This was my Uncle Larry's favorite article. Since he passed last December, I've thought of him a lot. His integrity, his warmth, his willingness to reach out to everyone. The message herein is both timeless and near to his heart: civilization needs capital and its skillful, prudent deployment; civilization frays when capital is deployed exploitatively. Violence is often the result. God bless you, Larry and Merry Christmas all.
Banking and the financial sector is not only vital to society, it is inextricably connected to all wealth, all jobs, and all growth. It doesn’t matter what you do or if you think you are somehow disconnected from it. Without a banking system, life as we know it takes a big turn for the worse. Love it or hate it, your life won’t be the same without it.
There is no excusing the greed, corruption, and lack of appropriate standards of action in the financial system that in large part got us into our current malaise. There is also no excusing the greed, corruption, and lack of accountable, representative decision-making within governments of the world. There is no excusing the lunacy of “last resort buyers” putting a bid on everything in distress. There is no excusing the lack of personal responsibility that contributed to it. This is enough to make decent people lose their minds.
I can understand the need to vent anonymously some bitter and dark thoughts about banks of varied stripe. It is even healthy if you can move on, unburdened, as a result. But when those thoughts become self-feeding malignancies, it is altogether destructive.
I have no reservations about the newsworthiness of Mark Madoff’s death. Nor do I think it
unreasonable to suspect foul play in the matter. But when I read comments that celebrate the death of a man they did not know—and further, I read that all bankers and their families deserve the same fate—this is a dark malignancy. It’s just too far. This is no better than the politico who called for Assange’s execution. Not all bankers have done harm.
Surrealism aside, the very notion of “deserves” is odious. It signifies an entitlement, a sense of injured innocence that is at best narcissistic. Left unchecked this self-deception becomes sadistic. Things sure would be better if fewer bankers smugly talked about the bonuses they “deserve”.
It seems that all sides have run short on dignified silence.
Some of us have to devote significant time to thinking about extremes. Mathematical models and historical parallels are the inexact tools to describe how and where history rhymes. Precisely where analysis ends and narrative begins is difficult to know, but there are many awful things in history’s peaks and troughs.
Germany is a unique place: Abundant mathematical creativity. The home to some of the greatest musical art ever conceived, on par with the math. The culture also produced quiet, unassuming temperaments of people like Bernhard Riemann, whose work took decades to be fully grasped. Simple German faith made calm and clear Christmas hymns like “Stille Nacht.” Germans hold in high esteem Goethe’s Faust, the story of a man that sold his very soul to the devil. The message: the best of us can fall under dark impulses. When most of us fall under them, you have a nightmare.
If you actually believe that every banker and their family deserve to be “strung up” or otherwise killed for something they never did: have a good look at your forebears. Here’s some food for thought about what it means to kill innocent people.
“I would rather be judged by wild animals, to fall into a den of lions, than to fall into the hands of a witch judge.”
—Hermann Loher, 1650
This quote highlights something about inhumanity. Falling into the hands of inhumanity is worse than any animal’s jaws. Inhumanity premeditates pain, revenge, and pleasure in its cruelties. There is no one more inhuman than a witch judge. Extortion is pure and sincere compared to it. If there was ever a thing that deserves the title “evil” this was it—precisely because it was done under the wing of clergy in the name of God. Those who spew venom like “kill a banker’s sons and daughters” deserve to see what they really are.
Franz Buirmann went to the little villages of Rheinbach in the 1630s. Of 300 households he left only 150, torturing the rest of them to death. He left much richer for the effort, by the way. A witch judge (and his sponsoring bishop) was entitled to the property of any “witch” he convicted. Do you want to venture a guess as to who these victims were? They were the richest citizens at first. Common decent folk were only quietly upset with this, because they knew full well many of these were good hard-working people. Following this, the beautiful young madchen who wouldn’t yield their virtue to some vagabond torturer had their legs broken and needles jammed under their fingernails and toenails. They were, for their virtue, repeatedly raped then burned at the stake. Common folk realized they enabled a nightmare. Systematically those who opposed killing innocents and those who had anything of wealth were tortured and killed. By the time people acted in concerted opposition, it was easy for hardened folk-butchers to kill anyone who raised their eyes off the ground.
And oh, the inhuman details: names; horrific acts of cruelty; desperate, futile efforts to save a beloved wife; a consoling letter of an imprisoned mother to her five year old son—a little Latin scholar. The widow Christine Boffgen: rich, generous, well-respected, and dead after four days of unrelieved torture. The mayor, a Dr. Schweigel: tortured to death in mere hours because of his hernia weakened his constitution. Although Schweigel willed all his wealth to the poor, Buirmann took all it anyway. When he needed to cover his tracks, Buirmann even “discovered” his executioner was a witch, and had him burned at the stake.
This wasn’t an isolated case: there were plenty of eminent men serving under ruthless fanatics that let it happen. Every victim confessed, most often in the following way: denial, torture, confession, re-denial, re-torture, and final complete mental derangement that accepted all accusations. On promise of being strangled before burning at the stake, some would offer false testimony against those who tried to restrain the excesses of the witch judges. Because it was highly profitable to the politicians of the day, witch trials became more lawless and brutal. People would be bound on iron chairs and literally roasted into confession.
How did this nightmare end? Not all murderers got what they deserved. More often than not, the frenzies just burned themselves out after there was little left to destroy. In the face of rising hostility in Lindheim, A chief witch judge named Geiss continued his fury, until dismissed as a judge. His strongmen were burned on the same pyre as the witches, but after executing thirty innocent (wealthy) persons, he was not punished.
Here’s what justice means to a sadist that is happy to kill innocent people.
“With the same, in fact, with even greater indifference do I regard torturing you than I do bending this reed out of my path with my stick … When I have you tortured, and I bring you to confession, then I perform a work pleasing in God’s sight; and it profits me.” —Heinrich von Schultheis, 1634.
There are worse abuses for sure, but the example situates the “Kill all bankers and their families” types clear enough. Pick-pocketing bonuses out of taxpayer wallets do make it easier for a man to endorse this sick and pathetic hatred.
Some Contrarian Christmas Thoughts
It is possible that the most diseased readers will feel not revulsion by this history. For those: be wary of unleashing bloodthirsty “justice” on injustice, because no one wins. Demented visions of justice really mean indiscriminant violence. And if one even tried to take action in that manner, they would most likely be put down easily and with a sigh of relief, like one would a rabid dog. Recall that executioners get burned at the stake along with their victims, while the politicos walk away.
Some of the most angry and self-righteous “victims” are lying to themselves about their own role in their situation. No doubt some are just too young and/or too stupid to get it. And there are always some that desire privileges fitting their perceived status. These types are permanent victims: they want their misery equally distributed to everyone. It is inconceivable to such people that someone else could actually live prudently, work hard, and not receive invisible favors. It’s easy to blame someone else when others are doing it too.
Others just want what human nature desires. They don’t expect the world to be perfect, but they do expect it to be decent. Decent in the same way they are… self-regulating and able to right obvious wrongs… to somehow impose clear justice on injustice. This is not the way of the world, and it is juvenile to demand it be so. Better to enjoy what you have with quietness. Be human, not inhuman.
It’s true that some financial types need some honest introspection about what integrity and decency really mean. Banks should admit it if they were on the brink and needed the bailout—just once, admit it! Taking funding from a Fed acronym is all the proof anyone needs. You’ll find honesty is far less shameful than the alternative. And be thankful to taxpayers and their children for the unwilling generosity—and thank China for those treasury purchases. By all means do God’s work. Tell the truth, and make a client for your clients instead of a profit off your clients. It will go a long way to healing legitimate grievances. Faust showed that even those who bargain with the devil can find redemption.