I recently read an atrocious little volume called Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo. It reminded me of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, another novel I hate. At the same time I was reading Cosmopolis, I was reading Wall Street Versus America, Gary Weiss's book on Wall Street greed, corruption, and incompetence. And then, shoes started dropping on Wall Street. Ah, synchronicity . . .
There's a lot of anger associated with all the bank and brokerage failures, even before the government started dumping chunks of the treasury into these private clusterfucks. Apropos DeLillo and Wolfe, we imagine the villains to be the so-called "masters of the universe" (a coinage of Wolfe's from BotV) that run Wall Street. While the stink of deep soul corruption hangs like a dank fog over the centers of money and power, the roots of the greed that bore this toxic fruit are sunk deep into the everyday soil that we ourselves tread. Contrary to the sexy elitist makeover that DeLillo and Wolfe (among many, many others) foist upon it, greed is, in fact, banal & pervasive.
A few years back, there was an exodus of salesman from my workplace into the mortgage industry. It was where the money was. As far as I know, it was all kinds of high-risk paper: re-fi, no money down mortgages, etc. A few of them came back because they weren't comfortable with the business. The idea was to pistol whip as much of this paper through as possible, any way possible. As an agent, you are not allowed to make judgements concerning a customer's ability to pay. Now, that sounds reasonable, except sometimes the customer just doesn't know what the hell is going on. You can sit there knowing damn well the customer isn't going to be able to make the payments, but as long as your bosses keep stamping it and sending it up one more level . . . well, not your problem. It's your job to pump paper into the pipeline, it's someone else's job to kick it back out. The more paper you pump, the better off you are.
This isn't Glengarry Glen Ross stuff here, this is just a bunch of kids trying to get themselves enough extra cash to get a new car, or a big screen TV. They want to impress their bosses, they want to make a reputation, so racking up big numbers is the way to do that. To get the numbers, you push limits as far as possible. A client may have put down that he makes $50,000 a year as a Burger King shift manager, but is it the agent's job to question that? Well, no, however unlikely, it is possible. Or there's that guy with his own "lawn service" who makes $70,000 - once again, it is possible, even if that broke-down 10 year old F-150 with a push mower and a couple weedeaters in back says otherwise. It's not the agent's job to be detective. Thought about a transaction can never be "is this the right thing to do, for the client and for the company?"; rather, all attention has to be focused into "what is the best way to maximize this deal for me?". The real face of the mortgage crisis isn't Cosmopolis's Eric Packer betting huge mountains of cash against the rise of the yen, it's a kid working far too many hours, going out and getting drunk after work, coming in again with just a couple hours of sleep, and having to borrow $10 to eat lunch the day before payday. The face of the mortgage crisis isn't one of Wolfe's "masters of the universe", it's a harried father trying to push a little extra paper so he can afford a babysitter and a rare night out for his wife on payday. This isn't the outscale greed that splices itself to hubris, this is the greed that puts the simple desire for a little self-gratification above everything else.
Of course, the outscale greed and hubris of Wall Street "power brokers" is involved in this as well: the actual crash is linked largely to a crisis with derivatives, bizarre creations whose only function appears to be generating cash with no extra collateral. And, as much as we feel for the homeowners who were duped into these shitty loans, as a certain point they have to be held responsible for their own decisions (it's rare that a prospective mortgage client actually gets lied to - they just don't get the full truth unless they ask). Even here, though, the banality of greed permeates: the Wall Street guys creating "financial products" were just doing their jobs, like the mortgage guys whipping bad paper at the wall to see what sticks. The homeowners jumping into risky mortgages with one eye open and their noses plugged were just grasping for what has been defined as the American Dream. Broken down to an individual level, greed doesn't seem much different than the inability to avoid that bag of chips in the vending machine when you have change in your pocket.
Wolfe and DeLillo want to make Greek tragedy out of greed. In so doing, they glorify greed even if, as in Greek tragedy, the greedy hero gets it in the end. Ultimately, DeLillo wants us to admire Eric Packer, even if we don't necessarily love him. The implication is clear: greed is something grand and desirable. They are wrong: greed is banal, pervasive, and menial. And it is destroying our culture.