Wednesday, October 01, 2008

It's Piracy

In 1879 Gilbert and Sullivan finished writing/composing a comic operetta that was to be one of their most enduring compositions: “Pirates of Penzance,” subtitled “A Slave to Duty.”

In 1953 Walt Disney produced a feature length motion picture about a boy (Peter Pan) from “Never Land” whose swashbuckling nemesis there bears the name “Captain Hook,” after the device that substituted for his left hand.

And the end of this month, many children will venture out on All Hallows Eve to “trick-or-treat” dressed in costumes with baggy trousers, handkerchiefs tied around their heads or showing from under their hats, one black eye patch, a “talking parrot” perched on a shoulder and large bags that they hope to fill with “booty” from indulgent neighbors.

This year, however, the tricksters may find that many houses in their neighborhoods are empty or the owners not responsive when the doorbell rings, meaning a smaller take in candy and other nominal “bribes” or rewards than in the past. Many, like Disney’s Peter Pan, probably won’t notice any quantifiable fall-off; for this group the “fun” lies less in the “getting” than in the “doing.” Moreover, there is just the tiniest suggestion of “rampant” sin derived from the “massive” rule-breaking tolerated this night – dressing up (hiding one’s true identity); staying up past normal bedtime; munching on more than one piece of candy; and even in venturing outside long after the sun has set.

Now associating “rampant sin” with the Halloween trick-or-treats tradition of my childhood seems a bit harsh. Back then, we worked for our “treats” by telling a joke, reciting a poem, or singing a song – unlike today when the very act of a child ringing the doorbell seems to be the only requirement for being given a treat.

“Showing up” seems to have been the only “rule” in effect for a number of well-placed, well-heeled, financers, stock brokers, real estate agents, and others who took unnecessary risks with other people’s money and future in their quest for personal enrichment. Their activities were aided and abetted by elected and appointed federal officials who removed regulations and oversight authority that had been in place for years in the effort to provide some protection for the ordinary citizen against predatory and unscrupulous practices.

What connects all the above is the definition of piracy – in its most simple form, demanding something for nothing, which is to say, “robbery.” Originally it was robbery on the high seas – exactly what we read about in today’s newspapers. This year off the coasts of Somalia and Nigeria modern pirates using speedboats and armed with machineguns are hijacking merchant ships and even tankers in record numbers and then demanding million dollar ransoms from the owners. As technology developed, so too did other forms of piracy, especially air, copyright, and broadcasting piracy.

But all these pale when compared to the financial sector, where the greed of a few has in effect robbed many people of their retirement savings, of their homes, and of their businesses. How far, for how long, and just how deep the damage is no one really knows. And unfortunately many who created the opportunities for this piracy to occur are now involved in the government’s “rescue plan.”

That’s the real scary part of this whole mess.

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