The Moral Fallout When Academics Sell Out

Daniel Gilbert surrounded by the hopelessly co-opted

My mom and I went to go see Leonardo DiCaprio get ripped apart by a bear this weekend.

This was one of the pre-movie commercials. It was horrifying.

For those of you who do not recognize him, the narrator of this commercial is Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert. Years ago, I read Gilbert’s pop-psych bestseller, Stumbling on Happiness, which introduces Gilbert’s research focus: affective forecasting. In a nutshell, Professor Gilbert studies why people are really shitty at knowing what will make them happy in the future.

Since 2013, however, Gilbert has been working for Harvard and Prudential simultaneously, making cute gimmick ads like this one. Peeling back the layers of this ad, it’s obvious that Prudential is trying to evangelize 401ks. Americans today conflate running 5ks with moral causes, like ending hunger or cancer. So Prudential decided, huh, well, surely we can appropriate this sentimentality for private equity?

And that’s how out of a Harvard professor’s mouth comes this dystopic line:

“How can you help? By giving a little more to yourself.”

I mean, come on. This is naked neoliberal doublespeak. I’ve been writing about it all week. Up is down. Capitulation is progress. And now, apparently, selfishness is actually selflessness.

Now Gilbert is an excellent social researcher. In private, he’ll probably be able to tell you that the vast majority of Americans can’t afford to save anything for retirement. In 2015, 80% of Americans are in debt. According to the Fed, among Americans earning less than $40,000 per year, 55 percent plan to keep working as long as possible because they know they can never afford to retire. (Note: 62% of Americans earn less than $40,000 a year.)

So the reason most Americans have no retirement isn’t because they’re silly and forget to save; it’s because they’re broke as shit and have debt to pay.

But on top of that, millions of middle-class Americans spent the past decade watching their retirements evaporate entirely because of Wall Street fuckery. Pension plans, IRAs, 401ks all shriveled like cocks in a stiff breeze caused by firms like Goldman Sachs, AIG and, yes, retirement equity firms like Prudential.

In 2009, an episode of 60 Minutes opened with this segment:

The effects of the current economic crisis have touched everyone. Even if you still have a good job and a paid up mortgage, chances are your monthly 401(k) statement will remind you that you’ve lost a good chunk of your savings.
Alan Weir, who turns 60 this month, showed 60 Minutes his latest 401(k) statement, which he hadn’t had the courage to open up.
“I’m afraid,” he told correspondent Steve Kroft.
There’s good reason for his trepidation: nearly half of his life savings have vanished in a matter of months.
“It went down again,” Weir told Kroft, after opening the statement.
Overall, he said he was down about $140,000.
Asked if he thought he’d ever get that money back, Weir said. “I probably never see it come back. I was looking to retire, probably, when I hit 62. Can’t do it now. I’ll probably be working until I’m at least 70.”

Our Boomer parents were seduced by a lie. They voted against their best interest for decades, for candidates who promised them if only they could invest their pensions privately, the could taste returns on investment rivaling booming real estate. And on promises like this, they voted for those like Bush Jr. who spent his entire administration trying to privatize Social Security. Governors across the country privatized state pensions with trashfire results. We are now living in the wreckage of casino retirement.

Put your retirement in the market, they said, what could happen?

Tell you what, some bad shit happened. Now, millions of young Americans are stuck paying college loans while also trying to help their parents pay down a mortgage for their long-depreciated childhood home located in a suburban wasteland forever away from any job prospects.

Those of us with parents still on the cusp of 65 know the dread of waiting for Medicare to kick in so we can stop holding our breath every time Dad tells you his heart hurts. Even with insurance, co-pays and deductibles run up fast when a loved one is afraid of going down.

So as the inheritors of our parents’ retirement crisis, Millennials aren’t so thrilled to watch a rich Harvard Professor lecture a nation about their collective “forgetfulness” to save. No, we watched the Boomers invest their savings in private equity and look how that shit turned out.

And yet here’s this commercial starring Gilbert, soundtracked by a saccharine runner’s crescendo, trying to get us all on board with “the cause.”

The cause?

“The cause is retirement,” he says.

Oh really.

These people are running — for their own private retirement funds.

You see, these idiots running behind Daniel Gilbert volunteered to run for free to make a commercial for a for-profit company that uses private retirement savings to make millions of dollars doing morally sketchy shit like investing in the companies building the bombs we drop.

But explaining how Prudential money managers make their money would make for a terrible commercial. You’d have to show images like this:

And gosh, that’s no fun. That’s not inspiring at all.

But banks gotta bank, you know. While Wall Street circlejerk practices definitely caused the crash in 2008, that won’t stop them from trying to deflect the blame back onto ordinary people. If you lost everything in 2008? Oh well. Have fun working until you die.

The banks made it out more than fine. But to make sure the dispossessed poors don’t turn on them with pitchforks, banks gotta brew some dark mojo. Mindfuck mojo. Mindfuck mojo like this Prudential commercial that puts hedge funds on the same moral plane as scientists trying to cure childhood leukemia.

Since 2013, Gilbert has both worked for Prudential Financial and Harvard simultaneously. While this is certainly his right and prerogative, it’s the kind of partnership that makes you question the ethical foundations of a social psychologist performing psychological propaganda for Wall Street.

But Gilbert’s certainly not the only certified smarty shilling morally questionable financial products. TurboTax, which is notorious for lobbying the government to keep filing our taxes as byzantine as possible, co-opted the legitimacy of a half dozen or so Nobel Prize winning physicists to show clueless white dudes how easy their new app is:

And it’s in this “new economy” you can easily believe that the American Psychological Association would aid the military in committing UN war crimes in exchange for large “consulting” fees. As the Economist reports:

Far from upholding their Hippocratic oath to “do no harm”, APA psychologists did indeed work with officials from the Defense Department and the CIA to facilitate the torture of detainees. This involved issuing loose ethical guidelines that endorsed existing DoD interrogation policies and permitted psychologists to participate at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere — unlike their colleagues in the field of psychiatry, who refused to back the government’s evolving interrogation tactics. Though the APA’s policies adhered to US law, they violated medical ethics.

Academics wield the tremendous responsibility of expertise. Academic legitimacy is a commodity corporations pay handsomely to appropriate. Harvard faculty and Nobel Prize winners are assets in the war for the American mind. That’s why Prudential and the CIA seek them out as “spokesmen” and “consultants” who will lend their image of academic expertise to sanctify, legitimize, and endorse products like private equity hedge funds and state torture.

Which makes you ask how many others are doing it, absent such ridiculously transparent ad campaigns.

So, yeah, while you capital jockeys can argue that there are many degrees of moral separation between the world’s growing drone orphan population and Daniel Gilbert, it doesn’t take a genius to draw moral lines.