May 15, 2007

Derivative America

Sam Smith

THE word from the Secretary of State that what this country really needs is "rebranding" provides further confirmation that America itself has become a derivative, a socio-political version of those financial instruments Roy Davis has described as having "no intrinsic value, but derive their value from something else . . . The job of a derivatives trader is like that of a bookie once removed, taking bets on people making bets."

John Maynard Keynes explained it more than 60 years ago:

"'Professional investment may be likened to those newspaper competitions in which the competitors have to pick out the six prettiest faces from a hundred photographs, the prize being awarded to the competitor whose choice most nearly corresponds to the average preferences of the competitors as a whole; so that each competitor has to pick, not the faces which he himself finds the prettiest, but those which he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of the other competitors, all of whom are looking at the problem from the same point of view. It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of one's judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree when we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practice the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.'"

Since the rise of metastatic media and mass mood manipulation, America has become similarly removed from the first degree of itself. The process described by Keynes applies as well to politicians as it does to gold trading, witness Bill Clinton's weekly meetings with pollsters to determine what he should think and say over the coming days. Or consider the media, which now widely substitutes perceptions for news; features talk shows that offer perceptions of the validity of previous perceptions; and which, even when still reporting news, does so only after careful consideration of what the viewers want to see, which by definition bars anything that is new and thus news.

Even war has become another degree of itself. War used to be something to win against an enemy that had a name. There were some relatively firm standards - such as a surrender - to indicate when that had occurred. Now we are told that we are in a war not against somebody but against a character flaw called evil doing, and that the war may not be over for 5, 10, or 50 years depending on who is talking about it.

This, of course, is not really a war at all, but a new status quo that has been declared, one in which violence and paranoia and strip searches are not just part of a sacrifice one must make for a better future. They are the future.

Thus have America's leaders become rogue traders of reality, creating derivatives of it for their own purposes at extraordinary risk to the rest of us, demanding that we bet our all on a psychic 401K that is invested only in megalomaniacal notions of foreign relations and in a dictator's notion of security.

How has this happened? One reasonable hypothesis is that the character of Enron's management is not a perversion of elite values at all, but rather a revealing insight into what has occurred in the rest of society as well, including the media, academia, and politics.

You even find it in the military, witness the current chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Meyers, who actually says things like "facilitize" (a derivative of "facilitate" which is a derivative of "assist") and who excused the slaughter of 16 innocent Afghans by arguing that "the difference between a normal Afghan citizen and a Taliban is very thin," much as if he were a corporate representative explaining misdelivered order.

The trend is particularly striking in politics. The last two administrations have been characterized by the invasive influence of an arrogant, autistic, and amoral class of late 20th century MBAs and similar members of the technocratic elite. This class has junked sixty years of social democracy, helped wreck the Russian economy, made every American worker a temp-in-waiting, carpet bombed the English language, trashed every moral concept in their way, and twisted reality so effectively they even convinced many that they were sex objects.

And they are everywhere. You will find them running schools and universities and managing once great museums. They talk mush, think mush, market mush, report mush, and defend mush. They attempt to make up in certitude what they lack in wisdom; they can't tell the difference between a phrase and a product; and they create infantile and self-serving distortions of economic principles that they declare to be the only principles in life worth observing. They are, in the end, just so many more televangelists, but with themselves as God. Perhaps worst of all, they are without the capacity for shame. Like other sociopaths, they are remorseless.

The fraud, the huckster, the salesman are not new phenomena in America; what is new is that they now so strongly control every estate of our society. Those of a character that would have once caused Americans to close the door, hang up, or say "no thank you," now teach our children, run our government, and tell us what to think. They are the Enron generation, filled with postmodern versions of Willy Loman: "He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine. He' s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine."

America, in its first degree, made things people wanted, said things that needed to be said, and fixed things, including itself, that needed fixing. Now it is out there in the blue, riding only on a smile and a shoeshine. The problem, as Willy Loman discovered, comes "when they start not smiling back - that's an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you're finished."