Simultaneously occupying the roles of Milton Friedman and Emma Goldman is no mean feat, but, somehow, I’ve managed it over the past few years.
During the day, I worked in emerging markets distressed investment, where I would frequently battle with my friend about his love of Mitt Romney and voice my support for Obamacare and Dodd Frank. I became the team socialist.
But at night, when I went home to my English-major friends, my interest, and, I’ll admit it, my love of markets rendered me suspect. It didn’t help when I pointed out that Benny really had a point in Rent.
To be a liberal feminist today – at least to be one on the Internet – one must hold the following to be true: (1) all rich people (who are not entertainers) are inherently evil; (2) everything is superior in Europe, or better yet, Scandinavia; and (3) everyone who works in finance is an amoral alpha male who thinks The Catcher in the Rye is about baseball. Heresy may not be a popular stance, but I’m a liberal feminist who prefers many finance bros to France’s 35-hour workweek.
Now, I don’t support laissez-faire economic policies, I don’t believe “tax cuts” are always the correct answer, and I agree that income inequality (and climate change) are the most serious problems we currently face. But I also think high corporate income tax rates and strict labor laws often backfire, and I don’t think investment bankers are dementors with pitch decks. I would vote for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren if my only other choices were Donald Trump and Gary Johnson. But I wouldn’t be happy about my options.
In short, I tend to anger everyone, and never more so than when I try to defend finance. Although I often hear people say “investment banker” like it’s an ethnic slur. few of these people have any idea what an investment banker does. Or a commercial banker, for that matter, as evidenced by the fact that my reference to NIM is normally met with blank stares. And this is a problem.
First, it’s a problem because the vast majority of people employed in finance are not masters of the universe who commute via Teterboro. The vast majority are men and women who commute via New Jersey Transit. This is not John Meriwether playing “liar’s poker” with John Gutfreund. This is Marc in compliance telling you about his 3-year-old’s birthday. Marc is not the enemy.
More importantly, this lack of knowledge is a problem because finance is the backbone of the global economy, and, a decade after the start of the financial crisis, finance is still a backbone with many fractures. And the industry won’t be fixed in the current climate, with Gordon Gekko on one side and Bernie Sanders on the other. The right has monopolized the financial conversation, leaving centrist Democrats in the bizarre position of having to apologize for the unspeakable sin of understanding comparative advantage. When Hillary was forced to defend capitalism in the first primary debate, you could almost hear her thinking, “Really, we’re having this conversation again?”.
Having this conversation isn’t going to advance the cause of economic justice or minority rights. It’s going to make purists feel good about themselves and leave the greedy comforted in the knowledge that the opposition is still stuck somewhere in 1968. Debating how best to bring back the past is not only useless; it’s dangerous. We’re accomplishing nothing while the far right — which is currently the entire right — is unwinding the New Deal and the Civil Rights Act.
Centrism often gets a bad rap, either because it’s considered mealy-mouthed or because it’s embodied by David Brooks. But centrism isn’t about finding a compromise between positions: it’s a position all its own that prizes pragmatism over ideology. While it may never be as fun being a centrist as it is being a firebrand, firebrands burn out. Centrists are left to clean up the ashes.