Obama Hostage to Wall Street, Americans Hostage to Consumerism

Okay, so President Obama didn’t run for office to help out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street – or so he said on CBS’s “60 Minutes” show Sunday night. But maybe it didn’t seem like such a bad idea once the election was over. Anyway, the net effect of his administration’s actions since then – all nicely documented in the latest Rolling Stone dispatch from the choleric Matt Taibbi – was an immense helping out of fat cat bankers on Wall Street at the expense of a lot of American citizens who work elsewhere, if they are lucky enough to have income-producing work.

Mr. Obama has really offered no satisfactory explanation for why he larded his department of the US government from the get-go with so many agents and recent graduates of Wall Street’s biggest firms.  Nor has any clear reason emerged for the absence of criminal prosecution – or even investigation – by the Attorney General in such obvious cases of criminal fraud and insider trading as Goldman Sachs’s double-window technique for hedging its own issues of mortgage-backed securities. By comparison, the Savings-and-Loan scandal of a decade ago led to thousands of criminal convictions.

Last week, the Right Reverend Lloyd Blankfein, still “doing God’s work,” announced in a “cash-for-pitchforks” deal that the top thirty executives of his company, Goldman Sachs, would not receive dollar bonuses this Christmas but instead will get stock that ostensibly can’t be sold for five years. Those of us in the USA who enjoy a good mystery are wondering exactly what fine language in this memorandum drawn up by a team of thousand-dollar-an-hour lawyers contains the magic catch that frees up the GS execs to convert this stock into money, say, on February 2, 2010 – because you know it’s got to be in there somewhere.

Anyway, insofar as the top 30 GS employees is made up strictly of people who are already multi-deca-millionaires, notice that the other 31,670 employees of GS, including not a few hundred in the upper income tranches, will be receiving cash bonuses as usual this year from a bonus pool that amounts to about $16 billion (sixteen thousand million dollars). Of course, being a publicly-held company, GS will have to announce soon what those cash bonuses are. Perhaps this is why the news also got out about GS employees seeking handgun permits in bunches. Exactly how they get around New York City’s special “Sullivan Law,” which supercedes the New York State permitting rules, has not been explained.

Meanwhile, all the stops are being pulled out to produce a mighty wall-of-sound in dubiously-reported statistics pertaining to national unemployment and retail sales – the first way down and the latter up, supposedly – in an attempt to squeeze one last giant potlatch Christmas out of the dying “consumer” economy. Jew though I may be, I confess that Christmas is for me. I’m sorry, fellow Chosen People, but Hanukkah is just plain boring – the equivalent of Danish Modern furniture for the spirit. Give me Christmas, with its pagan yule logs, feasts, and revels! One can enjoy the holiday doings and trappings without subscribing to either the divinity of Santa Claus or the Babe of Nazareth. But Christmas does invite us to indulge in all kinds of “hopes” and delusions, and the main one crackling through the American zeitgeist this year is the wish that our national life will resume the yeasty expansion of goodies that most living citizens regard as baseline normality – namely, a never-ending orgy of credit card spending and real estate flipping.

This wish is doomed to disappointment. The cold boney finger of reality, like Dickens’s spectral Ghost of Christmas yet-to-come, points to many a tableau of desolation in the decade ahead… of a lost “normality,” of evictions, foreclosures, tragedies, ruinations and most of all dashed expectations – assuming that the vast public clings to habits and behaviors no longer suited to the mandates of new circumstances in our world.  And it is the greatest disservice of all at this holiday time for respected authorities to pimp that wish.  What a shabby thing it has become anyway – a sordid spectacle of multitudes moiling in chain store checkout lines en route to the certain anguish of buyer’s remorse in the parking lot.

Can’t we come up with a better American Dream, even one that includes Christmas?  I think we can.  It would require the liberation of American citizen’s minds from their thralldom to bigness in every realm from work to worship to recreation.  If you think Barack Obama is a hostage to Wall Street, reflect for a while on the people’s self-surrender to the tyranny of everything that diminishes us to mere “consumers.”  We’re on a journey – and we don’t know it – back to a nation of communities where your character really matters, and where character rests on whether your deeds comport with truthfulness. Many will be dragged kicking and screaming upon that journey, and many a dark night will be passed in the cold and damp on the way. But it will take us to a place where the hearths are burning brightly and the estranged spirits of our national character await a reunion with us: fortitude, patience, generosity, humor. That will be a Christmas to live for and remember!

James Howard Kunstler

December 16, 2009