The old summer place across the street could use some work. Having been owned by two generations of New York Stock Exchange specialists, including one former president of the Exchange, it—like many of the manses in resorts up and down the Atlantic Coast—housed the Eastern Establishment that dominated American finance for much of the 20th century. But the Establishment doesn’t have the grip on American life the way it once did. And the summer house, while still in the family, no longer reverberates with the footsteps of financial titans.
There was a lot that was wrong with Establishment rule; its heritage included the marginalization of racial and religious minorities, women, and those lacking the right old school ties. But with the Establishment’s sense of ownership and entitlement came, some of the time anyway, a tradition of responsibility that at its best bordered on stewardship. It’s not as if the old boys didn’t expect to make their share of money. But they also understood that reputation meant more than net worth.
The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression tested the Establishment, and found many wanting. Yet Establishment rule, adjusting to an unprecedented era of government regulation, reasserted itself for another half-century. Clearly the belief in more than money played a significant role in that transformation.
Will the new Establishment, a techno-meritocracy dominated by multibillion dollar hedge funds, be able to survive its era of heightened regulation? No shortage of new mansions have sprouted on both coasts over the past 20 years, many housing hedge fund moguls and those who serve them in legal and other professional capacities. Will these homes be owned by stewards intent on handing a sense of heritage on to the next generation, or are they assets to be sold off as these Great Gatsbys pursue what F. Scott Fitzgerald hauntingly described as “the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us”?