Skin in the Game

Matt Taibbi gets very upset about bankers claiming they’re the ones with skin in the game:

But it seems to me that if you’re broke enough that you’re not paying any income tax, you’ve got nothing but skin in the game. You’ve got it all riding on how well America works.

You can’t afford private security: you need to depend on the police. You can’t afford private health care: Medicare is all you have. You get arrested, you’re not hiring Davis, Polk to get you out of jail: you rely on a public defender to negotiate a court system you’d better pray deals with everyone from the same deck. And you can’t hire landscapers to manicure your lawn and trim your trees: you need the garbage man to come on time and you need the city to patch the potholes in your street.

And in the bigger picture, of course, you need the state and the private sector both to be functioning well enough to provide you with regular work, and a safe place to raise your children, and clean water and clean air.

The entire ethos of modern Wall Street, on the other hand, is complete indifference to all of these matters. The very rich on today’s Wall Street are now so rich that they buy their own social infrastructure. They hire private security, they live on gated mansions on islands and other tax havens, and most notably, they buy their own justice and their own government.

Perhaps I’m slightly less cynical than Taibbi, but I don’t think it’s just that the very rich can opt out of our shared social goods. Don’t get me wrong – all of them can some of the time, and some of them can all of the time. But I don’t think that’s the core problem.

I think, rather, that it’s easy to take these shared social goods for granted, to assume they’ll always be there no matter how many pension funds get plundered or how much budgets get cut. The human mind is weirdly conservative. We tend to assume that the way things are is the way they must always be, particularly when they are deeply embedded into our institutions, our social rhetoric, and our values. They become nearly invisible, unless you’re one of the people encountering them day to day.

I don’t think Schwartzman wants to destroy, say, the police. I think he assumes the police will magically continue to exist, because that’s how America works. Because he doesn’t have to engage with the police, because he’s got enough money to buy himself out, he never sees the reality of the police – only the stories we tell about them.

I think it’s analogous to how a lot of men see housework; clean clothes magically appear, and if they ever bother to think about the process, they assume that’s just how life works. They keep throwing dirty clothes on the floor*, knowing that the clean clothes will just keep coming – until the day their wife walks out on them, because actually they have no idea of the work they are creating or the person who is doing it.

In my analysis, Schwartzman and his ilk are in a similar situation. They think the way things are is the way they’ll always be. They can keep acting just as they like, because a functioning society is just how things work. And because their social bubble keeps them away from people who have to engage with those social goods more directly, they’ll keep thinking it, right up until the day things stop working for them.

* I do feel the need to say that if anyone throws clothes on the floor in my relationship, it’s me – but laundry remains a job primarily done by women, so I’m using it as the example here.

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