What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go off the cliff. I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’ll do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.
– Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
Lower Manhattan was eerily quiet on Sunday morning; its tall buildings dared not betray the financial tumult that had befallen the heart of the world’s financial markets. By dinnertime, like Bear Stearns before it, Merrill Lynch, had fallen victim to the worst financial disaster since the Depression, accepting a buyout offer from Bank of America. Lehman Brothers fared even worse, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, as its stock slid toward obscurity. By Tuesday night, the world’s greatest insurance company, AIG, had secured an $85 billion government bailout.
These events were the culmination of an all too common refrain in the American markets-exuberance, fueled by obscene greed, followed by a sobering crash which leaves the taxpayers holding the bag for those who grasped at the Golden Ring one too many times. One would think that we would have learned our lesson from history. After all, in 2000 the dot-com bubble burst, leading the NASDAQ to fall nearly 80% over the next two years. But while American capitalists seem to be uniquely creative at finding new ways for the government to bail out their excesses, they are seemingly impervious to the obvious cause of these colossal collapses: good old-fashioned American greed.
Tempting as it may be, our ire for this crisis cannot be directed to bankers alone. We must analyze our own choices as American consumers. After all, the housing bubble was fueled, in part, by working-class Americans buying homes they knew they could not afford on the assumption that home prices would rise indefinitely. The bankers, motivated by the same greed that fueled wide-eyed homebuyers, gorged themselves on mortgage-backed securities that produced record bonuses in 2007. No longer were bankers focused on maintaining steady, dependable growth for themselves and their shareholders. That playbook, which had sustained their companies through the Great Depression and the stagflation of the 1970s, was buried under a stack of up mortgage-backed securities fraught with subprime loans begging to be foreclosed upon.
At the conclusion of Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield finally realizes that he cannot spend a life as the Catcher in the Rye.
All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she’d fall off the goddam horse, but I didn’t say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them.
Bankers like to think they are big boys. But the truth is that the Barons of Broad Street are nothing but spoiled kids who call upon the American public to be their personal catcher in the rye. Once again, American taxpayers played the part, fearful of what would come should they allow the bankers and insurance makers to fail. That fear is the greatest tragedy of the current financial crisis; for the only way to break the cultural curse of American greed is to let Wall Street fall off the horse and lie, teary-eyed, in the bed of rotten rye it made.