I was at a new job at a private college – a place where I hoped to finagle a long-term gig as a professor, if that was at all possible. I went to the first all-college faculty meeting of the Fall 2008 semester, and waited for all the boring news to come. Except it wasn’t all boring news.
This faculty meeting happened to happen a day or two after Lehman Brothers, the august and celebrated Wall Street investment bank, had collapsed. The paper-skinned vampiric mandarins of the college told us that 33% of the college’s endowment had gone up, poof, into the clouds, into smoke, because of the stock market.
I mulled for a second and thought, well, I guess I’m not getting a long-term job here.
I was naïve enough at the time to not fully understand how much elite colleges’ financial fares were bound up with Wall Street investments. Hold on, you mean when a bunch of McKinsey and PriceWaterhouse psychos fuck up badly enough, it has a direct impact on us? Because we, a bunch of pseudo-Marxist academics, actually have our college’s portfolios and our own retirement savings accounts tied up in the market?
It was a rude awakening, but I took it in stride. If not here, then where? If not now, then when? When and where would someone employ me?
In the Fall of 2008 it seemed like the world was falling down around our shoulders and we would all end up pioneering a new fashion trend of a barrel as business-casual attire. I even had momentary doubts about depositing the check I’d earned from doing a side-job for a rich asshole because… maybe all the banks would fall apart, and even the FDIC might go bust?
It ended up not being that apocalyptic, because all arms of the US state worked to prop things up much like a ventriloquist might portray a functioning economy, something that seemed plausible enough during the 2010s of Obama. Congress bailed out the banks and the Federal Reserve flooded money into the economy to try to stave off a second Great Depression, and just so happened to make a bunch of tech and finance weirdos very rich from the Book of Crazy Math accounting principles.
It still strikes me, though, fifteen years down the line, that September 15th isn’t a memorialized day in United States history. This was the pivot between what might have been a manageable meltdown in the real estate sector to a full-on, system-wide breakdown of everything. The Lehman Brothers logo ought to be put on the mast of a ship alongside Robert E. Lee and Alexander Stephens in terms of icons we should plow straight into the sharp edge of an advancing iceberg.
On both the Left and the Right, bitterness remains about whether the Big Bailout of Banks of 2008 should have happened. But it did. And the fate of American financial capitalism and global political hegemony was shored up, at least for the time being. The story of the Obama years (2009-2017) was that of the US economic system clumsily reasserting itself and elites applauding themselves for what a good job they did. It’s not that surprising that people in small cities in Iowa, Ohio, or Pennsylvania were not too ecstatic about the new economy they’d be given, all while Hillary Clinton’s campaign crowed that America Is Already Great! and trumpeted good times for everyone.
For whatever it’s worth, the outcome of the 2016 election showed that enough Americans felt shit on and left behind that a sociopathic rapist could become president. I don’t mean to justify or credit why people in Michigan or Wisconsin voted for Trump, but at least some of them were people who also voted for Obama in 2008 or 2012, so you can’t mark it all down to pure, unalloyed racism.
What if we took a step back and looked at the story that arches across the 15 years between September 2008 and September 2023? Can you think about how much has changed in terms of the culture, the politics, the technology since then? A vast amount has changed – iPhones were barely common in September 2008, yet they govern most aspects of most people’s lives in much of the world for much of the time today. It feels like a bygone age. This was a time before the Tea Party, or Ted Cruz, or incels, or QAnon, or Andrew Tate. (To remember the name of Tate, all I had to do was type into Google “Romanian sex criminal.”).
The biggest throughline from this time to today is that rich people — from the geniuses at Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Goldman, Ford and GM to Tesla, WeWork, “X” — who fuck up never pay any consequences. Life has gotten worse for many people across the United States since 2008 or even 2000, as good jobs fell away and the costs of healthcare, childcare, and other basic necessities have gone through the roof. It’s not even a specifically Democrat or Republican thing to a large extent, particularly if you look back to the 1980s and 1990s. In that era, the Biden and Clinton crowd presided over a raft of policies that were nearly as radically hostile to working families as those of the Republicans.
We pay all the costs — in terms of what we spend to bail out these oafs, expenditures that, by no coincidence at all, crowd out other potential funding for programs that would actually benefit regular people; in terms of scams by the Theranoses and BitCoiners and Clarence Thomases, who loudly laugh in our faces about how stupid we were to believe them; and by how much all of these unrepentant crimes bleed the life out of any conception of the public good that we could all believe in.
They’re all hucksters. They’re all liars. That’s all they’ve ever been.
This is what the Lehman Brothers, Elon Musks, and Jeff Bezi teach us. If you’re evil, dumb, and arrogant enough, you can’t fail even if you fail. It’s fifteen years since Lehman collapsed and we’re still not learning anything from the golden, universal fact that really rich people can be really stupid. And they can get away with all of this while never learning that anyone but them and their thieving friends actually matters.
If people in the United States want a better life, we have to face the fact that billionaires have been controlling the public narrative for decades, enriching themselves while so many others are scraping by and, often enough, nearly starving. Yet all they can say is — that’s the market! That’s the hand of God, baby, nothing you can do about it.
If people in the United States want a better life, we have to fight for it — just like the writers, the actors, and the autoworkers are doing right now. No one will give us anything. No one’s doing us any favors in this.