When Sums Don’t Add Up, by Elayne Riggs
So I read via Colleen Doran’s blog that the LHC, the Large Hadron Collider, has gone bust, at least temporarily. Apparently it, like the Internet router Monday morning at the Riggs Residence, suffered some sort of electrical malfunction. Our router’s fine as of the typing of this column, but the LHC will take a bit more time to get going again on its way to possibly wiping out all known life. Which is pretty much okay by me; I have at least four months’ worth of DC comics still unread!
Now, for anyone unclear on what the heck the LHC is supposed to be doing, some wacky and geeky scientist types have put together this handy-dandy hip-hop ditty:
But fairly heavy rotation in our Science and Discovery channel viewing meant Robin and I were more or less up on the basics of dark matter and so forth, and had already mocked them mercilessly. See, here’s what we tend to think of these scientists. We can’t fault them their enthusiasm to find the binding tie that will create a grand unifying Theory of Life, The Universe and Everything (42, by the way). But for scientists, whose chosen profession demands that they question everything and rely primarily on the empirical evidence of their senses, this arrogant certainty doesn’t sit well with me. It’s as if, as Robin observes, the theoretical quantum physicists sat around saying, “Hmm, what can we postulate to make our sums add up?”
This past week has seen the culmination of the economic crisis that, to my mind, began with the election in 1980 of Ronald Reagan and the ultra-conservative wing that believed “government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.” As Rachel Maddow observed Monday evening, anyone who believes government is the problem should not be allowed to run one. I believed then, and I still believe, that this was the beginning of the end, the point at which sensible people who disagreed on methodology but were otherwise sane about basic values like fiscal responsibility started going off the deep end into wacko territory. In the late ‘70s when I was in college, one could still have coherent conversations about the inherent non-workability of hyper-capitalism, one could debate the philosophy that money was the be-all and end-all of America with opponents who conceded the point every now and then. These days, not so much.
Even so-called liberals like the actually centrist Barack Obama can’t bring themselves to speak truth to power when it comes to capitalism. Our country has completely turned around from “government exists to serve, corporations exist only with the people’s and government’s permission” to “government should be run [into the ground] like a corporation, always for profit, and public service be damned.” (This is, of course, accompanied by a usually complacent news media which itself was co-opted in the Reagan years, with the burgeoning of cable television, from its previous existence as primarily a public service and pressured into becoming be a profit center, leading to the ever-increasing sensationalism and trivialization and cult-of-personality-itis that modern “news” has become.)
It’s no wonder we can’t seem to think clearly about the problem. We still can’t acknowledge the roots of its inception. Profit, like gasoline and potable water, is a finite quantity. If someone wins, someone else has to lose. There’s only so much money to go around, and at the moment most of ours is going around China.
The conservative (both Republican and Democratic) administrations for the past quarter century have taken this Orwellian nonsense to ever greater heights. Take modern “health care.” Far from existing as it does in other countries — again, primarily as a public service — the US health industry is mostly run by insurance companies, for profit. As has been pointed out by people more eloquent than me, profit isn’t made from sick people. It’s made from not helping those who need it the most, in favor of paying attention to those who need it least. Thus, health care in the US has taken on the exact opposite meaning that it’s supposed to have.
It’s also common wisdom, never to be questioned, that the stock market is A Good Thing. From the time my Dad first tried to explain it to me, it always seemed to me that the stock market was a form of legalized gambling — no different, really, than the poker machines he and Mom loved to play in Vegas and Atlantic City. Well, a little different. The exchanges had built up a whole vocabulary of obfuscating jargon designed to make them look like, again, the exact opposite of what they were. Take the idea of “selling short.” Now, this is unbelievable to me. Essentially it’s the practice of selling something that you don’t own. Now granted, we’ve gotten pretty good at that through the centuries; just ask any landlord. The concept of land ownership was foreign to the people who lived in this country before we went about wholesale slaughtering them. Manifest destiny, baby! It’s a short step from “we own this land” to “this isn’t nature, to which we are inextricably linked, it’s ‘resources’” to “hey, this isn’t really mine but it only exists on paper anyway so as long as it’s imaginary let’s pretend it is mine and I can play with it however I want to.”
Selling short also allows “an investor to gain from the decline in price of a security.” That’s right, people root for themselves to make money off others’ misfortune. In a way, it’s acknowledging the finite nature of profit, but it’s gaming the system. It should be illegal. But between the doublespeak and the blind acceptance of capitalism as The Best System In The World, Period, it’s not going to be illegal any time soon. Most of what’s led to the current economic crisis would be illegal in a sane world. But the world, at least this country, isn’t run by sane people. It’s run by people who believe in profit über alles, who think government is a problem to be bulldozed over like so many flooded New Orleans homes.
And we celebrate this thinking. I know quite a few comic fans and professionals who still wax nostalgic over the good old early ‘90s when the speculeeches came to town, bored with numismatism or baseball cards or whatever their previous high had been, looking for their next fix in the world of funnybooks. How that rising tide lifted all boats as crappy titles sold for obscene amounts of money, artists made enough to start their own companies, and writers paid their rent with their royalties.
Until it all, inevitably, crashed. And as the speculeeches moved on to seek their next high, comic shops closed by the score with millions of dollars in unsold inventory, and kids got bored once everything stopped looking so shiny and they realized there was very little storytelling underneath those multiple lenticular covers. But the leeches didn’t care. They’d already gorged themselves on the industry’s blood. And a pound of flesh, give or take.
What goes up, must come down. That’s basic Newtonian law. It’s not some glamorous Theory of Everything, desperately seeking to explain the as-yet-unexplainable by saying, “a-HA, it’s all due to dark matter, a concept that didn’t exist until we made it up to force our sums to add up, and we’ll prove it to you just as soon as the electrician or someone like him shows up!” It’s just common sense. Which really ought not to be in such a finite supply.
Elayne Riggs blogs at Pen-Elayne on the Web and, as that blog’s name would indicate, all in all she’d much rather be writing again about Paul McCartney — currently in Israel — but really, she’s done like three Beatle-related columns so far and she needed to give it a rest in favor of Mike Gold this week.