Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Just a couple of days ago I was mentioning to someone how Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho inadvertently turned out to be the single best chronicle of the entire ethos of the 1980s. What was initially repudiated as relentlessly ugly, hyper-violent nihilism has, in hindsight, taken on a strange air of both sly subversiveness and surprising prescience. What makes American Psycho so subversive is that it imagined soulless consumption and craven materialism taken to its seemingly logical conclusion. Patrick Bateman was what you would get if you removed all societal and moral restraint and left only the gleaming id at the center of our quickly dissolving culture. What makes it prescient, however, is that it imagined a Wall Street populated by indifferent monsters willing to literally kill to get what they want.
True, the barons and minions of today's Wall Street don't connect car batteries to people's genitals or scoop out their eyes with pen knives (as far as we know). But if you've ever seen the documentary The Smartest Guys in the Room, about the rise and fall of Enron, and listened to recordings of commodities traders laughing to each other at the prospect of the elderly going broke and California burning up as they strangle the state's power supply in the name of huge profits, you know that there are more subtle forms of sadism.
I bring this up because another conversation I had this past weekend was with a friend of mine who represents Howard Dean's group "Democracy for America" and she was rightfully complaining about the need for our nation's MBA programs to begin putting more emphasis on business ethics. And two days ago the St. Petersburg Times highlighted how one business school, Florida State University's, is coming under fire for a move that could very well be in exactly the opposite direction.
Apparently, a few years back, billionaire asshole Charles Koch donated around $1.5 million to the FSU economics school in exchange for, well, control of the FSU economics school -- or at the very least the ability to decide which professors it hires. The goal, ostensibly, would be to ensure that the school does its part to foster his specific brand of free-market libertarian capitalism well into the next few decades. Think of it as Professor Xavier's School for Randian Supermen, with Koch himself playing the role of Mentor X and choosing the actual professors. This is a disconcerting enough scenario; the fact that this is happening at a public university -- funded, ironically, by taxpayers -- is just all kinds of unscrupulous. And a lot of people are now starting to realize this.
In 2009, Koch and his representatives used their bought-and-paid-for veto power to shoot down 60% of the faculty suggestions, at least a few of whom presumably lacked the conservative credentials that would've made Koch comfortable that he was getting his money's worth. The draconian contract FSU entered into with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation set up an advisory panel appointed by Koch himself, and that panel alone decides which candidates for various professorships deserve consideration. Oh, and the Sword of Damocles hanging over the university's head? Koch can immediately pull all funding from the school if he doesn't like who gets hired or if he finds, during his foundation's annual reviews, that they've failed to live up to his "expectations."
This is what's happening out there -- what's being allowed to happen. A very rich guy is essentially buying the kind of education he thinks your kids should have -- one that he assumes will benefit him and his anti-interventionist ilk by turning them into new recruits to the cause. Koch's plan is brilliantly creative: to go to the source and begin indoctrination from the very beginning -- to not simply sell students a product but to make them become both the product and the salespeople at the same time.
Forget ethics -- Charles Koch is personally cranking out the next generation of Patrick Batemans.
Better check the floor around you and make sure you're not standing on plastic.