Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Matt Taibbi, David Brooks and the Well Framed Debate

"And even if I were to accept the Brooksian view of an upper class that must be looked to to fix things and take care of the lower classes and create the needed wealth to help us escape our economic crisis, the whole point is that this upper class he is talking about has abdicated that very responsibility — and, perhaps having reached the cynical conclusion that our society is not worth saving, has taken on a new mission that involves not creating wealth for all but simply absconding with whatever wealth is remaining." Matt Taibbi.

Matt Taibbi and David Brooks are enjoying an interesting journalistic spat, but both agree capitalism is the only game in town. One says we have to learn to accept the sometime transgressions of the criminal rich, certainly without losing our heads in populist anger; the other says we have every right to be mad as hell and do something about it. Doing something about it means letting the sunlight in, airing the whole affair, and prosecuting. Initiate a Fedgate, so to speak. Maybe enact some new laws too. Laws are Good.

I love reading Matt Taibbi's work. He writes clearly, is entertaining and passionate, and witty to boot. But the above is for me an example of not stepping outside the parameters of the debate as set out by the current status quo. In tackling the "Brooksian view" by pointing out merely that there has been a crime, and that, yes, naughty people do naughty things (as Brook concedes), we are left only with the possibility of criminal prosecution. There is no attempt to address why these things happen; that is of course explained by our old (unmentioned) friend Human Nature. Only capitalism, or "free" market economics, or enlightened self-interest guided by the Invisible Hand can orchestrate society fairly and effectively, divvy up the finite spoils of humanity's productive capacity appropriately. That’s a given. What we end up squabbling over is how angry we are allowed to be. This is nowhere near enough.

The other assumption, aside from fallible Human Nature, is that there is a separation of powers. I no longer believe there is. Money is power. If you control the money, you control the system. But if you do believe there is a separation of powers, then you can appeal to Law and Regulation to rein things back into some semblance of functioning balance, punish the bad guys and herald a new dawn. Nothing's perfect, there will always be outrageous crimes, and when there is we fight for justice. It's a powerful narrative, chimes harmoniously with the cyclicality of nature, and is a story I believed for a very long time. But money is the blood, the electricity of society, and it is controlled by a single institution; a central bank. You can't get things done unless you have the money to get them done. To get money you have to play the money game, the rules of which are set by those who control the money. Of course there is the market's influence, but the market is not and can never be perfect – monopolies, cartels and oligopolies form. It cannot be anarchic either, there have to be laws to regulate business, so the State is necessarily involved, co-opted if you like. The Invisible Hand is actually quite visible. Indeed, there are laws and bodies that should have prevented the current crisis from taking place, and yet they were ignored. Why? Who is working for whom? What exactly is being protected?

Furthermore, we happen to live on one planet which is itself a system, an ecosystem, which hosts us, which enables us to produce, have money, surplus, happiness, crime and so on. Rampant consumerism is hardly sustainable. This needs to be addressed, and deeply. Measures of happiness are collapsing. Community cohesion is dissolving. Arguing about whether we have a right to be angry is a side-show, a distraction. We should be in the business of altering the system itself, digging down as far as we can and exposing every assumption we find. It is assumptions that need to be exposed to sunlight and aired for all to see and examine, not criminal activities. Corruption is a fact of this system. Money inspires corruption (among other things). What are we going to do about it?

(And I didn't even mention technological unemployment! I must be getting old.)


Edwardo said...

Well, you commented at my site before I did at yours, but I read your (as usual) well written and thoughtful entry first.

You ask a pertinent question about corruption (and money) "What are we going to do about it?"

"We", as a collective, don't seem terribly willing. much less capable (more's the pity) of mustering much push back against the entrenched corruption of which you speak.

Toby said...

Yes, you're right, as I commented over at Disaster Porn (free plug!). All I can do is pose the questions, lay out my thoughts on the matter, and keep on keeping on. All contributions effect the ongoing process of life, if only by being called into existence.

I'm going through a mystical phase. We are not isolated individuals, we are systems in systems and together make up what is. My miniscule efforts are therefore infinitesimally changing things, as are yours, and all others. I'm learning to live with that wee crumb. What will be will be, but trying to do good makes me feel better than doing nothing. I'd guess that's true for you too.

By the way, John Ringland is where I'm at right now. Check him out, he's quite prolific and open minded too:

There are many other articles to peruse.