Today's financial giants pursue greater wealth at any cost, but in order to build a sustainable economy, we have to make life richer for all Americans.
Today, national progress and national prosperity are being held back chiefly because of selfishness on the part of a few... You know their reasoning. They say that in the competition of life for the good things of life "some people are successful because they have better brains or are more efficient; the wise, the swift and the strong are able to outstrip their fellowmen." And they say that that is nature itself and you cannot do anything about it and it is just too bad if some, the minority of people, get left behind.
It is that attitude which leads such people to give little thought, to give anything but lip service, to the one-third of our population which I have described as being ill-fed, ill-clad, and ill-housed. The majority of them say, "I am not my brother's keeper" -- and they "pass by on the other side." Most of them are honest people. Most of them consider themselves excellent citizens.
But, my friends, this Nation will never permanently get on the road to recovery if we leave the methods and processes of recovery to those people who owned -- I say "owned" -- the Government of the United States from 1921 to 1933. -Franklin D Roosevelt
The recent publication of an editorial in the New York Times by a top executive at Goldman Sachs has sparked a fierce debate about the culture of greed that has permeated Wall Street in recent years. Critics argue that the author of the article, Greg Smith, is right to point out that Wall Street has lost its moral compass and that firms like Goldman are no longer interested in their clients and couldn't care less about the long-term implications of their investment strategies. Today's Wall Street, they insist, is driven by one motive and one motive only: to make as much money as possible for themselves and for the firms they work for in the shortest possible time, whatever the consequences for the customers the company is supposed to be serving. On the other hand, the defenders of Wall Street insist that the desire to make money is nothing new -- that greed, in fact, has always been a part of the culture of the investment banking community, and that we should not be so surprised or alarmed that the people who work in the financial sector do so out of a desire to become rich.
Given the consequences of the recent financial crisis, the fact that Mr. Smith's article has provoked a debate about the culture of Wall Street seems understandable. With unemployment still over 8 percent nationwide, a good share of the population remains concerned about the possibility that the "toxic atmosphere" Mr. Smith describes on Wall Street might lead to another financial meltdown. Yes, we do have Dodd-Frank, but will this piece of legislation prove adequate to prevent a repeat scenario?
These are all legitimate questions, but given the poor state of our economy and the millions who remain unemployed or underemployed a full four years after the onset of the collapse of the financial sector, the real question that needs to be addressed concerns not just the behavior of Wall Street, but the impact that the singular pursuit of wealth in whatever field has on the nation as a whole.
Seventy-four years ago, on March 23, 1938, Franklin Roosevelt addressed this very question in a speech he made to the people of Gainesville, Georgia. Two years before, Gainesville had been devastated by a violent tornado that left over 200 people dead and destroyed much of its downtown area. But with the help of over $1 million in federal aid from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) and a number of construction projects carried out by the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), along with the financial support, hard work, and "unselfish cooperation" of the citizens of Gainesville, the city was rebuilt. Moreover, the new Gainesville was better than the old, with less congestion, better housing, and more parks and green space for the people to enjoy.
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Taking note of this, FDR observed that the efforts of the people of Gainesville to rebuild their city touched "the interest and life of the whole Nation" because they typified the concept of citizenship "which is latent in the American character." It was true that in the wake of the destruction the city had "great needs," but these needs "were met," he said, "in accordance with the democratic principle that those needs should be filled in proportion to the ability of each individual to help."
Not one to miss a teachable moment, FDR then went on to address the larger question of economic inequality that still plagued the country. Much of this inequality, he insisted, was the result of the selfishness and greed of those at the top end of the income ladder who refused to accept or acknowledge that a society built on such vast disparity of wealth was not only undemocratic, but also economically unsustainable. These individuals, he went on:
...are the kind of people who...were saying, "Oh, yes, we want nobody to starve" but at the same time were insisting that the balancing of the budget was more important than making appropriations for relief. And when I told them that I, too wanted to balance the budget but that I put human lives ahead of dollars and handed them the book of the government estimates and asked them just where they would out the appropriations, inevitably they folded up and came back and told me, "Mr. President, that is not my business, that is yours."
FDR then went on to speak about how such attitudes affected the nation as a whole, of the consequences of economic inequality and the critical need to provide work and better wages for the "bottom third" of the U.S. population. He insisted it was vital to improve the "buying power" of the millions of unemployed and other workers "who are so under-employed or so underpaid that the burden of their poverty affects the little business man and the big business man and the millionaire himself." Moreover, he also reminded his listeners that better buying power meant not just greater purchases in hard-hit industries but also "many other...things -- better schools, better health and hospitals, better highways."
In short, FDR insisted that the best way to work our way out of the Great Depression and sustain capitalism was to make sure it worked for all our citizens, rich and poor alike. Happily, the actions of the people of Georgia in the wake of tragedy had convinced him that more and more Americans from workers and farmers to bankers and businessmen were coming to see "that the continuation of the American system calls for the elimination of special privilege, the dissemination of the whole truth, and participation in prosperity by the people at the bottom of the ladder, as well as those in the middle and those at the top."
It is certainly not a bad thing that Mr. Smith's article about the culture of Wall Street has stirred up a debate about the values and motivations of the individuals working in the financial sector. But in a society where the same newspaper has recently reported that the number of poor and near poor in America -- those living "either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it" -- has now reached approximately 100 million Americans, one wonders why more people are not focused on the "one third of a nation" that, as in FDR's day, sadly finds itself "ill-housed, ill-clad, ill nourished." Would an editorial bemoaning the increasing level of poverty in America have sparked the same amount of interest?
Viewed from this perspective, the culture on Wall Street, with its huge bonuses and drive for ever-increasing wealth no matter what the consequences for the client, becomes all the more disturbing. Not so much for what it says about the financial sector, but rather for what it says about the state of the country as a whole. The pursuit of wealth for wealth's sake is a poor foundation upon which to build a modern economy well-suited for the 21st century. Surely FDR is right when he reminds us that it is better for us to become "our brother's keeper" than to "pass on to the other side."
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.