It’s not that I disagree with Thomas Frank, the resident writer of Harper’s polemical column “Easy Chair” and one of America’s finest living essayists. It’s not that I take issue with his latest effort in this month’s issue of the magazine and what he says about the financial collapse of 2008 or the “waste product” that “had been deliberately moved through the bowels of a hundred shady mortgage outfits.”
In fact, I have no problem at all with his visceral renderings of the villains and thugs who further soiled the already reeking back alleys of Wall Street with the scat from their gorging on other people’s money bought with the proceeds from their particular form of legal larceny. I have no problem with this: “Bribery and deceit and crazy incentives had been the laxatives that pushed this product down the pipe; money and bonhomie and reassuring economic theory had been the sedatives that put the regulators to sleep.”
I was one of those people “who were left to cry over cratered investments.” I have friends and relatives in the United States who were left “to pay for the bailouts and endure the downturn.” No one needed to be Greek, in those days, to appreciate that this wretched thing of ours “may well be the central economic episode” of our lives.
Surely, it has scarred us, marked us, made us less generous, less trusting – especially of authority, which is ironic when you consider that it was an almost complete lack of oversight that facilitated the global disaster. Or, as Mr. Frank, puts it: “The industry would supervise itself, we were told – and we believed it. Instead, our economic order turned out to be wobbly, even rotten. The great banks looked insolvent. The great capitalists looked like criminals.”
As for the salvation of these cheats and their confederates, it was purchased at the expense of trillions of dollars in taxes – dollars that would never again be fully available to the purposes and projects for which they were intended. In the process, we learned that “there was a whole class of businesses that could not be allowed to fail, no matter what kinds of suicide missions they undertook. . .That this class’s chosen public persona was one of churlish, sniggering contempt for the non-crooks who were now required to rescue them only compounded the shock.”
And the shocks keep coming: The evisceration of what was once known as the middle class; the yawning and widening chasm between those who have and those who have not; the gnawing suspicion that meaningful economic progress is a thing of the past; the scattering of all but the richest members of the global entrepreneurs’ club; the mounting debt; the disappearing jobs; the pervasive, collective sense of impotence.
Writes Mr. Frank: “A society that believes good government to be an impossibility is unlikely to do what is necessary to keep industry honest. Instead, its regulators will come to see the regulated, rather than the public, as their main clients. . .The rest of us will resign ourselves to scandal after scandal, as a new generation of looters rises up to claim positions at the trough when the old looters retire.”
As this esteemed writer – with decidedly progressive leanings and an artful skill at the angry lament – notes, we have become hardened by our travails, cynical in the long shadow our rage once cast. We no longer demand to know how these things could happen to us. We expect them with the regularity of the changing seasons. It’s not our fault, exactly, though “we have chosen to live with that.” What else should we expect of ourselves? “Just grab your cash,” he writes, “and hang on.”
No, I don’t disagree with any of this. I take no issue with the premise or conclusions of this lengthy screed.
Still, I do wonder, as I cast my eyes down past the bottom of Mr. Frank’s worthy essay on the crimes of the rich, the essential unfairness now bred in the bone of a once-far-more-generous society, and read the following ad posted by his own employer, Harper’s, which is “accepting applications” from university grads for two art and editorial department internships:
“All interns are encouraged to generate ideas, read widely, and approach problems creatively. . .Both positions are unpaid.”
What say you now, Mr. Frank, on the subject of grabbing cash and hanging on?