16
Nov
11

Attack of the invisible technocrats

A few days ago, Karl Smith posted a rant on the failures of technocracy which in retrospect leaves me utterly terrified:

Here’s the bit that spooks me:

As I recently told a correspondent: if we are doing our jobs right then people shouldn’t even know that technocrats exist. They should never think about us. They should think about the things they care about; their children, their friends, their love interests, their dreams. If they know about the technocracy then the technocracy has failed.

There is no doubt that these movements – OWS and the Tea Party – are a glaring sign of technocratic failure. We shouldn’t forget that as long as these movements exist. Any moment that a citizen spends thinking about taxes, the economy, lobbyists, the capitalist system, etc is a moment of their lives that we have wasted and that they will never get back.

Time is all that they have, to burn it is to burn their lives away. It is to destroy the very thing we are supposed to protect. If you keep in mind that your ultimate goal is to induce a rational blissful ignorance in your citizens then you I think your ship will always be straight.

(Emphasis added.)

In Smith’s defence, he goes on to argue that exploitation of the general public by the technocratic elite is the worst form of technocratic failure: it means people are constantly complaining or worrying or anxious about the technocracy (which is, by his metric, an abject catastrophe).  What scares me about this prescription isn’t its intended endgame: it’s the system it sets up, and how that system can be corrupted.

This technocracy essentially treats accountability as a bug rather than a feature.  Now, that’s all well and good if the technocrats are (a) utterly incorruptible and (b) utterly infallible, but we know that’s never going to be the case — not by a long shot.  If the citizenry is to be lulled into rationally blissful ignorance — some would say this happened (minus the “rational” part) between 2001 and 2008, at least in economic terms — it must be because the technocrats have made all the hard decisions and condensed them into common wisdom to be fed to hoi polloi — heuristics so banal, so blatantly obvious, that no-one even questions them.

Heuristics like these:

  • Of course the bank isn’t going to offer you a loan unless they think you’re good for it.  Go ahead and sign for that (second|subprime) mortgage; obviously they’ve already vetted you.  Why would they lend you six figures worth of money if there was a risk you’d default?
  • Housing is a great investment for your future: real estate only goes up.  After all, it’s not like they can create a bunch of new land and flood the market, is it?  Renovate the bathroom and throw in some granite countertops while you’re at it… it’s an investment, after all.
  • No matter how much you have to borrow to do it, going to college is essential if you want to win at life.  But don’t worry too much about what degree you get; as long as you get a four-year Bachelor’s it’s all good.

Yeah, that worked well.  (And… sarcasm tag.)

Now, look at those heuristics and see if you can figure out what might happen if the technocracy was captured by large investment banks betting both sides of a debt/derivative securities-driven bubble.  Those banks might need to create more and more debt in order to satisfy demand for debt-backed securities.  If hoi polloi are to be kept blissfully ignorant of what the technocrats are doing in service to these rent-seeking agents, they first of all won’t see anything coming and second of all will be discouraged from doing anything about it if they do.  Don’t want them to waste their time thinking about “the economy”, after all.

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