Two recent media stories on the tragic shooting of innocent students in Virginia and the sex scandal at the World Bank are linked, in that both represent the decline of society’s values against the forces of untrammeled materialism.

A purely satirical view on the first story would highlight the number of dead against the money paid – at less than US$1,000 spent for 33 killed; the Virginia crimes put the Pentagon record of spending a few hundred billion dollars in Afghanistan and Iraq to kill precious few insurgents under a harsh light.

That’s not the motivation behind this week’s title though, as the second story wherein the esteemed Paul Wolfowitz exchanged sexual favors for monetary considerations appears to better typify the arrangements. As I wrote in a previous article [1], societies are always organized around appropriate economics, which in turn define their character. Those lamenting the decline of values typified in these stories obviously haven’t been outside their social cocoons for a while.

Americans cherish the ownership of guns, with roughly 200 million “pieces” in circulation. Political support for the Second Amendment rights to gun ownership depends much on the Republican Party, which in turn garners financial support from vested interests such as gun manufacturers. Much as the employer gets to tell his employees what to do because he pays them, donors to political parties expect and demand unswerving support for their causes.

Meanwhile, the Democrats who do not benefit from the munificence of gun makers show putative independence on the matter. The facts of the case, wherein the perpetrator was able to freely buy weapons for money, and use them in the horrific killing spree, make the Republican defense quite shaky, although the issue of which political view triumphs is not quite the point when discussing such tragedies.

American media reaction to the Virginia carnage is essentially split along political lines, with the liberal media using the incident to push for gun control, while the conservative media predictably lined up behind its paymasters, the anti-gun control lobby.

In the ensuing melee, focus has been taken away from a more important problem, namely the social fears of discrimination and its associated stigma that have helped to limit the doctrine of free speech in public forums. The debate over the Second Amendment is essentially a mirror of problems that the media has in coming to grips with the limits posed on the First Amendment right to free speech.

As the Don Imus case showed, wherein the talk show host was fired for a racial slur this month, American society is very much on the defensive on the issues of racial and gender discrimination. While society as a whole condemned Imus for his statement, the radio host quickly apologized, but even that wasn’t enough to keep his job. Meanwhile, the army of hip-hop artists in America use derogatory phrases to depict women and other African-Americans, but have no need to apologize or withdraw their “works of art”.

The economics of the situation plays directly to the matter. The average American teenager has no compunctions about purchasing compact discs recorded by offensive hip-hop artists, but American corporations that advertise on radio shows do not want to be caught dead in the company of people like Imus. They would hardly support hip-hop artists either, but then again no one asked them in any event.

American colleges are also being held to the same standards as larger corporations, as they attempt to outgrow allegations of racial discrimination in the past by over-compensating now. The second factor of course has been their increased dependence on overseas students to pay fees. The upshot of all the above is that it is simply not acceptable for any institution to be seen as a vanguard of race or gender discrimination because swift bankruptcy would be the most likely result.

We will not know for a while all the gory details of why the college failed to act on the suspicion of its own teachers that the South Korean student in question was off his rocker, but I would dare venture that the constraints laid out above in terms of managing perceptions actively played a significant part.

The second possibility is that the college and its teachers over-compensated for the linguistic gap, by excessive accommodation of his rambling notes as attributes of cultural differences. In other words, they must have assumed that “Korean” culture had a strange sense of humor and satire, rather than the more direct conclusion that the student in question was a tad kooky.

This failure, brought about by the Politically Correct Mafia, is perhaps the most lamentable, and yet the one least likely to be addressed. Thus it is that the liberal media which would rather see a Virginia Tech than a Imus plays exactly the same fiddle as the rabid right wing that would rather protect its Second Amendment rights even if that causes the odd Virginia Tech incident or two. A true convergence of the left and right-wing views, if there ever was one.

World Bank scandal

Meanwhile, the Virginia killings pushed the story of the sex scandal at the World Bank to the back pages. In this, as with many other things, American media have taken a cue from Hollywood, by reveling in tales of gore rather than in those involving the old in-out routine – in other words, sex scandals are a bigger deal than the odd car bomb or five.

This week was, then, an exception, and we should expect the focus to return to the World Bank story by next week, especially given that Democrats will not push overly hard on the gun control issue, given their experience in 2000 when similar post-Columbine tragedy activism cost them the election.

The biggest scandal with the World Bank [2] is that it exists at all. For all his failings, Wolfowitz had the right ideas about the institution, namely that its lending policies must dovetail with improved standards of governance and transparency on the part of borrowers. This belated recognition of the most important problem confronting the usage of free money may help to perpetuate the current stasis wherein the bank and its ugly sister, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), throw good money after bad in perpetuity.

That said, Wolfowitz vastly underestimated the power of vested interests. His failure therefore is an economic rather than political one. Let me explain. The World Bank and the IMF are populated almost exclusively by mediocre economists and bureaucrats from member countries. In other words, the kind of people that market-driven investment banks would swerve to avoid hiring.

Despite this obvious flaw, workers are paid lavishly for their tenure at the multilateral agencies, a frequent result of a culture without accountability. Unfortunately, for many employees the relatively high pay has provided delusions of adequacy, and indeed many consider themselves to be members of an elite group. Add to this the multiple layers of national politics that play out, particularly between the Americans and Europeans, and it is some wonder that any business gets done.

In this context, “Wolfie” laid down new rules for curbing loans to corrupt governments, effectively trimming the authority of many World Bank staffers. His aim was ostensibly to increase the return on investments made by the bank. As the fight intensified, speculation within the bank mounted about his personal conduct, which is usually a foolproof way of getting back at Republicans. True to form, staffers quickly discovered his liaison with Shaha Riza and the the matter quickly made it to the front pages of the world’s newspapers.

Despite calls within the bank for his resignation and an open condemnation from the advisory board, Wolfie has refused to go; undoubtedly emboldened by White House support (you can just see President George W. Bush saying “you are doing a heck of a job, Wolfie”) and his own personal value system, which would have perhaps advised him that he was just being a rational economic agent by maximizing the pleasure of paying for useless staff at the World Bank.

That refusal to resign is also not surprising, given that he is only accused of doing to a colleague what the US government has been doing to Iraq for the past four years or so. Hardly reason for a megalomaniac to quit, and what the case also highlights is the continued media hypocrisy in all matters sexual.

While it may seem inappropriate for a boss to promote a subordinate based on sexual favors, the sting is somewhat lost in organizations like the World Bank and the IMF, whose existential dilemma renders personnel infractions moot. Just in case I am being too subtle, what I mean here is this – why bother with the details of who runs the World Bank, when the biggest issue should be to question why it exists in the first place.

The wrong Korean

As an afterthought to my views on multilateral agencies, I couldn’t help but think that the wrong Korean went berserk this week. Perhaps the global community would have been gladdened had it been Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, who had gone around randomly shooting up various floors in the UN building. At least New York would have seen a reduction in its parking tickets going forward, and the redoubtable John Bolton manage a smile for the first time in a few years or so.

1. It’s the money, honey
Asia Times Online, December 22, 2006. 2. A good use for the IMF: Bail out America Asia Times Online, March 17, 2007.