The problem with fixing Wall Street is it can’t be fixed

And Hillary Clinton isn't the one to do it.

Internet Culture

Published Oct 16, 2015   Updated May 27, 2021, 7:18 pm CDT

One of the most buzzed about moments on the Internet during Tuesday’s #DemDebate was an exchange about Wall Street between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. When asked about her ties to the banks and financial institutions directly responsible for a continuing economic crisis, Clinton first responded in the defensive, saying that she represented Wall Street as a Senator from New York. And then she continued, detailing how she had resisted their foreclosing and speculation: “I said, ‘Cut it out.’”

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This earned her one of the more biting responses from Sanders: “Congress does not regulate Wall Street, Wall Street regulates Congress. Going to these banks and saying, ‘Please do the right thing,’ is kind of naive.” Bernie Sanders is right—Wall Street is beyond mere reform, and Clinton is not the person to enact it.

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Clinton’s relationship to Wall Street has been a long and murky one, and it includes her husband, Bill Clinton, as well as her daughter, Chelsea. The New York Times reported that Hillary’s son-in-law, Marc Mezvinsky, a money manager, has unduly benefited from his access to investors via the Clintons. Meanwhile, the Clinton Foundation has long been the subject of controversy; the Times also reported on financial improprieties that involved the foundation capitalizing off Clinton’s former position as Secretary of State.

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Clinton’s proposed plans to curb Wall Street are mostly about oversight and knuckle raps, sprinkled with words like “transparency” and “accountability,” the same buzzwords frequently used by both corporate and nonprofit entities to indicate rhetorical rather than actual force of action. Most of what she has to offer in the details will have little to no effect, and Clinton’s record and her family’s close ties to Wall Street makes it unlikely that she will pursue any real means of reform.

That being said, one of the more fascinating aspects of Hillary Clinton’s attachment to Wall Street is not simply that it exists, but the particular story that she weaves around it. She consistently creates a homespun narrative of hard work and success while erasing the ominous presence of, well, brutal capitalism itself.

The New York Times reported that Hillary’s son-in-law, Marc Mezvinsky, a money manager, has unduly benefited from his access to investors via the Clintons. 

Asked during the debate about how someone like her, with all her wealth, could lead ordinary Americans, she responded, “Bill and I did not come from money; we worked hard our entire lives. I want to make sure every single person in this country has the same opportunities that he and I have had.” Earlier, in her opening statement, she spoke of herself as the granddaughter of a factory worker.

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While Clinton’s grandfather was in fact a factory worker, her father was a wealthy businessman and she grew up in the affluent suburb of Park Ridge, Illinois. She has never been poor in any sense of the word. As for Bill Clinton, it is certainly the case that he did not come from huge wealth, but he grew up comfortably middle class. He did have to go to schools on scholarships, but one of them happened to be the Rhodes scholarship to Oxford.

When he left office, the family was reportedly in deep debt, owing millions in legal fees after the Monica Lewinsky lawsuit. Since then, they’ve built a virtual empire that now, with the advent of a grandchild, is beginning to look a lot like dynastic wealth. Together the two of them have a net worth of $55 million. Chelsea Clinton has not hesitated to reap the rewards of her family connection, netting as much as $600,000 for a “job” at NBC, which included scant reporting. Her wedding cost $3 million, and she currently lives in Manhattan’s Flatiron building, in an apartment for which she paid $10.3 million. 

All three Clintons are reputed to charge massive speaking fees. Since 2014, the senior Clintons together made more than $24 million in speaking fees alone.

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This kind of wealth doesn’t come by chance or happenstance, no matter how charismatic a central figure like Bill Clinton might be. It comes by through years of strategic plotting, planning, and the cultivation of the right kinds of networks and connections. It is impossible for any ex-president or ex-Secretary of State to accrue this kind of wealth without having exchanged some kind of political leverage for connections and in exchange for money.

Those sorts of exchanges don’t happen the way we see them in the movies, with brown paper envelopes being left on park benches. More than ever in the history of capitalism, capital’s force is most evident in its invisible workings. In Clinton’s case, she has had to disclose that she made “$3.15 million in 2013 alone from speaking to firms like Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and UBS,” according to CNN. Wall Street has, in return, made it clear that it is delighted with her candidacy, knowing full well that her calls for regulation are mere political bluster.  

Her father was a wealthy businessman and she grew up in the affluent suburb of Park Ridge, Illinois. She has never been poor in any sense of the word.

In October 2014, Clinton seemed to be firing at the financial institutions: “Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs.” However, Politico’s William Cohan pointed out that she was merely copying Gov. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) rhetoric on the subject. Cohan interviewed a number of hedge-fund managers and bankers, and their consensus on her was echoed by one telling statement: “I think people are very excited about Hillary. … Most people in New York on the finance side view her as being very pragmatic. I think they have confidence that she understands how things work and that she’s not a populist.”

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But it’s not just that “Mrs. Wall Street,” as Clinton has been called, won’t defang the wolves of New York’s financial sector. They also can’t be tamed.

Calls to reform Wall Street tend to operate under the assumption that it can somehow be forced back into its old form. But as Cornell University’s Lynn Stout points out, “20 or 30 years ago, banks and investment banks were primarily involved in the capital-raising business. They helped connect up savers with entrepreneurs who were building new projects, building new companies. That was a very socially valuable activity.” But in recent decades, Wall Street “became a trading center, where people were just passing securities back and forth, trading bits of existing businesses or even trading derivatives on businesses.”

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This invisible movement of capital, massively profitable for only the largest speculators, was eventually packaged as something everyone could access. The advent of the television/social media financial advisor—remember Suze Orman screaming at you not to have so many cappuccinos?—meant that millions of people were duped into believing that pension funds were silly and that they could all become millionaires overnight if they would just learn to watch their stocks and invest wisely. 

All of that has proved fruitless—Helaine Olen points out that packing your lunch and cutting out the caffeinated foam is of no use in an economy where “salaries have stagnated at the same time as the costs of non-luxuries have gone up.” But the myths about easy money and the idea that “ordinary people” can live like the Kardashians persist. These myths are what allow us to believe that millionaires somehow make better politicians because they are, as Donald Trump puts it, “self-funded” (he’s actually not, but that’s another story). 

But it’s not just that “Mrs. Wall Street,” as Clinton has been called, won’t defang the wolves of New York’s financial sector. They also can’t be tamed.

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Given all of this, Americans may not want to hear the truth about capitalism from a man who describes himself as a democratic socialist and insists that public colleges should be free. They may, instead, prefer to prefer what amounts to a lie from Hillary Clinton, that “our job is to reign in the excesses of capitalism so that they don’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities that we’re seeing in our economic system.” They may find solace and even pride in her assurance that “we would be making a mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history of the world.”

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders points out that the great middle class is disappearing, and that may not be a truth voters want to hear. Sanders has, thus far, seen some unusual success in making his case, but in times of economic anxiety, Americans are more likely to buy into the comforting narrative that if we can just “reign in capitalism” and “save it from itself,” we will be all right.

The question remains: Can Clinton convince voters that—if we just ask them to “cut it out”—the brutal and unhindered machinations of Wall Street can lead to sleepily prosperous Main Streets across the country? If the answer is yes, we can only expect more years of an unending economic crisis everywhere. 

Yasmin Nair is a freelance writer, activist, academic, and commentator, the co-founder of the radical queer editorial collective Against Equality, and a member of the Chicago-based group Gender JUST.  Follow her on Twitter.

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Illustration by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Oct 16, 2015, 3:50 pm CDT