The “animal spirits” of which Keynes spoke are on the prowl across the United States. Their mood is ugly. The spirits are wary and troubled. Corporations and individuals are hoarding cash, when they have any, because they’re not buying into the recovery.
On a weeklong visit, I found a mood of deep unease in an America that seems to have descended into tribalism — not ethnic, but political, economic and social. Uncertainty is pervasive. The government’s rescue of Wall Street combined with the acute difficulties of a middle class struggling to get by on stagnant or falling incomes has sharpened resentments.
This is not a momentary phenomenon. Nobody seems to think unemployment is going to fall significantly from 9.6 percent — a level more often associated with France — in the near future. Get used to the new normal.
I spoke to a retired Wall Street executive who got out a few years back and set up a small business where he had to make payroll (sobering), but was freed from the debilitating short-termism of financial institutions that, over his career, had become dominated by traders “who look at economic opportunity rather than economic conditions.”
He said the final straw came in 2002. Top executives at the bank where he worked gathered to discuss their bonuses. The issue before them was whether to maintain those bonuses in a time of economic contraction, which would require firing 5 percent of the workforce, or take a 25 percent bonus cut, which would allow those jobs to be kept.
“The guy running the meeting asked for a show of hands on who would accept a reduced bonus,” he said. “There were 30 of us in the room. Three raised their hands. I was one of them.”
The job losses went through, this executive left, and the bank today is still trying to claw out from its uncontrolled excess.
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