Balzac wrote: “Behind every great fortune lies a forgotten crime.” Combine that thought with Buffet’s “only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked” and you a great take of the current financial landscape.
And while not quite completely systemic (thanks Mr. Buffet!) corruption and bad practice are, of course, rife. The headlines have never before been filled with such a torrent of tales of Ponzi schemes, corruption, bribery, self delusion, and disingenuity. Well maybe not never. Paul Krugman and others have compared this state of affairs with the collapse of the gilded age.
The financial arrangements at the bottom of the housing bubble, while maybe not criminal, were disastrously hair brained. Daughter traveled for a bit with several bankers from the UK who joked about financing their multi-continent peregrinations by means of liberal applications of their index fingers on the mortgage approval yes button. Nothing easier to spend or risk than someone else’s money.
Yet another case of “The Best and The Brightest” syndrome. Just like intellectual war planning and the development of weapons of mass destruction undertaken by highly educated elites to which I’ve referred several times. Another permutation of the Enlightenment conundrum.
This all brings to mind the last book of the letters of George Santayana that just came out. His most famous words: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” are not his only of interest. “Where parties and governments are bad, as they are in most ages and countries, it makes practically no difference to a community, apart from its local ravages, whether its own army or its enemy’s is victorious in war.” Will Durant wrote that “Santayana thinks that no people has ever won a war”
Santayana was a materialist – he thought the universe was mechanistic with humans well understood and explained by behaviorists. But it was a “buoyant” materialism in the words of Durant. The life of the mind was important to him. It is “man’s imitation of divinity”.
“My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety toward the universe and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image, to be servants of their human interests”. “…feeling attracted to the Church, feeling its historic and moral authority, and yet seeing that its doctrine is not true – in its “humility restores man to his only dignity, the courage to live by grace.”*
I’d be interested in hearing his thoughts now that we know that behaviorists didn’t get it right, that Thoreau’s Walden was richer and made much more sense than BF Skinner’s. How quantum physics and dark matter would inform his thinking.
I’d enjoyed renewing this old acquaintance over the course of the last few days until I came across this: “Some races are obviously superior to others…” Jeesh. He died in 1952 so I’d also like to ask him what he’d thought of the ‘master race’. He later wrote that: “Wisdom comes by disillusionment” so perhaps that’d be his answer.
I will conclude with a passage from The Once And Future King by T.H. White with which I often relate: “Long ago I had my Merlyn to help. He tried to teach me to think. He knew he would have to leave in the end. So he forced me to think for myself. Don’t ever let anybody teach you to think, Lance. It is the curse of the world.”
Yup, the ultimate mixed blessing.
*From a review of the book by Robert Richardson in the 12/20 – 21 WSJ