Wednesday, January 14, 2009

If You're So Rich, Why Ain't You Smart?

Bernie Madoff is running more scams from “house arrest” in his luxury apartment than Al Capone ran from his jail cell. The CEOs of the “Big Three” automakers drive down to Washington in SUVs, covered in sackcloth and ashes, and walk away with tens of billions in taxpayers' money, all for a little bit of groveling. A good half of the bailout money has already been sucked into a black hole and literally no one knows where it went; the only thing clear is that it has not gone to any of the “regular people” who needed it the most. In short, our economic system is being held hostage by the inheritors of the high-seas pirate tradition, and everyone is helpless to do anything about it.

The missing piece in the logic of all this is as follows. The economy needs “rescuing” because of bad decisions made by the people who have been running the show. Those bad decisions reflect... what? Plain bad luck? Stupidity? Criminal intent? Can these guys really all be victims of circumstance, considering that they got where they are by clawing their way up various corporate (and governmental) ladders, leaving thousands of lifeless bodies behind on the side of the road? And, if they're so incompetent, why is all the bailout money being handed over to... them?? And if they're such bad news for their respective corporations and agencies, why hasn't one of them lost their job? Why, in fact, are they receiving the same perks, benefits, and bonuses that they were receiving before the crash?

The answer, as you might guess, is blatantly obvious, which is why it has totally escaped the attention of the media, not to mention Congress and the Bush administration. These people are smart – very smart. They're smarter than any bureaucrat, smarter than any elected official (whether in office or about to be), smarter than any political appointee... smarter than almost anyone, in fact, with the possible exception of Alan Greenspan, and look where all his brains got him! And the thing about smart people is that their failures are still better than other people's successes. Even the rare CEO who is fired, or retires in disgrace, is going to pull down tens or hundreds of millions in compensation – way more than the average schmuck can ever hope to see. These people live in a different world – a rarefied world, where you get rich and stay that way simply by virtue of membership. “Results” have very little to do with it. Corporate “performance” is correlated with executive compensation not at all. And how people gain membership in this exclusive club is still under investigation. For some, it's simple inheritance – think “George W. Bush”. For others, it's the right schools, clubs, marriages, etc. And for others, it's actual competence – at least initially. And “competence” in this case refers not only to native intelligence and talent but things like social dominance, “self-presentation”, and the ability to intimidate and bend others to your will. (It also helps to be a little bit crazy, and I'll deal with that issue at another time.) In any case, you start up the ladder based on ability and achievement, but at some point there is a fragmentation process, by which your fate goes in one direction and the company's (and the economy's) fate goes another way. This phenomenon is so familiar by now that it is universally accepted... and yet one wonders, would America have reached the heights of technology and power that it did if all the old-time Industrial Revolution leaders had had this attitude? Seems highly doubtful... and this, in fact, may be a sign of the impending fall from grace of the American economy, and the whole American experiment – the fact that our CEOs and political leaders are acting like Nero, who viewed the burning of Rome as a work of art – i.e., his own. One could almost argue that this ultimate self-destruction is mysteriously built into our DNA... that when a society, or system, gets too big, and too collectivized, and too dominated by a power elite, that its masters turn against it in a kind of paradoxical act of altruism.

But it's too early to make pronouncements of this sort yet – that will have to wait until Obama “solves” all the crises that have afflicted this country for so long. Then we'll have a better idea where we stand. But in the meantime we are faced with the ongoing spectacle of the “captains of industry” ceding their respective industries to the government for a few pieces of silver... and guys like Bernie Madoff continuing to scam people, like some guy taking side bets on the way to the electric chair. One wonders what this society has come to, when people of this sort are considered “leaders”, and granted more respect, power and prestige than anyone else. Again, I say look to Rome. When a society has become sufficiently distorted and perverted, only the most distorted and perverted people will be set on high. And they certainly cannot be expected to change anything, since the world is now exactly the way they want it, i.e. the way it ought to be.

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