Thursday, October 22, 2009

Are the American People Really the American Sheeple?

Have we turned into a nation of sheep? Are we really so tractable and fleece-able as an outsider might think, considering the rather feeble response of the average American to the outrages of the financial crisis?

Everyone basically agrees on where we are now, one year after last fall's implosion. The Too Big to Fail banks are even bigger than before (and thus even more immune to failure). Wall Street bonuses and pay are rocketing higher again, even as 500 desperate people (including a master's degree holder and a seasoned business analyst) compete for a single lousy admin spot at a trucking school that barely pays $27,000 a year. The financial industry is battling the small elements of reform tooth and nail; God knows what resistance we'll get when we try to introduce big, meaningful reform.

What prompts my musing is this story in the Huffington Post showing the large, yawning gap -- chasm really, if you will -- that has opened up between Wall Street bonuses and the average American's yearly paycheck. Once again, to be clear: this isn't a straight-up comparison of salaries; this is a comparison of dessert (bonus) to meat and potatoes (living wage). And, to continue with the metaphor, Wall Street is not just getting a much better main course than the rest of us, their dessert alone makes our meat and potatoes look like scraps of rat tails and moldy French fries.

The gap has been widening for years. And yet -- even now, after the Wall Street's whole edifice of debt and derivatives just about toppled a year ago -- we seem to be uttering a collective "baaaaaaa" and going about our grass-grazing with nary an eyeblink. What explains such quiescence? That's what really puzzles me. Here are some of the theories, though I'm not saying I completely agree with all of them. Pick the one you like.

1. Americans are just too fat and content to be bothered: we are the expected products of an affluent society that offers up lots of cheap, high-fat food, easy-to-digest entertainment -- and not enough to chew on when it comes to intellectual stimulation. Despite the high unemployment, even now we find enough ways to get by. As long as we can scrape up the funds to pay the cable bill, don't go looking for a revolution. We get mad, then we realize that The Amazing Raze is on in ten minutes, and pretty soon we've forgotton why we were so pissed in the first place.

2. Americans are, on the whole, just not that smart, and the financial mess requires the ability to understand very complex topics. Ask an American to locate Afghanistan on a world globe, and chances are decent his finger will land somewhere east of Tibet or south of Sumatra. And even the smarter among us are much challenged to understand this complicated financial engineering that creates "credit default swaps" and "synthetic CDOs," and how everything interrelates.

3. Americans tend to have a simple worldview and are easily led astray by clever charlatans who twist our fundamental ideological beliefs. What American would oppose the noble principle of freedom? So then why would anyone oppose free markets? Isn't that the bedrock of our capitalist system? If something goes wrong, it can't be the fault of free markets; the meddling hand of government regulators must be involved. This theme has emerged on the right (and to be fair, there is an element of truth, because regulation has distorted markets). And so then the clever demagogue sells the great themes of America -- freedom! innovation! the self-made man! -- back to the wage slaves who might be jealous of Wall Street. And, cowed, they slink back into the herd of sheeple.

4. Maybe we really aren't sheeple; we just haven't reached a critical mass of fury yet. A cynicism about the big bank bailouts and the White House's kid glove treatment of Wall Street is deepening across the land, hollowing out the legitimacy of our public institutions. There actually is a lot of anger, even among those who complain nothing can be done. These people aren't marching in the streets yet, but they're getting closer to. And if politicians continue to be tone deaf to the masses, the sheeple will cast off their woolly-headed subservience and make their voices heard, in a big way.

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