Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Bumpkin Savants and Detectives (It's About Money)

by Bob Hockett

The past year - or two, depending on whether you look both directions or only to rightward - seems to have brought something new to the long sorry annals of money-crankery.

What was new two years ago was the emergence of sizable numbers of people - benighted, sure, but nonetheless numerous people - who seemed to believe they held 'theories' of money. These were of course sundry 'tea party' and crypto-libertarian types who viewed Ron Paul as something more than a droll drooling bumpkin savant. They took him seriously. Some appeared even to take him for some sort of 'prophet.' Let's call him the Apostle Paul, for reasons that I'll elaborate more fully below.

In following Paul these poor people began losing their innocence - their monetary virginity, so to speak. They began learning to pronounce words associated with recondite subjects the existence of which people like this had not known before. Before long they began speaking declaratively in tones that suggested they now 'opined' about money. I suppose everyone thinks about money sometimes - how to earn more of it, how best to spend or to save and invest it, that sort of thing. But do most people 'opine' or 'theorize' about money - contemplate 'what it is, whence it came, why it matters,' if I may be permitted the pleasure of sounding a Galbraithian tone for the moment? Do most people even know what it would be, or to look like, to do that?

Yet here were these lumpen proletarian white people in Bermuda shorts and tee-shirts, looking anything but the courtly constitution-writing, Virginian violinist 'gentleman planter' types they took themselves to be channeling, all of them learning to use phrases like 'fiat currency' while wearing 'concerned,' 'troubled' looks on their faces and threatening to lynch Ben Bernanke. Money-cranks are, of course, a hardy perennial of American public life. But what was once more like syphilis - an obscure, vaguely scandalous subject that folk tried not to talk about in polite society - suddenly became a 'hot topic' among growing numbers of yayhoo cognoscenti two years ago.

What became new more like one year ago was something yet stranger. This was when sizable numbers of self-imagined 'progressives' began sounding themes like those we'd been hearing from the aforementioned tea-types. Call me obtuse, but had this been going on before? I only began noticing once I began getting involved with the 'Occupiers' last autumn - many of whom actually are colleagues at this point on several working groups.

I was surprised first by how many at Zuccotti Park held signs bearing images of Ben Bernanke with devil horns or swastikas, and by some who would dress as poor Ben and parade 'round with nooses encircling their necks. What gives, I asked some of these colleagues-to-be. The first answers I heard were not all that surprising - they were the answers of those who believe that the Fed's been 'in bed' with the big bad bankers who 'took down the economy.' That is of course in many ways a misunderstanding - at least of the Bernanke Fed - but not an un-understandable one.

Yet before long I found myself dismayed by encounters with some in Zuccotti whose bill of particulars against Ben included his plans to ... ready? ... 'take us off of the gold standard and debase the currency.' Let me end this paragraph there so that that can soak in.

After doing the requisite spit-take, I sounded some of these people out a bit more in hopes of getting a bead on where they were getting and where they were going with this. And, lo, it emerged that many were reading the same brain-virus materials as were followers of Paul. What in heavens name's happening here?, I marveled. Don't these people know that the gold standard was the cause celebre of all those white-moustached, black-tailed and top-hatted 'big city' London and New York bankers against whom the original Progressives inveighed at the turn of last century? What about the ruin of all those agrarians by gold-shackled tight money back in the late 19th century? And how about FDR's ueber-progressive decision at last really to take us off gold - a decision that led Maynard Keynes enthusiastically to declare in an OpEd, 'the President is splendidly right!'? I thought lefties - not commies, but lefties - liked FDR!

I've got a provisional 'theory' about this, probably not unlike that held by many others, which takes me back to my 'Apostle Paul' proposal for christening Saint Ron.

Many years ago, while a student, I worked now and again at a rather distinguished art museum, best known for its remarkable Asian collection, to earn spending money. Those of our readers who attend such museums know that they have very well developed security apparati, often heavily staffed. Often these staffs, for their part, are led by people who once were, or perhaps wished to be, police or private detectives. Wannabe gumshoes and secret agents. One of these upper level fellows at my museum always looked much the part, with side-parted Vitalis-slicked hair and a sort of permanent squint in one eye. He always seemed to be sizing you up, figuring your angle, ready to stop you before you left work that day with the Ming scroll or Rembrandt rolled up in your rucksack. 

So one day I heard that this fellow had once been a student at a nearby school of theology that trained mainline Protestant ministers. I wondered what had led to his change of career paths - disappointment at learning there's no longer an Inquisition, perhaps? - so I just up and asked him. Suddenly his eyes narrowed, he calculated a moment, then cautiously motioned me in closer, casting a sidelong glance or two rightward and leftward before answering. 'I don't know how to tell you this,' he said, 'but I know some things about the Apostle Paul that you don't wanna hear about.' This of course brought a spit-take of its own, along with a guffaw of delight, from your faithful reporter. Our fellow humans are such marvelous creations!

But the tentative lesson I drew from this episode is that some people, at least, simply require occult understandings of things, quite irrespective of such attributes as plausibility. Presumably it stems partly from whatever leads children to love ghost stories, as well as to like being frightened or chased by adults impersonating inexplicably malevolent bad guys or monsters - some need to be wowed by mysterious and dangerous extramundane stuff. (Life's otherwise boring?) Surely it also has something to do with a deeply felt need on the one hand for readily intuited explanations of painful and bewildering developments, accompanied by a felt inability to put in the time or the effort required to get to the real bottom of the thing. And Lord knows there's been much bewildering pain lately, much of it tied up with money - a notoriously elusive phenomenon that even (non-monetary) economists often are flummoxed by. 

As significant a source of the new money crankery as that latter one is, though - accounting, perhaps, for the newly large numbers of cranks - I can't help but think that the first one is more fundamental. Some people simply prefer the bizarre and occult explanation, even when able to grasp the more plausible mundane one. A deep-seated 'theological' need, perhaps. Whatever it is, I conjecture the pied piper Paul and his passel of merry followers are drawn into money-crankery by much the same forces as led my seminary-dropout conversant to what passes these days for 'detection.'

There is a real problem here, though, for all of the twinkle-eyed Chaucerian amusement it brings. For the new wave of 'goldbugs' and 'sound money' cranks actually is calling the shots with some folk in the legislature. Neil has written a great deal on that to illuminating effect. I'll offer my own two cents too - backed by no more than copper - as a sequel to this post in the not-too-distant future. In the meanwhile, please trust in Ben, not in Ron.