Why is the baptism scene from The Godfather so powerful? Why do we connect and empathize with Michael Corleone but not with his victims? While you might cringe at the violence, deep down you cheer for Michael taking down his enemies. Perhaps because we know that those opponents would do the same thing to Michael if given the chance. They are formidable opponents. We can appreciate that. We like ourselves a good Godzilla vs Muto, Rocky vs Ivan Drago smack down.
What does it say, then, about our morality, if we approve of such violence? I think the answer is that morality is malleable. It lives in some curved space-time, in some undefined superposition, and it depends on the tools we use to measure it. The context of violence is important to us. We know it was justified, we know it’s just business. We also learn that The Mob, with all its flaws and violent tactics, actually cares about the community it is operating in. Not out of some benevolence, but out of simple understanding that it needs an environment, a functioning community to operate. Sure, it could ask you to do things, but in return you got protection. You knew you had a recourse if someone fucked with you. Furthermore, we see that the Mob’s rivals and antagonists are on equal footing. The rules are clear, the participants are well-equipped and well-informed of the rules of the game. “Senator, we’re two sides of the same hypocrisy,” Michael Corleone would say.
A mob boss understands that he acts outside of law and when he chooses this path, he’s aware of and prepared to deal with the consequences. He’s prepared to go to jail or be killed. Such a choice should be respected. It’s a mensch-y thing to do. He made his choice. The instruments of his trade are understood: bribery, intimidation and murder. The game that a mob boss plays is on even terms with his opponents.
Because the terms of such business model are understood by all, a trust in the system is not broken when a drug lord does his business. A trust in the system is broken when the elites – the best and brightest among us – undermine the system within the law. Today, labor and ordinary citizens are not on equal footing with capital. Walmart doesn’t care if you scrape by. An investment banker has no qualms about saddling some small town with loads of debt. A credit trader has no qualms about shorting a municipal bond that will spell doom for a bunch of country bumpkins in a flyover country. A hedge fund has no qualms about stiffing a municipality of taxes it owes. A private equity firm has no problem “unlocking” someone else’s value.
The game between labor and capital today is happening on uneven terms. Capital, like the Mob, also asks you to do things, but instead of getting protection, you’re then asked to try harder. Today the weak, the unaware can’t protect themselves because they don’t know, have no way of knowing what’s going on. They have no recourse.
Thus a crafty and clever hedge fund manager, exploiting the loopholes but operating within the law is worse, in my moral universe, than a drug lord operating outside the law: a hedge fund manager targets the weak and the unaware – those who can’t fight back. In such a scenario, a revered libertarian notion of free will carries no value: To have a free will one must first be aware of the circumstances in which he needs to use that will. Drug lord’s customer base are junkies, who, while addicted and chained by their habit, knew what they were getting into. Drug lord’s rivals are well-informed and well-armed. Labor and working class, on the other hand, do not have that luxury. They don’t have the luxury of knowing the new rules of the game and thus are not in a position to say “no” to such a game. A retired public worker whose pension fund is being raided can’t fight back because in most cases he doesn’t even know that his fund is being raided. And even if he knew he wouldn’t be able to do anything about it because the raid is carried out within the construct of the current law. The raid is kosher, even if it smells bad. The courts won’t care if it smells bad, they will care that it’s kosher.
The tools and means of those who act within the law are murky. This kind of game is played very subtly: there’s no shooting, no bloodshed. The target audience has no way of knowing whether they are being fucked or not. There’s no face to face confrontation with those whom you fleece; in fact you don’t even think you’re fleecing them at all. In a remarkable act of self-delusion, in their air-conditioned offices, the elites actually think they keep the wheels of commerce and growth well-oiled and spinning. They think that to take advantage of the unwashed who don’t pay attention because they are too busy surviving or too exhausted to do anything about it is fair game. It is legal, what’s the problem? Well, the problem is that you fight a cripple and then have the balls to declare yourself a rightful winner.
The metaphorical cripple is a laid-off factory worker, or better yet, to taunt my liberal friends, an illiterate redneck in Appalachia. We should be equally concerned about both. We should do our best to protect them. By “we” I mean spoiled, self-righteous, self-absorbed, overeducated bi-coastal liberals. We have to protect, or at least to speak for even the most depraved trailer trash out there, simply because they don’t know, they can’t do it themselves. If not us then who? If they can’t engage in this game, then we should do it on their behalf. We shouldn’t care whether they like us or not, they probably won’t and that is not our concern. But we have to become their advocates. If they notice – it’s an added benefit; if they don’t – it doesn’t matter. We don’t have to agree with those we seek to protect and they don’t have to agree with us. This is more important than guns and gays. This isn’t about holding hands and singing kumbaya.
Next time you see a Tea Partier spewing illegible nonsense on some website, don’t wallow in your superiority and laugh at his spelling mistakes. Remember that he’s hurting and upset and lost. Remember, no one is coming for his rescue. Don’t laugh at him for buying gold coins and fearing inflation: that’s what Fox News has been telling him to do for several years. How can we expect him to know what’s going on? What, you think he’s reading Krugman’s blog or knows who Bernanke or Yellen are?
Protecting the most vulnerable member of society is the right thing to do. The welfare of the weak is a buffer against a gated-community type society. Many don’t think it’s a big deal, because they think if it comes to that they will end up on the right side of that gated community. I know I would. But I also know I wouldn’t enjoy it.