Kanye West leaves Barneys wearing a jacket with a rebel flag. Here is the explanation.
Kanye West leaves Barneys wearing a jacket with a rebel flag. Here is the explanation.
Some months ago I was approached by Ronald Cox and David Gibbs, a couple of radical professors, about contributing to a new journal they were involved with named “Class, Race, and Corporate Power”. The journal will be premiering its first print issue in March 2014 but an accompanying website is up and running with an article by me titled “How Art Trumped Commerce at Miramax”, an analysis of the “indie” film revolution of the 1990s led by Harvey Weinstein that was fueled by Quentin Tarantino’s spectacular success as a Miramax director.
I am generally modest about my writing and even openly admit to being a “prolific buffoon” as Marc Cooper once put it. I love writing in the same way that a shock jock loves the microphone and am constantly planning out my next article. As far as being a buffoon is concerned, that’s a very perceptive comment given the fact that I try to include at least 3 or 4 jokes in everything I write. Of course, Cooper meant buffoon in an unflattering manner but let’s not worry about that.
In any case, the Miramax article contains some ideas that have been percolating in the old noggin for decades now. Anybody who cares about film will certainly find them interesting and even if you haven’t been to a movie in decades you still might read it for the jokes:
How Commerce Trumped Art at Miramax
By Louis Proyect
In 1960 Ingmar Bergman introduced his collected screenplays with an analogy to medieval Christendom.
People ask what are my intentions with my films — my aims. It is a difficult and dangerous question, and I usually give an evasive answer: I try to tell the truth about the human condition, the truth as I see it. This answer seems to satisfy everyone, but it is not quite correct. I prefer to describe what I would like my aim to be. There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed — master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres.
Profound as this insight was, Bergman did not draw out other affinities between constructing cathedrals and filmmaking–the most obvious of which is that the movie theater functions as a secular church. People who are complete strangers to each other sit side by side in total darkness to achieve a kind of spiritual uplift, with the film constituting the service. In some ways this harkens back to the original intention of drama in Greece, which was to produce catharsis. Despite being dismissed by most critics as junk, “The Exorcist” struck a nerve in 1973 for its ability to summon up atavistic memories of demons and sacrifice for its largely secular audiences.
Since Ingmar Bergman was apolitical, it was not surprising that he missed the most important connection, namely the reliance of both Gothic cathedral and the modern motion picture on ruling class institutional support. To build a church or to make a film costing $100 million requires enormous outlays of capital. Under feudalism, only the church and the king had such sums at its disposals. Under capitalism, where there are no kings, the filmmaker has to rely on the Disney or the Sony Corporation instead. In the German Ideology, Marx stated: “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” In bourgeois society, the artist has much more license than those who supervised the construction of Chartres but there are limits to what can be said in a film. Hollywood had no problems hiring Communist directors or screenwriters, but it was only after they were blacklisted that Paul Jarrico, Michael Wilson and Harold Biberman could make “Salt of the Earth”.
Unlike cathedral building, film studios operate under the iron laws of competition. The bottom line is paramount, no pun intended. A publishing house will not go broke as a result of an unreadable novel but there are significant risks involved in making costly failures like Heaven’s Gate or Bonfire of the Vanities. In 1999 Steven Bach published Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists. Eighty years earlier Charlie Chaplin launched United Artists in order to wrest control of film production from cigar-smoking, mammon-worshipping studio bosses. It was supremely ironical that Michael Cimino’s fiercely anti-capitalist Western brought down United Artists, a function of the critical establishment’s outrage over the film’s admittedly overblown affinities with “Salt of the Earth” rather than its value as cinema.
Counterpunch Weekend Edition August 9-11, 2013
Follow the Money
Bezos, Tina Brown and the Looting of the Washington Post
by LOUIS PROYECT
Recently two major media sales transactions involved properties associated with the Washington Post. The first was the sale of the Post itself to Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon.com; the other was the sale of Newsweek/Daily Beast to IBT Media. Until its sale in 2010 to high-fidelity magnate Sidney Harman, Newsweek was part of the Washington Post’s media empire. Tina Brown launched the Daily Beast, a center-right version of the Huffington Post, in October 2008, which merged with Newsweek two years later. In a bid to capitalize on the Internet revolution, the print edition of Newsweek was terminated in December 2012 and all efforts were directed toward making the website a success. No doubt its failure had more to do with the stale content that Tina Brown was proffering, something no amount of new media gold sequins could rescue.
On July 25th SAC Capital, a hedge fund founded and run by Steven A. Cohen, was indicted for insider trading. Up until now, Cohen has managed to avoid being hauled off perp-style with his jacket over his head. Even after a number of his underlings began serving time, Cohen continued to enjoy the benefits of what is obviously a criminal enterprise. With all proportions guarded, his status reminds me of how holocaust deniers can make the case for Hitler even to this day. Where is there a document with Der Fuhrer ordering the gassing of Jews? By the same token, where is there an email indicating Cohen’s part in what by all admissions is standard operating practice in the financial industry? What do you think all those country clubs are for? To improve Joe Moneybags’s golf game? Don’t be silly. It is to pick up inside information through small talk that is never transcribed.
SAC Capital first came under investigation ten years ago when Holly B. Becker, a Lehman Brothers stock analyst, tipped off her husband Michael J. Zimmerman, who worked for Cohen, about Amazon. What? You expected them to not discuss such matters under the sheets? If you can’t tell your significant other about some hot tip during late night pillow talk, what good is a marriage that was reported on in the Sunday NY Times Style section? Ironically Holly told Michael that SAC should short Amazon Inc. because it was not a viable corporation and had no future. She should have gotten a refund from Wharton, or wherever she got an MBA from, for not knowing which way the wind was blowing.
As the sewage-laden Carnival Cruise ship staggered into Mobile, Alabama last night, the mainstream media has begun to analyze what went wrong. Almost every point is made, except the crucial one: corporate greed is what made this the cruise from hell.
When I was very young I looked forward to visits to New York City, especially the drive along the West Side Highway. Back then steamship cruises were still popular and our family would “ooh” and “aah” at the sight of the Queen Elizabeth, one of the most beautiful ships ever made.
Today it is impossible to distinguish one cruise ship from another, especially those that fly under the Carnival Cruise banner. Heavily advertised on television, the company markets to working class people, those who never would have booked a trip on the Queen Elizabeth. Indeed, the audience for the ads is the same as it is for the time-share resorts sold by David Siegel through Westgate, incorporated. In the documentary “Queen of Versailles”, which is focused on Siegel’s wife Jackie as she tries to adjust to a more modest life-style after the prime mortgage crash knocks Westgate on its ass, you can see couples being shown around a Siegel property in Las Vegas that has the cheap and gaudy allure of a Carnival Cruise liner.
Carnival Cruise’s CEO is Micky Arison, who lives in Florida like David Siegel and shares his Jewish ethnicity. He also owns the Miami Heat, the championship basketball team led by Lebron James.
“Devils on the Deep Blue Sea: The Dreams, Schemes and Showdowns That Built America’s Cruise-Ship Empires” by Kristoffer A. Garin came out in 2005. The N.Y. Observer review provides background on the industry:
Mr. Garin begins by recounting the cruise industry’s exotic lineage. Its “grandfather” is F. Leslie Fraser, a Jamaican plantation owner who, between hobnobbing with Errol Flynn and General Rafael Trujillo, launched the first Miami-based pleasure cruise line in the 1950’s. His concept begat the “modern cruise industry’s founding fathers”: a Norwegian, Knut Kloster, and an Israeli, Ted Arison. The son of wealthy shipowners, Arison was a WWII veteran who smuggled Jews into Palestine, fought in the war for Israeli independence, emigrated from America (because, says Mr. Garin, he “wanted to be a self-made man”) and was eulogized by The Jerusalem Post as the “world’s richest Jew.”
But before that, Arison was Kloster’s partner in Norwegian Caribbean Lines. Their venture was successful, so successful that financial disputes drove a wedge between them. In 1971, Arison launched his own company, which pioneered the marketing scheme that redefined tackiness as we know it: the “fun ship” concept, which meant selling the ship, not the port of call, and catering to the lower, not upper tier of the market. It meant the birth, in other words, of the Wal-Mart of the sea: Carnival Cruise Lines, which now has a market capitalization of $36 billion and control of over 50 percent of the market.
From the start-up sagas of the 60’s, to the Love Boat era launched in 1977—when the television premiere of a “glorious, unapologetic shlockfest” became the best advertising cruise lines couldn’t buy—to the “Me Decade,” when bigger, fatter ships (and customers) proved that size does matter, Devils on the Deep Blue Sea traces the rise of the current industry trinity: Norwegian, Carnival and Royal Caribbean. But really it’s the story of Carnival, its rise from penny-pinching underdog to corporate behemoth (during the past decade, it rapaciously gobbled up rival cruise companies).
Carnival Cruise is the quintessential “globalization” entity. Using its foreign registry, it avoids American taxes and regulations, especially those that might protect the health and safety of its working class passengers and the super-exploited Third World workforce.
On December 24, 1999, the N.Y. Times described how both passengers and crew are sacrificed to the altar of profits:
Four Filipino waiters filed suit in state court in Miami three years ago, claiming that they had been blacklisted after objecting to being forced to return part of their tips to their cruise line and hiring a lawyer, Luis A. Perez, to represent them. Lawyers for Majesty Cruise Line, the company that employed the waiters, denied retaliating and said the lawsuit was the result of a misunderstanding. The case is pending.
Douglas B. Stevenson, director of the Center for Seafarers’ Rights, which is affiliated with the Seamen’s Church Institute, said there was ample evidence of blacklists.
“There are so many people ready, willing and able to take these jobs that you are not going to find too many people willing to complain, because they are afraid of losing their job and being blacklisted,” Mr. Stevenson said.
In October, at a sentencing hearing in Miami for Royal Caribbean Cruises on pollution-law violations, the Justice Department said the disparity in work, pay and opportunities for advancement on ships made employees less likely to call attention to crimes like the cruise line’s years-long dumping of contaminated waste water.
“The work practices hardly empower the lowest levels to challenge pollution practices or provide such employees a direct route of communication with senior ship or shore-side managers, as good corporate compliance practices would dictate,” prosecutors said in court papers.
A Nexis search on “Carnival Cruise” and “accident” will return 816 articles. Here is a sampling:
Journal of Commerce, May 18, 1989, Thursday
SAFETY BOARD SAYS CRUISE LINE WON’T COOPERATE IN ITS PROBE
A cruise company whose luxury liner rammed into a Cuban merchant vessel, killing its captain and two seamen, is refusing to cooperate with federal investigators, according to safety officials.
A spokesman for Carnival Cruise Lines Inc., however, said the Miami company is responding to investigators in Liberia, where its vessel is registered, and accused the head of the National Transportation Safety Board of making misleading and totally irresponsible” statements about the company.
The New York Times, June 20, 1995
Vessel Sent to Assist Stranded Cruise Ship
Carnival Cruise Lines sent out an ocean liner today to bring ashore, if necessary, more than 2,500 people left adrift on a ship in the Bahamas with no air conditioning or hot food after an electrical fire.
The blaze on Sunday in a control room left the ship, the Celebration, without a main power source, its engines unable to restart.
St. Petersburg Times (Florida), February 20, 1996
Pilot of stranded ship has a past
Harbor pilot Thomas Baggett, who only recently completed his probation from a fiery 1993 vessel crash in Tampa Bay, is under scrutiny again.
Baggett, 65, was guiding the Carnival cruise ship Tropicale on Sunday night when the ship and its 1,600 passengers and crew ran aground along a Tampa Bay channel 2 miles south of MacDill Air Force Base.
Baggett, who has been the subject of more state and federal disciplinary actions than any other harbor pilot on Tampa Bay, was released from probation on Jan. 10, state records said. The probation was imposed after hearings into the crash Aug. 10, 1993, of three vessels on Tampa Bay.
The Balsa 37, with Baggett as pilot, was outbound in Tampa Bay’s channels that morning. It collided with a barge carrying jet fuel and another barge carrying heavy bunker oil. More than 300,000 gallons of the oil spilled into Tampa Bay, coating beaches and soaking wildlife. It still sits on the bottom in spots of the bay. Cleanup costs approached $50-million.
It was Baggett’s fourth license suspension by state or federal authorities and fourth probation during his nearly 26-year piloting career. Baggett has also received three letters of guidance, a reprimand and an admonishment for his actions on the water during his career. A review of federal and state records after the 1993 crash found that Baggett had been involved in 19 mishaps or near-mishaps while piloting.
Sunday night was the third time Baggett was piloting a cruise ship when it ran into trouble, according to state and federal records. In 1984, the Scandinavian Star ran aground while Baggett was guiding. He was not disciplined. In 1987, Baggett’s license was suspended for 45 days when the Scandinavian Star, with Baggett at the controls, crashed into another ship while overtaking.
On land, Baggett once lost his driving privileges after being charged with drunken driving. He has been involved in four traffic accidents since 1984, according to state records. Last year, Baggett paid $ 105 in civil penalties after being ticketed for making an improper U-turn and having an expired registration, Pinellas court records show.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri), July 21, 1998
60 PASSENGERS ARE INJURED IN CRUISE SHIP FIRE; BLAZE STARTS IN LAUNDRY AS LINER LEAVES MIAMI
Fire broke out in a crew laundry aboard a cruise ship that had just set sail from Miami on Monday with more than 2,500 vacationers aboard. The blaze burned through three lower decks before the crew extinguished it and the vessel was towed back to shore.
Smoke billowed from the Carnival Cruise Lines ship Ecstasy during the height of the two-hour fire.
At least 60 people were injured, most of them suffering from smoke inhalation and one with an undisclosed heart problem. Nine paramedics were on board treating the injured.
Tampa Tribune (Florida), October 6, 1999, Wednesday, FINAL EDITION
Ship fire may have been worsened by faulty valve
TAMPA – The valve may have let leaking diesel fuel feed the fire aboard the cruise ship Tropicale.
A Coast Guard inquiry of a cruise ship fire focused Tuesday on a fuel valve in one of the ship’s boilers, which crewmen said hadn’t been operating properly.
A possibly faulty shut-off valve may have let diesel fuel leak into the engine room of the cruise ship Tropicale, fueling a fire that left the ship disabled amid tropical storm waters, the ship’s chief engineer said Tuesday.
After the Sept. 19 fire aboard the 660-foot Carnival Cruise Lines ship started in the engine room’s boiler compartment, crew members tried to stop the flow of fuel into the area.
San Jose Mercury News (California), November 10, 2010 Wednesday
Spam and a slow tow for thousands on cruise ship stranded in Pacific
SAN DIEGO (AP) — A Coast Guard official says one of two tugboats tasked with pulling a disabled cruise ship to San Diego didn’t have enough power and was forced to turn back.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Jetta Disco says a Mexican company has sent a third tugboat to the scene but authorities are trying to determine whether it would be better to leave the one tugboat alone while it slowly makes headway.
She says using two tugboats is more complicated and may not necessarily move the ship faster.
An engine fire Monday cut power to the Carnival Splendor, carrying nearly 4,500 passengers and crew on a Mexican Riviera cruise.
Instead of lavish buffets, passengers on the Carnival Splendor were subsisting on Spam, Pop Tarts and canned crabmeat flown in by Navy helicopters. Carnival says the boat is starting to move into cell phone range.
You would think that with such a compromised record, America’s most famous liberal magazine would think twice about raising funds through such tours. But apparently the Nation Magazine organizes them for the same reason that Carnival Cruise is in business: to raise money.
With the sea cruise business generating such bad publicity it was just a matter of time before a leftist brought the magazine to task. As one might have expected, it was up to CounterPunch, the real alternative to the Nation in a million different ways, to hold its feet to the fire:
Counterpunch Weekend Edition March 18-20, 2011
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The Silence of “The Nation”
The Dark Side of the Cruise Ship Industry
by RUSSELL MOKHIBER
Let’s say you are a crusading liberal magazine.
Exposing corporate power.
Champion of the workers.
Defender of liberalism.
But, on the other hand, for the past 13 years, let’s say that you have been raising an average of $200,000 a year by charging readers for a chance to float on a monster cruise ship through beautiful seaways with hundreds of your fellow liberals and listen to prominent writers and activists denounce corporate power.
And let’s say the cruise ship industry you are partnering with has a nasty history of environmental crimes and treating its mostly third world workforce like modern day slaves.
And let’s say that in the 13 years you have been taking your readers on cruise ships, you have been approached many times by investigative reporters and activists pleading with you to run one article – just one – in your crusading magazine about the dark side of the cruise ship industry.
And you agree that you will.
But you never do.
Let’s just say that was the case.
What would be the explanation for that?
Well, one explanation would be – if you expose the industry for polluting the seaways and treating its workers like modern day slaves, then your readers might be less willing to dish out the $1500 to $5000 per person to go on the cruise.
And you wouldn’t be making as much money for your magazine.
Another explanation would be that you just haven’t had the time to get around to it.
Thirteen years is just a blink in time.
And you just can’t do it all.
Even if reporters and activists are willing to do it for you.
January 24, 2013
Arianna Huffington and Lloyd Blankfein Discuss Our Common Goal: Empowering Entrepreneurs and Creating Jobs
Lloyd Blankfein and Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, today co-authored an opinion piece to coincide with the 43rd annual meeting of the World Economic Forum being held in Davos. Our Common Goal: Empowering Entrepreneurs and Creating Jobs examines how entrepreneurship is driving growth around the world and the role of women entrepreneurs, in particular.
This week, politicians, writers, activists, and non-profit leaders are gathered in Davos, Switzerland for the 43rd annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. While the issues to be addressed range from health care to regulation to the environment, the two of us share a common interest in one particular topic — economic growth and job creation. While many European countries are struggling with double-digit unemployment, and America’s recovery continues to limp along at best, many of us gathered in Davos will draw important lessons, not just from one another — amidst the well-intentioned talk and catchy phrases — but from the individuals around the world who are building growth and creating opportunity every day, often overcoming extraordinary obstacles.
Visit GoldmanSachs.com to read the op-ed in full…
One of the things heard incessantly since Election Day is that the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson did not get their money’s worth. Alternet’s R.J. Eskow spoke for many of his co-religionists:
I should be a better person than this, but I take no small amount of satisfaction in knowing that Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers wasted lots and lots and lots of money this year.
It is necessary to put this into perspective. The Koch brothers spent $400 million. That represents just .008 of their combined personal fortune of fifty billion dollars. Forbes Magazine shared my perspective when it came to Adelson:
Yes, Sheldon Adelson crapped out on Election Day. But Adelson has plenty of more chips to place on the table–billions more.
True, the casino billionaire spent at least $53 million on this election cycle with little to show for the investment. And while it’s a massive amount of money for most people, and most companies, it’s pocket change for Adelson. The Las Vegas Sands boss is worth $20.5 billion. My colleague Clare O’Connor drew this great comparison yesterday: “Imagine an average person with a $100,000 net worth buying a pair of Tory Burch shoes ($250). You’d care if you lost them, but you wouldn’t be ruined.” Adelson’s $53 million is gone. The billionaire isn’t going anywhere.
Although I am not privy to the innermost calculations of such characters, I think that they share one thing with me, namely a belief that there is no room for compromises when it comes to electoral politics.
Historically this was not always the case with the Republicans. The most notable example in recent times was the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower who Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, described in these terms: “Could Eisenhower really be simply a smart politician, entirely without principles and hungry for glory, who is only the tool of the Communists? The answer is yes.” He also stated: “With regard to … Eisenhower, it is difficult to avoid raising the question of deliberate treason.”
It should also be noted that Fred Koch, the paterfamilias of the reactionary gang, was a founding member of the John Birch Society and that his sons’ funding of the nativist and racist Tea Party movement reflects a continuity with the past.
It is important to understand that at one time “Eisenhower Republicans” enjoyed hegemony in the party. Despite the tendency of the Communist Party and many 60s radicals to dub Richard Nixon as a looming fascist, he had plenty in common with Eisenhower, for whom he served as Vice President for two terms. In an interview with Howard K. Smith in January 1971, he said “I am now a Keynesian”. Can anybody imagine that empty suit President Obama saying something like that? This, in fact, is where he stands:
Reagan spoke to America’s longing for order, our need to believe that we are not simply subject to blind, impersonal forces, but that we can shape our individual and collective destinies, so long as we rediscover the traditional virtues of hard work, patriotism, person responsibility, optimism, and faith.
That Reagan’s message found such a receptive audience spoke not only to his skills as a communicator; it also spoke to the failures of liberal government, during a period of economic stagnation, to give middle-class voters any sense that it was fighting for them. For the fact was that government at every level had become too cavalier about spending taxpayer money. Too often, bureaucracies were oblivious to the cost of their mandates. A lot of liberal rhetoric did seem to value rights and entitlements over duties and responsibilities.
Barack Obama, Audacity of Hope, p. 31-32
Some people, especially younger people who have no memory of liberal Republicanism, believe that Ronald Reagan transformed the Republican Party. In reality, the seeds were planted in 1964 when Barry Goldwater said in his acceptance speech as Presidential candidate for the Republican Party: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” Come to think of it, he was right.
Goldwater’s aim back then was to transform the Republican Party into a conservative party. In doing so, he found a counterpart among many liberals who yearned that the Democratic Party become more purely liberal. In practice this meant purging the party of the Southern racists, something that turned out to be unnecessary after Nixon adopted his “Southern Strategy”.
Today there are no important liberal Republicans. Arguably, the last one standing was Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, who defected to the Democratic Party in 2009 three years before his death. (It is not so well-known that Specter was a Democrat to start with, from 1951 to 1965.)
Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats never could be mistaken for a liberal party after George McGovern’s candidacy in 1972, at least when it came to presidential nominations. Starting with Carter, there has been a steady drift toward the ideology of the Democratic Leadership Council, a nasty collection of rightwing politicians who began defining themselves as “New Democrats” in the same spirit of Tony Blair’s “New Labour”.
In March 2009, Obama told the New Democratic Coalition, a group described by politico.com as “comprised of centrist Democratic members of the House, who support free trade and a muscular foreign policy”, that he indeed was a New Democrat.
Before Bruce A. Dixon split with Black Commentator, a website that eventually became typified by Bill Fletcher Jr.’s pro-Obama think-pieces, he wrote an article titled “In Search of the Real Barack Obama: Can a Black Senate candidate resist the DLC?”. For some reason, this must have nettled candidate Obama who took the trouble to write the ‘zine prior to his election:
Dear Black Commentator:
I read with interest, and some amusement, Bruce Dixon’s recent article regarding my campaign, and his suggestion that perhaps my positions on critical issues facing this country are somehow being corrupted by the influence of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Given that Bruce [and I] worked together back in 1992 to empower communities through organizing and the ballot box, I wish he’d taken the time to give me a call and check out his facts.
To begin with, neither my staff nor I have had any direct contact with anybody at DLC since I began this campaign a year ago. I don’t know who nominated me for the DLC list of 100 rising stars, nor did I expend any effort to be included on the list beyond filling out a three line questionnaire asking me to describe my current political office, my proudest accomplishment, and my cardinal rules of politics. Since my mother taught me not to reject a compliment when it’s offered, I didn’t object to the DLC’s inclusion of my name on their list. I certainly did not view such inclusion as an endorsement on my part of the DLC platform.
This, of course, was still at the time when Obama was trying to fool some people into thinking that he had liberal credentials. After his election, he dropped any such pretenses. In his re-election bid, he made no effort to reestablish such credentials since so few people would take him seriously. Instead, his super-PAC spent hundreds of millions of dollars making the case that Romney was a greedy, out-of-touch bastard. The ads reminded me of Pee Wee Herman’s rejoinder to his tormentor Francis in “Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure”: “I know you are, but what am I?”
Well, I know what Obama is. He is a liberal Republican, maybe even a centrist Republican. In fact, if anybody can tell the difference between a Gerald Ford and a Barack Obama, except for their pigmentation, they have a talent for splitting hairs second to none.
Yes, Virginia, there has been a realignment in American politics, at least on the Presidential level. We have conservative Republican presidents going back to Reagan, but with the Democrats we get nominees who are indistinguishable from Gerald Ford or Howard Baker. But when one of these slobs gets elected, as happened last Tuesday, we get the liberal pundits greeting it once again as the second coming of the New Deal.
Returning to the Republican Party, the question of Koch and Adelson’s money being “wasted” deserves further interrogation. I strongly recommend a look at Chris Kromm’s very fine Southern Voice, where you can find an article by Chris titled “Did Big Money really lose this election? Hardly.” Chris writes:
The fact that TV ads are most effective with less-engaged voters might explain money’s continuing influence in state and local races, which receive far less media exposure and voters may know even less about the candidates and issues.
As Facing South and The New Yorker showed, in 2010 an onslaught of outside spending in North Carolina by outside money groups led by Republican donor Art Pope was a key factor in fueling a historic GOP takeover of the state legislature.
That put N.C. Republicans in charge of the once-a-decade redistricting process, producing new maps which the John Locke Foundation — which is largely funded by Pope’s foundation — readily admits were crucial to enabling the GOP to expand its power in the General Assembly in 2012.
Money’s state-level influence in North Carolina continued this year, too. According to FollowNCMoney.org, a money-tracking website run by the Institute for Southern Studies, more than $14 million from super PACs and other outside groups poured into N.C. state races.
Of the top 10 spending groups in North Carolina — which made up more than 90 percent of the $14 million total — seven were Republican-leaning groups, who outspent their Democratic-leaning counterparts by more than a two-to-one margin.
And unlike the national super PACs, conservative spending groups in North Carolina enjoyed a much higher winning percentage: Of the 10 races that attracted the most outside money, nine ended in Republican victories. (As for Pope, he and his operatives are well-represented in the newly-elected GOP governor’s transition team.)
But even if Koch and Adelson type funding had less of an effect in the South and elsewhere, that would not prompt such donors to wash their hands of their project, which is not limited to immediate and measurable goals. They are building a reactionary movement that is seeking to turn back the clock to 1890 or so. By spending hundreds of millions of dollars, they push the political agenda to the right. In doing so, the “centrist” politics of a self-avowed New Democrat like Obama shifts to the right along with them.
More to the point, the reactionary agenda of the Koch Brothers is ultimately shared by many corporate bosses who never would be caught dead at a Tea Party rally. Nothing symbolizes this better than The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that gained some notoriety after its heavy paws were detected in the struggle against Scott Walker in Wisconsin and, even worse, their support for “Stand Your Ground” laws that resulted in Trayvon Martin’s murder.
In the outcry over their Koch-funded skullduggery, some major corporate members were forced to drop their affiliation, including Walmart, Coca-Cola, Wendy’s, Kraft Foods, McDonald’s, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield.
The people who run these corporations are not that interested in ideology. What they are interested in, however, is protecting their class interests. The ultimate explanation for the rightwing assault on our standard of living, our safety on the job, our right to a job, our health, and our right to express our opinion, is a declining rate of profit. While it is not within the purview of this article, and more importantly my limited expertise, to explain why there is such a tendency, suffice it to say that the good old days are gone forever. Despite the rhetoric of a Ronald Reagan on one side and a Barack Obama on the other (all proportions being guarded), well-paying jobs is a thing of the past.
I do recommend an article by Marxist economist Michael Roberts who blogs at http://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/ titled “Does it matter who wins?”, written the day before the election. It is a close look at the economic prognosis of the U.S. and concludes on this note:
For me, the bellwether for the health of US capitalism is the rate of profit. That shows little sign of returning to levels seen in the late 1990s, let alone back to the golden age of the 1960s. A low and probably falling rate of profit implies a low rate of new investment ahead, with unemployment staying well above ‘normal’ levels. And it implies the likelihood of another slump in production before the next four years are over along with the continuance of the Long Depression, now in its fifth year. And remember the Long Depression that started in 1873 lasted 20 years.
Given these prospects, the bourgeoisie will be forced to rely on the carrot and the stick—or perhaps more accurately, the soft cop and the hard cop. With declining profits, the ruling class will be forced to cut expenses both privately and publicly. Wages will be pushed down, mostly as a result of the threat of runaway shops our outright closings. Expenditures on education, health and the environment will be cut as well.
In the long run, the U.S. will look more and more like Detroit with the wealthy living in gated complexes and the poor forced to make do with less and less. Furthermore, as Hurricane Sandy demonstrates, “natural” disasters will weigh more heavily on the less privileged.
Under such circumstances, there will be mounting anger of the sort on display throughout Southern Europe. The more far-sighted members of the ruling class are planning ahead, to see what powerful and ultimately lawless measures will be necessary to suppress any revolt that threatens their hegemonic rule. And, as well, the more far-sighted members of the working class, including the intelligentsia that has thrown in its lot with this class, will be required to put together an audacious and intelligent plan of action that can meet such scum head-on and defeat it.
If you’ve read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, as I did as an enthusiastic high-school rightwinger back in 1960, that’s a no-brainer. Galt was the hero of Rand’s novel who symbolized her own reactionary beliefs by leading a “strike” of creative, free-market geniuses against a regulation-burdened system that was controlled by the grasping, needy 99 percent of society.
It is also the name of the corporation that did the demolition work on the Deutsche Bank tower that was rendered uninhabitable after the 9/11 attack as a subcontractor to Bovis Lend-Lease, the huge multinational in charge of Columbia University’s Manhattanville’s expansion. On February 20, 2008 the NY Times reported:
Federal safety regulators have accused the contractors who were taking down the former Deutsche Bank tower in the summer of indifference or intentional disregard for dangerous conditions that led to a fatal fire there, and of a host of other serious safety violations, officials said on Tuesday.
The regulators cited the project’s general contractor, Bovis Lend Lease, an international construction management company, and its former subcontractor, the John Galt Corporation, for 44 safety violations, and proposed fining them nearly half a million dollars.
A year earlier (8/23/2007), the Times provided its readers with some background on the company obviously named after Ayn Rand’s regulation-hating hero:
The John Galt Corporation of the Bronx, hired last year for the dangerous and complex job of demolishing the former Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty Street, where two firefighters died last Saturday, has apparently never done any work like it. Indeed, Galt does not seem to have done much of anything since it was incorporated in 1983.
Public and private records give no indication of how many employees it has, what its volume of business is or who its clients are. There are almost no accounts of any projects it has undertaken on any scale, apart from 130 Liberty Street. Court records are largely silent. Some leading construction executives in the city say they have never even heard of it.
That may not be as surprising as it seems. John Galt, it appears, is not much more than a corporate entity meant to accommodate the people and companies actually doing the demolition job at the emotionally charged and environmentally hazardous site at the edge of ground zero.
The companies and project managers who have been providing the expertise, the workers and the financing for the job are Regional Scaffolding and Hoisting Company, which is not in business to demolish skyscrapers, and former executives from Safeway Environmental Corporation, a company that was already removed from one contract at 130 Liberty because of concerns about its integrity…
In the 17 months since Galt took shape — and as problems mounted at the demolition site, including repeated safety violations — city and state officials have made announcements about the work and problems at 130 Liberty referring to John Galt as if it were a fully established corporation, and never mentioning by name the more controversial and less than perfectly qualified people and companies doing the work.
(John Galt, by the way, is a central character, an engineer, in Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged.” The book begins with this line: “Who is John Galt?”)
John Galt’s stationery puts its headquarters at 3900 Webster Avenue in the Bronx, near Woodlawn Cemetery, the same address as Regional Scaffolding’s. The two companies also share many of the same officers…
Safeway first surfaced on the scene at 130 Liberty when it, along with Regional Scaffolding, won a $13 million scaffolding contract in 2005 for the bank building.
But Safeway, its former owners, Harold Greenberg, 61, and Stephen Chasin, 56, and another company they long operated, Big Apple Wrecking and Construction Corporation, had a troubled history.
Mr. Greenberg, of Staten Island, has gone to federal prison twice for crimes related to the industry.
Identified by federal investigators as a Gambino crime family associate, he was convicted in 1988 of bribing a federal inspector to overlook asbestos-removal violations while Big Apple was demolishing Gimbels department store on East 86th Street in Manhattan. Three years later he pleaded guilty to mail fraud in a bid-rigging scheme involving other contractors.
Safeway’s failure to disclose his criminal history and the accusations of mob ties led the authorities to bar the company from working on city schools in 2003. School investigators contended that Mr. Greenberg and his partner in Big Apple and Safeway, Mr. Chasin, sought to disguise their roles in companies in order to obtain public contracts and other work from which his convictions would bar them.
(Safeway Environmental was one of the subcontractors used in the development of a new headquarters for The New York Times, across Eighth Avenue from the Port Authority Bus Terminal.)
Although I was aware of the Deutsche Bank tragedy and the pattern of neglect that led to the death of firefighters there, I had no idea that Bovis Lend-Lease was held responsible.
History seemed to be repeating itself last Thursday when I arrived at my office on W. 131rd Street to encounter a small army of police cars, fire engines and television reporters gathered there on account of a building collapse across the street from where I work. Earlier that morning a partly-demolished building had collapsed on some workers, killing one.
The workers were employed by Breeze Construction, whose president Toby Romano was convicted in 1988 of bribing inspectors investigating health violations on asbestos-removal jobs. As opposed to Greenberg’s Gambino affinities, Romano was tied to the Luchese crime family. When I brought this fact to the attention of Robert Kasdin, a powerful officer at the university in charge of the “back office”, later that day when he was addressing our staff on the accident, he assured us that Breeze is now run by Toby Romano Jr. and not his criminal father. Anybody who is familiar with how the mob does business will not be assuaged by this, especially in light of another report that surfaced the next day in the NY Daily News:
THE TRAGIC death of a hardhat who was demolishing a building owned by Columbia University came after the school and its contractors racked up a slew of safety complaints, the Daily News has found.
The Ivy League institution has been hit with 59 code violations and has been forced to shut down work 13 times since launching its controversial campus expansion two years ago, building records show.
The complaints were spread across the 64 properties located on the 17-acre site, which runs from 125th to 133rd Sts., and between 12th Ave. and Broadway.
My guess is that Bovis Lend-Lease and Breeze will pay no penalties, either in cash or jail sentences, based on the outcome of a criminal trial related to the Deutsche Bank fatalities: all those charged were found not guilty. In cases such as these, it is very difficult to establish guilt given the often highly problematic nature of the physical evidence. The Times reported:
The prosecution theory revolved around one pipe in a maze of pipes in the toxic tower’s basement. Mr. Alvo was accused of ordering cut a standpipe that provides water to a high-rise in an emergency. When the blaze struck, firefighters could not get water on it for more than an hour.
Prosecutors argued Mr. Alvo and his co-defendants knew it was a crucial pipe for firefighters, that it shouldn’t have been cut and that they did nothing to repair it.
This sounds very much like the kind of defense that Breeze would adopt if its officers were ever brought to trial, as the Columbia Spectator reported on Monday:
Century-old beams, and not safety oversights, led to the death of a construction worker when a Manhattanville building collapsed on Thursday, according to the contractor responsible for the building’s demolition.
The building—which was being torn down as part of Columbia’s expansion into Manhattanville—was built about 100 years ago, and it collapsed when demolition workers from Breeze National cut a structural beam. Breeze National said in a statement that while most structural beams that run horizontally are joined together at a vertical column, the beam that the workers cut had an “unknown, unusual, latent condition.”
The beam, Breeze said, “carried past the column and was joined to the other horizontal beam by a splice with bolts” that was encased in two feet of concrete. Breeze said that because the building is so old, no available structural drawings revealed this unusual structure, and the bolts failed when the beam was cut, causing the collapse.
Even under the best of circumstances, demolition is a very dangerous business like firefighting, coal-mining or lumberjacking. Unlike firefighting, which is not subject to the dictates of the market, the other job categories operate under a very tight logic of time = money. Whether or not the accident would have occurred last Thursday, Columbia University has an obligation to make sure that Bovis and Breeze are kept on a tight leash. Given the school board of trustee’s domination by real estate developers and hedge fund managers, there is probably no reason to be optimistic.
The building collapse at Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion and the criminal past of Bovis and Breeze are reminders of the deep tentacles of the construction industry penetrated by the mafia. And as was the case with Deutsche Bank and Columbia’s expansion, time equals money. If shortcuts must be made at the expense of human life, so be it. This was the verdict of another construction “accident” that occurred on East 91st Street in 2008 just a few blocks from where I live. Last month, when the manslaughter trial began, the prosecutor used words almost the same as those used in the Deutsche Bank trial, as the NY Times reported on February 21. The article also pointed out the difficulties faced in rendering a guilty verdict:
A tower crane collapsed and killed two men on the Upper East Side in 2008 because the crane’s owner put profit ahead of safety, prosecutors said Tuesday as his manslaughter trial began.
An assistant district attorney, Eli Cherkasky, said the owner, James F. Lomma, had hired an unqualified Chinese company to do a critical repair that predictably failed, an “outrageous” departure from industry standards that was “criminal in every sense of the word.”
Mr. Cherkasky said repeatedly that the low price and quick turnaround by the Chinese company, RTR, had driven Mr. Lomma’s decision-making, causing the deaths of Donald C. Leo, who was operating the crane when it collapsed on May 30, 2008, and Ramadan Kurtaj, another construction worker.
“They were killed because of one man’s greed,” Mr. Cherkasky told Justice Daniel Conviser, who is hearing the case without a jury in State Supreme Court in Manhattan. “He was content to risk other people’s lives so he could collect $50,000 a month in rental fees.”
Mr. Lomma’s lawyers presented a different story in their opening remarks. They said that a heavy “headache ball” on the crane’s line was hoisted into the boom, ostensibly by the operator, causing the line to snap, and that the heavy ball fell straight down, forcing the suddenly unbalanced crane to tip over backward.
James Kim, a defense lawyer, said the risk of such an event was well known and referred to as “two blocking.” But he said officials had missed the true cause of the accident because they had focused on RTR’s welding work early in their investigation.
Mr. Kim also said that Mr. Lomma, the owner of New York Crane and Equipment Corporation, was not unduly concerned about the repair cost and lost revenue from the crane’s being out of service because a contract required the renter, Sorbara Construction, to keep paying the monthly fee during the crane’s repair, and insurance covered the cost of the repair itself.
The collapse of the crane at East 91st Street and First Avenue was the second fatal crane accident within a few months at the end of a tremendous cycle of building in the city. The acquittals from the earlier crane collapse, as well as from the 2007 blaze at the former Deutsche Bank building, show the difficulty of prosecuting such cases.
What the article does not mention is the role of the DeMatteis Corporation, who happens to be my landlord and also like Bovis not above doing business with mob-related outfits. I invite you to read what I wrote about all this back in 2008.
Finally, some words on John Galt. Back in 1960, when I was an Ayn Rand (and William F. Buckley) fan, I really had no idea what was going on in the world. My rightwing beliefs were mainly a reaction against the Kennedy liberalism that was popular at my school. In some ways I was no different from Charles Bukowski who used to talk up Adolph Hitler in his Los Angeles high school in the 1930s just to piss other students off.
Facing the draft and working for the welfare department in Harlem in 1967 was a cold glass of water thrown in my face. Not only was I averse to Ayn Rand-style libertarianism, I would have no use for Democratic Party liberalism of the sort that was ready to send me to Vietnam to kill or be killed. My last vote for a Democratic Party politician was for LBJ in 1964. That was that, as far as I was concerned.
My ideals clashed with the brutal reality of a criminal war and the criminal treatment of Black Americans. Perhaps I am just naïve, but as long as corporations like Bovis, John Galt and Breeze bend or break the law, they must be shunned. I will not forsake the ideals of my youth that were pumped into me by the teachers and journalists who never tired of reminding us how wonderful democracy and good government were. If their lectures turned me into the dirty commie that I am today, there’s not much I can do about that. It is the rulers who must be changed, not me. And that’s that.
NY Times Op-Ed December 8, 2011
All the G.O.P.’s Gekkos
By PAUL KRUGMAN
Almost a quarter of a century has passed since the release of the movie “Wall Street,” and the film seems more relevant than ever. The self-righteous screeds of financial tycoons denouncing President Obama all read like variations on Gordon Gekko’s famous “greed is good” speech, while the complaints of Occupy Wall Street sound just like what Gekko says in private: “I create nothing. I own,” he declares at one point; at another, he asks his protégé, “Now you’re not naïve enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you, buddy?”
The Los Angeles Times recently surveyed the record of Bain Capital, the private equity firm that Mr. Romney ran from 1984 to 1999. As the report notes, Mr. Romney made a lot of money over those years, both for himself and for his investors. But he did so in ways that often hurt ordinary workers.
From the latest Harper’s Magazine Index:
Amount employees of private-equity firm Bain Capital have donated to the campaign of its co-founder Mitt Romney: $69,500
To the Obama campaign: $119,900
Regular readers of my film reviews know that I do not tend to hype a film. Except for a comment like “a must see”, I generally prefer understatement. That being said, I strongly urge New Yorkers to go see the documentary “The Big Fix” that opened on Friday at the AMC Loews Village Theater. Co-directed by Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell, a husband and wife team, it is a searing investigation of BP’s ongoing trashing of the Gulf of Mexico that has largely gone unreported since the supposed capping of the Deepwater Horizon well and the cleaning up of the Gulf.
As someone who generally keeps up with environmentalist issues, I sat watching a press screener with my mouth agape at the horrors perpetrated by an out-of-control oil company and their paid servants in Congress. No other film have I seen in the past five years or so has left me with the feeling that the people running the country—both in government and in corporate boardrooms—are no different than the mafia. In fact we might be better off if the mafia was running the country since these gangsters at least have a feudal sense of noblesse oblige.
Josh Tickell is a Cajun, a descendant of French settlers in Louisiana, who grew up to become a film maker rather than a musician, cook, or oil field worker that are the typical jobs that members of this ethnic group take on. But despite his achievements as a documentary filmmaker, his heart is obviously with the working people of Louisiana, who are being screwed royally by BP.
The film begins with a historical survey of Louisiana that establishes its status as a kind of internal colony of the U.S. With the stranglehold of oil companies on the state’s political machinery, those in the “99 percent” have much more in common with the people of Iran under the Shah than they do with most Americans. As the film points out, British Petroleum was a key player in Iran until the 1979 revolution and now views Louisiana as just another source of superprofits, whatever happens to the environment and the local population being utterly immaterial.
There is some fascinating archival footage of Governor Huey Long, who was dubbed a “fascist” when I was a high school student. “The Big Fix” makes a convincing case that Long only became demonized when he demanded that oil companies doing business in Louisiana pay their fair share of taxes.
The Tickells decided to go down to Louisiana to make a film after becoming convinced that BP was involved in a cover-up. The film combines their own cloak-and-dagger filming of the company’s deceitful practices as well as interviews with economists and scientists who make the case that the Gulf of Mexico is practically dead now, despite BP’s nauseating commercials about people coming down to enjoy the seafood and the beaches.
The gist of their investigation reveals that the waters appear clean because BP has been spraying enormous amounts of Corexit, a chemical dispersant used widely by Exxon and BP after one of their disasters. The purpose of Corexit is to reduce oil slicks into tiny droplets that sink beneath the surface of the water, thus making it appear as if it is clean. However, small fish ingest the chemical and are then eaten by others higher up on the food chain. As one long-time fisherman in the area told the Tickells, dolphins can be seen coughing as they rise to the surface of the water.
Whole coughing dolphins is an image that is hard to shake from your mind, what is even harder to shake is the sight of ulcerated skin that is fairly endemic to people living near the waters. So pervasive are the toxic chemicals used in the “clean up” that Rebecca Tickell became permanently affected herself and will probably never enjoy a complete recovery from various illnesses, including the lingering effects of chemically-induced pneumonia.
The final moments of the film are devoted to an exploration of how BP gets away with its criminal activity, which involves many of the same themes raised by the Occupy Wall Street movement. It pays millions of dollars to Democrats and Republicans alike in order to get them to serve as lackeys. What is even more disheartening is to see how compromised the university system is in Louisiana. Typical is Ed Stapleton, a professor emeritus at LSU who was initially alarmed by the impact of the BP spill but after the company lavished 10 million dollars on the school he became a fixture on shows like David Letterman giving jocular remarks on how clean the waters were. The only parallel is watching some of the nuclear industry functionaries in Japan announcing to their countrymen that there was nothing to worry about.
“The Big Fix” is the real deal. It does not spare any politician or corporate functionary and goes after Obama with the kind of fury that I have not seen in any documentary since this rotten tool of corporate America took office. The film relies on Chris Hedges to help make their case and he is in fine fettle. Don’t miss this one. It will remind you why you became a socialist and if you are still a liberal, it will turn you into a fire-breathing revolutionary.
Like most people on the left, I regarded the fight between Mikhail Khodorkovsy, the president of Yukos Oil and the richest man in Russia, and Vladimir Putin as a pissing contest between two skunks.
Although the documentary titled “Khodorkovsky” that opened on Friday at the Film Forum is not intended to persuade anybody that the oligarch had any redeeming social value, it does make a pretty convincing case that he was victimized mostly because he stood up to Putin. When Putin told him to stay out of politics, Khodorkovsky did not back down. For his efforts, he was sent to prison for six years for widely regarded as trumped up charges on tax evasion and just recently had another six years tacked on.
Khodorkovsky’s father was Jewish, his mother was not. He was a member of the Communist Party youth group when the USSR was still intact and learned how to make money hustling in its ranks by acting as a kind of social director. Using his Komsomol connections, Khodorkovsky set up the bank Menatep when Gorbachev was still in charge.
The money he made running Menatep allowed him to bid successfully for the state-owned oil company that would become Yukos. Unlike other oligarchs, he shunned the lavish lifestyle and had no use for gangster entourages that became endemic in the early years of the post-Soviet Union.
The documentary was directed by Cyril Tuschi, a German who adopts a somewhat detached and bemused attitude throughout the film suitable for his ambivalence toward Khodorkovsky. It is not clear to me that Tuschi had much interest in the broader questions of post-Communist society, the contradictions of capitalism, or anything else that matters to my usual readers. He seems to be motivated to tell an interesting story about a rather dubious figure and does a reasonably good job.
Mentioned only fleetingly in the film was Khodorkovsky’s attempts in 2003 to form partnerships with Western oil companies, something that Putin regarded as inimical to Russian interests. At the time, some leftists gave critical support to Putin as a kind of “anti-imperialist”. While not using this term, Vladimir Popov did make the case in the March-April 2007 New Left Review for Putin as a kind of imperfect defender of Russian interests in acting against the oligarchs.
I appreciated Tony Wood’s response to Popov’s article that appeared in a subsequent issue:
The reassertion of state control over strategic companies and sectors has been seen as a sign of stealth nationalization—the state using its administrative powers to crush Khodorkovsky’s Yukos and, more recently, even muscle aside multinational companies such as Shell. Western establishment analysts have diagnosed these developments as a case of ‘resource nationalism’, likening Putin’s actions to those of Chávez or Morales, while the latest leitmotif of Russian political discourse has been the idea of ‘sovereign democracy’—essentially referring to Russia’s ability and determination to pursue an independent course, no longer reliant on loans or approbation from the West.
Neither of these concepts is an adequate measure of the orientation and outlook of Russia’s contemporary elite. As noted above, the Putin administration has not actively redistributed oil wealth to those dispossessed by the ‘reforms’ of the 1990s; indeed, its tax regime seeks precisely to benefit the wealthy still further, while the monetization of benefits and increased charges for utilities penalize the poor. Though the poverty rate is declining and wages rising, any significant drop in oil prices will likely reverse these trends, which will once again have the most severe impact on the lowest income strata. The decision to spend the oil windfall on euros and dollars, meanwhile, is ostensibly motivated by a desire to keep inflation in check; but in a context of continued infrastructural dysfunction, such prudence is a form of deferred suicide, starving the nation of the public goods that would secure its survival in the longer term.
Turning from documentary to fiction, I can recommend “Margin Call”, now playing in theaters all across the U.S. as the best dramatization of the 2008” subprime meltdown whose effects are still being felt.
By contrast, Oliver Stone’s follow-up to Wall Street is incoherent trash and the HBO mixture of fiction and documentary titled “Too Big to Fail”, starring William Hurt as Henry Paulson, is best described as a whitewash of bankster malfeasance. With a screenplay by N.Y. Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin, who was stupid enough to write a column about taking a phone call from one of these types of scumbags asking whether he had anything to worry about with the OWS movement, this is a story about the public-mindedness of Paulson and company who saved the country from going under. It was hard to take this seriously when the HBO movie aired. It is even harder now in light of a Bloomberg News report:
The Federal Reserve and the big banks fought for more than two years to keep details of the largest bailout in U.S. history a secret. Now, the rest of the world can see what it was missing.
The Fed didn’t tell anyone which banks were in trouble so deep they required a combined $1.2 trillion on Dec. 5, 2008, their single neediest day. Bankers didn’t mention that they took tens of billions of dollars in emergency loans at the same time they were assuring investors their firms were healthy. And no one calculated until now that banks reaped an estimated $13 billion of income by taking advantage of the Fed’s below-market rates, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its January issue.
Saved by the bailout, bankers lobbied against government regulations, a job made easier by the Fed, which never disclosed the details of the rescue to lawmakers even as Congress doled out more money and debated new rules aimed at preventing the next collapse.
Directed by J.C. Chandor (his first film), “Margin Call” takes place in a 24 hour span as a financial analyst—an MIT graduate with an engineering degree–discovers that his firm’s collateralized mortgage holdings were likely to bankrupt the company given the direction of the market.
The CEO, played to a tee by Jeremy Irons, orders the traders to dump the subprime holdings on unsuspecting customers no matter the long-term consequences. Playing his second in command, Kevin Spacey bridles at this proposal and only accedes under pressure. This was the only thing in the film that did not quite ring true. If you get to be second in command at a place like this, clearly modeled after Goldman-Sachs, you sold your soul to the devil long before becoming that powerful.
The movie has a crackling electricity and very fine dialog rendered in a realistic manner. Throughout the entire film, there is no attempt to offer up a back-story or anything that would make the characters sympathetic. The net effect is like looking at an aquarium full of piranhas and hoping that the glass doesn’t break.
That being said, none of the characters in the film is “evil” in the sense that Gordon Gekko was in “Wall Street”. They are simply doing their job. That is actually what makes the film so powerful. It is not interested in exposing crooks but in putting the financial system under a microscope. That, after all, is what Karl Marx had in mind when he began writing Capital.