Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Everybody Knows

Yesterday, another great white went belly up in the muddy waters of London-based haute finance.  As I was watching older footage of him giving testimony and sipping expensive whine, I called a friend so we could rejoice briefly over this rare downfall of a celebrity predator and strike for social sanity. My friend, however, immediately doused my gloating in conceptual cold water. He reminded me of a famous passage from John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty.” In it, Mill described the development of various mechanisms for keeping down the “innumerable  vultures” who would trample upon and exploit the week in any society – from the unlimited power of the ancient kings to modern “representative government.”  So my friend asked (what sounded like) a rhetorical question: could this age-old struggle have finally ended – with the complete and total victory of the vultures? Who may need from time to time to ritually sacrifice one of their own, but will never ever give up their status of a collective top dog?

I do hope this diagnosis is wrong, though I was reminded of Warren  Buffett's quip that there was a class ware going on, with his class waging and winning it. And Leonard Cohen thought everybody already knew this back in 1988:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died

Another friend, a Leonard Cohen fan, thought he, for all his artistic insight, had not foreseen something very important – the extent to which the “bad guys” would receive support from some of the best and brightest of the post-Cold War generation. Did the two teams join forces deliberately? N, friend no. 2 did not think so. In his view, many nerds were just making a smart choice - to pursue the rich material and psychological rewards the “matrix” dished out to those who could devise and marketed all sorts of ingenious inventions: intricate ideological justifications, computer models, new varieties of vicarious “opium for the people,” etc.