Fast Company

The Yearning for a Malefactor (and other failures)

The churning of the press in the last few weeks has at least been good for something. If there were any doubt before, none now should remain. Our national conversation about our economic woes is shockingly devoid of an original voice. Each new article about the state of our affairs seems little more than a recapitulation of someone else’s opinion; which itself is derivative of another’s opinion. At best, we might find a concise description of what has happened. More likely, we find a scathing tirade that devolves into political posturing. Noticeably absent are solutions.

 

Facts are fickle things of course, but we can say with confidence that things are not getting better. The albatross of evaporating home equity pulls us ever downward. The storm of deleveraging in the markets seems only to beget more deleveraging. The appalling loss of our collective wealth threatens to grind our consumer based economic machine into metal shards. Left standing at the edge of the squall line is the American public, baffled, confused, angry and fearful.

 

The ferocity of the arguments push factions further a field until one side shouts ‘affordable housing is to blame’ another ‘it was the greedy investors’ and still another ‘Wall Street sold out Main Street’ and nothing is heard over the ever greater distance of their positions. We have before us now an endless parade of pious vigilantes each blasting the other for its thuggary and greed.

 

In his respected book The Great Crash 1929, Galbraith calls this ‘the yearning for a malefactor.’ Remember that it was after the crash but still in the middle of a crushing depression that Roosevelt assumed the mantel of the Presidency with a promise in his inaugural address to ‘drive the money-changers from the temple.’ Perhaps the most chilling observation in Galbraith’s book is this single sentence, ‘The singular feature of the great crash of 1929 was that the worst continued to get worse.’

 

There is blame enough to go around of course, and in the assignment of that blame we may find clues for our reconstitution. But it takes little courage to blame for the sake of blame itself. Far harder indeed it is for us to pause, to rethink our entrenchments, and to cast a new mold.

 

Traditional clashes between political factions may offer a win should the cause be won. If one were to win the war on drugs for example, surely all would prosper. Or if another were to forever make solvent our entitlement programs, surely all would win too. But we must now realize this crisis is different. It is a zero sum game. The victory of one will only be at the expense of another in equal measure and neither will have made it one step closer to a solution. We are in the most proverbial of boats together. It is a mess of our own making and by our own making will we it be solved.

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