Jun 212006

Some lumber to be erected into an essay.

Plank 1 “The present king of France.” This is phrase much beloved for thinking about by (Anglo-American) philosophers, because there is no such animal.

But there used to be. In fact, the kings of France were the ultimate feudal lords, the area around Paris having been the very birth place and center of pure feudalism, and the French kings the most successful agglomerators of feudal power. (I suppose the Hapsburgs might share that title, but they were less pure.)

The fact that the present king of France doesn’t exist indicates just how completely feudalism is gone, gone, gone, even if traces survive all over the place.

Plank 2 “The present value of money (or the almighty dollar – take your pick).” Will future philosophers like this phrase for its equal lack of meaning? My guess is yes. When? Sooner than you would expect. Likewise it would have been very hard in the reign of Louis the XIV, the Sun King, to predict that his successor once removed would be removed from the throne, the throne also removed, and finally the king’s head removed. It is true that a century after Louis XIV’s death, a couple of his great-great-great grandsons were restored to the restored throne, and monarchy in all its forms was not utterly denuded of meaning in France until another 56 years had passed and the Prussians had occupied Paris. But history moves faster now. Hang onto your hats (and heads).

Plank 3 What will replace money is of course attention, directly, and just that. (See my recent openness paper for an example.) In the meantime, like the Sun King’s palace of mirrors at Versailles, we have now entered what I call the “dream life of money.” The power of money and the method of its accumulation now devolve into separate channels, and there is nothing the federal reserve can do about it. More and more, money tracks attention. But if you have attention, in addition to banking whatever money you get from your fans in the conventional ways (but see below), you also bank the attention in the minds of those very fans, ready to be drawn on very fluidly in the future.

The other track of money is through an increasing variety of legal cons into the hands of the superrich or at least other con artists who will be superrich pronto. These include hedge fund managers, who sometimes employ mathematical algorithms to skim money off stock markets and other financial markets. Also, CEOs and their ilk who hand select the compensation committees of their boards to include other CEOs and ilk who also benefit from their own super-valuing. And probably a growing number of out-and-out crooks. These people operate at a confluence of two basic streams.

Plank 4 A Bend in the Rivers (acknowledgements to V.S. Naipaul, his excellent (if singular) novel title and excellent novel to match.) On the one hand, corporate CEOs and some money mangers can generally claim to be stars, acting on the stage that is their companies, or their funds, and to some extent all the varied attention-getting activities of the former, and whatever record the latter has.

The other stream is the conversion of money — once a standard set of industrially and uniformly manufactured products — pennies, dimes, nickels, dollar bills etc. — to simply bits on various computer disks or other sorts of memory, capable of being packet-switched around the Internet at lighting speeds. In this shell game, bits can be inserted or diverted at an ever-increasing number of points, and in an ever-increasing and changing number of ways. New lines of credit can be created to enter in the system. Fast and legal trades of stocks or much fancier derivatives can be so aligned as strip off some extra bits in hedge-fund accounts every microsecond. To the extent the money isn’t simply created in the interstices of the network, the bits are shaved from the accounts of less high-speed and savvy investors.

Plank 5 The Golden Age turns leaden. Many of these investors are middle-income folks who have been led into investment as a way to provide for their “golden years.” Here in the US this is to supplement social security. But the social security funds are, in effect, also invested, in such ways that the money will not be there when demanded either.

What people actually need as they grow older is the attention of younger folks. There are, barring extensive immigration, not enough younger folks to go around. Even with immigration there still aren’t necessarily going to be endlessly enough. Some older generation will get shafted (unless they manage to stay so healthy they can take full care of each other and pay sufficient attention as well.

To return to Social Security, back in the 1980’s, a committee headed by Alan Greenspan claimed to have solved the problem of the “bulge” in retirees expected to start about now as baby boomer retired. Additional funds would be collected through increased social security taxes that would then be there to pay off the retirees. (This is all explained well enough in David Cay Johnston’s book “Perfectly Legal”). Meanwhile, the extra amounts in the Social security funds couldn’t just sit there. They were lent out, to the government mostly. That led tot he possibility of reducing taxes on high incomes and corporations. But in order to have the money to pay back these loans, taxes will now have to be raised quite a bit, which is said to be politically unfeasible. Thus the old age of the top two percent of the population is supposedly assured, but not that of most people.

Of course, the idea that either Social Security or investments could guarantee attention in old age for ordinary people was wrong to begin with. It is more wrong now.

Plank 6. Money to burn. What are the very rich actually going to do with all their new wealth? For the most part, it will be hard to find useful investments. Even today companies use their tax windfalls not mostly to build new plants or something of the sort, but to buy up competitors. Where does the money made on those sales go? Presumably into the stock market, where it ends up with the CEOs and the hedge fund folks, etc. But what good does it do them? A few yachts, fame for being superrich in some cases, the chance to start a foundation or to pay outlandish sums for art. (Ronald Lauder just paid $135 million for a gold-flecked Klimt! That’s a lot of lipstick for a gaudy work.) Expensive ways of buying a little attention.


 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>