April 14, 2009
Financial frauds-5: The problem with smart people
(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
Many of the people who were swindled by Madoff were those who suffer from what William Deresiewicz, a professor of English at Yale, calls 'entitled mediocrity'. These are people who see themselves as smart merely because of their background and formal education and not out of any actual achievement. In a recent article in The American Scholar titled The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, Deresiewicz reflects on his own rising self-awareness of the limits his privileged education has created.
I never learned that there are smart people who don't go to elite colleges, often precisely for reasons of class. I never learned that there are smart people who don't go to college at all.
I also never learned that there are smart people who aren't "smart."
The second disadvantage, implicit in what I've been saying, is that an elite education inculcates a false sense of self-worth.
There is nothing wrong with taking pride in one's intellect or knowledge. There is something wrong with the smugness and self-congratulation that elite schools connive at from the moment the fat envelopes come in the mail. From orientation to graduation, the message is implicit in every tone of voice and tilt of the head, every old-school tradition, every article in the student paper, every speech from the dean. The message is: You have arrived. Welcome to the club. And the corollary is equally clear: You deserve everything your presence here is going to enable you to get. When people say that students at elite schools have a strong sense of entitlement, they mean that those students think they deserve more than other people because their sat scores are higher.
It's no coincidence that our current president [George W. Bush at the time of writing], the apotheosis of entitled mediocrity, went to Yale. Entitled mediocrity is indeed the operating principle of his administration, but as Enron and WorldCom and the other scandals of the dot-com meltdown demonstrated, it's also the operating principle of corporate America.
It is this smug self-assurance of one's own smartness that leads these people to fall prey to those who know exactly how to play on their weaknesses. Recently a hedge fund manager Andrew Lahde decided to retire after he had made enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life, and he had some harsh parting words about the kinds of people that made it so easy for him to be so successful at making money. He said that the so-called 'smart people', who had a high opinion of themselves that was not based on any real achievements, were the easiest ones to take advantage of.
I was in this game for the money. The low hanging fruit, i.e. idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA, was there for the taking. These people who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received (or supposedly received) rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government. All of this behavior supporting the Aristocracy only ended up making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades.
Lahde was making money at these people's expense legally but the people at the losing end were the same kinds of people who were swindled by Madoff.
America prides itself on being a meritocracy, that people get to the top by virtue of their ability and hard work. It is not clear if that was ever really true but there are definitely reasons to doubt it now. It is true that there are no legacies of a feudal system like a formal aristocracy and inherited titles. But we do now have in place a system that seems to perpetuate a ruling class. Wealthy people have created a system whereby they can send their children to elite primary and secondary schools and colleges (often starting with elite pre-schools!) where they move around largely with people like them and develop the contacts that, coupled with their parents' network of business and social relationships, enable them to get onto the fast track of business and government. So we end up with a self-perpetuating elite.
What we have now is a one-party pro-war/pro-business form of government controlled by a wealthy elite that sees its role as preserving the privileges of the already privileged.
America has become an oligarchy, and that is not a good thing because it is usually a sign of impending collapse.
Next: The dangers of being ruled by an oligarchy.
POST SCRIPT: Telling the truth about religion
British comedian Marcus Brigstocke riffs funnily, but accurately, on the violence and hate and demands for special treatment that permeates the three so-called Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and the so-called 'moderate' religious people who are its enablers, something that I have said before.