Recent scandals involving Wall Street banks and financial institutions, headed by some of the world's most well-paid managers, executives and analysts, have many Americans asking themselves whether this game is rigged. It is this sense of injustice, coupled with economic insecurity, that animates changes in Americans' attitudes toward Wall Street. It's not just a small number of Americans, those who are actually "occupying" Wall Street, who feel such injustice. That's just the tip of the iceberg.It was perfectly obvious by 2009 to the public that the financial collapse that occurred in the fall of 2008 was the direct result of extreme and reckless risk-taking by Wall Street bankers. It soon became equally clear that those banks considered themselves too big to fail, so they had been free to take insane risks with other people's money. They would get the winnings and the American taxpayers would take the losses.
Americans have never exactly loved Wall Street stockbrokers or bankers—but we certainly didn't always hate them. Why this increasing hostility? The answer is a "perfect storm" of financial turmoil and a series of major scandals on Wall Street.
According to ... Harris Interactive, the percent of Americans with a great deal of confidence in the people running Wall Street had already reached an all-time low of just 4 percent by February of 2009. These figures are not just a reflection of Americans' dissatisfaction with the size of their bank accounts — they also reflect the increasing belief that Wall Street is playing a game that only the bankers can win.
Economic hard times, such as global recessions, do tend to bring about small, but noticeable drops in the public's confidence in Wall Street, just as we might expect falling confidence in a military that is losing a war.
But when economic downturns coincide with major scandals, as in the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s and our current dilemma, the biggest changes in public confidence result — changes that may have contributed to the protests we are seeing on Wall Street today. In other words, Americans really begin to get angry when there is evidence of systematic foul play.
To be sure, material hardships such as unemployment rates in the 9 percent range and the continuing high levels of foreclosures and bankruptcies undoubtedly set the stage for a public outcry. But this outcry has a distinctly moral tenor. The sentiments of the Occupy protestors holding signs reading "Blame Wall Street Greed," "People not Profits" and "Wall Street was the Real Weapons of Mass Destruction" certainly echo the wider American public's sense of moral indignation.
Just 26 percent of Americans in an April 2011 Harris poll thought the people working on Wall Street were "as honest and moral as other people" (for a point of comparison, the percentage was 51 in 1997). In that same poll, 67 percent of Americans agreed that "most people on Wall Street would be willing to break the law if they believed they could make a lot of money and get away with it."
This was all clear to the Wall Street bankers long before the financial collapse they created. The accuracy of their beliefs became very clear when, after they were bailed out, not a single criminal case was brought against the criminal bankers who had created the disaster. Instead by 2010 their bonuses were reaching record levels never before seen, even as the world economy was struggling to dig out of the economic rubble those bankers left in their wake.
Is the "Occupy Wall Street" a social movement that expresses the anger of the rest of us who have watched those economic criminals commit their crimes and then skate without any retribution? No doubt. And if it is not effective then there will be another to follow until the Wall Street criminals pay for their crimes.