What a band of Reddit investors taught us about institutions
By Scott Zipperle - February 16, 2021

The wave of populist energy that surged through the nation’s most elite financial power centers last month really had the wolves of Wall Street biting their nails. Hedge fund managers didn’t take kindly to Reddit users pumping up the price of stocks they’d shorted. But when they called on their friends to help, caused outrage among the online community. Now some are calling for hedge fund managers to serve jail time, while the folks at Robinhood, the digital trading app, are facing over 30 civil suits for imposing abrupt trading restrictions.

In all the uproar, there is an overarching lesson to be learned about how important it is for our battered institutions to restore their credibility and unify the body politic.

If you’re a Robinhood user, you may have noticed last month you were unable to buy GameStop, AMC, or Nokia. You may also have noticed that official conversation on the topic was a little one-sided in the news. While CNBC hosted institutional giants hoping to save their positions, Reddit and Discord silenced all dissent by temporarily taking down the fora where small retail traders developed their plan, citing hate speech.

This coordinated response from the stuffed shirts to combat Reddit investors backfired. Instead of causing the stock pumpers to back off, it only rallied more energy against hedge fund managers and corporate elites, and prompted calls to “hold the line.” An odd sense of broad, anti-elite solidarity swept the online community, gaining support from folks like billionaire inventor Elon Musk and Dave Portnoy, founder of the Barstool Sports media company. Unlikely lawmakers in Congress as well as their supporters have joined in — Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) even seemed to find common ground for a moment, as both called for a congressional investigation of Robinhood. (Of course, it didn’t last.)

The point is, while everyone has agreed for years that our nation is more civically fragmented than ever, a group of rag-tag gamers just managed to unify the nation in a way little else has. And while the mainstream media has attempted to explain this away by blaming Trumpism or white supremacy, the short squeeze rises above partisan politics to make something abundantly clear:

The credibility of our institutions haven’t been sabotaged by the bygone President Trump or Trumpian populism. They’re sabotaged by their own occupants as they change the rules and rig the game against ordinary people in broad daylight.

Many are righteously angered by our institutions’ vulgar display of power. And rightly so. But while such frustration could easily lead us to adopt an “eat the rich” mentality, with calls for increased regulations to bring the institutional elites to heel, we actually need quite the opposite.

We need stronger institutions fortified by moral decency and a regard for the communities they steward. Greed and corruption are part of human nature, regardless of how rich or poor you are. Our institutions are supposed to stand as a bulwark against these faults.

We will always have the elites. Healthy societies will always contain a social hierarchy — there’s absolutely no fighting it. Instead, we must accept that with the understanding that our American way of life grants opportunities for upward mobility, and learn to properly guide it. In a time where trust amongst different groups is dangerously low, we must return to the fundamentals of how to raise social capital and invest in a cultural infrastructure that truly unifies.

Trust is earned through commonly agreed upon rules that are at least semi-permanent and an expectation that those rules will apply equally to everyone. When our institutions apply different sets of rules to fit a multitude of standards that inform us of what is right and wrong, we invite the conditions for division, animosity, and distrust to fester.

Examples of such behavior abound: elites who oppose school choice, yet send their children to private schools; politicians who imposed strict COVID-19 restricts caught vacationing and attending large dinner parties without masks; actors with private jets lecturing us about how we need less gas-fueled cars on the road. The list goes on.

The coordinated effort by Wall Street, the media, and Big Tech to crash meme stocks’ meteoric rise is just one of many demonstrations that make one thing clear: We need new elites who take seriously the dangers that moral pluralism poses against the credibility of the institutions they occupy and the health of us commons.

The r/WallStreetBets story may have run its course. But it’s helped us understand the consequences of holding different subgroups to differing sets of standards.

Scott Zipperle is a Young Voices contributor. Follow him on Twitter @scottzipperle.

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