Beneath this cheerfulness lies a not-inaccurate reading of history. In the past three decades, Wall Street has rapidly (increasingly rapidly) gone through multiple cycles of bubble and bust, each of which has brought with it a period of public castigation, followed by a startlingly quick return to what the industry regards as normalcy. And although the most recent financial crisis was orders of magnitude more devastating than the ones preceding it, Wall Street’s view about the resulting backlash—this too shall pass—never really wavered.
At least when it comes to regulation, that view has certainly been vindicated. Whatever the ultimate effects of the financial-reform measure signed into law last year, there can be no doubt that Wall Street dodged the deadliest bullets that might have come hurtling in its direction: nationalization, a breakup of the megabanks, strict limits on financial leverage. And if Republicans have their way, even the less Draconian new rules now on the books will be repealed; the budget proposal put on the table last week by Representative Paul Ryan pledged to do just that.
And what of the broader cultural opprobrium aimed at Wall Street? All last year, public polling showed that nearly 60 percent of the electorate held a negative view of Wall Street, and that voters blamed the banks and the bankers ahead of either Obama or George W. Bush for the Great Recession. According to a Bloomberg News survey in December, 71 percent of respondents were in favor of banning bonuses for any bank or financial institution that got a federal bailout, and 70 percent thought that Wall Street should be taxed to help bring down the deficit.
There are plenty of signs, however, that the country’s ire toward the financiers is cooling—and if that’s so, it should come as no surprise. America has long been possessed of a deep ambivalence about money and moneymakers, whereby envy, aspiration, and outright greed blend together in a way that tends to dilute the purer forms of populism. And this attenuation is only exacerbated by the great and apparently untreatable malady that is our case of national amnesia. With the stock market having recovered, the Gross National Product growing, and even the desultory jobs outlook slowly starting to improve, it’s no stretch to predict another bout of collective forgetfulness in the offing.
Pinning down an ever-shifting Zeitgeist is an imprecise business, to be sure, but for what it’s worth, consider at least one data point coughed up by the culture machine. In February, please recall the film Inside Job, which offered a brilliantly clear (if at times highly manipulative) picture of the meltdown, snagged the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. When Charles Ferguson, the movie’s director, took the stage and intoned, “Three years after a horrific financial crisis caused by massive fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail,” he was greeted with an outburst of applause from the couture-clad pitchfork-wielders in the crowd at the Kodak Theatre.
A few weeks later, though, Relativity Media released a different kind of film: the Bradley Cooper star vehicle Limitless, in which a terminally blocked writer turns to a wonder drug that gives him unlimited mental power. And what exactly does he do once he’s endowed with all that power? He dons a pinstripe suit and becomes a filthy-rich trader, naturally.
The cheap and easy point to make here is that Hollywood is replete with hypocrisy—and, hey, who am I to disagree? But the more telling point is that the Zeitgeist industry now apparently reckons that the public revulsion with Wall Street’s ways has ebbed to the point where such a tale won’t strike a clanging, off-key note. And whaddya know? The industry ain’t wrong: Limitless has grossed more than $80 million worldwide—compared, for the record, with just $6.2 million for Inside Job.
Apples and oranges, you say? Maybe so. But on Wall Street, where money talks and bullshit walks, that box-office disparity could (and in some quarters, no doubt, will) be taken as a sign that soon enough the bankers will be seen as Masters of the Universe again. Depressing? Sure. Let’s hope that they are wrong. But, alas, they’ve been right before, and may well be again.