Sunday, November 13, 2011

Epistle to the One Percent

I am a member of the 99%. But in truth, I am much closer, in terms of raw dollars, to the One Percent than are 99% of those who eagerly refer to themselves as "the Ninety-Nine Percent." In real, big-picture statistical terms, I'm definitely not in the top 1%, but I'm probably in the top 15%, maybe 10%. This relative proximity to the One Percent has given me the opportunity to realize that, much as a diehard liberal like me might hate to admit it, there is precisely one respect in which I sympathize with the One Percent.

I sympathize with the One Percent because, at bottom, they all value the idea of meritocracy; so do I. Where we part company is on whether free-market capitalism is truly the engine of meritocracy that they insistently and ceaselessly trumpet it to be.

I'd like to think that the One Percent would join me in wholeheartedly endorsing the truth of the following statement: "Money is useful and desirable. There are many desirable things money can be used to obtain, and there are many undesirable things money can be used to avoid." But I'm starting to get concerned that the One Percent would not join me in wholeheartedly endorsing the logical corollary of the foregoing: "It is possible for other things to be valued more than money."

Notice how children are born valuing not money, but novelty. Children are born feeling an expectation of happiness, and if that's a thought whose naivete makes you guffaw, then consider the moral implications of such guffawing. There would be no valid moral argument against suicide, for instance. In order to be genuinely happy, people must have an emotionally sustainable way of obtaining the things they seek, and they must have an emotionally sustainable way of avoiding the things they seek to avoid. If this weren't declared true, we would be lending credence to the idea that it is morally acceptable for people to live out their entire lives without ever experiencing even a single instant of joy. What's the point of living, if you don't have some path to achievement of some semblance of some notion of the life you want to live? If we really all couldn't agree to that idea, then the notion of a social contract would never have caught on, even back in the day.

So, I agree with the One Percent about the sanctity of the idea that people need some sense of a meritocratic system in order to live a fulfilling life. They are absolutely right, for that and many other valid reasons (e.g. the free rider problem), that the overall system governing our lives must be a meritocracy. But they are wrong in their utter unquestioning acceptance of free-market capitalism as the only viable way to establish that meritocracy.

Whenever you notice the circulation of the "class warfare" meme through the media fishbowl, understand that this is the One Percent's way of trying to remind people, in the subtlest, least dickish way possible, of the moral imperative of perpetuating a stable class structure. I agree that capitalism is the best way thus far discovered to implement a functioning, scalable meritocracy, but I disagree that our civilization does not pay a large opportunity cost by investing such a concomitantly large amount of faith in it. Capitalism has proved to be only as scalable as the class structure of the culture into which it is installed (see China and India), so that creates a need to perpetuate ours. The metaphor that allows the One Percent to cloak this systemic/structural need in the moral language of human/personal admonition is "class warfare."

I admire that metaphor, but it has a bug in it. I'm a software engineer, which means I'm good at detecting design flaws in semantic spaces. And there is a big design flaw lurking at the heart of the "class warfare" metaphor, one whose existence fills me with hope for the possibility of real progress. The bug in "class warfare" is this: the term "class warfare" was coined during a period in history in which there was no concept of "war crimes" or "genocide" -- certainly many such acts occurred during those times, but those labels were applied to them only after the fact. Since then, we have learned the ugly truth that there are such things as "war crimes" and "genocide," and that they can and should be viewed from within the metaphor of global criminal justice. But we have not gone back and revisited the "class warfare" metaphor to see how its economic meaning might change when its geopolitical meaning is admixed with the newer "war crime" and "genocide" constructs.

The One Percent continue to invoke an older version of a meme that has since been upgraded, but upgraded with features they don't like. If the One Percent want to allow the phrase "class warfare" to continue to have any real meaning, any genuine cultural relevance, then they must, in order for their underlying metaphor to work correctly, acknowledge the possibility that phrases like "economic war crimes" and "class genocide" could also have real meaning, and genuine cultural relevance. I now invite you to join me in imagining what "class war crimes" could look like in the real world.

The international legal principles that emerged from the Nuremberg Trials divide the colloquial term "war crimes" into three categories: war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against peace. The first category encompasses things that pertain to the fates of specific individuals: "murder, ill-treatment or deportation of slave labor or for any other purpose of the civilian population of or in occupied territory; murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the Seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity." The latter two categories encompass things that pertain more to the fates of large, easily named groups, like "murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhumane acts done against any civilian population, or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds."

Bernie Madoff is a reasonable example of an economic war criminal, but only in the first sense outlined above: he violated large-scale fiduciary responsibilities -- moral obligations dictated by the underlying promise of meritocracy that theoretically underpins capitalism and made it attractive to everyone when Adam Smith first outlined it in the 1700s -- and in so doing financially devastated the lives of many. But those many had no prior factors in common except for the fact that they were all Bernie Madoff's clients; the victims who found themselves chained against a rock in Madoff's lair must have, at some point, chosen to walk into it. There is certainly no single religious, or ethnic, or racial, or even political, identity that would unify the demographic disparateness of his client list. This lack of any available group identity disqualifies Madoff, in my mind, from being charged with economic crimes against humanity.

Bernie Madoff's conviction represents America's first successful apprehension and punishment of an economic war criminal. From an ontological standpoint, this is good, because it legitimizes the term economic war criminal; and from an intentional standpoint, it is also good, because it represents the indictment of a large-scale economic actor whose intentions were clearly bad. But it seems to me that the real indictment we should be talking about is not of the man, but of the system within which he was allowed to operate for so long. The only reason Madoff was tried in a manner befitting an economic war criminal is that the victims of his economic war crimes were all members of the One Percent. So this proves two things: despite their obvious horror at the thought of openly discussing it, the One Percent do, on some level, acknowledge the validity of the concept of economic war crimes, of economic crimes against peace. And the only thing they find even more horrific is when it happens to them -- when "economic shock and awe" shatters their peace.

It turns out there is another precedent for economic war crimes: the book of Genesis, in which the moral depravities of Sodom and Gomorrah are harshly condemned by the God of Abraham. To most Christians, their intuitive sense of moral depravity is polarized in the sexual direction. But the Hebrew Bible makes clear that Yahweh was just as pissed off about economic moral depravity. Genesis describes wealthy Sodomites giving gold ingots to beggars, after inscribing their names on them, and then subsequently refusing to sell the beggars food. The unfortunate beggar would end up starving and after his death, the people who gave him the ingot would reclaim it. That sounds a lot like how credit card companies do business, doesn't it? The One Percent give ingots of plastic to the Ninety-Nine Percent, after inscribing their names on them, and then subsequently refuse to provide them economic sustenance (i.e. reasonable interest rates that promote actual saving behavior instead of speculative behavior). The unfortunate Ninety-Nine Percent end up economically starving (i.e. jobless with little or no unemployment available to draw, or bankrupt, or scraping by in the present with only a raided pension or cratering 401k waiting for them in the future), and after their economic (or, increasingly, literal) death, the people who gave them the money reclaim it through foreclosure auctions, liquidation sales, Chapter 11, debt collection agencies, repo men, insurance companies, and other unsavory economic constructs.

I just want churchgoing Jews and Christians who voluntarily participate in this system to understand something: the supreme being whose opinion you all claim to care about placed economic practices such as these on the same plane of moral repugnance as fucking children and homosexual gang rape.

I hereby declare the One Percent a global terrorist organization, waging a distributed, decentralized, but still coordinated, asymmetric campaign of economic terror against that ragtag band of economic rebels known as "the workforce." We, the Ninety-Nine Percent, have not forgotten what you, the One Percent, have: that free-market capitalism is only as valuable to a client civilization as the extent to which it makes good on its implicit promise to serve as an engine of genuine meritocracy.

I charge the One Percent with economic crimes against peace. I charge the One Percent with class genocide against the "ethnicity" of the Ninety-Nine Percent. And I call upon the International Court of Justice at The Hague to convene a panel to explore the precise legal meaning of terms like "economic war crime," "class genocide," and "economic crimes against peace," and how they might be applied to hypothetical international independent investigations of such large-scale economic actors as, say, Discover Financial Services, or Goldman Sachs, or the SEC, or General Motors, or Union Pacific, or Alcoa, or Boeing, or the Pentagon, or United Healthcare, or the New York Jets, or the House Appropriations Committee, or Iron Mountain, or the Federal Reserve. Or the Vatican.

Only 1% of the One Percent actually deserve, in terms of personal honor and merit, to be in the One Percent. There do exist people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, smart, dogged, energetic people who made themselves rich by thinking of nonobvious, valuable things to build. But they're the minority. The vast majority of the One Percent fall far short of this description. And they've crept into the hospital bedroom where American meritocracy lies feebly in ICU, and they're looking around for a suitable pillow with which to begin the smothering.

Consider this your upgrade notice, One Percent: you no longer get to keep running an old version of the "class warfare" metaphor. Either upgrade to the new version boasting support for war crimes, or uninstall it from your discourse completely.


Sanyu Nagenda said...

Consider this my signature

Anne Simmons said...

Signing this