Friday, April 4, 2014

Have the Oligarchs and Plutocrats Won?

Just watched Alex Gibney's powerful documentary Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream (you can stream it on Netflix). Here's the trailer:

It uses the conceit of two Park Avenues to tell the story of the 1%, living on the Park Ave of Manhattan's upper East Side, and the (bottom quartile of) the 99%, living on the portion of Park Ave that extends into the South Bronx. It's one thing to know the story in numbers and graphs, which Gibney presents, but it's another thing entirely to see the story in actions through moving images and spoken words. The combination of the two is potent, and, alas, depressing.

As I think over the film the sections that keep coming back, however, are those featuring a social psychologist at U Cal. Berkeley, Paul Piff, and some students. Piff had pairs of students play Monopoly, the board game born during the Depression. But, they played the game with a crucial difference. One player started with twice the amount of money as the other player and was allowed to roll both dice; the other player could roll only one die. The student players were assigned to these roles randomly.

The privileged players, of course, walked all over the others, whose disadvantage was too much to surmount. No surprise there. What was interesting, and chilling, is that over the course of a game, the privileged players assumed at attitude of entitlement – you could see it in their posture and hear it in their comments. It was their RIGHT to win. But they did nothing to earn that right; it was simply given to them at the beginning of the game. The oligarchs Gibney showed us displayed that same entitlement even as they lobbied to cut their taxes and blathered on about creating opportunity for all.

Those lobbiests that they hire, they're the ones who actually write the legislation passed by the congressmen and senators they've bought. The lobbyists write the legislation and hand it to the congressional staffers. Thus the government of the United States of America has become closed circuit of rich businessmen and legislators who call the shots and figure out how to sell the package so that we the people will continue as their serfs and servants without kicking up too much of a fuss.

The whole mess has men in and Old Testament frame of mind. I'm thinking of the story of Noah and the Ark, when the Lord decided to flood the earth to punish humankind for its sins. At the moment it looks like we're going to see a great deal of flooding in the latter half of this century pretty much because we're ruining the atmosphere. Alas, it also seems that the wealthy will be able to buy themselves out of disaster.

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Addendum: As an example of that sense of entitlement here's a paragraph from an article in The New Yorker about PBS's attempts to placate David Koch and others about this documentary:
Five days after “Park Avenue” aired, a producer at Gibney’s firm, Jigsaw Productions, was shopping in a clothing store in SoHo at the same time as two other customers: Thomas and Alice Tisch, who live at 740 Park [one of the wealthiest buildings on Park, WLB]. They are the brother and sister-in-law of James Tisch. The producer recalls that, after the Tisches heard her mention to another customer where she worked, they denounced what they called the film’s incendiary rhetoric against the rich. They went on for twenty minutes, warning that such hateful attitudes could lead many wealthy New Yorkers to move to Florida, where the taxes are lower, and arguing that neighbors of theirs who spent millions of dollars on parties helped waiters and caterers.

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