KERNS: A Sign of the times



Bryan Kerns

There seems to have been an influx of schadenfreude in the St. Augustine Center for the Liberal Arts in the past few weeks. The German term for “delight at another’s suffering” is directed at the denizens of Bartley Hall.

However, I, the humanities major, to the great disappointment of a number of dead European intellectuals, must confess that I do not share in the delight of some of my colleagues that business students will not have jobs come September. Instead, my thoughts on the matter lie at the heart of yet another German word – zeitgeist.

That term, used to characterize what can be called the “spirit of the times,” reflects exactly what may be wrong with Wall Street. It sheds light on a particular question that must be asked if we are to truly understand the non-numerical elements that went into this particular economic crisis – What is the spirit of these times? Not the times we are currently in, which are clearly melancholy.

Specifically, what was the spirit of the times that allowed such pure greed and avarice to inundate the culture of Wall Street and create the irrational risks being taken within the market?

The moral implications of what is currently happening are perhaps even more important than the economic implications. What does the constant volatility in the market tell us about human nature? Is it really, as Hobbes said, a war of all against all?

Have financial markets become such dens of iniquity that their inhabitants are willing to sacrifice the entire economic structure of a country, and perhaps the world, to make a dollar? Now that the government has decided to step in and take on a trillion dollars of unmovable and toxic assets, have we reached the point where Karl Marx is going to get the last laugh? On ABC’s “This Week” on Sept. 21, no less a conservative authority than George Will defined socialism based on an old British Labour Party definition, saying that socialism occurs when the government controls the commanding heights of the economy.

He went on to describe the financial services industry as the commanding heights of the U.S. economy. Now, with the seizure of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG and the extensive bailout plan, it seems that the government is asserting control over the commanding heights. So much for small government.

To the chagrin of many, Marx’s theory about unbridled capitalism evolving into socialism may come true for the time being. In an era when the financial markets have been largely deregulated, we may have seen the depths of avarice felled by the market itself.

The securities backed by bad mortgages were largely the product of efforts to create more capital in the market, to get more capital more quickly and to produce value for individuals. However, when it became clear that the Bush tax cuts were not enough to get a family with a sub-prime mortgage in a position to make the payment and then the defaults started, the wheels came off and the market began to eat itself from within. The idea that every single person in this country can own a home is irrational – it’s simply not going to be the case.

Quickly, the hedge funds that bought into these mortgage-backed securities collapsed. Next, the investment banks went down when it came to light that their balance sheets were filled with bad debt. They could not meet their financial obligations, and down they went. As these companies disappeared, insurance policies against just this problem were triggered in such volume that AIG would have had to have sold everything but the kitchen sink to pay out, and then the U.S. government stepped in with its plan.

No matter the outcome, it’s clear that Wall Street is in for some real changes in the next generation. Changes to the mechanics of the market are only as good as the people willing to adhere to them. For the causes of what has transpired, we needn’t look at the balance sheets of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns. We need to figure out where the human component of this went wrong.

If we can figure out the answers to the tough human questions, then we might stand a chance of preventing another catastrophe like this from happening the next time. The problem lies in the zeitgeist.


Bryan Kerns is a sophomore honors and humanities major from Drexel Hill, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].