Molly Ivins, whom I continue to miss, called Lewis Lapham the best essayist in the country, and it’s still hard to find a more elegant writer. Plus, I usually agree with him.
In “By the Rivers of Babylon”, from the January Harper’s (sub. req’d.), he starts with a recent gem from our old friend Tom Friedman.
The Puritan ethic of hard work and saving still matters. I just hate the idea that such an ethic is more alive today in China than in America… . We need to get back to collaborating the old-fashioned way. That is, people making decisions based on business judgment, experience, prudence, clarity of communications and thinking about how — not just how much.
— Thomas Friedman, New York Times, October 15, 2008
I don’t know what country Friedman thinks he’s been living in for the past thirty years, or in which New England gift shops he searches out the treasures of the American past. I can understand why he might wish for a happy return to an imaginary state of grace, but to explain last fall’s melee in the world’s financial markets as a falling away from the Puritan work ethic is to misread America’s economic and political history and to mistake the message encoded in the DNA of the American dream. Given any kind of choice in the matter, who among the faithful ever has preferred hard work to the fast shuffle and the artful dodge, the bird in the hand to the five in the bush?
This leads to a discussion of Patriot Pirates by Robert Patton, which tells the story of American privateering in the Revolutionary War. Turns out we were privatizing war efforts from the very beginning. Lapham reports that the fleet (possibly too grand a name, since they were in no sense a unit) of privateers started with ten or twenty in the fall of 1775, and by 1783 included 4,000 “investment vehicles … licensed to practice the art of piracy as far offshore as the West Indies and the Mediterranean.”
Which naturally brings us back to the prophet of the modern-day pirates, where we began.
As with the misreadings of the spirit of American commercial enterprise, the misinterpretings of the purpose of American government substitute the theory for the practice. Just as the stock-market speculations do what they’re intended to do, which is to reward the promoters and fleece the marks, the government does what it’s supposed to do, which is to enrich the creditors and plunder the debtors. The eighteenth-century New England privateers flew the American flag as a flag of convenience, not as a declaration of their allegiance to a cause but as a license to seize the wealth stored in the hulls of wooden ships. Their twenty-first-century heirs and assigns employ the semblance of a government in Washington as an investment vehicle permitting them to seize the wealth stored in the labor of the American people. The Republican and Democratic parties compete for the brokerage business, between them putting up $2.4 billion for last year’s presidential campaigns — i.e., for the speculative ventures that bundle junk slogans into collateralized-debt obligations, which, when it comes time to off-load the boodle, transform the upside into private property, the downside into the good news that poverty replenishes the soul.