Editor’s note: I thought long and hard about what to feature prominently on Election Day in the US.
In addition to the standard coverage, I decided to run something from the archive. While I’m everywhere and always predisposed to delusions of grandeur when it comes to the profundity of my own missives, I’m unfailingly humbled by every commentary penned by the pseudonymous NotesFromDisgraceland.
Try as I might, I could think of no better Election Day post from our deep archive than the following NotesFromDisgraceland piece, originally published here in May. I present it again confident that it is every bit as poignant as it was five months ago, and even more relevant today than it was then.
The original comments are preserved, and I’ve reopened the comments section for anyone who wants to post new thoughts or reflections.
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31. V 2020
Deresponsibilization And The Politics Of Escape
Making a decision under risk/uncertainty requires an understanding of possible outcomes (and having some idea about their probability assignment) in order to quantify the relative magnitude of cost/benefit, and assess its merits. The only decisions that make sense are those where the upside exceeds the downside (in a probabilistic sense), preferably by multiple times.
For example, jumping a turnstile in the NYC subway carries a $100 fine; the actual ticket price is $3.00. Opting to jump a turnstile instead of buying the ticket is clearly a stupid decision – the downside, ~$100 fine, is more than 30 times higher than the upside of saving $3.00 — you have to do it 34 times without getting caught in order to break even.
Imagine now that you are offered to participate in a game of coin toss with the following payout: Gain $10 if heads come up, and $0 in the case of tails. Clearly, a ticket to this gamble should be worth something, around $4 or $5, for example, so that net gains are just slightly higher than potential losses. However, for the sake of argument, assume that this gamble is grossly mispriced and is offered at a much lower cost, say $1 or less, so that its price is insignificant. For the buyer the exposure is: $10 upside and practically no downside.
This type of transaction/gamble/contract cannot exist, or if it for some reason shows up, it cannot persist, in a financial world or any other context where all participants are rational. Without a commensurate downside, the gamble violates basic axioms of (financial) decision-making. However, if this Impossible Game were to persist, it would inevitably end in the financial ruin of the underwriter.
Since the gamble is practically costless, the beneficiary could either flip the coin repeatedly as often as he wishes with impunity as the costs to enter are insignificant, or can raise the stakes and, instead of $10, change the upside to $10 million. This means that the costs to the underwriter could increase indefinitely and ultimately result in ruin. Knowing this, the buyer could use this as leverage – by dosing the frequency of his coin tosses, he could extort any kind of consent from the underwriter.
Severe mispricing and absence of meaningful downside is always harmful. It leads to far-reaching and catastrophic outcomes. Removal of the downside decouples decision making from its consequences and creates a dangerous world of irresponsible behavior with predictable long-term outcomes. Good judgment is based on experience and experience is based on past bad judgment — exposure to downside, i.e. suffering the consequences of our mistakes, is an essential part of learning. Denial of downside intercepts the corrective loop of knowledge acquisition and prevents the formation of experience as an essential part of our existence.
The existence of real and consequential downside is a friction that is necessary for the stability of any sociopolitical, financial, or biological system that involves risk, like social contacts, relationships, sexual encounters, family, economics, business, science, art, law, politics, crime or any other human activity.
You cannot innovate without creating some damage
So, why are we thinking of Impossible Games that have no right to exist? The 20th century was largely a century of innovations and new discoveries. However, every novelty introduces new risks and consequences. Invention of a ship is invention of a shipwreck; invention of a plane is invention of a plane crash, nuclear power plant of nuclear meltdown. Progress and disaster are two sides of the same coin, and the more revolutionary and impactful the innovation, the more spectacular the disaster it creates . We have been harvesting the benefits of those discoveries for decades. This is what the last century was about. However, the 21st century is shaping up to be the century of disasters.
The accident reveals the substance of innovation. Only now are we beginning to get a full taste of this causality. 9/11, global financial crisis, inequality, climate change, economic stagnation, structural unemployment, populism… they are all consequences of the 20th century innovation streak (scientific, political or socioeconomic).
While the innovation paradigm has become an irresistible profit-making machine, embraced by the capital, there is a persistent parallel effort to externalize the downside that comes with it by distancing decision makers from the consequences of their decisions. This has been the unmistakable trend of the first two decades of this century so far. However, in the last four years, this effort has entered an accelerated phase. The paradigm of Impossible Transaction has intruded into every pore of our activity and has become the template of current American politics.
Intersecting crises and the anatomy of the impossible
Capital has always externalized the adverse effects of its prosperity — its desire for deresponsibilization is understandable and in some perverse way natural. However, when such denial of responsibility comes from a person, it is a sign of deeper problems and pathologies. The inability to behave responsibly – pathological refusal to face the downside in a risky situation – is inextricably linked to incompetence, insecurity, and habitual lying. When such people are entrusted with positions of high responsibility, the totality of their flaws are activated simultaneously and begin to reinforce each other leading to dire consequences.
The third decade started with a bang by creating the conditions for the most dangerous configuration of risks: The intersection of social and economic crises. At the epicenter of this deadly configuration resides a compulsive escape from responsibility. Externalization of responsibility and its rapidly growing deficit have entered an acute phase in the last two months as attempts to untie the deadly knot and decouple the two crises are beginning to crumble, threatening to intoxicate the public sphere and bring the whole system down.
Reopening the economy during a pandemic is a high-risk decision. It is desirable by businesses and, if successful, the monetary and political upside could be substantial. However, the downside is difficult to own — the price can be many human lives. Forcing one or the other side – ignoring the risks or erring on the side of caution — requires expending unknown amounts of political capital, which inevitably deepens the downside.
The main difficulty with that decision is the irreconcilable character of the data – the upside and downside are measured in different units. While the upside reflects economic gains, the downside, in addition to economic losses, includes human lives. Any attempt at cost/benefit analysis would necessarily reveal the price tag policy makers put on human life, which as a rule has always been low. And while that has been no secret, the issue is especially troubling for the current president, who has a pathological skew in that context and reminding the public of its magnitude and extent could be politically costly. As a result, the criteria for reopening cannot be clearly specified, forcing the deployment of alternative articulations of the approach to the problem. And we know how it all unfolded.
Pathological refusal to face downside
It’s been more than two months since, during the press conference on March 13th, the 45th President uttered the historic words: “I don’t take responsibility at all”. This denial of responsibility by a person in a position of the highest responsibility stands on its own as one of the most singular PR attempts ever seen in American political history. However, the nonsense did not stop there; it was followed by a barrage of falsehoods and a series of real “constitutional gems” in the subsequent weeks. If Dante Alighieri were a contemporary poet some statements that came from the current occupant of the Oval Office in the last two months would occupy prominent spots in the New Divine Comedy of the 21st century. The emerging composite message of Trump’s laughable attempt to redefine his position in the current crisis can be summarized with two claims: “I can fix it alone” & “I bear no responsibility”.
In financial lingo, this is the Impossible Gamble: All the upside without any downside. The underwriter of this transaction, the American public and the state, would be exposed to a pure downside with no upside and would be subject to blackmail by the president who can use that contract as leverage to extort any subsequent concession.
This maneuver reveals a systematic and unambiguous pattern: Trump has no ability to take risk. Instead of managing risk, he runs for cover preemptively and buys protection ahead of time. If he were a market maker or portfolio manager, he wouldn’t last a week.
At the root of this handicap resides an implicit deep-seated lack of confidence in the merit of his decisions, an implicit awareness that they are worthless — there is a cloud of inevitability of their failure from inception. However, when he is forced to take a risk, he does so in the most cowardly (and dishonest) way. All this while he and his surrogates are trying to strike an alpha-male chord with the frustrated angry citizenry, who go to antigovernment protests armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers. Underneath that faux machismo resides an essential cowardice and ultimate beta-dog mindset of both the leader and his followers fundamentally unsure of themselves.
Truth deficits and Ponzi-scheme artists
In the same way small sporadic indebtedness — occasional borrowing to have ends meet — is different from massive dependence on debt to cover the costs of a gambling habit, there is a qualitative difference between isolated lies and habitual or perpetual lying. Lies are a debt to the truth; persistent lying is accumulation of debt without collateral.
Trump is not an occasional liar; he is addicted to lies. The fundamental axiom/algorithm of his life, and the main pillar of his business, is condensed in the simple realization: If I owe you $100, it is my problem; but if I owe you $1 million, then it is your problem. Trump’s entire business “acumen”, the only thing he really knows, is contained in this one sentence.
He is a one-trick pony, an avid Ponzi-scheme practitioner socializing his risks and neutralizing himself against his bad decisions and actions. Doubling down on every lie is a strategic debt management maneuver, not in a good or intelligent way, but in a way that reflects incapacity for anything else. It is a survival skill acquired during a lifetime of bad business decisions out of which it was impossible to escape by any other means except with the help of other bad decisions. Such a context requires an ever-expanding line of credit, which draws his creditors into the position of his accomplices. Once they are fully in, they become partners and co-owners of that debt – it becomes their problem .
Incompetence and the art of escape
More than anything, Trump is an escape artist. His entire professional life he has been on the run, trying to escape the consequences of his ineptitude and incompetence. He’s been a fugitive from facts, truth, and evidence, always merely steps away from the fatal clinch of his collectors. This had created conditions of acute anxiety, short attention span, cognitive incapacity, persistent feel of persecution, and low-grade paranoia, where everyone is there to get him.
Ironically, this is not incorrect because he owes to everyone in terms of money, truth, facts, favors, loyalty, and responsibility. He genuinely sees himself as a victim because of that.
Somewhere along the way in Trump’s troubled life his ignorance became robust and non-adaptive. He had gotten away with it so many times that he became incapable of understanding any other context than the one of his own mistakes and cover-ups. His corrective mechanisms atrophied, his bad decisions never converted into experience.
Disappearance by proliferation
Cancer implies an infinite proliferation of a basic cell in complete disregard of the laws governing the organism as a whole.
How could a person so flawed, inept and fundamentally incompetent like Trump continue to thrive for decades and rise in ranks in the nominally competitive meritocratic world of American business? And how did America get duped into signing a contract with this subliterate yawper? These are fundamental puzzles, which cannot be understood on their own, but require a broader context. His survival and rise are signs of deeper dynamics — a problem of contamination of the entire American value system — which have been brewing in the background for decades now.
Over the course of the last 50 years, contemporary Western political systems have become entirely self-referential. They have lost every external point of reference and, in that way, corrective mechanisms that align them with their social purpose. They could be either judged only on their own terms or not judged at all. Consequently, they have been allowed to continue to expand, increase in size and become more efficient, but in the direction that served no other purpose but their own. With time, they have become all encompassing – every sector of social activity gradually became like this and now all systems account for all of reality . There is nothing that can be held against such a political system that is not revealed to be already part of it. The mode of ideological hegemonic functioning has become self-preserving: Nothing that comes from within the system can be resisted – no critique of it can be articulated and revolt and uprising are rendered meaningless.
To a large extent, Trump is a product of these conditions of socioeconomic functioning. His political position is supported not only by his base but also by a wide-ranging sector of capital. He was seen as a harbinger of the new paradigm, responding to both the need of capital for deresponsibilization and for the creation of simplified and self-serving narratives aimed at pacifying a growing number of excluded and managing their rage capital.
Capital loves him because he is doing their bidding by setting the stage for a general escape from consequences by opening the door for the legitimization and eventual normalization of widespread unaccountability. He is a catalyst whose task is to introduce it into the mainstream and make sure that the paradigm of the Impossible Game percolates into every pore of human activity and proliferates until it is everywhere and nowhere and, as such, becomes invisible.
With the consequences of risk-taking fully externalized, the accumulated downside becomes the dark matter of the social universe and its buildup the main uncertainty. However, it is just when all uncertainty disappears that it also reappears, because it is at the very moment when domination is total that, because there is nothing outside of it, that it cannot be realized, and has no objective effect. It is at this point that stakes re-enter the game and impossible exchange is shown to be necessary .
Beginning of the epilogue
Nazi plunder refers to art theft and organized looting of European countries during the Third Reich, between 1933 and 1945, carried out by military units known as the Kunstschutz on behalf of the ruling Nazi Party. In 1940, Der Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (The Reichs Leader Rosenberg Taskforce), or ERR, was formed, under Alfred Rosenberg’s and Herman Göring’s leadership. ERR was responsible for seizing more than 20 thousand art objects from German-occupied countries, out of which Göring alone selected about 600 pieces for his own collection. Items which Hitler and Göring did not want were made available to other Nazi leaders, while other, lesser valuable, objects were traded to fund Nazi activities.
While it started as a systematic and well organized project with great attention to detail and involvement of many top art experts and art dealers, guided by strictly defined aesthetic and market criteria, towards the end of the war, the effort became more hectic, non-discriminating and disorganized as the whiff of inevitable defeat began to sink in.
Trump has been doing his con job for over 40 years. But has it worked? Well, every project he undertook ended up in bankruptcy, a total six of them – roughly one every seven years. However, he got away without going to jail while at the same time raising the stakes, so he succeeded in that sense. The stakes are now as high as they can be, so there is no next level. Will he get away with it this time and who will be the rube that bails him out? Or has he come to an end from which there will be no escape? It looks like this time will be no different.
The Republican party and the ideological right, which several decades ago spearheaded the conservative agenda as fiscal hawks and mobilized an army of economists, historians, and legal experts to push implementation of the programmatic plunder of the public domain, entered the final phase of high entropy of the end days in 2016.
This year (2020) presents their attempt to breathe new life into the already bankrupt project of Trump’s presidency. All elements of their so-called “strategy” and doubling down have been on display. Nevertheless, despite all the efforts to find an escape route and stage another comeback, last week feels unmistakably different, as if we have passed through the point of no return and that from now on, things will start unwinding at an accelerated pace.
The four decades of plundering of the public domain in America by the GOP’s Kunstschutz and their oligarchic sponsors, a.k.a the project of reconfiguration of the state, has been interrupted in 2020 by the lethal mix created by the intersection of the social and economic crises. Trump’s pillage and cover-ups are the modern version of the Nazi Plunder. Its accelerated phase of the last three months, the disorganized looting akin to the last days of WWII, is an acknowledgment of the imminent end of the Trump era, its 1945.
 Paul Virilio, The Original Accident, Polity (2007)
 “It’s my decision, not governors’, to reopen country. I have the ultimate Authority to Override States’ Virus Measures. When somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total.” on 13-Apr, only few days apart from: “I like to allow governors to make decisions without overruling them, because from a constitutional standpoint, that’s the way it should be done. If I disagreed, I would overrule a governor, and I have that right to do it. But I’d rather have them make their decisions.”
 One does not have to go as far back as his real estate deals, casinos, products he tried to con people into buying, or his University and charity; not to mention the entire Birther Movement. We just need to remember what happened in the last 3½ years. His problems with Russia, impeachment, or corona pandemic… are now problems of Bill Barr, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Lindsey Graham, Fox News, and the entire GOP – apparently everybody’s except his own.
 Jean Baudrillard, Impossible Exchange, Verso (2012)