Frank Rich goes after the “go-go” ethos that has been deeply etched in our elite institutions and advanced by the cultural elite – regardless of Party – over the past twenty-five years. It is especially noteworthy when a man of the Left so fiercely criticizes his own clan. With growing dissidence over the current state of affairs on both the less-fringe Left and Right (I think, at least on this matter, the Left columnist Rich and the Right columnist Douthat have a good deal in common), current discontent combined with deep anxiety and anger across the land has the makings of a change in the Zeitgeist.
The idea of investing in the real economy — the one that might create jobs for Americans — remains outré in this culture. Credit to small businesses remains tight. The holy capitalist grail is still the speculative buying and selling of companies and the concoction of ever more esoteric financial “instruments.” The tragic tale of Simmons Bedding recently told in The Times is a role model. This successful 133-year-old manufacturing enterprise was flipped seven times in two decades by private equity firms. Investors made more than $750 million in profits even as the pile-up of debt pushed Simmons into bankruptcy, costing a quarter of its loyal workers their jobs so far.
Most leaders in America are against this kind of ethos in principle. Last month the president of Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust, contributed a stirring essay to The Timesregretting that educational institutions did not make stronger efforts to assert the fundamental values of pure intellectual inquiry while “the world indulged in a bubble of false prosperity and excessive materialism.” She rued the rise of business as the most popular undergraduate major, an implicit reference to the go-go atmosphere during the reign of her predecessor, Lawrence Summers, now President Obama’s chief economic adviser.
What went unsaid, of course, is that some of Harvard’s most prominent alumni of the pre-Faust era — Summers, Blankfein, Robert Rubin et al. — were major players during the last two bubbles. As coincidence would have it, the same edition of The Times that published Faust’s essay also included an article about how Harvard was scrounging for bucks by licensing a line of overpriced preppy clothing under the brand Harvard Yard. This sop to excessive materialism will be a scant recompense for the $11 billion Harvard’s endowment managers lost in their own bad gamble on interest-rate swaps.
Obama has also passed through Harvard. (Disclosure: so did I.) He too has consistently said all the right things about the “money culture” of “quick kills and bloated bonuses,” of “reckless behavior and unchecked excess.” But the air of entitlement that continues to waft from his administration sends another message.
In particular, the tone-deaf Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, never ceases to amaze. His daily calendars reveal that most of his contacts with the financial sector in the first seven months of 2009 were limited to the trinity of Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and JPMorgan. And last week Bloomberg News reported that his inner circle of “counselors” — key advisers who, conveniently enough, do not require Senate confirmation — are largely drawn from the same club. It’s hard to see how any public official can challenge a culture that he is marinating in, night and day.