An Assassin’s Lessons About the Financial Crisis
by Stuart Archer Cohen
A friend of mine spent many years in the security business doing contract work for the CIA, some of which involved killing people. My friend had a long history in the hard side of human interactions, much of it in the murky moral regions inhabited typically by soldiers, spies and public defenders with guilty clients. This was not a man who could afford to spend too much energy on moral issues: there was a job to do, and once he embarked on it, the elements of right and wrong only got in the way. However, he was a wise student in human motivation. One of the things he told me was, "A guy will do almost anything if he thinks it’s for the good of other people."
You could write an encyclopedia about that statement. It was an inspiration to me when I was trying to depict the Regime cronies who end up hiring death squads in The Army of the Republic. I take my friend’s comment in three ways. The first is the fact that men in combat will go to heroic lengths for the sake of their friends or what they see as the good of their country. Looking deeper I caught a much darker truth: that men and women convinced of the altruism of their actions will go to great lengths in the pursuit of evil. And on a third, profounder level, it goes from dark to weird, turns inside out: that people acting in their own self-interest are likely to convince themselves that whatever evil they’re doing is for everyone else’s benefit.
Which brings me to the engineers of our present financial catastrophe. The blame for this goes all the way down the line to every poor sap that lied about his income to get a mortgage, but at the top of the pyramid, the rules were set by those who benefited most. These people, staunch opponents of the financial oversight that would have reined them in, became apostles of a self-serving religion of the "Free Market" and all it could do for the common good.
The central tenet of this faith was that "Free" Markets, had the ability to magically solve our problems. This was said to have been proven infallibly by two 18th century prophets named David Ricardo and Adam Smith, after which all history stopped. In the 1890′s it was Social Darwinism that had justified shooting down union organizers and sending children to factories rather than schools. Now, the divine Free Market gave an altruistic stamp to anything that suited the interests of Corporate capital. Taxes, trade barriers, unions: all of these were now Evil because they interfered with the "Free" Market. Financial oversight was Evil because it interfered with the Freedom of Corporate Capitalism’s great practitioners, and somehow their Freedom was our Freedom.
It was remarkably like the old Scientific Socialism of the Communists, where economic law trumped all our petty ideas of justice or injustice. As with Communism, any evidence that the system didn’t work was ignored. Savings and Loan Scandal? Not relevant. Jobs going overseas? All for the greater good. Working class becoming Working Poor? Nothing a new credit card or a 2nd mortgage can’t solve. All the way to the present collapse, and, incredibly, the insistence that we don’t let a bunch of Socialists go crazy and start regulating financiers.
Now we’ve been reminded what Free Markets really do: they boom, they bust, they become monopolies, they collapse. They implode and impoverish people in ways that are gut level, not theoretical and abstract, and the people at the middle and bottom of the pile pay a much bigger price than the guys at the top.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been doing business with South America since 1984 and I know far better than most Republican talking heads what an over-regulated economy and trade regime really looks like. (You think America is bad? Try Bolivia.) But I’ve also seen how ugly it gets when elites are successful at relentlessly expanding their privileges, and I’ve never met or heard of anyone in that position-people who managed vast tracts of land with peasant labor, or privatized a government entity, or used connections to make a fortune on a government contract-who didn’t think what they were doing was morally right.
For one brief moment they wavered: the mighty Alan Greenspan expressed his surprise at discovering, at the age of 80, that a certain percentage of rich white men, given complete license, will steal the shirt off your back then grab your wristwatch when you extend your hand to save them.
But we won’t see any apologies from Hank Paulson, from Robert Rubin, from the American Enterprise Institute and all the other cheerleaders for deregulation who set us up to take the fall. These men are convinced that they are acting for the common good, even as their colleagues manipulate the bailout to protect their bonuses and their fortune. Their personal interests just happen to align with what’s good for the rest of us. Even their trillion dollar deficits provide a silver lining by giving us the opportunity to streamline the cash-strapped government, especially the Social Security part.
Some might call this tendency to ignore reality when it whacks you in the face psychotic. But for the smart guys like Hank Paulson, as well as the followers who blindly mutter the words "Free Market" with reverence and awe, they are the ones who truly understand, who keep the faith, who know the Truth. The rest of us? Well, we’ll just have to learn the hard way.
Stuart Archer Cohen‘s controversial new novel, The Army of the Republic, (St. Martin’s Press) is set in a near-future United States where economic collapse and a one-party "democracy" has spawned a violent backlash. The book centers around Lando, a Seattle urban guerrilla devoted to violent resistance, Emily, a political organizer in Seattle, and James Sands, a billionaire and government crony. Critics have called the book "brilliant," "terrifying," and "treasonous."