The more I read about Economics, the more I realize how little these theories have to do with reality. The number of real forces they ignore to make the math work is ridiculous. Greenspan only realized this after the crash, saying that he thought banks and investment firms would always act in their own best interests.
The roles of greed, ego, malice, acrimony, and other human emotions both simple and complex, which drive every decision from consumer behavior to investment behavior, are completely ignored in Economic theory. Yet these forces are the elephant in the room when it comes to debating economic policy. In the book and subsequent documentary about the Enron scandal, “The Smartest Guys In The Room”, it is a repeated meme that the driving personalities behind the policies that ultimately destroyed the company were not focused on balancing market forces in a plan of long term managed growth. They were instead focused on extracting as much cash as possible from every angle possible, with absolutely zero regard for the health and well being of the consumers, the other workers involved, or even the company itself.
This wasn’t Vulture Capitalism, it was Viral Capitalism, rapacious parasites with no concern for the host, breeding and consuming until it all lay in a composting heap. At which point the virus simply moves on to a new host. More than once we are made aware that (if I may paraphrase) “These were nerds, kids who got beat up in High School, who were going to show everyone.”
I have yet to read an Economic theory that has metrics for hubris, financial arrogance, personal vendettas and nerd rage. Yet the story of finance is blistered with stories of massively driven people whose motivations are the same as Genghis Khan or Alexander – conquest and power. Bill Gates, despite his philanthropy, is little more than a benevolent financial dictator. But I have to wonder – would he have not done more good had he paid fair wages and benefits, not strong armed competition, made better product? Even now, Microsoft employs a small army of “private subcontractors” to avoid a whole host of Labor regulations.
It’s great that he builds schools in Mozambique. But that money has been taken from schools in Redmond. That 50 Billion dollars had to come from somewhere.
At some point, after an equilibrium with wages, prices, and costs has been reached, to continue to grow profits, you have to start fucking people. You fuck your consumers, your workers, or both. This is just reality. You cannot get blood from a stone, but you can sell it inferior goods based on a massive marketing campaign written around arousing an emotional response in place of a rational one, or you can cut the stone’s wages, benefits, or drive the stone to work 14 hours a day. You get the point.
When the people charged with making decisions for the good of the company are complete sociopaths, obsessed with the meth addiction that is the high of wielding absolute power and bathing in gold plated hookers and cocaine mixed with diamond dust, their perspective on how much they give a fuck about anyone or anything but their own Caligula-esque lifestyle becomes a little warped. When the focus is that which keeps one feeling like Jesus would if He was rock star and Paris Hilton combined, what’s a few oily birds? Or dead miners? Stuck gas pedals? Exploding trucks? A few e coli deaths? Throw some more of someone elses money at it, and that’s a weekend, folks! Off to the Hamptons! What are they going to do, fire me? Well, it’ll be hard to get by on this $220 million severance package, but I guess I can make do until one of my golf course buddies gets me another multi-million dollar job.
THIS is what Greenspan didn’t see coming.
It takes a certain personality to make decisions based on pure math with no regard for the very real consequences to others. And these business and economic theoreticals make it that much easier for these narcissistic egomaniacs to not only make but enforce these decisions. And then laugh about those that DO face these devastating consequences. How little humanity do you have to have to do this? Well, Enron not only paid huge amounts to open the California energy market, not only overcharged California for it’s “services” – which included planned outages and rolling blackouts FOR NO REASON other than to drive up profits – and not only absorbed and then raided the pensions of the smaller companies they relied on for labor, but their “traders” mocked and made jokes about little old ladies freezing to death in the dark.
I am unaware of the number in the equation for Say’s Law that accounts for massive, completely inhuman douchebaggery.
As political discourse in this country has become more partisan, it has also become more rhetorical. These “free market” ideas pushed by both parties are imbued with a righteousness, an unassailable “this is American freedom!” morality that stifles the real debate on our system. However, I believe it is NOT Capitalism per se at fault. Capitalism is just a description of a theoretical construct. It is no more malicious or benevolent than the theory of gravity. It is descriptive, not definitive. It does not affect reality, it is merely informed by it – you can’t flap your arms and fly away just because you swap a number in the gravitational constant.
We have focused our unique brand of business to base profits on imbalances, corruption, oppression, exploitation, removing the consequences that would push back against these strategies. Instead of forcing companies to pay fair wages, which would balance market forces, which would put more cash into the hands of the workers, who then become consumers, who REALLY drive the economy, we allow – nay, we REWARD – companies that exploit workers in wage depressed areas to perpetuate that imbalance. Instead of focusing on increasing market share by designing, engineering, and manufacturing superior products that command a price premium that in turn justifies increased wages (which then drives increased spending, which then drives increased standard of living… you see how this works?), companies cut costs, duck government regulations, pay off Health and Safety oversight with porn and weed, and spend a lot of energy on convincing the consumer that their offshore-produced piece of lead based horseshit is a perfectly good item that certainly will NOT catch fire and kill your entire family on Christmas Eve.
The point of this is not that these rewards are inherent in the free market. I think the “the antidote to Capitalism is Democracy” idea put forth by Michael Moore in this regard is a red herring, as much as I loved his film, “Capitalism: A Love Story”. Fact is that these loopholes and grey areas are exploited by Communists, by Socialists, by anarchists, Libertarians, Freedomtarians, Constitutionalists, Whigs, Tories, Bull Moosers, Pastafarians… a quick perusal of human history shows this greater fact: there is NO system that cannot be corrupted or exploited by those who have the drive and ego to do so.
Marxism as expressed by Soviet Russia, China, and Korea all exhibit the same hallmark – a massively egomaniacal leader whose only concern is their own wealth and power. It simply doesn’t matter what the rhetoric is, what the “theory” is. The common thread is the psychology of the PEOPLE, not the math. THIS is what economists ignore. And as far as math goes, sure. However, when applying these theories to actual humanity, these forces HAVE to be accounted for – this is the fundamental flaw in ALL discussions of Poli-Economics. It becomes incumbent on a society to decide – through legislation, regulation, whatever – how to mitigate these forces, to limit the damage done by ego obsessed sociopaths completely removed from the consequences of their actions, to try to bend this conqueror mindset to the greater good.
Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Kim Jong Il, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, all wrapped their narcissism in Collectivist ideas, true. However, the debate on whether these men were Leftists or Righties is irrelevant. The truth is that they all exploited a populist movement to serve their own ends. In the most practical sense, this is just a proven path to power. Again, the idea that any economic or political construct has an inherent moral superiority is a fallacy. There is not construct so “good” at it’s core that it cannot be warped and used to serve the greed and ego of a person, or people. None. Not a one. Religions, governments, corporations, these are all just aggregates of people. Flawed, fucked up people, who have the oddest reasons for doing what they do. People who are themselves aggregates of a complex web of forces that influence every single move they make.
Fact is that no society that has ever embraced a monolithic theoretical system and put it into practice has lasted. Life is too complex. No single theory born of Man can account for all the variables, and as soon as you abandon real life issues for rhetorical purity, you’re done. DONE. And yet that is where we are as a Nation – where it is in fact the American system’s ability to change to address new issues that makes it so effective. Yet here we are, forcing “Free Market Fundamentalism” as the new religion. With textbooks as Bibles, they come, preachin’ the word, with arcane equations, and exotic explanations.
But how do you put into an equation “but he was bullied as a child, and so his attachment to not being seen as a victim will affect his negotiations with other dominant personalities, and lead him to form stronger bonds with people he feels represent the vision he has for himself as a powerful person, and will exacerbate his contempt for those he feels represent the weakling he fears he is”? What Greek character do you use for that? Is it divisible by “she has developed a personal strategy of allying herself with strong women, and then betraying them to get ahead, seeking to dominate them as she has seen men do”? What are the Distributive principles that govern “he really wanted to design evening wear, but his Dad called him a fag, and now he hides this behind a self hating wall of oppressive hyper-maleness, acting out a personality he loathes in order to gain, at least in his head, the acceptance of his long dead Father”?
Does that go before or after the unit cost coefficient? I forgetted.
The problem that faces Progressives is not to defend Keynesian policies, or refute the absurdities of Classicists, NeoC0ns, and Reaganomics – history has done that, to be honest, and the evidence is right the fuck there the textbook Texas is trying so hard to rewrite. The challenge before us, in my mind, is to break the stranglehold that pure rhetoric has on the tribal nature of our lazy ass voters. As long as we all stick to these easily vomited purely theoretical, dogmatic and rhetorical talking points, it will do nothing but further the Culture War, one in which those willing – and sociopathically able – to prey on the lowest, most base emotions of the voting public will win, at least in the short term.
As you’ll see in the coming posts, I have a mantra of my own: Ego Is The Enemy. What seems to be missing from the economic and political discourse is this idea: people are people. Not numbers, not points on a graph, not votes, not unfeeling poll numbers to be manipulated for power. They are living, loving, fearful, amazing creatures who can dole out the abhorrent or divine in equal measure. Being poor isn’t proof of a human’s failing, nor is being rich proof of virtue. Nor should government policy be making that personal judgment.
The idea that certain theoretical ideals have a purity of morality to them is absurd, yet is the single most dominant idea in our current political caucus. It is a toxic part of the “conventional wisdom” that remains woefully unchallenged by either side. WE are morally superiority because we love FREEDOM and LIBERTY. Yet it is the egotism and callousness of this belief in a moral superiority that allows Republican and Tea Party – not to mention Blue Dog Dem, Corporate Dem, and the “fiscal Conservative/Socially Liberal” Independent -politicians to talk about cutting Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Unemployment, AFDC, Head Start and Health Care reform, with absolute fearlessness that their constituents are too disconnected, are too tribally entrenched in their Party’s rhetorical devices to take three fucking seconds to realize that the dick in their ass is their own.
In the end, for me, Progressive politics are about PEOPLE. I am honestly willing to entertain a whole host of ideas on how to fix the seemingly overwhelming leaks in our National boat. If there’s a free market solution, great. If it’s legislative, regulatory, whatever, I have no qualms about exploring the infinite ways to balance financial, social and political forces to achieve better results. I try to keep my ego out of it, to view pragmatically what solutions have shown promise, and what new ideas might have the best chance of working. At the core, tho, is PEOPLE. My fellow citizens. Let’s face it, How the FUCK do Progressives miss out on a Populist movement? One in an election based on the ECONOMY?? THAT is truly absurd. A testimony to how much of the Progressive movement has itself embraced egopolitics. Led by our own rhetorical purists, demagogues, and talking heads, the overwhelming evidence of the success of our pragmatic solutions went unnoticed and unheralded. And it cost us.
So that becomes our challenge. To make the next few years about PEOPLE. And weaning people off of tribal egopolitics to see real solutions based on reason, not fear. Even (especially!) the ones we are not politically or socially aligned with. This is not “us against them”, this is “We the motherfucking People”.
The practical application of this in terms of the economy – for all that nice feel good stuff – is to make this NOT about competing theoretical economic rhetoric. For too long, the Right has led the narrative on economic policy, even with this Administration. They have led with this “aspirational” economic picture, a rosy idea that “when YOU’RE RICH, they’re coming for YOUR money!”. The counter to this is not to debate the mechanisms on paper, or in the halls of Harvard Business School. It is to bring the pragmatic and practical back to politics, to try to sidestep the temptation of ego-politics, to compete with the Right on their own well-defined turf. We must expose and explain this culture of narcissism, greed, and selfish sociopathy, to combat those who have corrupted the system without being cast as being against the system itself.
A system is just a system. Any aggregate of people – churches, corporations, governments, football teams, World of Warcraft raid groups – is only as effective as the people involved. There are always the exploiters, there are always the ones who follow the spirit of the system. The challenge is to balance the restrictions to minimize the harm, while allowing as much freedom to do good. This is true of ANY system.
And if we are to put into place real solutions based on the Progressive principles of equality, opportunity, and fairness, we’re going to have to do more than hope and change. We’re going to have to get the American people to drop the politics-as-college-football and do the math.