The Long View 2006-03-21: Villainous VP; Stargate Nostalgia; Holy Schlock; Capitalism & Mechanism

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With the recent rise in popularity of Communism on the American Catholic Left, John's musing on what makes a good businessman is apropos. 

A note about capitalism, the moral import of which is widely misunderstood. Capitalism is not the ideology of greed; quite the opposite. It is a system for making economic decisions based purely on prices. The whole point is to remove emotions and desires from the process. In a capitalist system, entrepreneurs seek to maximize profits over time not because they are rapacious, but for the same reason that engineers try to minimize friction in the machines they design. There is no lack of greedy businessmen, but to the extent that greed governs their actions, they are bad businessmen.
The more profound objection to capitalism would be otherwise.

I'm quite sure that the tradinistas think greedy businessmen are the best businessmen, and hate them accordingly.


Villainous VP; Stargate Nostalgia; Holy Schlock; Capitalism & Mechanism

 

Some readers may be fans of the Fox series 24, in which each hour-long episode is supposed to depict in real time each hour in the day of a federal intelligence agent who thwarts the plans of terrorists. I rarely watch the series, actually, but I happened to tune in last night. What struck me was that the root of all evil, at least within the American government, was the vice president. He was last seen egging on the president to send federal troops into Los Angeles and otherwise to take steps to discredit himself, thus making it easier for the vice president to head his party's ticket in the next election.

It does not require much insight to surmise that we are seeing the effect on popular culture of the vice presidency of Dick Cheney. The Cheney Effect has become a small trend. Readers will recall the film The Day After Tomorrow, in which the VP causes an ice age, or fails to order an evacuation in time for one, or something. A season or two back on Stargate SG1, the vice president was in league with the Illuminati.

May I note that the Cheney Effect marks an important change from midcentury? It used to be that, if you needed a villain for a thriller, you looked to the Senate. A good example is Advise and Consent, a novel by New York Times reporter Allen Drury that was published in 1959; it was made into a memorable movie starring Henry Fonda in 1962. That story involved an attempt by an FDR-like president to appoint an old-fashioned liberal as Secretary of Defense, while being opposed by McCarthy-like tactics on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The book and story are doubly interesting now, because the nominee was supposed to represent the blameless and brilliant Alger Hiss, whom we now know really had been a Soviet agent. In any case, one of the motifs of the story was the modesty and obscurity of the vice president. At a cocktail party, he tries to make conversation with the majority leader of the House (I believe), but realizes that the man is not listening to him. So he says:

"By the way, I murdered my wife last night. Buried her under a kumquat bush. You know what they say: easy come, easy go."

"Hmmm, Oh, I'm sorry Mr. Vice president. You were saying?"

Of course, the president dies toward the end of the story, and the meek little VP turns into Harry Truman. Few people, even Republicans, entertain similar thoughts today.

* * *

Speaking of Stargate and even more of Stargate Atlantis (I find the current cast of Stargate SG1 less congenial than formerly), I have been trying to figure out why I like those series so much. The special effects are sub-par, the plots are incomprehensible, the wisecracks are no better than average. Nonetheless, I find those series as relaxing as watching golf.

I think I have an answer. All that running around in the bushes and pretending to be in outer space was exactly what my friends and I used to do when I was 10. The tools in a basement workshop easily became the equipment on a spaceship's bridge, and any open field could become an alien environment. Actually, we had it easier than the the SG series, which have the handicap of being produced in the neighborhood of lovely Vancouver. My neighborhood, on the other hand, was well provided with the sites of burned-out houses. There was even a huge landfill where the land actually smoked but you could still walk on it: genuinely eerie

This was long before role-playing games, much less videogames. Except for the smoke and the toxins, I think we had it better.

* * *

Yes, I know some Crunchy Cons, and fine folks they are. That Spengler at Asia Times apparently knows a few, too; or at any rate, to judge by his review of Rod Dreher's book, Crunchy Cons, he understands and sympathizes with the large fraction of conservatives who are culturally traditional and have no interest in material wealth beyond that needed for a decent life. However, Spengler notes some important tensions in crunchy-world:

What Dreher envisages, though, is not so much a back-to-nature movement but rather a shift back to tradition. Paradoxically, that is where he is most American. How should an American approach tradition? Judging from his book, in the United States one simply goes shopping for a tradition.

Yes, when people talk about the benefits of tradition, I am reminded of the story about the CEO who was briefed on the importance of corporate culture and turned to his aide to say he wanted a culture by Monday. Actually, this point is particularly important with regard to religion:

Christianity requires tradition less than it does conversion...No US congregation will live through Johann Sebastian Bach's "Passion According to St Matthew" as an inner experience the way German evangelicals once did. But who is to say that black Baptists singing Gospel are further from God? I agree with Dreher that the Chartres Cathedral is more conducive to spirituality than a shopping-mall megachurch, but there is a reason why Chartres is full of tourists and the megachurches are full of worshippers. What if this is as good as it gets?

Again, I generally attend a Latin Mass; I even do some graphics work for the enterprise. The church is a century-old masterpiece (built by Italians, not the Irish) and the music is fit for a concert of ancient music. Nonetheless, it has proven awfully hard to get weekly attendance much over 60, whereas some nearby cinderblock churches are packed to their exposed structural-steel rafters.

You would think that God would have better taste.

* * *

A note about capitalism, the moral import of which is widely misunderstood. Capitalism is not the ideology of greed; quite the opposite. It is a system for making economic decisions based purely on prices. The whole point is to remove emotions and desires from the process. In a capitalist system, entrepreneurs seek to maximize profits over time not because they are rapacious, but for the same reason that engineers try to minimize friction in the machines they design. There is no lack of greedy businessmen, but to the extent that greed governs their actions, they are bad businessmen.

The more profound objection to capitalism would be otherwise.

Fred Saberhagen, I believe it was, wrote a series of stories (the Beserker Series?) based on the premise that an alien species' military system became so automated with the passage of time that it survived the extinction of the species that created it. It would actually be easier to imagine that happening with a market economy created by a society with persistently below-replacement birthrates. Such a society might automate more and more processes, from mining to the care of the dwindling old. When the last citizen died, however, the system would not just shut down. It would continue to send bills and make payments for maintenance and repair. Stock exchanges and banks would continue to function, investing the capital in the estates of the extinct population to best effect, but of course still experiencing the booms and busts inherent in any system with feedback.

Jacques Ellul's critique of Kantian ethics might have some application here: no act can be said to be ethical if it is derived from the sort of mechanical calculus that the categorical imperative requires. The same might be said of some business decisions.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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