Everyone on Wall Street Is Playing 'Heads I Win, Tails You Lose'

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The cliché: "Heads I win tails you lose," is an old game of rigged odds, but it has been getting a lot of play among this week's opinion writers, concerned as they are with the state of our financial industry. Last week, Huffington Post columnist Raymond Learsy wrote, "We as citizens, no longer feel able, through our elected officials, to stem the influence, the systematic 'Heads I win, Tails you lose' of our financial institutions." Then, in a column posted yesterday, The Washington Post's Roger Cohen wrote about Citigroup's recent settlement saying, "It was so certain that the investments were the financial equivalent of my used car that it bet against them -- heads I win, tails you lose." And in today's New York Times, Joe Nocera writes that Jon Corzine's $12 million severance fee with MF Global shows "the extent to which 'heads-I-win-tails-you-lose' remains the operative concept for Wall Street compensation."

Where it's from: The helpful people at firstmention.com have found references to the phrase as early as 1802 in the Congressional Record. It's a way of saying, "I win, no matter what," while trying to trick someone into thinking they are getting a fair deal. Thus, it's long existed as an occasional metaphor for a confusing financial system that seems to guarantee success for the executives that run it as well as a metaphor for a range of other "rigged" systems from the NFL to liberal logic. But the 2008 crash really bumped up the repeated references, with critics of Wall Street like Andrew Cuomo, Barack Obama, Paul Krugman, and Ben Stein making prominent use of the phrase to discuss the roots of the crisis.

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Why it's catching on: The columnists mentioned weren't always writing directly of the Occupy Wall Street protests this week, but it appears they borrowed the vernacular of the movement and its supporters. Two weeks ago, OccupyWallSt.org used the phrase four times in the space of nine days. In an editorial entitled "OWS to Supercommittee: Accountability, Not Austerity!" The Nation editors wrote, "The debate, we are told, is between painful cuts and painful demands for new revenues. For the richest 1 percent, that's a 'heads I win, tails you lose' equation that secures their already comfortable position for the foreseeable future." Two days later, in The Globe and Mail, columnist Tabatha Southey wrote a "cheat sheet" urging Canadians to support the protest because, "we're tied to America's heads-I-win-tails-you-lose banking system." 

Why else: Of course, columnists aren't just borrowing the language of Occupy Wall Street. They are borrowing the movement's ideas too, giving more column inches to issues of executive pay and fairness in the financial system than they might otherwise. So a cliché that's often used to address issues of finance -- it does, after all, involve the image of physical coinage -- will likely turn up more often as a result. 

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