In the aftermath of the smackdown between Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer, a lot of valid points have been made about the larger implications of the debate. Two of Stewart's criticisms of Cramer, "It's not about you," and, "It's not a game," are particularly important. Stewart's point was that there are real life implications when the "players"- screw over the rest of us, and that Cramer is a poster child for the amoral manipulators of money who deliberately game the system for personal profit. Cramer is a particularly good candidate since his posturing as a helpful advocate for public understanding of the markets is coincident with his well-documented contempt for playing by the rules. Ironically, his example is useful in confirming the public suspicion that the Bernie Madoffs, the Enron thieves, the short-sellers who drive down values by selling stocks they don't even own, and the high-priced brain trust of corporate America that creates financial "instruments"- which are designed to obscure accountability, are more the rule than the exception.
We would do well to remember that ownership, and the economic structure that grows from it, is an intellectual construction, not a natural reality. The land I "own" is not mine as some sort of divine endowment; it's "mine"- because I live in a society that has agreed to a lot of complex conventions that allow me to claim title to it. I trust others to honor the contract, and they trust me to do the same. Trust was the moral dimension of economics that allowed our fathers to do a lot of business based "on a handshake." Today, the structure looks somewhat the same, but the trust is gone, and the regulation and monitoring that will have to replace it are not there.