Saturday, November 13, 2010

Follow The Money

Following the Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case on January 21, 2010, corporations were given a green light to spend as much money as they wish to influence American elections. According to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, since January 1, 2010 more than $65 million has been spent on 161,203 ads attacking Speaker Nancy Pelosi (and that's just the tip of the iceberg).

Anyone who has seen The Corporation (a brilliant 2003 Canadian documentary) knows that corporations will go to any length (no matter the human cost) to extend their profit margins. In an age when corporations are claiming the same right to freedom of speech as that guaranteed by the United States Constitution to citizens who vote, it's interesting to see how The Corporation likens corporate behavior to the clinical definition of a psychopath.
While some Americans are shocked that corporations would lay waste to the environment or take jobs away from Americans, to imagine for one second that patriotism plays a role in corporate decisions is utterly naive. It's all about the bottom line and how corporate incentives are used to squeeze larger profits from current and future operations.

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One of the more curious films shown at DocFest 2010 was entitled Dreamland. Filmmakers Þorfinnur Guðnason and Andri Snær Magnasson focus in on the corruption by and resulting cooperation of Icelandic politicians with a multinational corporation. Similar to the way American lobbyists used to enjoy a revolving door between government jobs and private industry, the filmmakers show how public opinion is shaped by corporate stooges who have been bought and paid for.

Dreamland methodically documents how the Icelandic government embarked on the largest construction project in the island nation's history over the objections of many of its citizens -- to build the largest dam in Europe (located in the rugged east fjords of Iceland) -- in order to provide Alcoa with cheap electricity for an aluminum smelter. The result?  A nation becomes insidiously caught up in a plan to turn its natural resources into a huge system of hydroelectric and geothermal power plants. Clean energy attracts polluting industry as international corporations find a new way to broaden their profits.

To add insult to injury, the previously low rates for electricity enjoyed by Icelanders rise substantially, leaving Iceland with a crushing volume of debt to manage. According to Iris Erlingsdottir:
"Until the recent financial crisis, Iceland was known abroad primarily for its artists. Snorri Sturluson was the greatest secular author of the Middle Ages. Halldór Laxness won the [1955] Nobel Prize in Literature for his realistic portrayals of peasant life in Iceland. Björk's eclectic musical style and Sigur Rós's progressive rock have entranced millions of fans around the planet. Reykjavík's art scene is as lively as any in the world.
At some point in the past few years, however, our art became seen by many as a commodity, something that can be bought and sold, rather than a reflection of our national character. Men with no imagination weighed art's value with the only scale they were capable of understanding, and found it wanting. 'If some artists can make millions,' they asked, 'why should we support the others who can't make it on their own? Why should we provide assistance to individuals whose work we can't stand and who are against everything we stand for?'
If there is one lesson we should have learned over the past couple of years, it is that unquestioned deference to authority is a grave danger to any society. The herd mentality of the boom years led to excesses that nearly destroyed our nation. The intolerance for contrary views among Iceland's elite masked the incompetence and criminal behavior that characterized this period, and kept our democracy from functioning as it should."

Dreamland may prove to be a difficult film for some people to watch. Although there are English subtitles, much of the speech is in Icelandic, which is not an easy language to follow. The commentary by John Perkins (author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man) clearly delineates how Iceland -- which had proudly remained an independent nation for so long -- has been corrupted and overrun by the forces of empire. Here's the trailer:

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Those forces of financial empire are brazenly on display throughout Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. Ironically, a documentary about how the man who looked certain to become the first Jewish President of the United States saw his political career go up in smoke (after it was revealed that he had been seeing a prostitute) is hitting theatres at the same time that former President George W. Bush is out pushing his recently published autobiography.

No doubt, you're wondering what the connection is. This is easier than playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Eliot Spitzer just became a pundit on CNN. Karl Rove (the man known as "Bush's brain") is now a pundit on Fox News.

Although you never hear any mention of Rove's name during Alex Gibney's thoroughly researched documentary about Spitzer, that's because Rove has a long history of dirty political tricks that can't be traced back to him. But if you look closely at how Spitzer was taken down, the first thing you'll notice is that the man who was known as the Sheriff of Wall Street had pissed off some top-level Republican donors.
  • The kind of people who use their money and power like the Mafia.
  • The kind of people who know who to call when they want someone out of the way.
  • The kind of people who consider themselves above the law.
  • The kind of people who know Karl Rove.
Anyone familiar with Rove's history of dirty tricks can sense his influence in the way Spitzer was taken down. Among the Wall Street thugs who contributed to his downfall are:
  • Kenneth Langone, co-founder of The Home Depot and a former Director of the New York Stock Exchange who had been singled out by Spitzer for approving a staggeringly high pay package for Dick Grasso, the former head of the New York Stock Exchange.
  • Maurice R. "Hank" Greenberg,  the former Chairman and CEO of AIG . In 2005, the board of AIG asked Greenberg to resign from his post as CEO not long after Attorney General Spitzer had begun an investigation into fraudulent business activities at AIG and a subsidiary of Warren Buffet’s Gen Re. 
  • Joseph Bruno, the long-standing Majority Leader of the New York State Senate when Spitzer became governor. Bruno later served as Lieutenant Governor of New York but was convicted on federal corruption charges in 2009.
  • Roger Stone,  one of the most famous lobbyists on the American political scene and a renowned Republican operative who has referred to himself as a GOP “hitman.” A consultant to Joseph Bruno in 2007, he was forced to resign after allegations that he had threatened Spitzer’s father in an obscene and angry voice-mail traced by private detectives to his home. Although Stone has always denied he made the phone call, he admits to writing a letter to the FBI that might have alerted the agency to Spitzer’s use of prostitutes.

In a sense, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer could easily have been subtitled "For Hedge Fund Managers Who Have Considered Bailout Money When Their Bonuses Weren't Enuf." This is a story about greed, arrogance, vendetta, and sex. It's a story about what happens at the higher levels of politics and prostitution.

It's also the story of a man with a tragic flaw that is almost Shakespearean in its nature. With his obsessive attention to detail, Spitzer made sure that his actions could not be traced by use of a credit card or checking account. However, he forgot one thing: it's the smallest, stupidest details that usually trip up the most brilliant, complex minds. Just remember that Spitzer did not get caught in an FBI wiretap without someone suggesting that he be followed. As Gibney recalls:
“When the story exploded, I was as shocked as everyone else. There was such a torrential downpour of media coverage, that it was hard to know what was under the surface or what the angle would be. Everyone was talking about it and, of course, everyone wanted to know more about the more salacious details. But it was only when I started researching Spitzer’s story that I began to see that it had so many other facets to it -- not just adultery and high-priced, extracurricular sex -- but political gamesmanship, the possibility of conspiracy, and it was all set against a volatile time in New York as the financial collapse was looming. 
A lot of politicians get caught with their pants around their ankles, but Spitzer was different. He was supposed to be the paragon of virtue, the Dudley Do-Right who did no wrong. He wasn’t a well-known charmer like Bill Clinton. He wasn’t even a guy who was known for being even a little flirtatious. Answering my questions meant examining an aspect of his life where he indulged a hidden side of himself. As tough as it was for him to express himself in this area, I think Spitzer at least had a larger understanding that his mistakes needed to be examined. He’s a fascinating psychological study. He knew he had made a lot of enemies on Wall Street and in the Republican ranks of the legislature. He knew these men were very angry with him, that they wanted revenge,  and he knew they played hardball. Yet, even knowing all of that, Spitzer still gave them everything they needed to take him down.

Filmmaker Alex Gibney

As for the federal investigation, I found the manner and the timing to be very suspicious. While al-Qaeda was at large and the entire global economy was collapsing, the Department of Justice’s Southern District of New York (responsible for policing Wall Street and terrorism, among other things) was spending extraordinary man-hours and resources to track down a small-time escort service. Spitzer did technically break federal law but historically the Justice Department never goes after small-time prostitution rings and explicitly has a policy of not prosecuting 'Johns' under an antiquated statute called the Mann Act. So I do think the investigation was intended as a form of political assassination. The goal, I believe, wasn’t to charge him with a crime (there really wasn’t any federal crime to charge him with) but rather to leak salacious details that would embarrass him and bingo, he’d have to resign. And so Spitzer was brought down just as everything on Wall Street was going up in flames.”
There are many sad ironies in Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, not the least of which is the near collapse of the U.S. economy once Spitzer stepped down from office. There are times during the film when you'll laugh, you'll snicker, or you might just sigh in disbelief. Once the film ends, you may just want to go home and take a shower. Here's the trailer:

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