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Folly and Freedom

March 18, 2009 1 comment

“They burned the fucking house down with our money and walked away rich as hell, and you guys knew that that was going on.” Jon Stewart

The recent showdown between Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer has exposed the non-journalism journalism rampant in the world of TV business shows. It highlighted how and why stock picks and show business shouldn’t mix; if we wanted financial advice from a clown, i.e. Cramer, we’d have gone to a circus. And it showed how we can fight back.

Let’s look at Jim Cramer. Like a lot of TV ‘personalities’, he’s in your face, arrogant, opinionated, and sadly, for his viewers and the state of the nation, a myopic shareholder-value fanatic who has always looking to make a fast buck. His type are dime a dozen on CNBC, a news channel that’s to news to news as Goebbels was to press freedom. Noam Chosmky once famously said he trusted the ‘Financial Times’ as they were the only newspaper to tell the truth; he could not say the same CNBC.

There are good business journalists out there. But by and large they tend to be economists; they’re trained to take a broader view of society – what’s good for everybody not just investors. People like Larry Elliot at the Guardian, Joseph Stiglitz, Will Hutton and Paul Krugman have great insights into how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place and how we can get ourselves out of it. They do not have ‘Squawk Boxes’ or discuss shares Siskel and Ebert style but look to the medium and long-term future. If CNBC-style programmes are ever to be taken seriously again they need to either have severe health warnings about investment risk running constantly or become a vehicle for serious journalism; the latter is unlikely.

And then along came the hero of the hour, Jon Stewart. Calling it as it is has been the role of satirists since the Greeks; and with Stewart, it was a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man, If ever there was the need for an avenging angel to swoop down and smite the wrongdoers of Wall Street, it is now and Stewart smote them and smote them real good. With Swiftian righteous indignation he jabbed, punched and eventually floored an inarticulate and buffoonish Cramer, the most irritating unacceptable face of capitalism. Ordinary non-Masters of the Universe everywhere owe Stewart a huge debt of gratitude.

Finance itself is not a glamorous, ‘sexy’ subject. There’s a reason the accountant, fund manager and stockbroker used to be seen as boring, if well-paid jobs; that’s because they were. They were boring before the 80’s because investors wanted responsible and, yes, dull individuals looking after their money. The Jack Welchs and Alan Greenspans who turned these notions upside down were snake-oil salesman whose sorry little trade has come to an end. Jon Stewart was more effective than even Obama when it came to exposing their failings; let’s hope their creed of greed never becomes the dominant ideology again. Con men will always be around; it’s time to make ethics the corner stone of business practice to lessen the influence of the guys promising instant returns at no cost to the rest of us.

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