Easy Street

Time’s Person of the Year: Emphatically Not Wall Street

Heidi Moore Dec 14, 2011

A vote for someone, as we know, is also a vote against someone else. So reading between the lines of Time‘s widely noticed Person of the Year package, we can say for sure that one industry was openly snubbed: Wall Street.

Yes, every person or entity that Time wrote approvingly of this year was working in opposition to the interest of the Masters of the Universe. If nothing else, then, Time, with its talk of anti-establisment heroes, has lassoed, wrangled and captured the anti-financier zeitgeist.

Consider Time’s “person of the year”: protesters, including of course those of Occupy Wall Street. Time traces the dissatisfaction with Wall Street earlier, just after the election of Barack Obama to the creation of the Tea Pary:

In the U.S., the Obama campaign was in part a feel-good protest movement that galvanized young people, and then its shocking success and the Wall Street bailout produced an angry and shockingly successful populist protest movement in the Tea Party, which has far outlasted its expected shelf life.

(Note that this a debatable creation myth for the Tea Party, whose major platforms are less about bailouts and more about opposition to taxes and reducing government spending of all kinds. It is certainly true that the rant heard ’round the world – from CNBC anchor Rick Santelli – mentioned bailouts and helped spur the movement.)
After many pages on the Arab Spring, Time zeroes in on the Occupy movement’s use of Wall Street as a galvanizing symbol for the rebellion of the proletariat:

In July the editors ran a full-page photo-illustration of a barefoot ballerina posed atop Wall Street’s Charging Bullstatue — in the background were gas-masked insurgents in a tear-gas fog — along with four lines of copy: “What is our one demand? #occupywallstreet September 17th. Bring tent.” Adbustersalso sent out an e-mail — “America needs its own Tahrir” — and on Independence Day urged on its smallish cadre of Twitter followers: “Dear Americans, this July 4th dream of insurrection against corporate rule.”

Okay, so we know Wall Street not only lost the war of public opinion this year, but actually failed to hold its own ground. Wall Street, quite literally, lost its turf.

The magazine also lavishes praise on a few other enemies – more subtle ones- of finance.  One of Time’s runners-up for person of the year: Paul Ryan, one of the lawmakers who led a group of Republican dissidents that pushed the debt-ceiling debate to its limit and freaked out the bond market. Time labels Ryan The Prophet and explains,

Through a combination of hard work, good timing and possibly suicidal guts, the Wisconsin Republican managed to harness his party to a dramatic plan for dealing with America’s rapidly rising public debt. He brought an ugly issue out of the foggy realm of think tanks and blue-ribbon panels and dropped it into the middle of the national debate in time to define the next presidential election.

Whatever Ryan’s effect on the political process, what Time is praising here is actually Ryan’s push for fiscal austerity – a problematic choice for Wall Street’s bond investors as well as economists, who cite historic proof that you can’t cut your way out of a recession – and in fact, can make one worse. Wall Street looks to economic growth to fuel corporate growth, and the benefits of fiscal austerity in driving the economy are, at best, arguable.

really drives the anti-finance point home in its “people who mattered” list, which includes Michelle Bachmann as well as Eric Cantor, Ryan’s comrade-in-arms in the brinkmanship that nearly brought the United States within 10 hours of default, and the bond market to its knees. In Bachmann’s case, Time cites her stance with Ryan and Cantor: “Her opposition to raising the federal borrowing limit in the face of dire economic consequences was a bold, if reckless, stand for the anti-Establishment.”

The one financier that Time speaks well of is Warren Buffett: yes, the same one who has vocally opposed Wall Street and talked impassioned smack about the uselessness of bankers. Time writes approvingly:
He made his biggest mark in 2011 with his high-profile support of the so-called Buffett tax, the idea that the effective tax rates of the extremely wealthy should not be lower than those of their mostly middle-class employees, sending a message that socially responsible billionaires must remember the 99%.
And yet, Time did not openly name Wall Street, or any of its representatives, as openly villainous. (The “moustache-twirling villain” meta-category of the magazine’s choices is quite crowded, considering Time‘s mention of everyone from Sylvio Berlusconi to Jerry Sandusky.) Instead, Wall Street’s troublesome image is taken for granted, assumed, and dismissed as beneath official notice. This may be the worse insult than actually being called out; as Oscar Wilde said, “the only thing worse than being talked about it is not being talked about.” One thing Masters of the Universe are not used to is being ignored.
Of course, Wall Street already knew it was on the outs as far as public opinion goes; that’s breaking news from circa 2009. So it’s hard to believe that the Person of the Year package delivers a blow that, say, occupations of downtown Manhattan and crowds toting squid effigies don’t. And the Street’s continual failures of risk management – we’re looking at you, Corzine – haven’t exactly won it any more fans even in its own ranks. It’s no wonder that much of Wall Street is wary of any kind of public attention.

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