Love/hate relationship with Wall Street

By Matt Watson

Conservative pundits and politicians have been passing around the “class warfare” term like a baton in their race to undermine Democratic efforts to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires. It’s their only defense. How else could they justify clinging to such an absurd stance as defending the ultra-wealthy in these painful economic times? The GOP knows that class warfare paints a picture for voters of peasants in the French or Russian revolutions attacking society’s “haves.” One doesn’t usually view it as a two-way street, though—until now.

Recently, traders at the Chicago Board of Trade responded to protesters at Occupy Chicago with an “epic letter.” The rant, as it can easily be classified, was a snarky rebuttal that explained—in no polite terms—why the protesters should appreciate Wall Street. “It’s our job to make money,” the letter starts, and goes on to point out that no one complained when the market was roaring past 14,000 points and everyone’s 401K doubled every three years. “Like gambling,” the anonymous writer said, “it’s not a problem until you lose.”

I was taken aback by the letter, and not because of its harsh language or my general contempt for people simply in the business of “making money.” No, this response from the bourgeoisie to the peasants shocked and awed me because it actually made some good points. Now, I don’t think these fat cats deserve our sympathy when millions of Americans remain out of work and struggle to attain basic needs. But—and it pains me to say—Wall Street is not the source of all evil, and many of the reasons our great nation is so great can be attributed to our financial institutions.

There is a huge difference between politics and economics, and too often the two become intertwined. It is true that having a large middle class is what makes this nation prosper, and the larger the wealth gap grows, the worse the economy is going to get. Of course, correcting this would mean sacrifice at the expense of the wealthy, who have seen their incomes grow exponentially since the 1980s. Yet big banks, the poster children of greed and extravagance that spawned the Occupy movement, are what create money.

Interest on loans creates capital, which is used to make new loans, continuing the cycle. Without credit, very few could own a home, a car, or even simple appliances and electronics that we take for granted today. The middle class, in tough economic times, loves to demonize the rich. But without banks to create capital and credit, they wouldn’t have the homes and cars they’re afraid of losing. The system relies on gambling, and yes, sometimes you have to lose. This seems harsh, but it’s reality—and sometimes we all need a reality check.

I myself am well within the 99 percent. I sympathize with the cause and think that a truly progressive tax system and tougher regulations are the answers to gaining back our middle class. Pointing this out isn’t class warfare—it’s simply another reality check that the wealthy need to understand. There is no way to get out of the current mess without asking the rich to sacrifice as much as the rest of us have, if not more.

The traders’ letter, on many points, was too harsh. It antagonized union workers who retire with pensions and teachers who get the summers off, as if these occupations were less important to the continuation of America’s greatness. That simply isn’t true—teachers carry the burden of shaping the minds of the next generation and union workers retire earlier because physical labor takes a heavy toll on one’s body and health.

Where does that leave us, then? Wall Street and America’s financial powerhouses are necessary to drive economic growth. Yet inequality needs to be tackled, and that would come at the expense of the rich. Luckily, in America we can have our cake and eat it too. Wall Street traders, you are the economic and political “Batman” of the real world. In good times, you’re our hero: You drive the economy so that everyone can enjoy the spoils of America’s impressive wealth. But in bad times, you must be the scapegoat. Americans need someone to blame, and you’re that someone. It’s not the job you signed up for, but it’s what we all need. Keep doing what you’re doing, and when the economy recovers, we’ll love you again. Don’t take it too personally.