Hatred of bankers is one of the world’s oldest and most dangerous prejudices
Abbreviated from the Economist – January 7th 2012 | from the print edition
HURLING brickbats at bankers is a popular pastime. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement and its various offshoots complain that a malign 1%, many of them bankers, are ripping off the virtuous 99%. Hollywood has vilified financiers in “Wall Street”, “Wall Street 2”, “Too Big to Fail” and “Margin Call”. Mountains of books make the same point without using Michael Douglas.
Anger is understandable. The financial crisis of 2007-08 has produced the deepest recession since the 1930s. Most of the financiers at the heart of it have got off scot-free. The biggest banks are bigger than ever. Bonuses are flowing once again. The old saw about bankers—that they believe in capitalism when it comes to pocketing the profits and socialism when it comes to paying for the losses—is too true for comfort.
But is the backlash in danger of going too far? Could fair criticism warp into ugly prejudice? And could ugly prejudice produce prosperity-destroying policies? A glance at history suggests that we should be nervous.
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For centuries the hatred of moneylending—of money begetting more money—went hand in hand with a hatred of rootlessness. Cosmopolitan moneylenders were harder to tax than immobile landowners, governments grumbled. In a diatribe against the Rothschilds, Heinrich Heine, a German poet, fumed that money “is more fluid than water and less steady than air.”
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Prejudice against financiers can cause non-economic damage, too. Throughout history, moneylenders have been persecuted. Ethnic minorities—most obviously the Jews in Europe and America but also the Chinese in Asia—have clustered in the financial sector first because they were barred from more “respectable” pursuits and later because success begets success. At times, anti-banking prejudice has acquired a strong tinge of ethnic hatred.
In medieval Europe Jews were persecuted not only because they were not Christians but also because killing them was a quick way to expunge debts.
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The crisis of 2008 showed that global finance requires tough medicine. Banks must be forced to hold bigger reserves. “Weapons of mass destruction” must be defused. The culture of short-term incentives needs to be revised. But demonising bankers will not solve these problems—and may well, if unchecked, bring a lot of ancient ugliness back to life.
Jerry Mager – Jan 11th 2012 – writes:
“I like not fair terms, and a villain’s mind” says Bassanio. What I found increasingly irritating re-reading this “The dangers of demonology” is the way in which the writer relates his/her arguments to jewishness and by implication to antisemitism. It is as if every time when one criticizes the way in which the Israeli government behaves towards the Palestinians or other neighbours one runs the risk of automatically being labeled, denounced, not to say demonized as an antisemite – which is odd considering the fact that Palestinians are semites too. As are all Arabs. Why this linking of irresponsible bankers, conniving politicians, marauding venture capitalists, thieving and defrauding financiers, to Jews and jewishness? Is it to stifle any criticism of this lot, to nip it in the bud, to intimidate into self-censorship?
What also strikes me is the leaving out of one of the most illuminating and illustrative examples of bigotry, prejudice, greed, racism, irresponsible gambling and unwarrant risk taking that could have come to the fore in an article like this. I refer, of course, to The “Merchant of Venice.” Reading and perusing this classic once again against the background of this so called “Financial Crisis” of ours, one comes to wonder who after all should be declared and appointed hero and who denounced as the real and intrinsic villain of this play. Did Antonio learn his lesson, did Shylock, or Bassanio? Not in the least so it seems. After all these centuries none of them seem to have changed a bit. They are still the same types of rascals – maybe even more depraved – up to misanthropical mischief and sour stupidities. But, the amounts of money they are gambling with nowadays are many times bigger and so is the havoc they wreak with their sociopathic tantrums.
Even demonizing will not likely be inducive to a change for the better in their acts and attitudes, I fear. Maybe at last a real example should be set: no more bail outs by the tax payer, no more glib and slippery lawyers to their rescue. Have them cut and carved for their pounds of flesh (more or less a pound per person, and including the necessary bloodshed – lets allow anaesthesia though). As it happens three interim managers of Goldman Sachs (Messrs. Draghi, Papademos and Monti), were recently appointed (!) on key governmental positions in the ailing EMU. So far for democracy. The convoluted intertwining of politics and (financial) business seems at least as intimate as it was in the Venice of The Merchant. Maybe even more so nowadays. So what seems to be the problem after all?