Sometime in the past few years people went from admiring to loathing the ultrarich. It may have coincided with the economic crash, boom, bang of 2008, or may have preceeded it, or may have just dawned on the many right now. But most people no longer admire and seek the emulate the excesses of the wealthy: they ridicule them.
The “Greed” era is over. It has been for some years. Some are waiting for it to return, and they keep waiting, believing that by trimming some taxes here or regulation there, it will be 1984, the “Year of the Yuppie,” all over again. That was the at the dawn of the boom, but this is the bust, and it will continue to be one until society arrives at a new social contract.
I am writing mostly about the US, my country, here, but this has implications for small, northern European economic “speedboats,” as Marju Lauristin referred to countries like Estonia and Iceland, Latvia and Ireland, as opposed to the heavy industrial freighters of Germany and Sweden. Growth in Estonia has returned thanks to austerity measures that the public was willing to swallow because its choices were the smartly dressed neoliberals or a cranky, washed up demagogue who stands for nothing or everything or anything. But most agree it will never return to boom levels, and if it does, it is unlikely to be fed by the same crass speculation in real estate.
It is interesting that I am actually old enough to remember life before the Era of Greed. When I was a very small person, the rich were almost universally Old Money, reared in educated in luxury, private and exclusive. If you want a TV reference, go take a good look at Mr. and Mrs. Howell from Gilligan’s Island. They wore ascot hats and hung out at yacht clubs and smoked pipes. They were the upper class and always had been and always would be. Until the nouveau riche built a McMansion next to their family estate on Martha’s Vineyard and buzzed the ancestral compound in their helicopters.
For a long time, people worshipped the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But after the crash and, especially, once it became clear that taxpayers would be footing the bill for the irresponsibility of the private sector, that adulation reversed. Hence you have protests on four continents against “corporate greed,” which only the most marginal of leftist students rose against years ago, at a time when they were universally cast aside as misguided and irrelevant. Now Occupy Wall Street and its imitators are frontpage news, with plenty of institutional backing, unions, media. What do they stand for? What does it all mean? Would I seem like a cynical f*** if I told you that it doesn’t really matter what they want or what it means? What matters is the following:
The General Social Survey, administered by the National Opinion Research Council, has asked Americans about their confidence in banks and financial institutions since 1973. Between March of 2006 and March of 2010, the percent of Americans with a great deal of confidence in banks and financial institutions plummeted 19 percentage points, from 30 percent to an all-time low of 11 percent. According to a similar trend from Harris Interactive, the percent of Americans with a great deal of confidence in the people running Wall Street had already reached an all-time low of just 4 percent by February of 2009.
Most Americans have lost confidence in their banks and financial institutions. The protests against “Wall Street” are just a manifestation of that loss of confidence. Sure, plenty of of those in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan are Che Guevera-adoring leftists with barbarian-grade understanding of market economies. But others are middle class kids who accrued a lifetime’s worth of debt with the widely held but utterly naive belief that there would be a pot of gold waiting for them at the end of the tunnel. There is a vast swath of highly educated, formerly upper middle class youth now entering the lower class. Not a recipe for national success.
Of course, there is an Estonian angle in this — there always is. The head of Adbusters, the Canadian media group that instigated Occupy Wall Street is Kalle Lasn. He was born in Tallinn in 1942. I wonder if an Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana is in his future. he is certainly influential and one cannot accuse him of lacking self promotion skills and motivation. As I have remarked before, these Estonians, or at least a very capable subset of them, are doers.
Will things ever again be business as usual? They will, but it will take a long time, and at the end the idea of what “business as usual” will have taken on new meanings, lost old ones, and will have wider backing in multiple strata of society. Only then will we have a new social contract. By that time, people will look back on days like these as the Era of Negotiation.