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I feel that people I trusted--I don't know who, on what level--have let me down, and I think they have behaved disgracefully, and its for them to pay. And I think, frankly, that I'm the best person to see it through.--Rupert Murdoch, quoted in the July 20, 2011 New York Times, p. A10
A personal history
I met a billionaire once, in 1982. An older European businessman had become one of my first law clients, and evolved into a friend as well, proud to help me commence my career as, I suppose, someone had once done for him. He arrived in New York one day to accompany me to the closing of a transaction I had negotiated. He needed to present the other side with a fifty thousand dollar deposit, but he hadn't brought any money with him. "We'll go see Edward." We went up to a Park Avenue office, the most opulent I had ever seen, where the wood and rugs, in subtle, deep colors, radiated a sense of how much money they cost. "What can I do for you?" Edward asked, after some small talk. He was a spectral looking man in his early forties, unremarkable, with thin sandy hair. My client said, "Edward, I need fifty thousand dollars." "Certainly," said the other. "Cash or a check?" He then gave us some advice on the transaction at hand, hovering in between truisms and misunderstandings; Edward had more self confidence than knowledge and was, apparently, one of those people who thinks himself the world's greatest authority on topics about which he knows very little. But we both nodded solemnly, because Edward had the money and the beautiful office. As we returned to the street, my client said, "Edward is a billionaire."
I hadn't thought about Edward since the 1980's, but when I started to write this essay, I did a Google search. The year I met him, it was already known that Edward had been involved smuggling resources to an internationally banned country. He had been identified at some point by the Justice Department as offering a potential threat to the United States, due to his influence in certain circles where businessmen wielded great political and criminal power. Years later, Edward had moved most of his operations to an island in a warm sea, where he could do what he wanted unfettered by the government, which happily catered to billionaires. There were accounts that he surrounded himself with intelligent, competent women dressed in bikinis and carrying the new, clunky portable phones and clipboards, who ran his affairs for him. Then, after 2000, there was a report that Edward was arrested by European police, and charged with running a bank that laundered money for international grifters.
Defining a new term
In this essay, I will use the term "billionairism" to define a movement in American and world society that contains several elements: while it is a movement led by an assortment of people who are each worth more than a billion dollars or aspire to be, it is also an ideological movement with significant moral implications in which people, bolstered by their own great wealth, feel entitled both to disregard any legal strictures the nations in which they live and work attempt to apply to them, and to use their great financial power actually to transform, to warp out of shape, those nations.
The premise of this essay is that billionaires are the greatest existential threat facing democracy today, in the United States and other Western countries.
An economic theory of billionairism
A thesis I will advance in support of the above premise is that the basic relationship between the average middle or working class citizen of this country and the billionaire class is that of the krill to the whale. Not long ago, I wrote an essay analyzing the circumstances under which external forces can lawfully and morally intrude upon us and say, "I require your...." When the draft is in place, your nation can require your life to fight external enemies. There has been much discussion of the circumstances under which a nation should not ask you to make that sacrifice (to fight meaningless Asian landwars, the loss of which turn out to have no substantial or lasting geopolitical impact). Your nation at all times can say, "I require a percentage of your income", to run its own affairs and provide the services which make it rewarding and comfortable to be a citizen of the nation. The present political emergency arises from a debate in which one side loudly asserts that the amount of the contribution, and the ends for which it is used, have become politically illegitimate. (For example, as a tiny sidelight to the impending forced default of U.S. debt, the Times for July 24 reports that the FAA will be shut down in a shoot-out between Republicans and Democrats, apparently over the use of our taxes to subsidize rural airports but also over provisions encouraging the unionization of air industry employees.)
Under what circumstances can the billionaire class say to us, "I require 40% (or all) of your net worth"? I was able to argue the above cases from both sides (a draft is legal and moral at least in the presence of a serious existential threat, such as Nazi Germany; taxation at appropriate levels is necessary, legal and moral to run the legitimate affairs of a government). What is the argument in favor of the rights of billionaires to appropriate our belongings?
This is exactly what happened in September 2008. I will use myself, if you don't mind, as a case study/thought experiment to demonstrate what I mean. Much of the time, political-moral debate is obscured, not aided, by incidents and examples raising opportunities for fundamentalist indignation. The debate over the death penalty--which should really be about how many innocent people we are executing, and about the cruelty involved even in killing the guilty--is obscured at all times by the horrendous acts which the guilty have committed, or of which the innocent are accused. The abortion debate bogs down easily in the statement: "You had sex! Of course you got pregnant! Now take responsibility!"
Similarly, before we can even get to the role of the billionaires in the financial downturn, we have to get past a lot of similar indignation: "You took a mortgage you couldn't afford! You ran up thousands of dollars of charges on credit cards for stuff you didn't need! You invested in real estate or related securities, etc. Now stop your whining and take your medicine!"
But I lost thirty percent of my net worth and I hadn't done any of that. I had no mortgage, no credit cards, and all of my money was stashed in the safest possible mutual funds, the kind that are supposed to track market indices quite conservatively. No growth funds, nothing that was officially tied in to mortgage-backed securities. I would have been hard put even to tell you what a derivative is. I never gambled, no longer bought individual stocks on a whim or a tip. And a third of everything I had vanished because the billionaires required it.
Now, the official story that everyone, even the Obama administration, endorses, or tolerates most of the time, is that a financial crash is an act of God like a bolt of lightning from a blue sky. But the truth is, that the crash was an act of billionaires, not nature. And the fact that almost nobody has been prosecuted for it, that in fact most of the people responsible are still in place, doing what they were doing before--and some of them are already starting to promote the next bubble, Internet Bubble #2--is very highly disturbing.
It would be bad enough if these selfish people had crashed the economy by immolating themselves, as the banks and brokers largely did in 1929. But this time around, there was a new factor: largely unregulated derivatives which allowed them to bet against their own clients. This powerfully amoral solution, which is all but taken for granted as sound business mentality today, works like this: 1. Whip up customer hunger for a particular type of instrument, in this case, mortgage-backed securities. 2. Create and sell these securities to your customers. 3. As a form of insurance, create and buy derivatives which will make money if the mortgage backed securities fail. That way, you profit regardless of what happens. In fact, since most of the billionaires and wannabes selling mortgage backed securities must have known how crappy the product was and that a bubble was in progress--they are not stupid people--you could characterize this, not as a neutral bet, but as an actual raid on the rest of us.
Racetrack bettig is structured so that you can't possibly make money by buying a ticket on every horse in a race. Wall Street is structured so that you can. Well, not you--not me--but the billionaires.
The billionaire class, left free by government to sell mortgage backed securities and buy collaterized default obligations, were permitted to accost me in September 2008 and say, "We require a third of your net worth."
The Republican argument in favor
The Republican argument in support of billionairism is simple, clear and entirely false. It is: "We need the billionaires. They open factories, start companies, and create jobs. Without them, we would be nothing. If we regulate them too greatly, they will leave, and we will become nothing, just a mass of hungry, unemployed, impoverished people. In order to retain them, we must give them substantial freedom to act." The implication, though few Republicans would say so on the record, is that if every few years, the billionaires want to take a third of my net worth, that's the price I pay for American citizenship, for freedom, for retaining the rest of my assets.
Which really makes it a kind of a tax, by the way. If you look at it that way, wouldn't you rather pay the much smaller tax rate required by the federal government? What if the billionaires decide that next time the tax should be 100% of my worth (as it was for some people in September 2008)? What laws, what restrictions upon them would stop them? If I have to choose between living under billionairism and a version of American democracy which effectively limits the billionaires, as a matter of enlightened self interest, I will choose the latter every time.
While it is true that billionaires do tend to leave highly regulated nations for less lawful ones, this fact of human nature does not really translate into a moral imperative to tolerate the depradations of lawless people.
I heard it said a long time ago--I can't seem to find a source for the quote--that anyone can become a millionaire, but only a sociopath can become a billionaire. I think there is a lot of truth to this. People can become millionaires serving, entertaining and forstering other people; but billionaires almost by definition have to be willing to break other people, and in large numbers, to amass that much wealth.
That said, why do we need billionaires to promote employment? Couldn't we have full employment in a society of millionaire entrepreneurs? Couldn't we still have large corporations, in fact, without anyone involved with them amassing one billion dollars?
Are we in fact confusing cause and effect? It is possible that capitalism, as we operate it, produces billionaires, but not the other way around. The fact that our system allows people to amass one billion dollars does not mean that the smooth, safe, widespread continuation of the system depends on the existence or the contributions of these people. Adolf Hitler was an end product of German democracy, just as Julius Caesar and the emperors who followed him were an end product of Roman democracy. Systems have a tendency to create the people who destroy them. American democratic capitalism creates billionaires who seek to end the democratic aspect of the system and transform it into an oligarchy.
A lot of my recent thinking about billionaires was driven by the revelations about Rupert Murdoch and his relations with the British government. It is an unimaginably tawdry story.
Britain is the nation which created modern democracy, which (rather peacefully compared to France) hit on the idea that it was necessary to limit the authority of kings, so that the mass of citizens might run their own affairs. It is the nation of Locke, Milton and Hume, where some of the most original and powerful political thought was committed to paper, the nation whose brilliant thinkers influenced the American framers so profoundly.
Britain today, by contrast, is the nation where billionaire Rupert Murdoch and his newspapers have, apparently, for decades, formed an unacknowledged fourth branch of government. Where Murdoch visits each Prime Minister, via the back door at 10 Downing Street, to opine on matters about which he may know little or nothing, like the Euro. Where politicians at all levels are afraid that if they anger Murdoch, investigative reports will run in his newspapers about their extra-marital affairs, their expenses, etc.
Every billionaire has a product, and every billionaire's machinations with politicians, the press and other celebrities has for objective and background the unimpeded operation of that commercial machine. With so many billionaires, it is oil, and with others, real estate. With some, it is the software installed on most desktops worldwide.
The product of Murdoch's business machine was unique and different. Murdoch, as we know now, traded in the messages left on the cell phones of murdered teenage girls. What makes the long slide of Britain, from Hume to Murdoch, so extraordinary is the sleaziness of Murdoch's product. The world needs oil, and places to live or do business, and software to run its affairs. But I question whether anyone really needs to know about the anguished messages left in the voicemail of murdered, missing girls.
Power without responsibility
Watching a billionaire emerge into the light is similar to the denouement of a horror movie with lots of build up and not much pay off. The adroit filmmaker frightened you expertly, built up a powerful anticipation. When you finally saw the creature, there was a terrible let down: its so trite, so much less than you expected.
Murdoch is no exception. Reading his testimony before Parliament, it was evident how superficial he is, how self-involved, that he too believes himself to be the world's greatest authority and ultimate arbiter on virtually everything. But I was most struck by the words I quoted at the outset of this essay.
I wrote many years ago that no self-respecting executive ever points a finger down the chain of command. Harry Truman understood that, with his "The Buck Stops Here" sign. The Japanese understand too, that you are responsible for the things that happen on your watch you didn't know about, because you should have, because they happened in the environment you created and supervised.
While this approach accords with ideas of personal responsibility favored by priests, principals and stern fathers, it has an equally important social subtext. People in groups--businesses or governments--function better when someone can be held actually and symbolically responsible for everything that happens in the operation to which they have been assigned. Lincoln didn't make excuses for generals who couldn't fight; he kept switching them until he found one, U.S. Grant, who could. Believing every lost battle was the fault of subordinates, or the weather, would have interfered with victory, by leading him to keep the inadequate and useless on the job.
One of the first things you learn in business, or government, must be the correlation between authority and responsibility. A familiar malfunction, one I experienced myself at various moments in my career, is to be assigned responsibility without authority. For example, your job is to cause the number of widgets manufactured without defects to double in a year, but you have no authority to buy new machines, fire anyone or to commission an engineering or efficiency study of the existing operation.
However, a phenomenon that we are increasingly seeing in the world, is the wielding of great authority, great power, with no corresponding responsibility. I have written glancingly, and I hope will write much more, about this as a phenomenon in American life. It ties in to a sort of victim mentality, in which everything that goes wrong is someone else's fault. We are not obese because we eat junk food and fail to exercise, but because our genes so dictate, or because McDonald's (where we choose to eat three meals a day) fails to feed us salads. One of the unwritten Spectacle essays I have had in mind for many years is the one on Freud, a modern archangel of personal responsibility, who believed through analysis we could understand, and therefore master, most of the peculiarities of our minds. With vindictive rage, post-modern culture has excoriated him, and replaced him with the proposition that we are the helpless playthings of genetics and chemistry. It is not hard to find evidence in all walks of life of a philosophical passivity, an ethic of victimhood. Everything happens to us; nothing is ever our fault. Our failure to take responsibility for our own personal bad outcomes translates into a disclaimer of responsibility for our collective actions. The misbegotten war in Iraq? Hurricane Katrina? Have you ever yet heard a president say, "we fucked up?" Or a Congresscritter? Never; its always an act of God or an enemy.
Billionaires thrive in this environment. Though they act and do, are far more powerful than us, the break we have created between cause and effect benefits them too. Nothing is ever their fault either. The danger that we will single them out, demonize them, blame them-- or even correctly perceive their depradations and impact on us--is why they spend so much money buying politicians, funding 501(c)(4)'s and think tanks. The Republican party, the Tea Party, the Cato Institute, have provided witheringly effective covering fire for the billionaires, for decades.
Billionaires are the paradigms of exceptionalism. Just as American exceptionalists continue to believe that our nation is somehow superior in the absence of independent objective proofs--as we slide towards no longer being the smartest, the inventors, the manufacturers, the best educated, the fittest--billionaires believe they are a higher life form, free of everyone else's rules or constraints.
This is in fact why the transition from (ever less) regulated American society to sunny islands is such a common feature of billionaire behavior. Only the Libertarians would elevate this into a moral lesson. Billionaires love island nations for reasons essentially similar to the adoration of 1950's gangsters for Cuba: it was a place you could do anything you wanted, without any danger of government intervention. Nobody thought to moan about a gangster drain, or to argue that we need to keep our gangsters at home for the smooth functioning of the American economic system.
Yet the line between billionaires and gangsters is increasingly hard to draw. Not only have they always been metaphorically quite similar in their behavior and outlook (think about "robber barons" as the widely accepted designation for America's nineteenth century billionaire class) but literally, the line has been obscured in recent decades. Gangsters become billionaires and billionaires become actual gangsters with some regularity (and then rub shoulders with one another on sunny islands). The Russian examples are eloquent indications of where the world is heading: they are merely a model, a forerunner, of what to expect everywhere else if present trends continue.
Post-Soviet Russia is a laboratory in which, due to the overnight evaporation of the prior government, the forces of democracy and capitalism were set free to compete in a highly unstable, opportunistic environment. New opportunities existed at all ends of the moral spectrum. It was at least briefly possible to become a billionaire in the relatively honorable, old fashioned way, by selling Coca Cola or mutual funds. But there were also immense opportunities for corruption, for bribes, illegal oil trading, and for outright theft of government money and resources. The story of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer who died in prison after beatings and denial of medical care, in punishment for his efforts to expose the theft of hundreds of millions in tax payments from his clients, expresses everything you need to know about the new Russia. Some of the people who prosecuted him were the same ones involved in the theft.
Unstable environments create billionaires, and people who are already billionaires are drawn to them. That is why over the decades, there have been so many stories of billionaires trading with outlaw nations, doing business with South Africa or implanting themselves in violent, corrupt places like Nigeria. Billionaires go wherever a power vacuum exists, politicians are greedy and corrupt, and an economic opportunity exists which can be better exploited in the absence of law and responsibility.
However, President and now Prime MInister Putin, in a violent, lawless and dishonest way, is fighting a battle which the United States has long conceded: are the billionaires to own the state, or the state the billionaires? The history of post-Soviet Russia has been one of the expropriation of independent and maverick billionaires (see the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky of Yukos Oil as a leading example) and their replacement by captive politician-billionaires. While Russia is a horrible and deadly environment, in which the murder of journalists and human rights campaigners is merely a by-product of the battle taking place way overhead, the American plan, of turning everything over to the billionaires, does not really have better long term prospects.
The "good" billionaires
I anticipate the argument that there are good billionaires as well as bad ones, just as there are good and bad lawyers, bakers and airline pilots. Any essay which anecdotally amasses a few bad examples can unfairly make us condemn a whole class, leading to the conclusion that all bakers are evil for example.
I appreciate the role George Soros and the Macarthur clan have played in American and international life as much as anyone, but what disturbs me so much about even the good billionaires is that they seem to exist in an environment where they are good only by dint of their own personalities, their own internal moral structure. While this makes them genuinely among the best human beings on earth---because they have foregone the opportunity to commit great crimes without any risk of punishment--a system in which the only law, the only enforcement,is internal, cannot thrive for decades and centuries. While a man foregoing the opportunity to steal unguarded gold from Fort Knox is highly laudable, the smooth continuation of society, based on an accurate understanding of human nature, demands that we guard Fort Knox. And we aren't.
New York Mayor Bloomberg, by contrast, is an example of a relatively good billionaire warped by money and power. The slightness of his offense, compared to lurid Russian stories of bribery and murder, is exactly what gives his actions their importance. He is an intelligent man who would have made a decent mayor even if he had not been a billionaire. His money, however, has arguably made him a worse mayor (and man). His personal exceptionalism (the common feature of all people who possess a billion dollars, even if they did nothing for it other than be born to someone who already possessed it) led directly to his successfully seeking a change of the term limit laws, so he could seek his unhappy, unlucky third term. Billionaires do what they want, and get what they want. His exceptionalism is also directly responible for the fact that he secretly travels on weekends or whenever he wants to property he owns on sunny islands, so that various New York weather and other emergencies have occurred when he was out of town. He has created an environment in which the people he hires feel equally irresponsible--he has propagated the billionaire irresponsibility down the chain of command--so that his commissioner, responsible for dealing with the blizzard two winters ago, was also not here at the crucial moment. Finally, another feature of billionaire complacency and exceptionalism (also memorably displayed by Ross Perot) involved the hiring of respected businesspeople to run specialized fiefdoms such as education, for which their corporate experience gave them absolutely no preparation.
Most recently, the scandals such as the time-keeping system on which the city spent millions of dollars fruitlessly, are things which you would expect not to happen on Bloomberg's watch, given his well run corporate affairs. The suggestion is that being mayor is a game or hobby, that he has more important things to think about, that the stakes are low for him even if powerfully high for the millions of residents of the city he half-heartedly governs.
Money changes everything
An interesting and counter-intuitive insight is that money can make smart people stupid. Of course, billionaires who inherited their wealth may have been stupid to begin with. But anyone who came from a middle class background, and exploited opportunities to amass a billion dollars, has to have some kind of native shrewdness, at least an intelligence geared to the particular environment and challenges.
I think self made billionaires wind up having something in common with those who inherited their money. It is the friction and suffering in the environment which makes us real, like the protagonist in "Velveteen Rabbit" (subtitled "How Toys Become Real"). Not that billionaires don't have adversity, even in their personal lives; they do tend to marry completely unsuitable people, engage in reciprocal adultery and then drawn out, highly visible divorce battles. And the job of amassing immense personal wealth is highly analogous to war, with constant raids and the fending off of counter-attacks. However, every billionaire seems to reach a point in life, possibly when he has had his billions for some decades, where he arrives at the following exceptionalist insights about himself: I am a hell of a fellow. Normal rules don't apply to me.
Billionaires by definition never have to worry about their next meal, or whether they will have a roof over their head next month, or even how to get to their four o'clock appointment if the subways aren't running. Money lubricates life and tends to remove the day to day issues which most of us negotiate and navigate on a day to day basis. To pick a trivial example, I am writing this essay on a HP Mini Netbook computer which is a complete lemon. It cost $250 at Radio Shack and freezes and crashes with alarming regularity. I spend immense amounts of time watching the circular symbol which has replaced the old hourglass. Yet I will continue to use this computer for months, or even a year or so, before I can afford to replace it. A billionaire would simply have thrown it out the window, or stomped it to shards, in the first hour it gave displeasure, and sent his personal assistant (possibly bikini-clad, if its a sunny island) out to buy a powerful replacement, with no consideration as to price.
I believe that this lubrication of the gears of life makes smart people dumb and complacent. Money is not the only lubricant; Dick Cheney's stupidity was probably caused by decades of power, though he is also financially quite comfortable.
Money as a lubricant even has its effect on middle class people. I started out middle class; we had more money than anyone I knew, and lived in a bigger house. We never feared eviction; the electricity was never turned off. I know many people who have had much harder lives. Then, when I went to work on ambulances in 2002, I encountered for the first time, a blue collar world, in which the people were glad to have jobs at all, to be able (carefully and with the assistance of a working spouse) to be able to afford houses a four hour commute away in Pennsylvania (many of them undoubtedly have lost these houses now). When I sat in ambulances in quiet hours talking with them (they were mostly African American and Latino) the big issues of their lives tended to be the cops who routinely stopped and hounded them on the street, or the difficulty of doing your homework in the projects, or getting dinner on the table when your overwhelmed single mom is working the night shift. I had come from a class which gets extremely worked up if the barrista at Starbuck's forgets to use skim milk in the latte.
Social networks (in the old fashioned sociological sense) are originally a way working class people and immigrants have of helping each other ascend into a stable place in society. However, past a certain point (the lawyers hiring each other's children into their law firms regardless of merit, or the union which is now admitting the fourth generation of its original members' children) such networks, by removing as much friction from the system as possible, encourage stupidity and placidity. In billionaire world, people with the right credentials are almost never tested. George Bush is proof that a man of mediocre intelligence but the right background, could hang safely in the social safety nets of billionaire world for an entire career--and then, remarkably, become President of the United States.
The plight of the United States
The test of a democracy is not only whether it makes its billionaires live by the same rules as everyone else. Before you can ever get to that, you have the issue of how many billionaires can come into being under a particular system. Since unstable, unjust systems create the most opportunity (like post-Soviet Russia or a plethora of gangster-run third world countries) a superabundance of billionaires is a sign, not of good old democratic-capitalist free markets, but that there is something seriously wrong.
Since this is putatively one of the msot radical things I have ever written, let me explain it better. I have said before that political systems, like people, can be seen as means or ends. I heard William Kunstler speak at Harvard Law School in the 1970's, and I came away with the horrified insight that this man, whom I had always admired, regarded the Bill of Rights as a means, not an end in itself. If the people he represented and admired ever got power in the United States, there would be no further need for constitutional protection. It was only while they were a persecuted minority that the First, Fourth and Fifth amendments had any merit.
We have endured so many centuries already of the lionization of capitalism (this is the third) that it is hard to see through the hype to the reality: To the billionaire class, democracy is not an end in itself, but simply the means to amass the wealth, the environment in which they may do so. For many (I suspect for the vast majority of billionaires) the private belief is that democracy is a pretty good system to promote capitalism, "until I make my second or hundredth billion" and then it is no longer required.
Not every billionaire flees to a sunny island; the ones who stay at home tend to warp the system in which they live, as Rupert Murdoch so effectively and disastrously warped the government of Britain.
The relatively low profile Koch Brothers have funded a plethora of blandly named 501(c)(4) organizations (the "National Center for Policy Analysis" is a perfect example) which are not required to release contributors' names, and which are popping out of the woodwork everywhere, fighting against environmental policy, denying global warming science, busting unions, and trying to end health care reform, among other goals. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, with a 5-4 conservative majority, is providing covering fire in Citizens United and other cases, holding that billionaires have a First Amendment right to spend money, secretly and unimpeded, to influence legislative and public policy outcomes. Similar to British politicians who are afraid, if they buck Murdoch, of newspaper stories revealing their peccadillos, American politicians who buck the Koch brothers can expect a 501(c)(4) to show up in their neighborhood, funneling money to their opponent in the next election. And, unlike British prime ministers secretly entertaining Murdoch but requiring him to enter by the back door, Supreme Court justices Scalia and Thomas openly travel to Koch Brothers events at which the agenda is the complete destruction of the Democratic Party. I am horrified that nobody is horrified by this. I remember the Costa Gavras movie "State of Siege", set in a fictional banana republic, in which the final destruction of the insurgents was planned at a meeting at which the camera watched the participants arriving while superimposed titles identified them: "Congressman. Banker. Newspaper publisher. Banker. Judge. Senator." An unconcealed oligarchical class in action. I won't tell you it could happen here: it has happened here. Set against the background of the destruction of the middle class, the greatest disparity America has ever seen between rich and poor, an epidemic of foreclosures, rising prices and declining income--- the only people who are making out are the billionaires, who manage the economy from bubble to slump to bubble and, by betting against the rest of us via derivatives, make money whether we are up or down.
The baby eaters
I'll conclude by offering you a little parable. Joe Botz is a leading citizen of our town. He has created jobs here, donated to civic causes, endowed the college and the hospital. He may want to serve as mayor next year, and if he takes an interest, we should let him. Joe has been great for this town.
Of course its true that at rare, inconvenient moments over the years, Joe has reached out and grabbed a passing baby, and devoured it whole with much pleasure. We regard those occurrences--it hasn't happened more than eight times--as anomalies. If we thought too much about them, we might lose hope and faith or start to regard this town as a place of horror. Most of us simply officially and devoutly insist that Joe's occasional baby-eating is a myth, it never happened. Some of the most prominent of us. when we are alone enjoying a cigar at the club at the end of the day--those of us who aspire to become Joe Botz--will acknowledge to each other that the occasional public spectacle of Joe tearing a baby limb from limb and eating it with obvious enjoyment, though highly unpleasant, is the price we pay for prosperity.
By the way, I first invented the baby eating parable, not in connection with billionaires, but American slavery. Thomas Jefferson, Enlightenment sage and slave owner, was the original baby-eating Joe Botz.
Where my parable breaks down, as regards billionaires (and slavery as well) is that baby-eating is NOT rare: it is a constant. The 80's savings and loan scandal, the nineties Internet bubble, the real estate bubble of the 2000's and the new Internet bubble almost immediately replacing it--the baby eating cycle is accelerating. It has been a fascinating and highly disturbing ethical spectacle watching the ripples of suffering spreading out from the 2008 collapse--horses and dogs people can no longer afford abandoned in Irish and American towns, counties cutting pensions to retirees and widows, hospitals, libraries, day care centers closing, and a new influx of homeless living under bridges. The signs of baby eating are rife, they are everywhere, and yet we carry on in purposeful obliviousness: we, the middle class, are losing a class war which has gone on for decades, while we deny there is a war on, that anyone is doing this to us; it must be an act of God. But even most of the acts of God these days (hurricanes, floods, famines) are arguably caused or contributed to by the business activities of billionaires.
The natural outcome of unchecked billionairism will be a return to medieval conditions: Barons and serfs, and virtually nobody in between. I don't expect or want to be a baron in that world, and I refuse to be a serf. What about you?