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What Wisconsin Gov Scott Walker & Bernie Madoff Have In Common

February 28, 2011

This week, we’ve been treated to the sight of two of the more notorious con men in our nation’s recent harmonizing on the favorite theme of malefactors and miscreants – ‘blame the system’.

Madoff has been in the news for carping about how the responsibility for the guilt and anxiety he suffered during the time he spent running the nation’s largest-ever Ponzi scheme ultimately lies at the feet of incompetent regulators. Apparently, Madoff’s primary take-away from his gov’t-funded counseling sessions is that it’s their fault for not doing a better job at standing between him and his baser instincts….

Walker is pulling the same sort of “interesting move” (the sarcastic phrase my old philosophy professor used to use when he felt that someone’s reasoning was particularly full of sh*t) with his insistence on blaming collective bargaining for several decades of political leaders having kicked the can down the road on public employees compensation models rather than having done their jobs.

The damning thing about both of these creeps’ positions is that you can’t say that they’re completely wrong –Madoff was clearly able to game the system for much longer than he should have, and there’s no doubt that the process of collective bargaining has been badly managed. But not completely wrong is nowhere near the same thing as even a little bit right. Systems made up entirely of human actors (as opposed to, say, those built on computer code or steel) are designed with the presumption that there are trusted leaders at the top making things work.

In the case of Madoff, one of the primary reasons that he got a pass for so long was that he and his unindicted co-conspirators (JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, etc.) occupied critical leadership positions in our system of finance – him the chairman of NASDAQ and the banks chartered agencies which are supposed to have a much stronger financial interest in keeping the system safe and secure than they are in gaming it. The fact that they abused these positions isn’t because the system itself suffers from poor design or shouldn’t work as constituted – it’s because the people running the systems were themselves deficient (or perhaps more accurately, corrupt). So solving the problem isn’t a matter of throwing away the system, it’s a matter of getting better people to run it (which, practically speaking, means giving the people who are charged with policing it more resources so that the cream, not the scum, rises to the top).

In the case of Wisconsin and Walker, a similar principle applies. The problem isn’t that a system built on collective bargaining is itself terminally and inevitably dysfunctional. It’s that our political leaders have become so craven and feckless, so alienated from any having level of respect for the institutions of which they’ve been appointed stewards, that they have no problems writing post-dated checks and leaving the cashing to the next generation.

It’s very tempting to point the finger at Walker for this, but in fact he’s merely the inheritor of the legacy left by the prime mover of this dynamic. Ronald Reagan, eager to exploit his honest if somewhat politically-tone deaf predecessor’s insistence on telling the people not what they wanted to hear but rather the truth as he saw it, created a generation of infantile deniers of reality…loud-mouthed losers demanding that anyone who refused to join them in their religion-of-choice is a corrupt non-American. The result is a body politic in which even supposed good guys like Michael Bloomberg can embed in an otherwise creditable NYT op-ed the phrase “…we share the same goal as cities and states across the nation — less spending and better services”, as though New York exists on some bizarro world in which there is no connection between the amount & quality of a service, on the one hand, and what it costs on the other.

Good government and good regulation share in common the fact that they rely on high-functioning, high-quality people in order to fulfill their missions. Despite the bloviations of Chicago-school economists, Glenn Beck, and other charlatans, many of those people would be perfectly happy to sacrifice personal financial gain for the opportunity to do a little social good – if only they could be assured sufficient resources to do their jobs, and a modicum of respect for their efforts.

In a society in which the desire to work together to further the Jeffersonian vision of forming a more perfect union has been essentially vilified, in which the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity, those people quite rightly join the ranks of the cynical and disaffected. They pursue personal wealth as the only bulwark against the rising tide of chaos and decline that they – again rightly – feel in their bones is on its way. They’re wrong, of course; money can only go so far to insulate one from a threadbare social fabric. But who can blame them for taking whatever steps seem sensible in the face of a frightening tide?

Until we decide to get real about maintaining the institutions required to secure the blessings bestowed upon us by the courageous men who founded the nation, until we accept the responsibility of paying the freight for the system we claim to love so dearly, we’re going to be at the mercy of fixers like Madoff & Walker…small men who take no responsibility for their own actions and who lack respect for the institutions and systems which have allowed them to ascend to positions of greatness and power.

Until then, we’ll be stuck the state of nature best expressed by the words of the immortal Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us

One Comment leave one →
  1. Paul Ferguson permalink
    March 4, 2011 3:42 pm

    This article makes good points. Many people must have looked the other way even though they knew what Madoff was doing. Collective Bargaining is a good thing. However, some haven’t been as reasonable as they should in certain localities and States.

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