Wall Street: It’s Just Communism for Rich People

Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short,” explaining how the financial meltdown happened, would make an enlightening movie

Last Updated: April 15, 2010 @ 5:11 PM

Now that Michael Lewis’ book "The Blind Side" has been turned into an Oscar-winning hit movie, there’s sure to be a lot of interest in his new book "The Big Short." But adapting this bestseller about the 2007-08 financial meltdown may be a tough sell.

It’s not just that many people still have jangled nerves from that event, but because it hits home in a very uncomfortable way. Lewis uncovered not a conspiracy of crooks but the systematic failure of Wall Street’s capitalist system. And it makes you wonder about all American businesses.

The most shocking thing Michael Lewis exposes is the “bonus culture” of Wall Street, something he experienced firsthand as a trader in the 1980s. Traders and bankers receive bonuses of six figures and above every year, whether they do a good job or, as in 2008, nearly destroy the world monetary system.

Even after getting bailed out at taxpayer expense, they still demanded their bonuses. The CEOs claimed their people would walk if they didn’t get them. The rest of the country said, “That’s a threat?”

It wasn’t capitalism, it was communism for rich people.

And there’s the really disturbing part. People want to separate Wall Street from the rest of the country, but can we?

Where do our business gurus and our management experts come from? Did they learn things differently? No, of course not.

You find the same business models being used all over the country in manufacturing, energy and, yes, entertainment. It’s a set of attitudes and assumptions that date back to the 1950s.

Immediately after World War II, America was the leader in just about everything under the sun. We manufactured everything from toothpicks to TVs to cars.

It was the golden age of American capitalism, except it wasn’t really. Capitalism implies competition and there wasn’t anybody to compete with us, so we competed with each other.

Getting ahead in business became less and less about making the business better and more about taking down the guy ahead of you. This was captured beautifully in the book and film "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" and in AMC’s "Mad Men."

But there was an underlying assumption to all this boardroom backstabbing, and that was that no matter what they did, the company would survive, or rather the companies would survive. Some may rise and fall, but the vital industries would remain in the USA.

We started to see those companies as almost infallible entities. We assigned the “market” near mythical abilities. I’m reminded of Ned Beatty’s amazing monologue from "Network."

Taken in this context it’s easy to see how Wall Street bonuses came about. It’s the ultimate form of this business model where the business itself becomes secondary and all that really matters is one’s place in the hierarchy. Do what you have to do get ahead and secure that larger bonus. If your actions hurt the company, spin them into positives. Don’t worry. Nothing truly bad will really happen.

And then something really bad DID happen.

I wonder if the "Big Short" movie will have an Arthur Jensen moment. If it does, I have a good retort to his line, “These are primal forces of nature!”

Yeah? So are forest fires and avian flu.

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