Without Vision

A lot of what I have to say in the following post echoes Paul Krugman’s column today.

There has been a chorus of tut-tutting in the punditocracy about the furor over the AIG bonuses, with many Very Serious People saying that we just have to get over it, that the bonuses are unimportant in the general scheme of things, that we have more serious issues to worry about.

A lot of this finger-wagging reminds me of the last group of Very Serious People who insisted that anyone who was against invading Iraq was a wild-eyed leftist dinosaur, that accepting the need for the invasion was a precondition of being a Very Serious Adult.

The scolds are even doing some of the same kind of willful misrepresentation and misconstrual of the arguments they’re dismissing.

Yes, I agree that there are grandstanders going after the AIG bonuses in nakedly and crudely political terms, who have no other point in mind. (Charles Rangel, for example.) But a lot of the concern about the bonuses is just using them to illustrate some larger concerns about the entirety of federal economic policy from the late Bush Administration to the early Obama administration. It’s not wrong to worry about a drop in the bucket when the bucket is under a roof with a ton of leaks in it.

Talking about the bonuses is a way to raise much deeper questions which virtually no one in Washington (or any of the Very Serious tut-tutters) seems prepared to discuss.

1) The management of AIG, investment firms, banks, and most of the financial sector got themselves into the mess they’re in, and thus the mess we’re in, by making consistently bad decisions guided consistently short-term sensibilities. They operated by thinking first, last and foremost about their own immediate gains. They’re in the mess that they’re in because they had no hesitation to rip off society at large in order to cover their own bad risks, because they did everything they could up to the limit of grey-area legality to cover their own asses at everyone else’s expense.

This is not because they’re uniquely evil human beings. It’s because that’s the omega state of financial capitalism at the moment, the way the entire institutional apparatus is structured. Most of these managers were doing what made sense in their businesses, their professional world. They were trained to do it, rewarded for it.

So where are the details about how those managers are changing the way they think and act? Where’s the guarantees that a more prudent, long-term manner of calculation has been established? What safeguards are being put into place to govern how they spend the funds they’re receiving? How is the structure of the business that nearly wrecked the global economy being changed by the people in those businesses?

When people complain about the AIG bonuses, this is largely what they’re asking: how do we know that these huge sums will be spent responsibly, given the evidence that the people who are doing the spending have been among the least responsible institutional actors in the entirety of our economic and social world over the last decade? There are no real assurances, no details, no safeguards coming from Geithner’s office, any more than there were from Paulson’s. There doesn’t even to be a political recognition of the need for such assurances: Geithner, like many of the Very Serious People, seems to feel that we need to let him get about his business, because there’s a world to save and only the people who really know the details can be given access to the plan.

Tell me why the people who made so many terrible mistakes, operating from so many flawed premises, with so short-sighted a view of the consequences, are now the people who can be trusted to correctly use the enormous resources flowing through their institutions.

2) President Obama concedes that part of the problem is a “culture of greed”. So, ok, it’s the culture, stupid. How do you change culture, how do you shift norms, how do you change everyday practices? Generally, by persuasion, by rhetoric, by modelling of norms, by shunning and mockery, by ritualizations of new habits. Only secondarily at best do you change culture by setting new rules or establishing new laws.

So when people rise to complain about the “culture of greed”, this is precisely what they’re up to: they’re trying to make it difficult to carry on with business as usual. They’re saying, “If you want to be CEO of one of these businesses, you’ll need to be mindful about the business first, the society second, and your own grabby need to have a six-bathroom mansion third.” This is how we collectively enforce an idea of public rectitude, of responsibility to society: by complaint, by popular anger, by using words to tar and feather the scoundrels. Does that kind of anger sometimes sop over onto targets who don’t deserve it? Yes. Does it sometimes involve profound ignorance about how things actually work in the institutions being targeted? Yes. Is it ripe for demagogic misuse? Sure. But despite those risks, the best way to really shift a pattern of normative behavior is through public attention to bad behavior, through hitting the reset button around what is considered moral, proper practice.

3) The anger at the AIG bonuses is being stoked by the lack of any ideas at all about the long-term reform of the financial sector, or the economy in general. This is Krugman’s point today: where’s the vision thing? Obama and Geithner have had virtually nothing to say about the medium-term future of any of the institutions that they’re trying to save. In Krugman’s view, that’s because they think those institutions are basically sound, and just need a bit of temporary propping up to be ok. Like Krugman, I think that’s completely wrong.

Tell us where we’re going in the longer run. Shareholder capitalism has become an utter joke at this point: tell me how we reform it so that when you buy shares of a company, you’re invested in that company and its long-term prospects, not just pushing all your chips in on red and watching the roulette wheel spin. Tell me how we get boards that represent those kinds of shareholders, and have fiduciary responsibilities to those long-term owners that are legally and morally binding, who are the skeptics who challenge CEOs and management, not collude with them. Tell me how we safeguard the aspects of this economy where the risks that businesses take are risks that we are all exposed to, so that those risks aren’t being taken without our willing consent. Tell me how we make sure that the biggest gamblers lose only their own chips, so they go home broke while the rest of us sleep secure at night when we don’t choose to gamble along with them.

Give us all a comprehensive blueprint for how you reform the whole damn thing and stop worrying about the delicate sensibilities of the people who robbed the system blind in the first place. If they want to hold the Dow Jones hostage, double-dare them to go ahead and shoot their hostage. 400 points up, 400 points down, it’s not what matters.

And if what Obama needs to do in order to get to that kind of reform is to get rid of Geithner or his economic team, fine. One of the other things that a lot of Obama voters expect from the President is that he won’t stick by his staff past the point at which they’ve made errors of judgment or action that are too grave to ignore. That’s the cronyism and naked political calculation of the last eight years (arguably, of much longer). “Change” means jettisoning that kind of calculation as well. Either Geithner will rise to the occasion and help craft a vision of reform that concedes that much of the system as it stands is broken, or the President will need a different advisor with different capabilities.

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20 Responses to Without Vision

  1. Laura says:

    What I fear is that they don’t know what to do, that there is no vision. Or worse, they had a vision, but were bought off by Wall Street. Yeah, I’ve gotten a little cynical in my old age.

  2. AndrewSshi says:

    Okay, the thing to note about the AIG business is that for the last couple of years they *have* been trying to fix the business with Credit Default Swaps. The fact that they haven’t managed to put Humpty Dumpty back together again overnight is not a reason for outrage. The other thing is that, as I understand things, the folks who are working to unsnarl the CDS’s are a different set of people than the folks who thought that they were the greatest thing since individually wrapped cheese slices a few years ago.

    There’s absolutely going to be new regulation that comes out of this, especially with respect to how leveraged a bank or para-bank can be. The thing is that at this particular instance, the Obama administration’s first priority is to unf*ck the financial sector so that anything else can go forward. If someone who’s been waiting for surgery to fix a hair lip gets shot in the face, you’re not going to criticize the surgeons trying to save his life for neglecting to fix the hair lip.

    Finally, the Iraq analogy is just plain wrong. It’s pretty objectively established that this nonsense with CDS’s and the like means that a few people in New York and DC do in effect have a gun held to the head of the world’s economy. Iraq did not in fact have NBC capabilities.

    OTOH, complete agreement that a more communitarian ethos would be great and that the rhetoric of shame and outrage is one way that this could be brought about. Of course, it will probably fail, since any real kind of communitarian spirit was already dead by the 60’s. People like to blame the free market right for killing communitarianism, but it was folks on the left who were saying, “He’s not *my* president” on 9-12-2001.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    The Wall Street Journal has a piece today that makes some of these points: that the bankers are pretty much saying, “don’t mess with us, or we’ll screw any hope you have of fixing this”. But according to the WSJ piece, what they’re reacting to is anti-bonus legislation or policy. I really think that’s as good a demonstration of how bad they are collectively at business, not to mention irresponsible to the wider society. That’s part of my point. Forget the crunchy-granola aspect of communitarianism: a lot of global corporate leadership, especially in the financial sector, has clearly gotten themselves to a place where they’re shitty at long-term economic thinking, bad for their own businesses. So that’s one of the things that has to change. Regulation is not that great at changing attitudes: it’s also going to take a change in basic outlook. The way the public relates to corporate leaders is one of things that will help push for that change. It has to become clear that when you do things which transform the lives of many people, you will be held accountable. If not by the law, then by society as a whole. That’s not a partisan or sectarian point.

    Just a side note: you know, on 9/12/2001, George Bush had a lot of people behind him, and a lot of people who agreed to stow their opposition to his political leadership. If that fell by the wayside, the chief blame for that lies squarely with him and his leadership first and his political base second. He lost that feeling of unity because he insisted on being divisive.

  4. AndrewSshi says:

    *Ahem* I’m just going to apologize for my 9-12-2001 remark. I’m sorry, there was no excuse for that.

    My larger point on a communitarian ethos is that once social discipline’s been eroded, it’s unsurprising that an attitude of “Screw you, I got mine” is going to take over. This is why in spite of the harrumph harrumphiness of his writing, I think that Allan Bloom was onto something. It’s very hard to have a culture that disavows prudence, thrift, and self-control in most areas of life except for finance.

    And I don’t think that it’s really possible to turn back the clock on this. I mean, for most of the last thirty years, the entertainment industry has portrayed the financial sector as full of greedy, amoral, and evil people. It still hasn’t stopped the general public from looking at the financial sector and saying, “I want me some of that!” Now part of that is of course because the financial sector’s portrayal in popular culture has been done in a way that’s meant to be both titillating and condemning at the same time–“Look at those evil evil people with their unlimited money and smokin’ hot call girls!” makes a mental backdrop that leads to some rather schizoid attitudes.

    To more thoroughly change attitudes, you’d need either a financial disaster much, much worse than this one or a totalitarian state, neither of which is very palatable.

    Gah, I wish that all of my comments here didn’t reek of despair.

  5. fridaykr says:

    “Regulation is not that great at changing attitudes: it???? also going to take a change in basic outlook. The way the public relates to corporate leaders is one of things that will help push for that change. It has to become clear that when you do things which transform the lives of many people, you will be held accountable.”

    I’d rather put my faith in effective, robust regulation, quite frankly, because it is less dependent on the fickleness of American public outrage and on the ability of those pursuing their self-interests to voluntarily change their outlook. Clearly we are in the midst of another periodic upwelling of populist anger, one that has seized on an overdetermined symbol–the bonuses– that has flamed anger from a large reservoir of resentments: the precipitous decline of the middle class investor class and its wealth, the long-standing wealth inequalities that had been obscured by the boom years, and the exclusive coziness between government and corporate insiders.

    But to paraphrase Bart Simpson, I know the American public, and just because they are angry today doesn’t mean they will be angry tomorrow. Just because the culture is demanding accountability today doesn’t mean it will tomorrow. And part of me is annoyed that the anger out there seems mostly driven by self-interest– a recognition that ordinary people aren’t getting bonuses or bailouts, so why should Wall St.? I would like to hear more outrage over the fact that our financial system has serious structural flaws, and concerns over the long-term consequences of having a system in which CEOs can profit even when their companies lose money or can run companies so large that their failure threatens the entire world economy.

    Public indignation that is not accompanied or undergirded by meaningful structural and regulatory reform is ephemeral. If anything, maybe we are at a point to recognize that decades of Republican and centrist Democratic pro-market deregulation of the financial sector hasn’t served the long-term interests of the economy. We should build on this recognition, beginning with a handful of changes: 1) restoration of key provisions of Glass-Stegall 3) increase capitalization requirements for investment banks and other entities 4) place banks, investment banks and hedge funds under same regulatory apparatus 4) enforce disclose requirements by issuers of municiple bonds 5) create a clearinghouse and regulation for credit default swaps. These changes are fairly obvious and straightforward and could be supplemented by changes in how shareholders relate to their boards of directors and the protections they demand from conflicts of interest, excessive CEO compensation, etc. But again, I would put my faith in the use of regulation and transparent reporting requirements that are actively enforced instead of trusting that public opprobrium provides an effective check on greed.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Fair enough. The point is not to think that regulation can do the work of transforming culture. It can secure against excesses and abuses, but there really has also been a major change in the way that a lot of business leaders understand themselves in relationship to their businesses and the way they understand those businesses in relationship to the wider society. I do think that it’s important that this change as well. But that’s long-term and complicated; a serious regulatory infrastructure is easier to envision and more desperately needed very soon. I think the point about transparency is the place where regulation and culture overlap, the Venn diagram space where change in orientation and practice are produced by a change in the legal and regulatory requirements.

  7. hestal says:

    Paul Krugman has been wagging his finger and tut-tutting along with the rest of the ruling class. In the last paragraph of his blog entry “AIG,” he says:

    “This was bad analysis, bad policy, and terrible politics. This administration, elected on the promise of change, has already managed, in an astonishingly short time, to create the impression that it???? owned by the wheeler-dealers. And that leaves it with no ability to counter crude populism.”

    I get really irritated with the ruling class throwing the term, “populism” at those, usually in the servant class, who complain about the lack of meat in their stew. I never hear these complainers call themselves “populists,” but that is probably due to their inferior educations. Because they have such inferior educations they probably, the poor dears, think of themselves as concerned citizens who have a right to be left alone instead of having their lives disrupted, or even ruined, by men in far off places who they don’t even know and who they mean no harm.

    I felt, Herr Burke, that you were wagging your finger at me when you wrote in this article:

    “This is not because they????e uniquely evil human beings. It???? because that???? the omega state of financial capitalism at the moment, the way the entire institutional apparatus is structured. Most of these managers were doing what made sense in their businesses, their professional world. They were trained to do it, rewarded for it.”

    I must disagree that the were not “evil human beings.” They might not have been “unique” but they sure as hell were evil. They meant to do what they did in pursuit of their own self-interest, otherwise known as greed. They did not give a damn about the harm they did to others, one of the unmistakable characteristics listed by the APA in its DIagnostic and Statistical Manual for determining if a person has antisocial personality disorder. This disorder is marked by tendencies to act againt the interests of society.

    The men on Wall Street meant to do it in the same way that the man who whipped slaves meant to do it. In both cases the men who were stealing and whipping knew they were “right” to do it, or more likely, knew that they “had a right to do it.”

    Evil is done by human beings, no other being or thing does evil. The forgiving statement you wrote, “They were trained to do it, rewarded for it.” shocked me. The men who ran the gas system and the ovens at Dachau were “trained to do it.” They were “rewarded for it.”

    So, as you know, I have long held that there is a variety of our species that is inherently, in its most extreme form, evil. I think that genetic science is slowly establishing this position. And this opinion, wherever I express it, is almost always greeted by finger-wagging. And I am already beginning to regret expressing my shock and disagreement with you, but as Robert Browning is reputed to have said about some bragging he did in “Epilogue to Asolando,” that since what he said was true, he would let it stand.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Look, I obviously don’t have a high opinion of a lot of the key people in the financial system at the moment. I don’t know how anyone could. But I think it’s a mistake to develop a view of them as being somehow extraordinarily different than the rest of us. Especially if you want to invoke genetics. Analogies to Nazism are always dangerous, but this is an old debate about Nazism as well: were they “ordinary”, were most Germans complicit in the crimes of the Nazi state, or were they extraordinary or freakish? I tend to side with the argument made most recently by Inga Clendennin, which is if you don’t understand the ordinary humanness of even the most extraordinarily malevolent Nazi leaders, let alone the rank-and-file, you don’t really understand Nazism as a system or Nazis as human actors. Clendennin argues that all we’re doing in that case is walling off Nazism and Nazis as beyond explanation or understanding, as being wholly alien to the rest of us as “good people”.

  9. hestal says:

    Something was done by the men of Wall Street that had ruined other people’s live, people who did nothing to deserve what happened to them. And somebody did it. Your analysis is muddy. It says that no one was to blame, which is preposterous. These guys knew what they were doing, and proof of this was supplied in Congress just last week. The AIG bonus plans, apparently constructed on an individual basis, and apparently more than ten pages long, and aparrently legally complex, shared a common element. In the first half of 2007, I think it was in April, a clause was indluced for the 2008 bonus plan which specified that the bonus pool would not be penalized if the mark-to-market system should devalue the credit default swaps which were the instruments, rather than a pistol, that were used to steal all this money. I told you about this last week in another comment. This clause would not have been included if these men did not know that disaster was coming. I say again, I have dealt with men doing this kind of thing since 1965 and they always have deniability. And they always have their defenders who think nurture not nature governs our behavior. This is simply indefensible. So many things about us are determined by genes so it is wrong to wall off moral conduct as a distinct trait. Baldersdash we inherit our behavioral tenedencies.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    Look, if you’re positing that evil people are basically another species, genetically predetermined, then do the math and take the next step or two. Then they can’t help it, because it’s their genes. Presumably we can’t help being whatever we are, either (I’m not about to anoint myself as homo goodperson). And our relationship is thus genetically predetermined as well. What’s the point of complaining about it, if it’s all in the genes? It is the way that it is. Unless you want to come up with a genetic test for “Evil” and somehow send all the evil-gene people off into exile or detention.

    If you hold people to be culpable, you can’t take refuge in genetic determinism. If people are culpable, then they’re human beings just like you and I, only they did the wrong thing when we hope for ourselves that we would do the right thing under the same circumstances.

  11. hestal says:

    Of course you can hold them culpable. The man-eating tiger is guilty of eating the man. The only question is what do you do about it. The Framer’s tried to design a government that would minimize the damage that these men would do when they inevitably gained power. George Washington called them “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men,” and he said that they would take control of political parties. Jimmy Carter called them fundamentalists and he listed five or six characteristics that they all have.

    So the thing to do is design our systems, including Wall Street, to minimize the damage evil men can do when they get control of other people’s money.

    You have, I think, reacted with alarm to my views for many reasons and they be valid in some cases, but the one that is off the mark is “determinism.” This implies that my world, if true, would lead to people running wild. They would conspire to counter medical evidence about tobacco with fabrications that tell the potential smoking public that such evidence is by no means clear and further study is needed. In that “deterministic” world the descendants of the tobacco supporters would apply the same tactics to the question of global warming and climate change. This “deterministic” world would use the agonies of the ill to make money for Wall Street.

    But I look at the world that you champion and say that it is “deterministic” as well. Those things that I just listed, of course, have already happened or are ongoing. In your world the evil men do great harm to the good men. And this has always been so. As a historian you should know that better than me. And until your world decides to change the factors that “determine” the behavior of institutions, not of men, for that can’t be changed, then evil will keep on keeping on.

    By facing the fact, and I say it is a fact, that behavior is determined in large measure by genes then we can understand, for the first time, that nobody in a position of power can be trusted. People who are evil, and who possess great institutional power, will react violently to observation and limits. They will siream “free markets,” they will rail against “big government,” they will talk about the “police state,” but when they do they will only be telling us that they want to have their way. No one man should have greate power. The good guys will not object, they will understand that observation and limits are for everyone’s benefit — except for the evil ones.

    No government can ever reconcile good and evil. No governmental system can protect the good people by letting the evil people run free. Hunting down criminals means that criminal harm has been already done to innocents. At this point my attackers usually ask who is “good” and who is “evil.” But the answer is that we can’t determine who is what. But we can design a world so that it will not be necessary to make that “determination” on a person by person basis. If our institutions are designed so that evil can’t do great harm when it gains power, and it will, then we will have a better world than we do today.

    And it is not hard to do what I am saying about. We already have public institutions that are designed to work that way and they have done so successfully for centuries. All we have to do is look around and think.

    Of course “genetic determinisn,” is a grossly inaccurate, and unfair, characterization of what I said. Self-control and social opinion along with properly designed systems can have a great impact. Education can help, not so much to change behavior, but to teach people that such people do exist and that we shouldn’t give them benefit of the doubt. The childish assumption that all people are good is dangerous. We should assume that any person who seeks positions that, if misused, can do great harm, should be carefully examined.

  12. fridaykr says:

    Hestal, I find it a supremely ironic that you accuse Prof. Burke of “shoddy analysis” and in its place you ask us to subscribe to reductive, quasi-fascist genetic determinism. Isn’t the 19th century over? In your Manichean world view, it seems a handful of genetically predisposed evildoers planned in advance to destroy the economy (and, with it any chance of their own long-term profitability) in exchange for lucrative bonuses and other short-term riches.

    You can’t seriously believe this, and if you do, there isn’t a viable policy response that can be developed out of these assumptions. What do we do, isolate the proper genetic test for evil and ban the holders of said genes from the NYSE? I think what Prof. Burke was trying to articulate in the quote you cite is that the villians you identify have acted not out of a deliberate attempt to harm but out of an unrestrained attempt to pursue their own institutional self-interests–interests, by the way, that many small investors or little people saw no problem with as long as the value of their homes and 401ks kept increasing. The point is to describe a shared confluence of short-term incentives at work that collectively lead to bad outcomes. This doesn’t make all of the participants “evil,” just self-interested. I think there’s an important difference.

  13. hestal says:


    You and Herr Burke insist on talking about individuals, saying that all people are good fundamentally, but here and there, and from time to time, they are trained, by whom is not at all clear, to be evil. By your analysis there is no way for anyone to be evil except when someone else teaches them to be evil. So who is this mysterious figure that does this evil training? It must be society? Or religion? Or government? or who?

    I do not say and I have never said that it is possible to know who is evil and who is not except by their own actions. I have never claimed that it is possible to know in advance who will perform evil deeds and who will not. But I have said that there are evil people and they are, to a very great degree, but not completely, determined by their genetic endowment. I call these people Varietas Tyrannis, a variety of Homo Sapiens. And the idea is not original with me, just some of the terminology. I pointed out above that the Framers, George Washington, the APA, Jimmy Carter, recognize that these people exist and the Framers tried to design institutions that would keep them from doing great harm. But the enlightened culture that followed the Framers chose to believe that evil men are made not born and they tore down the walls that the Framers erected to protect us. And our other institutions, such as Wall Street, never tried to protect us — they believe in “nature, red of tooth and claw.”

    So we need to face the facts. We need to understand that the men who stole trillions are evil and they knew what they were doing. But Herr Burke said that the weren’t evil. So it was nobody’s fault. Sure there will be an overreaction by the “populists” to reinstate regulations, but later when time has passed, the evil men will get regulations changed and emasculated so that we are back in the same spot.

    By finally understanding that some men are evil and they will always seek institutional power, and that we must always have regulation and limits on power, we will not let someone talk us into dropping our guard.

    But you are right about one thing fridaykr and that is that I can’t seriously believe what you say I must believe. I am not even close to believing in the simplistic doctrinaire world you describe. It is a figment of your own imagination, not of mine. But I could be wrong about this. Perhaps Herr Burke put his finger on something after all. Perhaps you were “trained” to imagine such wild scenarios.

  14. hestal says:


    I forgot to say that there are policy responses to my theory. As I told Herr Burke above, one such institution has worked well for centuries, and if the Framers had thought about it they would have realized that the answer was right under their very noses. I would love to discuss this institution with you but I just can’t subject myself to such closed-mindedness as has been demonstrated here today. The very fact that you classifed my ideas as Manichean and 19th century shows how little time you have spent thinking about my views. My views are not Manichean. They are not 19th century, but are 18th century updated with modern technology — which, by the way, has substantiated beautifully what people thought in the 18th century.

    I have spent decades thinking about the interactions of good and evil and all I can say is that you clearly don’t get it.

  15. Doug says:

    Have I said this before here? “Dans ce pay-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un financier pour encourager les autres.”

    Time to break out the Voltaire. We may not have to string up a financier or two, pour encourager les autres, but running out of town on a rail, tarring and feathering, and several years in stripe city should be very much on the table. Personal liability, swingeing fines, forced breakup of several of the largest firms, all of these should also be not just possible but probable options.

    “Stop worrying about the delicate sensibilities of the people who robbed the system blind in the first place…” Indeed, Tim, indeed.

    Do the sovereign people rule finance, or are we ruled by our financiers? Wall Street players are not going to back down out of the goodness of their own hearts.

  16. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    Hi Tim, Thanks for a thoughtful post. I agree with the idea of hitting the moral reset button through a good round of public shaming. That is the only meaningful way to change not just business culture, but America’s thirty year romance with free market nihilism.

    I think comparing the American public response to Iceland’s would be fruitful. In Reykjavik they staged a month long chari vari in front of Parliament harassing the government and financiers into submission. That was a real populist response and it achieved some results in terms of recalibrating social norms.

    The fact that there are Very Serious People tutting while politicians and pundits undertake populist grand standing suggests that the depths of the crisis has not sunk in. When average Americans go into the public square to protest and actually engage in their own self-directed populist organizing activities, then we will have hit bottom. Until then all talk about populism or demagoguery is simply part of the Beltway Kabuki show that got us all into this mess in the first place.

  17. Rana says:

    Man, that “Herr Burke” thing is childish and annoying.

    I suppose it’s meant to be.

    But Herr Burke said that the weren???? evil. So it was nobody???? fault.

    This is a distortion of Professor Burke’s position, and a willful refusal to acknowledge that the same accusation can be made of the “evil is inborn” explanation. If evil is born, not made, you can argue that it’s “nobody’s fault” just as easily – because evil is then something like a hurricane or an earthquake, and it just happens.

    I suppose you would then retort that knowing this doesn’t prevent us from building earthquake-resistant structures or not living in a flood plain, but that still doesn’t invalidate Professor Burke’s argument.

    If evil is born not made, regulation is the only answer.

    If evil is made not born, then regulation and prevention are the answers, meaning that not only can the effects of evil be contained, but evil itself can be reduced.

    Under your set of assumptions, the only way to actually reduce evil is through the selective culling of genetically defective human beings.

    Personally, I’m disturbed at such a line of thinking, especially since it is based on the notion that “evil” is an objectively measurable quantum, as opposed to a variety of traits that combine in certain circumstances in socially destructive ways. Is all selfishness “evil”? Is all greed “evil”? Is all cruelty “evil”? Is all short-sightedness “evil”? If yes, how do you separate out the torturers from the toddlers? If no, who draws the line? Who determines what is acceptable and what is not? How do you ensure that the people who get to regulate “evil” are not themselves “evil”?

    In short – regulating “evil” is a crappy basis for policy making. Regulating – and preventing – destructive behavior makes much more sense.

  18. hestal says:

    I mean no disrepect to Herr Burke, now or at any time in the past. It would take too long to explain, but I grew up in a school system where teachers were called, “Mr. Miss, Mrs., Coach, Herr, and Madam.” “Herr and Madam” were applied to male and female teachers of math and science. “Coach” was applied to coaches of athletic events, the slide rule coach was called “Madam.” The other three were applied to teachers in other fields.

    As luck would have it, and for different reasons, I became a teacher in another school system which is one of the largest in Texas, and I taught in one of the largest high schools in Texas. I was called, “Mr. Hestal,” “Coach Hestal,” and “Herr Hestal.” I thought I was addressing Herr Burke with a term of respect, and I still think it is respectful. I won’t stop.

  19. Timothy Burke says:

    I’ve always taken it as humorous and well-meant. Doesn’t bother me at all.

  20. G. Weaire says:

    You should, however, insist on “Herr Doctor Professor.” There are standards to maintain.

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