Thursday, August 18, 2011

Is America Going Insane?

There's a great and eye-opening article in the Harvard Business Review by Umair Haque. He asks some key questions, and raises others.

Why are the lives of millions being broken for the enrichment of a very few? Why is it that small crime brings long prison sentences while enormous frauds have no consequences––other than multi-billion dollar rescues with consequent bonuses?

Watching political and economic news unfold it seems as if we are living inside a Swiftian or Orwellian satire. The anchors smile, the financial reporters smile, the political brokers smile, the citizens smile. Everybody smiles as if nothing is happening.

Americans are so wedded to normality that they refuse to acknowledge that normality has been undone. The social contract has been broken. But who broke it? To answer that you need to look at who has benefited. Who is winning? More importantly, who is winning enormous amounts in every game they play? Why has the game been rigged and who has rigged it?

What puzzles me most is this: millions of Americans whose lives have been diminished, whose prosperity has been stolen from them over the past 25 years, continue to side with the very rich who have benefited from their ruin. Why do these people take sides against the leaders and agencies who want to right these wrongs, who want to punish the wrongdoers from the financial class––the Enrons and AIG's, the fixers of markets and the sellers of bad securities? Why do ordinary citizens side against themselves, especially when things get tough?

It's easier to see how the perpetrators seem so normal and competent. They dress well. They live well. They have handlers and bodyguards and personal hairdressers. They are secure. Self-assuredness is very attractive. They also have the luxury of not caring. There is research that shows very very rich people tend to have an atrophied or malfunctioning sense of empathy. There's an excellent article discussing this on the MSNBC website.

There've also been studies indicating that many of the people who gain the top in business have the advantage of a psychopathic personality. These aren't fringe studies. They represent the prevailing school of thought which guides our penal systems. In our justice system small time psychopaths are imprisoned but successful ones are given positions of power.

Previously, I've cited the program about this on This American Life. There's also a provocative article on psychopathic business leaders in Fast Company.

How has this affected all of us? We should feel more than an outraged sense of fairness. It hasn't just insulted us, it's harmed all of us. It has crippled our society. It has put decent fairminded people at a disadvantage and, in too many cases, it's put the cleverest most cold-blooded people in control of our working lives and our security. Our system encourages large crime while punishing the helpless and relegated who use small crime to stay alive.

There have been recent periods when lax regulation and unwise incentives have created waves of largescale looting of the economy. Unlike the looting of a $30 toaster, which will result in a jail sentence, this largescale financial looting is legal (thanks to Republican deregulation and Republican judges). It's also massively costly to everyone in the society. Scientists and academics are noticing this and studying it (here's one study), but so far the general public isn't paying attention. Possibly because it's being hidden from them by the smiling happy people on television.

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