There's a reason that Gordon Gekko's famous speech scene in "Wall Street" -- "The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works" -- won Michael Douglas an Academy Award and is considered one of the more memorable movie scenes of the (relatively) modern era. It's because it didn't just happen in a vacuum -- it happened in a special time and a special place, Ronald Reagan's America.
The simplified version of the 1980s is that the Gipper restored confidence to the U.S.A., but in the same fell swoop Reagan also unleashed the hounds of American greed. It's no accident that today when you see a chart of income inequality in America, it starts in 1980, the year that Reagan was elected to his first term. His steep reduction in top income rates sparked the huge gaps between CEO pay and what the average worker makes, his crushing of the air traffic controllers union launched an era of declining fortunes for blue-collar workers, his deregulation of the savings and loan industry was a multi-billion-dollar boondoggle, and his similar laizzez-faire attitude toward Wall Street inspired some great movies but marked the dawn of an era of insider trading and swindles that went largely unchecked until it finally took America to the brink in 2008.
Reagan and his entourage didn't just inspire that with his policies but his style, and everybody knew what was going on. This is what Newsweek wrote in 1988 (as later quoted in a certain book), in Reagan's final full year in the White House:
The public seemed fascinated by the air of unembarrassed extravagance that floated around the Reagans: Mrs. Reagan eventually spent $25,000 on her Inaugural wardrobe. A planned redecoration of the White House family quarters was to cost $800,000. The price tag for new White House China would be $209,508. What a relief the Reagans were! The new First Family's imperial lifestyle seemed to open a tap in the national consciousness, and all the longings for luxury that had been repressed in the parsimonious Carter years came flowing out. Once again we were allowed to be fascinated with wealth and power -- a guilty pleasure the previous administration had been determined to deny us. Like hungry kids turned loose in a candy store, we went straight for the buttercreams.
Reagan had accomplices, of course. One of them was his best-known speechwriter, Peggy Noonan. The first actor to become president understood the importance of his scriptwriter, and Noonan painted some of the prettiest word pictures that distracted folks in the era of Other People's Money. Even after writing "Read my lips, no new taxes" for George H.W. Bush, she managed to parlay her fame into a lucrative career as a columnist and a pundit.
And now from the lofty heights of the Upper East Side, Peggy Noonan is shocked, sch...well, you know, she's surprised and dismayed that the culture of greed that her boss and his minions unleashed has now metastasized into something, well, ugly.
Her column starts with a rant about "House of Cards" -- proving that as trenchant social commentary, "HOC" should be seen as a damn entertaining political fantasy, and nothing more. But it's interesting that Reagan's speechwriter would say this:
I don’t understand why members of Congress, the White House and the media become cooperators in videos that sort of show that deep down they all see themselves as . . . actors. And good ones! In a phony drama. Meant I suppose to fool the rubes.
But then she gets to Wall Street, et cetera:
And it is all about the behavior of our elites, our upper classes, which we define now in a practical sense as those who are successful, affluent and powerful. This group not only includes but is almost limited to our political class, Wall Street, and the media, from Hollywood to the news divisions.
They’re all kind of running America.
They all seem increasingly decadent.
What are the implications of this, do you think?
They’re making their videos, holding their parties and having a ball. OK. But imagine you’re a Citizen at Home just grinding through—trying to do it all, the job, the parenthood, the mowing the lawn and paying the taxes. No glamour, all responsibility and effort. And you see these little clips on the Net where the wealthy sing about how great taxpayer bailouts are and you feel like . . . they’re laughing at you.
What happens to a nation whose elites laugh at its citizens?
It's the Morning After in America, and Peggy Noonan seems to have no idea what the hell happened last night. Her political generation walked all over that Citizen at Home, the one that Noonan is straining to imagine from her East 93rd Street window. They shipped his job to Bangladesh and raised his payroll tax when he finally took a job at the Family Dollar store, but now she's horrified at the unseemliness of it all. Did someone really once say that the Age of Irony is dead? Is Peggy's glass half-full, in that she's finally waking up to the American kleptocracy? Or is her glass still half-empty -- when she can't see that her hero was the chef who whipped up all these buttercreams to begin with?