The New York Stock Exchange on the eve of its completion in 1903
Debris from the financial implosion was everywhere, still smoldering. Who knew what economic corpses would show up next, how far and wide the devastation extended? Still, early in the spring of 2009, The New York Times quoted a young Wall Street reveler from a large investment firm celebrating at a swanky city eatery: “If you’d asked me in October, I’d say it’d be a different situation, and I don’t think I’d be here. Then the government gave us $10 billion!”
Before the meltdown, the I-bank traders knew, as so many in the industry knew, that they were peddling junk securities—yet no fear, no reservations clouded their knowingness. This all became clear to the rest of us after a Senate hearing in April 2010, where a former Moody’s credit officer explained the traders’ hip, coded argot, “IBG-YBG.” When the dust cleared, the bankers told each other, “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”
The poetry of Wall Street! So much said in so few words. The reveler and the fraudsters condensed a state of mind that incubated on the Street and then metastasized throughout the tissues of the city. Compacted together inside those verbal IEDs are the combustible components of an aggressor worldview: the sense of entitlement and the amorality; the imperial arrogance alongside the hip insiderism; a psychic stew of irreverence and ironic distancing, cynicism but also the sneaky thrill of transgression, macho bullying and sociopathic cool. Or as Gordon Gekko once put it: “If you need a friend, get a dog.”
Before the “bonfire of the vanities” of the 1980s, the Street camouflaged its baser instincts with the discreet charm of the limousine liberal, his noblesse oblige and sang-froid. So too did New York, long ago, nurture a reputation for toughness, for being a hard place to make it, for impiety and iconoclasm and a rebellious perseverance. The toughness of New York—say in the Marx Brothers’ version—derived from a cosmopolitan city culture saturated in the emotional strivings and courage of middling upstarts, immigrant and working-class neighborhoods ready to challenge the pretensions of the power elites in every arena from opera houses to the White House. Its motivational DNA carried instincts for both self-advancement and social solidarity. For all of the city's imperial chest-thumping, New York’s fabled grittiness derived from a mix of middle-class entrepreneurial gumption and working-class fight-back.
Over the last generation, New York has become a caricature of that earlier everyman insouciance, thanks to Wall Street’s overweening presence. The caustic camaraderie of the Marxes mutated into the narcissism of domination. A city that once admired the feistiness of seamstresses and stevedores and the hustling shrewdness of the family businessman came instead to admire its “big swinging dicks.”
“Marxist” New York did not vanish; it receded from view. What happened was a shift in the center of cultural gravity. Wall Street washed over every aspect of city life. I’m reminded of what occurred in Boston in 1919. That was a year when everything that could happen did happen, from worldwide epidemic influenza to worldwide epidemic revolution. In Boston, a tank containing thousands of tons of molasses tipped over, and the city was inundated with a slow-moving tidal wave of the goo, killing people and horses, covering warehouses and factories, streets and homes. Wall Street’s irresistible cultural flooding of New York City was like that, its toxic sludge showing up everywhere.
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Decade of Greed
The tide came rolling in beginning in the 1980s. Wall Street gave birth to a new vanguard of the bourgeoisie, upstarts often from the outer boroughs, middle-class suburbs and public colleges. Junk bond magicians, merger-and-acquisition athletes, leveraged buyout geniuses were fearlessly challenging and unhorsing what they mocked as the sclerotic, white-shoe old guard, sequestered in its fossilized, walnut-paneled castles of corporate and financial timidity. Cigar-chomping “Jacobins” squared off against those in pinstripe suits and rimless glasses; it was a war waged by improbable heroes of anti-capitalism on behalf of capitalism!