I finally carved out 20 minutes this weekend to catch up on The Daily Show episode everyone is talking about: the so-called showdown between comedian Jon Stewart and stock pitchman Jim Cramer of CNBC. It’s about twenty minutes of awkward, not-so-funny, but quite entertaining television. At times, it’s painful watching Stewart lambaste the uncharacteristically docile Cramer with a verbal thrashing that included several video clips of Cramer explaining a scheme that allows him to make quick profits using borderline ethical and legal methods.
Proponents for each side would call Jim Cramer just a showy pitchman who, like any other investment adviser, makes good calls and bad calls. And Jon Stewart, just a funny man with an axe to grind.
But I suggest the reason why it’s compelling is the symbolism. The common man vs. the inside Wall Street guru who knows the game. Of course it’s unfair to use Cramer as that symbol. On the other hand, he’s profited handsomely from his daily prime-time exposure on CNBC’s “Mad Money” which has enabled him to also sell multiple best-selling investment books.
All of us like scapegoats. Who is to blame for this meltdown? The system? Process and regulation? Or renegade individuals like Madoff who milked the naive public.
I’ve thought about this and it’s not an easy answer. I think though the unfortunate reality lies in the heart of our American society: culture. Over the past 10 years, despite having suffered the bubble in 2000 followed by the terrorist attacks of 2001, US culture still seems hellbent on glamorizing individual pursuit above everything else. Gas-guzzling SUVs. Check. Over-priced fashion coffee called Starbucks. Check. News reporting and journalism that has become less about facts and more about sound bites and celebrity sensationalism. Check.
I think we are all perhaps somewhat guilty.
Sure you can blame bankers for the so-called 30-to-1 leverage that allowed easy money to flow into the hands of millions. But should some of that blame not also rest with those who made the decision to take that money to buy expensive homes and cars beyond their means? I don’t know the right answer. But I do think the entire system including regulatory bodies, governance and process needs to be assessed. This is obvious.
But perhaps we should also look in the mirror and decide what kind of society we want to be.
Values, principles and ethics need to be re-introduced into classrooms, certainly not under the banner of religion, but instead as rational qualities to making informed decisions that benefit not just individuals, but also to those around us and to those in distant places on this very same planet.
For 20 minutes while I watched Stewart and Cramer go at it, these thoughts all crossed my mind. One thing is certain: this country (and others) will emerge stronger thanks to another harsh lesson in hubris. I just wish so many innocent people, especially the charitable organizations and those close to retirement relying on their now depleted 401ks didn’t have take the fallout.