Michele and I watched The Bourne Legacy a couple of days ago. If you haven’t seen it, the conceit is that – through a secret Government program called Treadstone – several top operatives have been chemically enhanced. They are both mentally and physically much more capable than the usual super-capable, James Bond type agent. Very early on, in the movie establishes that the people involved in running Treadstone are ruthless and evil. When the program gets exposed, to cauterize the leaks and save their own asses, the project heads start trying to kill everybody involved.
Dr. Marta Shearing is a brilliant scientist working on the project because the science is so interesting. She semi-doesn’t know how bad and evil the project is (part of why she doesn’t know is because she really doesn’t want to know). This science that, presumably, could be used for good purposes is – in Treadstone – being used to make enhanced killers.
I just read the The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics will reprint a series of articles on space exploration that were first published in Colliers Magazine in 1952. Wernher von Braun, along with several others, wrote the articles and I would have been about twelve when I first saw them. The articles were spectacularly illustrated and, as a twelve-year-old, that was probably their biggest attraction but what ever the reason, they drew me into the world of rockets and space travel (if you are interested, the AIAA will reprint them in their entirety).
It wasn’t until years later, when I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer, that I learned von Braun earned his chops designing V-2 rockets for the Nazis. Like Marta Shearing, he was a brilliant scientist who was willing to sell his soul to pursue the intellectual work he was interested in. According to Wikipedia, According to a BBC documentary in 2011, the attacks [V-2] resulted in the deaths of an estimated 9,000 civilians and military personnel, while 12,000 forced labourers and concentration camp prisoners were killed producing the weapons. The forced labor was not von Braun’s concern and he makes a strong case that he really didn’t know about it and an even better case – although inadvertently – that he didn’t want to know.
A couple of days ago, Richard Taylor sent me a New York Times article, Data You Can Believe In, that talks about a singular breakthrough in the field of television ad buying. Working on the Obama campaign, Larry Grisolano and Chauncey McLean, among others, developed cutting edge technology to much better identify where to spend television dollars to get maximum effect (using social media, it is also much more intrusive than conventional, now old-fashioned, methods). Without going into detail – that I don’t know -a pretty good argument can be made that they were instrumental in Obama winning the election. The problem is that the election is over, the need – in Obama’s case, at least – is over and Grisolano and McLean want to keep working on the technology.
That is where Caesar’s comes in. This is exactly the kind of technology that Caesar’s can use to get casual gamblers to make more trips to the tables and working for Caesar’s allows Grisolano and McLean to keep doing what they love. According to the article McLean treated his shift from selling Obama to selling Caesars as a small discomfort that was necessary if he wanted to keep working on the technological advancements he and his colleagues developed on the campaign.
Seeing these three separate stories at about the same time got me thinking about them as different sides of the same coin (will that analogy hold up?). Good people, brilliant people, moral people, doing immoral acts with almost no repercussions. Dr. Marta Shearing did evil work because it was interesting and, in the movie, she is forgiven and becomes Aaron Cross’s accomplice and consort. When Wernher von Braun came to the United States, all his past sins were excused. He worked on our space program for NASA, and was instrumental in the Apollo Program. In 1977, he was awarded the National Medal of Science. Most people won’t even think Grisolano and McLean did anything wrong by going to Caesar’s and they will make alot of money working for the gambling industry.
I am not saying that these people are evil – hell, Shearing isn’t even real – but their acts hurt people. I don’t want to say that working for Caesar’s is comparable to building a rocket that, more or less, randomly killed people, but, while not as dramatic, what Larry Grisolano and Chauncey McLean are doing is contributing to ruining lives.
Capitalism has become our state religion and, if it is legal, what is done in and by the private sector is sacrosanct. It is never looked upon as evil, no matter how much devastation is done; maybe thoughtless at times, maybe evil as a byproduct, but decidedly not evil in itself (at least not by the same people who get upset at the government). There are honest reasons for holding private companies to a lesser standard than government. After all, governments can do alot more visible damage than the private sector and the people getting it done to – or on – them are usually not willing participants. Google knows more about us than the national Security Agency but Google can not put a person in jail for smoking pot, Google can not take away a person’s children for letting them ride in a car without a safety seat; our government has done both.
Still, private companies – the capitalist, or entrepreneurial system if you prefer – do major, systemic, long-term, damage . Damage to both the country and its citizens. Almost certainly, the private sector has done more harm than the government in the past – often aided or allowed by the government, it is true – and there is reason to think it will continue to. Few people think of McDonald’s as evil but McDonald’s has probably done more persisting damage to the health of this nation than all the people who are now in jail on drug offenses.
In the end, two idealistic guys – actually more than two – are helping Caesar’s get more money out of their customers because the work behind it is interesting and that just makes me sad.