Nightmares of Moloch

Do you ever read the New York Times? Lately there seems to be a running theme through some of the editorials. And that theme is: you, Mr. Middle Class Consumer, are just not spending enough money. You’re saving money, and saving money is bad. Spend! Spend now! Never mind flat real wages, high levels of existing debt, and an uncertain future. It’s up to you to save American capitalism. Without your spending we can’t economic growth, and without growth, we can’t make enough new jobs. Exactly where these new jobs are coming from is uncertain, when “free trade” continues to close American factories and corporate investment is mainly in ways to eliminate staff.
I’m not feeling very optimistic. I suppose I shouldn’t really feel too bad. I mean, my personal situation is okay. We have a nice little house we can afford, no other debt, some savings, decent jobs, food. I should be able to say, well, I’m good, so fuck y’all. But I can’t. The future is always uncertain, but today seems even a little murkier than usual. I’m old enough to remember the days when we wondered if today was the day the bombs were gonna fall and vaporize us all.
But now, instead of facing the spectre of Soviet invasion we face an internal security apparatus of a size and scope that would make the KGB blush with envy. Today’s Committee on State Security would like you know that all will be well as long as you continue to shop for mass-produced consumer goods in your malls and big-box retailers and online with Amazon. Can’t sell your house? Might as well remodel the kitchen! Just don’t step out of line or complain.
Is it paranoid to feel anxiety today? Clearly, I’m not the only one feeling that something has gone badly off the rails. We may not all agree on the causes or the solutions, but we’re all feeling the heat. Well, most of us, anyway. Some, not so much. When MF Global went bankrupt after “misappropriating segregated client funds” was the staff pepper sprayed by cops in riot gear? It seems like the events of the last few weeks could hardly be more demonstrative of the two sets of rules that operate in our society. Either you are a member of the protected class or it’s the boot in the face forever.
Not that this is an especially new phenomenon. It’s one of the oldest stories in the history of human civilization. For as long as we’ve had notions of wealth and political power, the holders of the wealth and power have used force to maintain the concentration of wealth. Even in nominally socialist societies where material wealth was limited, whatever was available tended to go to the aristocracy, while the commoners were restricted.
I, personally, do not expect this to change, at least not suddenly in my lifetime. People get pushed too far and rise up, and sometime are successful in pulling down their oppresors, but eventually the wealth and power reconstitutes into a malignant force, like Butch Patrick in Terminator 3. We’re wired with a tendency to be possesive, and we’ve never found a particularly practical way to govern society without, you know, governing it. So as satisfying as it might seem at the time, just putting the bastards up against the wall with a last cigarette and a blindfold doesn’t really help you all that much in the long run.
Does this mean that there is no hope for any kind of justice? That actual individuals who committed actual crimes will face some actual punishment commensurate with those crimes? A couple of years ago, President Obama signed an executive order to form the Interagency Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, to, you might think, investigate financial fraud. Now, you’d think the past decade or so, with fraud apparently rampant and widespread, from brokers fudging loan documents all the way up to the latest robosigning scandal and Goldman Sachs and Citibank arranging billion-dollar deals with one client to screw another client, that this task force would be operating in a target-rich environment and we’d be seeing record levels of fraud prosecutions, but no. In fact, prosecutions continue to drop in number.
Perusing through the reports of the Task Force and the items listed on web site, it is apparent that most of the cases involve petty thieves and con artists. As, for instance, a realtor who participated in a loan-fraud scheme to funnel mortgage funds into his own pockets by faking loan papers with the help of straw buyers. Now, these people are real crooks and should go to jail, but they’re isolated incidents. They’re not directly connected to the systemic problems in the finance industry. Corporate malfeasance is treated differently. There may be investigations and negotiations of a settlement. A fine with no admission of wrongdoing. A fine usually smaller than the profits on the crime. Though recently, the judge in charge of overseeing the SEC’s wristslap of Citibank has decided he’s had enough of their (the SEC’s) bullshit and is calling them on it. But even that is unlikely to result in any individual at Citi having to take any responsibility for actions, or to change Citi’s corporate behavior.
It’ll be interesting to see how the MF Global failure is handled–if any individuals or even top dogs like Corzine get criminal trials. It appears that MF Global didn’t even go through the motions of setting up dodgy deals to rip off clients, they just grabbed the money out of client accounts. Even the investor class is upset about this one. No honor among thieves, and all that, I guess.
So I’m not feeling like I want to be particularly cooperative with requests to shop till I drop. As I write this, we’re on the eve of our annual orgy of consumer excess, Black Friday, the “official” beginning of the Christmas Holiday Shopping Season. Time to go to Macy’s and Walmart and Best Buy to pick up the latest iteration of electronic bumblepuppy from a factory in China. Well, fuck it. The road to hell is paved with iPods.


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