Tuesday, September 9, 2008

"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"

Bill Boyarsky's Truthdig column, which appeared this morning, may be one of the most readable accounts of not only our government's decision to take over Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac but also the "deafening radio silence" concerned with the impact of this action on the campaigns of our two Presidential candidates. This is, after all, a decision that is likely to affect all of us, even if, on the basis of the man-in-the-street interviewed conducted yesterday by the BBC, most of "us" have absolutely no idea how we shall be affected. Indeed, analysts seem to be putting far more effort into trying to tease out the consequences for the global economy than in worrying about the pocketbook of the "average American" (if it even makes sense to talk about such an individual). This gets to the heart of what I felt was the most interesting comment in Boyarsky's report:

But a decision to take over Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac—whether it’s right or wrong—shouldn’t be made in a Treasury Department conference room in secrecy on a Saturday by a group described by The Wall Street Journal as dressed mostly in business casual khakis and shirts."

This is a worthy observation. To what extent does our future depend on a cabal of "economic experts" whose very identities are probably unknown to us. This reminds me of the words of Juvenal's reflection on Plato's "Republic," "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" (often translated, as in the Wikipedia entry, as "Who will guard the guards?"). Who should make the decisions that guard the soundness of our national economy, whose fate, for better or worse, now resonates throughout the global economy? It is interesting to see how Plato took on this question, as related in that same Wikipedia entry:

Plato's answer to this is that they will guard themselves against themselves. We must tell the guardians a "noble lie." The noble lie will inform them that they are better than those they serve and it is therefore their responsibility to guard and protect those lesser than themselves. We will instill in them a distaste for power or privilege; they will rule because they believe it right, not because they desire it.

This is, indeed, a clever strategy; and that concept of the "noble lie" appears frequently as a plot device in literature. However, just about every plot based on the "noble lie" has to do with how everything unravels when the lie is revealed, after which resolution can come from a tragic end to all those involved, the decision to establish a "new order," or the imposition of that "new order" by some deus ex machina (which, in other cultures, may be read as "messiah").

Yesterday I suggested that, rather than relying on our own "expertise" that has led us into this mess, we might do better to look at what is happening in Brazil. Brazil has just been visited by an interesting deus ex machina in the form of the discovery of potentially vast deepwater resources of hydrocarbons. Blessed with what is likely to be a new source of wealth, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has begun to rethink the very nature of governance, particularly in terms of the relationship between the government and the governed. What has interested me most about the reports from Brazil is that Lula seems more interested in resolving existing problems of education and poverty than he is in turning his country into the next "engine of economic growth." If Boyarsky is depressed that the media are not addressing what our Presidential candidates have to say about a major economic decision being made by a closed council of high priests, he should worry just as much that those media seem to be living in a self-imposed oblivion of what is emerging in Brazil. Lula may be the first major leader with both the will and the power to do something about the War Against the Poor; but we can probably count on the media to ignore him (at least until the CIA tries to overthrow him).

The bottom line is that the "noble lie" will almost always trump what, in his final paragraph, Boyarsky calls "the real action" (i.e. those matters that actually factor how each of us will live from day to day). This may be because those decisions that advance that "real action" are actually grounded in a "noble lie;" and it is not really in anyone's interests (probably even that of the American electorate) for the lie to be revealed. After all, if you have no idea how you are going to pay the mortgage, put food on the table, and take care of your health, you are not in the best of positions to question the morality of consenting to live under what amounts to a "fiction of convenience!"

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