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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Reclaiming Wall Street for social justice

Last week’s B & S displayed an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment. Every other week, our satirical newspaper’s staff offers a sincerely intended, if caustically written, commentary, often critiquing President Kington’s administrative and financial policies. In a Stewart-/Colbert-esque way, satire is an ideal setting for incisive, insightful critiques of colleges’ (and countries’) fundamental values. Yet the implications (and direct statements) of Joe Engleman’s staff editorial last week left me profoundly uneasy. The development of the following thoughts was supported by Grinnell Dining’s margherita pizza.

As I understood him, Joe blended his views on the Occupy movements with a criticism of Kington’s recent efforts to connect with alumni. He sang the common refrain, that thieving, dishonest investors and executives have, by their greed, caused a financial crisis in our society. Investors as a class of people offer very little “tangible [benefit] to society,” he asserts, namely in that they do little for the furtherance of social justice. Joe then hammered Kington for sympathizing with an alum now working at Morgan Stanley, who had complained that he “didn’t feel like the College appreciated the work that he was doing.” To which Kington allegedly responded by “suggest[ing] the need for a change in Grinnell culture, one that respects the work that people on Wall Street are doing.” The editorial argued overall that alumni who “contribute… tangibl[y] to society”—teachers, doctors, scientists—“deserve our support” far more than alums who are investors.

I do not contest the argument that investors and executives were greedy, or that this greed contributed largely to the current crisis. I would have phrased my critique differently: The crisis has its origins in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when firms, looking for ways to incentivize executives to manage more efficiently, began restructuring compensation. Executives began being paid extensively in stock options. This tied their income to the performance of the firm, as measured by the stock’s current valuation on the stock market. However, this also created a mindset oriented toward short-term profitability, rather than long-term real expansion of physical assets. Ultimately, innovative, quick methods of trading outpaced the real world’s ability to adjust in value too greatly, leading to a market failure. All this to say, I agree that executives are paid way more than they are worth. I also agree that their mindset (Joe phrased it as “greed[iness]”) was a major precipitant to this crisis. I disagree that the mechanics of the crisis can be subsumed under simple generalizations such as “deregulation” and “tax reductions.”

My more important contention arises, however, where Joe connects the archetypical “investor” with the Grinnell alum. I disagree on two counts. Firstly, I believe Joe has misunderstood Kington’s “culture change” intentions. Rather than proposing an overhaul of Grinnell’s cultural values vis-à-vis investing—turning us all into finance-enthusiast-robots—Kington intends to make the college more welcoming to alumni of all walks of life. As I understand it, the logic is that alumni who feel personally respected by the college community are more likely to invest their energy, money and talents into the furtherance of the College’s goals. Helping students realize (changing cultural assumptions) that all sectors of society can contribute to social justice would be the first step in this process.

Secondly, I would gladly support Grinnellians deciding to enter finance. Investment is essential to the functioning of this country. Investment schemes in various evolutionary stages explain much of U.S. development—its founding (joint-stock companies), linking (railroads) and uniting (major news providers). Investment continues to be crucial to today’s Grinnell College as well: proceeds from the endowment pay financial aid, operating costs and so on. Considering all that is at stake, I would be much more comfortable if Grinnellians would engage in finance. At least then, I would know that someone in one of Wall Street’s buildings, looking down on Occupy protestors, has been indoctrinated with the concept of “social justice,” as a temperance on the deceptively straightforward euphemisms of the market and economic rationality.

Grinnell’s on-campus and alumni community has people of diverse talents and interests. Once we recognize this, we can pursue a truly integrated approach to achieving our common goal. “That’s what I call social justice,” or rather, how to feasibly achieve it.

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    Blackie JonesNov 22, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    Throw the moneychangers out of the temple!