All in the Game, Yo

Regular readers of Traces know how much I hate the way we tend to use the words “success” and “failure.”


Bear with me as I climb once again onto my soapbox.


You saw “The Families Funding the 2016 Presidential Election” in The New York Times (October 10, 2015)? To date, just 158 families have provided half of all campaign donations in the 2016 presidential race.


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Who are these people? A large number of them are “self-made” (ugh) gajillionaires who have gotten rich in finance or energy:


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The authors of the article quote two men who address the question why finance and energy are over-represented among these 158 families:

“When I look at these families, these are highly successful people, they’re used to moving mountains, and they love to beat the conventional wisdom,” said David McCurdy, a former Oklahoma congressman who is now president of the American Gas Association …


“Making a big bet on something before anyone else really grasps it. That is what success has in common in energy and in equities,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group with ties to Charles G. and David H. Koch.


Got that? Success = “to beat” after “making a big bet.” The result of all this successful betting and beating in recent years is shown here:




But why, pray tell, are these hedgers and frackers now gambling their hard-earned (ha ha ha ha ha ha) cash on presidential politics? What (or whom) are they hoping “to beat”? What’s the prize, the trophy, the payoff?


As if we didn’t know.


Chris Hayes, an editor-at-large at The Nation and host of an MSNBC show, has some interesting thoughts to offer in Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (Broadway Books, 2013). Here’s how one blogger, Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic, summarizes them:

  • Institutions designed to reward merit are being gamed by the privileged, who create a self-perpetuating elite.
  • More broadly, inequality begets more inequality. “Those who climb up the ladder will always find a way to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up.”
  • The intense competition inherent in meritocracy creates powerful incentives to cheat, and encourages the attitude that whatever you do in pursuit of dominance is fine as long as you profit or win.
  • When elites break the rules they aren’t punished like regular people. They’re bailed out of trouble, or spared criminal prosecution for their lawlessness.
  • There is too much social distance separating the people in charge from the folks subject to their decisions.

Got that? In some ways, this is a very, very old story. Here’s Sophocles, the fifth-century Athenian tragedian, in his play Philoctetes (translation by Ian Johnston):

NEOPTOLEMUS:  So you don’t think there’s any shame in saying something false?

ODYSSEUS: No, I don’t—not if the lies will save us.

NEOPTOLEMUS: But how can anyone control his face when he dares speak such lies?

ODYSSEUS: When what you do brings benefits, you should not hesitate.

Of course, we Americans have elevated this amalgam of expediency, amoral egoism, and self-justification / -promotion / -delusion into something of an art. Here’s the title page of a book from 1891:


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Thank goodness for good old Ralph Waldo Emerson, who helps us wash the bad taste out of our mouths (from his essay “Success,” 1880):

I hate this shallow Americanism .. Each man has an aptitude born with him to do easily some feat impossible to any other. Do your work. I have to say this often, but nature says it oftener. ‘T is clownish to insist on doing all with one’s own hands, as if every man should build his own clumsy house, forge his hammer, and bake his dough; but he is to dare to do what he can do best …

Which reminds me of a former student. I said to her that she had all the makings of an excellent teacher. Her response? Outrage and this outburst: “But I want to do something with my life!” Translation: I want to be successful.


All this comes up because yesterday I took note of the fact that Ben Bernanke, the former head of the Federal Reserve, has written a book in which he describes presidential candidate Bernie Sanders this way:

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described socialist who caucused with Democrats, seemed to see the world as a vast conspiracy of big corporations and the wealthy. (Corporations and the wealthy have lots of power, certainly, but in the real world most bad things happen because of ignorance, incompetence, or bad luck, not as a result of grand conspiracies.)

With which Jeff Spross, in “What Ben Bernanke could learn from liberal conspiracy theorists,” (The Week, October 7, 2015), takes issue:

Absent lots of pushback from institutions like unions and the welfare state, the profit motive and big class divides are the dominating forces in capitalism. Even if the elite aren’t actively seeking class war, those forces can unthinkingly coordinate them into actions and policy preferences that amount to class war anyway. When you introduce competition and status and power into the mix, the line between stupidity and malevolence becomes perilously thin. This doesn’t require wealthy elites to be evil; it just requires them to be fallen and human.

But stupidity and malevolence are not the only possible explanations for this:




Because “successful” people are not stupid, and calling malicious their self-interested efforts to tilt government in their own favor… well, that just doesn’t wash.


No, here’s the best answer to questions such as “How do they sleep at night? How do they look at themselves in the mirror every morning?”


It’s a game. For too many people, it’s all a game. Sure, the perks are nice, too, but the important thing is to win. 


Spross begins to get at this aspect of the problem in the following comments:

When you’re privileged, it’s nice to think you got there because of your disproportionate virtue, and that others lack your good fortune because they lack that virtue … [F]or privileged people living in comfort, it also requires direct human encounters or a vivid imagination to put themselves in the shoes of those who sit on the other sides of these trade-offs. But that human contact and imaginative capacity is exactly what living in privilege cuts off.

So: “I got where I am because I’m a winner. I won. I’m just better at this game than the rest of you. The rules are the rules. It’s not for the contestants in a game to question the rules. You got a problem with the rules, take it up with the powers-that-be. All I did was play the game as smart and hard as I could play it. Maybe I bent the rules a couple of times, but that’s just part of the game, too. Look, I knew going in that there would be winners and losers. You knew that, too. So don’t come crying to me now. I’m not interested in your sob story. And if you keep trying to change the rules of the game, because you keep losing, I’m gonna find me a politician to make sure you can’t do that. I love this game. I’m good at it — obviously.”


I suppose Charles and David Koch would take exception to my comparing them to Omar of The Wire. As you might expect, I don’t give a damn. When I look at Omar’s huge, shiny handgun in this scene, I see $889 million in campaign donations for the 2016 elections.


All in the game, yo.



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