In two separate cases, the government now stands accused of overstepping its authority when it took extraordinary measures to prevent a financial meltdown in the fall of 2008. The Wall Street figures who are suing say their property was seized without compensation, in violation of the Constitution. One case was brought by Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the legendary former chief executive of AIG who built it into the world’s largest insurer. Filing the other case is a group of hedge funds that bought Fannie and Freddie stock for pennies per share after the companies were put in government conservatorship.
So begins a June 7 Washington Post article by Steven Pearlstein detailing a pair of lawsuits currently wending their way through the federal courts, in which Wall Street players and hedge funds are suing the federal government for bailing them out back in 2008, when they nearly detonated the world economy, a near extinction-level economic event from which the majority of regular folks are still recovering.
More than anything, I’m reminded of a character from one of my favorite movies, Bernie Bernbaum from the Coen Brothers’ gangster-movie masterpiece Miller’s Crossing. For those unfamiliar with the movie in question, Bernie is a minor bookie and grifter who, for reasons too complicated to get into here, finds himself in possession of some inside information about fights fixed by local gang-lords, and sells it to enough people it ruins the fix, leading said gang-lords to order his execution. In one of the greatest scenes in American cinema, the story’s hero, tasked with killing Bernie, shows mercy and lets him get away. “Somebody gives me an angle and I play it. It’s just my nature,” Bernie says. Later he shows back up to blackmail our hero. “You didn’t see the angle you gave me,” he says, echoing his earlier plea.
Now, I’m not qualified to speak to the merits of these cases (I’ll leave that to Pearlstein and his expert sources). But that’s not really what I’m about here. I don’t think I, or most folks I know, would find it surprising that some crazy high-priced lawyer might come up with some legal theory convincing enough to take this all the way to the Supreme Court (which I both expect, given the amounts of money involved, and fear, given the SCOTUS’ recent track record. But again, I’m not here to talk about the legal merits).
No, what I want to talk about is the mind-set behind lawsuits like this, because I think it provides a helpful illustration of the kind of behavior our current social and economic arrangements privilege and incentivize.
Now, if you’re like most people I know, you read Pearlstein’s lede and your first thought was WTF? Most people I know, receiving that kind of bailout, after that kind of fuck-up, would be grateful for the second chance, and would do their best to improve themselves and their behavior to the point where that kind of shit wouldn’t happen again. That is the appropriate and ethical response to such a situation, and the ingratitude of receiving that sort of publicly-funded largesse and then having the cheek to demand more rightly sends most right-thinking folk into fits of outrage and disgust. Even if there were some way of going about demanding more, most people I know would have the moral compass and basic decency to abjure such an opportunity.
But most people I know aren’t the sort of folks who get super-rich. They don’t play every angle they’re given, no matter who gets shafted, nor press every advantage, no matter who pays the cost. They believe in the spirit of the law, as well as the letter. They take shouldn’t as seriously as can’t.
It’s a real handicap. And that turns out to be a real problem, because the economic system we live in these days is one that privileges and incentivizes psychopathic behavior.
Psychopaths love the all-against-all battle royale of twenty-first century capitalism. Because they lack the infrastructure for empathy and conscience that the rest of us have, the pursuit of individual prosperity and advantage without sentiment or quarter suits them just fine: it’s what they’d be doing anyway.
Look, capitalism is a useful tool for society. Since its advent, human prosperity has expanded exponentially. As a species we’re on the verge, if we aren’t already there, of being able to provide for everyone in such a way that plenty can be available to all with only those who choose to work working. A science-fictional utopia is literally right around the corner, if we can decide as a species that we want it.
But we never will, so long as we hold on to an economic system that rewards the worst of selfish behavior. We’ll remained mired in an oligarchic, aristocratic past, and only a small percentage of everyone will have the opportunity to live the fullest possible life. And that’s a shame, because not only does that mean too many people miss out on a happy, fulfilled existence, but the rest of us miss out on what they might produce if they weren’t so busy just trying to keep body and soul together.