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Lewis: Wall Street’s Era Ends

Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker, a semi-autobiographical account of working on Wall Street in the 1980s, has a great article in the December 2008 issue of Conde Nast’s Portfolio.com that dissects the current economic meltdown. [hat tip: Christian Tedrow]

Lewis has a unique perspective on the psychologies of the players, their self-delusion, hubris, utter incompetence and/or their lack of conscience that led to what he calls “The End” of Wall Street.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the full implications of the piece. What is clear is that capitalism is not the culprit in this crisis. This crisis, which to date has wiped out an estimated $23 trillion (or 38 percent) of the value of the world’s companies, was made possible by years of evasion by the players — select CEOs and hedge fund managers and anyone who placed their bets on the stock market’s “fantasy football” league of CDO’s and sub-prime mortgage lending. The cause of the collapse was closer to usury than free trade, and its excesses depended upon manipulation of the facts, deception and fraud that fed itself on willful ignorance. The players gambled recklessly and irrationally with other people’s money and lost big.

The sad fact is that many of the most egregious culprits (the leadership at the rating agencies and the CEOs of the biggest Wall Street firms) will not be held accountable for their evasion or incompetence. Society will languish for a decade to pay back their gambling losses and capitalism in the U.S. will unjustly receive another black eye because few will care to understand the nature and level of fraud that brought the system down.

The disconnect from reality exposed by Lewis that was the downfall of Wall Street is a symptom of a greater philosophical disconnect that permeates our culture. We live in a culture that is quickly losing its greatest attribute — indeed the fundamental building block of Western culture — which is respect for reality and the desire to truly comprehend it.

We have built an entire educational system like Wall Street — a system no longer grounded in reality but one that relies on rote memorization of random facts which may or may not be true. We have created a generation who can define global warming but who cannot name a branch of government, and we have allowed this corrupt pedagogy to continue for decades. We have bought wholesale the subjectivism of the modern era — the idea that history is just “his story,” that you can’t be certain of anything, that all cultures are morally equivalent, that there is no such thing as truth because what may be true for you may not be true for me.

Reality, despite our best efforts to deny it, has a way of leveling the playing field and of eventually revealing a fraud. No one can predict the future, but unless we learn from our mistakes and change our course back toward a reality-based philosophy where we are honest with ourselves and with others, where we seek to truly understand nature and its laws, then sooner rather than later, we will hand over the keys of civilization to the the barbarians.

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