Thursday, December 31, 2009


In Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Hunter S. Thompson fearing a Republican victory in 1970, said that all it would prove is that we are really nothing but a nation of 180 million used car salesmen. He was right. Only now that we've increased in number, we are a nation of 320 million used car salesmen.

Once upon a time we were gentler by comparison. On the face of it, capitalism seems like a good idea. I build an airplane and if it's a good one, you buy it for cost plus a reasonable profit for me so that I may buy groceries and feed my kids. If I make a bunch of these good airplanes, you pay me a bunch of money and I can buy a lot more groceries plus whatever else I want. Once I've got food, water, and a warm place to go to the bathroom, I should be happy and if building airplanes is what I really love to do, I continue building and selling them. It's a pretty simple equation.

Except it's not. Sooner or later someone notices all the money I'm making building good airplanes and decides he wants in on it. This guy does not love airplanes. He loves money. He loves making it, he loves parlaying it. He loves the deal. If he's amoral he loves the swindle, but the problem with modern capitalism is that people adept in the swindle are no longer considered morally suspect. Modern capitalism is unbridled capitalism. Free market economists think this is a good thing, that bridling a capitalist will restrict his creativity and the economic growth it engenders and that society will ultimately suffer.

There's something to this. For the average person to innovate, he's got to have a reason and that reason is invariably personal gain. Maybe he wants more free time. Maybe he wants a sports car. Maybe he wants good educations for his kids. There's nothing wrong with this. When I finally sell a novel, I'm going to rush right out and buy a reasonable sound system for my house. And I'm going to hire Esther back to clean said house. I'll even let her play her Mexican polka music on my new sound system. But only if I'm not home.

This is healthy capitalism. My increased wealth increases both Esther's and the sound system vendor's wealth. Unhealthy capitalism springs from non-average persons. The greedy bastards whose entire existences revolve around stockpiling as much wealth as possible for themselves and annihilating anyone who gets in their way.

There's a big difference between healthy capitalism and unbridled capitalism. For millions of years hominids were hunter gatherers. Mostly this worked out okay but due to the vagaries of nature, it could occasionally be disastrous. Human beings learned to stockpile necessities in anticipation of these hard times. The agricultural revolution was born and in times of want, it was the agriculturalists with their silos full of grain that survived while the hunter gatherers did not.

A major byproduct of this development, was greed. The more you had, the less chance there was of you and your family starving. My personal theory is that this gene was selected for. I think all people surviving today have a greed gene. Logic dictates that the genetic lines of people without it, have died out.

And the people with the strongest greed genes have thrived. This is why you get a lot more Bernie Madhoffs than Mother Teresa's.

But while capitalism is a viable economic system, it makes a very bad religion. Americans will scream up and down that we are not a theocracy but I disagree. But the name of God isn't Jehovah, or Alla, or Jesus. The name of God is Money. On the dollar bill where it says, "in God we Trust," it's really just saying, "You can believe in this thing."
And while American culture has swallowed this religion hook, line, and sinker, it is a completely empty one. The deification of money has made us a people possessed of a deep and abiding emptiness and malaise.

You can eat as many McBurgers as you like and still feel empty. You can buy fast cars but all you're going to get is where you're going faster, and you're still going to be stuck with yourself. You can have a big house and no matter how much junk you buy, still have nothing but a bunch of empty rooms.

In Buddhist teachings there is something called a hungry ghost. It's usually depicted as nothing but a stem of flesh and a big mouth. For the simplicity of its look, it's scary as hell. All a hungry ghost wants to do is eat and eat and eat, but it is never satiated. Greedy people, so say the Buddhists, get reincarnated as hungry ghosts.

Yet what other destiny can there be for a people who genuinely believe in Money as God? People who've internalized the idea that you can buy anything you want, even spiritual enlightenment, or so they believe. The thousands of self help gurus out there and the millions they rake in are testament to that as are cable TV preachers wresting handfuls of cash from the poorest of the poor and all the other charlatans out there. We've internalized the idea that we can buy anything we want to the degree that I don't even think most people know it. Our whole psychology is engineered toward the payoff. Even this latest craze, this "Law of Attraction" shit, the idea that if you meditated and visualize the things you want and the way you want your life to look, it's yours for the having. (n.b. Why don't some of these Law of Attraction gurus go to Somalia and teach some of those children to stop attracting starvation and attract ham sandwiches instead? They spend a few years doing that and I promise, if it works, even I'll buy their fucking book.) That's not what meditation's for. Meditation's for learning to live with yourself and others in a compassionate way. It's for learning how to stop being so fucking insane.

When I think of all these things it makes me wonder if we made a huge mistake having ever invented the grain silo or domesticated an animal.

The current recession we're suffering is horrible. I feel for my friends who've lost their jobs, their homes, their vehicles. For the most part, they're not to blame. The company that overextended itself had to cut back and lay off employees. Huge mortgages dependent on huge incomes could not be paid when one partner lost his job. The bubble has burst and misery has ensued. I've never known a time in which so many people feel so hopeless and scared.

But if anything good can come out of all this, perhaps that good will be the recognition of a false god. Maybe, just maybe, if reasonable and intelligent people can succeed in grabbing the reins of the economic system run amok and hobbling the greedy bastards that caused all this, room can be made for other gods. My greatest hope is that whoever they are, they are good, and that the hungry ghosts can all go home.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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