January 2009

The Betrayal of The Commons
by Richard Thieme
The cornerstone of capitalism, it has been said, is a handshake.
The legal embellishments that constitute the law books lining the
shelves of lawyers, those laws are footnotes to the many ways people
have betrayed trust, betrayed the letter of the law, the spirit of the
contract, the meaning of the handshake.
Trust, not money, makes the world go around. Money is an emblem of the
exchange of trust. It doesn't exist except as an invention.
And trust has been broken.
Yes, it's all smoke and mirrors, and everyone who looked already knew
that. That isn't news. The news, as Alan Greenspan said pathetically in
front of Congress, was that the moguls and bankers and investment gurus
did not act according to their own self interest. They did not just
risky things but insanely stupid risky things and thought they could
hide from their karma. They betrayed the trust of one another when they
made deals, invented bogus instruments or used good ones unwisely, and
they betrayed the trust of all of us. Nor will they pay the penalty they
should. They never do. They never do.
Every structure built to ensure trust of those people and their
institutions is now suspect. Every one.
We trusted Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to keep good books and not take
risks beyond their ability to manage risk or ours to understand what
they were doing.
They betrayed that trust.
We trusted agencies like Standard and Poor's to rate corporations
accurately so we had a clue when we saw AAA on a bond or note.
They betrayed that trust.
We trusted the wise old men of the Fed, sitting on their dais like
judges, looking down on plain people, to think about their actions,
follow out the implications, and heed voices of caution and alarm.
They betrayed that trust.
We trusted the SEC to ensure that a failure to open the books by a man
with a charming smile and ties to many Wall Street friends, so easy with
his lies and deceit, we trusted that his lack of transparency would
raise red flags, we trusted the SEC to do their job and not sell us out
because they were complicit, equally criminal in their acts, or just
plain dumb.
They betrayed that trust.
The astonishing thing about this country, at the present moment, is that
our rage took the form of lowering the approval rating of our leaders
and voting them out of office in the belief, apparently, that we might
rebuild trust. Is that good will, a belief in democracy and its
processes that distinguishes Americans for the moment from rioting
Greeks in the streets of Athens? Or are we simply stunned for the
moment, trying to understand the enormity of what just happened?
That trusting attitude, that faith in the process to turn the tide,
would certainly be commendable. It is good when people are high and dry
and even better when we're wet. We are all wet, now, the showering spray
of the waves hitting us all, but do we see that the sea is still coming
in, higher and higher, not a tsunami but a rising tide going higher than
anyone dared believe? Do we hear that glub glub glub as people try to
make sane hopeful statements with their mouths already in the water?
Let's return for a moment to those thrilling days of yesteryear when the
streets were not so quiet and the view of the Viet Nam war was not, as
lately, seen through a telescope wrong way around, little distant people
far away and tiny puffs of smoke as they explode.
I remember it well. Toward the end of the seventies and its ravages 
the war that tore us apart, the assassinations, the corruption in the
government from the president to the FBI to the CIA  some of the people
then in power realized the danger of a populace betrayed and enraged by
betrayal. The cost of the war was a million lives and grief for the dead
was a constant wail, the breakdown of constitutional guarantees was
nearly absolute. Looking at the broken glass and burned-out buildings,
some came to the conclusion that "the excesses of democracy" as one
called the demonstrations and organized resistance to that chaos, that
insanity, must not be allowed to repeat.
This is not a conspiracy theory. That's a quote from one of the
participants in the Bilderburg Conference at the end of that era. People
of power from across the globe discussed with civility what must be done
in a context of mutual self-interest. That's not a conspiracy, just
because the conversations take place behind closed doors and the press
doesn't cover them because the press are invited guests, embedded as it
were, and sworn to be silent.
No, not a conspiracy at all. This is the essential nature of oligarchic
structures at a new level of trans-global mutuality that converged into
the foundation of the global financial networks we inhabit today.
"Trust us," our leaders have recently said even as they threaded the
machinery of surveillance and social control through our lives. To an
outside observer, it might looks indeed like the apparatus of a police
state. But that sounds like "conspiracy" as they use the word to
denigrate an opposing position, and I am not talking about conspiracy.
I am talking about history. I am talking about reality.
And the fact that they betrayed our trust.
Because of S&P, we dare not buy bonds, because who knows what they might
be worth? Because of the SEC, we dare not invest in stocks or mutual
funds or funds of funds because who knows what they might be worth?
Because of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the investment banks with whom
they slept and partied, who knows what those arcane and opaque
investments might be worth?
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Who will be the first to dare to
believe the words of a leader or economist now? Who dares to pretend
that the trauma that shocks us now is trivial or mild?
Fear and anxiety are thick in the air like cordite after a gunshot. That
will not dissolve if we buy something shiny or big, go see a cartoon
mouse or stay home and use the drugs that flood our lives, legitimate or
A "news anchor" said the other day, speaking of the sinking economy, it
has gotten so bad that "people are only buying what they need."
Let that sink in. It is so bad that people are only buying what they need.
The world that collapsed was built on people buying things they didn't
need. Then throwing them away and buying more.
That delusion is shredded into tatters and blows away in the wind ...
this is a moment of clarity, in which like any recovering addict we can
see that such a world was insane.
Reality hurts, it is abrasive, but it restores sanity and inner order.
The tide is rising and the waves are shooting spray.
The restoration of trust is not what we need. We need to create trust in
new structures appropriate for a global society. We need to come to them
like weeds coming through the sidewalk from the ground up. We need to
make our own word good and act as if the fractured bonds of civil
society still exist. We need to bootstrap ourselves and learn again how
it feels to have a handshake we can trust.
Trust, but verify, the cold warrior said. And remember LBJ as well:
trust is when you've got him by the balls.
To trust those people and their words unless we have their cojones in
our tight little fists is like Charlie Brown running to kick the
football again.
Let's not. Let us begin by affirming the vision we see when our heads
are clear.
It is quiet in the streets right now. There is only the sound of
newspapers blowing down dark alleys in the twilight. The excesses of
democracy for the moment sleep in their coffins, waiting for the night.
Like good patient vampires should.
We are not doomed. The resiliency and strength that makes us human
beings are alive in our blood.
But boy oh boy, O masters of society on your high dais, don't push your
luck. You lied first to yourselves and then to us. You set up yourselves
too to fall down. And the antidote, you say, is to set you up all over
Friends, as John McCain said to strangers, friends, the United States
government owns banks, insurance companies, manufacturers of farm
equipment, more, and will buy more. But conservatives still speak of
"socialism" as if it's part of a democratic platform.
The old way of framing things is broken. What anyone might have meant by
"capitalism" is not what we have. Not here, not now, and not in the world.
We need new skins for new wine. New frames for new ways of seeing. New
words for new real things.
Trust, but verify. Use words as if they mean what they mean. If a talk
show host or pundit doesn't, shut him off. Using words correctly is
equal to a handshake now. We know how to do that. We have done it
before. Humankind is built to self-transcend and turn transitions into
triumphs. It is not a function of leadership, not alone, but a function
of trust among people in the streets who are walking quietly now through
canyons of broken glass, trying to get our minds around the extent of
our peril, trying to understand what happened exactly while we played
the game of life as if it were virtual reality, as if when cut we didn't
bleed, as if when shot we didn't scream, as if when the screen went
blank it would just reboot.
Richard Thieme (www.thiemeworks.com) speaks and writes about the issues
of our times, with an emphasis on the impact of technology, security and
intelligence, creativity, and practical spirituality. If interested in
having him speak to your organization, email rthieme@thiemeworks.com.