Saturday, April 21, 2012

We've grown accustomed to the insane

Gifthub points to a tale of infelicitous economics - French, of course - told by the Times:
“The United States is getting accustomed to a completely crazy level of inequality,” Mr. Piketty said, with a degree of wonder.
One might wonder (the Times, vastly culpable on this score, does not), how did this come about?

One thing to understand is that in the US, wealth long ago learned to be self-concealing. Instead of flaunting in the mode of nouveaux riches, the old money followed the Cosimo de Medici/Superman model: Appear normal and be the power.

This can easily be parsed via real estate patterns. The wealthy find islands, like Longboat Key, Casey Key, or Boca Grande in Florida, which are a bit off the beaten path. They are zoned to be almost entirely private - the one "public" beach on Longboat is a strip of lovely sand with three parking spaces. They offer no Wal-Marts, no reason, really, for the hoi to show up. If you kayak around in Florida, the money - hidden behind walls or hedge from the street -- stares at you on the water from palatial terraces, balconies, lawns, tennis courts, and often, a princely yacht.

In near "completely crazy" conditions, philanthropy is tasked with a not entirely consonant set of objectives: it has to pre-emptively fend off the usual ressentiment of the less fortunate; in a sense, it's a form of protection policy, buying the goodwill of the many via the machinations of experts; it might apply a bit of salve to the soul of the Giver, who is disproportionately a Taker. In the case of a Madoff, it's a fungible triple bottom line accounting scheme with heavenly overtones, inaudible to human ears. In the case of the Koch Bros., it's an entree to social cachet, to establishing a strategic position amid a network of potentially like-minded Takers. Philanthropy so guided can do small good, but is powerless to alter the power structure that makes itself possible. Its use value, in fact, lies in reinforcing that system.

How much longer will USians indulge the polite fiction that the wealthy -- who seize the best assets of nature, of art, of time -- make it all good by sending accountants, lawyers and pony boys to tend the altars of philanthropy. A nettled Business Week will piss about salient moments of poor monarchic judgment. Face the music, USians, and it's not Lawrence Welk, or The Band, or Ol' Blue Eyes: Like the Franco-appointed King of Spain, the rich are always gleefully trumping Big Game somewhere -- rarely they're caught in the act.

Trump boys

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