November 11th, 2005

Tarot - 4 of cups

"For me, the face of terror wears a business suit."

There's a throw-away bit in Heinlein's Hugo Award winning novel, Glory Road, where the Vietnam combat veteran hero comments that there are two kinds of Army paymasters. One scours the rulebook all night looking for ways to cheat you out of what you're entitled to. The other scours the rulebook all night looking for ways to get you what you need, whether you're entitled to it or not. That idea is fresh in my mind because the root cause of my current bureaucratic snafu with the Social Security Administration is that, for complicated an irrelevant reasons, I have two benefits determination specialists: one of each kind. And through the panic attacks that this induces, trying desperately to think about anything else for a while, it occurred to me to go back over my life and add up the two kinds of "paymasters," and it seemed odd to me that as best as I can remember them all, they really did divide along this line almost exactly 50/50.

In an online chat room that I was in the other day, someone mentioned in passing some nervousness about having to pass through a black neighborhood. I responded, "I have seldom in my life felt safer than I do when I'm in a black neighborhood. For me, the face of terror wears a business suit." And this is why: because roughly half of the bureaucrats who have had any power over my life have used that power to hurt me in ways that I had no defense against. And I never could figure out what motivates them. But then, yesterday, an unrelated thought on yet another subject bumped up against this one, and I'm afraid I may finally understand what Hannah Arendt meant about "the banality of evil."

Most of you have, by now, seen the movie The Incredibles. When the movie begins, Mr. Incredible's secret identity job is as a claims processor for an insurance company. The company he works for has elaborate procedures in place specifically to make it seem, to insurance regulators, that they provide coverage to their customers, while making it impossible for customers to actually collect on their claims. Being a forcibly-retired superhero, though, Mr. Incredible can't always control his impulse to do good, so in that scene, when confronted by the suffering of an elderly client, he quietly and surreptitiously provides the precision instructions she needs on how to thread the bureaucratic maze to get her claim approved. He gets caught, because his manager sees that the claim got approved, knows that the customer couldn't possibly have figured it out on her own, and knows who processed her claim. So he calls Mr. Incredible on the carpet and chews him out for this. He meekly says, "I thought we (the insurance industry) were supposed to help people." His boss replies, "You're supposed to help our people! Starting with our stockholders! Who's helping them out, huh?"

We have legalized whole industries in this country that do nothing more than destroy human lives for profit. The tobacco industry, the casino industry, pay day loans, title loans, sub-par mortgage lenders, there are probably more that I can't even think of. They all justify their legality by claiming that their victims volunteer and could escape if they wanted to, but they structure their lures such that it takes only a single mistake to fall into their grasp, and structure their offerings such that once you do, not one person in a hundred will be able to find the way to escape. By the same logic that defends these industries, you might as well legalize and securitize mugging. After all, people choose whether to leave the house carrying money or not; if they don't want to be mugged, all they have to do is avoid muggers. And if they make the mistake of being in the same place as a mugger, it's not like they couldn't escape with their money if they really wanted to, if they showed a little initiative and can-do spirit.

So we'll franchise mugging. Corporations can hire muggers to go into neighborhoods where their research shows that people are still making the "mistake" of walking around with money and rob people at gunpoint. On salary, of course, although there'd be nothing wrong, by ordinary corporate logic, with offering annual performance-based bonuses as an incentive to mug more efficiently. After paying executive salaries, legal expenses, and interest on corporate financing, the remaining profits would be returned to the shareholders in the form of dividends. Companies that have fewer scruples, and therefore do a better job of mugging people, will buy out more scrupulous and therefore less efficient mugging firms. Corporate raiders will raise money on the junk bond market to buy out companies with mugging licenses that are hesitating to mug, say, little old ladies or cripples, and investors will cheerfully lend them that money because they know that by eliminating those scruples, the corporate raiders can increase the return to the shareholders. It's the magic of the marketplace, baby. By streamlining and improving the mugging process, we'll produce yet another profitable investment. Your insurance company will be able to invest dividends in mugging firms, reducing your premiums. Your pension fund will be able to invest in profitable mugging firms, improving your quality of life when you retire. And it won't cost the government one taxpayer dime.

And if you can see any reason why this can't be made legal, and can't work, then can you please explain to me how you reconcile your theory with the suspension of loan-sharking laws? Or the ever increasing expansion of places and ways to gamble? It used to be that only the Mafia loan sharked, and only the Mafia ran gambling joints and numbers rackets. Now payday loan places get away with robbing the poor through interest rates (carefully disguised by mis-labeling 90% of them as "fees") that would make the most hardened of old-school loan sharks blanch. And casinos get away with promotions that any old-time numbers racketeer would scruple over, because at least the old-school Mafia racketeers knew that if you fleece a problem gambler for his whole paycheck and he commits suicide, you just lost a customer. Except now, loan sharking and gambling have been taken away from the Mafia, and handed over to publicly traded companies. And publicly traded companies, who are required by current law to be total psychopaths, destroy more people than the Mafia ever did, and while doing less good for their neighborhoods.

That first kind of "paymaster," the bureaucrat or clerk or functionary who doesn't care that their decision destroys the actual human life in front of them, or on the phone with them, in order to protect the investments of a large mass of faceless investors, or the hypothetical interests of taxpayers, or out of gratitude to the company that pays the salary that feeds their own children, or some other principle that I can't imagine? I could never be that person. There are now two new payday loan places within a few blocks of here. Both are within a couple of blocks of here. Both have increasingly desperate sounding "Help Wanted" signs in their windows, like the other one that was already there. (Yes, in fact, I do know what a bad sign it is for my neighborhood that we have three payday loan places within four blocks or so of my apartment.) When it looked like things were going completely down the toilet and I was going to be homeless again, the socially responsible part of me kept asking how I could justify not getting work when I knew there were places within walking distance that were desperate enough even to hire a mildly crazy guy like me. How thrilled they'd be, given that they're a business that has to keep cash on the premises, to have a big scary looking and not-easily-intimidated guy behind the counter. Sure, I could have found work. And killed myself within three days. I could never look at myself in the mirror, never sleep again, never eat so much as a single sandwich if what I did for a living was destroy people's lives. But I guess I'm finally starting to figure out how some of the people who work in such jobs do it, which must be some kind of progress. Or something.