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Josefina Leticia Freaney

Attending an elite school in New York City offers a unique perspective on a lot of things, but it can also obscure part of the view. Here, finance is a local industry and a community endeavor. Columbia serves as a conduit to powerful positions in the halls of economic and political power for many students. But, given the recent surge of populist anger aimed directly at the aforementioned halls of power, it's worth examining why people across the country are so angry at the people in charge. Despite the many reports of a new "populist" anger that we've heard recently, the recent announcement that AIG—a company that exists today due to over $160 billion in taxpayer-funded corporate welfare—plans on disbursing $100 million in bonuses to its financial products department barely made waves. How could it, really? Americans have become inured to such news. We're used to it because American markets are no longer really free. "Freedom" is a concept that inherently includes the freedom to fail. Frankly, I would love to see a return to the time—if such an era ever actually existed—when fortunes could be made and lost in the blink of an eye. That's the sort of thing that keeps a society from stratifying into entrenched classes, right? I would love to see the churning democratic tempest of money freely changing hands in a population of 300 million people, rewarding ingenuity and punishing hubris. But no, the American finance industry is not free to fail. At this point, is there anything that companies such as AIG or Citigroup could do to fail, or even incur punishment rather than reward from our government? If the executive leadership decided to set fire to their headquarters, it might slow them down a little, but surely taxpayers would be footing the bill for new facilities in short order. Okay, I exaggerate. Maybe. But the fallout over the last two years from the recession, the bailouts, and the subsequent public outrage—some of it real, some of it feigned—and baffling obliviousness on the part of political and industrial leaders demonstrate a political crisis just as starkly as they demonstrate a business one. Progressives have long decried corporate excess, and libertarian-leaning conservatives were among the most vociferous critics of the corporate welfare scheme that began in 2008. Congressman Ron Paul was among the House members who voted against repealing the regulatory Glass-Steagall Act in 1999. The act was repealed anyway—a legislative move now seen by many as a catalyst that helped lead directly to the mayhem of recent years. But that's really neither here nor there: the point is that when you have libertarian Republicans like Dr. Paul voting against repealing Glass-Steagall, and such major-party mavericks and harbingers of change as John McCain and Barack Obama freezing their 2008 campaigns to fly back to DC and vote for $700 billion in bailouts, the world doesn't make sense anymore. These are real signs of fracture, not between two parties, but between the people and their leaders. There is a lack of choice and accountable leadership that is papered over with the veneer of a two-party system. Of course, the real problem is that there hasn't been any mayhem as a result of the crisis. The nation is quiet... a little too quiet. Outrage is turning to despair. Where is the brutal retribution, inflicted by a ruthless capitalist system that was supposed to be a major hazard of free market ethos? Why aren't Robert Benmosche and Vikram Pandit bagging groceries by now, as would any low-level employee who had failed so spectacularly at their job? Federal regulations, far from restraining corporate excess, have served mainly to protect corporations from actually having to compete in a free market. It is barely hyperbolic to call this undisguised marriage between the martial power of government and the economic power of private corporations by the ideology whose name we dare not speak: fascism. Now that I've stuck my toe over the line of acceptable discourse by dropping the political F-bomb, let me emphasize that I am not anti-business, nor even anti-corporate—far from it. The current cultural environment is detrimental to any sort of economy and principles of sound government. Columbia students—and anyone planning to live for another thirty years or more—have a high stake in these issues. While some of us may eventually be headed to the executive suite at J.P. Morgan, others will be working in other industries and paying taxes, or trying to start businesses, in an environment where the federal government is exerting its power in order to maintain the market supremacy of headless conglomerates over all known laws of economics and decency. Lack of accountability is one of the inherent dangers in a representative democracy. While everyone is responsible, it sometimes seems that nobody really is. From the halls of privilege to the seats of power, America is sorely in need of new ideas and a renewed sense of accountability. The author is a student in the School of General Studies majoring in classical studies.

Wall Street stock market economic recession Columbia & the Economy