I was downtown last Thursday and ended up with an hour to kill before my train home, so I went down the station’s back stairs and around the corner to Jay’s Bar. It was almost six o’clock, so the crowd was a mix of corporate suits buying expensive vodka, tradesmen enjoying decent beer, and jobless neighborhood guys drinking cheap beer. I ordered something inoffensive and watched to see if any of my old Cypherpunk pals would show up.
But instead, my oldest nemesis showed up, whom I’ll call Jerry. I went to school with Jerry, and whatever I did, he was always desperate to do better. The crazy thing was that we were almost the same guy: We played the same positions in sports; we were both crossing guards; and we were equally skilled at almost everything we did. We should have been buddies, but instead, Jerry was my permanent opponent. I never hated him and he never really hated me, but whatever I did, he had to do better.
I hadn’t run into Jerry in ten years, and the last time I saw him, he was trading coffee futures. We greeted each other; then, he sat down and ordered a better drink than mine. He asked what I was doing lately. I did not mention that I was writing – this job is strange enough without Jerry turning it into a win-lose game. Instead, I said that I was managing a few companies.
“Are they big companies?” he asked.
“Nah, they’re small start-ups.”
He got a disgusted look on his face, and I knew immediately what it was – he was disappointed that beating me wasn’t going to be a challenge.
“That’s for suckers, Paul. You’re smart enough to know that!” He was legitimately disappointed.
“It isn’t just about money, Jerry.”
He looked double-disgusted. And then he looked sympathetic. He was actually sorry that I had lost my edge, and wanted to help me get it back.
“Look, Paul, all that ‘how to get ahead’ stuff we used to read is ancient history. That world ended in 1980. If you want to get ahead now, you have to play the new game.”
I knew what he meant; the old ideal of “work hard, follow the rules, and prosper” is indeed dead. But I said nothing and waited for him to continue.
“You can’t outsmart people anymore; information gets around too fast. They’ll copy what you’re doing in a week. If you want to make real money, you have to have an advantage that will last. And that means you have to get some kind of law or regulation. Then you can rake it in.”
At this point I couldn’t help myself. “I don’t want to whore myself out to politicians, Jerry.” And again he got the disgusted look.
“It’s not whoring, Paul, it’s business. This is how it is now. And the politicians are always looking for smart guys who know how to make money. They’ll be thrilled to write regulations for you! You just have to tell them how, and then take care of them. They’re business expenses, Paul, nothing more!”
At this point I needed to change the subject, at least a little.
“So, is that what you’ve been doing lately?”
“Yes. I work deals between boards of directors and government officials, mostly between New York and DC. I put the deals together and get a piece of the action. I have four homes now Paul, and a fifty four foot boat. And you know what else? I’ve got a dozen ‘get out of jail free cards.’ This is the perfect game for a smart guy, Paul. You need to get busy playing it!”
In his own, thoroughly amoral way, Jerry was looking out for me.
“But what about the people who get screwed on this stuff, Jerry? All those regulations force people to buy things they don’t want.”
“C’mon, Paul, you’re fantasizing that they’re moral, like you. They want laws and regulations. They beg for them! They need politicians to order them around, and they need someone to blame. Otherwise, things might be their own fault.
“Not in a while.”
“Right, because they don’t actually mind paying. We’re giving the average schmuck exactly what he wants: orders to follow and someone to blame. And we get paid a lot of money for it.”
Then Jerry looked at his watch and tossed a twenty on the bar.
“Look, I hafta go, but think about what I told you, Paul. You should be doing better.”
And with that, Jerry walked away, probably for another ten years… though more would probably be better. But as unpleasant as the conversation was, he was right. The current situation is that way.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better argument for an alternative economy.