Back when humans rode dinosaurs and God was busy stuffing fossils into geological strata as part of his elaborate plan to punk scientists, I took Western Civilization I from a Calvinist named Ken Meier. He started the course by handing us a quote and asking us to date it. It was one of those “damned kids these days” moans. I, being prone to reason and highly suspicious that this was a major set-up, plumped for the 1500s while most folks in class were guessing the 1950s and Professor Meier just smirked at us all.
I was off by 2,000 years: it was from an ancient Greek, and it sounded exactly like what every generation of adults has said about every generation of teens since time began.
One day, I may extract myself from the gravitational anomaly otherwise known as my chair and go look the quote up for you. Today is not that day. But it comes to my mind because I’m in the midst of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, and it’s a long treatise on “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Digby’s “Deep Insight” source has a stellar example:
The Fed has now become a merger and acquisitions specialist for investment banks. After the public has been put on the hook for $29 billion in highly questionable securities in the Bear Stearns debacle, there is an acknowledgement by the Treasury that there should be just a bit more regulation. Maybe start with minimum capital requirements in the investment banks and hedge funds. The political system has allowed this financial behavior to flourish, so now there are fig leaf reforms proposed by the Bush Administration. John Kenneth Galbraith once said that once the last of those who steered the country through the financial regulatory framework after the Depression were dead, the financial system would find a new way to implode. Capitalism, he explained, could not help itself.
The financial sector broadly defined is now over 20% of the economy. The addiction to risk and debt in the financial sector has dragged down the whole economy. Miracle returns at some private equity firms and hedge funds are built on cheap leverage. Meanwhile, the small investors saving for retirement are like lambs being led to slaughter. When measured in Euros since the peak in 2000, the Dow has lost nearly 40% of its value. Many of those baby boomers can forget about those extended European retirement trips.
This kind of insanity has been happening since markets came into existence. I refer you to Tulipmania, the South Sea Bubble, and this depressing list of notable stock market crashes. In America, a bubble sprang into being nearly simultaneously with the creation of the First Bank of the United States:
“When trading in shares commenced, prices promptly took off, buoyed by a money fever such as Americans had never witnessed…. So frenzied was the trading in scrip that many investors doubled their money within days, and the resulting madness was dubbed “scrippomania.” [Chernow, page 357]
Revolutionary war soldiers who had been paid in bonds sold those bonds to speculators for a pittance: one of the first American instances of “small investors” being “led to slaughter,” as Deep Insight so starkly puts it. Speculators made money. The country went apeshit. Thomas Jefferson, a dyed-in-the-wool misty-eyed agriculturalist, moaned. He frequently denounced the stock market as “gambling.” He complained to George Washington that paper money was “withdrawing our citizens from… useful industry to occupy themselves and their capitals in a species of gambling, destructive of morality, and which had introduced its poison into the government itself.” James Madison was beside himself with outrage. Invective and accusations flew, political parties were born, and North and South squared off as Alexander Hamilton played Federal Reserve with the economy and stablized the markets nearly by himself. Under a buttonwood tree on Wall Street, a group of gentlemen met to bring some sanity into the markets and created the New York Stock Exchange.
What’s happening in the markets now has happened before. It’s pure vintage bullshit.
What’s the history we’ve learned over and over? Markets crash. Perfect laissez faire leads to rich bastards and wanna-be-rich-like-now bastards creating chaos. The government has to step in to pick up the pieces. Reactionaries wish we’d all go back to milking cows. Small investors get dismembered and left wondering where all their fucking money went. Oh, and when you remove government regulation, people get incredibly stupid and think that things like rampant speculation and subprime mortgages are fantastic ideas. This time, the bubble won’t burst! Ohshit.
I imagine Ken Meier’s still wearing that smirk. It’s the history professor’s patented “nothing new” smirk, and it makes me wonder: when the fuck are we going to learn?