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Thomas de Zengotita Headshot

Boo-yah America

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We all know that most big money interests responsible for the recent financial collapse got off scot free -- and then managed to bounce right back while the rest of us were left holding the bag. "Responsible," in some cases, even means criminally responsible for outrageous acts that any individual person would go to jail for.

(Don't you just love how, legally, corporations are "persons" when it's convenient, but the persons who run corporations are not personally responsible for corporate misconduct even as they stuff their personal pockets at the shareholders' expense?)

In other cases, we aren't talking about outright criminality -- take the recent shocker about GE not paying any taxes at all. And their PR response was to boast about how efficient they are as a company! All perfectly legal, of course, all in accordance with the laws -- "laws" that lobbyists for GE and its ilk make sure get written in the first place; now that is efficient.

Everybody knows these stories and a lot of people are mad -- but somehow, unlike back in the Progressive era, say, popular opinion has not coalesced around a genuine reform agenda. Somehow, spinmeisters who serve big money have been able to blur the difference between petty bureaucratic annoyances that ordinary people put up with and, say, food and drug inspection and clean air legislation. How do they get away with that? How do they manage to frame someone like Elizabeth Warren -- obviously working in the interests of ordinary citizens -- so that she reminds people of the Assistant Principle responsible for enforcing the dress code in High School? What is it in the culture that has a critical mass of people half-consciously confusing their personal freedom with "freedom" for, say, Bank of America?

That's been puzzling me for a while. And then, the other day, I ran across this little tidbit, a piece called "Grab a Brew While They Face Death." The gist of it is that Spike TV "has identified the audience for "Coal" and its brawny brethren like "Deadliest Catch" and "Ice Road Truckers." It's the "mostly white-collar guys who go to Knicks and Rangers games, the baby-handed men who commute between Penn Station (beneath the Garden) and the suburbs." That took me by surprise. Since my work on my book I've developed a pretty good feel for cultural dynamics -- but this one got right by me. My first thought was how macho the personal style of so many Wall Street types actually is. That's on display during happy hour at any bar in downtown Manhattan of a Thursday or Friday evening. And that makes sense. The hunt for money, it's a hunt -- the risks you run pursuing that catch, what it takes to play that game. Teachers and nurses and postal employees -- all those "public sector workers" -- they're wusses by comparison, slaves to a pathetic security.

Then I remembered a benchmark moment from early in the financial crisis. The revelation comes at the end of the segment, when Rick Santelli starts getting support from the other "winners" on the floor. Those guys are so tough. Clearly they don't need Elizabeth Warren's help -- that's for losers:

But this phenomenon finally gelled while I was perusing a segment of Mad Money. I realized that Jim Cramer is the flip side of the dynamic that has commodities traders watching "Ice Road Truckers." He's out to bring the thrills of free market capitalism to the average Joe with an E-trade account: the key here is not just Cramer's low-brow style -- it is the cultural niche/social class of so many of the men who call in to the show, not all, but a lot of them. Cramer is peddling a me-first cynicism packaged as in-group savvy along with his hot tips. Here's how you're supposed to think about "health care" and WalMart if you're a Mad Money tough guy (watch for the "including humans" throw-away line).

And the camaraderie, the team spirit!

Wouldn't most of those callers say that if Angelo Mozilo, son of a Bronx butcher, built CountryWide Financial on the backs of suckers (probably "public sector workers") dumb enough to fall for subprime mortgages, more power to him? And if CEO's of major banks hung on to the leverage they needed to get those outrageous bonuses a couple of years after they brought the world economy to the brink of disaster -- well, what the hell. Boo-yah!