Chris Lehmann, Rich People Things

The late Benoit Mandelbrot was a true polymath, inspiring new ways of thinking far beyond his own field of mathematics. In an interview conducted a few years ago, he made the following point about communication:

Many scientific articles are completely flat because they are written for people who do not have to be convinced. They are part of a small circle within a well-established domain; they write for each other, know more or less everybody, or are introduced by their thesis supervisors or mentors. As a result, style is a very secondary and unimportant thing for them. In my case, the fact that I write for an unknown public necessarily influences and shapes my style. Whether it is opera or Greek drama, one must know how to enter into a subject quickly because one cannot assume that the public will wait to understand. One has to be able to speak to people in their style, motivate and perhaps amuse the reader a little.

Chris Lehmann is a master at drawing people in. Though caustically titled and serious in intent, his Rich People Things made me laugh every few pages. He’s plied his trade on the RPT blog for about a year, but trust me: buy the book. As he notes in a brutal few pages on the Free-deology of Wired guru Chris Anderson, the web is rapidly moving toward a “feudal model of enterprise, whereby managerial rentiers . . . extract fees far upstream” from actual creators.

Ever wondered why the modern Supreme Court seems a lot more concerned about preserving corporate secrecy than personal privacy? As Lehmann observes, it’s merely reverting to form. Lehmann describes the dubious reasoning behind the court’s 1886 fiat, in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, that corporations deserved personhood. (Perhaps one day BP can run for Senator in Louisiana and get rid of the middleman.) As Justice Black observed in the 1930s, in the 50 years after Santa Clara, in the cases where the Supreme Court applied the 14th Amendment, “less than one-half of one percent invoked it in protection of the Negro race, and more than 50 percent asked that its benefits be extended to corporations.” Lehmann reads the majority opinion in Citizens United as the “logical culmination in a long tradition of business-friendly jurisprudence from the Supreme Court.”

My only quibble here is that the Court seems to go out of its way not to help business generally, but to help the worst businesses. As John Coates has demonstrated, “Political activity . . . is strongly negatively correlated with firm value.” American prosperity is in no way threatened by business per se, but by a vanguard of irresponsible business practices that emphasize taking rather than making value. As Joe Klein recently said of Obama economic guru Steve Rattner:

Rattner lives in Private Equity World, a particularly shady and opaque precinct of Wall Street, where gazillions have been made through leveraged buyouts that have caused nothing but pain in the middle-class neighborhoods of America. People like Steve have populated Administrations of both parties at the highest levels, especially in the Treasury Department (indeed, Rattner once hoped to be Treasury Secretary). From Bob Rubin to Hank Paulson, recent Presidents have turned to financiers who gained fame by making deals rather than by making products (the current Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, never was a Wall Street dealmaker, but he comes from that world). Their disastrous chicanery is part of the reason–a good part of the reason–why voters are rebelling against expertise this year.

Lehmann calls today’s Democrats a pale shadow of FDR’s party, however much “media outlets . . . .keep recurring to the fiction of a fully engaged battle on fundamentals of economic policy, in much the same way amputees develop the conviction that they still possess a phantom limb.”

A bit like Ha Joon-Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, Lehmann’s book has 26 chapters—including The Constitution, Wired Magazine, Damien Hirst—that are a bit more likely to illuminate the present age than, say, recycled work of Harvard economists. His short essays on the TARP, the stock market, Alan Greenspan, and Ayn Rand could easily have descended into snark, despair, or jeremiad. But Lehmann moves beyond those exhausted styles to the bracing concluding chapter of his book (called “Our Language Problem”).

It has become common for progressive reformers to complain that, if only the filibuster were abolished, all manner of positive legislation would be unleashed. Lehmann recurs back to the work of Henry Demarest Lloyd to argue that something much more troubling ails America. Recalling Jill Lepore’s diagnosis of a “death of compassion” in a Tea Party age, Lehmann worries that “excess and greed [have] disfigured not merely our public institutions, but also our innermost characters. . . .[effecting] a sundering the most vital connections that one person can feel for another in a community of shared moral interest” (218). Like Lloyd, he does not appear to believe that “our business rulers are worse men in kind than ourselves,” since the “predominant mood is the more or less concealed regret of the citizens that they have not been able to conceive and execute the same lucky stroke” (227). Until that cultural style decays, there’s little hope for positive political change in the US, no matter how institutions evolve.

Near the beginning of the book, Lehmann writes:

One might reasonably ask what it would take for the basic truths of class division to sink in on today’s American scene, after the reckless expansion of our paper economy has consigned entire productive sectors of business enterprise into the dustbin of history; after the bailed-out financier class continues to rack up obscene performance bonuses on the government dime; after the securitization of debt has left millions of American homes foreclosed, and millions more underwater. Instead, we remain in thrall to an unserious liberalism that continues to entrust most major economic policy decisions to career investment bankers, and to a conservative movement rhetoric that equates “populism” with heartland-approved consumption habits and . . . culture-wars posturing.

I don’t know “what it would take,” either. But I do think that Lehmann’s book, a fitting cultural studies companion to the political science of Hacker, Pierson, and Bartels, is a step toward waking up a democracy slowly dismantling its greatest economic achievements in the name of “growth,” stock market returns, and efficient markets.

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