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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Pool Party at the Stein's!!!

Ben Stein can feel the social fabric tearing, but he is struggling to understand what is causing it:

From Harvey Road to Crescent Drive, Something Changed, by Ben Stein, Commentary, NY Times: Thanks to some fine reporting at The Wall Street Journal, we now know that right after 9/11, as the crushed bodies of heroic firemen were still being pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center, and the nation was in deep, bone-chilling mourning, the smart people who run some of America’s biggest and most powerful corporations may have already figured out An Angle.

Certain officers and directors at companies including UnitedHealth, Merrill Lynch, Teradyne, Black & Decker and Home Depot knew that their stock was way down because of panic about the attacks and whether more were coming. They also knew that their long-term prospects were excellent and that their stocks were a bargain. And right after the attacks, they quickly awarded themselves options priced to strike at the super-low prices their stocks reached when the fires at the Pentagon were still smoldering. In many cases, they went on to make serious money from those options. ...

This — as I see it — went beyond war profiteering. This was actual “death profiteering,” as my friend, the writer Marina Malenic, put it. Now, to be sure, such actions are not illegal. ... there is no law that says insiders cannot gather together to make an unseemly profit off a national catastrophe. But it’s sickening in its breach of faith, and its breach of trust with the society at large. (Some of the companies that granted 9/11 options are also part of an investigation into the backdating of options — a practice that in some cases could be illegal.) ...

As I thought about it all, I picked up Philip Roth’s magnificent “American Pastoral” and began to read it, thinking as I did: “How the hell did everything go so wrong in this country? How did we stop giving a damn about our neighbors and viewing this ... brief wink between eternity and eternity (to paraphrase the great Hart Crane), as mostly a chance to make money off a nameless, faceless Other?” And as I read Roth’s incredibly potent words about America in the 1940’s and 50’s, the America I was born into and grew up into, I thought about the Sculls.

On Harvey Road, our little dead-end street in Silver Spring, Md., ... there were about 30 homes and families. Every family knew every other family, and every mom would take of care of anyone’s kid sent home sick from school.

In about 1955, one family in the neighborhood, and one family only, built an in-ground swimming pool. That family was the Sculls... When the Sculls built their pool, they made a schedule and passed it around the neighborhood. There was a set of times so that every family on the street could use the pool every week of the summer.

That is, in the America that had banded together to win World War II, the America bursting with togetherness, community spirit, and the feeling that anything could happen if we all pulled together, the Sculls shared their pool with every single family in the neighborhood as if we all owned it. It was a small, unheated pool, but how we all loved it, and what splash fights and free-style races and underwater breath-holding contests we had there in the wild cathedral afternoons of summertime youth. ...

Then something happened. Maybe it was the explosion of individualism. Maybe it was new kinds of people who did not speak the language or who seemed different and threatening coming into our towns. Maybe it was just the life cycle of empires. But now life is different.

Now, in 2006, on my street in Beverly Hills, every home has a pool, as far as I know. Many of them are spectacular and all are heated. But we all have high walls around our homes. I have lived on my street in my house for eight years and know only one neighbor...

If our son got sick at school and my wife or I were not home, the school nurse would just have to keep him until we could be found. There is not one neighbor on the street who would take him in, or who even knows him...

As I said, something happened. It happened not only in neighborhoods, but also in corporate America, where the only meaningful units to management are the manager himself and his wealth. The workers are just the most easily varied input of costs, not people to whom you feel any obligation, or by whom you want to be viewed as a kind and decent person. There is certainly no community between workers and management at most companies. ...

And the nation as a whole, under siege by terrorists and militants who are very sure of their values? It’s just a mass of strangers you have to be nice to when you want them to invest in your company or when you want them to go off to war to save you while you are making money off of a national tragedy. Otherwise, they’re just strangers and you certainly would not want them inside your walls or in your pool. It’s nothing personal, as they say in “The Godfather,” “It’s just business.” ...

I’ll say it again. Something happened.

Some have a very romanticized memory of the 1940s and 1950s, but not everyone shared in the America he remembers and not everyone would want to return to those times. Some hard fought social battles were still to come.

    Posted by on Saturday, July 22, 2006 at 07:29 PM in Economics, Income Distribution | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (15)


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