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I have been deeply dissatisfied by contemporary events…so much so that I am going to look away from our time and gaze back through classical antiquity to the Peloponnesian War…but bear with me. Some say there are lessons in history which pertain to current world. The definitive story of the Peloponnesian War is told by Thucydides, an Athenian general who took part in the proceedings and had the grace to explain why he wrote his history (and what he thought his biases were). Thucydides’ great work is arguably the first real work of history but it is also the first great work of political science. The way that leaders manipulated people and events and news turned out to have strange consequences that the protagonists did not foresee (but, in hindsight, clearly should have).
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The war is the story of a fading power being supplanted by a rival. The fading power, Athens, had unrivaled naval supremacy, but the upstart power, Sparta, had an enormous ever-victorious army. Athens had a league of close allies, the Delian league who supported them and were a great source of their strength (a fact not always appreciated by the proud Athenians). Many American theorists of the Cold War found these principal characters disturbingly familiar—a broad-minded yet imperialistic democracy versus an autocracy where all aspects of life were controlled by the state. Even the style of the nations seemed familiar—a nation based on wealth and trade and webs of friendship (and superior naval technology and prowess) versus a thuggish nation which ham-fistedly squashed its rivals into submission and dominated the battlefield through numbers and pure aggression.

Enough backstory. Let’s get to the central point. At the moral heart of the book is the story of the Siege of Melos.
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Melos (which should be familiar to sculpture fans as the discovery place of the Venus de Milo) was a small yet prosperous island originally colonized by Dorian people, who shared cultural heritage with the Spartans. Despite this cultural background, the Melians remained neutral in the war, until one day the Athenians showed up demanding punitive monetary tribute and other concessions. The Melians argued that they were neutral and Athens was in the wrong. Surely the Spartans (or perhaps the gods) would come to the rescue of Melos if the Athenians abused their military supremacy for a very slight monetary/strategic gain. The Athenians, who had lost some of their famed thoughtfulness through the exigencies of war and political struggle responded by laying siege to Melos. When starvation forced the little city state to surrender, the Athenians executed all of the adult men and took the Melian women and children as slaves. Afterwards, the island was repopulated entirely by Athenian colonists.
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This…lapse…shocked the people of Athens (Euripides’ agonizing “Trojan Women” which came out shortly afterwards is a story of the writer’s own time clothed in a story about a bygone age). The brazen, terrible behavior also shocked the allies of Athens. Perhaps that was actually the point: to remind recalcitrant allies that the Athenians were strong enough to be brutal and act for naked self-interest.
But, despite the ostentatious show of naked power, the conquest of Melos did not help Athens very much. In a world where Athens and Sparta seemed increasingly alike, the old alliances broke apart. Also, Athens was not as good at autocracy or thuggery as the Spartans (who, by the way, DID show up to avenge Melos and kill off the Athenian colonists). Back in Attica, things got worse and worse. The story of the first great democracy became an increasingly dark tale of venal & selfish leaders—demagogues—who were replaced willy-nilly by the fickle mob. Factions fought each other more vehemently than they fought the Spartans.

When China…uh, I mean Sparta! finally won the war it behaved with much greater leniency and restraint than the Athenians showed the Melians. The Spartans installed a crooked counsel of oligarchs (who had maybe been pushing Spartan interests there at the end). The Greek golden age was over.
Political scientists tend to think the Melian story illustrates the principal of “might makes right” (I left out the famous back-and-forth dialogue, which you should definitely read about on your own). Yet perhaps there are larger lessons to the larger story.
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Thoughtful citizens might extrapolate that a nation is only as powerful as its allies and its leaders of the moment…and friendship and admiration can be easily squandered for very little gain. Throughout secondary school I was always taught that democracy is clearly superior in every way to every other system. Thucydides’ history reminds us that there are dark perils inherent within the very nature of group rule. Our classically minded founders knew this story and thought about it a great deal. It is unclear whether today’s legislators (or citizens) have given as much heed to the lessons of how Athens abandoned its principles and treated its friends like underlings and split into antagonistic factions and was swiftly broken to bits like a vase bumped off a plinth.
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I was looking forward to writing about that crown that was stolen in Germany…but I guess we will have to wait until tomorrow to talk about stolen crowns. Today the President of the United States, the famous New York real estate conman Donald Trump, fired the Director of the FBI for investigating the extent to which the Trump electoral team colluded with the Russian effort to undermine or taint the American election. This was, of course, not the reason given for Comey’s summary dismissal, but it is exceedingly difficult to draw any other conclusion. Director Comey was a divisive and flawed figure in his own right. Some eminent neutral observers blame his strange behavior last year for Hilary Clinton’s shocking electoral loss. However, now that he has gone off to join Sally Yates, Preet Bharara, and everyone else who has investigated Trump, it is looking like he was the best FBI Director we are likely to get. Who knows what cartoonishly malevolent or benighted figure the administration will dig up to replace him?
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The whole episode paints a disturbing picture–but the dark image which is emerging is hardly unexpected to anyone who has any familiarity with Donald Trump.
Trump reminds me of a naked drunkard dancing on banana peels at the top of a tall slippery marble staircase with a huge ornate cake at the bottom. It seems like there is only one way this scenario could possibly end, and yet his comeuppance keeps on being deferred by the increasingly irrational and cowardly behavior of everyone else. Trump is an old man who lives on steak and hamburger and does not exercise, it is possible he will manage to escape falling into the cake (or, to be less allegorical: he might avoid impeachment and prison because of a massive coronary). Yet, as we all breathlessly await his tragicomic downfall, he is doing terrible damage to institutions the nation really needs, and he is undermining our faith in each other and ourselves.

A few years ago, I was talking once with my uncle about a colleague of his, a Chinese scientist who naturalized to America to work as a physicist. This colleague had a son who had excelled in school and otherwise had a life of great promise, however, when my uncle asked what career he had chosen, the Chinese-American physicist was reluctant to talk about it. My uncle thought that the promising son had fallen into drugs or crime and was happily astonished when the physicist confessed that his son had become a successful FBI agent. But to a Chinese person, being part of the national secret police was not a thing to talk about or be proud of. If we are not careful we could find ourselves in a similar situation here.
Most people do not think of the FBI as the internal police (although that is clearly what they are). The Bureau has its own checkered history (I bet Donald Trump would not have dared to fire J. Edgar Hoover) yet their bravery, zeal, and hard work are rightly famous. If a movie has an FBI agent, he is usually the hero. We don’t call dismissively call the FBI the secret police because if, goodness forbid, there were a crisis we would be happy to see them. They have a worldwide reputation as a bastion of upright cops. They are the good guys.
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And now, like affordable health care, or national parks, or basic scientific research, this too is under threat because of the corrosive awfulness of our executive branch. Are the FBI to become a bunch of goons who exist for the president’s narcissism and self-aggrandizement and to protect his crooked international business deals? Think of how awful it is to even suggest that!
Republicans are exulting over the unprecedented power they have garnered (in an election where they solidly lost the popular vote). They are passing immensely unpopular legislation and privatising big hunks of the government to their cronies. They are gleefully making it easy for the president to get away with anything he likes. It is difficult to see how they think it could possibly end for them. Do they imagine Trump will reign forever? Do they not see or care how bad he is for them and the things they claim to care about?
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The danger to democracies is that the institutions start to seem corrupt and nobody believes in them causing a feedback spiral. When I try to talk to hard-working and idealistic Millenials about politics they all seem SO cynical (and I am a world-weary Generation X person). Clearly, they have bought into the false equivalency of seeing all politicians as the same. It does not shock them to suggest that the FBI could be easily subalterned. They do not have illusions that the system is anything other than a rigged game of business cartels and their pet politicians. I find that sad. If they had just gone out and voted, none of this would be a problem. Their cynicism has deepened the problems they are cynical about.

There are good people at the FBI and among the Republicans (although it is hard to imagine that congressmen have a principled reason for letting little kids die so that giant crooked insurance companies can become more rich, I am sure they truly think it is for the best). But these good people need to step up and speak out. We need to keep concentrating on the fact that we are all on the same side. Not red versus blue, but Americans together against corruption, malfeasance, and iniquity. We need to celebrate bravery when it appears. I thought Sally Yates was superb this week. She was the attorney general just a few short months ago… We need to keep asking questions until we get real answers and not stupid malarkey.
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This post is a reminder that we need to keep believing in our institutions and trying to support them (even if it seems increasingly possible that the President of the United States could be a traitor and a criminal who is surrounding himself with white supremacists and weak minded yes-men).

Jeremiad over: have a good night!

I have lots of jobs and do lots of things, but my main source of income is working as an administrative drudge for the development office of a prestigious private university.  Development is a euphemism for asking people for money—particularly rich people (who are more generous than you might think—as evinced by the sorts of large charitable gifts they give major universities). One of my occasional duties is to help staff special events.  In such a capacity (i.e. as a footman/attendant who handed out brochures and nametags), I attended a financial math event about a month ago. Almost everyone in the room was a successful Wall Street financial employee with a comprehensive background in liberal arts as well as a high powered math degree.

The keynote speaker was a young financier who became vastly wealthy in the hedge fund world. He gave a conscientious lecture about his qualms concerning his industry. Basically, according to the speaker, most (or all) hedge fund managers suggest to potential clients that a 15% return per year is the likely upshot of investing in their hedge funds—even though, if such a thing were possible, the money created by hedge funds would quickly surpass all of the riches created by the remainder of all other enterprises (it’s amazing how a few extra points add up).  The speaker then explained the basic tenets of the industry (sadly I was too busy pillaging the immense cheese platter to listen attentively) and presented his conclusion:  the hedge fund industry does not add 15% per year every year and it is unable to do so.  Not even close. Many of its supposed gains are illusory.

"Maybe just a few slices...wait, what was that about how to get rich?"

The room erupted in angry muttering.  The richest and most generous financier (who was not the keynote speaker but many, many times wealthier) leaped up and began to assail the underlying assertions of the speaker.  In addition to his wealth, this particular financier also had a…forceful personality.  He reputedly owns a giant baronial estate in Connecticut where he emulates the lifestyle of an Edwardian grandee—complete with a downstairs staff that is not the supposed to look him in the eye!   He launched into a tirade which included the following metaphor for the financial industry.

Finance, said the wealthiest financier in the room, is a means by which society apportions resources to the sectors most in need of them.  It is like the blood.  The blood carries oxygen away from the lungs and carries waste products to the kidneys. When a person eats a meal, the blood rushes to the stomach and then subsequently rushes digested nutrients away from the intestines.  When a person runs, the blood rushes oxygen to the legs and carries off the bi-products of muscle labor.  When a person is about to make love the blood rushes to the… and there the great financier trailed off, while everyone in the room started tittering or furiously gesturing for the microphone (which I, in my tattered jacket, dutifully rushed over to them).

The financial mathematicians talked angrily for a while about how critical their industry is to making civilization run and then the last speaker angrily added that people who do not like banks, brokerages, or financial companies are free not to use them.  Then they left (leaving the cheese and cured meats almost untouched by anyone save me).  I noticed the keynote speaker’s scruples did not keep him from jumping into a chauffeured midnight blue Maybach limousine (the cheapest model of which has a base price of $344,000.00) which had been idling by the curb.

This car is stupid. Why not buy weird art?

In this age of anti-Wall Street protests, I have been thinking about the wealthy financier’s metaphor and I feel that it was apt. The financial markets are indeed supposed to deliver capital to medical research, nanotechnology firms, or to the construction industry–just as blood is meant to rush nutrients to the pancreas or to the biceps when needed.  Blood however is not supposed to build a 50 room mansion on Long Island and then buy a private jet and a dozen cigarette boats. Society’s resources are being misallocated. Our blood is bad! When I related the whole metaphor to a clever friend he likened the current state of investment banking to leukemia or some sort of esoteric metastasizing blood-borne cancer that takes over the resources of an entire body to build a useless self-sustaining tumor that then destroys the body.

So, what do we do about this cancer?

I don’t like regulations.  I feel that America has too many already.  People who are rich and powerful can afford to follow asinine bureaucratic rules by means of large teams of experts (or they can subvert or change the rules with help from their politician buddies). The same friend who likened investment banking to a cancer is a securities lawyer!  He described just a handful of the astringent requirements already laid upon the industry and they were profoundly onerous. If complex regulation were a solution to Wall Street’s excesses, it already would have kicked in.

In a certain sense it may be that the snide Wall Street guy at my event who closed the evening by telling the protesters not to use banks or corporations was right. Such a thing is already happening.  Investors are waking up to the illusory nature of the wares hawked by investment banks and huge financial firms.  I was at a development event for the business school of the university earlier this week.  The dean privately confided (to a room with 700 people) that his most talented graduates were heading towards smaller private equity firms rather than the overexposed and hated bulge bracket investment banks. In an ecosystem where the wolves are too much stronger than the sheep, they eat all of the sheep and then starve.  Newer smaller predators take their place.  This is beginning to happen. And so a new cycle begins.

But I’m not sure that just talking about the finance sector is satisfactory after the havoc that sector has caused.

Our representative democracy may have been subverted by wealthy and powerful clicks, but it is still a democracy.  Be sure to vote against any incumbents even if you are voting against your interests.  And last of all, to you protesters out there:  I’m not sure I like your drum circles or the way you dress.  Your point is ill-defined and badly articulated…but it is still a good point.  I believe you are gradually having an effect on public opinion and public discourse (even if media companies owned by billionaires say otherwise). The blood is bad! Keep on telling everyone! Such is your right in the land of the free.  But while you are doing so please be careful and be safe.  Keep your heads un-truncheoned. These bad times pass away and society will need you all to run the next generation of companies that private equity is only just starting to finance.

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