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For the Beauty of the Earth: A Novel

For the Beauty of the Earth: A Novel - David B. Lentz Full disclosure: I don't know the author well, but he generously provided me with a free copy of this book. I don't think it influenced my review at all.Murder mysteries generally aren't my genre of choice, but murder mysteries involving the Builderberg Group and the Trilateral Commission? Sign me up! This is the story of Bruce Warrick, wide-eyed innocent hedge fund manager (!!) who has just taken a job with a new employer on Wall Street. Imagine: a hedge fund manager in this day and age, written as an innocent victim! But Bruce is, dammit. He's a likable guy, who knows that Wall Street may have its occasional(?!) moral blindspots, but is still very much a true believer in Adam Smith and Ayn Rand's view of capitalism as a meritocratic mechanism for resource allocation. *Sigh* A babe in the wild.Things start to go bad when Bruce's new employer, the fund's principle founder John Hastings, wants him to join a dinner club comprising Wall Street's 50 top fund managers (the "nifty fifty"). Together, these top fifty funds control over a trillion dollars... enough to create capital sloshing whose waves move targeted stocks as the fund managers desire. It isn't insider trading... it's very much outsider trading, but it distorts chart analysis enough to whipsaw "second wave" investors. That would be smaller investors like you, me, Mom and Pop, as well as institutional traders who aren't market shapers, and who don't quite qualify for the "Keynes* Society" newsletter. (*Named after John Maynard Keynes- a name worth knowing, if you are interested in 20th century economic history.)You got all that? Okay, now throw into the mix a beautiful secretary the boss has the hots for, a mysteriously ethical contrarian fund manager at the Keynes Society, and a Society president who attends the Builderburg meetings. Now things start to get complicated, and then dangerous, when Bruce's conscience acts up, and he tries to buck the system.Oh, did I mention Bruce has catalepsy and hypnogogia which seems bizarre but is actually a real medical condition? He has these vivid sleep hallucinations, and he can't always tell what's real and what's a dream. Also, there is some sleepwalking. Oh.. and sleep sex.Yeah, so things get a little weird... in a good way for the reader. If you like a lot of uncertainty about what is real and what is illusion... the territory most Philip K. Dick novels wander into... then you will probably enjoy For the Beauty of the Earth.I should probably talk now about the different characters and how the murder mystery unfolds and other things like that, but I think at this point you're either interested or you aren't. Instead, what I really want to talk about is how David Lentz manages to include the Builderburgs and Trilateralists into the story without making it conspiracy-centric in the way that so many people find off-putting. The word "conspiracy" has been built up in popular culture to mean nutty and implausible schemes, often involving UFOs hidden in Area 51. That's too bad, because conspiracy is a lot more mundane. It just means two or more people getting together and agreeing to commit a crime together, and it's FAR from implausible. In fact, conspiracy is a fairly common charge in our legal system; most felony drug distribution cases include a conspiracy charge. Quite a bit of Wall Street corruption could also fairly be called conspiracy, as well as the many extralegal activities of our CIA, etc.Nevertheless, if you mention the word "conspiracy" in association with secretive groups like the Trilateral Commission, you can pretty much expect a good fraction of your readership to stop taking you seriously. David Lentz avoids that here, because he is very matter-of-fact about the divided purposes of our economic machinery: On one hand, there is the very impersonal, data-driven world of technical analysis of stocks. A whole mathematics has developed around the allocation of resources, the assessment and distribution of risk, and the maximization of returns. One would think determining the "best" investment ought to be a very objective undertaking. If the market is an elaborate machine for matching up capital to the most efficient, profitable company, then the behavior of individual players ought to be predictable, based also on what will put their capital into the most efficient, profitable companies.But it doesn't always work like that.Sometimes, as in this book, it pays better to invest in less efficient companies. Or it may even make perfect economic sense to destroy a profitable company that makes superior products. These are the cases Ayn Rand and Adam Smith don't like to talk about: the instances where the invisible hand of the market isn't making everybody's lives better through honest competition. This is the human side of the market, and it's existed as long as commerce has been around: pump-and-dump scams, Ponzi schemes, insider trading, coordinated block trading... these have been with us since the beginning. Individual players don't participate in stock trading because they want to capitalize the best companies; they participate because they want to make money, and sometimes the fast path to riches works contrary to capitalizing the best companies. The hedge fund managers in this novel want to profit from a functioning market; they want other investors to be bound to rules which ensure the market's enduring health, but they themselves want exemptions to do as they please. Left uncorrected, the Keynes Society's greed in this story would ultimately destroy our functioning market. Perhaps somebody out there adept at game theory can construct a model to determine how many people can break the rules of the market, for how long, before they ultimately destroy it.So there's corruption in this book. Lots of it. But even the outrageous greed of the Keynesians here is just a small part of the complete landscape of megalomania Lentz describes. Like a cancer, the Builderburg Group derrives its power and influence by placing people into positions of authority within the media, government, academia, and private industries. But in a capitalist democracy, media, government, academia and industry are only credible and robust if they are transparent and accountable. To have a secretive group of unelected, unaccountable kingmakers pulling all the strings in these institutions is only sustainable over the short term*. (*A relative phrase; the Builderburg Group started in 1954.) It seems pretty clear that expanding Builderburg power over these institutions diminishes them, and will ultimately destroy them. John F. Kennedy alluded to this in his famous address before the American Newspaper Publishers Association on April 27, 1961, delivered 939 days before he was killed on Nov. 22, 1963: [Link to audio]Ladies and gentlemen. The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society. And we are as a people, inherently and historically, opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths, and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago, that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweigh the dangers which are are cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the thread of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions. Even today, there is little value in assuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment. That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it’s in my control. And no official of my administration whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes, or to withhold from the press or the public the facts they deserve to know. For we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence, on infiltration instead of invasion, on subversion instead of elections, on intimidation instead of free choice, on guerrillas by night instead of armies by day. It is a system which has conscripted vast human and material resources into the building of a tightly knit highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations. Its preparations are concealed, not published. It’s mistakes are buried, not headlined. Its dissenters are silenced, not praised. No expenditure is questioned, no rumor is printed, no secret is revealed. No President should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from that scrutiny comes understanding, and from that understanding comes support or opposition, and both are necessary. I’m not asking your newspapers to support an administration. But I am asking your help in the tremendous task of informing and alerting the American people. For I have complete confidence in the response and dedication of our citizens whenever they are fully informed. I not only could not stifle controversy among your readers, I welcome it. This administration intends to be candid about its errors. For as a wise man once said, an error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it. We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors. And we expect you to point them out when we miss them. Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed, and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker, Solon, decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. That is why our press was protected by the First Amendment, the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution, not primarily to amuse and to entertain, not to emphasis the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply give the public what it wants, but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crisis and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion. This means greater coverage and analysis of international news, for it is no longer far away and foreign, but close at hand and local. It means greater attention to improve the understanding of the news as well as improve transmission. And it means finally that government at all levels must meet its obligation to provide you with the fullest possible information outside the narrowest limits of national security. And so it is to the printing press, to the recorder of man’s deeds, the keeper of his conscience, the courier of his news, that we look for strength and assistance. Confident that with your help, man will be what he was born to be, free and independent.This all speaks to criminality and conspiracy, greed, selfishness, and lack of community spirit... and whatever outrage you feel at this point, towards Wall Street and the Builderburgs/Trilateralists for violating the principles of a free and open society, is appropriate.But there is an additional facet to all of this, which I think Lentz is also addressing, and which exists on all levels of commerce- whether it be in a capitalist, communist, or other economic system. Trade of any kind is a human activity, and indivisible from human nature. There is always a self-interest involved, because all humans have a certain degree of self-interest motivating what they do. And there are always going to be social elements to commerce; the flow of goods and currency will always be wrapped up in the power structures we divise to govern ourselves... because what is the point of power, if it isn't to regulate, distribute and maybe secure a share of all that bounty for the governors and the governed?This exists on all levels of business size and prosperity. If you live in a town of more than 5000 people, there's probably a sign at your town limits which says "WELCOME TO [TOWN'S NAME]". Underneath, you'll likely see the standard assorted badges of the Chamber of Commerce members, including small business associations and charitable clubs like the Lions' Club, Rotary Club, Kiwanis and Jaycee's. Then of course there are the Masons...What's going on there? A bunch of small businessmen in the community get together for lunch a few times a month. They have fundraisers and maybe softball games. They have a sense of community, united in the common experience of being small businessmen in that town. What does business have to do with it? Well, maybe the hardware store owner decides to buy his insurance from his Lion's Club buddy across the street instead of going online and saving a few bucks. Nothing wrong with that- you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.But wait.Doesn't that contradict the whole narrative we've built up about how capitalism functions? Shouldn't the hardware store owner get his insurance from whoever gives the best coverage at the best price? That's the whole point of competition, right? It is, but the engines of commerce aren't quite as simple as its fans like to present it. Distortions of personal relationships occur at all levels. I'm sure this is what Keynes Society members in the novel would say about their little dinner club too. So at what point do these distortions stop being the human element of trade, and start being criminal conspiracy?That's a hard question, and I don't have the answer, but there's a line somewhere, and the Builderburg Group has crossed it. The Keynes Society in this book crossed it. The Trilateral Commission is well across it. It has something to do with when competition stops being competiton, and starts being oppression. It has something to do with when the desire to survive and thrive becomes the desire to dominate and command.The book gets into a lot of these questions very obliquely. It is interesting to see the slippery slope Warrick descends, from joining a dinner club, to manipulating the market, to being entangled in a murder, to sitting at the table with a billionaire sociopath bent on ruling the world. It's all fiction in this book, but more reality-based than most members of your local Rotary Club (or certainly of the Masons) might be willing to admit.=====================================Oh, here's what the Builderburg Group currently looks like They tell us they just get together in secret "to talk", so... nothing to worry about, I guess. Right?