Thursday, April 23, 2009

First, do no harm

When I was in my mid-teens I heard a report on the news about some small, underdeveloped country somewhere - probably Africa or South America - where the government needed workers for some project. To fill their needs they had entered a remote village, rounded up all the able-bodied men and boys and marched them off to work. Their families did not know where they had gone or when - if ever - they would be back. I believed passionately that that story was horrible. The world is full enough of dangers and disasters that separate family members from each other: it was utterly unconscionable that a government would deliberately set out to do something so cruel to its own people. A government’s first and most important function, after all, is to protect its citizens to the very best of its ability.

In my 20s I read Ayn Rand’s We The Living - or at least I attempted to. I found the book so sad and so upsetting that I could not finish it. Unfortunately I have never been able to forget the part of the book where the heroine and her beloved end up living in one room because the government has decided that is all they need or deserve.

Now comes the news of the suicide of David Kellerman, CFO of Freddie Mac. I do not believe Mr. Kellerman killed himself solely because of his job: he - unlike the villagers in that original news story and unlike Rand’s fictional heroine - had other options and if his only problems were his work problems he would have taken one of them. Furthermore I’ve never been all that enamored of the idea of a slippery slope: surely rational human beings can decide to go just so far and no further.

Nonetheless, reading this story, it’s hard to ignore that my government - my government - was delighted to have Mr. Kellerman work around the clock to help it out while at the same time inciting the populace to hate him for his “outrageous” compensation. My government - my government - bullied Mr. Kellerman to violate not just his professional ethics but his fiduciary duty while at the same time reserving the right to decide - in its infinite wisdom - how much of his promised salary it would allow - allow - him to receive for the work he’d already done. No, it’s not on a par with dragging him off to a work camp or confining his living space to one room. But it’s not exactly an example of the government protecting its own either. And it is most emphatically not how I want my government to operate.

A five-year-old daughter, for God’s sake. Why didn’t Mr. Kellerman just tell them all - all the dishonest Obamas and Geithners; all the malign Franks and rats-in-the-belly Schumers and other criminally irresponsible, grandstanding Congressmen; all the sleazy regulators and pitchfork wielding villagers - to go to Hell?

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