On Trust, Honesty, and Authority: A Review of Twilight of the Elites

In TS Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men, Eliot ends with reference to famous whimpers: those of Fawkes and Marlow. The poem is something other than its apparent whole in the context of other works.

Like reading a soda bottle for its calculus and its physicality, its material ecology.

Or like reading bond deals in this article titled The Scam Wall Street Learned from the Mafia by Matt Taibbi, which tells the story of United States of America v. Carollo, Goldberg, and Grimm. Taibbi describes the shenanigans in similar terms as Christopher Hayes’s book Twilight of the Elites. An example: Taibbi first:

This incredible [fair price] defense, which the attorneys for all three defendants led with, perfectly expresses the awesome arrogance of the modern-day aristocrats who run our financial services sector. Corrupt or not, they built this financial infrastructure, and it’s producing the prices they genuinely think are fair for us – and for them. And fair to them is the customer getting the absolute bare minimum, while they get instant millions for work they didn’t do. Moreover – and this is the most important part – they believe they should get permanent protection from the ravages of the market, i.e., from one another’s competition. Imagine Jack Nicholson on the witness stand, dressed in a repairman’s uniform and tool belt. Who’s gonna fix those refrigerators? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? You can’t handle the truth!

Now Hayes:

We now see ourselves ruled by a remote class. They may not wear flowing robes, or carry miters, but they are marked in their own way as separate and distinct. The distance between those who will be bailed out and those who will not is the ultimate social distance, and it has grown so vast it now strains the bonds of representation that hold the republic and its people together. (215)

Taibbi’s piece explores, by telling the story of the Carollo case, the extent of this “corruption.”

Hayes’ book is about corruption and an idea he terms the “crisis of authority.” It’s not about the casual remark I often hear (and speak myself): “politicians, oh, they’re all crooks.” My father would frequently bristle with this sort of language at the mention of Nixon. Both Hayes and Lessig explore the nuance. Taibbi’s is a more concentrated version.

But to get at this nuance requires inspection of the notion of authority and its complex of relations and opposites, some of which I’ll go into from a literary and geological perspective.

Consider Beowulf and his “war” with Grendel as a tale. Beowulf partly derives his authority from his observable prowess of arms and intelligence. They hear him undue Unferth and they see him fight. In Yi Fu Tuan’s terms, recalling his tremendous Space and Place, the parent is a “place” to a child, a source of comfort, trust, and orientation. Beowulf acts as this sort of orienting agent, and when he eventually dies by dragon, the community will tend towards disorientation. So the metaphor goes. And so, knowing Beowulf’s authority mediated by reputation, Hrothgar hires him.

Beowulf is “trusted” by being “entrusted” with the task of protection. Connectedness is associated to trust in a geographic sense oriented on the “physical” body. Hrothgar breaks a piece of himself or his ability and gives it to Beowulf: he is given the authority to act in Hrothgar’s place. And he knows what he’s giving up in that bargain. A wedding band works in similar geographic terms. I wear a “piece” of my partner on my finger. Hence connectedness and yet another link: honesty, which, etymologically speaking is a characteristic a body earns from others. It would be hard to judge someone honest without some form of relationship. Trust as Trustee, one who may act in another’s place.

Our modern relationship with ULAs is instructive, which is a form of non-agreement agreement. When a user clicks Accept to upgrade their version of the Flash Player, I doubt that that user reads the agreement. Users may not really know what they’re agreeing to, which is a form of blind trust or faith. The consequence of clicking Do Not Accept will result in an expensive paper weight. In other words, this is a form of piecing oneself out without knowing where your pieces are going, a form of disorientation or space blindness.

Lawrence Lessig, Christopher Hayes, and Matt Taibbi cut into this form of disorientation through their examinations of modern corruption. People don’t trust institutions and for good reason. But we should. That’s the significant issue. When municipalities go through the bonding process, they shouldn’t have to worry about banks gaming the system. Taibbi writes

Over the years, many in the public have become numb to news of financial corruption, partly because too many of these stories involve banker-on-banker crime. The notorious Abacus deal involving Goldman Sachs, for instance, involved a hedge-fund billionaire ripping off a couple of European banks – who cares? But the bid-rigging scandal laid bare in USA v. Carollo is a totally different animal. This is the world’s biggest banks stealing money that would otherwise have gone toward textbooks and medicine and housing for ordinary Americans, and turning the cash into sports cars and bonuses for the already rich. It’s the equivalent of robbing a charity or a church fund to pay for lap dances.

Who ultimately loses in these deals? Well, to take just one example, the New Jersey Health Care Facilities Finance Authority, the agency that issues bonds for the state’s hospitals, had their interest rates rigged by the Carollo defendants on $17 million in bonds. Since then, more than a dozen New Jersey hospitals have closed, mostly in poor neighborhoods.

Much of these stories, as Hayes details, have to do with the modern concept of space and place and how perceptions have changed between people in relation to those concepts, as Tuan develops them: place as connection and space as disconnection. Congress, our representatives, our goods makers, our banks, our varieties of media have become removed, not geographically in the sense of being somewhere (we know some building somewhere houses the servers) but removed from experiences that effectuate the building of relationships that return human regard and positive meaning not simply reinforcements of self. Partly, this is the story of polls that show extreme negatives and distrust for modern institutions. For Lessig, the reasons for this distrust are less important than the mere fact that the distrust is real.

Hayes in his last chapter runs through not just the negative attitudes but also data about egalitarian views, citing a study by Norton and Ariely. Hayes concludes, “We are more egalitarian than we, ourselves, realize” (228). This is significant in relation to polls weighing positive negative view on institutions. In a sense, this is a “search for” fairness or an alert to the synthesis between trust, authentic experience, fairness, reciprocity and cooperation. See Cremer and Tyler (pdf) for one aspect of this kind of study.

It’s pretty intuitive that people would trust what is near (place) and distrust what is distant (space). When what has been near and is soon found to be distant or unfathomable (see Taibbi on the Carollo case), the sense of self-trust is damaged. That which was once perceived an invulnerable (Penn State) shown to be vulnerable or outright criminal also points back to our own sense of confidence. As Hayes puts it: “They [Tea Party and Netroots] share a sense that they are no longer in control, that some small, corrupt core of elites can launch an idiotic war, or bail out the banks, or mandate health insurance, and despite their relative privilege and education and money and social capital, there’s not a damn thing they can do about” (232).

Thus, when Grendel attacked the Twin Towers on 9/11 and brought them down, we sought out Beowulf. But those Beowulfs entrusted to us have proven themselves inadequate to the task, as cheats, fakes, and Unferths. This analogy is overly simplistic: we live in a big country not in a Geat village. Nor is it all that profitable to write what might seem a glorification of a poem pointing to anything resembling real-world experience; that would be like holding to the images of football coaches in their honorific poses, chiseled into bronze. Beowulf is an ideal, but its metaphors can be telling and significant. In a world of polymaths, all the polymaths would starve, as Plato argued in The Republic. We need to count on and rely on each other and share our talents in our complex ecologies.

Hayes argues in his solution for reconnection. I interpret this as a rebuilding of a sense of place. When one walks into a local bank, he or she shouldn’t distrust the banker. The banker doesn’t need to scam the citizen. People will argue that to write “reconnection” amounts to naiveté. I argue it doesn’t. One might want to scam or cheat a neighbor, but this is not a requirement. The municipalities in Carollo case could have received fair deals from the brokers; Barkley’s could have simply represented their LIBOR numbers on the level; the executives at Country Wide could have done business that exacted fair returns; Paterno could have sought justice; bin Laden could have sought other means to his ends; et cetera et cetera, minus mental illness, delusion or whatever other phenomenon get in the way of sensible means to ends. But none of this is what happened, of course, and the pathologies of position are powerful forces.

Reconsidering our language with one another is another step, in addition to the solution proposed by Hayes in terms of coalition building, because this “rebuilding of trust” requires careful reflection on how to talk, write, and otherwise exchange ideas. Unfortunately, at the moment, our political, contract, and other forms of language are almost incoherent and in may ways walled off by ideology and what amounts to king-of-the-hill defensiveness and zero sum world views. In a way, we are ourselves looking for the Higgs boson. It’s somewhere in all that “space out there.”