Friday, September 18, 2009

Monetheism and Its Discontents

Here's an interesting, if earnest, discursion into the boutique rationales of Why It All Collapsed Around Our Ears. Digging up contrarian theorists from bygone days is no doubt a rewarding pastime for many these days, and not without its merits. Lucky timing, seeing as how Michael Moore is set to launch his latest broadside at The Man.

It's probably not a surprise that I'm mostly a fan of Moore's bumptious populism, though some of the street-theater antics can be tedious and self-serving at times. But I respect that he's trying to make a dry subject entertaining and draw more people into the salient arguments; however, at this point his audiences, as with Chomsky, are largely self-selecting.

As with most Moore efforts, I'm inclined to presume that Capitalism: A Love Story will have plenty of valid points to make, all of which will quickly be swept away in the tide of reflexive nattering and rigorous fact-parsing performed by individuals who save exactly such tasks for exactly these occasions. This does not mean that I think Moore is never wrong; rather, for every time he's wrong or injudicious in his remarks, there are several dozen other instances that he's absolutely correct.

There's a helluva lot more wrong, in terms of editorial emphasis and intellectual honesty for starters, in any given nightly network news broadcast. Certainly the niching (in cable and blogs) of the distribution of information and analysis echoes in tone and context any of Moore's rhetorical shortcomings; the problem for the ankle-biters may be that Moore's soapbox is larger than theirs. Also, he's fat.

Anyway. Since I haven't seen the movie and won't till it hits Netflix (I love documentaries, but the theater experience seems remarkably ill-suited for viewing them), I'm not going to go out on an intellectual limb and praise or damn the effort. (This seems to be an increasingly uncommon stance to take, to be unwilling to inflict an opinion about something without actually having experienced it, but there ya go.) My quibble -- and it may in fact be addressed somewhere in the film, we'll see -- is in the title. The subject discussed in the movie, and in the linked Globe article, is nominally "capitalism", but it is not in fact actual capitalism. This is not the usual difference without a distinction; it's the very heart of the matter.

Every generation naturally thinks (or more accurately, intuits as part of its collective self-actualization) that it bears witness to unique occurrences in history. Sometimes that actually happens, but more often than not, they are variations on past events rendered on a greater order of magnitude by technological advances. This is especially true of the economic collapse. It is not a failure of capitalism itself, at least as that term has been understood for several centuries now. I hate to sound like some ivory-tower Hayekian or something, but capitalism is much less likely to fail people than the other way around.

And that is precisely what happened over the last couple years. It bears no resemblance to the capitalism that Adam Smith wrote about, nor David Ricardo, nor Hayek, nor even Milton Friedman, though certainly Friedman was as sound a proponent of pure muscle and gall as the dismal science has ever seen.

But capitalism, at its heart, is about finding and creating efficiencies in production, operations, financial capacity and mobility (presumably culminating in an orgasmic celebration of Ayn Rand copulating with a throbbing dollar sign). A product is made, and its desirability in the marketplace determines its value, price, and cost, all of which are run through various operational processes to find the most efficient methods of production, pricing, and distribution.

What we've borne witness to was no unique moment -- it was a small, insular group of spreadsheet bookies, armed with an arcane formula none of them understood, and a withering sense of entitlement that more than offset their distaste for accountability. It's organized crime, dressed up with the trappings of legitimacy and the furbelows of institutional opacity.

The difference is that thieves and grifters didn't always have Excel to help them commit their crimes more quickly and efficiently, and on a much grander scale. Bank robbery is for pikers; the man who can fuck over the entire planet and make them pay for it besides is someone to be reckoned with. Neither Adam Smith nor Hyman Minsky could have predicted the stranglehold such people have on the financial engine of the world, and they sure as hell wouldn't have recognized it as capitalism.

One of my many pet peeves is the oft-misquoted Bible verse regarding money, which in fact states that it is the love of money that is the root of all evil. Again, it is not capitalism that fails people, it is the other way around. It is the painstaking worship of money for its very own sake, for the cause of sheer accumulation and nothing else, for the studied indifference to the greater utilitarian good in the service of greater pyramidal asset/income disparities. It's people who buy enough influence to tell you to your face that they deserve all your money, and you should be grateful for the privilege of mortgaging your grandchildren's futures to cover their gambling losses, and they're gonna do it again, and there ain't a fuckin' thing you can do about it, podna.

But of all things, what it most certainly is not is capitalism, any more than what passes for conservatism these days has anything to do with, as Russell Kirk called actual conservatism, the negation of ideology. This abuse of capitalism is, as with modern conservatardery, the opposite of the actual meaning of the word.

It discourages actual production of tangible goods, and embraces a baroque system of triple-cross-wagering which even its own practitioners do not fully comprehend. It's leveraged tranches and credit default swaps and infesting the political process. It's scumbags betting on the actuarial viability of bundled life insurance policies, where the sooner you die, the more money they make. It drives prices up on captive markets with spec trading, in order to manipulate profit-hoarding. It's parasitism on a violated corpse. It's not an economy, it's a necronomy.

Worst of all, what these people do bastardizes the pragmatism of true capitalism's risk-reward scenario by removing the intellectual underpinnings of rational self-interest -- after all, if you're not actually risking anything of your own, you'll throw money on every Nigerian prince scam that comes your way, because there's literally no reason for you not to.

Substitute "accountability" for the much-abused "capitalism", and some of these critiques might find themselves on a sounder track. It's as much a political problem as it is an economic one.

1 comment:

cavjam said...

While the recent(and, despite a seeming stability, ongoing) horror movie was certainly not capitalism as any economist or other social scientist would define it, I maintain that it was capitalism in the faith-based, fundie moronocon world; a world in which there is no backdrop of realism, in which there are traffic laws but no police because drivers will self-police, in which not only basic economics postulates but even Newton's Laws are mutable, in which wishing is akin to Diktat and either makes it so.

While I'm sure, as Krugman noted, there were economists so in love with their models they lost their minds to their hearts, most of the stars of the movie were not economists. They were artless flim flam men abetted by the corporatocracy's public personae - government and the mind-benumbing medium of TV which pervades the social body like a third stage cancer.

Keynes noted that any time you hear the term "financial innovation," just substitute "leverage." While the Depression of the early thirties was caused, in my long-ago-learned opinion, by banks leveraging equities purchases at 10:1, this time around (thanks to a change in rules) financial houses, which had again become a part of formerly staid banking, were allowed to reduce margin requirements to foster leverages of 20, 30, even 40:1. And they were using that leverage to buy mortgage bundles, themselves (even more) highly leveraged instruments. So, add an exponent to that ratio. What, did risk/reward ratios fly out the window? Couple this with the CDS market, which wound up permitting a guy with $1 in assets insuring a $10,000 bet on a three legged nag, and you've got the financial equivalent of a hydrogen bubble in an eternal lightning storm. Any rational human could see the inevitable. (I won't even mention the hair oil salesmen, er..., mortgage brokers, or the ratings agencies' business model, so similar to the auditing/accounting roles in the Enron et al. debacles.)

There's a reason avarice has been considered by society to be a vice since before Plato wrote it down. It's a constant companion to man, one that stabs the mind through the eyes with hot spikes. It's a blinding, feverish stupidity, unfitting for a functioning social body. It must be guarded against. So, let us never forget the ultimate culpability of the absent traffic cop, for which the Summers' Self-inflated Mensa Group shares the blame in planting the seeds, or allowing the planting thereof. What was not deliberate crony encouragement or wink-wink, nudge-nudge, "Go ahead and scalp the sheep to their dermis" from the very top of the Cheney admin was criminal neglect from the myriad apparatchiks, a neglect risen not just from the cadaver of capitalism but from the back-shot corpse of reality. (There's usually more than one dead corpus in a horror flick.)

Were Garcia Marquez to have titled Moore's movie, it'd be Risk in the Time of Delusion. The inherent definition of risk (as with so many other decisions) in such a time would be "insane."