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Questioning Authority: A Rethinking of the Infamous Milgram Experiments February 13, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Science and Technology, Uncategorized.
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By Liliana Segura, AlterNet. Posted February 12, 2009.

A famous 1970s experiment was recently replicated, revealing what it takes for us to question and resist those in positions of authority.

Between 1963 and 1974, Dr. Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments that would become one of the most famous social psychology studies of the 20th century. His focus was how average people respond to authority, and what he revealed stunned and disturbed people the world over.

Under the pretense of an experiment on “learning” and “memory,” Milgram placed test subjects in a lab rigged with fake gadgetry, where a man in a lab coat instructed them to administer electrical shocks to a fellow test subject (actually an actor) seated in another room in “a kind of miniature electric chair.”

Participants were told they were the “teachers” in the scenario and given a list of questions with which to quiz their counterparts (the “learners”). If the respondent answered incorrectly to a question, he got an electric shock as punishment.

The shocks were light at first — 15 volts — and became stronger incrementally, until they reached 450 volts — a level labeled “Danger: Severe Shock.” The actors were never actually electrocuted, but they pretended they were. They groaned, shouted, and, as the current became stronger, begged for relief. Meanwhile, the man in the lab coat coolly told the test subjects to keep going.

To people’s horror, Milgram discovered that a solid majority of his subjects — roughly two-thirds — were willing to administer the highest levels of shock to their counterparts. This was as true among the first set of his test subjects (Yale undergrads), to subsequent “ordinary” participants as described by Milgram (“professionals, white-collar workers, unemployed persons and industrial workers”), to test subjects abroad, from Munich to South Africa. It was also as true for women as it was for men (although female subjects reported a higher degree of anxiety afterward).

For people who learned of the study, this became devastating proof, not only of human beings’ slavish compliance in the face of authority, but of our willingness to do horrible things to other people. The study has been used to explain everything from Nazi Germany to the torture at Abu Ghraib.

But what if Milgram’s obedience studies tell us something else, something just as essential, not about our obedience to authority, but what it takes for people to resist it? Now, for the first time in decades, a psychologist has replicated Milgram’s famous study (with some critical changes).

The bad news: His results are statistically identical to Milgram’s. The good news: Contrary to popular perception, the lesson it teaches us is not that human beings are a breed of latent torturers. “Actually,” says Dr. Jerry Burger, the psychologist who led the exercise, “what I think is that the real lesson of the demonstration is quite the opposite.”

Replicating Milgram: ‘I Can’t Tell You Why I Listened to Him and Kept Going’

Burger works at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif. Like many in his field, he has long been interested in Milgram.

“Everybody who works in my area has his or her own ideas about why Milgram’s participants did what they did,” he says. And many have ideas about what they would change if they did the study themselves. “I have kind of had ideas like that forever … but it’s pretty much been considered to be out of bounds for research. I think we all kind of assumed no one was every going to be able to do this study again.”

Indeed, Milgram’s obedience study was deeply controversial in its time. His deceptive methodology would later be criticized as unethical, and stiffer regulations concerning the psychological well-being of participants in such studies would follow. Thus, despite its enduring role in the popular imagination — and relevance to the events of the day — Milgram’s study would remain firmly entrenched in its time and place.

Then, in 2004, the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. In the analysis that followed, many pointed to Milgram’s findings as a way to understand what could have led otherwise-average soldiers to act so cruelly. At ABC News, producers decided they wanted to do an investigative report on this question.

“I think what they had in mind at first was some sort of journalistic stunt,” Burger recalls “… to set up the Milgram study themselves.” But ABC was advised not undertake such a project lightly. “Someone told them, ‘If you want to do some sort of exploration of obedience, you need to talk to someone who works in the field,’ ” says Burger. “Somehow my name surfaced in this conversation.”

When ABC called him, “I told them, ‘No you can’t replicate Milgram,’ but I thought it was great that they wanted to explore these questions. … I was not interested in helping them put on some kind of stunt (but), it was something that I always wanted to do. And if ABC would foot the bill …”

It took months to set up the project — recruiting and vetting participants, getting insurance, consulting lawyers, etc. When it came to conduct the experiment, Burger had implemented significant changes to Milgram’s original study. One crucial adjustment had been to establish a threshold that did not exist under Milgram. Burger calls it the “150-volt solution.”

“You can’t put people through what Milgram did,” says Burger. Revisiting descriptions of his subjects, he says, “you see that people were suffering tremendously.” They believed they were torturing people, that people were “presumably even dying on the other side of the wall.”

Thus, based on Milgram’s original data, which showed that the majority of the participants who administered 150-volt shocks to their subjects were willing to go all the way to the highest levels, Burger decided that he would stop participants at the 150-volt mark, “the point of no return.”

When the ABC special aired in January 2007, it took a predictably sensationalist approach. “A Touch of Evil” was the title, and foreboding music provided a dark backdrop.

The segment showed men and women of various ages, ethnicities and professions doing the same thing — administering what they believed were electric shocks to a person in another room.

Often the participants would be startled by the shouts behind the wall, turning to look to the man in the lab coat with nervous expressions. But at his behest, they continued, even amid protests from the actor. (“Get me out of here, I told you I had heart trouble. My heart’s starting to bother me now.”)

In the end, 70 percent of the subjects reached the 150-volt mark — a statistic basically identical to Milgram’s. Unlike in Milgram’s experiment, however, Burger told his subjects immediately after their time was up that the whole thing had been staged.

“I can’t tell you why I listened to him and kept going,” one participant told his ABC interviewer. “I should have just said no.”

In the media and the blogosphere, the response to Burger’s study has played into the notion that Milgram’s findings, as true now as they were a generation ago, point to some intrinsic capacity for evil in human beings. It was more or less summed up by one blog’s headline, which Burger noted, chuckling: “This Just In: We Still Suck.”

‘Under the Right Circumstances, People Will Act In Surprising and Unsettling Ways’

Although Milgram’s research is understood mainly through the lens of “obedience,” Burger believes that authority is actually not the definitive factor in the situation.

Just as important, if not more so, are the combination of factors that make up the scenario and which make subjects so dependent on authority. For example, despite being shown the “learner” strapped in before the experiment begins, participants are operating on relatively little information.

“They want to be a good participator, they don’t know, ‘should I stop, should I not,’ ” says Burger, “… Except there’s a person in the room that’s an expert, who knows all about the study, the equipment, etc … and he’s acting like, well, this is nothing unusual … If the only information you have is telling you that this is the right thing to do — of course you do it.”

Participants are also absolved of any real sense of personal responsibility. “I was doing my job,” is a common refrain. Burger notes, “when people don’t feel responsible, that can lead to some very unsettling behaviors.” And then, there’s the high pressure created by the limited window of time participants have to choose whether to shock their “learner.”

“Imagine if Milgram had allowed those people to take 30 minutes and think about it,” says Burger. “They don’t have time, and the experimenter doesn’t allow them time. In fact, if the person pauses, the experimenter steps in and says, ‘Please continue.’ ”

But perhaps the most important enabling factor is the fact that the volts go up in little by little.

“Milgram set this up so that people responded in small increments,” says Burger. “They didn’t start with 150 volts, they started with 15 and worked their way up … That is a very powerful way to change attitudes and behaviors.” Most people, after all, don’t start with extreme behaviors right off the bat.

“People didn’t start by drinking Jim Jones’ poison Kool-Aid,” Burger says. “They probably started by donating money, or going to a meeting … you probably see that in most examples where you’re scratching you head and saying, ‘How can they do that?’ ”

In Burger’s opinion, the significance of Milgram’s findings are widely misunderstood. “The point is not ‘look how bad people are.’ … What we fail to recognize is the power of the situation and [that] under the right circumstances, people will act in surprising and sometimes unsettling ways.”

Indeed, what these factors demonstrate is not how easily people will harm another person, but how quickly people will cede their own authority to another person when they feel isolated, pressured and powerless. The more controlled an environment, the more vulnerable a person is.

What Does It Take to Resist Authority?

Long before his most famous experiment, Stanley Milgram was interested in phenomena showing that people placed in the right situation will often do the wrong thing.

Writing in The Nation magazine in 1964 about a case in which a New York woman named Kitty Genovese was killed within earshot of 38 neighbors, none of whom intervened, Milgram wrote, “We are all certain that we would have done better.” But, he argued, it is a mistake to “infer ethical values from the actual behavior of people in concrete situations.”

“…We must ask, did the witnesses remain passive because they thought it was the right thing to do, or did they refrain from action despite what they thought or felt they should do? We cannot take it for granted that people always do what they consider right. It would be more fruitful to inquire why, in general and in this particular case, there is so marked a discrepancy between values and behavior.”

One lens through which to understand this is politics, a profession notorious for its moral corrosiveness. In his book, Conservatives Without Conscience, John Dean, Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, wrote about the Milgram experiment to explore how members of the Bush administration could be so complicit in the immoral policies of the so-called war on terror.

In a 2006 interview with Thom Hartmann, Dean explained:

“I looked at this because I was trying to understand, how do people who work at the CIA and know that they’re part of a system that is torturing people in the Eastern European secret prisons — and they’re supporting that system, they’re providing information or bringing it out of it — how they do that every day?

“How do the people who work at NSA who were turning that huge electronic apparatus of surveillance on their neighbors and their friends, where’s their conscience?

“And then I realized that this is a perfect example of the Milgram experiment at work. They’re under authority figures. What they are doing is, they’re haven’t lost their conscience — they have given their conscience to another agent, and so they feel very comfortable in doing it.” 

If Milgram’s experiment showed a sort of moral death by a thousand cuts, the decisions, compromises and rationalizations that politicians make on a daily basis from their Washington offices that seem otherwise unfathomable indeed seem easier to explain, if not justifiable. After all, unlike the participants in Milgram’s original study, who were paid $5 for their time (and notoriety), politicians in the White House or on Capitol Hill build their careers on decisions that can destroy human beings. Whether in Iraq or at Guantanamo, the suffering on the other side of those walls is real.

But Milgram has much to teach us, too, about what it takes to resist powerful governments and their destructive policies. It’s not easy, and the stakes can be high.

Writing about war resisters in The Nation in 1970, Milgram noted, “Americans who are unwilling to kill for their country are thrown into jail. And our generation learns, as every generation has, that society rewards and punishes its members not in the degree to which each fulfills the dictates of individual conscience but in the degree to which the actions are perceived by authority to serve the needs of the larger social system. It has always been so.”

But while Milgram so effectively demonstrated the challenge of defying authority, he also showed that subjects were far more likely to do it when they saw other people doing it. He wrote in The Perils of Obedience, “The rebellious action of others severely undermines authority.”

“In one variation, three teachers (two actors and a real subject) administered a test and shocks. When the two actors disobeyed the experimenter and refused to go beyond a certain shock level, 36 of 40 subjects joined their disobedient peers and refused as well.”

Put in a political context, this is perhaps the most important lesson Milgram has to teach us. The best hope people have of resisting an oppressive system is to validate their experiences alongside other people. There is no more basic antidote to authoritarianism than support, solidarity and community.

Milgram wrote, “When an individual wishes to stand in opposition to authority, he does best to find support for his position from others in his group. The mutual support provided by men for each other is the strongest bulwark we have against the excesses of authority.”


People ‘still willing to torture’ December 19, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Torture.
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BBC News, December 19, 2008

Decades after a notorious experiment, scientists have found test subjects are still willing to inflict pain on others – if told to by an authority figure.

US researchers repeated the famous “Milgram test”, with volunteers told to deliver electrical shocks to another volunteer – played by an actor.

Even after faked screams of pain, 70% were prepared to increase the voltage, the American Psychology study found.

Both may help explain why apparently ordinary people can commit atrocities.

It’s not that these people are simply not good people any more – there is a massive social influence going on.
Dr Abigal San
clinical psychologist

Yale University professor Stanley Milgram’s work, published in 1963, recruited volunteers to help carry out a medical experiment, with none aware that they were actually the subject of the test.

A “scientist” instructed them to deliver a shock every time the actor answered a question wrongly.

When the pretend 150-volt shock was delivered, the actor could be heard screaming in pain, and yet, when asked to, more than eight out of ten volunteers were prepared to give further shocks, even when the “voltage” was gradually increased threefold.

Some volunteers even carried on giving 450-volt shocks even when there was no further response from the actor, suggesting he was either unconscious or dead.

Similar format

Dr Jerry Burger, of Santa Clara University, used a similar format, although he did not allow the volunteers to carry on beyond 150 volts after they had shown their willingness to do so, suggesting that the distress caused to the original volunteers had been too great.



Until humans value the lives of others equal to their own, this will unfortunately continue to be the case

Louise, Lincoln, UK

Again, however, the vast majority of the 29 men and 41 women taking part were willing to push the button knowing it would cause pain to another human.

Even when another actor entered the room and questioned what was happening, most were still prepared to continue.

He told Reuters: “What we found is validation of the same argument – if you put people in certain situations, they will act in surprising and maybe often even disturbing ways.”

He said that it was not that there was “something wrong” with the volunteers, but that when placed under pressure, people will often do “unsettling” things.

Even though it was difficult to translate laboratory work to the real world, he said, it might partly explain why, in times of conflict, people could take part in genocide.

Complex task

Dr Abigail San, a chartered clinical psychologist, has recently replicated the experiment for a soon-to-be-aired BBC documentary – all the way up to the 450-volt mark, again finding a similar outcome to Professor Milgram.

“It’s not that these people are simply not good people any more – there is a massive social influence going on.”

She said that the volunteers were being asked to carry out a complex task in aid of scientific research, and became entirely focused on it, with “little room” left for considering the plight of the person receiving the shock.

“They tend to identify massively with the ‘experimenter’, and become very engaged and distracted by the research.

“There’s no opportunity for them to say ‘What’s my moral stand on this?'”

The Best and the Brightest Led America Off a Cliff December 8, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, Education.
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(Note from Roger: I thought the very last line was a gratuitious cop-out; but otherwise an interesting analysis.)
Posted on Dec 8, 2008
AP photo / Douglas Healey

By Chris Hedges

The multiple failures that beset the country, from our mismanaged economy to our shredded constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the feet of our elite universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, along with most other elite schools, do a poor job educating students to think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, advanced placement classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools and blind deference to all authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers. The collapse of the country runs in a direct line from the manicured quadrangles and halls in places like Cambridge, Princeton and New Haven to the financial and political centers of power. 

The nation’s elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent and often subversive. They organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers and rigid structures that are designed to produce certain answers. The established corporate hierarchies these institutions service—economic, political and social—come with clear parameters, such as the primacy of an unfettered free market, and with a highly specialized vocabulary. This vocabulary, a sign of the “specialist” and of course the elitist, thwarts universal understanding. It keeps the uninitiated from asking unpleasant questions. It destroys the search for the common good. It dices disciplines, faculty, students and finally experts into tiny, specialized fragments. It allows students and faculty to retreat into these self-imposed fiefdoms and neglect the most pressing moral, political and cultural questions. Those who defy the system—people like Ralph Nader—are branded as irrational and irrelevant. These elite universities have banished self-criticism. They refuse to question a self-justifying system. Organization, technology, self-advancement and information systems are the only things that matter. 

“Political silence, total silence,” said Chris Hebdon, a Berkeley undergraduate. He went on to describe how various student groups gather at Sproul Plaza, the center of student activity at the University of California, Berkeley. These groups set up tables to recruit and inform other students, a practice know as “tabling.”

“Students table for Darfur, no one tables for Iraq. Tables on Sproul Plaza are ethnically fragmented, explicitly pre-professional (The Asian American Pre-Law or Business or Pre-Medicine Association). Never have I seen a table on globalization or corporatization. Students are as distracted and specialized and atomized as most of their professors. It’s vertical integration gone cultural. And never, never is it cutting-edge. Berkeley loves the slogan ‘excellence through diversity,’ which is a farce of course if one checks our admissions stats (most years we have only one or two entering Native Americans), but few recognize multiculturalism’s silent partner—fragmentation into little markets. Our Sproul Plaza shows that so well—the same place Mario Savio once stood on top a police car is filled with tens of tables for the pre-corporate, the ethnic, the useless cynics, the recreational groups, etc.”

I sat a few months ago with a former classmate from Harvard Divinity School who is now a theology professor. When I asked her what she was teaching, she unleashed a torrent of obscure academic code words. I did not understand, even with three years of seminary, what she was talking about. You can see this absurd retreat into specialized, impenetrable verbal enclaves in every graduate department across the country. The more these universities churn out these stunted men and women, the more we are flooded with a peculiar breed of specialist. This specialist blindly services tiny parts of a corporate power structure he or she has never been taught to question and looks down on the rest of us with thinly veiled contempt.

I was sent to boarding school on a scholarship at the age of 10. By the time I had finished eight years in New England prep schools and another eight at Colgate and Harvard, I had a pretty good understanding of the game. I have also taught at Columbia, New York University and Princeton. These institutions, no matter how mediocre you are, feed students with the comforting self-delusion that they are there because they are not only the best but they deserve the best. You can see this attitude on display in every word uttered by George W. Bush. Here is a man with severely limited intellectual capacity and no moral core. He, along with “Scooter” Libby, who attended my boarding school and went on to Yale, is an example of the legions of self-centered mediocrities churned out by places like Andover, Yale and Harvard. Bush was, like the rest of his caste, propelled forward by his money and his connections. That is the real purpose of these well-endowed schools—to perpetuate their own. 

“There’s a certain kind of student at these schools who falls in love with the mystique and prestige of his own education,” said Elyse Graham, whom I taught at Princeton and who is now doing graduate work at Yale. “This is the guy who treats his time at Princeton as a scavenger hunt for Princetoniana and Princeton nostalgia: How many famous professors can I collect? And so on. And he comes away not only with all these props for his sense of being elect, but also with the smoothness that seems to indicate wide learning; college socializes you, so you learn to present even trite ideas well.”

These institutions cater to their students like high-end resorts. My prep school—remember this is a high school—recently built a $26-million gym. Not that it didn’t have a gym. It had a fine one with an Olympic pool. But it needed to upgrade its facilities to compete for the elite boys and girls being wooed by other schools. While public schools crumble, while public universities are slashed and degraded, while these elite institutions become unaffordable even for the middle class, the privileged retreat further into their opulent gated communities. Harvard lost $8 billion of its endowment over the past four months, which raises the question of how smart these people are, but it still has $30 billion. Schools like Yale, Stanford and Princeton are not far behind. Those on the inside are told they are there because they are better than others. Most believe it. 

The people I loved most, my working-class family in Maine, did not go to college. They were plumbers, post office clerks and mill workers. Most of the men were military veterans. They lived frugal and hard lives. They were indulgent of my incessant book reading and incompetence with tools, even my distaste for deer hunting, and they were a steady reminder that just because I had been blessed with an opportunity that was denied to them, I was not better or more intelligent. If you are poor you have to work after high school or, in the case of my grandfather, before you are able to finish high school. College is not an option. No one takes care of you. You have to do that for yourself. This is the most important difference between them and the elites.

The elite schools, which trumpet their diversity, base this diversity on race and ethnicity, rarely on class. The admissions process, as well as the staggering tuition costs, precludes most of the poor and working class. When my son got his SAT scores back last year, we were surprised to find that his critical reading score was lower than his math score. He dislikes math. He is an avid and perceptive reader. And so we did what many educated, middle-class families do. We hired an expensive tutor from The Princeton Review who taught him the tricks and techniques of taking standardized tests. The tutor told him things like “stop thinking about whether the passage is true. You are wasting test time thinking about the ideas. Just spit back what they tell you.” His reading score went up 130 points. Was he smarter? Was he a better reader? Did he become more intelligent?  Is reading and answering multiple-choice questions while someone holds a stopwatch over you even an effective measure of intelligence? What about those families that do not have a few thousand dollars to hire a tutor? What chance do they have? 

These universities, because of their incessant reliance on standardized tests and the demand for perfect grades, fill their classrooms with large numbers of drones. I have taught gifted and engaged students who used these institutions to expand the life of the mind, who asked the big questions and who cherished what these schools had to offer. But they were always a marginalized and dispirited minority. The bulk of their classmates, most of whom headed off to Wall Street or corporate firms when they graduated, starting at $120,000 a year, did prodigious amounts of work and faithfully regurgitated information. They received perfect grades in both tedious, boring classes and stimulating ones, not that they could tell the difference. They may have known the plot and salient details of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” but they were unable to tell you why the story was important. Their professors, fearful of being branded political and not wanting to upset the legions of wealthy donors and administrative overlords who rule such institutions, did not draw the obvious parallels with Iraq and American empire. They did not use Conrad’s story, as it was meant to be used, to examine our own imperial darkness. And so, even in the anemic world of liberal arts, what is taught exists in a moral void. 

“The existence of multiple forms of intelligence has become a commonplace, but however much elite universities like to sprinkle their incoming classes with a few actors or violinists, they select for and develop one form of intelligence: the analytic,” William Deresiewicz, who taught English at Yale, wrote in “The American Scholar.” “While this is broadly true of all universities, elite schools, precisely because their students (and faculty, and administrators) possess this one form of intelligence to such a high degree, are more apt to ignore the value of others. One naturally prizes what one most possesses and what most makes for one’s advantages. But social intelligence and emotional intelligence and creative ability, to name just three other forms, are not distributed preferentially among the educational elite.”

Intelligence is morally neutral. It is no more virtuous than athletic prowess. It can be used to further the rape of the working class by corporations and the mechanisms of repression and war, or it can be used to fight these forces. But if you determine worth by wealth, as these institutions invariably do, then fighting the system is inherently devalued. The unstated ethic of these elite institutions is to make as much money as you can to sustain the elitist system. College presidents are not voices for the common good and the protection of intellectual integrity, but obsequious fundraisers. They shower honorary degrees and trusteeships on hedge fund managers and Wall Street titans whose lives are usually examples of moral squalor and unchecked greed. The message to the students is clear. But grabbing what you can, as John Ruskin said, isn’t any less wicked when you grab it with the power of your brains than with the power of your fists.

Most of these students are afraid to take risks. They cower before authority. They have been taught from a young age by zealous parents, schools and institutional authorities what constitutes failure and success. They are socialized to obey. They obsess over grades and seek to please professors, even if what their professors teach is fatuous. The point is to get ahead. Challenging authority is not a career advancer. Freshmen arrive on elite campuses and begin to network their way into the elite eating clubs, test into the elite academic programs and lobby for elite summer internships. By the time they graduate they are superbly conditioned to work 10 or 12 hours a day electronically moving large sums of money around. 

“The system forgot to teach them, along the way to the prestige admissions and the lucrative jobs, that the most important achievements can’t be measured by a letter or a number or a name,” Deresiewicz wrote. “It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers.”

“Only a small minority have seen their education as part of a larger intellectual journey, have approached the work of the mind with a pilgrim soul,” he went on. “These few have tended to feel like freaks, not least because they get so little support from the university itself. Places like Yale, as one of them put it to me, are not conducive to searchers. Places like Yale are simply not set up to help students ask the big questions. I don’t think there ever was a golden age of intellectualism in the American university, but in the 19th century students might at least have had a chance to hear such questions raised in chapel or in the literary societies and debating clubs that flourished on campus.”

Barack Obama is a product of this elitist system. So are his degree-laden Cabinet members. They come out of Harvard, Yale, Wellesley and Princeton. Their friends and classmates made huge fortunes on Wall Street and in powerful law firms. They go to the same class reunions. They belong to the same clubs. They speak the same easy language of privilege and comfort and entitlement. They are endowed with an unbridled self-confidence and blind belief in a decaying political and financial system that has nurtured and empowered them.

These elites, and the corporate system they serve, have ruined the country. These elite cannot solve our problems. They have been trained to find “solutions,” such as the trillion-dollar bailout of banks and financial firms, that sustain the system. They will feed the beast until it dies. Don’t expect them to save us. They don’t know how. And when it all collapses, when our rotten financial system with its trillions in worthless assets implodes and our imperial wars end in humiliation and defeat, they will be exposed as being as helpless, and as stupid, as the rest of us.