Generation almost overnight. Soon, everyone from business executives to McDonald’s employees owned stock portfolios.
As a boy on Pinecrest Ridge, I was fond of riding my bike to Uncle Theodore’s country store to play pinball. I loved to feed it quarters. One day my dad gave me some quarters and said, “Son, you won’t beat that machine; it’ll take your money. It was designed by electrical engineers, and its guts look like the backside of a B-52 instrument panel.” Unfazed, I arrived at my uncle’s store just as he opened the back of the machine to collect the quarters. Thousands of lights, wires, mechanical wheels and other gizmos formed the brain behind the mask. “God,” I though, “dad was right.” On that day I quit playing pinball.
Lehmann Brothers, Goldman Sachs and other disreputable organizations are to the modern speculator what the pinball machine was to me in my youth. We’ve been mesmerized by the pinball machine of easy money for far too long. We were the ones who, spellbound by the “gambling disease,” fed these “machines” with our hard-earned money in the eternal human scheme of “striking it rich” without lifting a finger or dirtying our brow. It’s time that we quit feeding the machine.
Trust me, we’ll never win.