didn’t enjoy the “The Wolf of Wall Street”. I came away from it discouraged by its all-too-vivid presentation of the decadence and rot bred by a financial system that rewards predatory behavior. The real-life, penny-stock-pedaling thugs whose predations are dramatized in the film were not outsiders. They were the soulless brothers of the hustlers at the investment banks whose credit default swaps nearly took the world economy into the abyss. Meanwhile Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan headed the list of luminaries in our government who not only refused to restrain them, but cheered them for their “creativity” and “dynamism” and “wealth creation”.
Now along comes Michael Lewis with a new book, Flash Boys, which tells the story of a group of Wall Street operatives who saw new predatory behavior that appeared after the big meltdown, wanted to stop it, and set up a new business that provided a non-predatory option for investors.
No need for much detail here. Suffice it to say that master story-teller Lewis writes about the rise and — fondly do we hope — the impending fall of the high-frequency exchanges that effectively impose a tax on millions of trades by getting information milliseconds ahead of the competition.
So why is there a blog post about the book on the website of the Center for Immigration Studies? Well, take a look about Lewis’s description of his entrepreneurial good guys to Terry Gross of the “Fresh Air” radio show.
There are two things about them that were striking. One is: it’s amazing how many of them were immigrants, how few of them are actually American. They’re Canadian. They’re Irish. They’re Chinese. They’re Russian. I don’t know what that means. But they came to this country and they had some view about the way the system worked. They were disturbed by what they found and they wanted to make the system work the way they imagined it. The other thing is: they’re all, one way or another, people who are living their lives as they want to look back on them, rather than thinking about the next quarter’s bonus. … There’s a peculiar moral quality about all of them that I found just really interesting.
I wondered why this “peculiar moral quality” appeared. Did they have a perspective on this country that made them appreciate it more than the native-born predatory crowd? A statement that actress Mindy Kaling, the daughter of immigrants from India, made this week on the Charlie Rose show deepened my curiosity.
Kaling seemed a bit uncomfortable acknowledging her patriotism. That’s probably not easy in a show business environment filled with cynical, cosmopolitan, post-American types who are often too embarrassed by our country’s failings to be impressed by the good things that are still able to flourish here.
Now, I’ve come across too many stories of cynical immigrants — people eager to exploit other immigrants — to want to take the observations of Lewis and Kaling too far. Two well-populated categories are the notorious “notarios” who make outrageous claims about their abilities to secure green cards, and the restaurant owners who all but chain minimum-wage workers to their kitchens.
But the idealistic, energetic, make-things-work immigrant spirit described by Lewis and Kaling is a precious contribution to our country. It is worth celebrating whenever we find it, especially after watching something as depressing as “The Wolf of Wall Street”.
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