From Herb Ruhs
The Compassionate Misanthrope
Being the silly sort of fool that I am and blessed with masses of free time, I have spent countless hours over the last few years reading many thousands of pages of dense economic texts, listening to an endless series of podcasts and speeches on economic issues, perused innumerable blog posts and comments and diligently followed the words of numerous financial experts. My activities might seem a shade less foolish if I actually had any money of my own, beyond a diminishing monthly social security “entitlement,” but my labors have led me to the understanding that those who have money are the least likely to understand economic reality.
Growing up in an educationally disadvantaged social setting while exercising a little intellectual curiosity meant that I was always being assaulted by insults like, “If you are so smart why aren’t you rich?” I wondered about that too, still do. Half a century later I now understand that, contrary to the intuitive sense, the question we should be asking is, “If you are so stupid, why aren’t you rich?”
Money is a fascinating topic regardless of the frame used to look at it. Straight up economics is so complex and convoluted as to be the purest vein of bull feces ever devised. The anthropologists, with their cross cultural, archeological and historical perspectives tend to be the most informative about money (David Graber, Debt the First Five Thousand Years). The sociologists mostly seem confused on issues of value and economic behavior. The daily economic news feeds are a wonder of nonsense and fantasy. No wonder that the average citizen understands virtually nothing about economics. The average citizen may be better off this way.
In fact the monetary system is deliberately designed to obfuscate, to mystify and confuse virtually everyone who tries to understand money. All the better to rob us and reduce the population to the status of economic slavery, I thought. That all made sense. What was a surprise to me was the discovery that the actual people moving these vast sums of money around the world and filling vast vaults with the loot of their labors, the very rich, the hedge fund managers, the corporate titans with dreams of forming a new hereditary aristocracy, everyone you might imagine to be in the know, are especially ignorant about how money works. Acting on that ignorance is what qualifies them as the uber stupid.
This wasn’t always the case I suspect. When economies are expanding investors actually need to know how to handle money. When economies are failing economic understanding reduces to something indistinguishable from the patter of organized criminals working a con. The motto becomes, “Ask me not how I came by my loot (wink, wink) just kiss the frigging ring.”
I spent the biggest chunk of my professional life caring for the health needs of incarcerated minors. The minors (or wards or the euphemism of choice for child prisoner) quickly came to understand that I and the nurses would not repeat what they told us in the privacy of the exam room (except of course if they stated any actual plans to harm someone) so I and the nurses became involuntary participants in an endless seminar on the role of cruelty, crime and corruption in American economic life. So, to the extent that I value my perspective on politics and economics I owe the greatest debt to these children.
Upon entering this world of child prisoners one discovers that it is totally dominated by kids from the lowest classes of society. It is not that privileged kids don’t do crimes, they do. It is that privileged kids get pulled out of the system of injustice nearly immediately, in the rare event that they actually are taken into custody, and certainly before they acquire any opportunity to learn from their mistakes. On those occasions that privileged kids did make it to the exam room (physical exams were supposed to be completed within 24 hours of incarceration), the depth of their cluelessness about how the world worked was always evident and stunning in scope as compared to the ordinary prisoner. One came to understand that privilege was synonymous with stupidity.
That is the essential problem that we face in trying to understand this system of organized crime gone suicidal on the level of our entire species that we are taught to call “the economy.” The people making the decisions, monetary or otherwise, in our “advanced” society are dumb as posts dressed up in thousand dollar suits. It is the job of the many minions of the wealthy and powerful to disguise this fact. This is what happens in all systems of hereditary power and wealth. Granddad tycoon may have been smart (and probably evil) but grandson tycoon doesn’t have a clue (and is probably more evil).
This insight so contradicts the sacred myth of The Meritocracy that it takes intense and vivid personal experience to be able to see past the myth to the underlying reality. Occasionally I will encounter people who have touched this reality of the general stupidity of rich and powerful and they always report being similarly astounded by the degree of the stupidity shown by those in charge. Once I had a chance to talk with some Steelworkers who do contract negotiations. Their comment was, “All the bosses are wing nuts.” For the most part, the abjectly stupid that rule us manage to hide their shame and pretend with each other that they are superior sorts. Think for a moment about the rare, now absent, candid interview with the very rich and powerful that used to appear on TV. Leona Helmsley is the poster child here with her wonderful assertion on camera that “only little people pay taxes.” That is certainly true, but it is magnificently stupid to say so on camera.
So as we stand helpless and watch our economic lives be put through the shredder we should be careful to take almost everything we read, see or hear about economics, especially that “wisdom” shared by our friends, with a large block of salt. To a first approximation all economic discussion is total BS. Not surprisingly, the more the reputation for being intelligent and informed the more likely a source is spouting BS. Additionally, as a nod to evil, the more potent the fetid smell, the more likely that the source knows that they are spouting ignorance and sees no choice but to continue to spout nonsense lest the powers that be seek to punish them for telling the truth.
So, while it is possible for an individual to educate themselves and develop a comprehensive understanding of economic developments, it is not highly probable that such an endeavor will succeed. It is another example of the truth of the Sermon On the Mount. The last shall be first, and the ignorant will understand economic reality better than the educated. To paraphrase Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev’s comment on nuclear war, we can truly say that the informed shall come to envy the ignorant.
Eventually the myth making will fail, as it always does, and when it does those who most worshiped the myth of the beneficence of ruthless competition will be the first to feel the sharp edge of the axe. The significant question is whether or not the rest of us will survive the passing of the compelling illusion of progress woven by our economic betters.