Selig Cartwright, Goldman Sachs Washroom Attendant, Gets A Lesson In The New American Capitalism

(The scene is the executive washroom of Goldman Sachs. Washroom attendant Selig Cartwright has been pacing nervously, awaiting his employer, Mr. B, who arrives in a huff)

I got your message, Selig, and this better be important. I’ve been trying to get documentation on my new gardener, make sure he’s legal, and the paperwork is fearsome.

It is important, Mr. B. I think we have a mole.

A mole? Damn it, man. You’re supposed to keep this washroom clean.

Not a bug, sir. A mole. Someone who seems very angry about the direction of the economy. He came here and left flyers in every stall.

Great Reagan’s Ghost! A liberal, a progressive, here? In a washroom that I use? How did he get in? When did he get in?

I went out for lunch, sir, and when I got back…

You don’t eat your lunch here in the washroom, Selig? In your place of work? We allow that?

Yes, sir. There’s a state law about employees eating their meals in bathrooms. Another case of over-regulation. Anyway, I came back here and there were these flyers in every stall. One of the company’s male employees must have left them while I was out. Only top brass are supposed to use this washroom, but it’s not guarded.

I’ll have cameras installed this afternoon, Selig. Maybe put a security guard out front. But flyers were left in every stall, you say? Including my own personal Stall #8? Is everything there intact?

Except for one copy of Maxim that seems to have been hurriedly leafed through, and a couple of pages from the latest Homes & Gardens that were torn out, it all seems safe.

Thank heavens for that at least. Very well, then, Selig. I see you’ve confiscated all the flyers. Good. I suppose it’s the usual leftist drivel.

No sir. It actually seems to be…to be…to be…

Speak up man.

A plea to save an American capitalism based on middle class prosperity.

Indeed. How kind of our visitor, Selig, to leave it in a place where I would definitely have the time to sit and read it. Well, I don’t and I won’t. But since you doubtless have had the time to read it, tell me what this flyer writer says.

He says that the share of the Gross Domestic Product that goes to company profits these days is a near record high 12 percent.

Yes. So?

But then he also says the amount of GDP that is going to wages, the main support of the middle class, is only 3 percent, a near record low.

So what’s the problem? One way to get profits up is to keep wages down. That’s part of a normal company game plan.

But, sir, this flyer says that companies now have three trillion dollars in their coffers they can’t invest in new products or in hiring because there’s not enough demand, not enough buying power, in the hands of middle class workers because their wages have been pushed down.

And that’s supposed to be a threat to American capitalism, Selig?

Well isn’t it?

Selig, Selig, Selig. This poor fellow has been rereading his Marx – who would have said that what our flyer author is talking about is an internal contradiction of capitalism. That in capitalism’s natural push to maximize its own profits, it’s destroying the source of those profits, the buying power of middle class wage earners.

That does sound like it could be a problem, Mr. B.

It would be, Selig, had the best and brightest minds on Wall Street not confronted and solved it. Do you think big companies still have to produce more goods and services, have to have middle class consumers who can afford these products, to keep their profits growing and allowing their investors to get richer?

Don’t they, Mr. B? Didn’t I once hear that even Henry Ford started paying his workers a decent wage so that some of this money came back in the form of purchases of his own cars.

He did, Selig. That’s what twentieth century give-everyone-a-decent-taste American capitalism was all about. Wall Street has done a number on that approach, however, and now it’s unnecessary.

How, sir?

By reinventing the financial marketplace. By making it possible for companies to profit even when they don’t have as many customers who can afford what they produce.

I can hardly wait to hear how you managed it, sir.

Allow me to instruct then. First, Selig, we did it by letting corporations with all that money to invest put some of it into computer-based flash trading that now accounts for more than 60 percent of all stock trades. And because Wall Streeters own the fastest computers, corporate investors profit with little risk.

Not like investing company capital in new products and hiring, sir.

Why waste money on that, Selig? Corporations can also invest part of their profits in our derivative trading and make good money. These days you can buy derivatives that insure the credit rating of other derivatives, that insure the market value of other derivatives for all sorts of reasons.

You mean derivatives on derivatives on derivatives, sir, endlessly churning capital in ways that generate profits without actually creating added value or employment?

Yes, Selig. Beautiful isn’t it. Wall Street innovation at work.

It’s certainly a striking vision, Mr. B. Has Wall Street given corporations and their investors other ways to make money without all that old messiness?

Yes, Selig. With hedge funds, like those that bet on crushing the living standards of Europeans who are being forced to pay off bond debt incurred by their own countries’ banks. That’s where the big bucks have been made in the last year.

I think I understand the new who needs-a-middle-class American capitalism now, Mr. B. But can I just run it by you again to make sure I’ve got it right?

Alright. But get a move on it, man. I have people to see, a stall to visit.

O.K. Here goes. Wall Street has restructured a former American capitalism that used to be based on giving a decent share of the national wealth to middle class working people into one that only favors those who invest.

Right, Selig. Except we prefer to call this “reforming” not “restructuring.”

That’s does sound fairer, sir.

But Selig, we can’t take all the credit here. If government policy were still geared to ensuring that wage earners weren’t so disadvantaged compared to investors, if unions hadn’t been so weakened and outsourcing so encouraged, if The Fed were run by men who believed banks exist to support economies rather than vice-versa, all of Wall Street’s best efforts would have fallen short when it came to creating this new kind of capitalism.

Quite a team you have here, sir. Wall Street and government.

You buy it, you own it, Selig. That’s the American way.

And I guess the stock market is a perfect indicator of this change.

Right again, Selig. While the American working middle class continued to struggle in 2012, the S&P 500 went up 13.4 percent last year. It’s been going up throughout the recession without a surge of middle class buying power. While in Europe…

I’ve been reading that people over there have really been getting ground down, sir.

Not all people, Selig. Not investors. The major index of European stocks rose 14.4 percent while virtually the whole continent was wallowing in recession.

An inspiring tale, Mr. B. But won’t all this mean that more and more people in a reformed American capitalism will be out of work?

Don’t be silly, Selig. In fact for you personally, there’s even a wonderful employment opportunity here.

Opportunity, sir?

Yes, Selig. I will be leaving here and walking the trading floor for a few minutes. And when I return, if this place is spotless, all the unwanted flyers have mysteriously disappeared, and my Stall #8 is ready to receive, you have an excellent opportunity to keep your present job.

I’ll get to it right away, sir.

I thought you’d appreciate the upside of the new American capitalism. And Selig…

Sir?

Happy New Year.

(My two most recent novels, Fifteen Feet Beneath Manhattan and The Bellman’s Revenge, are available on Amazon.)