More than a decade ago, when Harris Interactive asked whether 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," 64 percent said they would. In another question in the 1996 poll, only 40 percent agreed that "most successful people on Wall Street deserve to make the kind of money they earn."
Those responses put the anger about AIG in perspective. Americans have long been ambivalent about Wall Street. Side by side those negative views, 69 percent in the 1996 poll said that Wall Street was absolutely essential because it "provides the money business must have for investments." In another question, 70 percent said Wall Street benefits the country a lot or somewhat.
It's not surprising that the responses about Wall Street took a tumble even before the latest news about AIG. Seventy-one percent in Harris's February 2009 poll said most people on Wall Street were potential lawbreakers, and only 30 percent said they deserved the money they made. Views about the importance of Wall Street are still in positive territory, but they have declined, too. Sixty-two percent say that Wall Street is essential, and 54 percent that it benefits the country.
Survey questions in September and October showed skepticism about helping financial firms that was probably related to the ambivalence described above. In questions that asked people whether the right thing had been done, a skittish public said it had. But when asked straight out whether or not they favored or opposed spending $700 billion to provide assistance to banks and other large financial institutions, majorities in most questions were opposed. So, the seeds of anger we see today were planted last fall.
The free enterprise system works best when it encourages both accumulation and restraint. Restraint has been noticeably absent in recent years, and the polls about our financial institutions reflect that reality today. President Obama is right to try to get out in front of it.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.