Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Mad Men of Wall Street: "Mad Men" is a popular television series which takes place in the early 1960s'. It is about the people in the New York City Madison Ave. advertising firm fictionally called Sterling Cooper. I love this series for many reasons not the least of which is that I experienced the early 60's and understand the cultural context of that era. There is, in the beginning of each episode, foreboding and ominously sad introductory music. Its sad and haunting melody shows with it a business-suited man in cartoon form falling out of a skyscraper. The song has something musicologists call "chromatic descent" that is it contains notes which move from high notes to low notes a half step at a time. This is indicative, some say, of death.

The song of Mad Men, therefore, is a metaphor for a kind of internal death the characters feel in their me-first, empty, back-biting world. I thought, though, this metaphor applied to the death Wall Street today as it melts down in its own toxic stew. The concept of rugged individualism, the bricks upon which our economic culture is built stirred into a pot where government allows business a free hand without regulatory restraint may be, incredulously enough, the cause of our system's own demise. In a laissez faire system the individual is paramount and the group is cared about only in so far as it can help the individual achieve his ends of money and power. Business regulation by government is to be crushed at all costs. When big business is in trouble, though, now it seems it counts on those whom it does not care a wit about to help restore its confidence. Truly, though, if someone does not care about me why should I care about him? In the wonderful F. Scott Fitzgerald novel which spoke so much to the culture pre the Great Depression with its tremendous material excesses and economic anarchy relevant today, the narrator says of Daisy Buchanan and the 20's rapacious culture in which she lives -- "they smash things and then leave others to clean it up." Yet again, history repeats.

Death is the one thing we will all do alone but in our marketplace filled with other beings we are not units and, indeed, should not be loners. All of us, including the very leaders of our ecoomic opulence, should be in this together. Now, at the moguls' greatest hour of need they rely on us, everyman, to bail them out. Who will bail the everyman out? Will Washington bail us out? No, Bush, with John McCain's consent, remember made bankruptcy even harder for individuals but easier for the corporation. The ones who have most all the money depend on those who do not to free them from debt. We all know, too, these company CEO's will have their golden parachutes to create for them a soft landing. Millions upon millions of dollars have been given to them when they leave the company before and after the company fails and then they simply walk away. Where is our paracute though? Where is our safety net? What happens to us the little guy when his home is foreclosed or his retirement is non-existent? What happens when he takes to the street, lives out of his car in a flop house or even a tent? Where will his children go? Unfortunatelly, not many moguls or those in the seats of government power seem to care.

No matter who is in power, when the state or the corporation does not consider the needs of its people who help create its success it is doomed. Wall Street needs, above all, ethics, regulatory guardians and the will to care about more than just themselves. A partner at a large business for which I once worked many years ago said to me that the other partners in the business resented having to pay the support staff they depended on to make their company run. They, he said, hated to pay them because they were their company's biggest expense. I never forgot that. It mattered not that without these necessary cogs in the wheel of their car their car would not run. That, is the problem. The culture of our business philosophy from the very beginning of our country's history makes the worker feel utterly devalued while his hard efforts make the moguls of that company very very rich. Where is the fairness in that? There is none and there will be no smooth sailing in the ship of state that does not care equally about the group as much as it does about the individuals who possess most of the money and power.

When it's dog eat dog every man for himself world, one dog will eat the bone and leave nothing for the rest of the pack. If this country does not change its logo and care about whether the masses live or die and not simply pay transparent lip service during a presidential campaign it just may end up causing our country's death as well. I greet next week with fear and trepidation as I wonder who will care about me.