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Can Obama Save American Capitalism?

11/01/2008 04:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Evidence of how the United States needs to change presented itself to me on the evening of Halloween. I was on a porch facing a leafy, lovely street in an upscale San Francisco suburb. Some friends and friends-of-friends were handing out candy to little goblins, vampires, Joe the Plumbers, and walking iPods.

One of the other adults turned out to be an executive with a bank that had just been handed some of the mega-bailout money. He was joking about it. "No wa-a-a-a-ay are we lending that money to anybody. That money goes straight to our shareholders. They deserve it."

This fellow seemed nice enough in general, but his tone changed when he made the comment about the bailout money. It took on what I thought was that sweet, mocking quality that flatters a circle of insiders, even as it sounds mean-spirited to someone outside of the circle. He had apparently taken me to be vaguely an "insider" since we knew some of the same people.

I said, "Why not invest the money and grow it before you pass it along to your shareholders? After all, they invested in you precisely because you're good at doing that very thing."

"Are you crazy? No way. Why on Earth would we do that?"

"To save capitalism! Either you invest, or someone else has to, which would be the government. Someone has to get the ball rolling again."

At first I thought that I was encountering a cliché, just another Master of the Universe and his bundle of selfishness, greed, insularity, and privilege.

But then he said something that put his comments in a different light. "We don't have any choice. What I think, what we think, doesn't matter."

This is an appalling sentiment, but it isn't nasty. The financial trades have gorged on such a diet of scams in recent years that our Masters of the Universe-for-hire have lost the self-confidence to make genuine, substantial investments.

It was as if this fellow didn't believe in his own free will any more. Or at least in the possibility that he and his colleagues could be smart enough to do good by doing well.

Certainly it will be tricky to make investments in the current climate. But this guy and his colleagues are the super-elite executives of a giant bank. They should be geniuses, or at least clever enough to give it a go.

The core problem here is not evil, but low self esteem. These guys have become cynical about their own abilities.

Barack Obama has toned down the visionary, inspirational side of his voice a notch since the early days of the campaign, and instead projected his rock-steady side. Obviously that is working for him as a candidate.

But it is becoming apparent that the country is going to need some inspirational pep talks.

I want to live in a world in which bankers get rich by pushing every neuron in their brains to find great investments in the real world instead of illusory sure bets in a phony world.

Failing that, I would reluctantly accept public works projects, directed by bureaucrats. It's an outcome that would be livable, as we know since the country lived through it after the Great Depression. But shouldn't we give the free market, and the ideals we've been celebrating for all these years, a chance?

The country has to raise itself into a state in which we cheer on smart people, instead of ridiculing them. Who will inspire our bankers to get those neurons working again?