Friday, January 09, 2009

The next desperadoes?

Historically, one characteristic of bad economic times has been the rise of desperadoes as populist folk heroes. In 1959, the historian Eric Hobsbawm identified the social bandit or noble bandit as a major historical and literary archetype. This style of tale, about the bandit as a trickster, defier of authority, and defender of the common people, can be found all over the world, going back through Robin Hood into the earliest known literature. In historical literature, noble bandit escapades are often apocryphally attributed to real people. One Jesse James legend has him giving some of his loot to a widow to pay her mortgage and then robbing the landlord to get it back. Nineteenth century European nationalist movements regularly appropriated noble bandit folklore as evidence of a primitive national consciousness. In other cases, the bandits themselves worked to live up to the social bandit stereotype. During the depression, Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd was adored by some because, when he robbed banks, he burned the mortgage records. The Australian bandit Ned Kelly did the same.

This leads me to wonder if we're in for another round of the same. Millions of people are losing their jobs. Hundreds of thousands are losing their jobs. Tens of millions are struggling to keep up payments on credit card balances with usurious interest rates. Meanwhile, wealthy conservative pundits sneer that we have no one to blame for our troubles but ourselves and that we are clearly morally deficient for letting ourselves get into this state. Our Congress has shown itself much more eager to bail out a small number of white collar bankers and stock traders than they are millions of blue collar laborers. The time seems ripe for some serious economic populism.

Banks no longer keep records of mortgages and loan balances on paper or in file cabinets; they keep them in computers. The Pretty Boy Floyd method won't help anyone this time around. However, among the millions losing their job are tens of thousands of tech workers and bank employees. Will the next round of noble bandits be hackers nursing a grudge? I'm not encouraging anyone to fry the databases of their credit card issuers--as Nixon said, that would be wrong--but I doubt as if anyone is waiting for my permission. And, even if the noble hackers don't appear, we can be assured that hell will be raised in the next few years.

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