We Are All Goldman Sachs

I should not eat Snickers Bars in the afternoon. While it is not yet illegal, and probably not immoral, it is certainly fattening. But I like the veneer of chocolate and by now my body has become dependent on the food-like substance of the interior and my brain dependent on the chemical additives with unpronounceable names. So I sauntered down to the diner in the first floor of our office building and checked myself into the small diner for my afternoon fix.

Diners like these are one of the last bastions of free enterprise in the country, run by the lady who owns it. No doubt some day one day it will become a branch of DineMart, and the owner-cook will become an hourly Food Preparation Specialist, forbidden by corporate policy to serve anything that actually resembles food, but for now it remains an honest establishment. It is some standard features. The upright cooler with glass doors that contains a variety of the those various combinations of corn syrup, caffeine and red dye that we imbibe in great quantities because it would be Just Terrible if we had a glass of beer or wine with lunch. It has a machine which, if you inject a little plastic capsule into it and push a button, will churn out a hot brown liquid whose taste reminds many people of coffee. A few tables and chairs, a counter with a cooler for the various salads, and a grill and cooking equipment behind the counter completes the ensemble. For a few dollars you can get a large breakfast and a decent lunch, and the menu is surprisingly creative and varied for such a small place.

I doubt if the business is all that lucrative. It is a small office building, slowly leaking tenants as the recession (now declared “over”) takes its toll. The prices are low enough that there can't be much of a margin, and surely she lacks any buying power and pays retail for her ingredients. But it is her's and it's honest and forms a decent amenity for our shrinking cadre of office grinds.

But the first thing I noticed was that the candy bar rack was empty. “Hey,” I called out, “Who's the Vice-President of Junk Food?”

“I am,” said the owner.

“Well, where are the Snickers Bars?”

“I had to put all the candy behind the counter.”

“Why?” I asked, thinking that it was some weird new “health” regulation, which are surely the bane of operations like these.

“People steal them. When I turn my back to cook, they slip them into their purses or pockets.”

“What?” I had difficulty processing this information. Who would steal from this lady? Since the clientele is mostly the office workers who see her regularly, it must be people who know her. “I'm a real estate agent,” I said, “I know how to steal. You don't steal candy bars!”

Amateurs. There is nothing a professional hates worse than competition from amateurs.

“And I can't keep dollar bills in the tip jar. People take them.” This is astounding. Stealing tips? It's unbelievable.

It is in moments like these that I most fear for the future of the Republic. Trouble in the life of a nation comes as reliably as trouble in the life of a person. It is not the trouble that destroys us, but how we respond to it. That the people at the top are thieves, the people who run Goldman Sachs, for example, is hardly surprising; corruption at the top is nearly an historical constant. What holds society together is what happens at the “bottom,” as it were. All the little courtesies which make a community possible, a community where you don't have to hide the Snickers and the tips.

For example, in the 1930's, when the depression and the dust-bowl forced the Okies to migrate to California (“Thereby raising the IQ of both states,” as Will Rogers observed) they carried, along with their mean collection of possessions, some things of real value. Strong families, solid morals, a willingness to work. And we survived the depression in good order, in ways that Germany did not. Germany was surely a civilized country, but the breakdown of trust and decency led, as it will, to indecent actions, actions that brought the world down in an orgy of violence and hatred. High civilization is no substitute for common courtesy.

What will our future be like? If stealing tips is general enough to make us hide them, then I think there might be some dangers for us. I look at my generation, and I am ashamed. We got everything, and paid for nothing, leaving our children debts they cannot repay, and a nation that needs to be rebuilt. I look at the Tea Partiers of my age, the ones who object to socialized medicine for the young because it might compromise the socialized medicine they already have. They object to paying taxes, but object equally to cutting any services. They want their wars, their pensions, their socialized healthcare, and they want the children to pay for it. My colleagues—all supporters of limited government—are angry that the $8,000 subsidy to home-buyers is about to expire. We want what we want. We just don't want to pay for it. And we look at our children and say, “Where did we go wrong?”

I am no better at the small courtesies. I see this lady two or three times a month, and I do not know her name. We meet in real life, not on the internet, so we have no handle, no avatar, by which to greet each other. Our relations are increasingly impersonal, which makes rudeness and theft easier. (BTW, we at the Distributist Review live in a something of a bubble in this regard. Compare the discussion of my recent post on Goldman Sachs with the discussion on the same post at “BlogsforVictory”. Scary stuff.) We need to have a real political dialog. We need to tackle the serious tasks of rebuilding the economy and society. We cannot do that, as our grandparents did it, with the morals of Goldman Sachs.

And we are all Goldman Sachs now.

Note: No promotional fees or other considerations were paid for any product placements in this blog. But I think Snickers ought to pay me.


Chris Campbell Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 1:24:00 PM CDT  

thanks, I am 30 lbs overweight and now, want a chocolate bar!

Seriously, thanks for good common sense article.We have lost a sense of commuity and decency, havent we.

Hope this lady can survive and keep going, we need people like her..

Chris Campbell Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 1:28:00 PM CDT  

Know what you mean by comments there...typical false left/right Dem/Repub paradigms......

so no regulation= life is good? I suggest copies of John's book be sent, ASAP! The early days of Republic were more regualted then now due to Founders fears of the Bank of England, East India Co,etc running the show....

JimB Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 2:15:00 PM CDT  

"the owner-cook will become an hourly Food Preparation Specialist"

Sad - but true. Or they'll become an "associate"

Viking Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 2:43:00 PM CDT  

Hi John,

Very interesting story here. I'm not quite as sure as you that this is symptomatic of a widespread breakdown of morals. It could be just a case of a few bad apples spoiling the basket. (Is that how that adage goes? Can't seem to remember.) Of course, if unresolved, it could become contagious.

This lady whom you see 2 or 3 times a month, she's not the owner of the diner, is she? I assumed you see the owner more often than that and know her name, but can't be sure from the context.

How is the website which reviewed your article favorably and whom you reference so scary? Is it the "dissing" of each other that you find frightening? It can get fairly rough here too, and I must admit to contributing to a bit of it myself. I WAS impressed negatively by the letter writers' lack of concern for punctuation.

Finally, on behalf of my friends to the south who might be upset by that transplanted Okie's bad-mouthing of his adopted state: "Whoooaa! Not cool, Dude, NOT COOL!!!"


John Médaille Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 3:32:00 PM CDT  

Viking, I suppose I could run some stats on the amount of retail "shrinkage", the money spent for security, etc. But I think incidents like this are actually more telling.

I do believe the lady is the owner. She is certainly the one in charge.

And I don't mind a vigorous debate, but these people were just yelling bad names at each other. Hardly enlightening. As Chesterton noted, "The problem with a fight is that it interrupts an argument."

observer,  Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 7:46:00 PM CDT  


Good post. Something similar to your statement that we are all Goldman Sachs now has been beating around my brain for a bit....

We four-times-in-a-row elected Ferris Bueller, the charming narcissist who gamed the system inside-out, as POTUS. Each party got their own iteration to idolize and lionize, because both guys reflect us: "We got everything, and paid for nothing...."

The term "sacrifice" used to be a noble term, but now we reserve it for soldiers and schmucks, because winners are the ones left standing with all the chips. We're all pint-sized versions of Goldman Sachs.

What's needed is more than remorse, more than repentance. What's needed is metanoia, a change of heart and mind. But that's going to require humility and sacrifice, not likely from this narcissistic generation of "winners," where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average..."

Good luck to us!

Mr. Piccolo,  Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 8:44:00 PM CDT  

Great post, Prof. Médaille. I am reading R.H. Tawney’s “The Acquisitive Society,” and I think he makes some interesting points. I believe that Tawney argued that in modern capitalist societies people revered mere wealth, no matter how it was obtained, so that a wealthy rentier was held in higher esteem than a laborer who obtained a meager income from hard work. The wealthy rentier is looked upon with awe while the laborer is seen as an insignificant loser.

Even though Tawney was writing in the 1920s, I think we have largely the same problem today. Just look at how many hard-working people are ridiculed simply because they aren’t paid high wages.

John Médaille Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 8:59:00 PM CDT  

Mr. Pic: Roger that on Roger Tawney. "The Acquisitive Society" and "Religion and the Rise of Capitalism" are two great classics.

Tom Laney Friday, April 23, 2010 at 9:03:00 AM CDT  

Conversely, Union workers were ridiculed because they were paid high wages. Or, at least a wage that was higher than the now-predominant poverty wage.

Anyway, this thievery takes place in a Real Estate office. I don't think it happens in a mom & pop cafe populated by working stiffs. If it did, the thief wouldn't make it to the door.

Mr. Piccolo,  Friday, April 23, 2010 at 8:00:00 PM CDT  

@Mr. Laney,

Good point on the union workers issue. Although I think there are many problems with the mainstream labor "movement" in this country, I would say that attacking union workers for having high wages is a bad idea. It just fuels the anti-solidarity "race to the bottom" in terms of wages. The real answer is working to bring up the wages of all underpaid workers (that is, most workers nowadays).

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