Monday, August 30, 2010

The Paradox of “Humble Origins”

There was a slide show on the Internet a couple of weeks ago, and the subject was the “humble origins” of the people who are now seen as being, basically, in charge of everything – especially your fate, your future, your pocketbook. These are, as Tom Wolfe put it, the “masters of space and time”; they have somehow, mysteriously, ascended to the heights of material, secular power – which means they are masters of everything that counts in this totally materialistic world, where merit is measured solely by one's portfolio. Truly, the “prosperity gospel” has never been as widely recognized as the ultimate truth as it is at this moment – the rich are, by definition, meritorious, and everyone else is, basically, a schmuck. And, I should note, this attitude stands side-by-side with the concept of the “noble poor” -- but the difference is that the rich, by and large, got to where they are through their own efforts, which, in America, is still considered a valid basis for “extra credit”. The poor may be noble, but they are victims as well, which means that any “merit” they have is not so much individual as collective – and we see this in the politics of victimization, where people are defined by their race/gender/ethnic group/sexual preference rather than as individuals. Whereas when it comes to the masters of space of time, it's all about individualism, and heaven forbid it should ever be attributed to race, gender, or ethnic group – although, truth be told, it never hurts to be a male WASP, especially if you don't have any other competencies (think: George W. Bush).

And there are paradoxes even within the ranks of the rich and powerful. Some can be shown to have gotten to where they are through sheer talent, ambition, and social dominance – and possibly a bit of sharp dealing as well. But even within these ranks there are the hangers-on... the underachieving sons... the left-behind brothers... you know the type, like the guy who wound up shot in the rowboat in the “Godfather” sequel. Family ties are important... but they are not the last word. At some point, the ones with ambition have to leave the losers behind... and we have seen this any number of times in politics as well as business and finance. Every family has its “dreamers”, and the way they are dealt with is worth at least one large volume. The paradox, of course, is that these “dreamers” may, in fact, be the most moral members of the family in question – but that is part of their problem, and the reason why they have to be put away. What I'm saying is that the Regime is not immune to the awkward effects of DNA and “diversity”. The robber baron of yesterday may give rise to the Medieval poetry major of today; there are many stories of this sort. And what happens when said poetry major comes into his inheritance? Well, they don't – I mean, not really. Because by that time the vast fortunes accumulated by the strong, “alpha-type” parent have been placed into the competent hands of a “trust”, and that trust is administered by the coldest, most hard-hearted human beings on the planet. So wealth has a curious way of becoming self-perpetuating in the sense that it becomes immune to human foibles – it becomes an entity unto itself. Can anyone claim that the major “foundations” are dependent, for their management and guidance, on the whims of any one descendant of the original family? The ones that are – or were – are quickly liquidated. Only a competent “management team” that shares, or defines, the values of the controlling elite, is capable of keeping a given locus of wealth alive and well. This, of course, is both the plus and the downside of membership in the elite – you have all the privileges but you also have to conform to the standards and mores of the group. Otherwise, you are cast out – and in these times, idiosyncratic, non-conforming wealth is a rare thing, if it exists at all. All of the rich have membership, or at least a courtesy card, with the controlling elite – if not, they are quickly and firmly dealt with.

Having said all this, we go back to what I call the paradox of humble origins – the fact that, indeed, many of the people who can be said to be “in charge” came from backgrounds that were not at all promising. They were, in other words, indistinguishable from the vast mass of individuals who had opportunities... but at some point those opportunities were taken up with vigor by a few, and passed by by all the rest. So what can be said about the rich? Well, by American standards, they are, by definition, the most meritorious, superior beings in the country, if not in the world. Because in America, merit is defined by one thing, and one thing only: net worth in dollars. And this is not simply a “materialistic” phenomenon; it goes back to the very origins of Protestantism and its notions as to what constitutes merit – or a “sign of grace”. At some point, the Sermon on the Mount got turned on its head, and, as Dickens points out in a number of his novels, wealth – or at least prosperity, or comfort – was accepted as the chief sign of favor from God, and the poor were considered... well, if not cursed, than surely forsaken. This is why there was such ambivalence about the merits of material charity in the 19th Century – with an attitude perhaps not much different from the Hindus, the notion was, maybe the poor, on some level, deserve their state... and certainly the rich deserve theirs, because they are, demonstrably, more ambitious, more persistent, and more resourceful than the vast majority of humanity. Totally forgotten was “Blessed are the poor...” and so on.

What I'm saying is there is nothing new about this attitude – it has been with us almost from the start. And in one sense, it is uniquely American – I mean, Europe at least had a dissenting voice in Rousseau... and I suppose we did as well, in Thoreau. But the American "meme" has always been one of infinite opportunity, expansion, "progress", and devil take the hindmost. Admittedly, there have always been people who claimed that being poor was not, by definition, a shameful thing. And yet, the main force of the American mystique has been in the opposite direction – that there is nothing wrong with being born poor (the “born in a log cabin” idea), but to stay poor, with all the opportunities surrounding you on all sides – well, that's a disgrace. And again, there is an ambivalence – the “poor” are treated with great gobs of charity, but along with it comes paternalism and condescension – and mainly, mechanisms for insuring that the poor stay that way (at least by definition). (The liberals are absolute masters at this -- but the "conservatives" are starting to catch on as well.) In simplistic terms, we need the poor in order to feel rich. The poor, like the incarcerated, have a role to play – and that is to make the rest of us feel better... more resourceful... more ambitious... more energetic. The society matron who spoons out chicken soup once a month at the homeless shelter is greatly edified by the experience; it is now confirmed, without a doubt, that she is not only lucky but also full of merit. And the only price she has to pay for this assurance is her failure to always stay upwind of the homeless.

So... now that it has been established to everyone's satisfaction that only money counts, we confront, once again, the paradox of humble origins. And the main question is, if the majority of the elite come from humble origins, why do they seem to have so much trouble empathizing with the poor... or the ordinary, the struggling, the non-privileged? Why, in other words, do they seem to spend every waking moment plotting ways to enhance their own wealth at the expense of everyone else? Don't they look at the faces of the working class and see their own – or at least those of their parents? Why do they delight in enslaving everyone who does not share their ambitions or talents? And – do they differ, in this respect, from those who were born to wealth?

Now, when it comes to the “silver spoon” crowd... well, to begin with, it's notorious that the scions of wealthy families are notorious underachievers – not all, but a great number. Is this because the talent for making money is simply not one of those things that can be passed down from one generation to the other? Or does it have to do with some sort of Freudian syndrome – the dominant, powerful father vs. the submissive son who simply can never quite measure up? Much has been said, for example, about George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush in this regard. Are the sons of the powerful fathers doomed in this respect? But there are plenty of stories that seem to contradict this – stories of sons who, while not dominant in the raw, primitive way their fathers were, have nonetheless made their mark and vindicated their heritage. They have earned, in other words, what they were born to. In many cases they have achieved more than their fathers – at least in some other areas of endeavor. (My favorite example is Avery Cardinal Dulles, the son of John Foster Dulles.)

The least one can say about those “born to the purple” is that, if they have the least bit of insight, they will realize that their rank in life is based largely on circumstances they had absolutely nothing to do with. This – shall we say -- “royal humility” is a rare thing, but not unheard of... and one might even count it as a factor in, for example, the Kennedy brothers' apparent concern for the poor and underprivileged over the years. (Some might call it “liberal guilt” as well. I challenge anyone to define the difference when it comes to cases like the Kennedys.) In any case, I say this is all to the good – better than a wealthy family spinning off nothing but worthless playboys who spend all of their time on yachts, in sports cars, and in Monte Carlo casinos. But there is another facet of all this as well, which is a common lack of ambition – at least in the material sense. If you're born with, and inherit, more money than almost anyone else has, what possible motivation do you have for making more? Sure, you're going to hang on to what you have – thanks to an army of advisors – but spend time plotting to get even more? This does not seem to be a priority activity among those who were born wealthy -- and, frankly, that's a good thing. I always say, vote for the rich man because he's less likely to be bribed.

But those who are from “humble origins” -- ah, that's a different matter. These are cases where a person starts out indistinguishable from tens of millions of other “unwashed” -- and yet, by hook or crook, manages to surpass them all and become their master. Now what is his mind set? Some would say he is the perpetual “arriviste” -- the nouveau riche – and as such, feels a kind of perpetual inferiority to those whose ranks he has recently joined. He's in the same position, in other words, as the guy attending his first “upper-crust” social function, wearing the first tuxedo he's ever owned. Even if he could buy and sell half the people there, he still feels inferior – an outsider. This is the popular conception, but I say that it is, by and large, totally in error. The “self-made man” in the company of the silver-spoon, prep-school crowd has every reason to feel superior – at least by American, egalitarian standards... for he did it all on his own, with no help from name, family, breeding, race, creed, or anything else. Because while money is the sole measure of merit in our society, it still counts as to how one obtained it. “Trust fund babies” are considered... well... a bit decadent and superfluous – and so many of them are! (I've met a few.) These are people who, perhaps through no fault of their own, might qualify – based on their own merits – for a day-labor job, but not much of anything else. Who are they compared to a guy who grew up in Hell's Kitchen and made his first million by the time he was 30? In the American scheme of things, they are so much chaff in the wind... and he is rock-solid (and market-wise). They might have grown up in “the Hamptons” and attended “The ____ School”, and the Ivy League, but this rough-and-tumble guy from Delancy Street could eat them for breakfast... and they know it, and he knows it, and they know he knows it, and he knows they know it, and.... et cetera.

So then, how does one define “merit” in this society? Is it only about bank balances, or something more? Because Americans do have an ambivalence towards wealth, and “royalty” -- they admire it, but resent it at the same time. Even if “any boy born in a log cabin can become president”, it makes more sense in a way for some boy born in a mansion in Westchester County... it satisfies our atavistic longing for rank and hierarchy. But the “self-made man” -- ah! There is the ideal American type. He does not carry the burden of inherited wealth that is so inimical to the American ideal... but at the same time he is wealthy; he is the Horatio Alger story come to life. And as such, he is the ideal candidate... not only for political office, but for any other position of esteem we choose to elevate him to. (And in case you're skeptical as to the sheer force of this idea, I invite you to attend any Amway rally. You will go home a believer, trust me.)

But what does the “self-made man” think of himself? -- especially in contrast to the vast majority who were left behind in the race to the top? He thinks – and I'm speculating here, I admit, but I'm willing to bet that I'm right most of the time – that those others are all wimps, cowards, and underachievers... and that they deserve to be left behind in the dust, and that he deserves to be placed on high and made a judge over them, and a sealer of their various and pathetic fates. Yes – he of humble origins is now the strong man, and his attitude toward the bulk of humanity is that if they had had any ambition, they would be sharing the throne... but they didn't, and they don't, and that's all there is to it. They have, in other words, chosen their lot, which is to be slaves, serfs, servants... that's all they are good for, while he, on the other hand, has shown his mettle and is suited to be their master, because... who better? If he is superior to them in every way that counts, isn't it only right, and just, that he should be their master and judge, and they should be his subjects and slaves? Isn't that the way the world has worked, from time immemorial? Wouldn't it be a gross distortion of nature to try and arrange things any other way? (They don't read Nietzsche, but if they did they would find a kindred soul.) So he is secure in his position, and in his self-assessment... and the masses are, well... they can take it or leave it, basically. It they take it, they will enjoy the peace that comes with a life sentence... and if they leave it, they will be hunted down like the renegades they are, and suitably dealt with.

Now, you will notice, in all this, that at no point is there any mention of morals, or ethics, or righteousness... or of charity... and certainly not of “egalitarianism”, or “democracy”, or “the people” (except in the role of slaves). These are ideas that have now been firmly relegated to the ash heap, in the light of the “final solution” to the problem of the undeserving having any freedom... and of the “bourgeoisie” and “kulaks” having any resources (or anything to leave to their children). We have arrived at the same point as any primitive tribe on some South Pacific island when Captain Cook showed up – one strong man, a bunch of goons, and everyone else in a state of slavery. But, as it is all writ very large, the “strong man” is now called “the Regime” -- i.e. a cabal of strong man, working in unison... the “goons” are called “congresses, parliaments, and administrations”... and the “slaves” are called the working class and the “middle class” (or what is left of it).

And when it comes to “humble origins” -- this is not an insurance against tyranny. In fact, it is, if anything, a natural conduit to tyranny – due, for certain, to the human condition and to our evil nature. All it takes is a bit of power, or money, and then come the comparisons of our own lot to those of the rabble... and then comes a warm feeling of merit (deserved, of course) and superiority... and then comes the notion that, by rights, one should not only enjoy one's own prosperity but should be entitled to rule over the rest of humanity... and, with the resources to make it so, comes tyranny. Thus, from humble origins comes much evil... and it is not the fault of poverty, nor of wealth per se, but of plain fallible human nature and concupiscence.

How does one define a true saint? A person of humble origins who remains humble no matter what riches life sends his way. And how many of those do we see among the pantheon of the world's elite in our time? I have yet to find one – and is it because it's impossible by definition? I would say, not impossible but wildly improbable. It is an exclusive club... and no one is admitted who does not share the world view of all the rest.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

At Their Beck and Call

I witnessed a rare event for Pittsburgh on Friday – a totally cloudless sky the entire day. And I suppose that the clouds that would normally have been here have all moved east to Washington, D.C. in order to loom over what the mainstream media are treating as "Glenn Beck's Hate Fest 2010”... on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, no less! In the very footprints of Martin Luther King, Jr.! And... but hey, isn't that federal property? Which means that someone in the federal government – SOMEONE WHO WORKS FOR OBAMA – had to give these wing-nuts a permit to use the space. Clearly an investigation is in order, to find out who is responsible for this outrage! Why, the Very Reverend Al Sharpton has to hold his own rally in some obscure corner of D.C., while Glenn Beck gets the National Mall?!? Oh, the humanity...

But of course letting the Glenn Beck crowd blow off steam in D.C. is actually a smart move on the part of the powers that be. It's certainly no skin off their noses; Al Sharpton will recover in time; and besides, they know a dirty little secret about Beck's fans and/or the “tea partiers”... the same one I know and am about to tell you.

For while it is true that the Glenn Beck/tea party crowds are opposed to much, if not all, of what the Obama administration represents on the domestic side – you know, general ideas like socialism, collectivism, big government... and specific programs like the bailouts, the economic stimulus plan, ObamaCare, and so on – on the foreign-policy side it's a different matter, and neither side wants to admit how much it agrees with the other.

For if I were to attend the rally on Saturday, and take every person in attendance aside, and ask them the same question -- “What think ye of Iraq and Afghanistan?” -- I would, I imagine, get roughly the same answer from nearly all... and it would be some conglomeration of “defending the American way of life”, “defending our freedoms”, “supporting our troops”, “spreading democracy”, “not cutting and running”, “defeating terrorism”... you know, the same lame, stale hash that was ginned up by Bush & Co. and is being carried forward unaltered by Obama and crew. And if I were to breathe a word of Israel... well! Then it would be all about their “right to exist”, and “existential threats”, and “allies forever”, and “our best (or only) friend in the Middle East”, and our obligation to defend them “at all costs”. For, you see, these are memes which have evolved into tics – they're the sort of responses a standard-variety “conservative” will give even if lying abed in a deep coma – and they are the reason that all the protestations when it comes to domestic programs and policy, big government, and socialism are doomed to defeat.

And why is that, you ask? Well – far better minds than my own have pointed out that you cannot practice what is euphemistically called a "robust" or “muscular” foreign policy (AKA empire-building) while preserving freedoms on the home front. It's a built-in contradiction, and simply cannot be done. And why, in turn, is that? Because this “muscular” foreign policy requires a massive political and financial infrastructure – a large standing military, weapons development and manufacture, logistics and other forms of support (especially medical – for troops and veterans alike), and intelligence-gathering capability – not to mention a bloated diplomatic corps with its countless hangers-on and all of its own support requirements. To put it another way, it requires an administration, and Congress, willing to spend a huge portion of the taxpayers' money on things that the taxpayers have never voted for, and that might not survive for five minutes in a free market. In other words, empire building requires big government, period. And it also requires a broadly-defined domestic tax base and a massive bureaucracy devoted to collecting said taxes and punishing tax avoidance. In other words, more big government. Then you have other things on the domestic side like VA facilities, military bases, job retraining programs, education programs... all the earmarks, in other words, of the garrison state. And all of this is supposed to, somehow, coexist with an otherwise free society with minimum taxation and minimum intrusion of government into the lives of citizens? It simply can't be done. And if even if you could eliminate all the “social programs” the conservatives hate so much... and the bailouts, subsidies, stimulus plans... public education schemes... the entire “left wing”, if you will, of the government... the needs of empire would still require government to remain large and grow ever larger.

So this is the secret the Beck Brigades and tea partiers don't know about themselves – that they are, in fact, just as much for big government as anyone else. And this is why it's no particular threat to the administration to have them demonstrating and speechifying down on the Mall a few blocks from the White House... because ultimately they are on the same side. And when it comes to the domestic agenda, well, the administration's captive media can make short work of that; their job is to keep the citizenry on the defensive when it comes to domestic issues and provide a convenient soft spot when it comes to war. So the great co-opting proceeds apace... and, as usual, all that will be left that everyone can agree on is the felt need for America to flex its muscles anywhere in the world and at any time it sees fit – and the administration will say, thank you very much... and it will be business as usual. And no one who attends the rally on Saturday will ever make the connection – which is exactly the way the powers that be want it.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

We Will Be Fooled Again

Another theme that I'm encountering with increasing frequency (and at increasing volume) as the mid-term elections loom is what I'll call "Republican nostalgia". Sounds grotesque, no? Might as well talk about "Bush/Cheney nostalgia". And yet what else could you call it? The whole idea is that Obama has been, and is being, a total catastrophe in terms of both domestic and foreign policy... and the only hope for America is to return the Republicans to power.

There are so many things wrong with this argument that I lose count. To start with, when it comes to foreign policy Obama's first term is Bush's third term. The foreign policy hand-off from the one to the other was absolutely seamless -- more so, I'll bet, than the hand-off from FDR to Truman (and they were in the same party). But, I'll admit, the Republicans aren't talking about foreign policy much these days. They have a lot to say about who "the enemy" is -- you know, those "Islamofascists" -- but not much to say about how to deal with them because, in fact, Obama is dealing with them the same way they would, which is to use any excuse to expand the American empire at the expense of Americans and their resources. And even Obama's alleged flirtations with, and alleged kowtowing to, Islam mean absolutely nothing; there has been no change in our policies toward Islam or the Arab world, and no change in our policies with regard to Israel. So on the foreign policy front, it's a complete wash... and yet try to get any Republican or Neocon to admit it.

On the domestic front, on the other hand... well, there is no other hand. The Great Recession got rolling under Bush, and it can be argued that he not only allowed it to happen, but many of the policies of his own administration aggravated the problem. And as to the solutions... well, the bailouts were Bush's idea, and the "economic stimulus program" was definitely in the cards as well. And let's face it, Obama is just as much a friend to the banks and financial conglomerates as Bush ever was... which is a nice way of saying they owned Bush, and they own him as well.

But wait! Didn't Obama come from a "humble background" -- unlike the silver-spoon upbringing Bush enjoyed? And hasn't this made him more sympathetic to the plight of the "little people"? Um... it's hard to say, since he and his wife spend so much time lording it over their subjects it's hard to get them to stop long enough to answer any questions. No -- Obama is the nouveau-ist of the nouveau, yet he acts as if he's the heir apparent to the throne of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe. So even in the "adding insult to injury" category Obama is no better than Bush.

The main point is, the Republicans are claiming that all that is needed for the country's recovery (from whatever) is for the voters to return them to power. But nearly all of our current problems either existed throughout or started in Bush's administration -- and how many were solved? Clearly none, because we're still dealing with all of them. In fact, if I try to figure out what Bush did right, other than the appointment of Roberts and Alito to the Supreme Court, I can't think of a blessed thing. And that's quite a record to use as the basis for recommending a return of the Republicans to power. Two unwinnable wars... the recession and all of the massive corruption that was behind it and came along with it... the national debt... and, really, nothing substantive done in areas like public education, entitlements, defense contracting... the list of what the Republicans didn't do for 8 years is endless. And yet they expect to present themselves as saviors of the American people from the evil Democrats? Please. The only thing that could save us now would be to put both the Democrats and the Republicans out of office permanently. But how easy is that going to be, considering that the entire system of election was designed by them, for their benefit? This system, that was supposed to represent freedom and democracy, has become one of the principal means by which the two parties hold on to power, and oppress the citizenry. And no plea on either of their parts is going to convince some people that, in fact, the nominal "two major parties" aren't really only one political party -- the two-headed beast we've all grown way too accustomed to. All of the political rhetoric is therefore marginal at best, and most often totally without meaning -- all it represents is hundreds and thousands of individuals each trying to grab their share of the political pie -- and in order to do this they have to fool a certain number of voters. That's really all there is to it; it's all about them, and totally not about the citizenry. And yet the citizenry bite down on the same poisoned apple time after time -- every four years at least, and every two years for the ones who consider themselves "good citizens". And then when the fleeting romance with new or re-elected officeholders is over, indignation arises once again... but true insight? That is the rarest of rare things in our time.

Friday, August 20, 2010

You've Been Warned

"China turns back on dollar" -- yes folks, it has finally happened. China seems to have decided that the dollar is passe as an investment, and has started investing heavily in... the euro! You remember the euro? That currency that was walking tall a year ago, but more recently was pronounced DOA? Well guess what, all of that is going to change based on China's decision... and just to show that they're serious, their representatives have been touring Europe of late -- to counterbalance, I'm sure, George Soros' advice, which is, basically, for Europe to start acting like the U.S. because that's what will net him the most profit.

So what else has China done? It has, according to the article, "cut its holdings of U.S. government debt by... 11 percent". So they're letting us down easy, as would be the case if they were interested in preserving their capital rather than trashing our economy; we can breathe a sigh of relief on that score, at least. And! Other Asian nations are following suit: Korea, Malaysia, and India. So the rats are deserting a sinking ship, sure enough... but not so fast that they wind up sinking with it (yeah, I know, it's a tough metaphor to visualize, but I think you get my meaning).

And what does this say about the world's financial power centers, in terms of where they are and who is in charge? Well -- the least one can say is that the U.S., which was lured into two too many wars that had nothing to do with its national security, is about to be abandoned, financially. In other words, we have been fooled, exploited, looted, and are now about to become second-class citizens in the world of finance. Oh, the thanks we get for being so willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of democracy! But guess what, the rest of the world, and especially Europe, is laughing their asses off. Poor old America -- so big, so strong, so impulsive, so foolish. Sooner or later we had to be farmed out to the rest home for failed enterprises -- and I see this move by China as a warning sign of that, and of much more besides. You see, the Chinese, and the Europeans as well, have the decided advantage of being amoral -- not "immoral" or evil, necessarily... just completely jaded, cynical, and post-ideational... whereas we're still stuck in the crusader mode, and thus highly vulnerable to being taken advantage of. Just about our only reliable ally left (if you discount all the places that profit handsomely from hosting our military bases) is Israel, which is -- no surprise -- also highly ideational. Their idea is the survival of Zionism at all costs... and ours is... well... the survival of Zionism at all costs. Because as much as we mouth words about "democracy", it's curious that the only places on earth that we are still worried about, and trying to force the blessing of democracy on, are Israel's enemies. And what's amazing about all this is that we've already seen that democracy per se doesn't always fill the bill; a democratically-elected government in the Near East might hate Israel every bit as much as a kingdom or dictatorship. But "democracy" is a fetish for us, and when you have a fetish, it's like a drug addiction -- you're just asking to be exploited by everyone else.

But all of that aside, it's time to start getting rid of dollars, if you haven't already done so... and buying, well... euros? I mean, China isn't putting it all in Swiss francs, or gold -- so maybe they're on to something. Or, maybe they realize that the true international financial power center is in Europe, and they will never let their favored currency become too distressed. Plus, there are probably too few Swiss francs available to satisfy China's investment needs -- and too little gold as well. And if you invest in something that's in short supply, the price is going to go up faster than you might like. The advantage of the euro is that there's a lot of it... and, despite the high-jinks of the "PIGS", it's clearly seen as having a more sound future than the dollar, which has just barely started absorbing all the major blows of failed American empire building, massive government spending, and borrowing. An investor with any sense would have bailed on the dollar a long time ago... except that they had to wait until the euro got over the cold it caught from us. So now they've recovered, and we're coming down with pneumonia -- but it was all quite predictable, it seems to me. I never did think that the "PIGS" could bring down the euro all by themselves; they were more than counterbalanced by the countries that had sound fiscal policies. So in that sense, the Greek "crisis" was probably just another hoax that made a few people a lot of money. But in any case, the Chinese aren't stupid, and they aren't going to shift their portfolio into something that's about to crash. Besides, they probably have a very good idea of where the financial power centers are, and who runs them. For all I know, they have come up with some sort of gentleman's agreement -- but one that, basically, leaves the U.S. out of the loop.

And thus, the twilight of democratic idealism, to the extent that it involves massive funding and borrowing. We could, if truly chastened, go back to the ideal of merely setting a good example... or we could continue to fight losing battles and wind up not only snubbed, but cast into the outer darkness by the cynical, sophisticated money changers of Europe and China. It's hard to know which it will be, but in these times anyone who bets on catastrophe is making, let's say, a fairly safe bet.

The Way It Wasn't

There is a rising tide of conservative (of both the neo- and paleo- varieties) commentary centered around one main theme: Obama is ruining the country. Which is to say, even though things weren't perfect up until his inauguration, they were still basically OK... but Obama and his henchmen intend to change all that, and they are doing so with upsetting rapidity. In fact, we may be past the point of no return, which means we're doomed! And, how did "we" ever let things come to this sorry pass?

Well... the first problem with this idea is that it comes up every time there's a Democratic president, going at least as far back as FDR. And yes, each of them contributed to the slow descent to where we find ourselves today... but being on the verge of socialism, collectivism, and tyranny is nothing new. We were at that point during FDR's time, and Truman's... maybe not so much JFK's, but definitely Johnson's... Carter's in some ways... certainly Clinton's... and now Obama's. Which is to say, we've been on the same "verge" for decades now... but somehow never seem to completely fall into the black pit of despair. For one thing, at any given point one can always say that things were better before -- so they couldn't have been completely bad at that time, could they?

There are numerous possible reasons for all of this. One is what Thomas Sowell called "the quest for cosmic justice". Compared to this idea, any actual state of society is severely flawed and lacking... and the impatience to see all that is bad washed away and replaced by all that is good lends a certain perspective to things. It's often expressed as "the good old days" (as opposed to now) -- and the feeling seems to be, the quicker everything falls apart completely the quicker we will be able to enjoy a new, more perfect world. And there might be some validity to this idea during times of major war, for example... but as a prescription for thinking about more normal times (which these are, believe it or not) it's sorely lacking. Where is it written, for example, that things always have to be getting worse, and on all fronts? Much more likely is a world of paradox where things are getting worse and better at the same time -- as Charles Dickens so famously implied. And, in fact, one's overall notion as to the direction in which things are changing is totally based on one's values and priorities. If you believe in massive government, for example, things are going your way right now.

Another aspect of this "cosmic justice" search, as I've discussed before, is the striving to create heaven on earth, rather than waiting for a very uncertain "world to come". This, of course, is the materialist/secularist point of view... but one wonders what value system they are falling back on in order to prescribe utopian schemes for just those few years that any one individual spends on earth. Isn't it all ultimately futile, or absurd? But few of them ever come to that conclusion. People will die to get to heaven... but they'll also die so that everyone else can go to hell on earth (as was the case in China under Mao). I think if you roll despair together with hatred for humanity you take in about 80% of the motivation of most collectivists.

But lest we get too far afield -- I started out talking about the conservative critique of present-day society and its trends. And it's one thing to gin up nostalgia for an era that one has no experience of... that predates one's birth. But I'm also talking about nostalgia for the era of one's childhood (whenever that was), or youth (ditto), or young adulthood (ditto)... or just last year, or last month, or yesterday! It seems that no era is too short or too recent to be assigned some variation on the "good old days" descriptor. The world when Reagan was president was a much better place, don't you know... but it was even better under Eisenhower... and so on. Well, I remember the world of Eisenhower and, although it wasn't bad, there was a whole lot that needed improvement -- and some of it actually has been. So it has not just been a steady downhill slide. Heck, the liberals all have "Clinton nostalgia" -- you know, balanced budgets and all that. Well... tell it to the Branch Davidians, is all I can say. And of course there is that deity named John Kennedy, who almost (allegedly) got us into a nuclear war. And so on. Depending on your values and priorities, you can assign virtually any point in history as the "best ever", and any other point as the "worst ever"... and the way people's minds tend to work, the "worst ever" title has a funny tendency to fall right on the present moment, with astounding precision. Obama is worse than he was a year ago... or last month... or last week. But frankly, I consider this way too simplistic. It's the result of either having too little discernment in the past, or too much hypersensitivity in the present, and in both cases too little historical consciousness. An example of too little discernment in the past would be to have ignored everything that was wrong with JFK and his administration (for liberals) or everything that was wrong with Reagan (for conservatives). And as for too much hypersensitivity? Three words: Ground Zero Mosque. OK? This is the biggest non-story to come down the pike in a long while, and we have plenty of way more important things to worry about. But it fits quite nicely into many people's need for evidence that things are just getting worse day by day. And yes, I'm as fond of pointing out trends and absurdities as anyone else... but I've never quite fallen for the notion that there is much uniformity to history or to current events. The random and chaos factors are much too strong... much too predominant in many cases. I mean, did Clinton bomb Belgrade because of Monica? If so, that's a level of absurdity and chaos that I don't think any historian, politician, or diplomat could have predicted... and yet it happened. How many of our recent presidents have been what they call "accidental"? There are some systematic aspects to the process of selecting leaders, but many random ones as well -- many more than people like to think. The fact that they ultimately all wind up pursuing the same misguided policies is not a reflection of uniform quality so much as uniformity in how they are, let's say, "developed" by their masters. There really is a certain degree of diversity in the backgrounds of various presidents -- but that gets ironed out in no time once they take office... or, more likely, before they take office, or before they're even elected. In other words, they all wind up "Manchurian candidates" --all brainwashed on some level and turned into robots to some extent. I believe the evidence for this is overwhelming... but again, what you're looking for has a great influence on what you'll find. The inherent risk of the "conspiracy business" is that if you look long enough and hard enough at anything, you'll start to see a conspiracy. Maybe it's just an optical illusion, like the ones they publish in kids' books. So a patient gathering of evidence, and an insistence on logic, even if it's about illogical things... and on reason, even it it's about absurd things... those are the best insurance against going too far and thus becoming non-productive (as many of the web sites out there seem to have become). And of course, it never hurts to ask not only the "what" questions but also the "why" questions... also known as the "cui bono?" questions. That is about as fruitful a strategy as I've ever encountered; it's a powerful tool when it comes to separating the merely likely from the wildly improbable (also expressed as "Why would anyone bother?").

And when it comes to what I call "misguided nostalgia", no one is more of a master at it than Pat Buchanan -- with whom I agree about 95% of the time. But he expends way too much effort regretting the passing of an America that, by and large, never existed... and if it had, it might not have been all that wonderful and perfect. It's a Norman Rockwell/Ideals/Bettman Archive/Currier & Ives vision... a walk in the park on a Sunday afternoon... the old lamp lighter... you know the jam. It's a sepia-toned longing for a "better, simpler" time -- but frankly, I don't know how many of the people who were trapped in that era considered it either better or simpler. They were probably complaining that they weren't living in an even earlier era... and so it goes. Now of course Buchanan's emphasis is on government, and politics, and morality, and public behavior, and on "values", and so forth. And it is true, as far as that goes, that we do not enjoy the rank hypocrisy of earlier eras - people, even politicians, are much more likely to say what they really think than they might have been a couple of generations ago, and they seem to be pretty much unabashed in their behavior. You'll find none of the traditional moral preaching emanating from the White House or Congress these days -- it has all been replaced by scoldings about "fairness", "global warming", and what not. And yet, overall, the degree of mass deception by the government has, I think, gotten neither better nor worse -- it has just morphed from one agenda item to the next. For Wilson, it was the "bosch"; for FDR, Pearl Harbor; for LBJ, the Gulf of Tonkin... and so on, right up to the present day. There is always that one big hammer which the leader of the day can use to pound the citizenry into a state of stupor and blind obedience. And every big lie, or hoax, has a thousand smaller lies and hoaxes that go along with it, to fill in every possible gap in the story. The government is, in effect, a monolith of lies... but there is nothing new about this; it's simply in the nature of the beast. And there is nothing new about moral turpitude... only that it might be a bit more public and blatant and showy than it was in previous times. And the citizenry of 100, or 200, years ago were just about as foolish, and as easily misled, as they are now. The difference, if any, lay in the leadership. Good leaders can turn foolish people unto at least semi-respectable works... but evil leaders will reinforce all the worst qualities of the public, and can hardly be overcome by those sectors of the public that still have some intellectual perspective and some moral standards. Once a dictator -- or a dictatorial system -- is in place, it is extremely difficult to dislodge; one usually has to wait for a slow devolution or wasting away -- a process that can take decades, or centuries. Recall, for example, that China technically has the same regime today that it did under Mao... but the differences are staggering. Likewise, we have the same regime that we did under George Washington. I mean, has there been a violent revolution? Are the founding documents not still considered as such? But again, the differences...

So what I'm saying -- to Pat Buchanan and anyone else who will listen -- is, forget about nostalgia, forget about comparisons, and forget, even, about "trends". Just figure out what is right and do it. Yes, the founding fathers, and documents, will have much to say about this, but let's not mistake any of that for the reality in this country, even in the early years. People are no more fallible now than they have ever been, and concupiscence has ruled over many minds for eons. If we can't appeal to the citizenry on the basis of principles and ideas, then all of our appeals to "the good old days" will be in vain.

I'll Believe It When I See It

"U.S. combat mission in Iraq ends" -- oh really? I mean, sure, I'm glad it's "officially" ending; who wouldn't be? But our entanglement with the political strife and the associated violence in Iraq is far from at an end. To start with, we're leaving 50,000 "non-combat" troops -- and that right there is a contradiction in terms. No one stations 50,000 troops in a hostile country and expects them to be, or remain, "non-combat". And yes, they will be armed, but only for "defense". Right. And how about all those "civilian contractors" -- which means mostly mercenaries? They have more combat experience than the troops do. So, what, are they just going to sit around playing Parcheesi? Plus, any troop that is armed (for any reason) is going to remain a target -- and once the bullets start flying, they'll be magically transformed into combat troops in about a millisecond.

So no, we're not out of there, and it's not over. The most that can be said is that a larger portion of those who remain are either well-paid mercenaries or true believers, as opposed to the run-of-the-mill hapless volunteer. But will the flow of resources be significantly reduced? Highly doubtful. After all, those mercenaries earn many times what the troops do... and don't forget about all the "overhead" and "profit" that their firms charge the government. So this will turn into a designer war, if you will -- slightly leaner, slightly more efficient, and more expensive. And it will also turn into much more of a clandestine war, since if we do engage in combat much of it will be "off the books", and you can bet there won't be any "embedded" press around to take pictures.

My definition -- in case you're wondering -- of what being "out" of Iraq would entail is as follows: No American personnel of any sort (military, contract, diplomatic, "support", "trainers", you name it) in the country. And that means "none". No exceptions! And no American taxpayers' money being spent over there or anywhere else in support of any mission in that area. In other words, as far as we're concerned, the place does not exist. Yeah, I know, dream on. We even have relations with places we don't have relations with -- like Cuba and North Korea. We're hooked on globalism to the severe detriment of our economy, our freedoms, and our domestic tranquility. No reason to think this situation is going to get anything but worse in the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Can You Reid Me Now?

The Democratic Party, which has stood as a monolith since Inauguration Day 2009, has developed a crack... a fissure... a fault line! Schism and chaos threaten! And all because of... no, not anything substantive... the “Ground Zero mosque”, which is neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque. And who should wander off the reservation but Senator Harry Reid. All of which goes to show that... nothing really ever changes. For these people are political animals; all their thoughts, hopes, and actions are aimed at one thing and one thing only: Their political survival, which means theirs personally and that of their party, and the nation and its citizens be damned.

I have already discussed Obama's “stance” on the issue (see “A Mosqued Ball”, Aug. 14). When it comes to Reid, all you have to know is that he's running for re-election in a somewhat conservative state. So his GZM position is naked pandering to the voters of his state, just as Obama's is naked pandering to his larger constituency... with some foreign policy advantages thrown in for good measure (and all subject to the advice and consent of Israel and its lobby, I can assure you). After all, does Obama want to be seen in the same light as all those “right-wing haters” out there – the Glenn Becks and Sarah Palins of this world? I don't think so. But Reid has a slightly different agenda, namely to stay in Washington as long as possible, and if that involves seeming to join critics of the GZM, well... that's how it is in politics -- you swim in cesspools, you're going to wind up a bit soiled. Besides, by re-election time for Obama, this business will be totally forgotten, one way or the other – the “mosque” will either be under construction or it won't, but the media will have long since moved on, which means the American public will have as well. (When's the last time a story left the media but stayed on the public's mind? I can't think of a single case. And that's because there is no such thing as “the public's mind”, or even “public opinion”. It's all a house of mirrors with the media as the largest image in the largest mirror.)

I suspect there will be plenty more cases just like Reid's – and not because Democrats have wandered off the reservation, but because they are doing what any good politician does, namely looking out for Number One. Too bad their ideas are a pile of Number Two...

Suicide is Painless

Stephen Cox, editor of Liberty, notes, in the August issue, that President Obama acts “as if the BP executives didn't care whether they ruined their own company”. And he observes, correctly, that “people in business care whether they lose a fortune or not”. And this is true, as long as you deem that fortune to be the personal fortune of the businessmen, and not the firms they work for. Because it has gotten to the point where executives, indeed, don't care whether they ruin their own companies; we have seen evidence of this for years, extending way back before the current economic crisis. And one of the main reasons for this – aside from nearly universal moral degeneracy on the part of captains of industry – is that “big business” is no longer a matter of ownership, but of “management”. I.e., the old, so-called “robber baron” model featured men who were founders, owners, and executives rolled into one. Hence, they had not only a serious financial interest in the fortunes of the firm but a great amount of pride in its history, performance, and prospects. No one named Smith who founded, owns, and operates a company called Smith & Co. is going to lightly see it go down the drain due to mismanagement, competition, or government harassment. But how many of the old, venerable firms these days are still run by the founders – or the descendants thereof? Most of them are run by mercenaries, pirates, and looters -- warlords who have only one thing in mind – squeeze the most you can out of the firm and its stockholders, then bail. And the amazing thing is, this behavior is not only no longer shocking or even surprising; it's expected. No one expects a business executive to have any loyalty to the firm or anything else but his own portfolio – and you'll notice than even when stockholders suffer, executive portfolios not only remain intact but continue to grow. That's the way it's been set up – and the amazing thing is that stockholders seldom, if ever, object... and stockbrokers continue to recommend the stock in that firm, and mutual funds continue to include it in their own portfolios. In other words, rampant corruption – more of the moral than the legal sort – is expected and rewarded, and the system that reinforces it is further strengthened every time an executive ruins a company and gets away with it.

So in that sense, Obama is right about the BP executives. They will reap their rewards no matter what happens to BP – or the Gulf of Mexico, or the people who depend on it for a living. The golden parachutes have already been deployed and the guilty parties are on a slow, pleasant glide to their next position, ready to do the same thing all over again. And BP is just a type of what has happened in this country for decades now, and especially in the aftermath of the “meltdown”. Do you see any of the guilty parties in jail? Or even mildly inconvenienced? No – like those politicians whom we can never seem to get rid of... like the proverbial bad pennies... they always reappear in a new position of power, ready to reprise their successful acts of pillage and rapine. And this, I submit, is one of many measures of the overall decadence of our society; we are much better at rewarding, and celebrating, villains than heroes. In politics, for example, who had held onto superstar status ever since his administration came to a blessed close? Bill Clinton! He probably has more groupies now than he did when he was in the White House. Even in professional sports, where ethical standards are way higher than in politics, there is still a certain amount of reverence and respect for the “bad boys”. We have always had a grudging sort of respect for guys who “got away with it” -- up to and including murder. I guess this is an example of American individualism in a degenerate, distorted form; the losers and non-achievers have to identify with someone, and if there are no heroes available, they'll identify with criminals. It's not unlike the old saying, “There's no such thing as bad publicity.” There is a certain zest -- a certain glamor -- connected with being an outlaw, a sociopath, a psychopath. Every nerdy accountant secretly wants to join a biker gang. Even guys in jail can remain celebrities -- the feeling being, it might have been worth it, considering how "large" the guy lived until he got caught.

Cox goes on to contend that President Obama alleged “that BP and the banks and Wall Street and the big corporations – all of them – want to enrich themselves, by what? By fatally damaging themselves.” And again, we can solve this apparent contradiction by identifying the first “themselves” with the executives, and the second with the companies. And it does sound extreme to say that, if a business executive sees that the shortest path to his own personal enrichment is to loot and bankrupt the company he is charged with managing, he will do so – except that we've seen conclusive evidence of this time and time again. But, in a sense, this mindset is not confined to business – it's also standard procedure in government. It's well known that the best way to get a budget increase is to fail; this has become the main strategy for the public schools, for example. So one can hardly be surprised when people in many economic sectors come to see failure as the surest road to success – their own, that is. And the beauty of becoming a beneficiary of the Culture of Failure is that one never has to make an accounting of one's actions, or pay back any of one's gains... because it all ultimately comes from the hapless taxpayers, who have precisely zero power to change the system. So the government rewards its own failures, and those of big business... and the citizens pay the bill. It's probably the neatest, most air-tight system ever devised. But it does depend, let's admit, on the “fear factor” -- the process of intimidating people to the extent that no one ever wants to speak up, or protest, or rock the boat. And this is not to say that a few people don't... but the government's media servants quickly declare them beyond the pale, and “nut cases”, "wing nuts", “haters”, “racists/sexists/homophobes”... you know, the usual rap sheet on the ordinary citizen. (Look at how the "tea partiers" have been portrayed as being little better than mother-rapers and father-killers.)

Then on another level, the vast majority of these “failed” firms nonetheless stay in business! Not only are they considered “too big to fail” (because they were designed that way), they actually wind up, in many cases, prospering – because their balance sheets now include a vast infusion of wealth from the citizenry (AKA "bailouts"). So failure is turned into success in short order. And firms that succeed legitimately – in the marketplace, with free and open competition, and subject to supply and demand... well, they are tolerated by the government in most cases, but they certainly do not merit any special consideration, any more than a government agency would if it were successful... although I have yet to see or hear of an example of the latter. So our entire economic system has been turned on its head, basically – failure is the new success, and real success is... held in suspicion, if not downright contempt. For who gets taxed, in many cases out of business? Small and medium sized firms that obey the rules, provide goods and services that people really want, and don't go begging to government every other week. And who gets subsidized? Places that, on the free market, would have (and should have) gone out of business years or decades ago. So we see that, in the long run, the economy is fated to be made up solely of failures (by traditional criteria) – which means that it will come more and more to resemble the government, which is, almost by definition, made up solely of failed programs and agencies. And as true success is more and more punished and persecuted, the ambitious and ethical (and yes, one can be both) people will, literally, take their business elsewhere – as they have already begun to do. (“Galt's Gulch” is more likely to be in Costa Rica than in the mountains of Colorado.)

And I also submit that this trend is unstoppable – not only because there is a total collusion between government and business, but because no one with any power wants to stop it. In fact, those in power are profiting handsomely from the situation. The liberals are pleased as punch to see business become a vassal of the state – although the opposite is more likely. Conservatives are in total disarray because they want to be on the side of “free enterprise”, but most of the practitioners thereof (or so it is claimed) really want nothing less. The paleocons would like to see a return to the day when there was a wall of separation between business and state... but for that, you'd have to go back to at least the pre-Civil War era. And the libertarians would like to see unfettered business but severely fettered government – which is a fine idea, except that the two, seemingly, cannot coexist – at least not in this society at this time. Powerful business interests will naturally tend to rise up and take over the government, as they have – simply because it's, well, good business. It would not seriously matter what form of government we had – if it was seen as “weak” it would sooner or later fall to the power of business and financial interests. And this is because they don't see the value in any sort of separation; in fact, they see it as a threat to their well-being and prosperity. After all, look at what happened to large firms in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution – they were taken over by the workers and the commissars. Surely we can't have that! And the best way to prevent it is to not only dominate the government but to also dominate the media and as much of the political landscape as possible. Hence you have – shazam! -- the political and economic landscape of today. No matter what Obama says or thinks, the government, and his administration, are securely in the hands of the financial powers, and they are going to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

And there is another angle to all of this that we must keep in mind, which is that the U.S. is not “an island, entire of itself”. When you move up the ladder of the financial powers in question, you eventually get to the point where they are no longer confined to the U.S. In fact, you get to the point where they are no longer in the U.S. at all. So Obama is not only under the thumb of the home-grown financial powers, he's also, or mainly, under the thumb of the international financial power, AKA the “globalists”. And this is just fine with them... but it should worry the American citizenry even more than the spectre of domination by old-time robber-baron types. (The Rockefellers were Americans, at least!) But now we have a cabal that includes not only the upper strata in this country, but the same (or even more) upper strata in Europe, and the Near East, and, for all I know, Russia and China. So the Culture of Failure now extends even unto, for example, the American economy as a whole... the dollar... the American (i.e. Constitutional) political system, and so on. And does the international financial power consider the U.S. “too big to fail”? Well, we're certainly not too big to be scared shitless by a – by-and-large bogus -- “financial crisis”... and we're not too big to have a “Great Recession”. The question that remains, however, is – are we too big to be allowed to simply collapse, and get plowed under? Would the liquidation of the American economy benefit the Regime? Because if it would, it will happen -- sooner or later. Would it, in other words, benefit the global financial power more than if we remained more or less intact (if badly bruised)? I'm afraid that the only way we're going to get a definitive answer to this one is to wait and see. If we fail, it means we were allowed to fail (and, most likely, intended to fail); if we remain in a kind of semi-monde of recession, unemployment, high taxation, expanding government, eroding liberties, etc., it means that this is considered (for the time being at least) to be of most benefit to the Regime. But it will certainly have nothing to do with the true interests of the American people.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

It's a Wacky World

Herewith, a sprinkling of headlines, quotes, and other tidbits from the last week or so, and a probing analysis of the deep significance of each (if any):

1. A young woman from the Pittsburgh area is facing charges of “attempted homicide, conspiracy and criminal solicitation” for plotting with her boyfriend to kill her mother so they could run away together. (What ever happened to good old-fashioned elopement? Not exciting enough, I guess.) But! Not only is she out on bond, but is leaving for college in California in a few weeks, “where she intends to study opera.” And the boyfriend? He's still in the clink. Well... one thing's for sure, she won't have any trouble empathizing with opera characters; this could be a brand-new stage in the evolution of method acting (and singing), in fact.

2. When's the last time you saw, to say nothing of used, a dollar coin? Yeah, that's what I figured. The last time I got any of those damn things I realized, before long, that I had turned around and spent them as quarters – and of course the cashiers in question had no objection. So that's the point at which I swore off, and I suspect a lot of people have the same story. I mean... what sort of genius does it take to come up with two coins of the same size and color, one of which is worth 4 times as much as the other? Do you smell a plot here to relieve the hapless citizen of even more of his hard-earned cash? Well, I sure do. But the point is, due to massive consumer resistance to the dollar coin, the feds are having to store them up by the billion (while they continue to mint even more, by the way) – and they are running out of room. Now, what I think they ought to do is set up a bunch of “Scrooge McDuck Money Bins”, like in the old Disney comics – big cubical structures full of these coins, with a diving board from which one can do half-gainers into the lucre. These could be anchors for theme parks, in fact, or located at the main crossover point in a suburban mall. I'm sure the price of admission would more than cover the storage costs... and best of all, the ticket booths could have a rule that any change must be made in dollar coins instead of bills.

3. And speaking of coins, the World's Fair of Money was recently held in Boston, featuring exhibits of many rare forms of currency, coinage, and securities. An article on the fair and all the collectors and dealers in attendance referred to “the surprising resilience of the coin industry”. But what's so surprising about it? Coins are, after all, real money... which is more than you can say of anything printed on paper, especially in these times. Frankly, it's amazing that people are still willing to deal in paper (currency, securities, notes, etc.) at all, considering what a bum deal it has turned out to be... but as someone once said (kind of), a fool and his coins are soon parted, and the hypnotic effect of paper continues to be the basis for massive exploitation of the unwary. Plus, most "money" these days isn't even paper; it's electrons, which represent paper, which represents... nothing.

4. And speaking of cash, some of the more prosperous citizens in China have finally revived the age-old custom (in non-communist countries) of hiding income from the government. I mean really, literally hiding it -- not just in tax shelters or offshore accounts. Oh, the many discontents of capitalism! Who knew that they would be impinging on China so soon after the Cultural Revolution?

5. And, speaking of not “walking the talk”, the ever-tolerant, laid-back French have taken time off from their frenetic national debate about Moslem women's clothing in order to “dismantle” (I guess that means “level”) more than 40 illegal Gypsy camps throughout the country. This is in preparation for sending the camp residents back to Bulgaria and Romania “on chartered flights” (probably so any pockets they pick will be their own). It's amazing how France has started revealing its true colors again, after such a long period of terrorizing the rest of the world with its cultural superiority, amorality, and savoir faire. I've always thought this whole “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” thing was a fraud anyway – as the Reign of Terror so conclusively demonstrated. But the French have still been allowed to get away with the myth all these years. Now they are running headlong into Gypsies and burqas, and I find it highly amusing.

6. Headline: “Growth engine for U.S. sought.” This reflects a whole lot of head-scratching on the part of the geniuses in the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve as to how to “stimulate” the economy, which is starting to act like an old horse that's just been prodded and goaded too many times, and is about ready for the glue factory. Well... there have been a few people out there who had some ideas on this matter, and maybe it's time to consult with them. Like for example, how about eliminating confiscatory taxes – especially the cruel and petty kind that take money away from even the most modest “saver” -- but also “death taxes” and taxes that are simply too high to have any moral justification, no matter how rich the people being taxed are. That's one thing. Then, how about drastically reducing the regulatory burden, which impacts small and medium businesses much more than large ones – for reasons I've discussed previously. And how about getting rid of union monopolies? Not unions, just their government-granted monopolies. And how about trying to come up with some semblance of trade parity with other countries? And how about a strong currency that's actually backed by something? Before anyone worries too much about a “growth engine”, I think these things should be given a try. My suspicion is that if even one or two of these things were put in place, that would be all the “growth engine” we need.

7. A commentator notes that “the mounting evidence of suicides, drinking and drug abuse within the armed forces is a sign of low morale and often a lead indicator of despair and eventual political defeat.” Didn't I just post something about the devastating effect of the absurdity and hopelessness of our military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan on troop morale? I'm glad to see the idea is catching on... Plus, I like the part about "political defeat"; if only it referred to every last national leader who sends our armed forces on wild (and mortally dangerous) goose chases overseas.

8. “People tend to behave more recklessly when their sense of safety is increased.” I don't recall what this quote referred to (I think it was about traffic control), but it could very readily have been in reference to the banks and other financial institutions and their key role in setting off the recession. There's nothing like guaranteed bail-outs from the government to lend one a sense of safety... and nothing like that sense of safety to lead to the recklessness we have all seen predominate in the thinking and activities of the financial sector.

9. In searching for a pair of fugitives – an escapee from an Arizona prison and his female accomplice -- “marshals are asking travelers... to watch out for the couple, who may have dyed their hair and otherwise changed their appearance.” In other words, they want people to watch out for two people who don't look anything like the two fugitives. Think about that one for a moment...

10. And by the way, the fugitive's female accomplice is described as “his cousin and fiancee.” You might be a redneck if...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Mosqued Ball

Well, it sure wasn't the result of a bunch of “focus groups”... or polls... or huddles with political advisors, election committees, re-election committees, or platform committees. And it doesn't seem like the result of any sort of “coordination” with Israel or its American lobby. And that's more than you can say about anything Bill Clinton ever did. No, Obama's stand – OK, “stance” -- on the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” most definitely flies in the face of... just about everything and everyone. Except “tolerance” -- taken to what some would consider an extreme (but which the ACLU would have been willing to go to court for – at least in the old days).

And yet, the question has to be asked, as with everything else about Obama, “What's his game?” Because nothing – absolutely nothing – is done by him or his administration without painstakingly considering all political ramifications – present and future (or, at least as far into the future as the next election, which is coming up in less than 3 months). Now, given that their idea of “political ramifications” is predicated on, basically, ignoring everyone in “flyover country” and concentrating on the coasts and the urban elite... and based on their worldview that the main thing wrong with this country is that it's not yet collectivized enough, and the government is not yet big enough... it still took a bit of chutzpah to stand up and say that, to quote the article, “opposing the project is at odds with American values.” And – direct quote -- “Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country.” Which, of course, goes directly against the opinions of all Christian fundamentalists and, I suspect, many Jews. See, when it comes to American history and American tolerance, just being a monotheist is not enough. They have a different holy book! So that right there is grounds for deep suspicion... although the Mormons seem to have passed that hurdle without much difficulty. (But they have an entire state all to themselves... which brings up the possibility of an all-Moslem state in the U.S. Think the American public would go for that? We may get a chance to find out.)

So right away you have to expect a revival of the theory that Obama is a “crypto-Muslim”... although I suspect “crypto-non-Christian” is closer to the truth. (And don't be confused by his erstwhile church attendance; those urban “black churches” are more like political clubs than what the rest of us have come to expect. Think: liberal Episcopalians with toe-tappin' music, and you've about got it.) And to further aggravate the matter, he made the statement “at a White House dinner [iftar} marking the holy month of Ramadan”. Yikes! When's the last time the White House hosted an Islamic celebration? I think “never” might be the correct answer. I mean, we're used to all sorts of (Protestant) Christian and Jewish goings-on in the White House... but this is beyond the pale. And of course, there were – as there had to be -- “other religious leaders” present, including, I'm sure, at least one rabbi, who is probably right now in intensive care at George Washington University Hospital.

Another quote from Obama: “Our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.” Well – that commitment has been “shaken” plenty of times throughout American history; anyone remember the anti-Catholic riots in the pre-Civil War era? And the persecution of the Mormons (and I don't think it was just about polygamy)? Plus, the problem is that we are now engaged in the first bonafide religious war in our history – and don't give me that “but it's just against the violent radicals” business. Even if that were true, the Moslem world does not buy it – as far as they're concerned we're engaged in a new crusade... a war against all of Islam and all of its adherents. And this may, in fact, provide a clue as to what Obama is up to. We have, at this point, made enemies, or potential enemies, of the vast majority of all Moslems on earth – and that is a substantial number. “Foreign fighters” continue to pour into Iraq and Afghanistan to take up arms against our troops... and many Islamic countries are holding their breath, waiting to see where we'll strike next (Iran and Yemen being at the top of the list, according to most calculations). So what better time to throw the Moslems a bone than right now, and in connection with a controversy that has – say it with me – absolutely no bearing on national security, and which is highly unlikely to erode any of Obama's core support. Plus, not to forget, many American blacks (the core of the core) are either Moslems or Moslem sympathizers, so this could help keep them on the reservation as well. And as far as the fundamentalists are concerned, Obama didn't get a single vote from them in 2008 and is unlikely to want or need their votes in 2012. But this does leave, let's admit, “moderate Democrats” (i.e., mere socialists as opposed to communists) a bit in the lurch, since they depend more on that mysterious voting bloc called “independents” -- and some of those (again, in flyover country) might not take too kindly to this apparent appeasement of the Moslems. And then we have, last but far from least, the Jews – and they have been strangely silent on this issue from the start... and I refer to both American Jews and Israelis. They are one group that doesn't seem to care one way or the other about the “Ground Zero Mosque”, preferring to leave the heavy lifting to their Christian Zionist friends. It seems that they've chosen their battles wisely in this case... and that they're going to let Obama do, and say, whatever it takes to advance the larger agenda, without busting his chops. And this, to me, is a very important data point – because if the Jews don't mind, then they might as well be in favor, since they are never known to be neutral about anything. And if they did mind, they'd be raising a stink, just like the fundamentalists are doing. So what I'm saying is that not only are Obama's statements not “anti-Semitic” -- they're likely to be part of an overall strategy that has been thoroughly vetted by the Jewish community, the Israeli lobby, and Israel itself. Throw the Moslems a bone (a halal bone, of course) and defuse some of that anger, but stay the course, foreign policy-wise and militarily. It's really a masterpiece of triangulation if that's what's going on, and I'm willing to bet that it is.

Friday, August 13, 2010


I read a column the other day where the writer was racking his brain trying to come up with a thumbnail descriptor of the present era. And, of course, it had to be called "The Era of ..." or, better yet, "The Age of ...". Now, as you may be aware, up until recently -- i.e. up until the total annihilation of everyone's attention span -- "eras" or "ages" were, well, kind of substantial. I.e., they represented a good chunk of time. The Era of Good Feelings was good for eight years, for example. And the Middle Ages -- well, depending on who you ask, but it was good for 1000 years or so. Now that's an "age"! Compared to which, our "Gilded Age" is a mere passing fancy, and the "eras" defined by the 4-year terms of presidents (no matter how incompetent) are even more ephemeral. (The "Kennedy Era" was all of 34 months long.)

But with all of that in mind, I venture to nominate -- since there has to be an "age", no matter what -- the term "The Age of Irony" for our time. Now, as we all know – or should know -- “irony” has nothing to do with the things that account for most of the current uses of the term. Those are better described as “camp” or “put-ons”. To give an example: Wearing your mom's 1960's-era prom dress to a “rave” is not ironic. But choking to death on a vitamin pill -- that's ironic. See the difference? Irony is what happens when the very thing you want the least happens anyway, and as a direct result of all your efforts to keep it from happening. Mimes, for example, are masters of (non-verbal) irony. And this is why it's such an important concept in ancient Greek plays -- to, let's say, put your own agenda – your plans and ambitions – up against fate is just asking for trouble, and the way that trouble usually manifests itself is through self-defeating behavior. Now do you see why this term might apply to our time? Everything we try to do, or achieve – and this is represented primarily by laws and government “programs” -- turns out contrary to what we said, or thought, we wanted. It's more than “unintended consequences”, which can, in theory, be merely coincidental or the result of not taking all factors into account. No, this is where all attempts to achieve “A” lead directly, and inexorably, to “not A”. And of course, this provides all sorts of lessons about hubris, and humility, and so on – all of which are ignored by leaders and populace alike.

So, can you name one single, solitary government program that has not, in the long run, had an effect exactly the opposite of what was intended (according to the advertised intent, that is)? Or one law that doesn't backfire on a regular basis? Or one intractable problem that can't be traced directly to government meddling? It's getting to the point where, the minute a new “program” is unveiled, one can bet hard money on its not only failing, but having the opposite effect to the intended one. Minimum wage laws don't raise average wages, but do increase unemployment. Education “programs” turn out more ignoramuses with every passing day. "Fair labor laws" lead to union tyranny. Agricultural "price supports" help drive small farmers out of business. The jails are full of graduates from inner-city "youth programs". Banking regulations lead to bank failures. “Peace initiatives” lead to war. “Free elections” lead to tyranny. Vaccinations lead to an entire galaxy of incurable side effects. And so on. We are seeing, in many areas, not only diminishing returns on technology but actually negative returns – two steps back for every one forward. And it would be tempting to say there's some unwritten law behind all this... some form of what the ancients called “fate”. I don't know, quite frankly. All I know is that for every disease that's “eradicated”, two or three new ones come along to take its place... and for every improvement in “public health” we find out about a dozen or so more things that cause cancer. And on the political side, well... the more our leaders babble on about “freedom”, the less we have.

So overall, it seems that we have reached a kind of balance point in our time, where all the straining and exertion towards Utopia is being overmatched by... what? “Reality”, or “nature”, or “Mother Earth”, or what? How about “human nature”, and that old stand-by of the Church, “concupiscence”? Those are alive and well, although vehemently denied by all the “agents of change”. And is it really the intended destiny of the human race to build heaven on earth, and thus to deny the need and desire for the real thing? We are, according to the Church, all pilgrims and wanderers on this plain of tears... and while we are expected to make the best of it, and exercise good stewardship over the Creation, we are also expected to set limits on our ambitions, with all humility.

And now, after all that buildup, I present the tidbit that inspired it all... and I won't blame you for being a bit disappointed. But this really is too rich. OK... now, remember the American Indian Movement? Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge, Russell Means, Marlon Brando, and so on? That was back when American Indians... “Amerindians”... Native Americans... thievin' redskins (oh no, wait, that is totally wrong!)... were standing up and asserting themselves. Some of them even had the intestinal fortitude to say that the reservation system was a complete farce -- besides being revoltingly condescending and paternalistic. And of course they were right about that; “Indian reservations” have about as much validity in our time as the Jewish ghettos did prior to World War II. But, human nature being what it is, the folks with gumption got the hell off the reservations and the fat and lazy ones stuck around -- and yes, I know that's an oversimplificaton, but compare it to the situation in our "inner cities" and it's not that much different.

But guess what – somewhere along the line, all the steam got let out of Native American assertiveness, and they became pacified again. What happened? One word: casinos. This is the greatest weapon against the “red man” since smallpox-infested blankets and cheap whiskey. And it's amazing how the “Indian casinos” have actually caused a dramatic increase in the Native American population. People who didn't even know they were Indians, or hadn't thought about it for generations, have all of a sudden become born-again Native Americans, formed corporations, applied for status as a “tribe” with “tribal lands” (usually just enough for a casino and a parking lot – preferably not far from a large urban center), and become filthy rich. In other words, the Indians were bribed, co-opted, and bought off – and thus endeth the militancy and concern for “rights” and (dreaded word) "reparations". I mean, who needs “rights” when you own a tax-free casino full of suckers (mostly of the non-Indian type)? It's probably the best minority-placating scam in all of human history.

But wait! Here come da irony. The states – always on the lookout for a fast buck – took a gander at this Indian casino scam and said to themselves (except for Nevada and New Jersey, who had already gone down the road to perdition) “Gol-ee garsh, lookit' all the money them Injuns are making! We gotta get in on that action.” The result? Suddenly, states that had prohibited gambling for decades, due to their - ahem - high moral standards and concern for the public welfare, are all of a sudden – shazam! -- legalizing gambling, as long as it's the states that own the casinos... or, as long as the tax rate on the casino take is higher than the highest bracket in Sweden (over 100% at one point). But wait! Where does this leave the noble red man? Pretty P.O.'d, I would say. Here they had been (implicitly) promised a monopoly on gambling in perpetuity... and for a while there they enjoyed one... but now the states are moving in on their action. And what recourse do they have? The state giveth and the state taketh away. The Indian casinos were a brainstorm at the federal level... but the feds can't, or won't, prohibit state-by-state gambling, at least not at this point. So now the Indian casinos have to – gasp! -- compete for the gambling dollar, against the states, who can build casinos anywhere they want (not just on “tribal lands”). And guess who makes up the rules having to do with licensing casinos – the states! The amazing thing to me is that it took so long for the state governments to wake up on this one. But – all I can say is, look out for “blowback”. You take away a monopoly, you're going to make some people very angry... and I see, well, more Wounded Knees in the future if the government doesn't come up with another scam, and fast!

Good War, Bad War

The more I read, and think, about the Catholic Church's teaching on “just war”, the more I believe that this country – known for its high ideals – has seldom, if ever, fought a war that can be conclusively deemed as “just”. I have to admit, it took me a while to come around to this conclusion. Clearly, the “wars” (I call them “occupations”) in Iraq and Afghanistan do not meet the criteria – and the Church has said so in no uncertain terms. And no one's going to argue about Vietnam either – although, admittedly, an argument can be made that the Vietnam effort at least showed the communists how costly their expansionist ambitions were, which may have slowed them down a bit. But then we come to Korea – another battle against communism. Was it justified? I would not give one U.S. soldier for all the citizens of South Korea, quite frankly... but again, communism was rightly seen as a moral, or “existential” threat to Western democracies (and their Asian clones). So if America is internationalist in orientation, and obligated to play policeman to the world, then getting involved in Korea was obviously the right thing to do. If, on the other hand, the duty of American leadership, and its military, is primarily to the American people and not to the “world community”, then the Korean involvement was a terrible mistake – just like Vietnam.

Then we come to World War II, which very few people – saving Pat Buchanan -- are willing to argue was anything but a “good war”. After all, weren't we obligated to see to the utter defeat of Hitler and the Nazis... and to aid and abet the victory, on the eastern front, of Stalin and the Soviets? Well, um... But it wasn't only about Germany; there was also Japan, who seemed to think it was their right to dominate the Pacific, whereas any fool could see that it was our right. Well, um... See, the more you deconstruct the arguments the thinner and more lame they become. But actually, it's a disservice to separate World War II from World War I, which, if anything, was even more pointless. And if World War II was simply the “blowback” from a pointless war – namely World War I – then doesn't that render it pointless as well? How can something that was totally absurd give rise to something that had meaning?

Then, going back in time a bit farther, we have the Spanish-American War, which was just about the most trumped-up affair in American history, along with the Mexican War. OK then, how about the Civil War, which was “fought to free the slaves”? Well, of course, it was nothing of the sort – it was mostly fought in order to establish, once and for all, economic dominance of the North over the South. Freeing the slaves was, for Lincoln, no more than a political football, which he – let's admit – managed to kick through the goalposts with consummate skill.

Now, we've already mentioned the Mexican War, so what's left? Other than the revolution itself, that is. Only the War of 1812, and at least in that case one can say that we were invaded – for the first and last time! So was that our last “good” -- i.e., just – war? I would be willing to make the argument. And, I hasten to add, I am not a pacifist. If I see the Russkies (or the Chinese, or an army of social workers, whatever) coming over the hill toward my homestead, just hand me a gun, no problem. I think anyone who attacks America, or Americans, deserves to have their ass ground to fine power – despite any rationalizations they might manage to come up with. (The mistake we made in responding to 9-11 was that we fought back against the wrong people. We should have invaded Saudi Arabia. But that would have, you know, caused “problems”, unlike what we did do. Ahem.) You don't have to believe that this country is perfect in order to be willing to defend it – but, on the other hand, you also don't have to fall for just any cock-and-bull story told by a fat, lazy, corrupt politician as to what constitutes “national security”. Clearly, very little that we've actually done in terms of war has had anything directly to do with “national security”. I mean... let's take an extreme case. Let's say we didn't join up for World War II in Europe, and Germany had won. Would we have then “fought” the Cold War with Germany for 45 years? I tend to think not. I'll bet we could have come up with a gentleman's agreement with Adolf et al. -- except there would have been that awkwardness about the Jews. So OK, we didn't go that route. And we also didn't go the route of staying out of World War I, even though it was far from clear who was at fault and who was in the right. (Do you know there's a cause for sainthood of one of the leaders during the World War I era? Guess who – no, no one on “our” side. It's Emperor Karl I of Austria.)

So basically, one can argue until the cows come home about which of our wars were “just” or “necessary” -- and much of this is predicated on one's notion of America's “mission” in the world. Are we, in fact, fated to be the world's policeman? Is it our job to promote and protect “democracy” -- or any semblance thereof, even the most superficial and remote – at all costs? (And the other side of that coin is the obligation to fight to the death against “tyranny” -- which, for most people, includes any form of monarchy. So when do we invade England in order to get Queen Elizabeth II off the throne?) For if this is our mission, then any war/invasion/occupation can be justified, and there is, by definition, no such thing as an “unjust” or “unnecessary” war. Since we are the highest moral standard on earth (well, second to Israel I guess), we get to decide – and if we say a war is just, or necessary, then it is; case closed. And this is, in fact, the position nearly all of our presidents have taken over the years – not the least being Bush II and Obama. Yes, Obama! -- the peacemaker and peace prize winner. But he's following religiously in the footsteps of his supposedly despised, misguided,a dn war-mongering predecessor. And the amazing thing about the “America as cop” idea – which really got up to speed under Wilson, although there were precursors under Teddy Roosevelt – is that, as an idea, it is virtually indestructible, no matter how many times we fail at that mission. We're willing to literally go bankrupt and give up most of the benefits of democracy on the home front in order to spread it abroad. We're going to wind up like some senior citizen superhero in an “adult cartoon”, still proclaiming our divine right to go anywhere at any time and kick ass, even as we creep along with a walker, an IV, and a U-bag.

But here's what occurs to me. Even though one can define a spectrum of sorts based on how just, or unjust, our many and varied wars have been, one thing stands out in my own experience, which is that the Vietnam conflict is almost universally regarded as “bad” -- worse, in fact, than Iraq or Afghanistan. And this is most curious, because, as I said, one can argue that Vietnam was at least a way of raising the price of conquest so high that the communists were unwilling to do anything of quite that magnitude again. Iraq and Afghanistan, on the other hand, are examples of the wrong war being fought against the wrong people for the wrong reasons. There is, in short, no rational justification for our continued presence in those shitholes – and overwhelming justification for simply turning around and walking away, and leaving them to their own devices (which, ideally, would include them killing each other off in short order). And yet, Vietnam is “bad” -- in folklore, song, and story (especially film) – and Iraq and Afghanistan are strangely neutral. So why is this? One word – the draft. Vietnam was fought by guys who really, really did not want to be there... whereas Iraq and Afghanistan are at least being fought by volunteers... except when you run up against things like “stop loss”, the “volunteer” aspect starts to look a little thin. And here's another irony – returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are invariably welcomed home as heroes, whereas in the case of the Vietnam vets people turned the other way. And these were guys who didn't want to be there! They were victims! And yet they were treated like lepers when they got home – and this says something about how sick and demoralized our society was at that time – way sicker and more demoralized than it is now, in fact! I mean, the post-Vietnam era was, for those of us who remember, a case of societal and cultural depression – and no one exemplified it better than our president at the time, namely Jimmy Carter. This guy spent four years as, basically, a poster child for the Great American Hangover from Vietnam... and he did a damn fine job. Every time we started to snap out of it and feel good about ourselves again, all we had to do is look at his Puritan prune face and we'd go right back into a deep, black funk. Mission accomplished! I think Reagan was elected based solely on the votes of people who had barely avoided committing suicide.

See, the problem with Vietnam was... well, the draft was only the start. It was the beginning of the snowball, if you will. The draft got people thinking about just war -- but not in those terms. But still, that sort of thinking leads to skepticism about government... and sensitivity to corruption, and to the two-facedness of politicians... and to the absurdity of the Warfare State in general. Then you combine that with the hippie movement, free sex, drugs, etc. -- and you have a small-scale revolution on your hands, which is exactly what happened. By comparison, there are no “ancillary issues” connected to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts; they're wrong, but they don't necessarily indict an entire galaxy of other things as also being wrong. Plus, the casualty rate is lower. And the race factor is not there – or, at least, not considered important (volunteers again, remember?). Plus, it's not about communism, and let's admit, a lot of the Vietnam protesters were far more sympathetic with “the other side” than with ours (start with Jane Fonda and work down from there). Very few college and university professors and students these days are going to hold protests to demonstrate solidarity with Al Qaeda, or the Taliban, or Islam in general; political correctness doesn't go that far. Plus, those people are monotheists! And we certainly can't have any of that nonsense. So we are fighting, in effect, a neutral, faceless enemy, whose only offense is that they're fighting us – and that's a... well, not really the worst thing in the world, after all. I mean, they could be “racists”, or “sexists”, or “homophobes”, and that would be really bad. (At least they don't eat pork products!) But as it is, they seem to be, well, patriots in a way... defending their homeland and their way of life, and all that. Not like those dirty Nazis, for sure! So there's a certain flabiness, if you will, to the antiwar movement in our time. It's about money... and about people getting killed, but, again, they are, after all, volunteers... but it's really not about principle. And this is what ultimately separates war protesters into two distinct groups – those who protest a given war for highly temporal and situational reasons (Vietnam), and those who protest any war that violates the principles of “just war”, which most of them do. Most of the people who objected to the Vietnam involvement, for example, had no problem at all with our bombing of Belgrade. And now that Iraq and Afghanistan are “liberals' wars” they have no problem with those either. “Conservatives”, on the other hand, never see a war they don't like, no matter who's involved or who suffers. (You'll notice, for example, that they are totally silent about the ethnic cleansing of Christians from the Near East, mostly as a result of our efforts or our support of Israel.) But their love of war has nothing to do with the just war principle -- it's more a matter of American exceptionalism, which is, as I said before, a conceptual choice... but, I believe, doomed to failure in the long run.

So, basically, it's all relative, and it's all about politics. There are principled pacifists out there, and a small remnant of people who refer back to the Church's teaching on “just war”. Everyone else is being blown about by the winds of politics, emotion, impulse, and sheer greed.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Comes the Dawn

A recent survey by the Chamber of Commerce showed that whereas 57% of Americans “support capitalism”, 70% “back free enterprise and free markets”. And, as usual, I'm intrigued by that mysterious 13% -- i.e. the people who are pro-free enterprise but against capitalism. Are they confused, or do they know something that other people don't? Now, granted that the 30% who like neither capitalism nor free enterprise are, undoubtedly, hard-core liberals... and those who like both are, in all probability, standard-model conservatives... again, who is in that 13% group?

But first, let's look at a quote from a Chamber of Commerce executive concerning the overall results: “We need to do a better job of explaining the economic system in the United States and how it is working.” He believes that there is “a misunderstanding of the capitalism.” Well... frankly, I think the American people at this point know a whole lot more about the economic system than they would care to... and as to “how it is working”, I think the answer for most people at this point would be “not!”

No, there's not a “misunderstanding of capitalism”; if anything, there is an increased understanding – and part of that understanding is that “capitalism” as practiced today, especially by the major corporations and financial conglomerates, has very little to do with “free enterprise” or “free markets”. Those qualities may still be apt descriptors of small and even medium-sized businesses... you know, the ones that actually provide goods and services that people understand and are willing to buy on the free market... and on a competitive basis, by the way. But I have yet to perceive what all those “investment banks” and other Wall Street outfits that exist just to churn money around have ever done for the ordinary American citizen – on the plus side, that is. How can they claim to be responding to “market forces” if no one understands what they do? So no, “misunderstanding” has nothing to do with it; if anything, the American public understands more about so-called capitalism than it ever has – and it doesn't like what it sees.

Of course, the few major corporations that are still concerned with their public image like to claim that, shucks, they're just like any other business... like the candy store on the corner, for example... but writ large. And that brings up an interesting question (aside from the blatant snow job that hopefully, few if any people will fall for), namely: Is there something about “big business” -- some emergent quality – that inevitably makes it turn away from good and start doing evil? Or is that just, let's say, the most “natural” course, given the fallibility of the people involved, but not at all inevitable? I mean, think about it – most of what we call “big businesses” started small. Look at Wal-Mart, for example. Or Microsoft. And yet, sooner or later, most of these gigantic multinational firms acquire the “evil” designation – as witness Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Apple, Starbucks... you know what I mean. There is always someone out there who is willing to pronounce one or more of these outfits “pure evil” -- and yet were they always so, but not large enough to do any serious damage, at least at the beginning?

One thing is for certain in our time: The larger any firm becomes, the more of its time, energy, and resources are spent on self-preservation to the detriment of plain old “customer service”. And this, in turn, is at least partly because, at the upper reaches, the competition is more keen, more fierce, and unrelenting; when you're talking about multi-billion-dollar contracts, for example, there's not much a business won't do to get to the head of the line and stay there. Another factor is that the sheer size of an organization tends to depersonalize its relations with its employees, who start to feel more and more like cogs in a machine. I don't believe, for example, that working conditions at the Postal Service are that much worse than they are anywhere else; from what I can observe they're actually better. And yet the term “going postal” has entered the language to represent an employee who goes berserk and starts spraying bullets in all directions. I think it's the sheer size of the organization, and the things that naturally occur because of that sheer size, that's largely at fault. (Still another argument for distributism, by the way.)

And of course there are many other things a large business has to do in order to stay that way – and these are based as much on the general moral corruption of society, especially as reflected by the government, as on any pre-existing “evil intent” on the part of top managers. Take, for example, the lucrative field of government contracting, which is characterized, at the top of the heap, by things like “no-bid contracts”, government-supported (or mandated, by law or regulation) monopolies, and ample opportunities for waste, fraud, and bribery. One would have to be a moral giant with nerves of steel to resist all of these temptations... and, sure enough, hardly anyone does. (And the few who do stay “small”, I would say. In fact, they probably go out of business before they get anywhere near "big".)

And there's another factor as well. Corporate CEOs these days are not like the innovators and owners of old; their interest in the business is strictly monetary, and has no emotional component. In other words, “loyalty” simply doesn't exist in those circles... which is why CEOs and other top officers behave more like mercenaries, raiders, or pirates than leaders who have an interest in the company's success (and reputation). How many times have we heard about a top executive bailing out, and soon afterwards the company goes bankrupt (or needs a “bailout” by the taxpayers)? There is no morality out there – only the seeking of short-term gains. “It takes a pillage”, you might say. And yet this situation surprises no one, and is considered perfectly acceptable – just the way things work. But I daresay the “robber barons” of old would be appalled. They at least had loyalty to the companies they founded – not just to themselves and their “portfolio”. But, with very few exceptions, corporate CEOs these days are hirelings – war lords, brought on board to make profits through any means necessary, or, failing that, to at least extract a fine reward for themselves and their cronies... then to move on to the next conquest.

Now, I'm not going to claim that all of these problems can be solved by enforcing smallness. Anti-monopoly legislation and regulation, while seemingly well-intended, has lent itself to shocking abuses over the years (plus, it's administered by bureaucrats, which is never a good thing). And admittedly, if one believes in free and open competition, one also has to admit that there are “economies of scale” -- that bigger companies can often provide the same goods and services for less. (See Wal-Mart again.) So it's a conflict. I don't think anyone out there, except for the most extreme distributist, wants to see an entire society full of nothing but corner candy stores (figuratively speaking). Can the small-town “Main Street” really be extrapolated to the entire country? I tend to doubt it. But, on the other hand, does every small town need to be put out of business by the Wal-Mart out on the bypass? Once the death star called “Wal-Mart” rolls in, you can forget about “Main Street” and small-town quaintness, friendliness, and personal service; from here on out it's a bunch of morons who no one knows, working for some rich guy eight or ten states away. The old-time Sears catalogs were more warm and fuzzy than the average Wal-Mart. And yet, it is, arguably, the result of millions and billions of free “supply and demand” choices by consumers. If “Main Street” was so great, why did we stop shopping there? “Oh, you know, price, selection, and so on. And there's a bank right in the store! And a fast-food place! And a hairdresser!” Et cetera. I've heard it a hundred times, and so have you. So OK, people got what they wanted (as expressed by their “consumer choices”)... Main Street disappeared... and Wal-Mart became Evil Incarnate. The mystery is that anyone wonders why.

A similar scenario could be told about Microsoft, Apple, Starbucks... with the added caveat that any “high-tech” firm owes a good portion of its existence and prosperity to government contracts. And that brings us back to why and how firms become evil – the implication being, if you're not willing to be evil, you can only get so far -- especially if you depend on the government for a good portion of your business. But then look at Google – very “high tech”, and yet its informal motto is “Don't be evil”. And as far as I know, they're managing to stick to it, more or less... i.e. they are not the blatant predators outfits like Microsoft are, for example. So there is a choice to be made, and nothing is inevitable – and yet the political and economic structure of our society does, in fact, constitute a moral hazard, in much the same way as the hyper-bloated government budget does. When confronted with so much money and potential power, there are very few strong enough to resist – and those who have fallen form their own society which, in turn, enforces the “rules” by which one gains admittance. And when they have the gall to identify what they are doing as “capitalism”, well... some people fall for it, and some don't. And it's those latter who should, by rights, form the core of a renewed society – one in which free enterprise and free markets thrive, but “capitalism” has been slain like the ravening beast that it is.