In the Arena

Populist Rage? …Never Mind

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A certain newsmagazine–hint: not this one–has put Populist Rage on its cover this week and features a series of essays, several quite good, about all the fury churning out there in pitchfork land. I suppose that there is a fair amount of anger about, especially with stories like this one popping up on an almost daily basis. I certainly loved every minute of Jon Stewart’s takedown of Jim Cramer. It got to the heart of the crime: selling, and insuring–and making huge, bonus-driven fortunes off on–piles of mortgages that were bound to go unpaid is a Ponzi fantasy, of Madoffian enormity, even if each of those mortgages represents an actual home that can, and will, eventually, be resold.

So, yes, people are “angry” at Wall Street. They are also “angry” at Octomom. I wonder if the depth and quality of those two rages differ–or is this all just a television show? I mean, how many demonstrations, how many economic riots, have there been? There have been real free-for-alls, featuring real violence and bloodshed, in places like China, where the level of societal unfairness and desperation makes our own not-insignificant inequities seem like a workers’ paradise. There used to be economic riots and marches here–back in the Great Depression, and further back in the populist era of the late 19th century. But none lately. There doesn’t even seem to be significant movement in the polls, which are our own, latter-day way of marching on Washington.

There is a real crisis out there. It has existed for a while. It has been spreading slowly as factory after factory has shut down, as the gap between rich and poor ballooned, as the rich found ways to get richer betting on exotic financial instruments with all the economic substance of a roulette wheel, as the middle class found it harder to pay for college, for health care, for gasoline.

But most of the anger we see and hear comes from people who are paid to be angry, on cue, on cable television–as opposed to people with actual grievacnes. Suddenly, the White House press corps goes barking mad over the AIG Bonuses. It is said that the bonuses are an aspect of the bust that the “public” can understand; in truth, the bonuses are an aspect of the bust that reporters can understand. Suddenly, the Obama Administration has a “crisis.” The President has to go on television and act as if he’s angry, even though he knows these bonuses are the tiniest outcropping of outrageousness. (I mean, AIG insured mortgage-backed instruments that any qualified CPA could have seen were as solid as a soap bubble and thereby came close to bringing down the world’s financial system–that’s outrageous.)

The problem with outrage is that it occludes vision. Today Geithner proposes a bank bailout plan. The markets love it–the Dow is up 350 points as I write–and so we can move on. No more calls for Tim’s head; the bank thing actually may get straightened out. Uh…so where’s the next Octomom? Does Novamom lurk? What’s A-Rod up to this week? The trouble is, Geithner’s plan–if it works–is only the beginning. We need a new set of rules to prevent the wizards from short-sheeting our pension money. We need an informed public to stay vigilant and make sure banking lobbyists don’t shred the thing in committee. (New York Senator Chuck Schumer, before he got so outraged last week, stood athwart a plan to have hedge fund managers pay regular tax rates, rather than capital gains, on their management fees.)

If you want to be angry about something, get pissed at a media culture that goes beserk about bonuses one week and forgets all about them the next. And be worried, quite worried, about a society for whom anger is a form of entertainment.