Forget the black hats; these days the bad guys wear pinstriped suits. At soccer games in Ireland, crowds are reacting to bad calls by labelling the ref “a banker,” instead of the rhyming w-word. The nefarious King Rat was a foreclosing moneylender in the British pantomimes this past Christmas. In the recent thriller The International—tag line “Everybody Pays”—Clive Owen’s cop was on the trail of murderous, arms-dealing financiers. And a sequel to Wall Street, with a recently paroled Gordon Gekko still manipulating markets through a protege, is being rushed into production.
But absolute proof that the global economic meltdown has defined the villains of our age will be available next fall, when an unnamed ABC sitcom, featuring Kelsey Grammer as a fiscal titan whose shrinking circumstances force him to become a househusband, makes its debut. After all, no one plays a pompous ass quite like the former Dr. Frasier Crane.
Booing—or better still, laughing—at the plutocrats who have left investments and retirement savings scraping bottom might be the only relief consumers get. President Barack Obama has become adept at surfing public anger over the $18 billion in bonuses paid to bailed-out bankers in 2008, but there is little he can do beyond promising it won’t happen again. “This time, CEOs won’t be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paycheques or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet,” he told Congress. In the U.K., the anger, and government impotence, is almost identical. The story of the former CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland—now 95 per cent taxpayer-owned—and his $1.26-million-a-year pension, has been dominating headlines. Sir Fred Goodwin led his bank to the biggest loss in British history. But as the board let him take “early retirement,” rather than firing him, he appears entitled to his compensation. Although Parliament is considering revoking his knighthood.
The public anger—and political hot air—being directed at bankers is hardly a new phenomenon, says Michael Kazin, a U.S. history professor at Georgetown University in Washington. “In America, there’s always been a general suspicion of the financial industry,” he says. “It’s okay to make money if you roll up your sleeves and make something—automobiles, bridges. Just not if you profit from other people’s money.” The emergence of Wall Street as a financial centre more than a century ago gave the nation and world a convenient place to target their rage during bad times. J.P. Morgan, the turn-of-the-century financier, twice saved the U.S. economy from financial ruin. But in his time he was an object of popular ridicule, says Kazin, with newspaper cartoonists regularly depicting his prominent nose as a nugget of gold.
In Canada, the tension between bankers and the public has always been slightly different, says Duncan McDowall, a financial historian at Carleton University. Bêtes noires to political movements during downturns, they have also been recognized as nation-builders during boom times. The less tumultuous relationship is probably due to tighter government regulation—no domestic bank has failed in over a century—although the respect will always be grudging. “In a perverse way the current crisis has improved the image of Canadian bankers,” says McDowall, pointing to the relative strength of our major institutions. “But I don’t think anyone is going to start putting them on T-shirts.”
The Canadian Bankers Association says its research shows the vast majority of Canadians have a “favourable” impression of banks (although the survey didn’t ask about attitudes toward the people who run them). But no one was available to discuss the findings.
In this Great Recession, the biggest difference may be in how the victims see themselves. The attacks centre around what banks have done to “consumers,” rather than “workers,” or other class distinctions, Kazin points out. Perhaps even our perceptions of the industry are changing. In Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life, the commercial banker played by Lionel Barrymore was the heel, and James Stewart’s plucky savings and loan operator the hero. “Some people have argued that following Stewart’s example is what led to the current crisis,” says Karzin. “He gave people homes with very little money down.”