All the World Is Green | The Nation


All the World Is Green

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For Fraser, the 1990s were the moment when a decisive cultural counterrevolution was wrought. At the decade's beginning, Wall Street's reputation rebounded, thanks to its financing of Internet innovation. Toward its end, as dot-com development reached its reality-based limits, capital sluiced instead into faith-based speculation. Ongoing casinoization was spurred by Republicans and Clintonian Democrats alike, the latter having shed their New Deal social conscience and converted to free-market orthodoxy. Together they cut capital gains taxes, deregulated the financial sector and turned a blind eye to the growth of gigantic speculative vehicles (the misnamed "hedge" funds), freed from government supervision but ready to accept government rescue.

About the Author

Mike Wallace
Mike Wallace is co-author of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (Oxford), author of A New Deal for New York (...

Middle- and upper-class Americans piled into the market, assured that "risk-controlling" techniques--courtesy of university departments of "financial engineering"--had all but eliminated the downside. For the first time, roughly half the population participated, passively or actively: By 1998 there were 3,513 mutual funds. Wall Street seized hold of the popular imagination. TV viewers glued themselves to CNN-FN, Bloomberg and CNBC, captivated by financial analysts, business talk shows and real-time tickers scrolling (from 1996 on) across the bottom of their screens. At bookstores, parents snatched up bestsellers like Dow 36,000 and The Roaring 2000s: Building the Wealth and Lifestyle You Desire in the Greatest Boom in History, and took home Wow the Dow for the kiddies--who as likely as not were playing The Stock Market Game in grade school, or joining high school investment teams and competing in tournaments.

Media pundits and think tanks hailed this popular participation as a breakthrough for democracy--a triumphalism, as Fraser shrewdly notes, that mirrored American exaltation at winning the cold war. We were now the "Shareholder Nation," with the financial marketplace replacing the town meeting as the place where citizens were freest to determine their fate. The 1990s were also the moment, Fraser believes, when the merger between Wall Street and the wider consumer culture that began in the 1920s was finally consummated. Not only had the capital casino become a 24/7 playground in its own right, but the willingness (or need) of average people to spend tomorrow's anticipated capital gains today sustained purchasing in other sectors of the economy. Ordinary Americans did make money in the 1990s, though with the boom at white heat, 86 percent of the gains accrued to the top 10 percent. And the top 1 percent, which had 19.9 percent of the country's wealth going into the decade, had 40 percent of it coming out. Another round of gilded arrogance and rococo extravagance ensued, but this time there were virtually no complaints about "barbarians" or "vanities": "The '90s," Maureen Dowd noted, "are the '80s without the moral disgust."

In 2000 the bubble burst, with big losses all around. Stunning frauds were revealed that implicated virtually the entire Wall Street establishment. Corporate directors had cooked books (with help from banks and accounting firms), propped up share prices to cash in on stock options and looted pension funds on their way out the door. But this time, there was no backlash. The political fallout was minimal, the legislative response toothless.

Fraser takes this lack of reaction as evidence that a Rubicon has been crossed. The popular culture that for two centuries cast a cold or at least an ambivalent eye on Wall Street has now assumed a "stance of fateful inevitability about the reign of the free market." The national imagination that "once peopled the Street with usurers, monopolists, con men, aristocrats, and sinners" is now "a dimming memory." This waning of cultural antipathy has in turn sapped political energy; the wellsprings of outrage seem to have dried up, along with "the instinct to collectively resist the usurpations of presumptuous wealth." Wall Street, "for the moment at least," seems to have "won the war for hearts and minds."

The only thing that might conceivably reverse this triumph, Fraser thinks, would be another truly systemic crisis. But given the far greater centrality of today's financial sector, and the intricate interconnectedness of the international economy, a financial earthquake higher up on the Richter scale than that of 2000 might well trigger a global economic tsunami of horrendous proportions--which could, as Fraser is well aware, have horrific political consequences. Every Man thus ends on a dark and dispirited note.

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