It’s been relatively easy to bash Whartonites and their ilk over the past several weeks. “Look at those fat cats on Wall Street, with their $60 million severance packages,” everyone from the crazy guy next to the Button to The New York Times has sniffed. As one financial titan after another collapses, we’ve seen a few irrepressible smiles from Proust-reading, plaid-clad liberal arts students as the abacus-clutchers seemed to get their just desserts. “Should have read more David Foster Wallace,” they’ve muttered. “Or at least gone to a screening of Barbarians at the Gate.”
Up until now, I was a part of the group who judged. When taxpayers are forced to bail out the most elite financial institutions, it’s hard not to be outraged by corporate malfeasance and governmental neglect. And the compensation for some of these execs is truly gut-churning. But now that trickle-down theory finally works and Wall Street’s issues — if not earnings — are oozing toward Main Street, it’s becoming tougher to discriminate between Joe the Plumber and Josef Ackermann of Deutsche Bank. Sure, the bigwigs took almost unthinkable risks with packages of toxic securities. But it must be asked: who handed over the money and charged those credit cards in the first place?
If High School Musical is right in its message that “we’re all in this together,” then the American dream that drove Gatsby surely motivated his butler as well. When we’re all looking to get rich faster and fork over a down payment quicker, don’t we bear some of the responsibility too?
Credit default swaps aren’t a traditional part of a college student’s vocabulary — and perhaps that’s part of the problem. I’m not advocating an entire desertion of the Philo halls, but knowing how to balance a budget and invest wisely are important skills we tend to dismiss when ridiculing Huntsman. We can pretend that Wall Street’s woes are containable, but now that it’s going to be extremely difficult to secure loans in the future (and that goes for alternative energy companies and small businesses like the Green Line, too), we need to know how to manage when society heralds conspicuous consumption.
Inevitably there are students who have tracked every dollar they’ve spent since blowing their allowance on Pogs (if anyone has a scented slammer, let me know). But for the rest of us, a subscription to the Financial Times might not be such a bad thing. And if nothing else good comes from the crisis, at least we’ll have new words for Scrabble: “derivative” alone will get you 17 points.