finem respice

The Divine Right of Kings (of Our Choosing)

Submitted by ep on Fri, 02/05/2010 - 16:38
how easy is this going to be really?

“There is one change, then,” said I, “which I think that we can show would bring about the desired transformation. It is not a slight or an easy thing but it is possible.” “What is that?” said he. “I am on the very verge,” said I, “of what we likened to the greatest wave of paradox. But say it I will, even if, to keep the figure, it is likely to wash us away on billows of laughter and scorn. Listen.” “I am all attention,” he said. “Unless,” said I, “either philosophers become kings in our states or those whom we now call our kings and rulers take to the pursuit of philosophy seriously and adequately, and there is a conjunction of these two things, political power and philosophic intelligence, while the motley horde of the natures who at present pursue either apart from the other are compulsorily excluded, there can be no cessation of troubles, dear Glaucon, for our states, nor, I fancy, for the human race either. Nor, until this happens, will this constitution which we have been expounding in theory ever be put into practice within the limits of possibility and see the light of the sun. But this is the thing that has made me so long shrink from speaking out, because I saw that it would be a very paradoxical saying. For it is not easy to see that there is no other way of happiness either for private or public life.” Whereupon he, “Socrates,” said he, “after hurling at us such an utterance and statement as that, you must expect to be attacked by a great multitude of our men of light and leading, who forthwith will, so to speak, cast off their garments and strip and, snatching the first weapon that comes to hand, rush at you with might and main, prepared to do dreadful deeds. And if you don't find words to defend yourself against them, and escape their assault, then to be scorned and flouted will in very truth be the penalty you will have to pay.” “And isn't it you,” said I, “that have brought this upon me and are to blame?” “And a good thing, too,” said he; “but I won't let you down, and will defend you with what I can. I can do so with my good will and my encouragement, and perhaps I might answer your questions more suitably than another. So, with such an aid to back you, try to make it plain to the doubters that the truth is as you say.” “I must try,” I replied, “since you proffer so strong an alliance. I think it requisite, then, if we are to escape the assailants you speak of, that we should define for them whom we mean by the philosophers, who we dare to say ought to be our rulers. When these are clearly discriminated it will be possible to defend ourselves by showing that to them by their very nature belong the study of philosophy and political leadership, while it befits the other sort to let philosophy alone and to follow their leader.” “It is high time,” he said, “to produce your definition.” “Come, then, follow me on this line, if we may in some fashion or other explain our meaning.” “Proceed,” he said. “Must I remind you, then,” said I, “or do you remember, that when we affirm that a man is a lover of something, it must be apparent that he is fond of all of it? It will not do to say that some of it he likes and some does not.” “I think you will have to remind me,” he said.1

In what must be among the first of such uses of the descriptor "liberal" by the "paper of record," Murray Hill is sketched by way of introduction as a "liberal public relations firm" in the New York Times by Catherine Rampell. Rampell goes on to highlight the firm's tongue-in-cheek campaign ad wherein Murray Hill Incorporated announces its candidacy in the Republican Primary in Maryland's 8th Congressional District. In the process, the ad delivers a series of "zingers." To wit:

It's a new day. Until now, corporations influenced politics with high paid lobbyists and backroom deals. However, as much as corporate interests gave to politicians we could never be sure they would do our bidding.

Murray Hill Incorporated will bring enlightened self interest and corporate accounting to government to put business first.


I'm [Eric Hanson ?] designated human for Murray Hill Incorporated. We approve this message.

So loud has it been, it should not be news that the collective heads of what I will pejoratively call "the left" (but that should probably be better be termed something like the "anti-corporatari") have been, quite literally, exploding over the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission which appears widely perceived (or at least has been widely spun) to "give corporations the same bill of rights that humans have." As is typically the case in matters like these there is an inverse correlation between the dB reading 5 meters from the mouth of any spinster on the topic and the number of words of the actual decision read by said spinster. Additionally, the R-Squared here is around 93%.

The reality is, of course, somewhat less dramatic than that which would require a sudden laying down of the stars and stripes at the (legally fictive) feet of our new S-Corp Overlords, but there is no doubt at all that the ruling will have a dramatic impact on elections. Be this as it may, it seems quite clear that Murray Hill's little (and quite cute) bit of satire actually makes a case quite opposite of its intention. The piece begins:

It's a new day. Until now, corporation influenced politics with high paid lobbyists and backroom deals. However, as much as corporate interests gave to politicians we could never be sure they would do our bidding.

Well, of course the fact that corporations have no idea what they are really getting for their hard earned money today isn't remotely the result of amazingly effective campaign finance law, or the fact that they have been forced to resort to paying lobbyists instead of spending their cash directly in political campaigns. One hopes that no one who has actually been paying attention believes that some masterfully crafted bit of legislation (and quite obviously my description here excludes McCain-Feingold) is all that has been preventing corporations from securing the constant and obsequious obedience of political representatives. Quite obviously, that bit of unaccountability is the result of the abyssal disconnect between the wishes of the citizens (or any actors attempting to sway legislators or the executive) and consequences of any note to the representatives in question. Really, this ends up being a quite shocking declaration (or inadvertent slip) by the anti-corporatari left that "incentives matter." You don't have to read far between the lines to see that the issue that is pumping up inter-cranial pressures is not that legislators will suddenly be accountable. The issue is: to whom exactly? Is it any wonder that the concept that capital (which, ironically, would probably still be concentrated in the sorts of families that aspire to leftist power if not for the rule against perpetuities), the sort of power that can end up in the hands of any old high-school drop-out, might be a factor in king making would scare the old guard of the left?

You can never be sure that politicians, or any power figure, will actually "do your bidding" no matter who you are. Amazingly, the left hasn't seemed to have absorbed that lesson particularly well even in the face of experience gleaned from the current administration's behavior (or the Carter administration, for that matter- not that this effect is confined to the left as Justice Souter, supposed to have been the classic reserved, moderate New England conservative, to the extent that species was not already extinct, was as much of a surprise as Justice Kennedy when it came to the likes of Roe v. Wade, or perhaps even Reagan appointee Rhenquist, who historically sided with O'Connor far more often than Scalia or Thomas). To the extent accountability is a hybrid of information symmetry and the ability for the citizenry to inflict consequences on elected officials (hence the total unaccountability of lifetime tenured Supreme Court justices absent a court-packing threat), there is, in fact, very little accountability to speak of in the current political system in the United States.

On reflection, one might suppose that a lack of accountability would serve those with more paternalistic dispositions. If your political worldview includes the sort of skew that prompts you to pass legislation as quickly as possible before anyone in the public (or the deliberative body about to vote on it for that matter) can actually read it, well, accountability is rather a pain for you. Your urge to "this-is-for-your-own-good" them, even in the face of popular revolt, is badly frustrated if the popular revolt can lay its hands on you ex post.

In this connection, it bears notice that while the divine right of kings is an eminently useful device, it is only such to the extent that one gets to pick the kings. Today one sees this urge expressed in the complaint that, even in the face of a majority (once a supermajority) in both houses of Congress and an executive of the same party, somehow the loss of a single Senate seat means that the country has become "ungovernable."

It is among the most absurdly difficult endeavors to unseat a monarch once installed, of course. These dynamics, however, mean that incentives to unseat grow as accountability shrinks. One need only ask, say, the ghost of Charles I to outline this particular effect. A long, but highly instructive, accounting would seem appropriate at this juncture:

While the King lived, whether in prison or at large, Cromwell well knew he must be the rallying point for the efforts of those bodies of his subjects who were sincerely attached to the monarchy and to his person, and of all those other numerous classes who were now disgusted with the oppressive domination and immense pecuniary levies of the army and the parliament. "To murder him privately," says Hume," was exposed to the imputation of injustice and cruelty, aggravated by the baseness of such a crime. Some unexpected procedure must, therefore, be attempted, which would astonish the wold by its novelty, would bear the semblance of justice, and would cover its barbarity by the audaciousness of the enterprise." Towards the execution of this sanguinary project events were rapidly tending.


When all the commissioners present had answered to their names, the Court commanded the serjeant-at-arms [sic] to send for the prisoner; and in a quarter of an hour Colonel Tomlinson, who had the Kind in charge, conducted him into Court. He was attended by Colonel Hacker, and thirty-two officers, holding partisans, and by his own servants, and advanced up the side of the Hall next the Thames from the house of Sir Robert Cotton. The serjeant-at-arms,[sic] with his mace, received the King in the Hall, and conducted him to the bar, where a crimson-velvet chair was placed for him facing the Court. After a stern and steadfast gaze on the Court, and on the people in the galleries on each side of him, the King placed himself in the chair, not at all moving his hat, showing neither the least emotion nor the slightest respect to the tribunal before him.2 Presently he rose up and turned about, looking down the vast hall: first on the guards, which were ranged on its left or western side, and then on the eager waving multitude of his own subjects which filled the space on the right.


Cook, the solicitor for the commonwealth... then rose to speak; but the King wishing to be heard, softly laid his staff two or three times on Cook's shoulder, and bade him hold. Bradshaw interposed, and ordered Cook to proceed...


During the reading of the charge, the King sat entirely unmoved in his chair, looking sometimes to the court and sometimes to the galleries. Occasionally he rose up and turned about to behold the guards and the spectators, and then sat down again, looking very sternly, but with a majestic and composed countenance, unruffled by the slighted emotion, till the clerk came to the words Charles Stuart as a tyrant, traitor, murdered etc.; at which the King laughed, as he sat, in the face of the Court. The silver head of his staff happened to fall off, at which he appeared surprised: Herbert, who stood near him, offered to pick it up, but Charles, seeing he could not reach it, stooped for it himself. When the words were read stating the charge to be exhibited "on behalf of the people of England, a voice, in a loud tone, called out "No, nor the half of the people- it is false- where are they or their consents? Oliver Cromwell is a traitor!" This occasioned a confusion in the Court; Colonel Axtell even commanded the soldiers to fire into the box from which the voice proceeded. But it was soon discovered that these words, as well as the former exclamation on calling Fairfax's name, were uttered by Lady Fairfax, the General's wife, who was immediately compelled by the guard to withdraw.

These expressions of sympathy for the King, and of indignation against the proceeding, were, according to Whitlock, not confined to this spirited lady, but were frequently exhibited by the spectators in the gallery.

The charge being read,

Bradshaw began: - Sir, You have now heard your charge read; the Court expects your answer.

The King. I would know by what power I am called hither; I was not long ago in the Isle of Wight; how I came there, is a longer story than is fit at this time for me to speak of; but there I entered into a treaty with both Houses of Parliament, with as much public faith as it is possible to be had of any people in the world. I treated there with a number of honourable lords and gentlemen, and treated honestly and uprightly. I cannot say but they did very nobly with me. We were upon a conclusion of the treaty. Now I would know by what authority, I mean lawful (there are many unlawful authorities in the world, thieves and robbers by the highways)- but I would know by what authority I was brought from thence, and carried from place to place, and when I know by what lawful authority, I shall answer. Remember I am your King, your lawful King, and what sins you bring upon your heads, and the judgment of God upon this land, think well upon it,- I say, think well upon it before you go further from one sin to a greater. Let me know by what lawful authority I am seated here, and I shall not be unwilling to answer. In the mean time, I have a trust committed to me by God, by old and lawful descent,- I will not betray it, to answer to a new unlawful authority: therefore resolve me that, and you shall hear more of me.3

It will be seen that such things can be messy indeed ex post. Perhaps quite messy even when actually rooted in legitimacy (and it is hard to imagine that the trial of Charles I actually was). In fact, it is not difficult to understand in this light that, fused at the hip with the divine right of kings, there is a critical need to control leadership selection as tightly as possible. Possessing influence over redistricting, the census, and having a massive "get out the vote" machine looks critical if you are hoping to elect Philosopher Kings (or at least Harvard educated philosophy majors) to guard the utopian kallipolis.

Since they are going to be unaccountable once coronated, you better have that electoral process locked up. In fact, since hereditary succession seems to have caused a few problems, even your nomination process should over-weight anointed members of your political elite, prioritize groups of your choosing (say, unions?) and generally concentrate king (or queen) making in the hands of a few selectees. Of course, anything short of a tiny group of oligarchs with absolute nominating power means that you still run the risk of a runaway apparatus. Is it any wonder that "superdelgates" began to rub the wrong way when the party elite started flying into headwinds that even concentrated nomination structures couldn't fly against? Who could forget this battle from 2008:

My strong belief is that if we end up with the most states and the most pledged delegates from the most voters in the country, that it would be problematic for the political insiders [read: superdelgates] to overturn the judgment of the voters.4

Superdelegates are, by design, supposed to exercise independent judgment. But, of course, if Senator Obama and his campaign continue to push this position [that Superdelegates should vote for whoever has the most non-superdelegate votes- i.e. that superdelegates should be gelded], which is really contrary to what the definition of a superdelegate has historically been, I will look forward to receiving the support of Senator Kennedy and Senator Kerry.5

How much help did you need here to identify Obama as the first speaker and Clinton as the second?

Entertainingly, the Clintons were massive superdelegate fans when conventional wisdom suggested that their mere dynastic presence would carry the group in spades. Yet, today, the only member of the family to hold a political position finds herself instead shuffled off to Myanmar to negotiate the latest trade agreement on Fig Newtons and Vagisil while the real work of socializing the US economy is done by those she expected to be serving her lunch aboard Air Force One.

All of this being a long way of pointing out: accountability is not a high priority for the clients of Murray Hill Incorporated. This presents some new context to their opener:

However, as much as corporate interests gave to politicians we could never be sure they would do our bidding.

Translating the satire we might suppose: "In that, beholden to their king and queenmakers and bereft of any other accountability mechanisms of note (well, term limits, but we fought that as hard as we could on those, you know) we never had to compete for power with external entities before."

Then follows:

Murray Hill Incorporated will bring enlightened self interest and corporate accounting to government to put business first.

...intended, one supposes, to evoke two (context dependent) zingers to the party faithful. Namely:

The sinister nature of "enlightened self interest" and "corporate accounting."

In the first instance, and at the risk of appearing unduly post-modern, how might we deconstruct the satire-induced offense implicit in the scare-phrase "enlightened self interest"?

Is it the "enlightened" component that is intended to give offense? Hard to imagine this from the side of the political spectrum that revels in its educational or (dare we suggest) intellectual superiority. So, probably not.

Is it the "interest" component that shocks the senses? Certainly not when married to the word "public" and delivered with an overwhelming aura of condescension, as per: "in the public interest." Ok, that's eliminated.

Then it must fall to "self" to carry the offense multiplier? No? Or maybe the entire phrase is just a crass attempt at argumentum ad hitlerum owing to its ancient connection to the incentive advocating succubus Ayn Rand. Selflessness, you see, is the reason we should forbid corporations to fund films critical of the national candidate who could arguably be described as part of the most power-lusting and self-entitled political dynasty since John Edwards had to eject his reactor core. (This was the original objection at the root of the Citizens case, of course)

Let's reflect on that briefly, shall we?

Ponder, if you will for just a moment, what it means to be neck-and-neck for months in the "least selfless" contest with the guy who not only was just an unannounced room-service call away from being caught in flagrante delicto in the process of issuing forth on Rielle Hunter's ever darkening linea nigra on tape, but also was apparently in the process of conspiring to forge a paternity test to avoid having to spoil the political sympathy capital he had built up via his wife's potentially terminal cancer, much less actually pay the in-state tuition of the fetus whose pre-natal head he had been delivering trans-abdominal phallic slaps to for... well who really knows how many months.

Now ponder losing the elite-concentrated nomination contest to your coffee steward because no one knocked said guy out of the running fast enough despite the fact that dozens of people, including some in the media, knew (or had awfully good reason to suspect and therefore investigate) exactly what was going on.

For those readers who also have the misfortune to be citizens of the United States just now, finem respice challenges you to sleep soundly with the knowledge that, to the very end, this semen soaked, burlap sack filled to bursting with ceaselessly squirming sexual and ambition driven lusts was, if not a single hair's breath away, merely four or five hair's breaths away from talking his way into being your Vice President, or your chief law enforcement officer in the office of United States Attorney General. The selection of Joe Biden's hair plugs to ride Air Force Two instead seems much more rational now, no?

Given this bit of reflection, it might be submitted for your consideration, dear readers, that "selfless" is not exactly one of the words that burns through the foggy miasma of this party's particular nomination process with its luminescent truth and cogent relevance. In fact, finem respice is actually going to go out on a limb and assert that a little bit of "enlightened self interest" (as opposed to the more common unadulterated-end-justifies-any-means-power-lust class of self interest) might actually be in order here. But, then, we have always been possessed of the erroneous impression that "capitalist pig" is meant as some kind of compliment.

Of course, then there is the use of "corporate accounting" as a scare-phrase. One supposes that the inclusion of this term is designed to evoke images of Enron, credit crises, and deleterious 401(k) effects. In fact, it isn't even remotely difficult to sense that applying corporate accounting standards, complete with all their many flaws and inadequacies, to the federal government would represent a literal order of magnitude improvement in reporting standards (with, however, the daunting side effect of something like immediate sovereign insolvency).

Consider what might befall those executive officials and such legislative incumbents as have endured for more than a decade under a regime that imposed requirements that:

  • Enforced the kind of mandatory disclosures on insider dealing and compensation that are a matter of course in annual and even quarterly financial disclosures by public firms in the United States.
  • Linked a large portion of legislative compensation to long-dated stock options with United States GDP as the underlying.
  • Applied debt to GDP covenants on lending.
  • Required the methodology of present-value calculations of pension and other defined benefit liabilities (read: social security, medicare, medicaid) to be disclosed openly, and;
  • Required those liabilities to be consolidated onto the balance sheet of the United States. (Hint: bickering over the recent move to raise the "borrowing limit" to a whole $14.3 trillion is merely window dressing compared to the "infinite horizon discounted value" of off-balance sheet promises already made to citizens in areas like social security's $13.6 trillion hit or medicare's $85.2 trillion default-in-waiting).
  • Required the certification of and imposed criminal penalties on those legislators or other government officials who engage in disclosure fraud. (Of course, the removal of "I didn't know what was in the financial statements [read: health care bill]." as a defense might quickly multiply the number of pages actually read by legislators).
  • Eliminated the off-balance sheet accounting of "off-balance sheet items." (The various foreign wars the country is pursuing along with Fannie and Freddie's recent toxic mortgage shopping spree come to mind- not to mention the fact that neither of these GSE agencies or the FHA have an acting Inspector General at present).
  • Removed the criminal and civil immunity presently enjoyed by the political class.
  • Exposed the federal government and its many departments to civil liability in the form of shareholder derivative suits and required them to show at least a director's "due care" standard as a defense.
  • Required government officials to declare the full amount of benefits they enjoy when the firm provides them with "security enhancements" like mandating the use of corporate jets, drivers, security systems and the like. (Nancy, we are looking at you, sister).
  • Required the use of an auditor actually liable for its opinions. (Anyone who thinks the Congressional Budget Office, much less the Office of Management and Budget is even remotely accountable is asleep at the wheel. What if, for example, the CBO or the OMB had their license revoked for failing to discover the Iran-Contra accounting scandal?) Does anyone doubt that the United States would be immediately earn an "emphasis of matter" notation based on medicare and social security liabilities alone given that these are presently in excess of 600% of GDP?

This also seems an opportune time to ask if any shareholder could be compelled to tolerate 40 years of total and abject operational failure in the face of costs that never managed to avoid a yearly increase exceeding inflation? Surely we would have seen four or five takeovers by now at annual shareholder meetings for the Department of Education, likely triggered by at least a dozen daunting shareholder lawsuits.

Perhaps it was meant as jest, but the joke seems to require as a prerequisite to its appreciation a rather substantial naivete when it comes to the realities of corporate America.

Finally, finem respice notes Murray Hill's closing:

I'm [Eric Hanson ?] designated human for Murray Hill Incorporated. We approve this message.

No surprise that Murray Hill has decided to compete in the Republican primary. One doubts that, absent legacy standing, the Democrats would have him (it?).

  1. 1. "The Republic" 5.473c - 5.474c, Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 Translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. (1969).
  2. 2. If one needed a larger estimation of the import of sovereigns among the author's contemporaries, one might ask: "What other work accounts the tribunal as sitting before the defendant?"
  3. 3. Charles, Thomas, "The Trials of Charles the First and Some of the Regicides" (1832).
  4. 4. Adam Nagourney and Carl Hulse, "Neck and Neck, Democrats Woo Superdelegates, The New York Times (February 10, 2008).
  5. 5. Ibid.
[Art Credit: Marc Munden "The Devil's Whore," Film (2008), from the author's private collection. One hates to commend historical adaptations to the public, but in this case the reluctance is attenuated by (at least with respect to the trial of Charles I) a rather dogged attention to historical accuracy. Of course, finem respice is a sucker for any period piece that manages to pull off a plausible female protagonist as well. Accordingly, The Devil's Whore is entirely worth a dedicated Saturday marathon- if only to reflect on the likely fate of President Obama once the democratic dogs begin to nip at his heels.]

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