by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash
Do I believe that America is a criminal enterprise?
Hell, no. Not totally. Most of our citizens are law-abiding, even if 25% of all the prisoners in the world are American. That's right, with 4% of the world's population, we have 25% of the world's prisoners. So by the lights of our own legal system, we are far and away the most criminal nation on earth, harboring a full quarter of the world's criminals in our jails. However, there is a big difference between having way more crooks on the one hand (or being way more punitive than any other nation) — and on the other hand actually being a dyed-in-the-wool criminal enterprise (Saudi-Arabia, for instance).
But we do seem to suffer from a deficiency of morality. Witness Trump's presidential campaign. There is no morality there, only bigotry and fear and bullying and macho posturing and BS. And many Americans have fallen for this BS.
What I want to do is simply say America is a criminal enterprise and see where it takes us. An argument for-argument's-sake. The Greeks had a word for it: rhetoric. Call it a thought experiment if you like. Like the one that drove Barack Obama to the White House. He called America a place of hope and change — to my mind, a more fanciful construct than calling America a criminal enterprise — which turned out to be a very useful vote-getting thought experiment for him. Some kind of American Dream has always lingered through all our nightmares, like a halo limning a saint's noggin, or a perky maggot on a decaying corpse.
So I want to call America a criminal enterprise and see how intellectually useful that turns out to be. The point is not whether it's true or not: the point is whether it gains us any useful insights or not. And I think it will: what I'm trying to get at is a certain emptiness at the center of the American soul — where only the self reigns, the raw id, the bawling brat, the free-agent individual bent on success and self-actualization at all costs, unconstrained by morality (Donald Trump being our current best example). That's where this thought experiment is headed, in case teleology is your thing.
I'd like to throw out a few numbers to start with. Everybody lies, but these facts and figures don't.
1. SOME STARTLING FACTS ABOUT THE U.S
A hundred million humans were out of a job and hungry because of Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and other Wall Street casino fraudsters.
Over a million innocent Iraqis became dead in the Iraq War because of Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, and the support of the US Congress. At least 350,000 Iraqi kids are dead because of Bill Clinton's sanctions.
In the years after WW2, the average income of the American worker doubled. But since 1973, wages have remained stagnant, even though productivity has rocketed. Since 1980, wages have risen 15%, while productivity has risen 67%. Where has that difference mostly gone? To the top 1% wealthiest Americans.
The average CEO earns more on the first day of the year than the average worker earns all year. In 1965, CEO pay was 26 times that of their average worker. Today, from 300 to 500 times. In Japan and Switzerland, it's 10 times. It gets as high as 25 times in the UK and Canada. Our CEOs are criminally overpaid, and our workers criminally underpaid.
We Americans are 4% of the world's people, but we burn up 25% of its resources.
There used to be a top marginal tax rate of 90% under Eisenhower. Today it is 35% and kicks in for earnings above $373,651 per year. If we had a top tax rate of 90% today, the 25 hedge fund managers who made an average of one billion dollars each last year would have made a $100 million each — and we would have been able to pay the salaries of 658,000 more teachers.
130 detainees have died in US custody, with 38 classified as homicides, because of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Woo torture promotion.
2. WHAT DO THESE FACTS SAY ABOUT US?
What do these loose numbers add up to?
From any angle, this: going by the numbers, we are officially a nation of murderers, torturers, big-time scammers, maximum rip-off artists, world-class predators, criminal enablers, and willing Stockholm Syndrome victims. So if we're not a criminal enterprise, we are at the least more criminally inclined than any other industrialized nation, or most nations, or all nations. It would be an overstatement to say we're a combination of Nigerian-elite-plus-Russian-business-mafia, with a middle-class reduced to semi-plantation status, and a Dickens-type underclass — but it sort of nails the flavor of the basic trend.
And that's some kind of American exceptionalism for you. We kill more people than other nations. We defraud pension funds and our citizenry and the entire world more than any other country, which caused millions to lose their jobs and their homes. We despoil nature and ruin our planet more than other nations. And we even torture people, along with authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Syria, Iran, and the like.
If you had to divide the world between civilized and uncivilized nations, we would not be in the civilized column. Going by kill ratio alone, we'd be holding down the most uncivilized four spots, along with the Sudan, Somalia and Congo.
I'm going to be advancing a few theories to explain this bizarre fact of American exceptionalism.
Let's start with something that happened during Bill Clinton's presidency. I find this conversation of May 12, 1996 on 60 MINUTES very instructive. It's about the many Iraqi children who died in Iraq because of our sanctions. Lesley Stahl asked this question: “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright answered: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.” This exchange got massive coverage in Arab lands, but not much here.
It's interesting to think about, not because of Albright's admittedly shocking answer, but because of Stahl's question. She asks, “is the price worth it?” In other words, half a million dead children is a price someone is paying. It's a cost. It's not an outrage, it's not a travesty, it's not a criminality: it's a price, it's a cost. A number. Something you count. Children's lives are something you enter on the negative column in a cost-benefit analysis. Dead children is about accountancy, not morality.
How can people talk like that? Why are they framing their conversation like that? How can the death of half a million kids — some kind of genocide — be a price that's worth ANYTHING?
The world will rightly never get over the monstrous murder of six million Jews by the Nazis in death camps in Poland and mass shootings in Russia, or the the 60 million Russians killed by Stalin over his lifetime … and here are two American women talking about the PRICE of half a million dead children caused by us like it's the price of eggs or a fancy car.
How did we in America get to the point that we can have such discussions on national TV in front of millions without the entire nation going into a massive moral retch?
What has happened to us?
What follows is an examination of what has brought us to this unpretty pass. Plus, a new mind frame to think about our problems and their solutions, which I hubristically call the Adam Ash Law of Moral Efficiency.
3. THE NUMERATION OF AMERICAN LIFE
Immigrating from South Africa to America back in 1979, I was struck by three things. The restaurant food portions were mind-bendingly humongous. The cars were big. And there were stats and figures on everything that moved or stood still. You could look up how much rain fell on your cock in Manhattan in 1962. You could see stats on every player in every game since forever. In all my born days in South Africa, I never saw any stats on any rugby player, even on the national team. Here in the USA, everything was measured, counted or costed out to the last tittle of a whittle of a tattle. I never knew you could arrange life by so many measures. In South Africa, when I looked at a rugby player, I would sort of know in my vertebrae how good Tom Van Vollenhoven was, and how much better he was than some other dude. But here in America, I didn't need my vertebrae. I had science. Stats. I didn't have to think. I could just check the numbers.
Now this is undoubtedly a good and wonderful and useful thing. However, when the reliance on numbers starts replacing value judgment, instead of aiding it, maybe not. When you add up children's lives as a price or cost, you are getting to a place where the usefulness of numbers become problematic. The numeration of America is not a 100% beneficial thing. There is a point where cost-benefit analysis as a tool with which to determine the outcomes of decisions — and with which we halo those decisions with sweet reason — becomes morally cost-ineffective.
For example, when 4,000 dead American soldiers in Iraq are simply that, the number 4,000, something else may be pushed from your attention: the fact that each single ONE in that number was the son or daughter of a mother, a living creature whose loss does not represent a statistic, but holes in the hearts of everyone who loved them.
When McDonalds decides to make their coffee superhot, because that way it stays hot longer, the way their customers want it, and lawsuits from the scalded laps and thighs of some coffee-spilling customers are just the cost of doing business, some kind of moral compass has shifted away from true north.
When BP decides to save on costs and improve profits by taking chances with safety in their plants and oil rigs, and any fines they pay (or pensions they pay to the widows of the guys they kill) is just the cost of doing business, they appear to disregard the human lives at stake, and they increase the likelihood of putting entire ecologies at risk and blasting the future of all living creatures, including fishermen, within that ecology.
The biggest mass killer in history, Uncle Joe Stalin, said it all: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”
A statistic is a way for us to look away from our humanity, from the blood that plumps our veins, from the light that defines our eyes, from the feelings that spraddle in our breasts.
Cost-benefit is like triage: we need it to make important decisions, but we cannot let it blind us to the fact that certain things — lives, limbs, habitat, the future — can be permanent costs beyond endurance. The terrible thing about the BP oil spill was not simply that their stock price was halved or that pensioners might not get their regular BP dividend, but that human livelihoods and animal lives and an entire ecosystem had been despoiled for years to come. The damage, in the end, is immeasurable — beyond price and cost.
How do you price wrong and right? How do you price a life? Insurers do such things, but their numbers cannot assuage the grief caused by callous profit-mindedness, or put a price on a nine-year-old's pain who will never play catch with her Dad again. If BP had to pay for every tear in the eye of every child in the Gulf who cried for a dying oil-soaked bird, they would run out of funds faster than a priest who buggers altar boys runs out of excuses.
It's actually more practical to prioritize morality above economy, because morality is more important than economy. In fact, I will argue that prioritizing morality over profit is more cost-efficient than the other way round. Morality is a more profitable business strategy than profitability. Before I get to that, a few more things.
4. THE BUSINESSIFICATION OF THE SOCIAL SPHERE
It's a cliche that Europeans work to live and that Americans live to work.
Here's the bad thing about the American angle of this cliche. In America, more than anywhere else I've lived — and I've lived and worked in America, Africa, England and Europe — we are our jobs. You are your job. I am my job (well, actually I personally never was; I was always doing something else more self-defining than being an adman). “What do you do?” is the first question after you exchange names with a stranger. That's the thing that fixes you best in the mind of your interlocutor.
But if we are our jobs, and if we work for a contemporary company or corporation, that's not all that OK.
I know this from personal experience. In the more than three decades that I've worked for many advertising agencies, I've had five years of fun in three one-year-and-a-bit stints. To get statistical about it, 15% of the time I spent working was fun. These 15% stints were at agencies that put the creative work first, so there was fun to be had, and it was absolutely excellent.
But here's what's telling — as telling as the swollen genitalia of zoo monkeys in Spring. Not only was the rest of my advertising life a treadmill of sheer drudgery, but when I met with our clients, I met with guys and gals who got less fun out of their jobs than I did.
Listen, there may be many people who enjoy their jobs, but how would they know what real enjoyment is? If I hadn't had my 15% of real fun, I'd be telling you that I enjoyed my three decades in advertising, and I'd be fooling myself, because I'd never have experienced a real alternative.
That's not the worst of it. When you don't work for yourself, and you work inside a corporation, you are working for a place where there is one aim: profits.
And I don't know about you, but where profits are the point, nothing else is. Anything goes if it contributes to profit. Anything short of strangling your mother in her sleep. Morality? Forget about it. What do you want to do to your competition? Kill them. Your company has to win. That's why you and everyone else are working there. It's war.
Polls show that although it's supposed to be an ingrained part of the American character to valorize the freedom of the individual, compared to other countries we prize loyalty to the group — antithetical to the freedom of the individual — more than other Western nations.
That loyalty is instilled by corporations.
They own your ass. The first advertising job I got in New York after I came here from South Africa, I got called the second Sunday at home by my boss. About work. I'm still reeling from the shock. That guy actually thought he owned me on my day off — my nationally legal day off, Sunday, the day of church rhetoric and barbecue smoke. I've since discovered this is a peculiar American tradition. There's no way in South Africa or Holland or the UK that your supervisor would call you on a Sunday about work. In fact, there's no way your supervisor would call you at home at any time about anything, unless he found out you'd been fellating his wife.
When you work for an American business, your job invades you. It colonizes you and your family.
There is a semi-famous quote by the guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and other bands. Though he waxes somewhat semi-hysterical (the default setting of many a blog posting, including many of mine), he gets at a grand truth about our country: “America touts itself as the land of the free, but the number one freedom that you and I have is the freedom to enter into a subservient role in the workplace. Once you exercise this freedom you've lost all control over what you do, what is produced, and how it is produced. And in the end, the product doesn't belong to you. The only way you can avoid bosses and jobs is if you don't care about making a living. Which leads to the second freedom: the freedom to starve.”
It's not only this subservience that damns us, and our unfortunate personal identification with this subservience (“Hi, I'm a Project Manager at Slaves 'R Us”). It's living in such an amoral environment, with such an amoral ethos. A story I've told before, about my encounter with one of the most lauded CEOs of all time, Jack Welch of GE, applies.
I had written an ad for GE about co-generation, which is this product GE invented for factories. GE builds an electricity-generating plant right next to your plant, so you can run your plant on your own electricity that you generate yourself. Any surplus electricity that you don't use, you can sell to the local utility, who is obliged by law to buy it from you.
Pretty good deal, right?
“Great. The customer doesn't know it, but once he buys this deal, he's locked into our fees forever, and we've got him totally fucked for life.”
This was the most worshipped CEO of his day, one of the three or four greatest CEOs of all time, talking about his customers.
So what do you call what Jack Welch was doing? I know Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and Tony Wayward of BP would call it good business.
But what would YOU call it? Fraud? Cheating? Predatory? Criminal?
Take your pick. Just don't get on the wrong end of a deal with GE or Goldman Sachs or Citigroup, like the millions of people and municipalities and states and pension funds and nations who got stuck there.
I don't know about you, but when I was a corporate wage slave, I knew that I swallowed my morals every morning I walked in the door, and that I spent the day crapping them out in some handy toilet that the company had installed in my mind.
I understand there was a time when corporations were good to their workers, so good that workers stayed in one company all their lives, and “what was good for General Motors was good for America.”
Today's corporations, as has been remarked, have the personalities of psychopaths — no accountability, no morals, simply a blind drive to maximize profits — and the financial meltdown and the ruination of the Gulf of Mexico are the results.
Our laws say that corporations are, after all, just like regular people, with all the rights of people, except the people who work for the corporation are not accountable for anything they do in the name of the corporation. It's a line of reasoning that could only come from a Beelzebub whacked out on crystal meth, except it's come from white-shoe law firms arguing in front of white-shoe judges. These Ivy League cronies rigged the game pretty early on, and now they've come up with their crowning achievement. Corporations have the right to spend whatever they want on political campaigns without even revealing that they're doing so. Hell, they're more important than humans, aren't they? That's what our Supreme Court has decided in the supremacy of their supreme assholedom, sitting — as at least five of them are sitting — on at least a hundred of corporate America's big fat dicks up their Harvard-educated butts.
One wonders: if corporations have the rights of persons, when they behave like persons and kill persons, can they like persons be prosecuted for homicide? Which persons will be put on trial? The whole company? The CEO? The Board? What should the prosecutor ask for: the death penalty? Life imprisonment? Or maybe a manslaughter plea bargain, with ten years in jail?
OK, enough fun and games. Let me be clear, as Obama would say (a sure sign that he's trying to slip something past the listener): inasmuch as many of us actually live and work inside the psycho-pathologies of these corporations, our morals are being hollowed out as a nation and as a world.
5. REDEMPTION AS A SOLUTION
There are some other things that contribute to a certain hollow core at the center of the American soul.
Here's one that is of prime importance: a kind of semi-religious Calvinist belief in redemption. This is suspect in and of itself, i.e. the bizarre thought construct that you can be saved from a life of sin and its dire consequences simply by attaching yourself to an imaginary friend called Jesus. (My apologies to the devout: I do not mean to offend, but if you are offended, have some compassion: I live in a 24/7 state of nausea myself because of the countless times that folks rub my nose in their religiosity — for instance, every time someone says “God bless America.” I'd prefer “Joyce Carol Oates bless America,” but that's just my bias.)
The wish for redemption to excuse all you've done makes a nice arc for fictional characters in print, on stage, on TV and in the movies. But I'm not so sure it's all that terrific as a motivation in real life. Especially if you consider where some other paths to redemption — besides the religious one — can lead. (When Evelyn Waugh became a Catholic, did that make him less nasty? No way.)
There is that American favorite: redemption by violence. Usually we try on our violence so some other bunch, the Iraqis or the Afghans, can achieve redemption along with our redemption. Redemption doubled. We can cheer our heroic troops on and enjoy OUR redemption, and then all the towelheads left over that we didn't kill can achieve THEIR redemption by adopting our system of government instead of the crappy whatever they might be used to.
Bloody brilliant. They can become more like us after we kill them enough for them to get the idea. Democracy will redeem them. Never mind if they think “democracy” is code for them to get lifted to such a high plane of development, almost at our level, that it will be so much easier for them to kiss our feet.
Violence is not only as American as apple pie, a favorite form of redemption, it's also a favorite form of solution. In movies, killing solves many problems. And in real life, we have this curious institution called our military, which our elite sends forth to foreign lands to kill people, and whose members — our soldiers — we non-soldiers regard as heroes because of how they kill other people.
It has to be the most warped moral construct since the sacrificing of young virgins by the Mayans. It's as primitive as cannibalism. And it is so, so, so very weird. Many of these poor chaps who survive war come back wounded in body or soul, suffering from trauma, and for their pains we call these trained killers heroes and patriots.
The hypocrisy and false morality is beyond human reason. It may be the number one sickness in the American soul. When I see Obama or any other politician, guys who spend most of their time asking rich people for money, and making laws that rip regular folks off in favor of the rich … when I see them with their hands on their hands hailing the military as our heroes, when BS lies and BS reasons sent these poor buggers to their deaths, and blinded and blasted and rendered them legless and armless and clueless, I want to barf for eternity. It is one of the most disgusting sights known to humankind. If there is an actual Jesus, and he has a human side, he hasn't stop barfing since Bush declared war on Iraq against the wishes of the majority of the civilized world.
Then there is redemption by economic growth, and any harm to the planet be damned. You got problems? Hey, grow yourself out of them. This is the panacea recommended by the likes of Larry Summers, one of Obama's appointments that prove there was a sizable turd alive and well in Obama's left brain just behind his big left ear. Here we had a country who'd been living on borrowed money and borrowed time ever since that idiot Ronald Reagan started the long journey of fucking America into its current cretinous decline, and we are advised to grow ourselves out of a debt accrued for three decades. How? With our manufacturing? That's been off-shored to China and India and America-Is-A-Joke-Ha-Ha by Reagan, Bush One, Clinton, Bush Two and now Obama. With our financial innovations? That's going to blow us up again in four to seven years. With our great service industries? Well, our kids are going to be so sick and obese by 2020 from eating at our fast food places, McDonalds will be investing in funeral parlors near their restaurants so they can just ferry the bodies across the street.
OK, I got a little carried away there, but you get the idea. The notion that we are going to grow ourselves out of our debt in this generation, or inflate our debt away tra-la-la, when it took thirty years of dedicated and drunken-sailor deficit spending, and bloated Pentagon inflating, and tax cuts for the rich, to bring us to our current in-the-toilet and swimming-with-the-fishes economy … this notion is industrial-strength hogwash blended with stale warthog dingleberries.
Here's another redemption: redemption by technology. It will ruin the planet, but hey, it will save us all. Those bright scientists and engineers will come up with some technology that'll scrub our air clean and cool the planet, so let's not get ourselves too worked up about climate change.
6. SOME OTHER STUFF
Then there are some other things. Our anti-intellectualism. In high school, we ridicule nerds.
Our fear and paranoia. I've never encountered a more fear-ridden bunch than Americans. Helicopter moms. If a boy scrapes his knee, off to the doctor. We seem to act more from fear and paranoia than other emotions. As an American, you have a far greater chance of drowning in your bath tub than being killed by a terrorist, yet as a collective, we live in fear of these scary devils, and the media go crazy at the slightest smell of terrorism. Since 9/11, Al Qaeda has got us so scaredy-catted that instead of relying on our cops to protect us and catch terrorists, like they did before 9/11, we now waste billions on “security.” And now Trump can call for all Muslims to be registered and banned from entry, and he is hailed for that.
Then there is our belief in such things as bigness and brute power and machismo. There is our love of spectacle and display and vulgarity and kitsch and bling. Within limits, they can be cool, but unconstrained, they crap all over feelings of measure and morality.
7. THE FREEDOM OF THE INDIVIDUAL
Finally, there is the freedom of the individual. That is a demonstrable good in a world where the individual has been trampled on since the days of cavemen. However, as practiced in America, it bangs straight up against another good: social responsibility. We favor the freedom of the individual over social responsibility. Here social justice gets called “socialism” and “Marxism” and “Communism” as if it's the invention of the Anti-Christ (the paradox is of course that the Biblical Jesus was a total social justice freak; a hippie). We Americans all too often blame the poor for their poverty, as if it's all their fault a 100%, and not related to any accident of birth or unfortunate circumstance or lack of social responsibility from others — or lack of social justice. Prioritizing the freedom of the individual over social justice for all, instead of finding a proper balance — this guarantees that a little spot right in the center of our moral souls will stay as hollow as a zero.
8. FREEDOM OF WANT
Now I would like to introduce a new way to think about the world and its problems and how to arrive at sensible and morally sound solutions.
I'm going to get there by starting to say that the story of us humans, looked at from a development perspective, breaks down into two stories: two struggles for freedom.
The first one is freedom from material want, which in our time has been achieved by at least a billion humans. As far as we know, only a billion humans actually go hungry, or to use contemporary parlance, suffer from food insecurity. Various economic systems have played a part in advancing this struggle for freedom of want, of which capitalism has been doing some of the most massively successful heavy lifting since the Industrial Revolution.
At the same time, the blessings of capitalism have been somewhat mixed. Many laws had to be enacted to ban child labor, debt prisons and other excesses of what Blake called “satanic mills.” Then there were the regular speculative boom-and-bust bubbles caused by human psychology running wild in so-called “free markets,” code for unregulated rigged scams.
After the 1930s, speculative bubbles vanished for fifty years, because of strong financial regulation enacted by FDR, the stimulus of WW2 spending, and the stable growth of America's post-war economy.
However, the Wall Street elite pushed for deregulation all along. They received huge intellectual inspiration from Nobel Prize economist Milton Friedman and his Chicago School “free market” fundamentalism. They began to succeed under Ronald Reagan, at which point the boom-crash bubble syndrome started up again with the stock market crash of 1987, culminating in the S & L crisis when 747 Savings and Loans associations failed and loaded the nation with debt. Then, under Bill Clinton, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin allowed Citicorp to merge with Travelers in 1998 into a “too big to fail” financial institution that gathered insurance and commercial and investment banking into one illegal and super-financial institution. What they did was actually against the law, but who cares what the law says when it's my buddy Sandy Weil breaking it, who is not some crystal meth-sucking pleb on the wrong side of the tracks in Peoria? In 1999 President Clinton signed the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and removed the wall between commercial and investment banking (i.e. between banking and Wall Street gambling), retroactively making the illegal Citicorp merger legal.
And in 2000 Bill Clinton signed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which guaranteed that there would be no oversight over derivatives whatsoever.
This did not happen without a fight. On the one side was the chairperson of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission appointed by Clinton in 1994, a woman, Brooksley Born. Her job was looking into things like derivatives.
On the other side were four elite insider men. Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Larry Summers. And SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt.
Brooksley Born warned in 1997 in Congressional testimony that unregulated trading in derivatives “threaten our regulated markets or, indeed, our economy without any federal agency knowing about it.”
These elite insiders did not agree, despite the fact that Born had a study of the issue done by her Commission that confirmed her fears.
Why did they not agree, in the face of evidence?
10. THE LOGIC OF THE ELITE
This is where we have to raise two concepts I call the situational imperative and the logic of the elite.
We often believe that we act on principle, but only the Mandelas and the Gandhis actually do that. Only they can be relied upon to stay categorical, a la Kant's Categorical Imperative. For those of you who've forgotten your Phil 101, Kant said us humans are a special bunch in creation, and morality can be summed up in one ultimate commandment of reason, an imperative from which all duties and obligations flow.
This ur-imperative drives our actions in such a way that an imperative action is NECESSARY under all and every circumstance. An imperative action COMMANDS adherence. It's absolute and unconditional. It's justified as an end in itself. It's intrinsically good and valid.
Its first formulation says: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
Old Kant really nailed that one, didn't he? I'm sure there are philosophers who can pick holes in it, but nobody knows who the fuck they are, and we all know who the fuck Immanuel Kant was, and that you could set your watch by the time he left his house for a walk every day.
OK, it's an imperative and all, but how many of us can actually live up to its categorical demand? Most of us live in an ethical world where ethics are not personal or categorical, but social and situational. As philosopher Julian Baggini puts it: “Most people are not of good or bad character, because strictly speaking, they have no robust character at all.” We follow the ethics of the situation we're in. If we're in a German platoon invading Russia that starts to execute Jewish villagers en masse, a few sensitive lads and malcontents will opt out, but most law-abiding soldiers will follow orders and shoot the Jews. That is the situational imperative. That's what happened back then. Psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo proved that even well-brought-up decent middle-class Ivy League students will become thugs if the situation encourages it. When he started an experiment where he divided student volunteers into prison guards and prisoners (the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment), things got so out of hand he halted the experiment six days in to stop the “guards” from turning into goons and traumatizing their “prisoners.” He also got freaked when he found HIMSELF losing his judgment.
Greenspan, Rubin, Summers and Levitt were driven by the situational imperative. Their pals on Wall Street were minting excellent doubloons from derivatives. Why stop the gravy train? The evidence must be wrong. The money their friends were making “proves” it (some of us would say it proves the opposite). Why interfere in a lucrative situation?
And then there is the logic of the elite. Why, after all, are you part of the elite? Obviously, it must be because you're smarter than the hoi polloi. Because you're smart, you're always right. In a word, your basic elite logic runs as follows: I'm smarter than you, so I know better than you. In fact, I'm smarter than nature itself. That's why I'm rich and you're not. So who the heck is this chick telling me and my smart buddies that our financial derivatives can screw up the economy? What the heck does she know that we don't? What possessed Bill to give her this job? Does she think she can stop our guys from making money just because she goes all wimpy about some screwy study done by a bunch of dumb government fuckwumps? These people just aren't … sophisticated. They wouldn't know a glass of Dom Perignon from a bottle of Seltzer.
Our elite weren't always such shits. In days of yore, about fifty years ago and further back, there was a concept called noblesse oblige, inherited from 19th century aristocrats. The obligation of the nobility to the less fortunate. The elite still fucked everyone over, from the poor folks of India and Indonesia and China (remember the opium wars?) to the banana republics of South America, but they had themselves a little conscience somewhere in the back of their brains called noblesse oblige. Bush Senior had a bit of that. His son, Bush Junior, didn't have it. Something went wrong with the passing of the torch. Maybe Barbara Bush forgot to instill the right values in her brood. Maybe Barbara Bush never had noblesse oblige. Most probably, nobody at Bush Junior's alma mater, Yale University, had noblesse oblige.
My experience of our Ivy League universities is that it is here where our elite learn to be total heartless entitled shits of a heartless entitled shittiness that surpasses all notions of how supreme heartless entitled shittines can get at its most dire and disgusting heartless entitled shitty shittiness. What happens is that when you get a bunch of smart heartless entitled shits together in their late teens and early twenties, emptying kegs together and passing along bongs and condoms, the quotient of heartless entitled shittines increases to an exponential exponentialness that leaves your standard operating notion of heartless entitled shittiness in the dust to be replaced by the ultimate supreme apex of heartless entitled shitty shittiness de luxe squared to an infinity of heartless entitled shitty shittiness.
What we have today is an elite who has morphed, under the tutelage of our best universities, into full-blown predator status with no qualms whatsoever. You can find their qualms buried at the bottom of the river they row on at Harvard. Sure, these heartless entitled shits give to charity, so they can keep up their contacts on the boards of MoMA, the Met, the New York Public Library and the Lincoln Center, but it's often their very own actions or inactions that create the need for their charity in the first place. I'm talking from experience here.
My father-in-law had an association with Drexel Lambert, the big Wall Street bank who went belly up in the junk bond bubble; my father-in-law was a heartless entitled shit himself, who domiciled himself in Monte Carlo to escape taxes, along with the 52,000 Americans who have their money in Switzerland to avoid paying their taxes. If you ever meet Mr Let's-Save-Africa Bono, ask him one question for me: hey, Bono baby, what percentage of the millions you make do you pay out in taxes? Where is your U2 band domiciled for tax purposes, dude? Bono hobnobs with heartless entitled shits 24/7, so I'd like to know how far his identification with them goes.
So when Brooksley Born called for transparency and disclosure of trades and reserves as a buffer against losses — eminently sensible at the time, and terribly necessary in hindsight — these guys got really pissed. Greenspan and Rubin reckoned that merely discussing new rules threatened the derivatives market. Greenspan told the uppity woman she didn't know what she was doing and she would cause a financial crisis. Said a Commissioner who worked under her: “Brooksley was this woman who was not playing tennis with these guys and not having lunch with these guys. There was a little bit of a feeling that this woman was not of Wall Street.” At one time, Larry Summers called her and said: “Brooksley, if you do what you want to do, which is regulate the derivatives — over-regulate all these over the counter derivatives, you — I have 13 bankers in my office who say you will cause the greatest financial crisis since World War II.” But she kept going. It was her job, for chrissake.
In June 1998 Greenspan, Rubin and SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt called on Congress to prevent Brooksley from acting until more senior regulators developed their own recommendations. A few months later, the hedge find Long Term Capital Management nearly collapsed. They had some heavy bets on derivatives, among other bets. Yet despite this overwhelming evidence, Congress froze Brooksley's authority. She was told to shut up. The next year, she quit. Then Clinton signed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act in December 2000 which guaranteed no oversight all of derivatives whatsoever.
These Clinton chickens came home to roost in 2008, in the last year of the eight-year Bush-Cheney disaster. Unregulated capitalism and the “efficient market hypothesis” and Chicago School crashed. On May 7, 1998, former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt joined Rubin and Greenspan in objecting to the issuance of the CFTC's study and recommendations. They dismissed Brooksley's concerns off-hand and claimed that CFTC regulation of swaps and other OTC derivative instruments would increase legal uncertainty of such instruments, and would create turmoil in the markets, and reduce the value of the said instruments. New regulatory costs would stifle innovation and push transactions offshore. The same old same old crap we've heard since the invention of supply side economics and voodoo economics and “trickle-down” theory. These assholes run the same playbook every time, before, during and after every fuckup their playbook creates. And our Congress and President buys this same crap every time, like Obama has.
As the 2008 meltdown blossomed like a turb collecting more turd matter as it rolled down the turd mountain that is the American economy, some of our newspapers began reporting on some of its possible causes — every once in a blue moon, the NY Times does its job, when it realizes it hasn't been doing its job and it gets all conscience-stricken, which is not very often, but when the Iraq War and the economy gets REALLY fucked-up, they figure it's time to say SOMETHING. So it got mentioned including that the CFTC's proposals were rejected, and that Greenspan, Rubin, Summers and Levitt weren't very copacetic with this woman Brooksley Born. Not only what one would call a Washington turf war, but a war of worldviews, of ideologies, because Greenspan and the Clinton cabal of Rubin and his acolytes, had this fundamentalist Wall Street Taliban belief that the capital markets could be trusted to regulate themselves. Yeah, sure, Larry S and Timothy G and Barack O, pass me a million foreclosures we can use as butt plugs as we watch Wall Street regulate itself.
Brooksley Born held her fire on the 2008 crisis which would never have happened if four heartless entitled shits hadn't fucked her and her commission over. Then, in March 2009, she said: “The market grew so enormously, with so little oversight and regulation, that it made the financial crisis much deeper and more pervasive than it otherwise would have been.” She also lamented the influence of Wall Street lobbyists and the refusal of regulators to discuss even modest reforms.
There was an October 2009 Frontline documentary called “The Warning” that described her failed efforts to regulate derivatives and make their trading transparent. In it Born came up with yet another warning: “I think we will have continuing danger from these markets and that we will have repeats of the financial crisis — may differ in details but there will be significant financial downturns and disasters attributed to this regulatory gap, over and over, until we learn from experience.”
12. IS UNREGULATED CAPITALISM USELESS AT ALLOCATING RESOURCES?
Does that means capitalism is useless at allocating resources? No. But it does mean that Wall Street has bought Congress. As Berbie Sanders said, “Congress does not regulate Wall Street, Wall Street regulates Congress.” Current regulations may cause a temporary 10% loss in Wall Street profits, but they'll be tanking our economy again in three to seven years time. Maybe then Congress might take some effective action.
Effective capitalism depends on effective regulation. Canada hasn't had a financial meltdown.
And in the blend of social welfare and capitalist entrepreneurship attained in the highly taxed Scandinavian countries, where the most income-equal nations on earth live, as well as the most competitive economies (Nokia, Ikea, and the like), capitalism has come up with a role model we should all be so lucky to aspire to.
Of course, when your country is America, where dumbfuckery often appears to be written into our Constitution, and will never get amended, you may never get that lucky. Who knows, if the next Wall Street meltdown happens any time soon, will the American people rise up in enough anger to force our heartless entitled shits to finally make financial rules of the road that Wall Street can't bend, and put regulators in charge who actually do their job of holding Wall Streets fraudulent feet to an honest fire? Don't bet on it. I mean, hope for it, of course, and work for it, absolutely … but don't fucking bet on it.
13. FREEDOM FROM OPPRESSION
I mentioned freedom from want as a long human struggle, in which the most successful help has come from capitalism. Despite its marked deficiencies, capitalism has raised millions upon millions from crushing poverty.
There is a another freedom, which is freedom from oppression, often called liberation, best achieved via democracy. This is separate from freedom from want. You can advance the cause of freedom from want, as is being done in China, without advancing the cause of freedom from oppression — or freedom of expression — which is not being done in China. China is a country of statist capitalism without democracy.
The struggle for liberation might best be described as the struggle of human majorities to free themselves from being oppressed by their minority elites. This includes the struggle against slavery and discrimination — on race, gender, sexual preference, and disability. In America, huge leaps forward have happened against discrimination, setting great examples for the world to follow, even if total liberation remains a goal in the future. (The last bastion of discrimination to fall is that against homosexuality. There's also the struggle against animal discrimination that has begun in Europe, but we lag behind on that one.)
But when it comes to liberation from our American elite, we've been going backwards since the early 70s. As a nation we were far more income-equal back then than we are now. Today, our middle-class is hanging on for dear life while our elites are raking in the cash on Wall Street and more than 30% of our tax dollars is spent on Defense (whose Department should be more properly called our Department of Attack). We are spending almost more than the rest of the world combined on the military defense of our country — when the likelihood of a foreign army invading America is exactly zero. In other words, we're spending a massive chunk of our national budget on a fantasy instead of on, say, better schools. It would be like American ants building huge walls around their anthills and training many soldier ants in anticipation of an attack from African elephants.
How do we reverse this trend? Well, it's going to take hard politicking. Obama is a great step forward from Bush-Cheney, but hardly enough to make a big enough difference in the lives of our regular citizenry. He's still in the pocket of our predatory elite. So is Congress. Health reform and financial reform are but baby steps on the way to a more sane and moral society.
We also have to change the way we think about our problems and how we solve them.
14. THE CONCEPT OF UBUNTU
In South Africa, black folks have an untranslatable concept called ubuntu. The concept of ubuntu does not exist in the English language, and we're all the poorer for it. I will try to explain it in English, but its deeper and wider meaning is lost in translation. The Zulus say, “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.” “You're only a person through other people” or “a person is a person through persons.” That gets a bit at what ubuntu is. Ubuntu denotes a generosity to the other, and a forgiveness for whatever the other does. It is an intrinsic generosity and selflessness of spirit.
South African Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu took this stab at describing ubuntu in his book No Future Without Forgiveness: “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.” In another stab at explaining the concept, he said: “One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu, the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality — ubuntu — you are known for your generosity.
We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.” Nelson Mandela had this explanation: “A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn't have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”
As generous as Americans can be in their giving to charity, as decent as our folks are, as good-hearted as we can be, we lack ubuntu. When we brought a deranged woman who drowned her children in the bath to trial instead of remanding her to a mental institution, it showed a massive lack of ubuntu. As the only industrialized country where people can be executed for murder, and juveniles can be sentenced to life, we lack ubuntu. People who want to waterboard terrorists — and a majority of Americans do — lack ubuntu. A country as rich as ours with an infant mortality rate that rivals Third World countries, is severely lacking in ubuntu. Tea Party folks have no ubuntu. In the old days, there were Conservative Party people who might've had some ubuntu, but they don't have it today, and neither does the Democratic Party. The right doesn't have it, and neither does the left, because they harbor no ubuntu towards each other.
15. THE ADAM ASH LAW OF MORAL EFFICIENCY
And here I would like to introduce a thinking tool I've arrogantly dubbed The Adam Ash Law of Moral Efficiency.
What is this thing I call moral efficiency? Moral efficiency is about delivering the most good for the least amount of harm.
For example, a company is morally efficient when it delivers a product or service that helps us all and delivers it with the least amount of harm and at the lowest moral cost.
What is moral cost? Harming the environment to turn a profit — that's an economic cost so egregious, I dub it a moral cost. It destroys the lives of animals, people, and threatens the fitness of our planet for human habitation. That's not just economically inefficient, it's plain immoral. Wrong. Kind of evil.
Paying workers so little they have to go into debt for a decent standard of living — that's also a moral cost. When your workers suffer, you're doing the wrong thing, to the detriment of others, for your own gain.
What a social good? Anything that contributes to what Bhutan calls the nine domains that affect happiness (they're a bit more sophisticated than us — they measure their Gross National Happiness instead of their Gross National Product). These nine domains are:
1. Psychological well-being or mental health.
2. Physical health.
3. Time or work-life balance.
5. Cultural vitality and expression.
6. Social connection and relationships
7. Environmental quality and access to nature
8. Quality of governance.
9. Material well-being.
This makes it easy to size up what's a morally efficient business and what's a morally inefficient one.
Morally efficient businesses: therapy clinics, exercise chains, dance schools, language schools, universities, Facebook, match.com, a safari company, a leadership training business. Morally efficient people: teachers, nurses, personal trainers, vocal coaches, shrinks, doctors, dentists, cooks, domestics, cops, fire-fighters, actors, singers, organic farmers. And above all, mothers.
Morally inefficient businesses: BP and Goldman Sachs. These two companies deliver their products and services to us at an immeasurable social and moral cost. In a more utopian-minded world, they'd be regarded as 100% criminal enterprises. Even in this world, they're often threatened with prosecution, and habitually pay fines. It's part of their cost of doing business.
Any agent — be it a person, family, community, business, non-profit, service, product, organization, movement or country — aspires to moral efficiency when they contribute the most amount of good that society can use and do it with the least amount of harm and at the lowest moral cost.
As a concept, moral efficiency also makes it easier to decide where a society should allocate most of its resources.
For example, what is the most morally efficient form of transport: the car, the plane, the bicycle, the railways? Clearly, the bicycle and rail transport beat the car and the plane. So that's where public investment, tax credits, economic stimulus and other incentives should go.
What is the most morally efficient form of energy: solar, wind, oil, coal, euthanol? You get the idea.
Moral efficiency is a measure by which we can unleash the potential of ourselves, our businesses, and our countries to do us humans and our planet the most good for the least amount of harm.
Highly morally efficient leaders include Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King, Red Cross Founder Henry Dunant, Planned Parenthood Founder Margaret Sanger, the ten French doctors who founded Doctors Without Borders, Grateful Dead bandleader Jerry Garcia, artist-entrepreneur Andy Warhol, and movie director Ingmar Bergman.
BTW, moral efficiency is not the same as moral. Nelson Mandela is highly moral besides being morally efficient, but Ingmar Bergman, whose great movies produced at low cost make him the most morally efficient movie director ever, was a terrible dad. He fathered nine children and totally ignored them. He didn't have to — heck, he might've made even better movies if he hadn't neglected them.
Margaret Sanger believed in eugenics. Andy Warhol was a manipulative bastard. Dr. King cheated on his wife. And so on. But when it comes to the moral efficiency of their social impact, they were among the best of the best, and delivered the most good to society at the least cost, moral or otherwise.
In business, Paul Newman established the gold standard for moral efficiency with his Newman's Own brand. Other such companies include Ben & Jerry's, Costco, the Grateful Dead enterprise, and Tom's of Maine. Not quite as morally efficient as these businesses but still way more morally efficient than most, are companies like Google and Apple (who'd be even more morally efficient if their Chinese suppliers paid better wages and caused less pollution).
Morally inefficient leaders include Bush and Cheney, for whose morally inefficient antics the world and America have paid a heavy price, and will continue to pay a heavy price for years to come. Not that we don't deserve it: we voted for them in 2004. Don't blame Karl Rove. Blame us. Blame yourself.
I'll refrain from mentioning any other names of morally inefficient leaders. No doubt your own list is springing to mind.
16. A MORALLY EFFICIENCY HIGH SCHOOL
If I had my druthers, I'd arrange a high school curriculum totally around moral efficiency. I'd bring in math, science, and literature to study moral efficiency. I'd study morally efficient businesses, leaders, and historical moments. I'd also study the morally inefficient. And I'd require every student to come up with a morally efficient business idea, and then have teams of them actually execute the best ideas, starting with a business plan and ending with the delivery of their product or service to their community.
When those kids are in their forties, we'd look a whole lot less than America today and a whole lot more like Scandinavia — probably a whole lot better than Scandinavia.
Anyway, that's my American Dream.
Would that we could start working on making it a reality one day. Starting right now.
In a way, I guess this piece is actually a start. Let's hope it goes somewhere. If it ever does — and pigs may fly before then — remember the day you first read about it, right here and now.
Let's hope. Don't bet on us changing any time soon. But let's hope. As fucked-up as we are, we can still hope. As Martin Luther King paraphrazed the words of Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe Is long, but It bends toward Justice.”