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One of the texts that Bryan and I assign in our Writing New York course is Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853). “Bartleby” is a wonderful story to use in English classes, because you can read it productively using a wide variety of critical methodologies. Our approach is to emphasize its subtitle: “A Tale of Wall Street.” In part, we recontextualize the story within the history of New York real estate and point out the subtle references to two of the city’s major landowners at the beginning of the nineteenth century, John Jacob Astor and Trinity Church.

We also trace the history of Wall Street from a residential area to a place of business, but we begin by asking students what the name “Wall Street” means in contemporary culture. We invariably show the clip below, the famous “Greed is good” speech from Oliver Stone’s film, Wall Street (1987). The speech is delivered by Michael Douglas, playing a Wall Street takeover specialist named Gordon Gekko, who was loosely based on real-life financiers Ivan Boesky and Carl Icahn. Douglass won an Oscar for the role. The clip will remind you why.

During the Clinton years, the film seemed to me like an artifact of a bygone era, but the Dubya Days have made it all-too-relevant once again. Especially in the light of yesterday’s bloodletting on the Street.

Interestingly, John McCain was talking about greed on Wall Street yesterday. According to The Wall Street Journal:

Both candidates blamed Wall Street greed and special-interest
influences in Washington. “We’ve seen self-interest, greed,
irresponsibility and corruption undermine these hard-working American
people,” Sen. McCain said at a rally in Orlando, Fla., where he
promised to “put an end…to running Wall Street like a casino.” He
offered no specific prescriptions but did call for ending
“multimillion-dollar payouts to CEOs that have broken the public trust.”

In other words, McCain takes the methodologically individualist approach that is typical of the Republican approach to the economy when things go bad: he looks for individuals to blame — in this case the greedy CEOs — pointing fingers at the Gordon Gekkos of today’s financial markets.

Fundamentally, however, McCain’s policies are based on the assertion that Gekko makes: that “greed is good” — or, rather, creative. Why else would you assert, as McCain, Bush, Phil Gramm and their ilk do, that cutting taxes on the super-rich and on large corporations will create jobs? Give the rich more money, they’ll invest more to make more money, and the result will be more jobs and a trickling down of money to those below who have less. (Nobody seems to want to face up to the realities of just where those jobs are likely to be created in today’s global economy.)

The lesson of Stone’s film (and, I’d argue, of Melville’s story) is that it isn’t individuals but the system that is the problem.

Isn’t it interesting to see McCain disparaging Wall Street for being run “like a casino” — McCain, who chose Sarah Palin on gut instinct and without sufficiently vetting her? When the press wasn’t describing the choice as a “Hail Mary” pass, it was describing McCain as a man who loves to shoot craps and had rolled the dice in picking Palin.

John Weaver, a former chief strategist for McCain told Time magazine earlier this summer: “Enjoying craps opens up a window on a central thread constant in
John’s life. Taking a chance, playing against the
odds.”

Did no one ever tell McCain that in the end the house always wins? It’s the system, Senator, it’s the system.