Blamer vs. Cramer: Why Jon Stewart Won the Battle but Might Lose the War

04/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At the risk of throwing dirt on the fire of enthusiasm everyone seems to have for Jon Stewart's skewering of Jim Cramer, there's something troubling about the logic of how this very public tete-a-tete played out. Basically, while it was fun to watch Stewart barbecue the madman of money, it's unlikely that the change we really need will come of it, and in fact it could actually serve to deepen the crisis in which we find ourselves.

First, a word about Jon Stewart. The guy is obviously the preeminent serio-comic voice of our time, which is saying something given the stiff competition he faces in that category. No one else has managed to quite capture the sense of ironic insanity that defines this era of hyper-rationality the way Stewart has. Propounding a scathing critique of the powerful and profligate while being funny as hell in the process is no easy trick. Simply put, I admire and in some ways even aspire to his essential ethos: 'speak often and parry some big shtick.'

So this isn't a slap at Stewart at all. To be sure, in his creaming of Cramer he voiced a view held by many, namely that the short-term volatility vultures in the marketplace have eroded the foundational virtues of the economy and left us all in the lurch in the process. Stewart noted that there are "two markets," with the preferred one being the old school, 401k- and pension-driven, 'hard work plus long-term investment' strategy that has now imploded ostensibly due to the irresponsible vicissitudes championed by the "back-room, fast money, ethically dubious" crowd that Cramer and his kind prop up. Stewart further laid the blame on Cramerites for failing to discharge their journalistic duty to shine the light of reason on the wicked ways of leveraged investment firms. The basic argument is that someone knew the crash was coming but failed to take action.

Yet this overlooks the fact that most people had at least some inkling that the house of economic cards was unsustainable, but were too busy getting thirty percent on their money to care. To blame Cramer, et al. is literally to pass the buck for society's ostrich-like behavior, for which we're all complicit to some extent. True, Stewart hasn't been screaming at viewers to put their hard-earned pesos in high-risk speculative hedge funds, but his many sponsors over the years surely include some who have fostered the same sort of "buy now, pay later" ethic that undergirds the fabric of financial ruination.

More fundamentally problematic is the notion that the good-old "slow and steady" route to prosperity is virtuous while the "mad money" approach is evil. In some ways the latter is actually more honest in terms of what it's trying to accomplish, and it frankly fits the tenor of the times to a tee. This is a world of constantly-refreshed browsers, incessant news in real-time, microscopic attention spans, and planned obsolescence. Keeping up with the Joneses is passe; today it's all about blowing right past them and not stopping to see if they're okay -- and then tweeting about it before someone else beats you to it.

That's why Cramer's thinly-veiled "volatility is opportunity" approach suits the mood. People have developed a sense of non-attachment to the underpinnings of socio-economic life that have held sway for decades -- not in a Buddhist way but in more of an apocalyptic fashion. The world presents itself as largely disposable and rapidly changing to the point of distraction, and there's a basic belief that science and technology will come up with a new innovation to save us before it's too late. This "new religion" has billions of adherents and its logic applies to financial and environmental crises alike.

Against this, it would be tempting to opt for the "slow growth" ethic of our grandparents' generation to stave off the endemic neurosis and schizophrenia of today's world. Stewart seemed to gravitate this way in his challenge to Cramer, arguing in the unedited version of the interview that we can "still have growth and profit but not in a way that burns down the entire field," but there's a serious flaw in this position. The old-school mode of investment and capitalization sowed the seeds for the consumptive ways of the present; it wasn't a different mode of accumulation but merely a slightly less amped-up one due primarily to the slower pace of communication technologies. And let's not forget that to their grandparents, ours probably also seemed like irresponsible kids caught up in newfangled trends that could only lead to bad ends.

What I'm suggesting is that both ethics -- slow-and-steady and quick-and-dirty -- are intimately connected and equally at fault for fomenting the current crisis. It's appealing to look back nostalgically at the virtues of the Greatest Generation and their penchant for the "long-term investment" path to economic growth, yet they were also responsible for ushering in the era of crass consumerism, suburban sprawl, and globalized greed that seemingly has brought the world to the edge of collapse. People of all ilks have been encouraged to gamble with their nest eggs in the misguided and pervasive belief that growth is inherently good, and in the end the ultimate difference between five and twenty-five percent is merely semantics in an otherwise shared language.

While this might not necessarily be ready for prime time, or even late night perhaps, some are beginning to suggest that it's time to seriously question the machinations of both the slow- and fast-growth camps. The latter tends to create more spectacular boom/bust cycles, and indeed, real people do get hurt in the process; as Stewart plaintively and poignantly opined, "it's not a f*cking game." The former, however, obscures its promotion of poverty and plunder behind the veneer of a sober calculus that in some ways is even more insidious, because it tends in its incrementalism to lull people (like a frog in a pot of slowly boiling water) into thinking that everything's just fine even as it cloaks an ever-widening gap between rich and poor and the ceaseless consumption of the biosphere behind an "American Dream" ideology that has always bordered on the apocryphal. In short, both versions of neoliberalism are fundamentally flawed, and perhaps someday we might even thank the latter for hastening the contradictions that finally opened up a space for turning the page once and for all toward a new narrative of social justice and ecological sanity.

Again, I know it's not especially popular to say it -- and I certainly wouldn't expect a television host to be leading the charge, even one who once described himself as "very into Eugene Debs" -- but we simply cannot continue to operate as we've been doing for the last half-century or so. Industrialization in all spheres of life and mass-market consumerism have pushed the planet to the brink of its carrying capacities. Agribusiness and multinationals have broken local economies and weakened our connection to the places where we live. The single-minded pursuit of growth and gain has dampened the ties that bind us all together and undermined the virtues of community.

The pursuit of money, in short, with its unique capacity to simultaneously "make the world go around" and be "the root of all evil," suggests an interesting paradox in which the thing that drives us will also likely be our undoing. It's actually quite an old story we're enacting here, going back perhaps to the good old days of Eden. Suffice to say that, by now, many people are actively looking for new ways of being and living that meet their material needs while refraining from overtly courting annihilation in the process. We may not be able to get ourselves back to the Garden, but we can in fact plant gardens and, in so doing, strive to replace the color of money with something truly Green.

Yes, Stewart clearly eviscerated Cramer the other night. Maybe that made some folks feel marginally better about things, but this sort of palliative pistol-whipping (entertaining as it may be) won't in itself turn the tide. We're in need of something more radical at this juncture, as in its definitional sense of "relating to, or proceeding from the root." Framing the debate as one of "mad money vs. glad money" just doesn't cut it any longer. I'm hoping to see taking center stage a rubric that looks more like "rad money" -- which likely won't be about money at all, and indeed might even help transform the current state of affairs into something more closely resembling the root of all good.

In the meantime, we'll be counting on people like Jon Stewart to help us find ways to keep laughing -- just not necessarily "all the way to the bank" anymore. Finding humor in challenging times is in itself no small feat, and people like Stewart deserve credit for providing a dose of good medicine to an ailing era as we seek creative solutions to the deep crises unfolding before us daily.