About 2500 years ago, the philosopher Plato told a story that even the most dedicated Fox News viewer can understand. Here it is in text form:
According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended.
Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result–when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared.Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.
Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point.
And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.
The Greeks go on to say that King Croesus, you know, the guy who had more money than God, was a descendent of Gyges.
Now, the more zealous whip kissers out there will ask why even bring up this stupid story. I mean, it’s not even in the Bible, right? I have no way of knowing for sure but I suspect that Jesus would have gotten around to it eventually but his career was cut short by the anti-Occupy forces of the Roman Empire. You know how it goes, some rowdy bunch of activists for social justice and equality who sleep outdoors and make noisy spectacles of themselves in public places and carry out unpermitted marches into Jerusalem are reported to the authorities for disrupting the peace, keeping everyone up at night, and making everyone uncomfortable and, before you know it, someone gets crucified and the whole group scatters. So many parables, so little time. Still, Jesus was totally into shepherds so I think he was leading up to it.
The Ring of Gyges story is pretty easy to understand and there is a reason why we call stuff like this “the classics”. The classics never go out of style and say something that is universally true. So, let me give you my spin on this and why the Ring of Gyges should be invoked whenever some politician starts using the evils of “regulation” to persuade others to vote for him.
The power that the ring gives the user is the ability to do what he wants without accountability. Gyges gets away with murder and seduction and theft because no one can see him. In other words, shit just happens. Mistakes are made. We don’t know who. Maybe Gyges did it, maybe someone else did it. We can’t hold anyone responsible because no one is able to see or use indirect methods of seeing who did what. That is, there is no way to measure who went in and out of the palace that doesn’t rely on our own eyes. There’s no safeguarding person watching over the treasury who has the power to see through the ring’s power and detect Gyges robbing the bank.
The moral of the story is if there’s nobody watching, no justice system in place that is able to hold you accountable, and even the most honest and ethical person can become corrupted. It is human nature to desire things and if there is no way to hold you accountable for taking what you desire, then you might as well take it. In fact, you’re going to look like a fool if you have access to unlimited power and the things you desire and don’t take full advantage of it and the power you have over others. If you don’t have access to the ring, well, you’re just a fricking loser. Keep that in mind when you listen to this act from a This American Life episode called “Crybabies” about Happy Hour on Wall Street. Try to ignore the fact that Adam Davidson is reporting. The piece is actually quite good and illustrates the power of the ring of Gyges perfectly:
Plato couldn’t have written that act any better. Isn’t your blood boiling? Don’t you want to hurt those bankers? I know I do. I think, who the f^*$ do those assholes think they are? Oh, yeah, they’re the guys (and they’re almost always guys. Women rarely get away with behaving badly.) who think they don’t have to answer to anyone. They can do pretty much whatever the hell they want because no one can do a thing about it. And they attribute their success to their smartness. They’re just smarter than you losers who work at a regular job. But that’s not why they’re so amazingly successful. No. They’re so successful because we have removed just about all the regulation from the financial industry. There’s no oversight.
Oversight-1.a : watchful and responsible care b : regulatory supervision <congressional oversight>
In other words, those bankers are invisible to the justice system. They can do what they want because no one can see what they’re doing. No one can see what they’re doing because they keep telling everyone that regulation is bad. They convince voters that regulation is bad by focusing the voters’ attention on the plight of small business owners. And it probably is bad for small business owners. But the effect of deregulation virtually never benefits small business owners. It almost always benefits the guys at the top with the ring. And the more money they get with their rings, like Croesus, the more money they can spend on advertising and Fox News and bribing politicians to make sure that no oversight is ever imposed on them. Remember Elizabeth Warren? She was supposed to head up a new oversight commission for the consumer financial products. But the bankers wouldn’t have any oversight so Obama never appointed her. Therefore, they can do whatever they want to consumers without oversight.
This is the real story of Elizabeth Warren and what she stands for. She should be using that against Scott Brown.
And here is the most recent manifestation of the power of the ring of Gyges as explained by Matt Taibbi and Eliot Spitzer with regard to the fraud that Goldman-Sachs perpetrated on unsuspecting pension fund managers. Goldman-Sachs is negotiating its way out of prosecution with the consent of our US attorney generals. Matt says:
I was trying not to be too obvious in making the point that Spitzer is an example of the kind of guy you would want looking at that Goldman case. Not only did I not want to look like a suck-up, but I wasn’t sure how, “As you know, Eliot, a prosecutor is supposed to be kind of a dick!” would go over. Because I would have meant it in the most complimentary way possible. And it has nothing to do with politics. If you read James Stewart’s Den of Thieves you can see that Rudy Giuliani had some of the same key qualities. A good prosecutor should look down the barrel of a bunch of millionaire lawyers at Davis Polk or White and Case and feel turned on by the challenge of combat. Making a deal with any devil should burn him at the core, keep him awake at night.
But that’s exactly who Eric Holder and Lanny Breuer haven’t been, exactly who Bob Khuzami at the SEC hasn’t been. Instead of being fighters, they’ve been dealmakers and plea-bargainers. They’ve dealt out every major financial scandal, from Abacus to the Muni-bid-rigging cases (they prosecuted a few low-level guys at GE but let the big players at the big banks skate) to the Citigroup fraud settlement that was so bad a judge threw it back at the govenment’s face. In that latter case, amazingly, the govenment is now fighting not for its constituents, but for its right to give out crappy deals to repeat-offender banks without judicial review.
I’m not surprised that the Obama administration’s justice department has been reluctant to use regulation to its benefit and prosecute the criminals with the full force of the law. It was evident early on (April 2009, to be exact) that this was the approach that Obama would use when it came to Wall Street. All of the “oversight” would come in the way of ad hoc deals, each company getting a custom made solution that allowed them to skirt the law and get away with a slap on the wrist. That’s because Obama doesn’t have any principles that he isn’t willing to bargain away on the negotiating table and he always starts his bidding on terms that are heavily favorable to the other side. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
It goes without saying that you don’t have to be of any particular political persuasion to be incensed that the banking industry is getting away with murder and theft without any oversight. It goes without saying but for some reason, I feel compelled to say it anyway.
Just because people on the left are the most vocal and angry and disappointed and irate about the fact that the financial industry is going unpunished doesn’t mean they are wrong. Just because a bunch of Occupiers are calling attention to the financial industry and how the fact that it is not accountable screws all of us doesn’t mean that they’re bad people.
What I wonder is why it is that so many people on the right are focusing all of their attention on abortion and gay rights and how unemployed and poor people are unconscionable deadbeats but giving the real parasites in the finance industry a pass. And I can only come to two possible conclusions: 1. The people on the right are easily lead and gullible and respond well to authoritarian messaging because it is all over the place or 2. It’s because they hope to *be* part of that privileged group of power ring owners in the future so that they can have all of their desires met without accountability.
Now, I will be the first one to mock the left for their crazy ass beliefs about GMO crops and homeopathy and nuclear energy and that the pharma industry is trying to poison them (because they’re not and anyway, it’s just another way for the trial lawyers to sink their fangs into the money stream. The left has its own unaccountability problem.) But if you’re on the right or leaning right, or used to be a Democrat but are so pissed off about what Obama and the DNC did in 2008 that you’re letting your anger blind you to what these criminals on Wall Street are doing now, then you need to do some soul searching and get to the bottom of your orneriness because it’s really not helping.
It’s the right that relies on religion to keep everyone in line with threats of hellfire if you’re sexually active and not married. You can always count on the religious to condemn everyone who doesn’t believe strictly in the Judeo-Christian version of the ten commandments. They have a holy fit if you’re an atheist. But they seem to be perfectly Ok with giving Wall Street a pass. It’s like, “there’s nothing we can do. They’re evil and we’re scared of them because they have all the power to make our lives miserable.” Bullshit, of course there’s something you can do. Stop voting for the politicians who keep asking for fewer regulations. It doesn’t get any simpler than that. Unfortunately, they’re also the politicians who hide behind religion or pander to religious people. Show me a religious politician and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t believe in regulation. That’s all there is to it. They want to let the criminals operate without boundaries.
If these wealthy, unaccountable assholes continue to do what they’re doing without oversight, they’re going to bring the entire world’s financial system down. That’s what happens when you can’t stop yourself from taking whatever you want and no one else has to power to interfere.
It doesn’t matter if you are on the right or the left, everything you own, everything you planned, your health, your retirement, your entire future, is at risk.