How Fox News Created a New Culture of Idiots
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It is instructive to compare West to asshole artists such as Pablo Picasso or Ernest Hemingway or Miles Davis. None were mistaken about their greatness. All were wrong about what their greatness entitled them to by way of special treatment from others. Here it is harder to be understanding. It is indeed desirable for a society to afford its great artists special opportunities for creative production for the good of all. But there are limits, and many true geniuses do manage well enough to abide by them, perhaps by nurturing a grounding sense of gratitude for being endowed with special creative privilege. Those who don’t are pure asshole. They take full credit for their achievements and expect further benefits in return, despite the fact that their success would never have happened without society’s gift of creative opportunity. (Artists who must fend for food or fight against an invading army tend not to get a lot of art done.) Things could easily have gone differently and the artist would never have succeeded. Gauguin, for example, might have never made it to Tahiti if the boat from France had encountered bad weather or mechanical troubles, much as many great talents fail simply because they are ahead of their time. We put up with the artist’s delusion that his work is only to his credit, that it iswe who are chiefly in his debt, because we find our world better with his artworks in it. Without that, however, the asshole artist becomes thoroughly repugnant. Imagine a failed artist who is not a genius, who continually demands further creative privilege, perhaps at a significant cost to society, and who cannot be moved by or even grasp gentle advice that he should consider working at Starbucks, where people are actually served. This guy, we want to say, is an asshole in spades.
THE DELUSIONAL ASSHOLE BANKER
Artists are of course usually more prone to self-loathing than to delusions of grandeur. The same cannot be said of bankers of late. Bankers, as a culture, have an extraordinary sense of their own importance with a correspondingly extraordinary sense of entitlement to monetary reward. This amounts to a grand delusion, which the recent global financial crisis has helped almost everyone except bankers to see through. Bankers sit somewhere in between West and Picasso: not entirely delusional about their importance but wildly delusional about what that importance means.
To see this, we should rehearse some properly uncontroversial truths. Financial markets do indeed have an essential function in a capitalist society. A capitalist society’s guiding idea is precisely that a society will put its savings to its most productive uses, for the sake of an overall improvement in living standards, by allowing resources to be allocated by financial markets rather than centralized decisions. The goal is not freedom per se. It is not enough that traders are left free to transact (and so pool information, spread risk, and so on). If the basic purpose of financial markets is to be served, the functioning system has to actually lead to improved living standards by boosting production in the real economy. This by no means happens automatically. World history is replete with financial crises that did lasting and catastrophic damage to whole economies (e.g., the Great Depression, the “lost decades” in Argentina or Japan) and to people’s whole lives (e.g., people lost their homes, retirees lost much of their savings, eager workers were left unemployed, college graduates saw worse employment prospects over the longer haul, and so on). In recent decades, after many insisted that “this time is different,” because the risks of crises have been reduced, the 2008-9 financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession made it abundantly plain that painful crises can and will continue to break out. Few issues compare in importance with whether financial markets function in the right way, such that their basic function in a capitalist economy is well served.