At times I suffer from a troubled conscience. I get this sinking feeling that I am part of a large problem rather than a solution to it. Working for a modern corporate empire, a bank to boot, it is hard to avoid this feeling — if you feel anything at all.
Then I found a straw to grasp at. It was an observation made by Mohamed El-Erian, CEO of Pimco, on Hardtalk with Stephen Sackur. In response to a direct question, he said that the “Occupy Wall Street” guys had a point. Old Stevie was not going to miss a trick like that. He pounced, “Are you, you the head of a hedge fund managing over a trillion dollars, the epitome of modern capitalism, admitting that the system is flawed? Are you going to stop what you are doing?” (Of course, I’m paraphrasing. He probably asked it better.)
I loved the intelligent response that Mr. El-Erian gave. You see, you don’t get to the top of a corporate empire with sub-par intelligence, much as we techies would like to believe otherwise. He said (paraphrasing again), “You asked me about what should happen, the system as it should be. We work with what is likely to happen. In an ideal world, the two should converge. Our job is to make use of what is likely to happen and make profit for our clients. It is the job of policy makers to ensure that what is likely to happen is close to what should happen.” This line of thought was the straw that I was looking for, something that I felt would assuage my troubled conscience.
Right now, there is a large gulf between what should happen and what is likely to happen. What should happen is prosperity for all and peace and happiness on earth. What is likely to happen is obscene prosperity for a select few and misery for the rest. Yet, by our skewed economic indicators (like stock indices and GDPs), we are still doing well. The party is still on, they seem to indicate. Now is not the time to worry about the mess we are creating, and about the underpaid migrant workers who will have to clean it up. Now is the time to eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow is not ours. It’s theirs, hopefully.
What is interesting and really smart about Mr. El-Erian’s observation is how neatly he cleaved the responsibility into two parts — his job which is to make use of the status quo, and somebody else’s job, which is to improve it. Thinking a bit more about it, and recalling the opening scene of every one of those Mahabharata episodes where Krishna says, “In a battle between the good and the evil, those who stand on the side lines are just as guilty as the evil,” I wonder whether this observation on the ‘way things are,’ for which I shouldn’t count myself responsible, is good enough a cure for my troubled conscience. By the way, President Bush totally and permanently ruined this Krishna statement for me, when he said, “You are either with us or against us.” On the plus side, thinking about Bush does soothe this guilt-laden conscience of mine to some degree. After all, I could have been worse. A lot worse…