The Endless Arrogance of Wall Street

Greg Sargent is rightfully stunned by the entitled petulance of Wall Street bankers who are shocked—shocked—that President Obama would do anything other than praise their indispensable brilliance:

Wall Streeters are so upset about Obama’s harsh populist rhetoric that they privately called on him to make amends with a big speech — like his oration on race — designed to heal the wounds of class warfare in this country. […]

Of course, their exaggerated weariness notwithstanding, the “wounds of class warfare” haven’t been borne by Wall Streeters, who remain fabulously wealthy even after causing the worst downturn since the Great Depression. If there’s anyone waging class warfare, it’s the radicalized representatives of the rich, who have successfully engineered government to enhance their wealth at the cost of our shared responsibilities. As such, the actual victims of class warfare are the ordinary Americans who face stagnant wages, rising costs, and a tattered safety net.

After going through the insanity of Wall Street complaints, Sargent ends his post on this note:

One wonders if there is anything Obama could say to make these people happy, short of declaring that rampant inequality is a good thing, in that it affirms the talent and industriousness of the deserving super rich. It certainly seems clear that they won’t be satisfied until he stops mentioning it at all. [Emphasis mine]

If you think the bolded section is an exaggeration, you should take some time to read Adam Davidson’s New York Times profile of Edward Conard, a former partner at Bain Capital—Mitt Romney’s investment fund—who now works as an apologist for the ultrawealthy. Conard believes three things. First, that millionaires and billionaires earned every penny of their wealth through merit and hard work:

God didn’t create the universe so that talented people would be happy,” he said. “It’s not beautiful. It’s hard work. It’s responsibility and deadlines, working till 11 o’clock at night when you want to watch your baby and be with your wife. It’s not serenity and beauty.”

Second, that immense wealth is the just reward for any and all risk taking:

“It’s not like the current payoff is motivating everybody to take risks,” he said. “We need twice as many people. When I look around, I see a world of unrealized opportunities for improvements, an abundance of talented people able to take the risks necessary to make improvements but a shortage of people and investors willing to take those risks. That doesn’t indicate to me that risk takers, as a whole, are overpaid. Quite the opposite.” The wealth concentrated at the top should be twice as large, he said.

And finally, that extraordinary income inequality is a net plus for society. Those who use their wealth for charity, Conard argues, are depriving the world of investment and gain:

During one conversation, he expressed anger over the praise that Warren Buffett has received for pledging billions of his fortune to charity. It was no sacrifice, Conard argued; Buffett still has plenty left over to lead his normal quality of life. By taking billions out of productive investment, he was depriving the middle class of the potential of its 20-to–1 benefits. If anyone was sacrificing, it was those people. “Quit taking a victory lap,” he said, referring to Buffett. “That money was for the middle class.”

For those of us who don’t see wealth as the ultimate end, who see value in other, non-monetary pursuits, and who understand the power of chance and fortune, this is a horrifying worldview. Conard seems oblivious to the fact that there are people who work hard—punishing their bodies with physical labor—in order to scrap by with the basics of life. It’s not that these people are lazy, it’s that they didn’t win the cosmic dice game that put them in a position to reach the heights of American society.

There is a disturbing corollary to Conard’s worldview, that he expresses in his conversation with Davidson—if the wealthy are supremely virtuous for their pursuit of wealth, then those who reject that choice—regardless of what they do—are unworthy of our respect or admiration:

Conard, who occasionally flashed a mean streak during our talks, started calling the group “art-history majors,” his derisive term for pretty much anyone who was lucky enough to be born with the talent and opportunity to join the risk-taking, innovation-hunting mechanism but who chose instead a less competitive life.

Given their friendship and close connections, one thing to consider is whether Mitt Romney holds views close to Conard’s. Judging from his domestic policy plans—huge income tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, combined with tax cuts on investment income, and a dramatic reduction in social services—the obvious answer is yes, of course he does. And indeed, at the end of his profile, Adam Davidson offers the strong suggestion that Romney’s thinking has more in common with his friend than it does with any of us.

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You say this guy's name is "canard"?

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