October 13, 2009

Viator's Review: OTSRCSU Chapter 1

Bitterly Books is undertaking a chapter-by-chapter review of Ralph Nader's work, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us. You can read past chapter synopses here. Past reviews can be read here, and Viator's columns can be read here.

For the complete coverage of
Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us, click here.

If we subscribe to the theory that the political spectrum is a circle, and traveling along one extreme will eventually lead to the other, then the giddy razor edge between farthest left and right is where the super-rich seventeen, the philosopher kings, the Reichmensch, assemble in chapter one. To be sure, they reprise many of Nader's favorite stump lines- employee ownership, a living wage, climate change, even corporate media ownership. The group even uses leftist nomenclature, calling itself the Secretariat internally (and secretly), and Redirections externally. As a point of style, Nader seems to enjoy needling the corporate suits, obsessively using brand names without the appropriate trademark (Buffett never “sips his drink” or “checks the time”; he “sips his Cherry Coke” and “checks his Timex.”)

Yet this Secretariat is also a beast new to most if not all Naderologists. Sol Price proposes to create a “sub-economy that builds markets and employs solutions kept on the shelf by vested interests,” (25) a concept sure to unnerve anyone remotely familiar with the recent housing market. Peter Lewis elaborates to recommend expanding “the insurance function to help redirect markets,” a “concept we can use in terms of aggregating assets and identifying new approaches.” Presumably this “function” is a credit default swap only with climate change. Barry Diller complains of corporate ownership of the airwaves, congratulating himself for writing “an op-ed for the [New York] Times urging the FCC and Congress to make telecommunications policy as if the people owned the airwaves- which they do.” (21) Seven pages later he announces he will assist Redirection by simply purchasing all of television and radio.

The key to understanding this perplexing combination is to know just how divine the Seventeen are. They not only possess immense wealth and Nader's keen insight in economics, they also possess an ineffable wisdom that escapes us mere mortals (or worse, middle class). Tools the hoi polloi use to run roughshod over ourselves and destroy the global economy are their prescription for our salvation. With such religious overtones it is no surprise Nader writes himself into all of the characters, with the notable inclusion of Bill Cosby (“Whether we’re talking about peace or arms control or my tormented ancestral home of Africa...Think global, revolutionize local”) (18) and exception of Ross Perot (“I cotton to the idea of speed too.”) (21) They are the sixteen faces of Nader's wisdom, each with a different perspective on what ails the world. Perot's (relatively) believable dialogue may be attributed to the kinship Nader feels with him as a fellow and oft-derided third party presidential candidate.

And atop this modern-day Olympus, on a metaphorical or possibly literal throne of cash money sits Warren Buffett. He boldly defines the world's problem as the seven deadly sins for the 21st century, which are conveniently almost every concept associated with modernity: “[The world’s] inhabitants have allowed greed, power, ignorance, wealth, science, technology, and religion to depreciate reality and deny potential.” (15) Buffett also demonstrates immense metaphysical power (not to mention one of the aforementioned BFLs) when he discloses his staff has conducted “exhaustive background investigations” on “temperament, ego control, knowledge, experience, determination, willingness to risk, circles of influence, degree of independence from curtailing loyalties and obligations, capacity to take heat, backlash, ostracism and rejection, absorptive capacity for new directions and subjects outside your range of understanding, track record in keeping confidences, and above all, moral courage.” (23-24) (It is unclear, so far, whether he selected his colleagues because they have been ostracized and rejected, or because they do the ostracizing, or what.) He even manages to convince Sol Price to shut up with the simple fact that Berkshire Hathaway's stock has risen 2,000 percent over 23 years. (24)

Alas, the Reichmensch do not dwell on their sublime understanding of solutions, possibly because the mere five and six figure incomes can only understand so much, more probably because Nader doesn't want to give Goldman Sachs ideas. When not consuming indeterminate fruit platters, sleeping and/or staring at each other silently, they discuss how to convince a skeptical and uninformed people to obey them. Ted Turner energetically declares a mascot is needed, proposing a hawk (he is dissuaded on grounds that this would offend anti-war types; we must stay tuned for the alternative). Jeno Paulucci proposes that their words alone are sufficient, reminding us that “when the super-rich emphasize fairness, people stop what they’re doing and listen." (21)

The closing reminds us of what unchartered waters we have entered. Buffett closes the meeting with assigned tasks, pledges to secrecy and “an early alert system to pick up signs of a counteroffensive,” a fitting tribute to the ideological plots of the early twentieth century. Yet his closing toast reminds us of another ideology of a slightly later time: “To our own evolution and to our posterity’s future on our beloved and only planet Earth as we reach for the stars.” (36)

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