28 November 2008
The Art of Greed:
When Necessity is Not
Mother of Invention
It is not the economy. It is the human being. It is unquestionably imprudent to think otherwise. Ever since 1601 when the English East India Company dispatched its first outing to the New World in search of ill-gotten gains—thus “inventing” capitalism—there has been a knee-jerk reaction to the accumulation of wealth as if it were some sanctified system, for the good of all, at the expense of workers sweating to accrue it for their persons in charge, and an arrangement, while not perfect, that is the best of all those available. Time and time again this pact has degenerated systematically into chaos and has caused immeasurable misery for hundreds of millions hoping to receive some “small change” from this frequently corrupt, obviously flawed, unsigned treaty coordinated between employee and employer—but by the employer. Economic dodos even study these cycles of stupidity pontificating, with coloured pie charts and factitious, “horoscopic” mathematical theorems, on how it is just normal that fractures in the technique of administering an economy and financing its stock market are a matter of historically recurring routine. (William H Gross, managing director of Pacific Investment Management [www.pimco.com] and Las Vegas blackjack expert, is reputed to use gaming juju when calculating stock buys; and, my uncle Lester Wood, Merrill Lynch executive in the old days, told me flat out: “Gamble the [stock] market to lose.”) Will someone please tell me when this 400-year-old ruse used deceptively to gain another’s confidence, this swindle, will pass into oblivion for the good of all of us?
I have lived in three “capitalistic” countries: The “very rich” DisUnited States of Northamerica (1944-1975); the very poor Venezuela (1975-1983); and, the very poor “rich” Italy (1983-to the present). I am privileged to have had an eclectic view of poles apart standards of living, and I delight continually in putting them side by side. From my analyses of my assessments, I have drawn many interesting assumptions. But above and beyond the statistics, reports, studies, examinations…what have you…I have concentrated particularly so in endeavouring to comprehend the individuals breathing in these settings.
During the intoxicatingly, capitalistically-maverick Judeo-Christian democratic years (1974-1982) when some Venezuelans binged on the lucre culled from the exorbitantly high prices ($40.00!) of their liquid gold, I curried favour in an affinity with high governmental functionaries. Venezuela was in the pink of graft and corruption and Caracas was their capital. A time when all, except Venezuela’s poor, were drunk on spending and buying. All you needed was a telephone, a telex machine, and a rented room—your mini “office.” People were importing and exporting unrestrainedly. Whisky, cars, electronic equipment, clothes—even two snow ploughs! If you named it, you could buy it. Venezuelans were so “rich,” they qualified to take out billion dollar loans in the DisUnited States and Europe which they still have not been able to pay back. The feverishness was so overstated, my friend Fernando, a government official, came running into my office one morning at the Ministerio de Informacion y Turismo brandishing a copy of El Nacional with the new, higher posting of a barrel of Venezuelan petroleum, then blurted out—his eyes flooded with tears—for all, including me, within ten kilometres, this squawk in Spanish: “We’re going to fuck you gringos for good!” Fernando could not forgive and forget—as millions of his compatriots—the decades of exploitation suffered under the thumb of despotic foreigners. His hate was such that when I asked him, to calm him down, how he was going to go about “fucking” the gringos, he retorted: “We don’t know yet, but you can be sure we’ll do it, gringo!” Little did we know, at that time, a Hollywoodish actor was waiting in the wings of the White House soon to play his most eminent role, soon to bring down the curtain on the Venezuelan bacchanalia of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The halcyon existence of this laissez-faire licentiousness was orchestrated by Los Doce Discípulos—twelve mafia-like Venezuelan families who reigned heavy-handedly over the core economic sectors of their country including foods and beverages, the print and TV media, building construction materials, energy, banking and others defining Venezuela’s prominence as an underdeveloped country on its way to being developed. All of these crime syndicates possessed strong business affiliations with the DUS, Europe and other industrial nations on the economic go-go. These cliques of money lords lived in a world of their own. They were segregated from the realities of the horrible human condition that was sapping the vitality of deprived Venezuelans who were barred from them by bullet-proof glass, security guards, electronic alarms, dispensation and a disgusting haughtiness which wreaked from the disdain the “peers of the realm” held for their disadvantaged fellow countrymen. If you went to fiestas with well-to-do Venezuelans, the guests’ pearl-handled pistols were laid out on the coffee table, or, if there were children in the home, stashed high up on a China closet. They talked about how many airplanes their families’ businesses had, in what universities their lovely ones were enrolled in the DUS or Europe, in what condominiums in Miami they had purchased apartments, in what Dade County banks they had hoarded ready money ripped off their government, in what five-star hotel in Europe they had sojourned last summer…on and on and on. These nouveau riche were dressed to kill in Italian designer clothes ticketed overstatedly at up to $10,000 a part of the pack, they wore diamond rings and thick gold chains and other sparklers that sparkled with the Dom Perignon champagne served in crystal goblets. At wedding soirées where a thousand party-goers might be gathered, they inebriated themselves on imported wines and whiskies and munched on mounds of gourmet foods the leftovers of which hundreds of poverty-stricken people outside would wait to scrounge for after the splurge of gaiety had terminated. For every action there is a reaction. Hugo Chávez was the upshot to that bizarre, hedonistic lunacy of cruelty and indifference which exemplified the dog-eat-dogism of that era. None of the Los Doce Discípulos ever conjured up the mere inkling that millions and millions of Venezuela’s destitute populace would spring out of their bondage and stipulate a better life, a better Venezuela. How could it be that a few thousand of Venezuela’s “upper class” made enemies of millions of their own fellows! Why were they so stupid? We’re going to fuck you gringos for good….
I know a man in Prato, Italy not far from where I live who is particularly interested in his “image” and how it is perceived by others. And I would like to tell you about him.
I became acquainted with this individual some time ago, and met him for the first time in his office. The more I came to know about him, the more I was struck with astonishment. And even as I begin to tell this story, I am tempted to pinch myself to convince myself that I am not dreaming! This true story is for me a very poignant one indeed.
The personage under discussion is a business consultant (commercialista), a very successful one at that—if one would judge by appearances only. He is always answering his cellphone. He drives an enormous white automobile equipped with the most up-to-date electronic gadgetry. His office, with three secretaries, is outfitted with computers, fax machines and other modern office accruements not always found in Prato. The room adjacent to his administrative centre is crammed with books and economic magazines and journals mostly written in English. There is a book in Italian he himself wrote and published personally but which few people have purchased but which he has given hundreds of gifts of. He represents many companies, and is often so busy in his office, he tells his secretaries to inform certain callers that he is out of town. He is twenty seven years old, uses Valium drops to calm his nerves, and is under doctor’s care for an ulcer. If you look at the left arm of his huge, expensive leather desk chair, you will see that it is worn through to the “bone” from his nervous hand rubbings. And he has told me, kidding of course, at least three times—Freudian-slipping all the way—the following: “If I don’t go crazy, I’ll go to jail!” (Kidding, of course!) Naturally, he dresses to kill. Elegance is all around him. If you enter his place of work, you will be impressed immediately with an inordinate amount of framed pieces of paper which—with the exception of one oil painting of his beautiful, childless wife—are dedications to him for some honour or other, for some diploma from one university or other, for some seminar or other he has frequented. Although he never went to university in his own country, he has testaments to his scholarly savoir faire from many institutions that seem at first to be reputable and of an inestimable quality. All of these certificates are, as might be expected, framed in very elegant, costly wooden borders which enclose them. You would be fixed deeply.
Get ready to pinch yourself…
Two of these qualifications are from a school in California where this character studied for less than two months. The diplomas state clearly that the man swotted successfully and fulfilled regularly the requirements for not only a Master’s degree in Economics, but even a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Economics. Under these two enclosed parchments is another boxed declaration, a bit smaller, written on false United States’ Department of State stationery attesting to the facts that the two degrees are in buona fide, and signed not “by…for…” but forged for the United States’ Secretary of State his very self!
Get ready to pinch yourself…
If we lean towards another wall in the room, two more sheepskins will be seen. These are from a university in Switzerland, and they proclaim that this twenty-“sevenish” someone has studied for not only the Master of Business Administration, but still—hold on!—another Doctor of Philosophy in Economics! (To date: MA, PhD, MBA, PhD!) Are you counting with me?
Get ready to pinch yourself…
One of the truths of the matter here is that this somebody, to qualify for his Swiss PhD, purchased a PhD thesis—of a student recently “doctored” at a very famous United States’ business school—from a company in Ann Arbor, Michigan and well-known throughout the degree-getting world, had that thesis translated, and then submitted it in order to receive his Helvetian documents conferring honour and privilege.
Get ready to pinch yourself…
The most recent foray by this man hungry in his extravagant quest for recognition of his adroitness in business relations, has been the enrolment in an expensive “by post” course, with audio-visuals and brilliantly designed study guides, for yet another MBA (MA, PhD, MBA, PhD, MBA!!!) granted by an English school which I was informed, by an Oxford professor, is perhaps the most respectable of its kind and which is much-touted throughout Europe. And with all of these pegs, our fox wants to return to a famous business university in his own country to—you guessed it!—TEACH!
Get ready to pinch yourself…
While he reads some English, especially economic terminology, he cannot—I swear!—communicate in English, and if you call to speak to him in English, one of his secretaries will tell you right off that he is out of town! Call again? Still out of town.
Our heavily-“degreed” perpetual student, ever on the march to nail another “HONOUR” to his wall to impress his clients, has larceny at heart. If he is to be a purloiner, he is going to be the best of sharks. His determination and verve would move you. If it is everybody’s business to steal, he will do it better. He is an artist. He does what he does because he loves its labour for its own sake. (Cannot we, at least, admire him for this?) And the joy he affords his dear mother and father, as he sits next to them at Mass every Sunday morning in his parish’s almost empty church, cannot be computed in Earthly terms.
If you ask him if he thinks what he is doing is “eccentric,” he will respond with a boyish grin—his baby face shining, his blue eyes twinkling: “Everybody’s doing it!”
Authored by Anthony St. John in Calenzano, Italy
25 October 2008
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