LET'S GET REAL ON CAPITALISM

Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- My excellent counselor on stocks, bonds and investments in my hometown of Chicago has long loved Jamie Dimon. My guy, for whom I am close to a charity client, has said to me many times, "That Jamie ... he's the best." Then he would add sadly, "If you newspaper people had any money, we'd put it in JPMorgan Chase."

Well, perhaps this week marks the first time "we newspaper people" are damned lucky that we don't have any money to invest in the country's largest bank, with its 260,000 employees and its losses in the first half of the year moving from $2 billion to $3 billion.

Jamie Dimon is sorry -- sorrier than most of those guys in the upper echelons of Wall Street. In fact, he used nearly every deleterious word in the lexicon to criticize what his company had done -- and what it had done reminds us of 2008, when many on Wall Street put far too much money in hedge funds supposedly to "protect" their debts.

But frankly, I'm glad it happened (especially since it didn't happen to me!). I'm glad because what we need is a serious debate on capitalism in America, its morals and ethics, its ability to self-regulate, and the government's need to regulate it from outside.

Indeed, the only other time an in-depth discussion about capitalism, free enterprise or free markets has come to the fore in America's public square was in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. That disaster, which could have been even greater than it certainly was, differs from today in several factors.

Many of the leading Wall Street figures back then felt a moral and ethical commitment to their profession, and they were totally humiliated when their world collapsed under their supposed husbandry. So much so that a number of them committed suicide.

The Great Depression was alleviated by two developments. One was World War II, which called for such a humongous industrialization for the war effort that the country was put on its feet again. But concomitant with that vast enterprise were FDR's enormous steps to build a kind of welfare state. FDR's was an inventive change: temporary jobs through the Works Progress Administration. Educational initiatives. And perhaps most of all, his glorious voice explaining it all to Americans -- and always assuring them that "Happy Days Are Here Again," or just around the corner.

And today? The hard-line Republicans seem to honestly believe (it took me a while to recognize this) that all the problems of the country can be solved through free enterprise. That the system has a kind of magic thermometer in it that can constantly judge the temperature of the culture, the politics and the spirit of the country, and not just the economics.

When you seriously think about it, how ridiculous! The worst of our vulgar and abusive culture today comes straight out of the expansion of free enterprise and deregulation. Think cable television. The really good, even great, TV we have comes through public television.

I believe that today's conflictive, "take-no-prisoners" politics, which does anything possible to destroy the other guy, standards be damned, came first from broadcast journalism. After Watergate and the enormous successes of the journalists who "got" Richard Nixon, the word around journalism gatherings was "Kill your king." That was the start.

That combativeness now characterizes our politics, and we are never let down for a moment. Our culture has become chaotic, noisy and in your face. And American capitalism has taken on an endlessly intrusive and disruptive spirit.

We have had two gratuitous wars (thank you, George W.), but instead of reviving us, as did World War II, they have destroyed our economic health -- and will do so for years to come, as we pay off our debt and treat our long-term wounded. Nor would FDR's answers work today: We are too individualistic, too selfish.

Capitalism is not the answer to everything; at best, it can be the answer to our economic problems. It is the Republicans' infantile idea that free markets answer every question that is one of the poisoned chalices we drink from today. Let's have a real discussion; let's stop the nonsense.


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