Guy comes up to the bar and bends your ear: “Listen, Joe. I’m in finance. I’m worth billions. I got limos, seven houses, a private jet, cocaine, and Skye, who’ll do anything I want for $1K an hour in the afternoon.”
You say: “So? You got a problem?”
Guy says, “I have it all but I’m still thirsty. What have you got for me?”
You say: “Coming up.”
You mix him an “Insider.” It’s part aphrodisiac, part alchemy, and part elixir of immortal life. The Egyptians were already drinking it back when the pharaohs were brewing 105 varieties of beer, and instead of TV evangelists, you had a priesthood as powerful as Wall Street bankers mapping out the afterlife (don’t forget to tip the jackal and crocodile gods). You and I were eligible for the beer, but the afterlife was reserved for the bigshot at the bar. You and I only went along as little symbolic servant figurines, although when it comes to the afterlife, symbolic is better than actually having to pack your bags.
“The Insider” is what they drink at the top in the new America. In Charles Ferguson’s recent documentary “Inside Job,” you can watch them guzzle and then smash the empty glasses at your feet. It’s your homework. Don’t miss it.
After the Depression and WW2, fun-loving bankers and the corporate military developed a powerful thirst. The Vietnam War pumped up and then blew out the economy, as today’s wars on terror have been doing. “Free market” finance likewise pumped up and in 2007-08 blew out the economy, shattering windows around the globe. Life-savings and speculative trillions bubbled away to nothing like champagne fizz, while flesh and blood people lost flesh and blood. Lots of it. Finance and global gunslinging are now the heart of the American economy. They’re both “too big to fail” and therefore beyond ordinary controls.
As Ferguson’s film documents, financial culture favors gamblers and con men. They’ve invented complex forms of leverage—borrowing — that magically seemed both to multiply and to hedge their bets. The new finance promised exponential sugarplums, but surreptitiously also magnified risk. The insiders stretched the rules and the truth, as in Goldman Sachs’s bets against the primo investments they were selling. Insiders put insiders such as the Fed’s Alan Greenspan at the controls. For decades Wall Street types such as Hank Paulson have run the US Treasury. The guard dogs get steak and long naps. The insiders get rich.
Okay, enough moralizing. It’s only money. And unless it’s you waking up screaming in the middle of the night, it’s just regrettable and annoying.
As psychic bartenders we want to know what to tell the poor billionaire slob at the bar who’s wrecking your house and his country too. What can we give him for his thirst? Yes, a prison sentence would be nice, but we’re not the Justice Department. The guy ‘s drink already has potent ingredients: limos, exotic vacations, cocaine, rental sex. The film interviews a New York madam and a therapist specializing in Wall Street masters of the universe. Yes, they say, insider honchos want sex, drugs, and rock & roll. But psychic bartenders know there’s no such thing as (ugh) materialism, This is all symbolic stuff, standing for power, privilege, freedom, self-esteem, dominance, comfortable excitement, blah, blah, blah—fill in your favorites.
The symbols are supposed to give you a thrill. But they’re never enough, are they? The scale of corruption, recklessness, waste, and infantile self-diddling in America reached historic proportions in the 2007-08 meltdown. It’s still rotting your neighborhood and your nation, which is why you want to see Ferguson’s film and read this. The thirst is bottomless. The more you drink, the more you want. More leverage, more risk, more bonuses, more bikini underwear and shaved pubic hair. More blood.
The bust reveals the fear driving the greed. Think about the sad limits of pleasure. As the philosopher says, whoever gets enough life? Money, fucking, ass-kissing, and private elevators? Exquisite wines are eventually just booze and expensive adjectives. The McMansion is basically just a roof and 27 indoor toilets. Sex for hire is eventually a queasy chore: genitals and noses can be boringly familiar. Sooner or later even the love of your life collapses into exasperating smalltalk.
And the twist of lemon and the knife is that the demand for more life can isolate and deaden you as you grab for it. The higher you go, the further down you can fall. More fear makes you more ruthless, like the executive whose nickname is “Chainsaw Al.” See the problem? The honchos bellying up to the bar want not just the babe and the bullion. Like the rest of us, without the inconvenient second thoughts that check us, they want endless appetite, the eternal hard-on, and boundless self-regard. They want more life. This is a transitional moment, badly in need of some renewal. Where do we go from here?
How about those Egyptians. Crocodile gods, 105 varieties of beer, and little ushabti figurines that will take care of all your needs in the afterlife. And now howling demonstrations demanding renewal. Keep pouring.