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How's the schadenfreude today?
January 6, 2009 3:20 PM   Subscribe

We had a discussion a couple months ago about VW stock. Betting against VW cost Adolf Merckle hundreds of millions of dollars last year and eventually destroyed his business empire. Yesterday, it cost him his life.
posted by joaquim (64 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Neither of my granddads made it that far, and none made that kind of money. He had a better 74 years than I'm likely to. Not that that should matter to me.

But it does.
posted by absalom at 3:25 PM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


You can't take it with you.
posted by Artw at 3:27 PM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


If more destroyers of fortunes took their own lives, I might feel better towards Wall St. today than I currently do on finding out that most of them, having taken their companies over a cliff, simply pulled the cord on their golden parachutes.
posted by fatbird at 3:32 PM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


No, it cost him millions that he performed zero in useful service to earn. Then he offed himself. Now he's dead.

I felt, like you did, that there is some sort of poignant message here but I'm not seeing it. Maybe the power of money over reason? That venality and greed are more powerful than existential preservation? I'm not feeling it today with what is going on internationally and right here in my office.
posted by docpops at 3:34 PM on January 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


I suppose this crisis has taught me, as a young man, a great deal about the difference between trying to earn money, and trying to invent it.
posted by buriednexttoyou at 3:36 PM on January 6, 2009 [7 favorites]


How's the schadenfreude today?

Quite dark, with morbid overtones. I'll stick with the detached lamenting.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:39 PM on January 6, 2009


I read somewhere that he tied his family's entire fortune into the VW stock gamble, so it wasn't just his own life(style) for which he was responsible.

I can't imagine what it would be like to go to my wife and children and say "I have utterly failed to provide for you." He could imagine and preferred oblivion.
posted by infinitewindow at 3:42 PM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can't imagine what it would be like to go to my wife and children and say "I have utterly failed to provide for you." He could imagine and preferred oblivion.

Why do I not think anyone in this man's family will have any concerns about where their next meal is coming from any time soon?
posted by brennen at 3:46 PM on January 6, 2009


See, if I were super rich, and lost a lot of money, I'd just write a book about it, and make more money.
posted by billysumday at 3:49 PM on January 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


I can't imagine what it would be like to go to my wife and children and say "I have utterly failed to provide for you."

This is ridiculous. Growing up as a kid there was more than one winter where all we had to eat was rolled oats. These people are not going to starve- I would suspect more that despite this setback they'll be far more affluent than I or my parents could ever dream of being.
posted by dunkadunc at 3:50 PM on January 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


Why do I not think anyone in this man's family will have any concerns about where their next meal is coming from any time soon?

Because they've heeded the advice of Dmitry Orlov?
posted by filthy light thief at 3:51 PM on January 6, 2009


No. Just, no.

It didn't "cost him his life". He chose, from all available reports, to commit suicide because he could not deal with having made investments that went bad. He chose to kill himself.

This is a man with an estimated net worth in the billions of dollars. Even if he only retained a fraction of that wealth, for Christ's sake, how detached do you have to be from reality to not be able to cope?

I'm tired of hearing these stories, about unbelievably rich, privileged members of society who gambled in a casino available, in many cases, only to them and their ilk, lost everything, and are now bereft at the possibility of no longer being in that position. These kinds of stories reach their apotheosis when we are reading about CEOs who make over 400 times the wages of their employees having to get rid of vacation houses and yachts and jets.

For every one of these stories, there are hundreds of untold stories about people like my parents, who have lost fifty thousand dollars, dollars they worked for over four decades to put away, in the blink of an eye because people like Merckle gambled and lost. That's money my parents were counting on, every cent of it, to keep them in their $125,000 house, their ten-year-old car, and their minimalist lifestyle. To maybe visit us, their kids, in California once or twice a year. Now, to someone like Adolf Merckle, fifty thousand dollars is a rounding error. It's chump change. But to my parents, fifty thousand dollars, fifty thousand dollars that they will likely never get back, is the devastation of a relatively modest dream: that they could spend some time enjoying the fruits of their work.

I try to have empathy. I really do. But I'm out. I'm tapped. I gave at the fucking office. Adolf Merckle and people like him screwed and screwed and screwed and screwed global finance, gaming the system until it collapsed. And, heavens, now they're taking a bath: some of them may very well go from being billionares to only multimillionares.

I say this advisedly, and with forethought: fuck them. Fuck them and everyone who enabled them. Fuck them and their family members who are suffering sudden attacks of conscience. Fuck them and the entire corrupt SEC who enabled them to rape the economy without consequence. I am saving my empathy for the people like my parents, who did everything honestly, who did everything they were supposed to, and are paying for this debacle with pieces of their life.
posted by scrump at 3:53 PM on January 6, 2009 [86 favorites]


No, it cost him millions that he performed zero in useful service to earn.

From the article:
A native of Dresden who made his way to Western Germany after World War II, Mr. Merckle parlayed a family business in chemicals into one of the biggest pharmaceutical concerns in the world. Ratiopharm, a maker of generic medicines that was a recognized brand itself, became the pride of the family.
Maker of generic medicines (as opposed to the big pharma that usually take the hate here on the blue in IP/patent-related discussions). I wouldn't say "zero useful service".

But oh no, he's rich, and he invests in stock. He must be Satan or something.

(please note I'm not saying that some rich sod losing billions on failed stock speculation is a disaster. I'm just saying be fair to the guy and don't just assume that because he has billions and tries to speculate in the stock market he's automatically a crook that never did anything useful in his life)
posted by qvantamon at 3:54 PM on January 6, 2009 [12 favorites]


qvantamon -point taken, and I appreciate it. It was said better than I, he tried to invent his wealth long after he was actually creating it.
posted by docpops at 3:56 PM on January 6, 2009


Poor man. Going from $9.2 billion to $8.8 billion is enough to do anyone in. My sympathies.
posted by Jairus at 3:59 PM on January 6, 2009


scrump, that's awful that your parents had an asset allocation that was completely wrong for them. Anyone who needs money soon or reliably should not have it in the stock market. When they say "it's more volatile than bonds", they really mean "it could go down 50%", and people just don't realize that. It's too bad that most people don't have access to competent financial advisors, advisors who aren't trying to rip them off.

Anyone else, if your parents are near retirement age, please make sure they aren't 80% in stocks, although it's probably too late now. Something like Vanguard Total Bond Market had a nice 5% return over the last year.
posted by smackfu at 4:01 PM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think of the things me and mine have lived through and wonder why so many rich people are chickenshits.

Then I feel bad for thinking that.

Then I think it again.

It's a loop without a hook.
posted by batmonkey at 4:06 PM on January 6, 2009


scrump, that's awful that your parents had an asset allocation that was completely wrong for them. Anyone who needs money soon or reliably should not have it in the stock market.
They were in bonds.
posted by scrump at 4:08 PM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, I don't want to pry into their finances and ask for more details, but that seems like a very unusual loss.
posted by smackfu at 4:10 PM on January 6, 2009


It's sad that he felt that this was the only way out. But that also confuses me.

From the article:
Forbes estimated Mr. Merckle’s fortune at $9.2 billion in 2008, making him No. 94 on its list of the world’s richest.
Further on, it states:
In November, it became clear that Mr. Merckle had lost an amount of money in the “low hundreds of millions”
Yes, losing hundreds of millions of dollars/euros really sucks, but that's less than 10% of his (personal?) net worth.
posted by lekvar at 4:24 PM on January 6, 2009


scrump, that's awful that your parents had an asset allocation that was completely wrong for them.

bad asset allocation: lost your life savings :: terminate with extreme prejudice : kill
posted by vibrotronica at 4:24 PM on January 6, 2009


Yes, I am clearly hanging out on the financial boards too much lately.
posted by smackfu at 4:27 PM on January 6, 2009


It's too bad he didn't at least leave some interesting note, so we could pontificate a little more clearly. I remember this from some play:
Or, if there were a sympathy in choice,
War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it,
Making it momentany as a sound,
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream;
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,
And ere a man hath power to say 'Behold!'
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion.
posted by peter_meta_kbd at 4:27 PM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can get where he's coming from. I mean first of all he's old. He's maxed out all life has to offer. Through accident or determination, he'd probably explored it all, and found that profit was the only thing that satisfied him. What's wrong with that? Wealth is just the quantization of how much society values you and what you do with yourself. Humans are programmed to seek that and be rewarded by it, at a very low level. A drastic capital loss is like a big punch in the stomach in front of the schoolyard, and everybody laughing at you as you struggle to breath on the cold hard ground. Who gives a fuck if he took himself out? Good for him. What's schadenfreude about it? He was unhappy and rich? Oh, that really validates my mediocrity! Fuck you.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 4:31 PM on January 6, 2009 [4 favorites]


Suicide is almost never a rational choice and certainly not in a matter such as this. What percentage of his net worth would he have had to lose in order for his suicide to make sense? His suicide is no less tragic because he is rich and a lot of people who commit or try to commit suicide have no better "reasons" to do so. You people make me sick sometimes.
posted by Authorized User at 4:35 PM on January 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


I wonder if by killing himself, some of his assets, that are not currently seized, get protected due to inheritance?
posted by niccolo at 4:36 PM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


His suicide is no less tragic because he is rich

Not every death is tragic. Any man who goes to the grave at 74 with 8 billion dollars in the bank while a million people a year die of malaria for want of mosquito nets is not someone I'm going to mourn.
posted by Jairus at 4:42 PM on January 6, 2009 [6 favorites]


Poor man. Going from $9.2 billion to $8.8 billion is enough to do anyone in. My sympathies.

That's not the complete story; imagine going from $9.2 billion to $6.7 billion in debt, all in about three months. He was 74 years old. There's no coming back, financially, from that. For him, there was to be no coming back at all.
posted by ceribus peribus at 4:48 PM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, suicide. From the post, I was kind of expecting that maybe there were hit men from investment unit exacting revenge, or that maybe that someone choked hm to death by forcing a roll of stock certificates down his throat. But suicide, I'm actually not sure why we should even care.

Unless someone wants to start singing "Richard Rory"?
posted by happyroach at 4:49 PM on January 6, 2009


You people make me sick sometimes.
You know what makes me sick sometimes? Moral prigs tut-tutting everyone else for failing to be smote by the tragedy of someone who kills themselves for stupid reasons.
posted by fatbird at 4:53 PM on January 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


That's not the complete story; imagine going from $9.2 billion to $6.7 billion in debt, all in about three months. He was 74 years old. There's no coming back, financially, from that. For him, there was to be no coming back at all.

He didn't go 6.7 billion in debt, his company did. He was still a billionaire.
posted by Jairus at 4:56 PM on January 6, 2009


Ceribus Peribus, it's not clear from the article that he lost $15.9 billion, going from being up 9.2 to being down 6.7. I read the article as saying that he incurred 6.7B in debt that would cause his 9.2B empire to be broken up and sold off to cover it. In other words, leaving 2.5B after the fact.

Can anyone confirm who's correct?
posted by fatbird at 4:56 PM on January 6, 2009


The money he lost was in a holding company that was invested in VW and HeidelbergCement, it wasn't his money. He still personally owned something half of Phoenix Pharmahandel.
posted by Jairus at 5:02 PM on January 6, 2009


He wouldn't be the first rich guy to lose his life to a Porsche.
posted by JackFlash at 5:03 PM on January 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


...and even if he secretly ran up $100 billion in debt in the days before he died, he was still a 74-year old with $9 billion in the bank two months ago.

Meanwhile, about 200 people have died of malaria while we've been discussing this.
posted by Jairus at 5:05 PM on January 6, 2009


You know what makes me sick sometimes? Moral prigs tut-tutting everyone else...

Fair enough. J

ust wanted to point out that suicide is not exactly a rational response so arguing about how much money he lost exactly is not only pointless but also somewhat morbid. Certainly he didn't seem to be a particularly philantropic rich person. Then again most people are pretty selfish and I personally still try to find at least some empathy. But I usually fail when it's about millions of people dying of malaria. I wonder what a certain Gardener of Human Happiness would have though of that,
posted by Authorized User at 5:08 PM on January 6, 2009


He wouldn't be the first rich guy to lose his life to a Porsche.

You say that in just, but I don't see why people are so quick to blame this guy when it was Porsche that was manipulating the markets. Or are all short-sellers evil and deserve to die?
posted by smackfu at 5:11 PM on January 6, 2009


The stock market is a casino. It has better dressed, better educated croupiers, that go to the opera and donate to charity. It has a fawning enthusiast press. But it's still a casino. Merckle apparently forgot that, which is sad. What's even sadder is how the United States as a nation, chose to make the IRA the cornerstone of retirement. It's like taking your retirement savings and putting them into a slot machine. There are options. We could raise taxes on businesses and the very wealthy to pay for retirement _insurance_, provided collectively.

But, for the past 30 years, the policy was this-- you are John Galt. Don't worry about stagnant wages. Don't worry about the chronic underfunding of Social Security or a busted health care system. Just get yourself to the casino. It's understandable that people bought into this-- everyone, from the magazines, to the pundits on TV, to your insufferable second-cousin-who-retired-at-45 who was telling you that It Was Up To You To Be Free To Choose.

What a crock that was. Scrump, I'm sorry to hear about what happened to your parents. They made what was considered the smart asset allocation. The rating agencies failed them. The intellectual prostitutes that pushed these policies failed them. We, the American public that stood by and allowed this abomination, failed them. We all failed.

And despite this failure, if we're going to find a way out of this, it will be collectively as a nation. Because we are all stronger together. When human beings were hunting mastodons, it wasn't John Galt out there alone with his spear. It was the whole tribe-- because that's what it took to survive when the world is trying to kill you.

Maybe we'll fail. But shoot, we're dead anyway. Might as well go out fighting the good fight.
posted by wuwei at 5:18 PM on January 6, 2009 [6 favorites]


Hm, personally I think it would have been described as incurring a loss instead of a debt if the holding company (a.k.a. the family trust, I believe) still had positive worth; similarly with amassing losses vs amassing debt. You're right though, I have no idea if the words in the article were chosen that carefully.

I just wanted to point out that it was unlikely that a loss of 10% would be the trigger, especially not after the year we just had where losses of 30% or more were common. I imagine how I'd feel if everything I accomplished in my life fell apart when I was 74, and I think I can understand. I don't condone how he handled it, of course - I'm just saying I can appreciate his motivation.
posted by ceribus peribus at 5:21 PM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Looking at his face in the article, I can't feel anything other than sorrow. We may not be talking about an evil man here.

All people, when you get right down to it, are pitiful. Some are just better at hiding it than others. I wish he had been able enough to see other things of value in life that he had chosen to live out his remaining years happily.
posted by JHarris at 5:27 PM on January 6, 2009


Not every death is tragic. Any man who goes to the grave at 74 with 8 billion dollars in the bank while a million people a year die of malaria for want of mosquito nets is not someone I'm going to mourn.
Eloquently put, Jairus. Good to see this old scrooge's wealth put in context!
So good that I finally signed up to Mefi just to thank you.
posted by ceedee at 5:29 PM on January 6, 2009


Reading over scrump's writeup, and the article....

I suspect the reason for his suicide was the loss of control of his most valuable asset, the company Retropharm, which was mentioned as a source of great pride for the family. Imagine being told a thing you owned that you thought did great good in the world would have to be sold off in order to pay for a bad business decision you had made. And what if the people who would likely be buying it would be less careful stewards. If you're rich but cared less about the money than what you had done with it, that could be a serious blow.
posted by JHarris at 5:35 PM on January 6, 2009


Not every death is tragic. Any man who goes to the grave at 74 with 8 billion dollars in the bank while a million people a year die of malaria for want of mosquito nets is not someone I'm going to mourn.

By that logic, we are all culpable. Today, while children died of malnutrition and easily preventable diseases, I spent something like 15 bucks-- which would probably buy at least one mosquito net and a bunch of antibiotics-- at Starbucks. My moral dilemma? I really shouldn't succumb to the lure of the chocolate croissant, but hell, I deserve it, I've just had to go to back to work after the Christmas break. Maybe I'll stop off at the bookstore on the way home, then back to my comfortable apartment-- if only it had an outdoor patio it would be perfect! You see where I'm going with this I'm sure. It's not liberal guilt: it's just the knowledge that simply by being an average North American I'm already rich.
posted by jokeefe at 5:38 PM on January 6, 2009 [4 favorites]


Nevermind the working class train crew he used to kill himself. I'm sure he left money to pay for the train engineer's therapy. No?
posted by R. Mutt at 5:39 PM on January 6, 2009 [6 favorites]




His sense of worth being tied to monetary worth, coupled with his failure, made him suicidal.

I would guess that his collection of material items at the point where he killed himself probably exceeds most readers net worth.

The way he structured his life is what "cost" him his life.

Pride is the cause of death.

I take no satisfaction in this, other than as a parable. I hope his family is well.
posted by vapidave at 6:05 PM on January 6, 2009


Ok, people..it's not the money. If you read the NYTimes obit, it says that he was going to have to sell all or most of the one company that he built himself and that his family was most involved in, the pharma company. If you escaped Dresden, built a family business, then built that family business into an empire and poured your entire life into it, you might feel pretty shitty if you gambled it and then saw it get taken away. No reason to end one's life, but I would wager it was the loss of his entire life's work, rather than the money aspect, that did him in.

NOTE: I am not saying he was or was not a rich douchebag who should die for having the gall to be rich, etc etc rich people hatred.
posted by spicynuts at 7:19 PM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


FYI, this is the second suicide of a European aristocrat related to this financial crisis. The first was a Frenchman who invested his and his clients' money in Madoff's ponzi scheme.

“He had a true concept of capitalism,” Bertrand de la Villehuchet, 74, said of his brother. “He felt responsible and he felt guilty. Today, in the financial world, there is no responsibility; no one wants to shoulder the blame.”...In a note to his brother written shortly before his death, Mr. de la Villehuchet said that he needed to be held accountable for the losses, his brother said. “If you ruin your friends, your clients, you have to face the consequences,” Bertrand said, explaining what his brother believed.

I'm still waiting for Dick Fuld and Bernie Madoff to do the honorable thing, but they're clearly a different class of person.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:53 PM on January 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


I expect that, like most suicides, he had been suffering from depression for a very long time, quite likely unacknowledged and untreated, and while the financial loss in and of itself would not provoke a sane and healthy person (inasmuch as a sane person would ever bother to accumulate such vast wealth) to suicide, it was that particular event that pushed him over the line. A depressive who is humiliated and distraught by some event, especially if it feels as if it should have been under their control, is at that point at greatest risk of suicide. Had his investment not failed, but some other event of equal impact on his life occurred, such as the loss of a loved one, or the development of a major health problem like going blind or becoming incontinent, or something similar, he might have killed himself after that too. His suicide has little to do with his wealth and circumstances as such, and everything to do with his depression.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:53 PM on January 6, 2009


By that logic, we are all culpable.

I agree.
posted by Jairus at 12:18 AM on January 7, 2009


No reason to end one's life, but I would wager it was the loss of his entire life's work, rather than the money aspect, that did him in.
Oddly, my parents seem to be having the same problem.

I can only hope and pray that in my parents' case the outcome is different, though Dad doesn't sound all that good when I talk to him lately, and we've got a history of depression in the family. For fans of irony, my Dad seems to feel like he didn't do enough due diligence on his investments, because he thought he was investing in only the most conservative, rock-solid, long-term, stable investments.

As the man said in "From The Earth To The Moon", I'm not a real big fan of irony. If I had one of these private-jet sons of bitches in front of me right now, I imagine I might be able to kill him, without remorse, with my bare hands. The animal fury at how comprehensively these narcissist sociopaths have damaged my family is that deep, and that raw. And, as I sit here contemplating the unthinkable, I have to wonder how many other normally rational people are starting to feel the same way, and I start to consider what the consequences might be when the inevitable whitewashed, bullshit-laden slap on the wrist comes down.

In my nightmares, this ends up with people swinging from streetlight stanchions and cities in flames. But my dreams aren't much better.
posted by scrump at 12:55 AM on January 7, 2009


Good point, JHarris.
posted by batmonkey at 1:10 AM on January 7, 2009


I think that a bit more background may be necessary. First of all, by the articles in the German press, Merckle was in trouble well before the VW-Porsche stock shenanigans. After patiently building up ratiopharm over decades he'd diversified by investing heavily into the concrete business, buying up HeidelbergCement. Then, just before the credit crunch, that is, at the worst possible moment, he'd doubled this by buying up British concrete company Hanson. For this he hadn't relied just on his accumulated wealth, but had also taken a shitload of debt. When the economy hit the rocks and the concrete market went down like a lead balloon, he tried to save his concern by gambling in the stockmarket. Apparently, he'd taken a shine to daytrading (not an unprofitable occupation during the bull years, especially when you have a couple billion at your disposal to play with) and started acting as a compulsive gambler. So it was that he walked straight into Porsche's liquidity trap, but I doubt that was his only losing bet. He was digging an ever deeper hole for himself and was already forced to sell out ratiopharm (ironically enough, the sort of solid asset that most people would kill these days to own).

It's a truly sad story, and I can only hope that it serves as a cautionary tale in Germany, which is still pretty much in denial about the current crisis. Even if German household debt has always remained low, and its public debt is also commendably restrained, German investors and some German creditors have been just as reckless as those elsewhere, and it isn't just "Anglo-Saxon locust funds" that are being hit in the backlash.

As for the motivation for his suicide, I must note that old-school German manager-owners like Merckle usually still feel very much responsible for the welfare of their workforce. Guilt about the livelihoods affected by his gambling, not just his family's wealth, must have played an important role. Poor guy. Not that I feel anything like the same kind of compassion for the "money managers", "financial geniuses", never mind financial media sycophants and shills that encouraged this sort of institutionalised gambling.
posted by Skeptic at 1:24 AM on January 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


I must note that old-school German manager-owners like Merckle usually still feel very much responsible for the welfare of their workforce

That was my interpretation of his actions too, Skeptic. That it was much less about the consequences of his actions on his own welfare, and much more about the impact that it would have on the workforce who looked to his companies for their economic wellbeing.

Don't worry about the chronic underfunding of Social Security or a busted health care system.

In Germany, I don't think either thing is true. Social Security has always been very generous, and their health care system is very good.

If I had one of these private-jet sons of bitches in front of me right now, I imagine I might be able to kill him, without remorse, with my bare hands.

I'm not that big on financial stories and so perhaps I'm missing something here, but as I understand it, this guy wasn't a banker or a hedge fund manager, gambling with other people's money. This was his *own* money that he lost -- in that sense, he's really no different to your parents. He made bad investments that cost him dear -- simply on a much larger scale.

This guy wasn't like Enron, running a scam company that systematically and knowingly fucked his customers, his employees and the taxpayer. He was a German industrialist who presumably took his social responsibilities seriously but got in over his head and drowned.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:17 AM on January 7, 2009


aeschenkarnos and Skeptic put it best.

Adolf Merckle didn't cause the financial crisis. His fortune was based on growing family wealth through working and being a successful businessman in a pretty morally neutral industry (generic medicine manufacturing). He had a lucky start, but if you're sitting at a computer in your free time reading this then billions of people would say the same about you. There are plenty of amoral, sociopathic, obscenely wealthy douchebags out there deserving of emotional torment for their crimes, but by all accounts he wasn't one of them.

The way I see it, it's as sad as most suicides. He wasn't perfect, but he wasn't evil. He's another of many old white guys who've lost it all to gambling, felt that they've let down everyone close to them, become depressed, and killed themselves.

To those celebrating his death (coming into a thread to say how indifferent to someone's suicide you are is gloating, by the way), how much poorer would he have to have be to wipe the smirk off your faces?
posted by teem at 3:20 AM on January 7, 2009


Sure he's pathetic. Sure the money could be better spent. But, really... how much time spent shouting into this blue echobox could better be spent at your local soup kitchen or running collections for the food bank? Or just take five minutes and fund a loan for a woman in Kenya to start a business or a cow for a farmer in Thailand. (mcc.org is a good thing.)
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:39 AM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Not every death is tragic. Any man who goes to the grave at 74 with 8 billion dollars in the bank while a million people a year die of malaria for want of mosquito nets is not someone I'm going to mourn.

Yes, every death is tragic, to those who loved the dead person. Are you going to go up to Merckle's family and tell them he deserved to die and you don't give a shit? And while I believe you're not going to mourn him, I don't believe you're going to mourn "a million people a year" either. You're not going to mourn anyone you aren't personally close to, and why should you?

But, as seanmpuckett says, cheap moral posturing on the internet is a lot easier than actually helping people.
posted by languagehat at 7:07 AM on January 7, 2009


Sure he's pathetic. Sure the money could be better spent. But, really... how much time spent shouting into this blue echobox could better be spent at your local soup kitchen or running collections for the food bank? Or just take five minutes and fund a loan for a woman in Kenya to start a business or a cow for a farmer in Thailand. (mcc.org is a good thing.)

This needs to be emblazoned on the front page of MeFi and should be in the text box as a default, forcing you to erase it before typing your opinion into the MeFi. Talk is cheap.
posted by spicynuts at 7:13 AM on January 7, 2009


But, as seanmpuckett says, cheap moral posturing on the internet is a lot easier than actually helping people.
And who are you to make this kind of leaping assumption? What makes your assumption that somebody like me (I'm assuming I fall under your "cheap moral posturing" rubric) doesn't already do these things, and has simply had it up to the fucking eyeballs with sob stories about the obscenely wealthy offing themselves?

If Adolf Merckle hadn't been a billionaire, his suicide would have passed without fanfare. Instead, because he's rich (his position of responsibility is, at best, ancillary in the articles cited: they focus, first and foremost, on his personal fortunes), he gets a kind of hagiographic "there but for the grace of God go we" treatment.

There but for the grace of God don't go we, which is more or less my main point of contention. I have a strong suspicion that there are plenty of people who are going through economic crises much, much more devastating in their scale than the one Merckle endured. I suspect, but cannot prove, that many of them are also stepping in front of trains. I don't see them getting writeups in the New York Times. But I sure as hell don't see some sort of rush to retroactively saint these people.

More bluntly, who the hell made Merckle his money, anyway? Merckle didn't drive the profit of his companies: the people who worked for him did. But he sure as hell reaped the benefits. And I've always found it obscene that the people who do the real work, the creation of actual tangible products that create actual tangible things, are mentioned second, third, or sometimes not at all in favor of elevating the people at the top to something between God and Nostradamus.

Being pissed off on the Internet does not automatically confer Greater Internet Fuckwad status upon someone. It is entirely possible to both do good acts in the hope of changing the world and be royally pissed off.
posted by scrump at 8:20 AM on January 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


If Adolf Merckle hadn't been a billionaire, his suicide would have passed without fanfare.

Well, duh. I'm not sure why you bold that and why you think it's particularly relevant. It's obvious, and so what? If Martin Luther King hadn't been famous, his death would have passed without comment too. Should we all throw spitballs at King?

As for the rest, look, I sympathize with being pissed off that low-level workers (aka "the people who do the real work") are devalued while the top guys are sucked up to and revered, but: 1) that has nothing to do with whether anyone's death is somehow worth mourning, and 2) it's childish to let one's being pissed off at the disparity morph into a false belief that all the top guys are doing are leeching off the "real" workers, who create all the value. That's what Lenin called "infantile leftism," and if history has shown anything it's that organizers and managers are as necessary to the success of an enterprise as "real" workers. The automatic reverence for the latter on the part of leftists is as silly as the automatic reverence for the bosses on the other side of the aisle. As fun as it is to demonize people (and Merckle doesn't seem to be particularly worth demonizing anyway, as others have pointed out), the only way we're going to get anywhere is by analyzing structures and trying to discover how to improve them by giving people incentives to act in a way that brings about the results we want. Screaming at The Man and getting thrown out of meetings (not to mention breaking shop windows and all the other lovely things baby "progressives" like to do) accomplishes nothing useful. (Not associating you with such things, scrump, just venting.)
posted by languagehat at 10:32 AM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Vent away. God knows I've gotten spleen all over my past few messages. Your criticisms are fair, and my anger isn't really directed at Merckle: he's standing in for a pattern of behavior that's far more prevalent in the United States, particularly Wall Street, than in Europe or Germany.

That said, the King comparison doesn't work for me, because Merckle was (for lack of a better term) an industraliast, and King was a charismatic leader. King certainly benefited from his stature, in all sorts of questionable ways, but he wasn't trying to generate profit from it. Merckle was running several very large companies, all of which were profit-driven, and if he had any ulterior motive in terms of improving the lot of a large number of people, they came second to that drive for profit. That's business. But that's also what all of us do, every day, in matters large or small.

Put another way, King, to my mind, deserves the reverence in which he's held because he acted unselfishly on behalf of millions of people, with no expectation of reward. Merckle, on the other hand, doesn't strike me as very much different from you or I except in terms of scale. So why is Merckle's death deserving of special note, other than because he was rich, and powerful?

As to infantile leftism, I'm afraid that the foam in my mouth probably obscured a good bit of my true feelings, which are far more measured than the ones to which you're responding. Tough shit for me, though, because you're going after what I wrote, not what I think. So let me fully disclose my agenda: I am leftist, insofar as I'd like to see CEOs in this country be paid at a multiple of worker salaries more like 30 or 40 at most versus the 300 or 400 that's currently in fashion. I'm at a complete loss as to how we'll get there without some fairly heavy government intervention, if not outright nationalization of some industries. And, to be straightforward, I'd love to see some severe frontier justice meted out to these people, because they seem to be beyond reach in any other way.

I'm definitely not saying that all workers are the salt of the earth and all bosses are venal, corrupt pigs. However, my sympathies lie far more with the workers than the bosses, largely because I tend to think that in contemporary society, money provides the best insulation from pressing concern. And the lion's share of the money is going to those at the very top. I'd like to see everyone getting a nice fat share of the profits.

I want to feel empathy for Merckle. I feel like I should. But I've got so many other things in the way of that that there's a bit of baby getting thrown out with the bathwater.
posted by scrump at 11:59 AM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


the King comparison doesn't work for me, because Merckle was (for lack of a better term) an industraliast, and King was a charismatic leader.

Well, sure, but I wasn't "comparing" them in any respect other than that they were 1) famous and 2) dead. You were making the point that nobody would have cared about Merckle's death if he hadn't been famous, and I was making the point that that was true but irrelevant, because the same is true of King (and everybody else who's famous and dead, but King was an obvious choice for saintly counterpoint).

That said, we obviously have no quarrel, because I agree with everything you wrote about leftism, CEOs, money, and frontier justice. I'm glad we were able to ignore each other's flying spleen-spittle!

*gives scrump Joe Hill fist-bump*
posted by languagehat at 1:37 PM on January 7, 2009


Put another way, King, to my mind, deserves the reverence

I don't see where anyone is demanding or displaying reverence for Merckle. Noting his death as a newsworthy event is not the same as celebrating his life.
posted by krinklyfig at 1:56 PM on January 7, 2009


If Adolf Merckle hadn't been a billionaire, his suicide would have passed without fanfare.

But there is so much sorrow and death in the world that if we could encompass it all within our minds, as it truly is, we'd be basket cases if we had even the slightest shred of empathy.

Short of having a lottery to determine which exemplars the media presents, this is probably good enough.
posted by JHarris at 8:15 PM on January 7, 2009


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