“Social Security is the soft underbelly,” says right-wing activist Stephen Moore. “If you can jab your spear through that, you can undermine the whole welfare state.” But things aren’t going well for the jabbers. Their claims of crisis have been proved false, their motivations meanly ideological (shredding the New Deal safety net) or merely mercenary (billions in profits for Wall Street). It’s tempting to think they’ve overreached, as did Newt when he tried to shutter the government, and that with facts on our side, saving Social Security could be a slam-dunk.
Big mistake. This battle will not be settled by fact-laden presentations, any more than the last election was, because no matter how compelling such messages may seem, recipients filter them through a pre-existing mesh of views and values–accepting, adjusting, resisting or rejecting incoming exhortations, depending on how they comport with previously accumulated information and attitudes. Given that citizens are being asked to transfer custodianship of their future from the government to the financial marketplace, it’s crucial to understand what people think and how they feel about Wall Street, to understand how it’s seen in the culture at large, to know whether its stock has been rising or falling.
Which makes the arrival of Steve Fraser’s book, an account of how Americans have perceived Wall Street over the past 200 years, incredibly timely. But timeliness is not its only virtue. Every Man a Speculator: A History of Wall Street in American Life is fascinating in its own right. Though the title suggests a focus on financial affairs, it belongs on the shortlist of books that encompass and illuminate the entire trajectory of the American experience. That’s because Fraser knows that Wall Street is far more than a workplace for bankers and brokers; rather, it is a place where Americans “have wrestled with ancestral attitudes and beliefs about work and play, about democracy and capitalism, about wealth, freedom and equality, about God and Mammon, about heroes and villains, about luck and sexuality, about national purpose and economic well-being.”
Every Man‘s ambitious breadth is matched by investigative depth. In exploring Wall Street’s cultural impact, Fraser has drawn on an astonishing array of sources– potboiler novels and classics of American literature, biographies and memoirs, magazine pieces and poems, movies and plays, speeches and sermons, cartoons and board games, folk songs and Tin Pan Alley ditties, artworks and radio shows, legislative deliberations and judicial decisions, the work of academic economists and mass-movement pamphleteers. The range and abundance of material he has uncovered gives the book great authority–though also, in places, an overstuffed, repetitious and convoluted quality that slows the narrative flow: The manuscript would have benefited from one last pass through the editorial wringer. But the writing is so vivid, the sensibility so witty, the analysis so theoretically astute (yet utterly jargon free), that readers will shoot successfully through the occasional eddies and rapids.
So what can we glean from Fraser about the cultural resources available to contending parties in the Social Security debate? One of the most striking features of his survey is how starkly Manichean the responses to Wall Street have been over the centuries. From the very beginning–just after the Revolution, when, freed from Britain’s imperial constraints, banking and stock trading emerged–Wall Street has been both revered and reviled. In part this mirrors its dualistic and contradictory character. It’s been a site for assembling capital to fertilize productive enterprises. It’s also been the place to speculate in ownership shares of such enterprises–speculation that has had beneficial but also deleterious and, at times, catastrophic consequences.