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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The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the MuCCC

I was tired of running all around and today I had a full afternoon and evening of events to try and attend — heck, it's Sunday and I don't feel like leaving the house. Alas, I did go to just one thing: I headed to The Multi-Use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC) (142 Atlantic Ave.) for a reading of The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. I really didn't have much background (despite curating the events calendar on this site, I don't actually read much into descriptions) and I only recalled a passing interest in attending.

It is a monologue written by Mike Daisey and performed/read by Spencer T. Christiano which is a first-person account of how a fan of technology (and especially products of Apple) became disillusioned by visiting a factory in China. Christiano did a fantastic job voicing Daisey, who interweaves three tales: one is his own, personal relationship with technology, the second is the story of Apple, and the third is the story of his visit to Shenzhen, China. I found his style fantastically conversational and personal. The way he writes about technology demonstrates a deep understanding, and he genuinely seems like an eyes-wide-open kind of guy who is willing to lay any judgmental views right in the open.

But you don't have to take my word for it: you can go to his site and download the whole monologue as a PDF and read it for yourself (it's licensed with his unique open-source-like agreement).

I was drawn in to the story quickly. I grok the lust for technology, and his description of that experience fits with my own (for an example, one of the things he loved about his first computer — an Apple IIc — was that the keyboard was in Garamond; if that makes no sense to you, then you might not fully appreciate his geekery.) I have a fairly good understanding of the origins of Apple, and Daisey's details fully corroborated my own. And when he began describing the "retail" side of Shenzen, it fit with what I had heard, such as when SparkFun visited there (although I far more appreciate his description, "Shenzhen looks like Blade Runner threw up on itself. LEDs, neon, and fifteen-story-high video walls covered in shitty Chinese advertising: it's everything they promised us the future would be.")

So when he started talking about what the "manufacturing" side of Shenzen was like, I could only assume it was just as accurate. I realize it's a logical fallacy — a twist on the "ad hominem" fallacy — where I believe a fact to be true solely because I found other facts true.

He then outlined the conditions in the factories which were different from, and, by my gauge, worse than what I had envisioned. I had an impression of workers on an assembly-line putting together and testing electronics.

But I didn't expect it to be in gigantic rooms where absolute silence is enforced. I didn't expect such a lack of machinery (it's cheaper to pay a Chinese worker to install a screw than to make a machine to do it, presumably until some astonishingly large scale.) I didn't expect there to be suicide nets on the outside of the building. I didn't expect regular working hours to be so extreme (although the government-approved union-busting and blacklisting would naturally make that so). I certainly didn't expect these factories to employ the "best and the brightest" — a college education in China gets you a job assembling iPhones.

But then, like I say, you can read all about this yourself in a far more engaging and entertaining form.

So stepping out of the writing, and stepping out of the monologue and the performance, there's an interesting twist to the story. NPR radio show This American Life had Daisey perform an abbreviated form of the monologue for the January 6, 2012 show. But then they did something unprecedented: on their March 16, 2012 show, they retracted the episode, claiming that Daisey lied.

Now this is unique, first because it's the first time This American Life actually retracted an episode. But more important, it's not a retraction because the facts of the account are false, it's because they didn't happen to Daisey personally as he had claimed. According to the after-performance discussion with Spencer T. Christiano, producer John W. Borek, and director Kelly Webster, Daisey does not dispute the fabrications and says it is a work of theater, not journalism. On the Star Wars Modern blog titled What Mike Daisey Did Wasn't Fair – It Was Right., John Powers puts it better than I can: "when did Ira Glass graduate from being a talk radio Casey Kasem to NPR's Dan Rather?"

I'll briefly mention that there's a flurry of activity about this. My take [I'd add, "as if you care", but you, dear reader, are indeed reading this, so I'll meta-self-referentially say it parenthetically] is that journalists like to believe the rules of journalism produce a work that is closest to reality. The truth is, no writing is remotely close to the truth. No account of any event — be it written, photographed, filmed, or recorded — has ever been an adequate substitute for reality. However, it is a new truth, just as this blog entry is a new essay that's about a new performance of a new monologue by Mike Daisey which is a new transcript based on new performances of Daisey which is a new account … umm … etcetera.

But what I think is so valuable about The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is the way it paints a picture of the hierarchy that exists. A journalist could play by-the-book and quote a business person, and a worker, and a technology geek, and a Foxconn liaison, and Steve Jobs — and they could never manage to put it together to describe the chain of events. For instance, here's an attempt to explain the hierarchy I'm talking about:

  • An evangelical Apple geek eagerly awaits the newest product from (although having never met the man)
  • … Steve Jobs whose staff designs a new version of their latest product and sends a representative to Foxconn in Shenzen, China to meet (a group of strangers, both in relation and in culture)
  • … the representatives at Foxconn and they all go to dinner and mingle and go to the shiny factory meeting room and discuss the product when the Apple representative asks to see the factory floor, so the Foxconn people make a call to (knowing they should show an idealized version)
  • … the factory manager who sets up (not wanting to lose work and get fired)
  • … a mock factory — well, a real factory floor with real products, but with the child labor replaced by their oldest workers who (desperate for employment)
  • … go along with the charade and work hard and say all the right things so the representative can report back about the great working conditions (all the while wondering why American workers can't be so happy for work).

So go back in that list and find the bad guy — find the person who caused the dangerous working conditions, or the child labor. This is where journalism falls down: there is no person who is at fault.

Those parenthetical phrases are key: they describe the gaps that are filled in by the systems we have. Ergo, it is the system itself that is the problem. The system rewards people for making small lies to preserve its own profitability and we humans have created this new life form.

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