Heroes and Villains

The Thumb from The Adventures of Unemployed Man

The Mistral Wind has awakened me at 4 AM here in Toulouse, France, on the eve of the Festival BD Colomiers. In a few short hours I’ll be wearing orange lycra as Ultra Chômeur!

In the world of Ultra Chômeur, everyone is a superhero or villain. So one question that comes up is: Are there REALLY heroes and villains in our economy? The book confronts this question in several scenes (most notably the scene between The Thumb and Spin Doctor in the Hall of Just Us) but allow me to address it here directly.

The short answer is yes, there are economic heroes and villains. But we can’t stop there, obviously. If we want to prevent future people from becoming villains, we need to understand how that happens.

Heroism and villainy exist on a spectrum of action. We make choices that put us somewhere on that spectrum every day. To be called a full-blown hero or villain, you need to consistently choose one direction or the other, ultimately crossing a threshold that puts you solidly on one side. Even then, opportunities to choose a different direction are ever-present.

Our economic system currently makes it all too easy to choose villainous actions and be rewarded. You might be experiencing that right now. Here’s an example of everyday villainy I encountered recently.

I was at a social club in New York, talking with the president of a university and a hedge fund manager. I brought up a subject relevant to both of them: the trend of universities divesting from oil companies. The hedge fund manager dismissed the whole idea of “green investing” by explaining that it was far better (in terms of the End Results) for one to keep investing unethically, and do ethical things outside of investing, like donating to charities (see Hurricane Sandy). The university president was mum, but in this month’s Yale alumni magazine I read an exquisite rationalization from Yale’s president for why the university wouldn’t divest from oil.

So what’s really going on here? How can the hedge fund manager be so glib about his villainy? (Remember, he’s not just looking that other way at his personal stock portfolio, he’s financing other villains.)

The rulebook of our economy, which is written by lawmakers who too often work for villains, allows people (and faceless organizations that have the legal rights of people) to divert wealth to themselves at everyone else’s expense, principally by making it possible to move all the costs of doing business (especially environmental costs) off their own balance sheets. Thus, a small class of people “enrich” themselves while we get left with the bill (see latest oil spill/war/ecological catastrophe for reference).

Earlier I mentioned thresholds. A man is more villainous if he’s consciously aware of the damage and pain his actions are causing, but chooses to continue his actions for his own selfish reasons. To some degree, this applies to all of us when it comes to environmental damage—but your choice to produce more CO2 by driving across town does not have the same consequence as, say, an oil company president choosing to finance the campaigns of lawmakers who regulate (or not) the oil industry. Thus, the impact of your choices is also a factor in where you fall on the hero/villain spectrum.

While a villain’s choices may have greater direct consequences than the average person’s, when taken together, our choices can be more powerful. Over the last few decades there’s been a lot of emphasis on the collective choices we all make as consumers (like choosing eco-friendly products). While this is very important, it’s time we move beyond the idea that we can save the planet by buying the right stuff. After all, we are not merely consumers, we are citizens who actively shape our society in many ways.

We must begin to recognize all the places where we (and others) are choosing villainous actions for temporary gain, and make a different choice, consistently. No matter how great the short-term rewards for villainy seem, we must make it possible to choose a different path for ourselves, and for the next generation. We must also rewrite the rules of our economy so that villainy can no longer offer so many false rewards.

In every epic story of heroes defeating villains (including Ultra Chômeur) the heroes must act TOGETHER in order to win. How will we know when we’ve won? When choosing to be a hero no longer means being part of a “rag tag rebel fleet” and is instead synonymous with true prosperity and sustainable abundance. When the Mistral Wind is a source of free energy (the Mistral Wind asked me to say that).