Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Giant Monsters

by Dmitry Orlov

ClubOrlov (November 23 2009)

A few years ago I bought a sailboat from a fellow who I am sure wishes to remain unnamed, but who at the time made much of his boat restoration skills. He had made a number of alterations to the boat, some ambitious, some less so, while I was, at the time, quite inexperienced. In spite of my relative inexperience, I was already able to discern certain imperfections in the results of the seller's efforts. But I was very impressed with the boat itself (and the boat did turn out to be quite excellent) and so I chose to gloss over these slight imperfections in the seller's workmanship.

For such a large man, the seller had a very soft and gentle tone of voice. He did disclose some things along the way that should have alarmed me. I believe that the reason they didn't was because his tone of voice had a calming, soothing effect on me. For instance, he could have said something like "I ran out of caulk while installing this thing, so I mounted it on a slice of cheese from my lunchbox" and I probably would have thought "Mmm ... cheese ... lunch?" Also, the boat had recently returned from an extended ocean cruise, and the seller looked quite alive to me, leading me to think that none of these imperfections was life-threatening. And so I bought the boat.

As I already mentioned, it turned out to be an excellent boat, but I turned out to be overly nonchalant about the non-life-threatening nature of the seller's workmanship. During our shakeout cruise most things that could break did break, causing me to question many of the seller's practices and techniques. Is it proper to cut pieces out of random structural elements with a reciprocating saw in order to make room for one's head? (Apparently the seller was one or two inches taller than the boat's designer had considered it to be humanly possible.) Is a piece of Masonite an acceptable substitute when the manufacturer specifies that a block of hardwood should be used to mount the autopilot? Is it sufficiently safety-conscious to seal a disconnected through-hull by plugging it with a rubber stopper from the inside? The good part in all this was that I, in the process of tackling these questions, along with a multitude of similar ones, one by one or in combination, sometimes in circumstances when I had my hands full just sailing the boat, gained immeasurably in knowledge and in confidence.

Although confronting these questions one by one, sometimes in challenging circumstances, was an excellent (though sometimes unnerving) way to learn, eventually I realized that there was an important first question that I ought to ask of each thing on the boat: "Did the seller do it?" If he did it, then the next question would be, "What does it take it to rip out and replace it?" If it is neither very hard nor very expensive, then that is automatically the next step. If it is, then the third question becomes, "What's wrong with it?" If answering this question turns out to involve ripping it out and replacing it, then so be it, but leaving a stone unturned would not be conducive to either peace of mind or safety, because, although there are now very few of them left, I am yet to find A Thing He Did that does not have major issues.

To be fair, the seller did do one very good thing: he kept afloat and sold to me a very good boat. Also, I can't fault him for trying to maintain a boat on a shoestring (I actually have immense respect for people who are able to do that well). Whatever he does, and however he does it, it clearly works for him. I see him leaping about the spindrift-covered deck in the midst of a howling tempest clutching a hammer and a screwdriver. Maybe he is happy, maybe he is sad, who knows ...

As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, consistency is "the hobgoblin of little minds". I agree, but I would go a step further and ardently wish that each and every little mind had such a hobgoblin to call its own. If someone's work is consistently excellent, that is better than sporadically excellent work. Although much excellent work can be undone by a single reputation-destroying, career-ending blunder, short of that, sporadic excellence is better than none at all. But if someone's work is more often than not of an abysmally ghastly quality and in general a monstrous travesty, then consistency can still be its one redeeming quality. If it is consistent, then one knows what to do with it, all of it, at once, and not waste any time trying to cherry-pick salvageable exceptions where none might exist.

Allow me to present an example. Suppose you are wondering whether a particular public institution has any particular merit that would serve to justify its continued existence. It might be the health care system, or national defense, or the tax code, or any number of other similar boondoggles. We might consider each institution in and of itself, apart from all the others, to see whether it is consistently bad, or whether it has some redeeming qualities. Or we might save ourselves a lot of time by asking ourselves just one simple question: "Is it Bolshevik?" Because if it is Bolshevik, then that tells us right away that it is just one element of a perfectly monstrous entity called the USSR. This particular monstrous entity is already defunct, and so there is no need for us to go out and slay it, but were it not, we would know immediately that none of its institutions are in need of reform, because what would be the point? Making a perfect monster into an imperfect monster does not seem like a worthy goal.

Allow me to present another example. Currently in the USA we now live surrounded by institutions that many of us readily concede are quite broken, but it still takes most of us considerable effort to declare any of them irredeemable. It is natural for us to look for redeeming qualities, to think that a certain negative outcome is the result of a mistake rather than the fullest possible expression of its true nature. It takes time and effort to collect enough evidence to be able to declare, based on a preponderance of evidence, that what we have here is something perfectly monstrous, and then to be ready to debate people who hold opposing viewpoints. Few of us are equipped to handle the task of outright condemnation. There are some experts whose job it is to condemn buildings, to decommission vessels, and to sentence people to death, and they sometimes have to exercise judgment, but mostly they just follow rules. And when there are no rules to follow, we are all helpless.

This is where monsters come in handy: we all know what we must do to them. Like so many things that bedevil our lives, they have a notional rather than a physical reality, but in spite of that the effect they have on our lives can be quite real. Take corporations: the term "corporation" is actually a clever misnomer, because a corporation is, in fact, incorporeal - lacking a body. It has many of the same rights as a person, but in place of a body it has a "corporate veil" which, once pierced, usually reveals some cringing nincompoop who screwed up the paperwork and is now personally liable for his corporation's debts and transgressions. Since a corporation has personhood but lacks a body, it is, in a technically precise way, a phantom. Like other kinds of monsters, it is immortal, and very specific steps must be followed in order to kill it. Now, not all phantoms are monsters, but I hope you will agree that the potential is there.

Just like us, monsters must follow certain rules. Vampires must drink human blood and stay out of the sun. Werewolves must turn into wolves and start mauling people at the sight of the full moon. Zombies must eat brains. Corporations must produce high share prices and dividends for their shareholders. This last one seems comparatively innocuous, but it is sufficiently abstract to make the transition between mere immortal phantomhood and complete monstrousness quite automatic, because usually there are both monstrous and non-monstrous ways to create value for shareholders, and the monstrous ways are often more profitable in the short run. Some corporations may not seem particularly monstrous at the moment, but given their monstrous propensities we can never let down our guard.

Monsters require different treatment from most other things out there. We don't generally try to reform them. There is hardly a point in teaching a vampire good hygiene (rinse between meals, please!) or in muzzling a werewolf and clipping its claws, or in making zombies eat a balanced diet and observe Lent. Rather, we generally prefer to slay them. There are specific ways to kill various monsters. A vampire is dispatched by driving an aspen stake through its heart. Werewolves are shot with silver bullets. Zombies require a shotgun blast to the head. Corporations dissolve upon being doused with red ink, a bit like the Wicked Witch of the West.

Now, a question arises with regard to the USA: is it more of a country (like, say, France) or is it more of a corporation (like, say AIG or GM or GS)? Looking at its politics, it is apparent that it is more of a country club than a country. Corporations are clearly the ones in charge, through electoral campaign donations, lobbyists, and the revolving door between corporate and government positions. The periodic electoral monkey-business and fake media frenzy are just there as an ad campaign to keep the brand fresh. It does seem more and more like a corporate entity, with a small and shrinking number of shareholders, whose latest scheme (now that the whole thing is spiraling the drain) is to have the government print lots of money just so that they can pocket huge sums of it.

Just as a vampire must drink blood, the USA is compelled by its corporate nature to produce value for its shareholders, and the only way it can do so in a collapsing economy is by printing money. Monstrous, isn't it? So, how many more buckets of red ink will it take before we all get to hear "I'm dissolving! I'm dissolving!"? If you are not quite ready to hear that, then I recommend that you run home immediately, bar the door and get busy with the garlic and the crucifixes. Slaying monsters is not for everyone, you know.

Bill Totten