Thoughts on Heist: Who Stole the American Dream?

I decided to head to The Little (240 East Ave.) to see Heist: Who Stole the American Dream? Filmmaker Frances Causey, and author David Cay Johnston were there to discuss the film with moderator Julie Philipp.

Of course, because I can't remember facts, I'm heading to Heist's Official Website with this outline of the central point:

Beginning with background on the New Deal, HEIST explores how Franklin Delano Roosevelt's progressive policies were derailed by Ronald Reagan and subsequent presidential administrations, benefiting only the wealthiest investors and CEOs. HEIST exposes the full story: how corporate leaders worked with elected officials of both major political parties to create the largest transfer of wealth in history, looting the economy to create a gap between rich and poor previously seen only in impoverished colonial nations. The film is structured as a political thriller, showing the shift from FDR's New Deal reforms to an ideology where the free market reigns. It reveals the impact of the infamous Powell memo of 1971 entitled "Attack on American Free Enterprise System," which was a call to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for American business to defend its interests against criticisms of unregulated capitalism. The Powell Memo and the 1000 page Mandate for Leadership document published in 1980 by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which were written to promote business interests and deregulation, serve as the starting points of the story to show the roots of the class warfare unleashed by big business, and how wealth in the U.S. was transferred from workers to corporate interests over decades of policy shifts.

I walked in there brimming with confirmation bias. The facts presented in the film and the theories behind them fit exactly with my own experience and observation of corporate expansion of scale and power, the behavior of the media, the exploitation of journalistic standards, government, and taxation — pretty much everything.

The other day I was in a restaurant with a TV on some news network, and the on-screen personality was presenting — as news — changes to the contract plans of one of the cell phone companies. To me, this was just the flat-out reading of a press-release generated by that company. I argue this isn't news (but I think I'm more likely to get people to agree that it's the reading of a press release so I'll stop while I'm ahead). This doesn't violate journalistic standards per se — where the goal is to accurately represent statements from an individual or organization. But there's something there that misses the spirit of journalism … perhaps the spirit that journalists are the watchdogs of democracy rather than the lapdogs of the aristocracy [a phrasing that is not exactly right, but far too clever for me to omit].

Heist, however, confirms my suspicions. One of the goals of the 1971 Powell memo was to control the media in exactly this way. Modern journalists don't just go out and pick their own stories: morning e-mails outline the stories they are to cover. Those e-mails are sent by the managers which are driven by their managers, and so on, until you get to realize that there are only a half-dozen media companies making these decisions. A few years ago, I recall watching the nightly news and flipping between channels — horrified that every single story was being reported on the other stations in exactly the same order. The simplest explanation was that the schedule for all three stations came from the same source.

I thought Heist presented a solid case, but it's also affirming what I believe already, so how can I be confident that the theory it presents is an accurate one? I was thinking that people bring their own biases, and they're more likely to be swayed by something that agrees with their established ideas than by something that does not. So why would someone be influenced by this film? I muddled my way through asking a question of the panel and got most of it across.

Frances Causey made a point to say that she had been a journalist at CNN, but left to work on more in-depth projects like this one. She said she spent an extraordinary amount of effort confirming that every fact — especially the most sensational ones — were verifiable and accurate.

What's omitted in all the discussion, though, is the underlying theory. I'm going to take as given that the facts are true, and the sequence of events is as depicted (i.e. corporations are using the 1971 Powell memo as a playbook). But Heist answers the question, "is this good?" with a resounding "no." In fact, it basically presumes that this is not good.

Individually, I think this kind of world sucks. I hate having to constantly be an outsider simply because I observe the world directly and draw my own conclusions.

Working outward, I also think that centralized power and wealth creates an inhospitable society for people to live. I think the core argument opposing that opinion is that the system we have at present provides slightly less than what people want, and that encourages them to work more and work harder, propelling progress. It doesn't actually let people starve (for the most part) but it does ensure people are in a constant state of indebtedness.

What I mean that it's inhospitable is that it could be much better. If all the wealth and power tied up in making more wealth and power were instead used to foster individual household energy independence, health care for all, true theoretical scientific research, elevating everyone's education, and so forth, I think we'd be far better off.

There is a fear — and rightfully so — that this may lead to a bunch of idle hands that become the devil's playthings, but it's entirely possible to get back to some of the good parts of the 1950's: particularly the possibility of income from a 25th percentile individual providing all that's needed to raise a family. Is it not absurd that two college graduates must both be employed to earn a decent living?

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Attending TEDx Rochester 2011

Today was the third year of TEDx Rochester, held at Geva (75 Woodbury Blvd.) TED is a lecture series that originally focused on "technology, entertainment, and design" (providing the words for the acronym) but shifted to simply, "ideas worth spreading". "TEDx" lectures are independently produced, but attempt to mimic that theme. This year, TEDx Rochester featured sixteen live discussions, two video presentations, and a proper video lecture from TED itself.

Adam Walker kicked things off talking about a project he's involved with: The Kosovo Wind Gardens. The idea is to create small electricity-producing windmills all around countries without infrastructure for a reliable electric grid. Kosovo is one example, as it has very few power plants (their largest is a 1950-designed coal-burner with disastrous emissions) and simple things like dairy milk production are hampered by unreliable power. The windmills are designed with "appropriate technology" in mind: not just something from an industrialized nation, but a design that relies on simple materials and manual labor (rather than efficiency of mass-production) to better suit local self-sustainability. I was impressed with Walker's presentation and the keen sense of appropriateness and a focus on the people being assisted.

Next was Andrew Perry who discussed Visual Literacy and Graphic Narratives. His thesis was an attempt to show that the means of storytelling and communication are changing — whereas the poem was central to literature prior to the 16th century the novel became the dominant form starting around then, and now we are seeing a new form that integrates text with images and diagrams (in a creative, literary way, not solely for factual reference). There is a new manner of storytelling that goes with it and, while I'm not sure it will become a dominant form, it has definitely come into its own as a rich and complex literary form.

Ashley Aberg then spoke about the difficulties of changing medical thinking when it comes to gender. She centered her talk on what medicine calls "intersex" — neither dominantly male nor female. It is because the male/female binary-gender system influenced the medical community that the medical community considers it worthy of "correction" that typically involves surgically modifying the appearance of a child's genitals. Aberg's point is that there is nothing life-threatening or unnatural about intersex, and as such, it is society that should adapt to it. In some ways a radical concept, but in others, it is solely habit that keeps society's view of gender from matching what nature produces.

Next, Christopher Azzarra spoke about Improvisation: Musical Literacy Beyond the Page. As a music teacher, he observed that formal musical training does more to hamper individual music development than it helps. Since the measurement and analysis of music is so mathematical and sterile, it is hardly the place to start. Instead, he provided some examples of how natural it is for children and for professional improvisational performers to communicate with one another purely with music. Music touches us deeply because it is a fundamental part of our being.

Next was a video presentation of Raymond McCarthy Bergeron's La Lune et Le Coq — an amusing animation wherein the moon and rooster compete at the end of the night.

Dr. Tim R. Mosmann, Ph. D. gave a presentation on the complexity of the immune system. He gave a depth-first tour of immune response and how astonishingly complex it is. At each of a half-dozen levels (from the body to the lymph nodes to the chemistry of the lymph nodes to the cellular interaction to sub-cellular and so on) a huge amount of information is known on how it all works. But then we can extrapolate the exponentially large amount of information, since each specific example was only a fraction of the interaction at that level. In essence, the amount of information is too large to aggregate, so we need new tools to handle it.

In another radical turn, next was Jim Maddison who gave a case for building the The Roc City Skate Park under the eastern terminus of the Freddy-Sue Bridge. Like the shift to accept graphic novels or intersex individuals, skateboarding is a perfectly acceptable leisure activity that offers a mix of exercise, creativity, and accomplishment. Maddison and his team have been working to break down the entrenched view of skateboarders as ne'er-do-wells and hoodlums.

Xanthe Matychak presented Make Better Stuff: the rise of social business and distributed manufacturing. She sees a major shift in manufacturing where it will be possible to build on-demand at nearly anywhere in the world, alleviating the need for the manufacture/transportation cycles we have now. I tend to agree that these new technologies are a game-changing development. But I don't think it will have as nearly a large impact as she thinks or hopes, unless we see a major change in how people view money and cost that would permit local artisans to overshadow the desire for cheap mass-production.

Emcee Howie Jacobson presented his own project: Vote Be Heard. The gist is to encourage primarily poor, primarily black, and primarily inner-city people to vote in major elections to make their world better. Although I think the effort was valiant, it did not strike me that much care was given to the voices in those communities. In other words, it seemed like some comparatively wealthy white people got together and made what they thought would be powerful messages for a group they largely do not interact with. As I see it, the inner-city poor (like the Occupy Wall Street movement) have little idea what they can do to improve their situation without the benevolence of the wealthy people who keep them there. Because of that, voting has comically little effect, and the oppressed are wise enough to know that.

Theresa B. Mazzullo followed that talking about a group she's involved with, $eedNY. They have financial resources to fund start-ups and other technology ventures. I spent her entire talk trying to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I was seething as I wondered why people with great ideas and people with the ability to produce things (and often some of both in one person) were not already rewarded with great wealth — and those who have great wealth have neither ideas nor means? Further, I seethed at the whole "venture capital" concept where a person with an idea presents it to those with money, and if they are given money to proceed, either they fail and the gambled capital is lost (and they probably have to pay off crippling debt regardless) or they succeed and the bulk of the profits go back to the investor, reinforcing the cycle.

In another topical twist, Jon Schull presented a history of transportation, paying particular attention to bicycling and human-powered vehicles. Although his talk was interesting and sometimes enlightening, it lacked a call-to-action punch. Rather, it seemed to advise going along for the ride and to be prepared for things to change in the future. Having lived a zero-automobile lifestyle for 4 months now, I feel deeply relieved that I need not worry about all the maintenance owning an automobile brings. I tend to work from broad goals — even in 1994 when I bought my Civic, I was already thinking about rising gas prices (which never hit until 10 years on), and since then, I tended to steer my life toward eliminating the need for a car. Having finally achieved that, I feel well positioned for the future. I advise people to do the same: it's much easier to plan to live close to work 10 years from now than it is to try and achieve next week, so start now thinking how to adapt to our world in 10 years.

Mark Noble presented some recent developments in stem-cell research. Again, an informative lecture, but pretty much just that. And again, part of me gets annoyed that (in America, at least) this lifesaving technology is reserved for the rich people who can afford it. It's kind of disheartening to know that I'm less valuable as a person than someone else.

Triggering more irritation was Hasan Elahi's video lecture from TED titled Hasan Elahi: FBI, here I am!. In this case, I was annoyed with the totalitarian police state we live in, not in Elahi's lecture. He talked about how he was interrogated by airport security because of a name mix-up and how he now lives his life under constant government scrutiny. His solution was to publish the minutia of his life: he uses his smart-phone to periodically (and frequently) document his whereabouts along with other things like photos of his hotel rooms or the urinals he uses. In the end, it's a clever redirection of energy that is resulting in a surreal art project on surveillance.

Prove Your World was next: a group of people who are working on a science-based program for children that tries to be better than either dry lecturing or vacuous demonstration. By that, they mean that (like Christopher Azzarra said about music) exploring the theoretical side of something first turns people's interest away, yet by simply offering a flashy demonstration without explanation leads to no learning (or, for that matter, curiosity) whatsoever. Their technique is to start from a simple question (in their demonstration it was, "what's a supernova?") and use demonstration as a tool for learning. Of all the lectures, this was the one I want most to get involved with. Of course their pilot episode is about how airplanes fly, and I cringe that they will reinforce the "equal-transit-time myth" of the airfoil.

Jim Gresko and Dave Vogler paired up to talk about how design is similar to jazz improvisation. I thought it was an innovative approach to discuss the concepts and it worked well.

Next was a discussion of Empathy in Education by Timothy Cottrell. He runs a program called The Center for Mindfulness and Empathy Education which pairs high-school students with people in Hospice care. Students' own testimonials revealed a surprising maturity for people in young adulthood.

BELIEVE/Visual Intervention is a film by Ian Wilson and Philip Night that documents a street-art project bringing in international talent side-by-side with Rochester's own on projects on Troup Street and the Union Street railroad bridge near the Public Market.

Relatedly, closing the show was Joan Hildebrand — "the Voice of the Public Market". She had simple, straightforward observations on adapting to change, as she went from a mid-time TV personality to being nearly unknown in this small town, but rather than harp on what she lost, she found new vitality in her work with the Market.

Overall, I found this year's TEDx Rochester to be an even and varied distribution of good discussions. I found it a little heavy on money and products in that many lectures centered on either an existing or future product or project, or gave significant focus to money and profitability. Of course, that may be more my own bias as I tend to seek TED lectures that are more philosophical or human-centered, and tend to ignore those that highlight a new technology or product. I find it a little off-putting, though, that in their re-cap blog post, they note that they "partnered with RIT & U of R to help us recruit new talent for the stage" and add that in the coming year they are "looking to also partner with groups like The Entrepreneurs Network and High Tech Rochester to expand our net." To me this means even more focus on money, product, and project rather than ideas and exploration.

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The Man Who Would be King at the Dryden

I headed out to the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see The Man Who Would Be King. Despite the snowstorm, there were quite a few people in attendance — the movie was excellent and well worth the risk. Basically it tells the tale of a couple con-men. They head to a country called Kafiristan (which is a fictional place north of Afghanistan) where they intend to become kings. The plan is simple: based on the notion that the warring tribes are largely without solid leadership, bringing a bit of British army leadership would make it easy to take over tribe-by-tribe and eventually take over the country.

Well, they almost die on their treacherous crossing of the high mountains. [In fact, I wondered if they did indeed die at that point and the rest of the film is just fantasy — something to think about.] Once in Kafiristan, they get into one of the first tribes they find, get a translator, and succeed in defeating the neighboring tribe. In the battle, Danny is struck by an arrow that — by luck — doesn't even scratch him yet stays in place as he rides around, continuing to fight. The people start rumors that he's some kind of god and he quickly ascends to the status of the second-coming of Alexander the Great — Alexander's son, to be exact.

So now Danny is king and god, ruling with a commoner's wisdom and absolute authority. Danny's Earthly-anchored partner Peachy notes that they should cut-and-run: they made it to the top, and the best thing they could do is to pack up a lot of riches and quietly slide out of the country. Danny has other plans — he's realistically gripped by power. He is believing what his followers are telling him: that he actually is the son of Alexander.

I'll leave it at that in case you want to find out for yourselves how things resolve.

But the thing about the whole movie is that it's so solidly realistic. It's not like Danny becomes evil through his power — he is overcome by the power. The pragmatic man he was is swept away in the current of illusion. He becomes falsely anchored in "the now" because he's averaging between an infinite past and an infinite future. His delusion comes from his followers elevating him ever higher: an equally destructive position as to being thrown down a deep chasm. It is a lucky man indeed who can survive either fate. Very lucky.

I greatly enjoy pondering the significance of the movie. It's good and sticky … something that will continue to haunt my personal philosophy.

But then on the way out of the theater, I come upon a most peculiar scene. A man is lying on the ground on the side of the driveway with another one on a cell phone summoning help. It turns out the guy was walking home and slipped on the ice. He said he heard something pop in both his legs — a police officer with medical training suggested he probably dislocated his hip. After a few minutes an ambulance arrived and took him to the hospital. The small crowd that had formed — thankfully a few people were his friends that he asked me to try and locate — stood around impotently while experts treated him. I felt bad that I couldn't do anything to help him. It looked to hurt like hell, but rolling him around to make him more comfortable would have only made things worse.

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Olshefsky's Rule of Behavioral Policy-Making

You know, I think I'm going to just define this right now. Like Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies, I seem to have stumbled upon another online truism. I'll call it Olshefsky's Rule of Behavioral Policy-Making. It goes like this:

During a discussion of behavioral policy-making, stating the challenge, "given any rule to control the behavior of others, I can show a way (1) how it can be circumvented, and (2) how it can be used to grab power" will inevitably lead to the parties-in-power proving it.

I realize it throws causality in a blender — one would never utter the challenge if the course of discussion were not already showing signs of heading in that direction. However, it seems uttering that specific challenge causes fate to intervene and ensure that a rule is used in both ways.

As proof, I offer two citations:

  1. in the Burning Etiquette Yahoo! Group on October 4, 2007 (with an earlier reference to an informal prototypical version on September 27, 2007 that said "it is impossible to create an algorithmic definition that prevents abuse-of-power and that has no loopholes. You can do it as an academic exercise yourself or try me — I'll tell you a way it can be abused and a way it can be worked around.")
  2. on RocWiki on December 11, 2007.

In the former case, the discussion was centered on changing the moderation techniques of the Colorado-bm Burning Man discussion list. As it stood, the regional Burning Man representative Ronnie Nelson had taken action to censor one of the members — according to him it was at the request of several members of the community for "posting too much", although there was a clear conflict-of-interest in that he had an established personal disagreement with this particular member. A debate of policy ensued and he suggested that a separate discussion list be created for those parties interested in a new moderation policy. On September 24, 2007 he made a public promise to implement the rules created by the Burning Etiquette group — specifically that it was not a case of academic masturbation.

However, once we agreed on moderation guidelines, Nelson ignored the request to implement them. He then let the few detractors of the proposed changes run wild on the Colorado-bm group, making it seem that free speech needed to be restricted. Several people complained that the junk traffic was too much and quit the list because of it, but Nelson did nothing. In the end, he proved that a rule of responding to complaints of "too much traffic" could be circumvented (that detractors were allowed to run wild) and that it could be used to grab power (by holding it close to his chest as a threat to selectively silence voices supporting the guidelines.)

In the second, more recent case, a discussion began on a formal "acceptable use" policy for RocWiki. The author of the proposed policy, Phillip R. Hurwitz, had drafted it in response to then-undefined rules applied against him: specifically that comments could not be construed as harassing, offensive, or off-topic for the page. His claim is that you can't both be an open community and also have secret "admin" police who claim authority through secret rules. To force the issue, he tried to change his Acceptable Use Policy draft to state that it was a formal policy. RocWiki Administrator RottenChester reverted these changes and locked Hurwitz from further changing the page. Another administrator, Dave Mahon went further and banned Hurwitz from changing the site at all for 48 hours as a "cooling off period."

There is a secret rule against threatening or harassing comments and edits as demonstrated above. However, this can be circumvented — for instance that veiled threats by BadFish on December 7, 2007 on Hurwitz's RocWiki page went unpunished. The administrators tend to believe that RocWiki is truly Democratic and the one person airing the hypocrisy of that notion is Hurwitz — and he has been conveniently silenced by Mahon's "cooling off period", demonstrating a grab for power.

It will be interesting to see how all this plays out in the long run, but as far as Olshefsky's Rule of Behavioral Policy-Making is concerned, it seems to be holding up.

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