Credentialism and Corruption: Neoliberalism as Lived Experience

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” –Karl Marx, The German Ideology

Despite the fancy title and the epigraph, this post is going to be more like where a pundit writes a column about taking to the cabdriver on the way into town from the airport; except one cabdriver is an anecdote, and four or five cab drivers starts to look like a pattern. In this case, the cab-drivers would be credentialed, what the Archdruid would call the salaried class, or Thomas Frank the professional class (Boston being their “spiritual homeland”). Marx would, I think, call them the petite bourgeoisie. (I call them the 20%, although I imagine only 20% of the 20% are really making it.) These are my people; I feel that I know them, which is why my analysis of them is going to be as tenuous as it is. (That’s why I’m assuming, for the purposes of this post, that credentials are a good thing; I was brought up to regard credentials as the passport to serve others in the world of disinterested scholarship.)

So let’s begin with the ruling class — obviously, finance — and its ideas, and work our way through to the lived experience. Joris Luyendijk, who wrote the Guardian’s banking blog for several years, has a useful post at Faber & Faber based on many interviews with people who work in banking, including bankers. It starts out:

How can bankers live with themselves? by Joris Luyendijk

(If “How can you live with yourself?” is the same question as “What is the good life?”, it’s vexed philosophers for millenia.) Luyendijk takes the #PanamaPapers as his starting point but soon branches out:

[T]he self-justifications of banking staff involved in helping clients avoid taxes were strikingly similar to those offered in other areas in banking.

Perhaps the best term to describe the tone by which people spoke of their work and its ethical dimensions is ‘matter-of-fact’. For example, when they explained how to sell a deliberately intransparent financial product to ‘some guy’ at a small bank in Sweden or an airline company in Finland, knowing that ‘this guy’ has no idea what he is buying. …

As I said, bankers are not monsters so you can ask them, human being to human being: how can you live with yourself doing things like this?…

When pressed for details, financial workers used two interconnected terms to explain themselves: ‘a-morality’ and ‘shareholder value’. Please understand, everybody said: ‘a-moral’ is not the same as ‘immoral’. Immoral means knowingly breaking the law. The sign says you can go 100 kilometres, still you decide to drive 150. That’s immoral. A-moral, by contrast, means that your ethical and moral framework is defined by what the law allows.

In finance you do not ask if a proposal is morally right or wrong. You look at the degree of ‘reputation risk’. Financial lawyers and regulators who go along with whatever you propose are ‘business-friendly’ and using loopholes in the tax code to help big corporations and rich families evade taxes is ‘tax optimization’ with ‘tax-efficient structures’.

Once I tuned my ear in to it, I began to hear such ‘sanitized’ terms everywhere and this is because the vocabulary available to people in finance to think about their own actions has been deliberately stripped of terms that can provoke an ethical discussion. Hence the biggest compliment in finance is to be called ‘professional’. It means you do not let emotions get in the way of work, let alone moral beliefs – those are for home….

If a-morality is the reigning mentality in today’s financial sector, then ‘shareholder value’ provides the ideological underpinning. Almost every interviewee brought this up.

So in summary we have these ruling ideas:

  1. The ideological justification: Shareholder value
  2. The ideological criterion: Amorality, where litmus tests for any act are illegality and reputational risk
  3. Corrupt language: Which prevents questions of ethics from subverting the structure

(Note that the professional classes of our day, unlike the 1% and 0.01%, lack the power — and the money — to procure changes to the law or repair a damaged reputation by hiring public relations specialists. That is, perhaps, why they are petite: They must take both the law and the nature of reputation as givens.)

Comparing my summary of Luyendijk’s framework to NC’s “Neoliberalism Expressed as Simple Rules,” we see list item #1 is equivalent to Rule #1 of Neoliberalism: “Because markets.” And we can see that list item #2 is equivalent to Rule #2 — “Go die! — although worked out with differing degrees of intensity according to context.

Now let’s go on to five examples where the question “How do you live with yourself?” might be posed, and in which the points of Luyendijk’s framework are variously salient. (I’m really writing this post because I encountered all these links in the last couple of days, so I felt like something’s out there in the zeitgeist.)

The first example is Theranos, although not for the bezzle-ish, scammy reasons one might expect in Silicon Valley. From the New York Times:

Examiners from Medicare inspected Theranos’s laboratory in Newark, Calif., last fall and found numerous deficiencies, one of which they said posed “immediate jeopardy to patient health and safety.”

That particular deficiency related to Theranos’s test for the clotting ability of blood, a measurement used to help determine the correct dose of the blood-thinning drug warfarin. Too much warfarin can cause internal bleeding while too little can leave a patient vulnerable to a stroke. The inspection report, which was recently made public by Medicare, said that all 81 results provided to patients from that test from April to September of last year were inaccurate.

Theranos said in response to regulators that it had voided the results of those tests. Ms. Buchanan said the company, after talking to the patients and doctors involved, did not believe any patients had been harmed.

The regulators also said that the director of the laboratory was not qualified and some other personnel were inadequately trained. At the time of the inspection, the laboratory director was a local dermatologist who continued to run his medical practice while also supervising the lab.

(“[D]id not believe any patients had been harmed” is not quite as definitive a denial as one might hope for.) But how did that dermatologist live with themselves? Theranos was valued at what, $9 billion, and the guy in charge of the bloodwork is a dermatologist? And how about the other credentialled professionals working with the guy, at Theramos and in their dermatology practice? How do they live with themselves? Didn’t they notice? Were they all Theranos shareholders? Or did they just have hostages to fortune in the form of families?

The second example is Baxter International. Health Care Renewal has been covering the Heparin debacle for several years[1]:

The More Things Stay the Same – More Apparently Adulterated Heparin, This Time from Chinese Ruminants

Baxter International imported the “active pharmaceutical ingredient” (API) of heparin, that is, in plainer language, the drug itself, from China. That API was then sold, with some minor processing, as a Baxter International product with a Baxter International label. The drug came from a sketchy supply chain that Baxter did not directly supervise, apparently originating in small “workshops” operating under primitive and unsanitary conditions without any meaningful inspection or supervision by the company, the Chinese government, or the FDA. The heparin proved to have been adulterated with over-sulfated chondroitin sulfate (OSCS), and many patients who received got seriously ill or died. While there have been investigations of how the adulteration adversely affected patients, to date, there have been no publicly reported investigations of how the OSCS got into the heparin, and who should have been responsible for overseeing the purity and safety of the product. Despite the facts that clearly patients died from receiving this adulterated drug, no individual has yet suffered any negative consequence for what amounted to poisoning of patients with a brand-name but adulterated pharmaceutical product.

OK, it’s a complex global supply chain (and why does that have to be? Maybe if it’s too complex to regulate, it’s too complex to exist?) Nevertheless, there were credentialed professionals at every step, even if we leave out the Chinese manufacturers: Buyers, quality assurance specialists, distributors, pharmacists, doctors, and of course people at the FDA who let this all go. How do they live with themselves? Was the share price of Baxter International really that important?

The third example if the University of California at Davis. From the Sacramento Bee:

UC Davis spent thousands to scrub pepper-spray references from Internet

UC Davis contracted with consultants for at least $175,000 to scrub the Internet of negative online postings following the November 2011 pepper-spraying of students and to improve the reputations of both the university and Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, newly released documents show.

“Scrub the Internet?” How does the consultant that sold that job live with themselves?[2]

Figures released by UC Davis show the strategic communications budget increased from $2.93 million in 2009 to $5.47 million in 2015.

Money to pay the consultants came from the communications department budget, [UC Davis spokeswoman Dana Topousis] said.

Katehi, as we see, is in the class where she can seek to repair reputational damage, and not simply accept it. But how on earth — and I’m asking this as a university brat — was the chair of the communications department suborned to pay for a university PR exercise personally benefiting the president out of their department budget? How can they live with themselves? (I grant no lives are at stake, but that’s only because the pepper spray incident didn’t turn into a disaster from a debacle.)

The fourth example is Gordon Ingram Associates (GIA), of London, and I’m including this one for anybody who’s had to deal with a local land use board. From Our City:

[T]all buildings can have a devastating impact on the daylight received by neighbouring homes. Regardless of this, they are often still approved by planning authorities.

Why do councils grant planning permission to these buildings that so clearly damage the homes of local residents, even when planning policies say that amenities like daylight must be protected?…

The reality is that planning authorities are often not told about, or are misled about the real impact these new buildings will have. Instead, specialist consultants, employed by developers, manipulate the figures and facts to make new buildings seem far less harmful than they really are.

This gives the impression to councillors that the harm to residents is either much less than or at the very least a debatable point, easing the passage of a controversial planning application.

Experts, by spending many years concentrating on a particular subject occupy a privileged role, which inevitably carries some weight in the planning process. However, if that process is to work properly experts must behave responsibly and present the facts in a clear and unbiased assessment.

Let me introduce to you Gordon Ingram Associates. GIA is a firm of specialist daylight consultants based in Waterloo. They have little regard for formal education, preferring to give staff their own training. The flaws in this approach will become obvious later in this article. As a result they employ an eclectic group of people as surveyors, a former male model included….

In each case I have seen, GIA told the local planning authority that buildings showed high levels of compliance with national daylighting guidance and that in their expert and considered opinion, any damage to daylight on neighbouring properties was negligible. They lied, and I’m going to show you how.

How do GIA live with themselves?

For each of these four examples, we’ve seen Milgram Experiment-like outcomes, where seemingly normal members of the professional, credentialed class end up helping to jeopardize patient health with blood tests, killing people with adultered drugs, surrenduring academic independence by caving to administrators, and ruining the built environment with doctored reports, and in each case the question to ask is very obvious: “How do they live with themselves?” But we haven’t had an example that put all the pieces of Luyendijk’s framework together.

With our fifth example, Boots, we have all the pieces. (Boots is also a horrible private equity story, with KKR the villain, but in this post I’m focusing on professionals in the workplace.) In addition, we have a professional who can’t live with it. From the Guardian, the story of “Tony,” a (credentialed) pharmacist:

How Boots went rogue

How many of these patients guessed that their own chemist was sick? Over the past few years, depression has dug its claws into Tony. He is tired all the time. His weight, blood sugar and blood pressure have shot up.

The illness kicked in shortly after he began his latest job, in 2011.

This is Tony’s lived experience of the quest for “shareholder value” under neoliberalism, and I’d love to have numbers on how widely it’s shared. And, readers, your experiences.

The past few years have been spent on and off anti-depressants. When we met late last year, he had just started another course of pills and was back in the usual side‑effects cycle: sweating, waking too early, exhaustion, sexual dysfunction.

“[B]usiness targets” are, of course, for “shareholder value”. And here we have the corrupt language:

That fear comes wrapped in the corporate language of empowerment. Targets are “non-negotiable”, and staff who beat them get graded as “legendary”. A chemist advising a customer – “You know, like I’ve done my entire career,” as one Boots lifer puts it – is now having a “Great Conversation”. If the satisfied customer then compliments the chemist that is now a “Feel Good Moment” (although in performance plans they are unfortunately referred to as FGMs – so a chemist must notch up, say, five FGMs a week).

And here we have the amorality:

But that was the least of Tony’s worries. It was the medicine-use reviews (MURs) that really bothered him. Patients came to his consulting room and discussed their diet and health problems, while he took them through a chunky list of questions and advised them on what their medicines were meant to do and how best to take them. Free for the customer, a way of keeping a patient out of a GP’s waiting room, and for each one the NHS pays the company £28. To prevent the system from being abused, every pharmacy in the country is limited to 400 MURs a year. Except Tony’s managers took that number as a target for his store to hit. So keen was Tony’s store to make that profit, he claims it did reviews on anyone, no matter how unsuitable. Tony himself was told to have one – and to give one to a patient with severe dementia. His manager came in for one – no sooner had it begun than she walked out, but it still went towards the total. All so the shop could earn that extra £11,200 from a scheme intended to help the sick.

And, as we can see, Tony can’t live with it (and good for him).

This capital-driven process of leaching out all meaning from professional work is akin to crapificaiton, but I’m not sure it’s exactly the same thing. I’ve always remembered this post from Clive:

Let me continue with the self-disclosure, but it’s perhaps more of a confessional or appeal for absolution. I’ve spent almost 30 years working in the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) sector, my entire adult life. When I first started, it was viewed as a most suitable career choice for middle class not particularly aspirational sorts who wanted security, respectability and a recognisable position in the community. It was never supposed to be a passport to significant wealth or even much more than very modest wealth. It was certainly never supposed to be anything which oppressed or harmed anyone.

By the early 1990’s the rot, which had started to set in during the mid-1980’s, had begun to accelerate. Most regular readers of Naked Capitalism know how the movie ended. If only it was just a work of fiction. For those of you who have suffered financially, emotionally, physically (or all three) through an unlawful foreclosure, fee gouging, predatory lending, junk insurance or scam financial products you will know what the consequences of an industry which threw away its moral compass and any sense of a social contract are.

For those of us on the inside, we don’t deserve any sympathy. But I’d like to offer a glimmer of insight into the conflict that those of us with any sort of conscience wrestle with because it is a conflict which is going to shape our societies over the next generation.

Increasingly, if you want to get and hang on to a middle class job, that job will involve dishonesty or exploitation of others in some way.

Of course, hanging onto a “middle class job” is, so far as we know, what all the professional players in the examples above have been doing. All of their (credentialed, professional) jobs have involved “dishonesty or exploitation of others.” And all of them, so far as we know, have been able to live with themselves. With the exception of Tony.[3]

There is an alternative, as the life of Bob Ebeling shows:

Last week, Bob Ebeling died. He was an engineer at a contracting firm, and he understood just how badly the O-rings handled cold weather. He tried desperately to convince NASA that the launch was going to end in disaster. Unlike many people inside organizations, he was willing to challenge his superiors, to tell them what they didn’t want to hear. Yet, he didn’t have organizational power to stop the disaster. And at the end of the day, NASA and his superiors decided that the political risk of not launching was much greater than the engineering risk.

Now, how to give Bob Ebeling the requisite organizational power is another question, outside the scope of this post. However, it seems to me that what Clive labels “dishonesty and exploitation” is what I would label corruption, and that’s what Ebeling was fighting against.

Recall again that corruption, as Zephyr Teachout explains, is not a quid pro quo, but the use of public office for private ends. I think the point of credentials is to create the expectation that the credentialed is in some sense acting in a quasi-official capacity, even if not an agent of the state. Tony, a good pharmacist, was and is trying to maintain a public good, on behalf of the public: Not merely the right pill for the patient, but the public good of trust between professional and citizen, which Boots is trying to destroy, on behalf of the ruling idea of “shareholder value.” Ka-ching.


[1] Here’s a link on the first Baxter International Heparin scandal. Heparin is, apparently, made from the intestines of pigs. But the Chinese ran out of pigs, and so they used cows instead, hopefully not mad ones, but how does one know? Anyhow, hundreds died and the adulterated Heparin might still be on the shelves. Reminds me of how the banks satisfied the demand for paper with NINJA mortgages….

[2] So how’s that workin’ out for ya?


[3] I don’t want to come off as priggish. I don’t have dependents, and so my choices are simpler. If I had to support a family, especially in today’s new normal, I might put my head down and save ethics for the home. “Person must not do what person cannot do.” — Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. TomD

    One thing I don’t understand, if you are an honest banker—or you want to be an honest banker—shouldn’t you support tough regulations that crack down and remove the fraud and corruption? Shouldn’t the vast majority of people working in FIRE want the rot removed?

    instead while simultaneously engaging in not-quite-moral activities, they circle the wagons whenever someone suggests cleaning it up.

    1. jrs

      Isn’t that just cognitive consonance (opposite of cognitive dissonance) if they spend their whole lives morally minimizing fraud and corruption to do so when advocating public policy as well?

    2. diptherio

      What, you wanna be a trouble maker? Hope you don’t care about that raise, or that promotion. Fish rots from the head, and it’s the head that makes the decisions about what gets punished and what gets praised. You want to survive and thrive in that fishpond, you better do what the rotten head tells you to do.

    3. Bas

      George Clooney–yeah, $343,000 is an obscene amount of money and it’s a terrible problem, but whaddya gonna do? It takes an obscene amount of money to get the right person elected. So we’re just going to keep throwing obscene amounts of money at the problem until it gets corrected, because I have obscene amounts of money, and I can help.

    4. jgordon

      That’s because while individual people may be moral and upright, in aggregate people are delusional sociopaths. An individual banker going against the tide would be like a lemming having second thoughts about going over the cliff; it’s goring to get trampled and squashed.

      1. Bas

        I think that because of this we have to encourage refusal to participate. I don’t think everyone who refuses gets trampled and squashed, but they do have to find their own niche, which can be a lonely thing. I never listen to people who tell me that lying and cheating are the way things get done, and that I will die homeless and alone if I don’t just accept it. More people end up homeless and alone because they participated in a rigged system and then got screwed. I opted out, and I am not rich, but I am independent in that I make choices based on my own values.

      2. Jamie

        Bill Black has written extensively about what he calls the “Gresham’s dynamic” that forced good underwriters out of the market. He has pointed out more than once that a petition was presented to the authorities signed by a large number of honest underwriters asking for regulation long before the big financial collapse. Being amoral and dishonest was a competitive advantage and the honest underwriters were driven out of the business. It’s not hard to understand and does not call for the conclusion that people in general are dishonest or unethical.

        1. jgordon

          Yes, I was thinking of the Gresham effect while I was writing that. However the concept I’m trying to elucidate here is slightly different. For example, you can go to any individual executive in a large oil firm–and being intelligent people probably 80% are horrified about climate change and the impact their industry is having on the environment. Yet when you rope those people together into a larger entity such as a corporation suddenly they behave like sociopaths. Now why is that I wonder? I think it’s an emergent property latent in any organization that’s constantly seeking expression, this drive towards nepotism, cronyism, venality, degeneration, decay and ultimately collapse.

          1. Left in Wisconsin

            an emergent property latent in any organization that’s constantly seeking expression, this drive towards nepotism, cronyism, venality, degeneration, decay and ultimately collapse

            If it’s latent in any organization and constantly seeking expression, do we really stand a chance?

            My explanation: it’s simple denial. What corporations do is 1) provide an internal environment where groupthink rules, 2) constrain/structure contact with the “outside” so that difficult moral questions/judgments are never specifically asked of the actual humans that fill corporate roles, and 3) provide a clear demarcation between “business” and the rest of “life,” so that the peculiar amoral decision-making in the business world can be taken to be both natural/inevitable and (allegedly) constrained to a limited sphere.

            1. jgordon

              To answer your question yes we stand a chance, but not how you’re thinking. Life is a constant process of growth, death, and renewal. That’s true for individuals, organizations, political units, and societies. Trying to halt that process somewhere in the middle will never work.

              Eventually the system collapses spectacularly and we start over from the beginning. Trying to stop that process somewhere in the middle is like trying to stop breathing.

            2. nobody

              “What is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man’s home or in his church. What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you. That’s what morality is in the corporation.”

              Quoted in Robert Jackall’s Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers (1988)

    5. P Walker

      Regulation gets in the way of boosting KPIs which one needs to keep up in order to be promoted, or worse, get fired for low KPIs.

      This is a lot like Not In My Backyard (NIMBY). Regulation is fine, so long as it applies to everyone else but not me.

    6. HotFlash

      I am an accountant (mostly retired now) and I think I am honest. I have always been in favour of strong, fair regulations which are *enforced*. As Bill Black says, Gresham’s Law says that bad actors drive good actors out of the game. I think people who behave morally, fairly, should not have to compete against predators and cheaters. They will lose nearly every time.

      Arthur Morgan described two accountants, one who lived frugally and saved a bit, the other who joined the country club, sent his children to expensive schools, bought a home beyond his means, and generally went into debt. When the business owner had a bad patch and asked his accountants to fudge the financial statements, the first guy said no and quit, the second had to suck it up. The moral, per Arthur Morgan, is to own yourself first. Good advice.

  2. Jim Haygood

    A competent publicist could reframe the unfortunate-sounding term “pepper spray incident ” into a benign “invigorating capsicum spritz, provided at no cost to the participants.”

    It wasn’t violence; it was philanthropy. :-)

    1. fresno dan

      “provided at no cost to the participants” is pure genius! You should have been in public relations….

    2. uncle tungsten

      That is what Erdogan has been saying to the Kurds for weeks now and they just cant get the idea of ‘participant’. I guess he could use a different spritz, like the one he gives to ISIS for use on the Syrians.

  3. Bas

    The NEO conservatives/liberals go-to guy for poking fun always seems to be Marx, while Adam Smith is their boy. A laissez faire capitalist who said some other stuff–by-Manfred-Weidhorn-Class-War_Class-Warfare_Conservatives_Democracy-160415-908.html

    This acknowledgment of the role of the class struggle was hardly limited to the Founding Fathers. It was not Karl Marx who spoke of the proclivity of employers to conspire and “to deceive and even oppress the public,” of “the mean rapacity, the monopolizing spirit of merchants and manufacturers,” of the “monopoly of the rich,” of the “bad effects of high profits,” of the “natural selfishness and rapacity” the vain and insatiable desires” of the rich, who institute “civil government”against the poor.” It was the godfather of laissez faire capitalism and the favorite guru of conservatives, Adam Smith, who said that. Could Smith have meant that some businessmen, when left to their own devices, are actually capable of resorting to such measures as setting up offshore company headquarters and Swiss bank accounts, of cooking the books, stacking Boards of Governers, employing sweated labor, busting unions, polluting the environment, outsourcing jobs, colluding to fix prices, bribing officials and legislators, buying judges, concocting Ponzi schemes, secretly financing phony “grass roots” and “populist” rallies, providing themselves huge bonuses regardless of performance, and depending on government bail-outs not available to others–all this among other outrageous forms of often illegal and always immoral behavior? Apparently Smith did mean just that, because he advocated that the rascality on the part of the rich could not be allowed to proceed without interference if one were to have a functioning capitalist system; hence he spoke of the need for government action to prevent the stultification of the “laboring poor.” If that be class struggle, apparently he favors it. (Compare Tocqueville’s similar observation: “When the rich alone govern, the interest of the poor is always in danger.”) The suspicion is strong that, judging by these words of his, were Smith alive today, he would far more likely be a liberal than a conservative.

    1. Plenue

      There’s a massive difference between what Smith actually said and what his modern fanbois believe he said. Most of them have never actually read Wealth of Nations (and even less his Theory of Moral Sentiments. My understanding is that they both have to be read back to back to truly understand his views). Though I’m sure plenty of them have unopened copies of WoN displayed on their shelves for prestige value.

      I’ll admit I too have not gotten around to either book, just as I have yet to tackle Marx’s 2400 page doorstop (hopefully both are easier reads than Veblen, who was a chore). But from what I’ve gathered to Smith ‘enlightened self-interest’ (what they now call homo economicus) wasn’t ‘everyone be a prick and this will somehow make society as a whole better’. In fact to Smith man WASN’T purely selfish, and had a variety of drives and motivations. And this was because we were endowed with a divine nature. To Smith the ‘invisible hand’ was literally the hand of God imbuing his creation with the capacity to make moral decisions.

      Also, Michael Hudson has been of great help by constantly pounding away at the point that Smith was talking about markets free from vestigial feudalism, particularly exactly the kind of unproductive rent extraction that is making a comeback in the modern age. That’s very different from the concept of unregulated markets free from any kind of oversight.

    2. LifelongLib

      Smith is often cited but seldom read. When (too many decades ago) I actually did read “The Wealth of Nations” I was surprised at him saying (IIRC) that “combinations of owners to reduce wages are everywhere, combinations of workers to increase wages are everywhere suppressed”, that “the interests of businessmen are always contrary to those of the general public”, and that the government should intervene to prevent workers from becoming utterly destitute (he believed that without that all wages would ultimately fall to subsistence levels). Yet another example of how we should always read what someone actually says, as opposed to what someone else says he says…

  4. Madmamie

    This is a wonderful analysis of our conundrum. To add another example which reveals the final, bottom-most layer; what we might call “collateral damage”: the case of my daughter-in-law.

    One evening my son answered the door to three FBI agents who handcuffed his wife in front of their (her) 6 year-old and dragged her away to jail. She was arrested for fraud two years after the 2008 crash and mortgage crisis. She had been a clerk at a real-estate co. doing “what everybody was doing” , that is, making sure that people could buy even if they didn’t have the down payment and helping others flip houses that were way overpriced. She was not an agent, she was the office clerk who sent the false info in the mail and deposited the checks. In the end she was sent to prison for a year, leaving her young son and 10-month old baby daughter at home with their desperate father. Her boss was given house arrest and probation BECAUSE HIS WIFE WAS PREGNANT (!!!) which adds sexism to the context of class warfare (the judge lectured her about not having gone to college to better herself at one point?!). This story, I am sure, was played out all over the country. Perhaps not all judges were nasty old men with a chip on their shoulder about the new administration but even at this level, I’m sure not many “bosses” went to prison.

    1. Bas

      So sorry for your family, what a terrible thing. I suppose her boss did go to college??!!1?
      This reminds me of all the times over 30 years when I did bookkeeping and accounting work and was asked to go into grey areas and sometimes commit outright fraud and I said no, and of course that was the end of that job, I would get eased out, usually in a way sure to make me ineligible for unemployment. I would certainly have gone to jail because I was the one who knew the law. But your DIL surely should not have been held accountable for doing clerical tasks without knowledge of or control over the contracts. That is very scary.

    2. diptherio

      Wow. Just…wow. Somehow the FBI has manpower to spare to go after a secretary, but can’t find it in themselves to consider maybe going after the people who were financing the whole operation (and many, many others just like it)?!? Well, at least now we know whose side their on. Speaking of how do they live with themselves….

    3. craazyman

      Jesus. What was the charge and was it a jury trial? Or did she plead guilty?

      What did the prosecutor charge “a clerk” with that brought out the FBI?

      That story sounds pretty incredible. But not totally incredible, to be sure. Not at all totally incredible.

  5. jrs

    Hmm, what’s the point of a post saying people should have ethics if reproducing (supporting a family) suddenly nulls and voids all ethics like some magical get out of jail free card. It isn’t even at all clear that a single person with no kids will end up in any better shape when they lose their job than the person with kids (for one thing they are less likely to qualify for much in the way of government benefits meager as those are anyway).

    1. Bas

      That certainly points up the pressure to go along to get along. Especially if you are married to someone with dodgy values.
      “How hard can it be to lie and cheat, Bob? Suck it up, Momma needs to send the kids to private school!”

    2. diptherio

      He’s not saying that (or at least I didn’t see it). The more financial responsibilities you feel like you have, the harder it is to buck the system. You’re right, even just an individuals needs can make it hard, so all the more so when you’ve got kids to consider (I’ll sleep in my car, but can I make them? etc.)

      1. Bas

        What makes me crazy these days is that now the conversation is, either you compromise your values, or you won’t have enough to eat and/or be homeless, whereas, before, perhaps you just may not make as much money. What is up with this? Do all roads now lead to perdition?

        1. inode_buddha

          Yes, thank you for giving voice to what I was feeling. I’ve actually quit jobs because the moral atmosphere was so rank. Best thing I ever did in some cases was to simply walk out.

          Usually you can spot these types by hearing something along the lnes of “… its not illegal” “If there isn’t any rule against it I have to assume its legal” or “its legal if you don’t get caught(laughing)” — yes I’ve actually heard that last one. Which means that they need every thing spelled out in black and white. And I do mean *everything* Because they have no morals of their own. These are usually the types that get all upset about regulation when it actually is in black and white. It cramps their style.

          1. Whine Country

            Yess, and by illegal they mean you are not likely to get caught or if you do, you will only get a slap on the wrist.

        2. jrs

          I might very well quit a job if I thought it was morally wrong, but the just making a little less … I wouldn’t be so sure, isn’t the middle class hanging on by a thread and likely to join the precariat with one wrong move? You have a good job now but you might be earning minimum wage tomorrow. Seems so to me. But I live as if I needed to get into heaven I guess, even though I don’t believe in an afterlife, and yes I live as if I need to live with myself.

      2. jo6pac

        True my late father called them (financial responsibilities) the Golden Handcuffs. I know of a few jobs I was very qualified to get but I wasn’t married with children and a mortgage. I had company owner I was doing contractor work for tell they hated hiring me because of that but I did the best work so there was that.

        Lambert, I’m standing on my chair clamping. Yes I remember telling you not to stand on chairs to take pictures in the yard;)

    3. Yves Smith

      This is not about ethics. This is about norms.

      It used to be that despite Americans always seeing money as a route to statue (see De Tocqueville), the downside of that was kept in check by having a well-understood set of social norms and people feeling they had to adhere to them because they would be shunned otherwise. Shady businessmen would not get the status goodies they wanted, like membership at the local country club. JP Morgan was not kidding when he said:

      The first thing [in credit] is character … before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it.… A man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom. I think that is the fundamental basis of business.

      So Lambert’s question, “How can these people live with themselves?” is critical.

      You shrug your shoulders, By doing that, you become part of the problem. You are enabling this conduct by your resignation.

      We collectively need to start making the foot soldiers as well as the higher ups ashamed of what they are doing. We need to delegitimate this conduct. Remember, what brought Joe McCarthy down was when Joseph Welsh called him out by asking, “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” People need to start doing that, publicly and privately, every time the opportunity presents itself, even if that means alienating friends. You need to be willing to ostracize people if you want a better society.

      1. cnchal

        . . .You need to be willing to ostracize people if you want a better society.

        The fly in the ointment, is that the ones one is ostracizing are the majority, so it becomes a very lonely existence. People find that hard to live with.

        1. Yves Smith

          Progressive positions poll in significant majorities. Sanders, who is essentially running a moralistic campaign, is doing astonishingly well despite the MSM and people like Paul Krugman doing everything in their power to sabotage him. And I’m told by insiders that operationally Sanders ground game isn’t very good, which further reinforces the idea that he is tapping into broadly-held sentiments that don’t have much official representation.

          In other words, the people who benefit from the corruption are at the top, plus the wannbe-emulators. They are not the majority, but they have managed to create the impression that they are.

          1. makedoanmend

            As a committed student of Biology (obtaining a degree even with my aging body) and a devout athiest, I thank the gods for yourself, Lambert, other contributors, and especially the commentators. And as someone who relies almost solely on NC and a news aggregator in Ireland (but who lives in Scotland), to keep up with events, your site keeps me sane. And somewhat strangely hopeful. Silly me. Hope is for kids. Thank the gods for kid’s questions.

            And just wowsers with bells and knobs. Where else does one get an article like this and very concrete input by such a diverse range of commentors who bring life experiences to bear on concrete subjects.

            “…Sander’s ground game isn’t very good…”

            As someone who has not heard Sanders speak nor really read much about what he says, the photos in newspapers in the UK tend to portray him as the mad professor type – hands waving, untailored suit and sorta dotty.

            This might be part of his appeal – at least visually. I’m sick and tired of the well coiffed, expensively attired, correct accent and perfect worded poli.

            Sanders appears to lack the PR agency. He seems, for all his experience, to be a bit amateurish. Or is this also a ploy? If it is, it has appeal for some of us and may add to his ‘popularity’.

            Alas, all is plastic with Homo sapiens.

            1. Bas

              All is not plastic, and Bernie is someone who has not changed with the evolution of politics, he is still the man who is passionate about his beliefs and not packaged by the “Party”. Even so, he is willing to listen to the people and learn. He refuses to join the monolith, and glories in diversity and challenge and growth, so I can see why the insecure, self-involved pols in the UK want to portray him as crazy, because if people realize it is possible to have leaders like Bernie, they are out on their fat asses.

          2. Kokuanani

            Yves, I feel like there’s a variation of this that I haven’t quite figured out.

            I live in the suburban DC area. I am a Bernie supporter, with a bumper sticker on my car. [Rare in this area.] Yet my friends and acquaintances, based on my Facebook feed and occasional comments, are quite content to support Hillary. First of all, they seem blissfully unaware of her corruption. Second, they can’t imagine any criticism of Obama. In their view, it’s only the racist crazies who would dare say a harsh word against him.

            I guess perhaps these folks could be classified as “wannabe-emulators,” but from knowing them they’re not actively evil, just not inquisitive. Their lives are okay [a key element, I suspect] and they at least believe they support all sorts of good values, but then they favor these two Immoral Ones.

            I just can’t figure this out.

        2. dots

          Social norms are set by the presence or absence of personal accountability.

          Consider the case of workplace bullying. According to a 2014 survey, the incidence of bullying behaviors at work have increased in the past decade. Approximately 27% of American workers report having been or are currently being bullied. Around 72% of the public has either witnessed bullying at work or is aware of it occurring. The majority of these bullies are bosses and 72% of employers deny it occurs, rationalize it’s occurrence, discount those who report it, or otherwise defend it.

          So, most companies now have a written formal policy against bullying, but what happens to those who report it?

          The EEOC says Retaliation is the most common complaint they receive in relation to any sort or discrimination charges. Here’s an excerpt from their website:

          Why Do Managers Retaliate?
          From a legal perspective, the typical concern is with the act of retaliation and whether an employer is engaging in unlawful behavior. Unlike the legal definition of retaliation, behavioral science focuses on retaliation as an intra- and interpersonal experience that encompasses subjective definitions of “harm” and “offense”, with the act of retaliation being a mechanism for addressing transgression. (1) In this sense, it is important to understand the problem from a human perspective. Social psychology has provided a broader understanding of the underlying causes of retaliatory behavior.

          The act of retaliation is equivalent to revenge where a person perceives unfair treatment and attempts to restore equilibrium by taking the matter into his or her own hands. Research has consistently demonstrated that the desire for retaliation is common upon experiencing an offensive interpersonal encounter, particularly if the encounter threatens one’s self image. Interestingly, while the desire to retaliate is common, acting on this inclination is not, as doing so can be quite costly in social settings.

          Unlike other animals, humans are unique in their ability to weigh consequences and make decisions based on what is most beneficial within a given socio-cultural context. In this respect, they have the ability to override more basic inclinations and behave based on what is socially (or legally) acceptable. Cognitive, emotional, and social processes can override “instinct” and guide behavioral choices. Ultimately, the decision to retaliate is a consequence of an interaction of these factors.

          The process of retaliation begins with a perceived offense (e.g., initiating a discrimination claim). If those accused sincerely believe that they have done nothing wrong, or if they believe that their offensive behavior was somehow justified, they may begin to ruminate and desire retaliation. In this regard, retaliation is a coping mechanism -a way of alleviating the psychological discomfort associated with perceived injustice.

          These are the norms of corporate culture. I can only imagine how these dynamics function when there is a tremendous amount of money and power involved.

          Accounts of workplace bullying: The role of the organization

      2. Jim

        Lambert states in his 3rd footnote “I don’t want to come across as priggish. I don’t have dependents so my choices are simpler. If I had to support a family especially in today’s new normal I might put my head down and save ethics for the home.”

        I would submit that for the vast majority beneath the top 20% there is an understandable tendency/necessity to spend much time putting ones head down in order to survive.

        And so, on a deeper level, it may be the case that most of us in the lower 80%, are to, some extent ashamed of some of the actions we have engaged in and will continue to engage in–in order to survive under this new neo-liberal normal.

        What about that NC community– are each of us, in some of our own actions, engaged in some types of illegitimate behavior that we feel/see as necessary conduct in order to survive in this regime?

        Is it also the case that the weaker our own class position the more we may have compromised ourselves, and the more creative we often are in perpetuating are own quite limited scams of one sort or another?

        Are all of us somehow linked in our capacity to pull of scams, usually, however, more more elaborate and damaging at the top of the economic/financial/cultural hierarchy than at or near the bottom of the hierarchy?

      3. Gio Bruno

        We collectively need to start making the foot soldiers as well as the higher ups ashamed of what they are doing. We need to delegitimate this conduct.

        But there are very real costs to any individual that speaks up about “shameful conduct” first. (See Snowden.) The aberrant behavior of “professionals” seems to occur over time. The motivation is usually related to money (a paycheck, a pension, a “pot o’ gold”). Corruption is everywhere in American society; from person to person, and institution to person. It’s part of the me-not-we culture.

        1. Yves Smith

          Um, Snowden did a lot more than “speak up”. He downloaded a ton of classified documents and gave them to third parties. There are lots of degrees of action you can take. And Snowden is alive in Russia and his girfriend has joined him, so while he is an exile, he seems to regard the price as worth it and has not suffered catastrophic consequences.

          1. pretzelattack

            he was willing to risk a greater price-i’m not sure how close he came to getting captured by the us government, but it wasn’t a sure thing that he wouldn’t be, and he would very likely have gone to prison for a long time. what’s happened is probably the best case scenario he could realistically expect.

            1. Yves Smith

              You are really straw manning my point. Expressing disapproval of a colleague or friend in a social setting is a hell of a lot different than a one-man war against the surveillance state.

              There are degrees of dissent, and speaking up and expressing disapproval goes a long way. You don’t even have to be frontal. You can find stories like the ones Lambert cited, and talk them up disapprovingly in front of people you know who you suspect of engaging in similar misconduct and watch them squirm. Then if they are so bold as to accuse you of criticizing them, you can say, “Gee, do you have a guilty conscience? and proceed to a variant of favorite quote from Dune: “I present a general garment and you claim it’s cut to your fit?”

              1. pretzelattack

                i wasn’t disputing that there are many forms of action that the ordinary american can take. i was just pointing out that snowden may not have had the same freedom, because he knew so much, and went ahead anyway. i’m glad it worked out as well for him as it did. manning was in a similar position.

                fortunately most of us aren’t in a position where we have to risk as much, or really risk much at all, simply by speaking up.

                1. Bas

                  If everyone realized that they are beings on the way to dying, they would not crap around lying for people and dirtying up their karma the way they do. If you feel immortal, you think you are just acting in a temporary dishonest fashion to get through, but in reality you are in the soup. That is what is so difficult–dying to the crappy aspects of the world–so that you can live fully as a free being.

      4. Jessica

        What brought Joe McCarthy down was that he shifted from purging New Dealers (which was fine by the Republicans) to also attacking institutions the Republicans were aligned with, specifically the Army.

        1. sid_finster

          I don’t think that the Army was especially Republican then, especially as the Democrats were seen as the internationalist, interventionist party.

          For that matter, only a few years later St. JFK ran in 1960 on charges that the Eisenhower admin was insufficiently aggressive against communism.

      5. Moneta

        I did it and let me tell you, with children it is incredibly hard. In their teens, they do not get it. My daughter recently asked why I don’t or didn’t just suck it up.

        Going against the herd is one of the hardest thing one can do and IMO, only those at the tails of the normal distribution will be able to come out of it unscathed.

        1. Moneta

          What makes it even tougher is that the progressives don’t even have a cohesive front. The most frustrating for me is when they don’t even know basic accounting, never mind the complexities of defining money.

          1. Left in Wisconsin

            Agreed. One terrible thing about our complex, meritocratic division of labor is that credentialed “progressives” are able to achieve positions of influence without the first understanding, or interest, in how business(es) really function(s).

        2. SpringTexan

          Yes, there is a high price to pay, and many of the plebes DO have shame but are also very frightened, and with reason. They often do what they think they can get away with to help in individual cases.

          I do think the Sanders support shows there is much more widespread hatred of this whole scheme than the elite will admit.

          My great respect and sympathy for you, Moneta.

      6. inode_buddha

        I get what you are saying (unfortunately I’ve suffered thru a lot of normal business) but these are people who have no shame almost by definition. Or they wouldn’t be doing it in the first place. I’ve seen it in action: if there’s a dollar on the table, every other consideration goes out the window. I simply chalked it up to “management had a bad upbringing”, but really: where do you begin?

  6. diptherio

    A couple more anecdotes to throw on the pile:

    1) Close friend is a life-long gov’t engineer. After a pipeline leak near Billings, MT, the details of which he was personally familiar with, the oil company CEO went on TV, in front of some gov’t types, to answer questions….and proceeded to lie through his teeth.

    When asked why the leak was allowed to continue for an hour before the pipeline was shut down, he claimed it was due to physics, that you can’t just push a button and stop the flow because of all the pressure build-up. Only you can. They have like, sciencey stuff that makes just that possible. There is literally a button in the pump station you can push to stop the flow. The reason the leak went on for an hour was because there was no safety manual in the pump station, so the guy on duty had to call around to try to find out what this particular blinking light or alarm meant, and what to do about it. It took them an hour and a literal game of telephone to figure out they were discharging crude oil into the Yellowstone River.

    And they had been sited, more than once iirc, for failure to have said safety manual in the pump station. It had been years that they failed to have one printed up. I got to see the final inter-office memo on the incident, which reported a fine that amounted to a couple minutes worth of profit for the company involved.

    So knowing all this, and watching the CEO lie about the facts, did this gov’t employee call the press, or anyone, and inform them of the truth? No. Why not? Because Reagen issued and executive order barring public employees from talking to the press without permission and this guy valued his job and his pension. So he kept his mouth shut. He’s got a family and grandkids and whatnot, so it’s somewhat understandable. Still….

    2) A Nepali friend works for H&M in the Middle East. He’s worked his way up to a store manager after a number of years working in Kuwait, and recently got transfered to Saudi Arabia to open a new store. We got to talk quite a bit about his work. I was fascinated.

    H&M has astoundingly fine-grained surveillance procedures. Sales at individual registers are tracked at 10 minute intervals. Numbers of customers entering the store are likewise tracked. Metrics are analyzed and plans for improving them are made at Monday morning meetings with upper management. Mondays are the worst.

    “Why was there this drop in customers coming in last Wednesday?”

    “Because there was a sandstorm”

    “Don’t make excuses.”

    “Secret Shoppers” are the bane of G’s existence. They regularly come in and check things out, being sure to note any possible failing, since they’re not being paid to say “everything’s just great!” After one’s been through, G gets called to a meeting and they discuss the results. Again, he’s got to have a “plan” for addressing any failings, and apologize for not being perfect.

    The secret to G’s success is that he’s figured out how to game the metrics. Secret shoppers give a demerit if they aren’t greeted within 15 seconds of entering the store, so G had the bright idea to hire some poor schlub to stand by the door all day for a pittance and say ‘hello’ to everyone who enters. Customers not coming in? Offer some free snack and put a sign outside. Most people will just come in for the free food and walk right out, but the customer entrance metric just went up. He’s also a great ass-kisser, which really helps in dealing with his upperlings.

    And, of course, he has to be pretty merciless with the employees he manages. Not making enough high-end sales? A few seconds slow helping a secret shopper? You’re toast. No second chances for the front line crew. He doesn’t enjoy it but what to do (ke garne?) that’s the job. And it’s been providing an above average salary for him and his family, so it’s understandable why he does it. Still….

    1. TomD

      I always wondered why the big grocery stores around here have a super old person as a ‘greeter’ who says hi to everyone who walks in.

      1. diptherio

        I’ve only seen it in Walmarts around here. I thought it was funny he came up with the same idea as a way to pass secret shopper tests. Maybe that’s how it started at WallyWorld too. The sad thing is, my friend is a brilliant salesman but is having to use his talents for the benefit of whoever runs H&M (when he’s not using them to game their surveillence systems).

      2. cnchal

        It’s a sales gimmick. Making eye contact with someone that elicits sympathy is supposed to open your wallet wider. It works too.

          1. pretzelattack

            i’m not sure where i’m at on the spectrum, or how valid it is, but i mostly prefer to just go in, buy what i came for or need, and get out, quickly as possible.

        1. TomD

          Seeing someone 60+ years old be forced to stand there for hours makes me sad and wish I lived in a more moral society. Not sure how that effects sales.

        2. fajensen

          Hmm. That dude or dudette working way past retirement … It makes me think: “That could be me, I’d better watch my spending!”

  7. Ulysses

    “Unlike many people inside organizations, he was willing to challenge his superiors, to tell them what they didn’t want to hear. Yet, he didn’t have organizational power to stop the disaster.”

    There’s the rub: amassing organizational power in a corrupt organization is very difficult for an honest, outspoken person. What often happens is that decent people save up their moral outrage until after they retire from whatever position in which they have “gone along to get along.” Then most of them discover that they no longer have the energy, or the means, to “fight the good fight” they have delayed for decades.

    I have tremendous admiration for a group of retired Teamsters up in Rhode Island that I know. They have come out against mobbed-up sellouts, at great personal risk to themselves, and now Local 251 is far more progressive than it ever was! Those guys are truly an inspiration.

    My own small contributions to the struggle haven’t required nearly as much personal courage. My wealthy and influential Anglo/Dutch relations don’t go out of their way to protect me from adverse consequences of radical activism. Yet their mere existence provides me a larger “free-speech zone” from which to hurl invective at the kleptocrats– compared to the very tiny space for protest allowed to most in U.S. society. I have also been fortunate to witness the encouraging reality that at least some people– who are regarded as trusted insiders in our corrupt system– are actually thoroughly subversive!

  8. Russell

    “I was looking for a job when I found this one.” Was for the majority of my life how I approached work. The airplane mechanics had Certifications as did the Pilots. I believe there is something to the Certification over “Credentials” that is meaningful.

    Plus that in Aviation the issue of life and death is a constant starting with the purity of fuels and how they are serviced, to the decisions similar to the one that wrecked the Challenger.

    I am one of those people who was the person Alan Greenspan said I ought be. His insult required I become an economist.

    So I turn to Engineers for “Best Practices” since if the bridge falls down it is they too who will never work in their field again.

    Down here below, it is often the same. A little power amongst the powerless, and corruption grows same as Above the Line.

    Unions didn’t stay clean & BAs go bad, become suck ups to the Owners.
    You are a fish in the ocean where big fish eat smaller fish.

    The Leaders we have do not give us hope of any unity of purpose. It is that that is key to the erosion of ethics. Not that they are taught by the ignorant and angry too well.

    If the US armed forces go to war, secure the oil fields, it isn’t of any benefit to the people to do so, but it is beneficial to the Saudis and the Corporations.

    The co-option of the Woodstock Nation remnants was in their agreement that Government was too big. It was big for them because of the Drug War.

    So it all turned to be internationally that Meyer Lansky Financial Engineering took root with London close to the friends of the USSR Dictators.
    See the Workers’ Paradise of Russia, & then China?

    Corruption is not in all these betrayals of trust, but the betrayals start with opportunities to steal souls. The money follows.

    Look at Yves, or then this new writer I am reading David Cay Johnston, they become conscious and work as scribes.

    When and whom is murdered for this in the USA? It is by this measure and from these people hope is salted. Hitchens said still at the end the US is the last great hope.

    I am sorry I cannot remember the name of the journalist Putin had murdered. How many? The KGB, FSB, & GRU did not stop and the CIA & MI6 keep playing while the USA is hollowed out and fully become a military machine only.

    Who was the TV guy run out of the country or was he captured and sent to prison for the crimes of the rest while attempting to simply make sure he could get out? Russia. Workers Unite!

    What if the servants of ideals were as respected as the powerful cloaked in just that now to appear as heroes when their stage shows and the cameras roll just for them. Jobs in jeans fixing pay and prospects in Silicon Valley, just a smart guy with good advisers playing the Harvey Keitel character of Tarantino,

    Somehow they came to see their fortune as their good name?

    Somehow we loved our integrity more than coins and would rather steal bread than the bakers shop.

    We are reduced to begging as it is.

    Human nature, being the same for all, then it comes to The System, but the system will roll on by itself under the hands of the functionaries, bureaucrats. (A path to Technocrat was suggested to make them think.)

    Only the Idealist as made a Leader because of the Vision they espouse can steer the System itself as if it were a Ship as David Marquet instructs.

    The searching for a just world to engineer goes on in dying light.
    Where it is most in your face at the FBOs catering and fueling the Corporate Jets is where to found the model, do my modeling, make a system with integrity rolled into it.

    I ended my working days as a carpenter, same as I started, beatdown the whole way.

    “So it goes.” Kurt Vonnegut I’d say and say what Faulker said in Absolam, Absolam! the human tragedy is to dedicate your life to the wrong ideas.

    P.S. I have to take a lot of drugs. Jesus I could be poisoned any day now.

        1. RMO

          I spent two years (eight hours a day, five days a weeks with a grand total of three weeks off in those years) in the AME-M program at BCIT here in Vancouver to be an aircraft mechanic. After that I needed to work for a time as an apprentice before taking some final exams in order to get the license. Graduated with the highest marks in the class, both in theory and practice. Only one person in my class of 16 got a job and that was the guy who has previous experience as a turbine engine technician with MTU before being laid off prompted him to return to school. In the classes that graduated before and after us no one was hired. To this day though, every now and then I still hear about there being a shortage of aircraft maintenance personnel. Interesting.

  9. gizzardboy

    An important post. Thanks, Lambert. You mention reputational damage.

    In this age of the internet, I wish there was more reputational damage. For instance, the cop who sprayed all the students (and then got $38,000) because he was made to feel bad. How about posts with his picture, his address, what car he is seen driving, where he is posted, etc.

    Same sort of treatment might be meted out for executives of some of the companies and organizations you discussed. There are reputation repair companies, how about a site “How do you live with”? It could get a little more personal than “cop shoots family dog’.

    1. inode_buddha

      There used to be such a site back during the dot-com craze. It catered mainly to that crowd. Called “” you could send in your tale of woe as your startup imploded and the posters would rate each others stories. Oh, and give group hugs.

  10. Clive

    More evidence of dispensing prescription medication for fun and profit (regardless of the impact to consumers, sorry, patients) has come to my notice through my experience at Walmart’s British outpost, known as Asda

    The NHS has moved to a system of not having primary care responsible for maintaining responsibility for repeat prescriptions but instead pharmacies (such as Boots mentioned in Lambert’s piece above) got to do the admin. You sign up to any number of dispensing pharmacies you like and, when you need a repeat prescription, you go to the pharmacy not primary care.

    The Mom and Pop independent pharmacies seem to operate the system as intended (the dispensing pharmacist checks the indication you present and validates the medication is in line with what the physician who originally prescribed the medication intended). For example, I have an ocular antibiotic on repeat and, when I go to an independent pharmacy I’m registered with, they do the expected investigations before issuing the repeat prescription. This is perfectly appropriate and I am pleased that they will not simply dole out things like antibiotics carte blanche. They’d rather not dispense than send people out the store with something inappropriate.

    Not so with Asda/Walmart. There, you just get shown the screen — which has everything you’ve ever been prescribed listed and you simply click the ones you like. No questions asked. Asda/Walmart get money from the NHS for each of the items that they dispense. They are obviously setting themselves up as the go-to place for hassle free eee-zee-meds. It costs them nothing (the NHS covers the cost of the drugs and the reimbursement to the pharmacies for issuing the prescription plus Asda/Walmart’s profit from the “transaction”).

    Primary care is supposed to monitor what the pharmacies are dispensing but, guess what, they are being stretched way too thinly and are having to be ruthless in their priorities under the constant drive for “efficiency”, all in the name of austerity.

    How do the pharmacists live with themselves? My guess is that, like Boots, Asda/Walmart have put their pharmacies under a target regime. If they don’t send as many people out the door loaded with medication as much medication as they can, their management will replace them with people who will.

    Neoliberalism is corrupting, absolutely. Everyone and everything is vulnerable to being captured in its thrall.

    1. fajensen

      There, you just get shown the screen — which has everything you’ve ever been prescribed listed and you simply click the ones you like.
      Neat! I had a bunch of really nice opiates prescribed – when I broke my elbow and they had to put in some titanium to fix it; The pain was pretty bad, so I didn’t even get to enjoy them as much as I thought I would.

      Some people would get a kidney stone, then re-run those prescriptions and sell them.

      1. Clive

        Yes, this is why the Financialisation of Everything’s ultimate destiny is to trap itself in a negative feedback loop. I’m surmising, but I suspect that the decision making process for the change to move management of repeat prescriptions out of primary care in the NHS and into what are inevitably a for-profit pharmacy sector went something like this:

        1) GP time in primary care costs (let’s say) £100/hr
        2) Pharmacist time costs (for the sake of argument) £30/hr
        3) Profit to the pharmacist costs £20/hr
        4) If repeat prescriptions are moved out of primary care and into pharmacies, then the “saving” £100/hr (old way) less £50/hr (new way) x whatever number of hours this task takes per year (it will be tens and tens of thousands of man hours) == £millions

        But, of course, the assumption behind this thinking is that the pharmacists will be as diligent about spotting runaway medicators. This assumption is wrong because the pharmacists are now, unlike the GPs in primary care, incentivised to dish out as much medication as they can get away with. The GPs are supposed to monitor this, but without the time allowed to do this, they won’t.

        So there’s a hidden cost in additional drug spend for the NHS. The pharmacies will deny they’re doing anything they shouldn’t be doing because, well, of the ker-ching — especially in the mega pharmacy chains like Boots and Asda/Walmart. I’ll bet there is precisely zero budget for a pervasive, comprehensive inspection task force to check whether or not pharmacies are doing what they should be when managing the repeat prescription side of their “businesses”. And there’s absolutely no incentive for the consultants who sold this idea to the NHS to admit that their business case has a huge whopping hole in it because of the faulty assumption that the pharmacies will have the same care and attention that the GPs were spending on managing repeat prescriptions when they were responsible for issuing them.

        It gets worse. If — and I think it is a “when”, actually, rather than an “if” — the NHS drugs budget shows signs of creeping upwards, it will be the NHS GPs / primary care that gets the blame for not preventing the problem from occurring. The GPs remain accountable for issuing repeat prescriptions, but the pharmacies are now responsible so you’ve got a breakdown in the previous integrity of the overall system. The private sector gets to look innocent and virtuous, the public sector (in the form of the NHS) gets pilloried for not being efficient and raining on the parade of the semi-privatisation which has been implemented by stealth through the change to how repeat prescriptions are managed.

        This — and countless other examples which vary in detail but are, like Lambert’s piece points out, similar in the underlying cause — is what is steadily unpicking the threads which hold our society together.

  11. Downunderer

    Lambert, I was a chemist in the research lab of a well-known pharma back in the ’60s, and I saw the beginnings of what you describe. That’s what drove me into teaching. Lots of stories to tell from both professions, but not right now. I’ve given the subject of your post a lot of thought in the intervening decades, and arrived at the following:

    I think you are describing the consequences of giving excessive rights, essentially human rights, to corporations. It must be clear to all that corporations inherently have greater powers and fewer weaknesses than humans. Otherwise, why bother to form one? This has led to a progressive increase in those powers, by a simple positive feedback loop.

    Being soulless, potentially immortal, and capable of reincarnation and reproduction at will, corporations naturally escape many of the restrictions that humans experience. All this means that a level playing field for games played between biological beings and corporations is a nonsense. And *that* means that a free market is a nonsense. When one player has so many advantages that it can create even more advantages, it’s game over.

    Corporations, as the biggest powers in any game, make the rules and set the tone, as well as hiring and firing the players and the referees. Employees, whatever their personal inclinations, go along or else. But corporations can also alter their structure to dilute responsibility for bad actions in such a way that the individuals involved can have relatively clear consciences, as you describe.

    Naturally, those who control corporations will use corporate power for their personal ends, and naturally the social psychopaths with the least human empathy will end up in the controlling positions.

    In my view, this phenomenon underlies much of the misery we see in the world today. And the remedy is clear and obvious, if difficult to apply: Limit corporate powers in ways similar to the way they were limited when the Constitution was written, when everyone *knew* from recent experience how nasty large corporations they could be. So limited at the state level that the Founders didn’t even bother to limit them at the federal level. We need updated limitations, yes, but limitations that prevent the corporate dominance we see today.

    1. HotFlash

      Being soulless, potentially immortal, and capable of reincarnation and reproduction at will, corporations naturally escape many of the restrictions that humans experience.

      It’s more than potential, they are immortal, for all intents and purposes. They also don’t feel pain, do not age, have no sense of their own (very limited) mortality and are omnipresent (ie, not actually present anywhere). One-on-one we don’t stand a chance.

      1. pretzelattack

        there was a law professor, michael tigar, that pointed out that corporations function as legal psychopaths. with limited liability.

        1. sid_finster

          Not only that, but to the extent that you have shareholders with diverging views corporations have to operate as sociopaths.

          But I haven’t seen a better way to manage an enterprise where owners are not necessarily managers. There’s a trilemma in there somewhere.

    2. animalogic

      Clive, what you describe seems a system ripe for rorting. In Australia the G.P issues the “repeats”, the pharmacy, fills the repeat. It’s basic, but seems to work. (As long as you go to a “bulk-bill” G.P you can obtain another script for free. For those on welfare, filling the script costs $ 5.20 per item [most scripts are government price regulated]….though, I think that price has gone up: $6.20 ?)

  12. Anonymous

    I work in FIRE and have my whole life and just hate it. I am surrounded by other professionals who don’t seem to have the slightest understanding of the exploitative nature of what we do. Maybe having a liberal arts background or the fact that I left the industry for a while to raise children has helped me understand the bubble they all live in, I don’t know. This article correctly describes how the professional class views the world in my experience. I desperately want to get out, but it’s hard if not impossible to change careers in your late 50s, and with a kid in college and another about to start, I feel trapped. And Clive ‘s post (quoted in the article) really rings true to me about all jobs anymore involving dishonesty or exploitation in some way. Where can a person go????

    1. troutbum75

      I too have worked my entire career in FIRE, I was able to work in the asset management side of the business ( think stock and bond portfolios ). My suggestion would be to try and move into the non – profit area. You’ll find fewer sharp elbows and if you get lucky, maybe your new position will be subversive to the corporate culture.

      1. aab

        I worked as a consultant to a non-profit designed to help the poor. I was pushed out because I made the mistake of not realizing soon enough it was busy selling out to Walmart and the big banks. I spoke up for the organization’s stated mission in teleconferences. Being off-site, I hadn’t caught on to what was happening; it wasn’t something discussed openly.

        A lot of non-profits are quite corrupt. Note the major women’s and reproductive rights organizations who gleefully endorsed Hillary Clinton early — even though she’s on record as being okay with a constitutional amendment to restrict abortion. Philanthropic capture is widespread now. It’s probably less personally unpleasant than working in the belly of the FIRE beast, but don’t take the self-presentation at face value.

  13. Alex morfesis

    Sadly, people are a bit more evil than we give them credit for…they would rather go along then move along…they are quite happy walking over homeless people they helped put there just as long as the lawn has that putting green feeling and the car lease does not run past the miles allotment before it is time to get a brand spanking new car payment…

    evil is easy for most people because we don’t call it evil anymore….

    They would much rather go along then move along…and we are becoming less and less the home of the brave…

    1. animalogic

      “evil is easy for most people because we don’t call it evil anymore…”
      That’s a quote worth remembering and repeating.

  14. Watt4Bob

    I work for an organization that adheres to the tenants of the Neoliberal Church of What’s Happening Now.

    This means, for instance, that personnel expenses are under intense scrutiny by our parent organization, and I have it on good authority that “if we can’t find someone to fire, they’ll send over someone who will.”

    The result of this ideological commitment combined with the related, I think, hard times we are now enduring, is that elaborate pay plans are developed, ostensibly intending to increase productivity through clever incentives.

    Work harder, or smarter and you have the ‘opportunity’ to make more money.

    Work harder, and smarter, and boy, the sky’s the limit.

    In my experience however, and I have been here a long while, (How can I live with myself?) when a pay-plan results in a more expensive payroll, it’s time for a new pay-plan.

    So, the latest anecdote;

    My boss explains to me that a good technician can make $35/hr.

    Keep in mind that this is something I am expected to believe on faith.

    I am sort of an agnostic at heart and so, being on good terms with all the best technicians in our employ, I can’t help but ask;

    “Can a good tech make $35/hr working here?”

    Long story short, I am reliably informed that the best techs have a hard time making $25/hr.

    What I am describing is the fact that my bosses only job is to convince his employees that they have an opportunity to impact their earnings by working harder, or smarter, when they are really caught in a plan designed to keep them making the low end of the scale.

    My boss has one other job, to back-stop communication with the mother-ship.

    No employee must ever contact the parent organization for any reason.

    Neoliberal ideology demands adherents demonstrate not only their personal belief in, but their commitment to, an evangelical sort of capitalism that boiled down to its essence, says “If you were righteous enough, and work hard enough, God would have already made you rich.”

    Now of course, these are smart people, so they understand that what is really required is that they say “Yes”.

    Every time there is a choice between saying “Yes”, and any other answer, the answer is “Yes”.

    So, my boss puts on a good show of believing the Ayn Rand inspired bull, and keeps saying “Yes” with enthusiasm, but I know that what he really wants, is to keep making more than $200K/yr.

    Some people can live with themselves by behaving so as to maintain a clear conscience.

    Some people can’t live with themselves unless they make more than $200K/yr.

    1. vidimi

      most concentration camps, whether german in poland or british in kenya, had as their motto some permutation of “work will set you free”. modern corporations are merely followers in the same tradition.

  15. Larry

    This is a challenge for anybody that navigates what increasingly is an overtly corrupt system. One of my more high profile publications was a piece of work refuting blatantly fradulent work from another scientist in the same city. The fradulent scientist was publishing high profile papers on the mechanisms of how antibiotics work, and drawing great fame and acclaim for doing so. On the ground level, other scientists couldn’t repeat the work and in their small singlular labs probably thought they had failed in some step to repeart the famous work.

    We were skeptical of the work the instant it was published because all our own work and decades of evidence countered it. It was only when we aligned with another prominent scientist to publish back to back papers refuting the work that it got published. And did it deter the fradulent scientist? Not one bit.

    Where is the incentive to be an honest intellecutal when fraud has clear and obvious rewards?

    1. Bas

      fraud has clear and obvious rewards

      I don’t understand. I really find that phrase incomprehensible, unless you think honest intellectuals should be going after money and fame and acclaim first and foremost, instead of seeking expansion and enlightenment. Written history is notoriously embellished and subject to spin. Honest seeking runs in different circles. It’s too bad that so often it gets tied up in undoing harm that fraud has or will cause. It’s not a waste to pursue intelligent and humble research even if it does not get flashy prizes, though, is it?

      1. TedWa

        Clear and obvious rewards are being TBTF and above the law. These clear and obvious rewards will draw in our best and brightest minds into finance and crapitalism instead of honest and worthy pursuits like medicine, science, math, new technologies etc. We will be left with the mediocre and dis-interested in charge of our daily lives and experiences (as illustrated above).

        1. Bas

          If our “best and brightest” are so easily brainwashed, then they really are being highly over-rated. I know a lot of people laboring in “obscurity” who are excellent, innovative and have a following that supports them. And most truly excellent people prefer to avoid the spotlight so that they can keep on being effective. I don’t look in Who’s Who when I am looking for a professional, I go to people who have been clients. And there are “mediocre and disinterested” in every profession and always will be.

  16. Cry Shop

    “Force, and fraud, are in war two cardinal virtues.” —Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

    It’s class warfare out there.

  17. VietnamVet

    This is an excellent article. These examples are new to me except I faintly remember the heparin incidence. Along with formaldehyde being releasing from Chinese drywall and floors and the tainted pet food, America is sliding into 3rd world corruption. Military Contractors, Financiers, and Oligarchs have seized the powers of sovereign states.

    We shall see if Bernie Sanders campaign to end Wall Street fraud works. If upper crust criminals are not jailed, there can be only two outcomes; a privatized authoritarian regime or “To the lampposts!”. A neo-liberal retelling of “A Tale of Two Cities”.

    1. gordon

      “America is sliding into 3rd world corruption”.

      My shorthand phrase for this phenomenon is “Zapata’s Revenge”. That is the process whereby the US comes more and more to resemble the Latin American countries which it has traditionally despised, exploited, manipulated and sometimes invaded. Corrupt, violent, sick and poor.

      (I’ve been told that “Pancho Villa’s Revenge” would have been a better name, but the first one that comes to mind tends to stick.)

      1. Ivy

        Montezuma’s Revenge is the eventual impact for economies and their constituents that succumb to the amorality. The health of the organisms deteriorates, while clever people develop apps to address what ails one.

        Companies and their employees come to find out that when you can no longer drink the water, then how do you mix the Kool-Aid?

  18. gordon

    It can be objected to this sort of analysis that people couldn’t be as corrupt as that because they would be effectively sawing off the branch they’re sitting on by ruining the reputation of the firm or profession in which they practice their lies and evasions. Ultimately, they’re destroying the civilisation which nourishes them.

    But so what? Most such people, I think, assume “apres moi le deluge”, and to hell with those who come after. And even if you allow the possibility of civilisational collapse before you die, you’ll need as much boodle as possible to hire mercenaries to protect you and your property from the barbarians when they come, so you need to lie, cheat and steal even harder right now.

    Of course, lying, cheating and stealing even harder means you are accelerating the deluge. If there is any kind of upper limit to the profitability of your evil ways, you need to consider the balance between your rate of ripoff and the acceleration of the End of Everything.

    Maybe somebody, somewhere is intensively researching the optimal rate of plunder.

    1. cnchal

      Maybe somebody, somewhere is intensively researching the optimal rate of plunder.

      We have had strange things happen in the stock market like the flash crash, and a link the other day from the shadow banking post Regulating Money Creation After The Crisis by Morgan Ricks explains quite well the role of shadow banking during the GFC and makes a very important point about the Dodd-Frank Act, and how those regulations could handcuff government action in the next crisis.

      Page 58

      Each of these guarantee programs was established solely on the basis of
      freestanding legal authorities, without the need for any new legislation. In
      the FDIC’s case, the legal basis for its emergency guarantees arose from the
      so-called “systemic risk exception” to the normally applicable statutory limitations
      on the commitment of deposit insurance fund resources. (Invoking
      that exception required the assent of two-thirds of the boards of both the
      FDIC and the Federal Reserve, as well as the Treasury Secretary in consultation
      with the President—but not congressional approval.) As for Treasury’s
      money market fund guarantee, that program’s statutory basis was a bit more
      imaginative. Treasury’s guarantee facility made use of the Exchange Stabilization
      Fund, which was created in 1934 for the purpose of stabilizing the
      value of the U.S. dollar in foreign exchange markets. As subsequently
      amended, the authorizing statute entitles the Treasury Secretary to use Exchange
      Stabilization Fund resources to “deal in gold, foreign exchange, and
      other instruments of credit and securities” in a manner “[c]onsistent with
      the obligations of the Government in the International Monetary Fund on
      orderly exchange arrangements and a stable system of exchange rates.”
      The pertinent IMF obligations, in turn, include an undertaking by members
      to “seek to promote stability by fostering orderly underlying economic and
      financial conditions and a monetary system that does not tend to produce
      erratic disruptions.” Reasonable people might disagree as to whether these
      provisions furnished a sound legal foundation for the money market fund
      guarantee program—but Treasury’s reading does appear to be at least in the
      range of plausible legal interpretations.

      At any rate, the freestanding legal authorities that were used to set up
      these guarantee programs no longer exist. To implement any of the guarantee programs deployed in the recent crisis would require an act of Congress.
      Specifically, under the Dodd-Frank Act, the FDIC’s power to “create a
      widely available program to guarantee obligations of solvent [banks and
      bank holding companies] during times of severe economic distress” now requires a congressional joint resolution of approval. (For the avoidance of
      doubt: “Absent such approval, the [FDIC] shall issue no such guarantees.’) Finally, Treasury’s authority to guarantee the money market mutual
      fund industry—arguably the key turning point in the crisis—is gone
      . Congress
      took that authority away prior to the Dodd-Frank Act, in the Emergency
      Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (EESA). But neither the Dodd-
      Frank Act itself nor any other post-EESA legislation has restored the capacity
      of any branch of government to mount a forceful response in the event of
      a run on this $3 trillion industry—the fulcrum of the shadow banking

      Will Congress necessarily act promptly, or at all, once a crisis erupts?
      The blithe assurance that it will—a fairly widespread (though far from universal)
      sentiment, based on the author’s unscientific polling—is perplexing.
      Yes, they eventually acted during 2008. That is one data point. But it must be
      remembered that it is technically possible for the money market mutual fund
      industry and the broker-dealer industry, including broker-dealers housed
      within diversified bank holding companies, to exhaust their cash reserves
      and default within a day or two. Panics can erupt with blinding speed
      . Add
      to this the decidedly unpopular status of “bailouts” in our political discourse,
      and the forces aligned against swift and decisive government intervention
      appear rather formidable. Relying on a mid-crisis act of Congress to
      furnish whatever tools are needed to keep the system from collapsing would
      seem to be a strategy fraught with peril. It is far from obvious that Congress
      will muster the political will to act before much of the damage is already

      The whole article is very informative, but the thought occured to me that that it is likely for someone, or a group to position themselves strategically and induce a finacial panic with the intent to pick up assets for pennies on the dollar. From their point of view, it would be leaving money on the table to not try. Much like Magnetar was able to induce the GFC and slither away with the loot.

      Dodd-Frank could end up being a millstone around the neck of society, when everyone thought it was the answer to future finacial panics.

      1. Ivy

        I share your concerns about Dodd-Frank and the potential endgame in subsequent financial panics. The full faith and credit of the government has become more hollow over the years, with the public edifice eaten away by so many termites.

        Asking Cui Bono is a good first step. In darker moments, I speculate a return to serfdom for the average citizen, too indebted to have many other options.

      2. JustAnObserver

        It’s actually worse than that. When I saw those provisions being added to Dodd-Frank the thought immediately occurred to me that under those panic/crisis conditions Congress could add all sorts of crap to the required bill that the Sec. Tres. or the Fed would just have to accept: Repeal ACA, Roe-Wade wreck Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, double the $$$ going to the Pentagon/NSA, declare war on (ME country of choice, Russia). O.k. this may be paranoid but it does seem to leave open a direct path to Shock Doctrine, Disaster Capitalism tactics.

        Is this really the neoliberal endgame? Just one more crisis and, after 400-500 years, the goal of neofeudal restoration is achieved.

    2. amousie

      And even if you allow the possibility of civilisational collapse before you die, you’ll need as much boodle as possible to hire mercenaries to protect you and your property from the barbarians when they come, so you need to lie, cheat and steal even harder right now.

      I’m curious. If civilization collapses, what could anyone possibly have that would enable them to hire mercenaries? Money is pretty worthless. Certainly zeroes and ones in some computer system are worthless. Gems, gold, etc. What could one of these people possibly have that couldn’t just be taken from them now that the rule of law and state enforcement that used to protect said assets is non-existent?

  19. Frank Carpenter

    I remember going into a Home Despot recently where staff was obnoxiously unctuous. After passing the same same checkout clerk for the third time and hearing the same “Thank you for coming to Home Despot, I can check you out here”, I approached the woman and told her “you are overdoing it, it’s becoming irritating. back off”.

    Her reply? “Corporate is in the store, I have no choice”.

    1. Clive

      This is one that I personally *really* want to put a stop to. It is demeaning for the store staff. It annoys the customers. It’s only purpose is to satisfy Managerialism in action (and that is a void in to which you can pour an infinite amount of energy and effort but which will never be satisfied). To me, it is the modern day equivalent of the proletariat having to tug their forelock or doth their cap whenever one of the aristocracy, landed gentry or — generally — anyone deemed “better” solely by virtue of their socio-economic standing passed them by.

      The worst one here in the UK (there are many, all with various degrees of ghastliness in their implementation of this corporate-mandated policy) is Marks and Spencers. Initially, it wasn’t too bad with only a “Do you need any help packing your bags?” at checkout time to have to put up with. But as I mentioned in the earlier paragraph, to the managerialist mindset, if a little bit of something is good, more is always better. So now we have to stomach “Thank-you for waiting”, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”, “Enjoy the rest of your day” and there’s probably a couple I have just blotted out of my memory. The “enjoy the rest of your day” is particularly grating because it was almost certainly influenced by US consultants parlaying the classic “have a nice day” which is to British ears a cultural fish out of water (we have no history of ever saying this) and as such comes loaded with a huge wodge of total insincerity.

      At my local store, I’ve gotten to know a few of the people who work there. They are universally stressed middle aged women who — through divorce or other setback in family finances — are being made to go back into the workplace and are trying to hold down at least two, sometimes more, minimum wage jobs usually on zero hours or very limited hours contracts. They are lovely people, once you get talking to them, they tend to treat me like surrogate mothers. They bitterly detest the enforced faux pally-ness.

      If customers are nice to them, they will be — genuinely, wholeheartedly — nice back. If customers are nasty, rude and obnoxious (and some are, this is the flip-side of all the insane pressure to violate human relations norms, some people react to their own misery by being miserable to others) they would ordinarily ignore them so as not to reward bad behaviour. But now they don’t get the choice, they have to ladle out the corporate-speak chumminess to everyone.

      Of course, no-one believes any of it, the scripting is so formulaic and there is no latitude allowed for individual variation that it ends up being a mere parody.

      I struggle to think of a way to free store staff (and myself, and the rest of us) from this tide of dignity-sapping servile ingratiation. If anyone has any bright ideas, I’m all ears.

      1. pretzelattack

        “enjoy the rest of your day” is quite common. must have been focus group tested.

      2. ekstase

        I had an experience with this a couple of years back. A local store had just put up signs in each cashier’s lane, telling customers that, if they did not get a receipt, their purchase was free. This of course, was inviting, even encouraging, customers to rat out the mostly tired, underpaid clerks if they made a mistake. For some reason, this infuriated me. I let it go a couple of times. Then one day, I just marched over to the manager and asked for a complaint form. She looked upset as she watched me fill it out. When I got done, she saw what I had written. “Stop asking your customers to tattle on your employees. And stop ordering them to smile and greet us every time they see us,” (another of their new policies.) The manager gave me a huge smile, a real one. She did not seem free to speak. I just said, “These people have never had a real job in their lives.”
        Shortly after, the signs disappeared.

        Maybe we can do seemingly small things like this for each other.

  20. TedWa

    The race to the bottom for the 99% is driven by a race to the top for the 1% or those that want to be in the top .01%. They’re competing to see who can get away with the most and their bets are the lives and livelihoods of the 99%. I can’t decide if this is kleptocracy or idiocracy or a combination of the 2. Without question neoliberalism is morally bankrupt as right and wrong are but quaint ideas, and in the end it won’t matter if, through claims of the parties involved, it’s wilful or the result of ignorance, the results are looking to be the same. As expressed above, Capitalism is fine when it has a moral compass and desire for the common good and public trust, crapitalism is what it is when it doesn’t. Thanks for this Lambert, very good article.

  21. Synoia

    When I was at university (a military university), I dated a Lt-Colonel’s daughter for a short while. The Lt Colonel in question went on to become a Major-General, and write military history books. I liked the man.

    At one time we were together, he turned to me and said:

    “I see you are one of the people who believe Honesty is the Best Policy. You will find that is not so.”

    When I worked in South Africa, honesty was the best policy. It got me far.

    Since coming to the US, where I went to work for IBM, honesty has got me into trouble. Management in IBM here always wanted to hear good news, did not want truth, and actively punished truth.

    There is a truism in engineering: You can bullshit the management, you can bullshit the customers, but you cannot bullshit the electrons.

    That raises the dichotomy. It is impossible to be 100% truthful and honest, because it is considered offensive (eg: Do I look fat in these jeans?).

    The boundary between honest and dishonest is not clear cut, and it moves under social pressure. This mechanism is embodied in the quote about the Nazis: “The banality of evil.”

    1. sd

      I had someone in management once say to me, “No problems. I don’t want to hear about any problems. If you think that’s an issue, you can find work somewhere else.” And by ‘problems,’ he meant difficult employees that no one else liked to work with, employees who were openly stealing, financial concerns, scheduling conflicts, pretty much anything that when not addressed would have a tendency to blow up later on.

  22. mistah charley, ph.d.

    The opposite perspective – economic activity being engaged in with an eye to the common good, as opposed to the merciless pursuit of profit – is what Bernie Sanders talked about at the Vatican – the whole text:

    Bernie quotes from encyclicals which I haven’t read, but which I realize may be worth reading. I have read Erich Fromm’s The Heart of Man – the last two paragraphs are relevant here:

    Man’s heart can harden; it can become inhuman, yet never nonhuman. It always remains man’s heart. We are all determined by the fact that we have been born human, and hence by the never-ending task of having to make choices. We must choose the means together with the aims. We must not rely on anyone’s saving us, but be very aware of the fact that wrong choices make us incapable of saving ourselves.

    Indeed, we must become aware in order to choose the good — but no awareness will help us if we have lost the capacity to be moved by the distress of another human being, by the friendly gaze of another person, by the song of a bird, by the greenness of grass. If man becomes indifferent to life there is no longer any hope that he can choose the good. Then, indeed, his heart will have so hardened that his “life” will be ended. If this should happen to the entire human race or to its most powerful members, the the life of mankind may be extinguished at the very moment of its greatest promise.

    1. Elliot

      Indeed. If people aspire to be principled only if it doesn’t interfere with the lifestyle they aspire to, then God help us. I don’t want to live in a devil-take-the-hindmost world. And I would be ashamed of anyone I knew who did.

      And spare me the woe of the credentialed who think they are better than the poor and honest.

      I think I read this here recently.. or maybe on reddit.. but I completely agree:

      If you set aside your principles when they become inconvenient then they aren’t principles, they’re hobbies.

    2. Archie

      Glad to see you commenting here mistah charlie. Always appreciated your input at SAR.

      As a fellow agnostic I also have not read any papal encyclicals, least of all the ones Bernie refers to in his speech at the Vatican. But there is a common sense appeal in pursuing the common good. To not understand that is nonhuman, imo.

  23. EmilianoZ

    The degree of rot in our society is so advanced already, theres nothing we can do really. It’s over, finished, finito. We’ve lost, we’ve let them win. Has anybody seen a carcass unroting? We fully deserve what’s coming to us, some more than others.

    Maybe things will get better in a few hundred years. By then they will have forgotten about us. But if I could transmit one single message to those future generations, it would be this one. The main crucial task of any government is this: to prevent the rich from becoming too rich. When they do, its game over.

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      But is it really “game over” for everyone at exactly the same instant. Yes, if instant global annihilation. But otherwise, it will be game over for some much sooner than others, and for some potentially never game over. In which, is it really game over?

  24. Left in Wisconsin

    Thinking about this from the other side, one of the things that has become evident to me here in Wisconsin over the last several years is that many people who do/did want to both make a living and retain a social conscience ended up working for government, often as lifelong bureaucrats. I grew up out east where it was easy to assume that most people with government jobs got them because they knew somebody and you could never count on government to even do the easy things well. But out here in flyover, it turns out that the progressives made a (state) government filled with talented, socially conscious professionals and it really worked. So of course the mendacious capitalists and their two-bit cronies have spent the last several decades labeling these people selfish parasites. And once they got political power, they did everything they could to hamstring their ability to do their job well, belittle their abilities and commitments, and of course continue with the big lie that they are all lazy, selfish parasites.

    One result of their success is that it has become very difficult to hold up an alternative career/workplace worldview to the amoral corporate one as a real life option.

    1. Ivy

      I had a lot of friends that worked at an electric utility. The company started as an engineering-driven organization that morphed over the years into more public service. There was a pronounced change in the tenor of the place as more policy people joined the organization. Many of them had thinly-disguised agendas to ‘make the world a better place’, at least how they envisioned it. As some rose into positions of authority, the hardball politics showed up. They didn’t want to be confronted with any facts that were outside their views, and so were bullshitting themselves. They fit into a variation of the engineering truism that Synoia presented above!

    2. inode_buddha

      Interestng — Wisconsin is one of the places I want to escape to, from NY.
      It occurred to me (in a fit of anger) last night that the gov’t workers treated me better while I was on welfare, than any cpaitalist has ever treated me while I was employed. By that I mean, with basic human dignity. I thought about it for a while and concluded that this was because they themselves lacked any dignity in their pursuit of riches.

      1. reslez

        The only time I ever felt like I was being treated as a subhuman was when I was in the military. Meat, basically, shaped like a person but trusted to do nothing including very basic biological functions.

      2. TomD

        If you’re looking for fly-over state to escape too, Minnesota is looking attractive.

        Shame about the cold though.

  25. Jessica

    1) This corruption of professional work is hyper-alienation. With classic alienation, the products of your work are turned against you. With hyper-alienation, not only the products of your work, but the process of the work itself is also turned against you. Much of the new spirituality and inner growth work that has gained ground since the 1960s has been used to enable people in or aspiring to hyper-alienating jobs to live with themselves. This is a pity because the deepest of that spirituality is essentially quite subversive of any form of miswielding of power.
    2) I hope we will consider the possibility that this is primarily a social phenomenon, not an individual one. Perhaps there is a reason why previous norms that kept professional class behavior in check have been lost. I suggest that the reason is that even though capitalism can play a positive role in building up an industrial society (brutally and inhumanely, but at least to some benefit), but when it comes to post-industrial society (economies driven more by knowledge than by capital/plant&infrastructure), capitalism is purely obstructive and parasitic. There is no uncorrupted capitalism with which we could replace neo-liberalism. It is either replace capitalism or live with the current system.

      1. Jessica

        Yes, demoralization in the literal sense of loss of morals would be perfect, except that most of the time demoralization is used to mean de-morale-ization not de-moral-ization. Even better if the term can make clear that the issue is not merely that certain individuals cease to follow a certain morality (which is the narrow sense in which Clinton and her supporters use “corruption”), but that that morality itself ceases to function (which is closer to what many Sanders backers are getting at).

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          I’m still worrying at this word. I agree that “demorale-ization” is the connotation and that such is not wanted. In my mind there’s also the sense of the removal of something vital, rather as a frog is pithed. Perhaps something similar happens to those who are colonized (all senses of the word).

          I’m sure there’s a specialists word for it (sigh…) but I don’t know what it is….

  26. vidimi

    Much of the new spirituality and inner growth work that has gained ground since the 1960s has been used to enable people in or aspiring to hyper-alienating jobs to live with themselves.

    this is so true

    1. Christoph Stein

      I think there is a strong connection between

      “New Spirituality”,
      “Identity Politics”,
      “Moral Corruption” and the
      “Neoliberal Self”.

      Its all about a great “I am me” which is above truth.

      Have a look at this famous video

  27. Norb

    Redefining social norms is the key to change. The question we are all facing is – How do we live with these people? And by these people, I mean the predators, liars, and all out evil actors. It really is that simple. Civil disobedience in the form of rejecting the current norms and building an alternative.

    People are not going to just up and die, even though that seems to be the 1% strategy. Even the WWIII solution seems dubious because when the bombs really start to fly, I don’t see the masses signing up in great numbers to support the cause. Making our own plans in support of the common good is where the effort should be directed.

    Maybe the Amish had a pretty good idea after all.

  28. Loraine F.

    “Yet when you rope those people together into a larger entity such as a corporation suddenly they behave like sociopaths. ”

    I think Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego is pertinent here, even though he was focused more on short term mobs rather than long-term groups. People in groups get scared of being the odd man or woman out and they don’t want to lose the sense of security the group provides so they go along to get along. I don’t think it’s the only cause of the kind of “group think” that allows people to sleep even when they know they are participating in something fraudulent and corrupt, but I do think it’s a major one, which makes me cautious about the current educational push to promote team work at the expense of solitary thought.

  29. JEHR

    One time I insisted that a pharmacist be honest about filling my prescription: he insisted on giving me a more expensive drug instead of the generic drug my doctor prescribed. I have health insurance where I pay about 20% of the cost of prescriptions. The pharmacist (or the salesperson) said it shouldn’t matter to me which pills I get as I had insurance paying for me. I replied that I paid the health premiums and that my having insurance should not make a difference to him and he should give me the drug that my doctor prescribed. He was really angry at me but gave me the generic drug. I never bought at that pharmacy again.

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