Is the Scarlet Letter a G for Goldman?
The members of the Senate Permnanent Subommittee on Investigations were angry. Their anger was predictably performative, and often nasty. McCaskill’s analogy of Goldman Sachs to a bookie managing bets on an MU football game was, while artfully conceived, respectfully dismissed by the quiet bankers testifying before her. The hearings were for the public, yet the extent to which they were in the public interest was undercut by their dramatics, coupled with myriad misunderstandings about the meaning of key financial terms. As the Journal pointed out this morning, the real villain was not in that room.
The Wall-Street-is-a-Casino metaphor is easy to make, and so made quite often, but perhaps it’s not the best one (it’s certainly not the most subtle). It is as easy to say all bankers are bad, and as simplistic, as it is to say, all bankers are blonde. A better metaphor for this moment might be found in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s nineteenth-century novel, The Scarlet Letter. In today’s case the letter is not an A; it’s a G. And while a first reading of our story might conclude that the G stands for Goldman, a more nuanced interpretation finds that it stands for Greed—well beyond the boundary lines of downtown Manhattan.
Hawthorne’s heroine Hester Prynne commits adultery, conceives a child, and is forced to wear a scarlet “A” on her chest. While she never reveals the identity of her lover, the reader knows he is the minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. Near the end of the book, Dimmesdale removes his shirt, and we see he has an “A,” too: he has carved the letter into his own chest. The book is a meditation on the strange ritual of/compulsion towards public shaming, and on the often ironic apportioning of blame. Hawthorne knew: we often hate the thing we want the most, or perhaps we cannot help hating those things with which we most clearly—if subconsciously—identify.
If Goldman—or Lloyd Blankfein—is Hester Prynne for our times, then who is Arthur Dimmesdale? All of us. All Americans who bought homes they could not afford. All Americans who played the market when risks they took on exceeded risks they could (intellectually and financially) manage. Anger against particular bankers is valid, but anger at The Bankers is a reflection of anger at something else: the illusion that it is our right as Americans to always have more, and that someone else should manage the limits of our excess.
Undress us. We all have letters carved on our chests, too.