Return of the Sad Traders: Proof That Americans Don’t Understand the Economy

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Photo: Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This week, as the western financial system cannonballed its way toward a double-dip recession, one industry finally got back to work: the Brokers With Their Hands on Their Faces photo-industrial complex. The blog that popularized the meme just made its first post since 2009; its like-minded counterpart, Sad Guys on Trading Floors, also got in on the action; and mainstream outlets cobbled together linkbait slideshows. Our most reliable photographic economic indicator has officially returned. Now we're really screwed.

The fact that these guys are iconic proxies for the mess we’re in shows just ignorant we’ve become when it comes to the modern economy. Human brokers shouting out orders are a relic — the vast majority of stock trading takes place on massive computer networks, not between guys who look like they stepped out of Trading Places. Cable channels and financial news sites distill the stock market’s moves into terse headlines in search of a narrative; a single data point like the Dow Jones Industrial Index is used to diagnose the health of an entire economy.

The truth is far more complex, to the point of incomprehensibility — which is exactly why we resort to shorthand. The stock market is an abstraction made of buys and sells, holds and puts, longs and shorts — a symphony built on speculation, and a hard thing to make tangible. And so we search for faces, metrics, theses, anything that can symbolize the entropy. It's not that there aren't enough of these symbols — it's that there are too many. Small businesses, homeowners, day-traders, unemployment numbers, home-starts, private-sector hiring, larded European entitlements, intransigent U.S. politics, tragic Japanese disasters — the market can be said to hinge on any of these, even though it's really a confluence of all of them. But front pages only allow so much room for a lead photo and a nut graph. The one question we want our economic journalists to answer — why? — is the one that's hardest to answer quickly.

And so we're left adrift in the abstraction, relying on easy signifiers, like the Dow Jones Index or a sad guy in a blue jacket, to get us into the news.

Let's use the latest swoon as an example. What the headlines tell us: Stock markets are crashing, Greece and Italy are so weighed down with debt that all of Europe is at risk of sinking, and U.S. politicians are so willing to entertain the possibility of a default that a ratings agency has lost its faith. Cue the pictures, the news bulletins, and the panicked board-room meetings.

But all of this is also at play: A stagnant U.S. employment rate, housing starts that went up in June, a U.S. manufacturing sector that can't get any momentum, a GDP that keeps getting revised downward, a private sector that's still laying people off, and a thousand more pieces of economic flotsam that was already swirling well before Standard & Poor’s issued its downgrade. And lest we forget, that’s just U.S. news—there’s plenty else is going on elsewhere that influences the global flow of trillions of dollars between financial markets.

Only something like a market is capable of processing all that data. It's certainly way too much to fit into a cable-news hit, let alone a headline, so Americans are fed a simpler, less cacophonous storyline. Flawed understanding is thought to better than none.

But somewhere in there the opportunity to teach a country how its markets and economy function is lost. Instead we concentrate on wherever the spotlight is pointing, willingly ignorant of all the other factors that lurk in the dark. While we’re staring at the Brokers With Their Hands on Their Faces, the real action is elsewhere, ruled by computer algorithms and the flawed decisions of the faceless people who helped get us into this mess in the first place.

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