One of the truly amazing things about American business is how reflexively it perverts legitimate and productive enterprises such as car sales and real estate into sleazy cons. It would be understandable if greasy pitchmen had infested banking, which even in the hands of the decent and the sane is inextricable from filthy lucre, or “wealth management,” the very raison d’être of which is to secure outlandish returns on capital so that the client’s wealth needn’t be derived from any sort of productive work. The bizarre thing is that the Crisco-slickened bullshit artistry has infiltrated businesses that contribute immensely to the wealth and welfare of society. The combination of a car and a house is a great way not to have to hoof it everywhere and live under a pine tree. It doesn’t take a glib shyster to convince the man on the street that these are beneficial products that might be worth having. It does, however, take an Osteen-grade shithead to convince him to buy more house and car (or truck) than he needs in the interests of investment or penile aggrandizement.

Let’s not confuse the concept of useful work with the obnoxious American obsession with “working for a living.” The latter concept has become utterly divorced from any discernment of useful work from parasitism, if ever it wasn’t. I add the caveat because one of the most influential of the thirteen colonies, Virginia, was founded as a joint stock venture. The original Virginia colonists crossed the Atlantic hoping to get rich quick, only to be disabused when their governor impressed their lazy asses into public construction projects, mostly involving digging in the swamp. A few years later, the Virginians discovered African slaves, whose superiority for such work they immediately recognized, and we’ve all seen how that decision worked out for the country. If we return to the present, we’ll see that the sorts of “work” commonly regarded as “making a living” include property management, which is generally a euphemism for rent-seeking thuggery by two-bit tyrants who repair plumbing with duct tape, and medical coding and billing, which is basically the diversion of money that ought to be spent on medical care (and would be if we had as much sense as the Amish) to a bunch of semiliterates who got tired of Burger King but couldn’t quite hack it in the LVN program. In terms of net contributions to civilization, we might as well say that Willie Sutton worked for a living.

This isn’t to say that Americans don’t recognize wealth when they see it. It’s just a question of what constitutes wealth. We’re too crass not to notice it in our bank accounts, or in our shiny new Ram crew cabs, or in our vinyl-sided McMansions twenty miles outside Manassas or Fort Worth or Tacoma. But here’s the rub: that same crassness is why we rarely recognize it at the macro level in our mines, factories, forests, farms, and so forth. It is also why we have so little gratitude for the genuinely wealth-producing activities of people who do things like spend twelve hours a day transplanting strawberry starts. It’s why we don’t recognize that more wealth is produced by driving a train than by using one’s feminine wiles to bullshit prospective depositors on behalf of Umpqua Bank. On Amtrak, it’s possible to fall asleep in Modesto and wake up four hours later in Bakersfield, delivered safe and sound by a guy who was bragging to his trainee, “I’m really good at playing this game.” It’s a different sort of game that they play at Umpqua, but pathetically, many Americans just don’t see a difference. This is one of the reasons that the banks rob us so easily.

It has been said that honest men don’t get conned. This isn’t entirely true, but it’s certainly easier for con artists to rip off people who are looking for a quick and easy payout that violates the usual rules. This explains R. Allen Stanford’s ability to sell Americans high-yield Antiguan certificates of deposit; it’s not as though there weren’t FDIC-insured CDs or proven high-yield stocks available to his investors. It explains the gambling industry, whose metastasis is consuming the country and sapping what remains of the public’s common sense.

As I said, Willie Sutton worked for a living. We fall for the fake financial instruments offered by a naturalized Antiguan peer and the “excitement” promised by glamorous casinos that are in fact full of narcotized pensioners on nasal oxygen lifelessly feeding their Social Security checks into the slot machines five dollars at a time. These are not the provinces of the thoughtful. This is not the stuff of the well-examined life.

What supposedly is the stuff of a well-examined life is a liberal arts education, such as one can get at Alma Mater. I can’t quibble with the quality of instruction at Alma Mater, which in my experience was generally excellent. Here and there Alma Mater is surpassed in the sciences by a polytechnic institute or in the liberal arts by a school such as Reed, and students looking to study engineering will have to go elsewhere, but on the whole its academics are stellar.

So why the hell has Billy Fish spent the past decade pitching it like the goddamn University of Phoenix? Fish has been a good steward of Alma Mater’s finances, but he has sullied the institution and addled the minds of its students by foaming at the mouth about financially motivated fabrications. He routinely squeezes contributions from parents, students and alumni by insinuating that giving money is the only way to ensure that an Alma Mater degree will maintain its full worth in the market. This is the next thing to extortion. He won’t shut up about the school’s founder, the Venerable Healer, and what a visionary he was. The Venerable Healer was a prominent but controversial physician who sued a critic for accusing him of being a quack, but given that the Venerable Healer routinely prescribed a mercury-based laxative that he had created, his libeler had a point. It wasn’t actually libel; the Venerable Healer was in fact something of a quack. Most mainstream historians have a much less charitable and effusive assessment of the Venerable Healer than Billy Fish has. Could this have anything to do with their not having a financial stake in aggrandizing him in order to bamboozle historically ignorant scholar-sheep into giving money to an already wealthy institution?

Then there are Billy Fish’s thunderous pronouncements about the worth of an Alma Mater degree and Alma Mater’s networks. This is a massive, destructive, soul-sapping fraud on young graduates. I wish I had never believed a word out of that man’s mouth. In point of fact, Alma Mater has a substantial alumni network in the Mid-Atlantic and New England, but in many places, notably including the West Coast, it’s spotty to nonexistent. There are also serious problems with the quality of the individuals in the alumni network. In my experience they’re often noxious social-climbing shits, the sort of people who make the morally grounded blanch. Decent people do not enjoy associating with them.

It’s telling that I’ve never met anyone of the sort from Humboldt State or College of the Redwoods. Actually, that sort of asshat is pretty rare on the West Coast in general. Alma Mater, on the other hand, is infested.

One of the effects of Billy Fish’s carrying on about the inflated worth of an Alma Mater degree is to imply that Alma Mater graduates are too charmed to end up working as baristas. This is an incredibly pernicious thing to even insinuate to students. Even though it’s patently absurd, it has an effect. It seeps into students’ minds, fraudulently inflates their sense of self-worth, and sets them up for a world of disappointment and bitterness after graduation if they don’t manage to navigate the sanctioned path to greatness. Even if the message is delivered by a blowhard with a studiously cultivated Mr. Chips demeanor (my mom recently told me that she considers Billy Fish’s persona “an act”), it wears students down. It takes immense willpower and self-confidence to be immune to that sort of incessant bullshit artistry.

Oh, but Alma Mater offers its students an etiquette luncheon, so that they’ll know how to properly eat French onion soup in a business setting! Count me unimpressed. Rod Blagojevich fellating a guard for a Whopper Meal has more class than most of those dolts. So does the guard. Of course Alma Mater is the sort of place that would have such a narrow definition of manners; a broader definition would get in the way of fundraising.

It’s a bad sign that I’m comparing Alma Mater unfavorably to FCI Englewood, but Alma Mater is a fucked up place to the extent that Billy Fish is making noise about it. To paraphrase Mohamed Ali, no FCI Englewood guard ever insulted my intelligence and asked me for money. Neither did the Rod Unspared.

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