From Black Tuesday to Black Friday to Everyday

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Schoonmaker veegt de vloer na de beurskrach van 1929 / Cleaner sweeping the floor after the Wall Street crash, 1929

"Cleaner sweeping the floor after the Wall Street crash, 1929," The Nationaal Archief in The Hague

Discussing money is generally afforded the same privacy as the balance of one’s bank account. Inviting an open conversation about the subject in public, from basic finance to complex economics, is thought to be rude and even poorer politics.

It is perhaps the most polarizing field of contemporary journalism because it has absolutely no means of circumventing readers’ class ties and can only clash with their compromised socio-economic opinions: what time readers could devote to the possible merits of ‘tax cuts’ or increased ‘government spending’ from one year to the next is usually put in the service of bolstering their own particular side of the trench.

And then there’s the fact that financial reporting was tasked with covering the ascendancy of “Reaganomics” in Western political discourse during the 1980s, and outright drafted to make sense of “globalization” (a vague catch-all for the apparent international prosperity brought about by free trade agreements but also the arrival of budgetary shortfalls, lapsed or eliminated regulatory provisions, and rising unemployment) since the 1990s.

To meet the demand, and keep pace with a burgeoning cottage industry of self-appointed financial experts, we borrowed more and more aloof language and overly-complicated concepts from the notoriously noncommittal (read: variable-rich) social science of economics that is inaccessible to most of us, even if we had the time between our first and now second jobs to look into it.

The result is a version of information that is not exactly propaganda (although media concentration does present clear conflicts of interest) but not strictly informative either. Here’s a fun example from Bloomberg News, with their editorial, “Black Friday 2011 Turns Freaky for Economists, Politicians: View” (24 November):

Black Friday 2011 is especially fraught for several reasons. First, the future is more uncertain than usual. We don’t know whether we’re emerging from the deepest recession since the Great Depression or about to plunge into a ‘double dip.’ Second, the 2012 elections are approaching and both the White House and the Senate, now in Democratic hands, are very much up for grabs. Historically, the state of the economy is the most important factor in determining the winner of the presidency.

Third, it’s not even clear what we should be hoping for in the Black Friday sales figures, when they start pouring out tomorrow. Our every instinct is to hope for brisk sales and record highs, signs of what’s charmingly called ‘consumer confidence.’ The consumer has been the engine of past prosperity, and consumption has always played a large role in America’s particular style of the pursuit of happiness. Economic recovery depends on whether the consumer has got his or her confidence back. Some fear that we are losing our taste for things — that the recession may have taught us that we don’t really need. Others, of course, applaud the same development.

It’s the perfect Rumsfeldian nightmare.

OCCUPY THE EVERYDAY

In short: we don’t talk about money. We talk around it. And when a crisis makes it impossible not to talk about, we discover that we’re not very good at it.

We easily remember “Black Tuesday” 29 October 1929, the original financial catastrophe of our time, but we recall less about the Glass-Steagall Act of 16 June 1932 and its regulatory framework for averting another crash — and we know even less about the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, passed under President Bill Clinton (not President George W. Bush), which nullified its most powerful provisions and started the countdown to the next catastrophe.

Still, there is an emerging pool of general audience material that makes our complex international financial situation more accessible in new ways: Paul Krugman’s The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 (2008), Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff’s This Time is Different (2009), David Harvey’s The Enigma of Capital (2010), Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm’s Crisis Economics (2010), Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia (2010), and Dambisa Moyo’s How the West Was Lost (2011) — along with documentaries like Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) and Inside Job (2010).

These and similar works, by both economists and non-economists, cover a wide variety of problems and solutions (not to mention financial crimes) and can ultimately serve as the foundation for a new conversation about money while perhaps even provoking an unprecedented demand for serious and permanent financial literacy.

Which brings me to the current international Occupy Movement. What makes it so interesting is its loose platform and the lack of any formal centralized bureaucratic authority (even that of a ‘big tent’ political party). You don’t have to endorse or even agree with the movement to see it as basically an international confession that we have a problem.

We would do well to recall that mass calls for radical financial upheaval or reform are historically followed by hard right or left turns, as parties attempt to capture the moment and co-opt enthusiasm. Until we simplify and popularize the elements of economic order (that is to say, become more open and willing to discuss money), from domestic policies to regional agreements, we will continue to swing from one extreme to the other.

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