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Noam Chomsky on the concentration of wealth and its consequences

concentration of wealthRequiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power, by Noam Chomsky

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For decades, economic scholars have commented on the dangers inherent in the growing concentration of wealth in Western society. Though misleadingly referred to as “income inequality” in the new media, this critically important topic actively entered public debate in 2011 with Occupy Wall Street. Nobel Prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman and others added to the debate in the years that followed. Then, Senator Bernie Sanders flogged the issue at every opportunity in his presidential race in 2016, giving the issue further prominence. If there’s anyone alive and alert in America today who isn’t aware that the concentration of wealth is a growing problem for our society, I’d be surprised.

Few contemporary American observers have a clearer-headed understanding of the issue and its causes than Noam Chomsky. Chomsky, born in 1928, is widely regarded as the father of modern linguistics and one of the founders of the field of cognitive science. He’s also well known—some might say notorious—as an activist and social commentator. He has written dozens of books on the technical aspects of his academic work, and even more on politics. But his latest, Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power, is not a book he wrote.

Instead, the book was distilled from a 2015 film of the same name, a documentary patched together using interviews filmed over four years with Chomsky. Unlike the books he has written, most of which are slow going and many (the texts on linguistics, impenetrable), Requiem consists entirely of transcriptions from the spoken word. The style is conversational and uses only a bare minimum of jargon. It’s a quick read, and an enlightening one.

As Chomsky notes, “Power has become so concentrated that not only are the banks ‘too big to fail,’ but as one economist put it, they are also ‘too big to jail.'” Given our experience over the past decade, it would be difficult to argue with that. And anyone who closely follows events in American society today would say the same about this observation by Chomsky: “the rich and powerful, they don’t want a capitalist system. They want to be able to run to the ‘nanny state’ as soon as they’re in trouble, and get bailed out by the taxpayer.” If the American people fully understood how much tax money is funneled to corporations as subsidies, and how much the tax code has been distorted to favor them and their shareholders, they would storm Washington DC by the millions.

In Requiem, Chomsky presents ten “principles” that together explain how the massive concentration of wealth in America today has come about. (His analysis applies to other wealthy countries as well, but it fits the U.S. best.) His argument is best summed up as what he calls a vicious circle: “Concentration of wealth yields concentration of power, particularly so as the cost of elections skyrockets, which forces the political parties even more deeply into the pockets of major corporations.”

The 10 principles underlying this reality, as Chomsky sees them, are:

  1. Reduce Democracy
  2. Shape Ideology
  3. Redesign the Economy
  4. Shift the Burden
  5. Attack Solidarity
  6. Run the Regulators
  7. Engineer Elections
  8. Keep the Rabble in Line
  9. Manufacture Consent
  10. Marginalize the Population

I’ve never seen a more comprehensive or economical explanation of how wealth has come to be so concentrated in so few hands in the U.S. today. Most of these principles are self-evident at a glance. Only two may require explanation. Chomsky uses the word “solidarity” as a synonym for empathy, caring for others, or “concern for your fellow man,” to cite another archaic expression. His Principle #8, “Keep the Rabble in Line,” refers to the coordinated 45-year effort by Big Business and Right-Wing ideologues to destroy the labor movement.

The editors of Requiem—Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott—have interspersed short passages from other sources among the 10 Principles. The sources range over the centuries: from Aristotle and James Madison to Harry Truman and Martin Luther King Jr. These short excerpts from classic documents, speeches, press reports, and social commentaries add depth to the book’s presentation and enhance understanding of Chomsky’s message.

Chomsky’s views have often been regarded as extreme. Certainly, he is vilified by commentators and scholars on the Right. But if you read Requiem for the American Dream, I think you’ll find his reading of history is accurate, his logic is sound, and his view of America today is—sadly—right on target.

Donald Trump: populism, or fascism?

populismThe Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics, by John Judis

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The unexpected emergence of Donald Trump as a major-party candidate for the White House has triggered a great deal of punditry about how the Republican Party managed to put forward such a bigoted and ignorant champion. Speculation has swirled around the nature of the political forces he represents. Some observers insist he, though home-grown, bears more resemblance to Benito Mussolini than to any democratic political leader. Others think of Trump’s candidacy as populist; they describe him as the embodiment of grassroots frustration with the failure of Republican leadership to deliver on its promises.

Rejecting facile definitions of populism

Veteran journalist John Judis wades into this debate with a slim volume entitled The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics. Judis’ subject is not the 2016 election but the much broader topic of the politics of protest. His argument spans more than a century, beginning with the emergence of the People’s Party in the United States late in the 19th century. Rejecting many of the facile definitions of the term, Judis insists that “there is no set of features that exclusively defines movements, parties, and people that are called populist — from the Russian Narodniks to Huey Long, and from France’s Marine Le Pen to the late congressman Jack Kemp.”

Describing populism on both the Left and the Right

However, the author manages to simplify the question by describing both left-wing and right-wing populism. “Leftwing populists champion the people against an elite or an establishment,” he writes. “Theirs is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top. Rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.” Unfortunately, this distinction doesn’t much help to understand Donald Trump and the millions who back his candidacy. The views he claims on the campaign trail fit both leftwing and rightwing definitions.

Populism and the rejection of the “neoliberal consensus”

The fundamental premise in Judis’ argument is that populists on both the Right and the Left have come into prominence because of their loud opposition to what he terms the “neoliberal consensus.” He uses the term neoliberal in a fashion that encompasses Bill Clinton, the New Democrats, and (up to a point) Barack Obama as well as the uncompromising right-wing intellectuals who dominated the administration of George W. Bush. That “neoliberal consensus” includes advocacy for free trade agreements, an expansive foreign policy, low barriers to immigration, a hands-off policy toward Wall Street, and other policies that tend to widen the gap between rich and poor. Leftwing populists such as Bernie Sanders have railed against free trade, an aggressive foreign policy, deregulation, and the failure to narrow the income and wealth gaps. Rightwing populists single out intervention in the affairs of other countries as well as free trade. Donald Trump’s often self-contradictory policies encompass both left-wing and right-wing populist positions.

Trump: not easy to pigeonhole

Judis explains: “Trump’s political base was among the party’s white working- and middle-class voters — precisely the voters who had originally flocked to [George] Wallace and then to Nixon, who had been attracted to [Ross] Perot and [Pat] Buchanan.” Caricatures aside, all these “conservative” populist leaders went against the Republican grain to oppose tax cuts for the rich and dismantling Social Security and Medicare, just as is the case with Trump. Judis also makes the point that Trump’s position on healthcare, for example, is closer to Bernie Sanders’ than it is to today’s Republican leadership’s. Yes, he wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But, like Sanders, sincerely or not, he advocates universal health care.

Trump as a fascist? Judis says no

Judis dismisses the contention that Donald Trump is a fascist. “Trump is a one-man show whose initial target was other Republicans,” he argues, “and who has not built a movement around himself. He has displayed anti-democratic tendencies, but they are idiosyncratic. If he has any correlate in European history, it is Italy’s Silvio Belusconi, not Mussolini nor Hitler.” However, Lawrence Rosenthal, Executive Director of the Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, has a different view. He argues in the Huffington Post that it’s unfair to compare Trump’s campaign with the mature fascism of Mussolini. Instead, he finds a much closer correlate between Trump and the early fascist movement in Italy, which was much more difficult to pigeonhole.

Populism in both Europe and the US

Don’t be misled: The Populist Explosion is not in large part an analysis of the 2016 presidential election campaign. It’s a study of populism writ large, with examples liberally drawn from European as well as American politics over the last 130 years. If anything, Judis devotes more time to reviewing the rise of left-wing populist parties in Southern Europe (Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, the Five Star Movement in Italy) and right-wing populist movements in Northern Europe (the UK Independent Party, the National Front in France, the Freedom Parties in Austria and Holland, the People’s Party in Denmark).  Though circumstances vary greatly from one country to another, Judis maintains that the Great Recession created the conditions for populist movements to gain momentum not only in the United States but throughout most of Europe as well. The widening separation between rich and poor presents a rich opportunity for the politics of protest.

About the author

John Judis began his career as a journalist nearly half a century ago. For many years, he wrote for democratic socialist periodicals, several of which he helped to found. In later years he has worked for more moderate publications such as The New Republic, The American Prospect, and, now, the digital magazine The National Journal.

November 1, 2016

“Who lost China?”

Who lost China?A review of The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia, by James Bradley

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One of the conspiracy theories popular on the Far Right is that Franklin D. Roosevelt engineered the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to ensnare the US in World War II. Like so many Right-Wing fantasies, this story is nearly 180 degrees distant from the truth. (OK, many Left-Wing fantasies are, too.)

The power of the China Lobby

As James Bradley makes clear in The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia, FDR steadfastly resisted the aggressive, well-funded campaign of the China Lobby to force the U.S. government to embargo oil sales to Japan in the late 1930s. However, when the President was out of town for a week to meet with Winston Churchill early in 1941, future Secretary of State Dean Acheson and other powerful bureaucrats affiliated with the China Lobby contrived to put the embargo in place against Roosevelt’s express wishes. It was that action which triggered Japan’s decision to bomb Pearl Harbor and attack the Dutch West Indies (now Indonesia) to secure an alternative source of oil.

FDR and his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, had insisted at every turn that cutting off oil to the Empire of Japan would force the Japanese military to strike out southward. Inevitably, they calculated, had they agreed to an embargo, the US would have been drawn into war in the Pacific at the same time as the country was gearing up to take on the fight against the Nazis in Europe. While they didn’t discount the possibility of war with Japan even without an oil embargo, their hope was that it could at least be postponed for long enough for the Allies to prevail in Europe.

Three unnecessary US wars in the Pacific

These circumstances describe one of the principal conclusions that Bradley has taken from his study of US policy toward Asia in the twentieth century. The China Mirage argues that cultural and historical ignorance, political miscalculation, bitter bureaucratic infighting, and media manipulation led not just to US involvement in World War II but, by extension, in the wars in Korea and Vietnam as well. Bradley regards all three wars as having been unnecessary.

The China Lobby

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act became law. As a result, nearly all Americans — including the country’s most senior officeholders — shared profound ignorance of Chinese reality. Bradley traces the roots of this ignorance to two sources: the wishful thinking of the many US Protestant missionaries sent to China in the last half of the nineteenth century, and a lavish public relations campaign on behalf of the Chinese government in the 1930s. The government, nominally headed by the self-styled Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, was in fact run by the wealthy and powerful Soong family, which headed a network of warlords and criminal gangs. Mayling Soong was Chiang’s wife; her older sister, Ailing, was the head of the family and directed affairs from behind the scenes. Ailing’s husband and brother held the two top positions in Chiang’s civilian government.

According to Harry Truman, later evidence showed that the Soong family had stolen $750 million of the $3.5 billion in American aid the Chinese government received to support its nonexistent war against Japan. Henry Luce apparently knew none of this; in fact, he knew practically nothing about conditions in China, other than what Chiang and his wife told him. Nonetheless, Luce used his powerful magazines, Time, Life, and Fortune, and his newsreel, The March of Time, to propagate the myth that Chiang was a democratic hero leading a heroic resistance against Japanese aggression. To spread the message further, and to lobby Congress and the White House, Luce and the Chiang-Soong syndicate created the China Lobby, which remained a dominant force in American foreign policy from the early 1930s to the 1960s.

The China Mirage

Compounding the challenge for American policymakers were the preconceived notions that dominated the thinking of key actors in the drama. Luce was the son of a Protestant missionary in China and carried with him throughout his life the conviction that Christianity and American values would spread throughout the vast expanse of the Chinese heartland and turn the country into America’s best friend in the world. To bring this about, all the US needed to do was help Chiang Kai-Shek defeat the Japanese. Similarly, FDR drank in a similar fantasy about China on the knee of his beloved grandfather, Warren Delano, who had gained not just one but two immense fortunes smuggling opium into China. These delusional beliefs constituted what Bradley calls The China Mirage. Since Chiang and the Soong family represented the pro-American China of their dreams, they easily swallowed the Generalissimo’s claim that he was fighting the fast-spreading Japanese invasion. In reality, Chiang avoided every opportunity to confront the Japanese. He was hoarding his resources for what he hoped would be a decisive civil war with Mao Zedong and his Communist forces — after the Americans chased away the Japanese. That was China’s, or at least Chiang’s, “American Mirage.”

“Who lost China?”

Another favorite topic on America’s Radical Right is the question posed by Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1949: “Who lost China?” McCarthy and his allies, notably including Richard Nixon and the luminaries of the China Lobby, such as Mayling Soong, Henry Luce, Henry L. Stimson, and Dean Acheson, argued that the US hadn’t tried hard enough to support Chiang Kai-Shek. In the course of pursuing this question, McCarthy, Nixon, and Luce singled out a small group of men known as the Old China Hands.

This was a handful of Chinese-speaking experts deployed by the State Department  in China during World War II who conveyed to Washington a very different story than that told by the Chiang-Soong government. To anyone with eyes open in the Chinese hinterland, where the Old China Hands were deployed, the truth was blatantly obvious. Chiang was not fighting the Japanese, he and his government were boundlessly corrupt, and Mao was attracting followers by the tens of millions among the peasantry because Chiang’s troops plundered their homes at every opportunity. Mao was growing stronger militarily with every passing month while Chiang’s soldiers were deserting in large numbers. But virtually no one in Washington, DC, wanted to hear such things — and the men who were reporting them were later singled out by McCarthy and the China Lobby as those responsible for “losing China.”

Did America bungle US-China relations?

Sadly, one of the central themes in reports from the Old China Hands was Mao’s eagerness to collaborate with the US, not just to receive weapons but to obtain American capital to rebuild the shattered Chinese cities after the war. On numerous occasions throughout the 1940s, Mao pleaded with State Department and Pentagon officials in China to arrange a meeting for him with the White House. Naturally, any knee-jerk anti-Communist, even today, is likely to look at such statements as lies and manipulation. To those Americans with hours of direct, face-to-face experience with Mao himself, and months of experience living with his army, the requests seemed obviously heartfelt. Despite the misconception in Washington that Mao was a puppet of Stalin, the two men in fact despised each other. Mao was extremely eager to avoid dependence on the Soviet Union.

Grounding his argument in these facts, Bradley implies that the US might have spurned Chiang and the Soongs and allied itself instead with Mao. This, he seems to be suggesting, could have ended the war with Japan years sooner, avoided the worst of the Chinese civil war, and shifted the People’s Republic of China from its alliance with the Soviet Union and into the hands of the US. However, given the depth and persistence of anti-Communist hysteria in America that long predated the Second World War, all this seems highly improbable to me. I’m confident that both FDR and Harry Truman fully understood this. Supporting Mao would have been political anathema to the American public. Even had there been no China Lobby, I strongly suspect that Chinese history would have unfolded in much the same way as it did.

October 25, 2016

The President who launched the Mexican-American War

Mexican-American WarA review of A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent, by Robert W. Merry

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When we conjure up images of our greatest American Presidents, a handful of names invariably comes up: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, of course; Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, too; perhaps Theodore Roosevelt as well.

Today many of us would add one or more from among those who have served in the White House since World War II. However, most historians would say it’s too early to understand the impact of their actions. Virtually anything any President does these days seems important and far-reaching at the time. History may well decide otherwise. The history books can’t be reliably written until all the secret archives have been opened.

A long black hole in our nation’s history

Professional historians aside, few of us are likely to identify any President who served between 1809, when Jefferson left office, until 1861, the year Lincoln moved into the White House. For the overwhelming majority of us, limited by the sketchy history classes of our youth, the middle of the nineteenth century was a black hole in our country’s Presidential history. (One possible exception is the controversial former general, Andrew Jackson, who served from 1829 to 1837. Many historians rank him among our greatest Presidents, and he often creeps into high school history textbooks, with or without a discussion of the blatant racism that drove him.)

A forgotten one-term President

It seems exceedingly unlikely that President James K. Polk would come to many minds as an example of the most important men who have served in the office. Yet a very strong case could be made that Polk’s single four-year term (1845-49) was, indeed, among the most consequential times in U.S. history — and that Polk himself was the prime mover. Robert W. Merry powerfully advances that argument in A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent.

Today, Americans take for granted that the United States is a continental power, its territory stretching uninterruptedly from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Of course, that was far from the case in the early years of the nation. Our territory was added piecemeal over nearly a century to the original 13 colonies. When President Jefferson took office in 1801, the U. S. consisted of just 16 states. American settlers had pushed only as far west as the Mississippi River. Then came the vast Louisiana Purchase when Jefferson bought it from Napoleon in 1803. In 1819, when James Monroe was in the White House, the U.S. purchased Florida from Spain. Apart from Alaska, bought from Russia in 1967 during the Administration of the deservedly long-forgotten Andrew Johnson, and the acquisition of Hawaii by conquest in 1898 under William McKinley, only a sliver of territory in our Southwest (the Gadsden Purchase) came into U.S. possession in the second half of the 19th Century. James K. Polk added all the rest, including nearly all the Southwest and all the Northwest of today’s United States. Just as Jefferson had doubled the continental expanse of the country, Polk added another third.

When America expanded to the Pacific

It would no doubt come as a surprise to most Americans that a nearly forgotten one-term President played such a central role in what was then (and later) called the country’s “Manifest Destiny.” Most of the new territory, though technically purchased by treaty, was in reality the result of a war with Mexico engineered by President Polk. Following the Mexican-American War (1846-48), much of Texas, all of California, and nearly all the land between them, came into the possession of the United States. During those same few years, Polk drove a hard bargain with Great Britain and acquired the Oregon Territory as well, establishing at long last a secure western border with Canada. That enormous chunk of land encompasses the present-day states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and parts of Wyoming and Montana.

American politics in the mid-nineteenth century

American politics in the mid-nineteenth century was dominated by three contending forces: the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, divided between increasingly combative Southern and Northern wings; and the Whig Party, which evolved into the Republican Party in the 185os. Though other issues captured popular attention, the one that hung over the country like a shroud was slavery. With each passing year, slavery loomed ever larger in the balance of political forces not just in Washington, DC, but throughout the nation.

A political career in the shadow of giants

James K. Polk’s political career unfolded in the shadow of giants. During the time he served as Speaker of the House and Governor of Tennessee, five other men loomed much larger in the national consciousness. Three United States Senators, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and James E. Calhoun, dominated the politics of the time along with former Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. Jackson, a Tennessean like Polk, was the younger man’s mentor and idol. Clay was Polk’s greatest rival. Far better known than the former Governor of Tennessee, former President Martin Van Buren was considered certain to win the Democratic  nomination for President in 1844. Instead, Polk — considered history’s first “dark horse” candidate for the White House — emerged the winner on the ninth ballot. He had intended to gain only the nomination for Vice President. Bitter sectional and personal rivalries among the leading candidates allowed Polk instead to emerge at the top of the ticket. As part of a bargain with his fellow Democrats, many of whom sought the office for themselves, Polk pledged not to run for reelection.

Four ambitious goals

As President, after winning a narrow victory over Henry Clay, the Whig Party’s candidate, Polk proved himself to be unimaginative, sometimes indecisive, a captive of the patronage politics of the times, and apparently humorless. However, Merry makes clear that Polk brought one supremely important attribute to the office: single-mindedness. At the outset, he set four ambitious goals as President, and he pursued them with nothing less than ferocity. Two involved finance (tariffs and banking), which raised great passion in business circles and on Wall Street. The other goals were to gain new territory for the U.S. in the Mexican Southwest and the bulk of the Northwestern territory disputed by Great Britain. (Polk fully expected he would have to go to war with Mexico, and he feared war with Britain as well.) Against all odds, Polk attained all four goals in the four short years of his Presidency.

When the U.S. and Mexico went to war

The dominant event of Polk’s Presidency was the Mexican-American War, which lasted for most of his time in office. Merry relates in detail how Polk maneuvered the country into war and prosecuted it successfully despite the incompetence and often insubordination of most of his senior generals. Again and again in the course of the conflict, Polk was also defied and undermined by his own Secretary of State — the future President James Buchanan — and breakaway diplomats. Given the disarray of the Mexican government and the poor state of its military, the United States might otherwise well have won the war in months, as Polk had hoped. Instead, it dragged on, costing thousands of lives and the equivalent of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of today’s dollars. More importantly, it left a dark stain on American history and proved to be a harbinger of aggressive US military operations for nearly two centuries to come.

July 26, 2016

Confessions of a Silicon Valley techie

techieA review of Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley, by Antonio Garcia Martinez

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Hope King ran her review of Chaos Monkeys on CNN Money under the title “New book compares Facebook’s culture to fascism but fails to prove it.” The subtitle is equally revealing, concluding that the book “reads like four year’s worth of Medium posts from a scorned man.”

Clearly, Antonio Garcia Martinez has rubbed a whole lot of people the wrong way, and not just one reviewer for CNN Money. His takedown of Silicon Valley’s culture in general and Facebook’s in particular is withering, but writing it all off to spite is grossly unfair. Chaos Monkeys reveals the ins and outs of venture capital, the vicissitudes of launching a tech company, the intricacies of compensation in Silicon Valley, the divide between the Valley’s “haves” (early hires) and “have-nots” (most of the rest), and the internecine warfare among the behemoths of the technology world (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft). And Martinez writes about it all in a take-no-prisoners style that is at once profane, colorful, and incisive. Though it’s all viewed through the eyes of one unhappy veteran of the Valley, Chaos Monkeys is nonetheless an important book. The author is clearly brilliant, uncannily articulate, and an unusually sharp observer. Discount the seething anger that seeps between the lines, and you’ll emerge from reading this book with a much clearer picture of what life in Silicon Valley is like.

A lucid insider’s account

Chaos Monkeys is a lucid insider’s account of three years of life and work in the belly of the Silicon Valley beast. Martinez shreds the reputations of many of those he worked with, not just at Facebook but (previously) at Goldman Sachs and (later) at two other San Francisco tech companies. With only a couple of exceptions, no one comes across as worse than Martinez himself. Chaos Monkeys, as much confessional as expose, is imbued throughout with the author’s cynicism. However, he urges us not to “be deceived by my withering criticism of Facebook in this book; inside every cynic lives a heartbroken idealist. If I’m now a mordant critic, it’s because at one point, like Lucifer once being the proudest angel before the fall, I too lived and breathed for Facebook, perhaps even more than most.” Martinez is as disdainful of his own behavior as he is of others.

A warped perception of life in America

Unfortunately, the author ingenuously reveals his own warped values. Explaining that after four years at Facebook (he was only there for two), his compensation would have amounted to nearly $1 million per year. Then he complains that “it was really about $550,000 take-home per year, or about twelve times the median US family income . . . This was about San Francisco middle class, or barely, really.” (Really??!!) “Coupled with another tech salary from a spouse, it would be the high-six-figure take-home that would permit a normal, though not posh, life in what was becoming the country’s priciest city.” One million dollars per year?? Middle class?? Give me a break!

About the author

Antonio Garcia Martinez left a highly paid job as a “quant” at Goldman Sachs for a two-year stint at a firm developing software and services for online advertisers. Then, with two coworkers, he left to co-found a startup in the same field. In just one year, the three sold their business to Twitter — but Martinez managed to escape the deal and take a lucrative middle-management job at Facebook. His two years there forms the bulk of Chaos Monkeys.

June 28, 2016

Understanding Wall Street’s great foreclosure fraud

foreclosure fraudA review of Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, by David Dayen

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Recent events have made us all aware that police officers sometimes act outside the law, not just in fiction but in reality. But what about their bosses and their bosses’ bosses? And the judges, attorneys general, and Justice Department officials who are supposed to oversee the administration of the law? How do we find out about it when they act outside the law — and what can we do in response?

David Dayen explores that question in Chain of Title, an expose of the criminal conduct that ran rampant during the fallout from what is so delicately referred to as the “housing bubble.” (The phrase sounds frivolous, doesn’t it?) With a focus a handful of activists, most of them based in the state of Florida — among the states hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis — Dayen uncovers the truth about the role of law enforcement officials and the Wall Street banks in forcing an estimated six million people out of their homes. It’s a grim and deeply unsettling story.

Wall Street vs. Main Street

Dayen centers his tale on the experiences of three remarkable individuals: “a cancer nurse, a car salesman, and an insurance fraud specialist,” all foreclosure victims and all living in Florida. Theirs is the story of courage in the face of implacable resistance by powerful forces completely out of their control. However, several other key figures emerge in the story, including several other activists, a handful of county registrars determined to fulfill their legal responsibilities, and two low-level attorneys in the Economic Crimes Unit of the Florida State Attorney General’s office. Ultimately, Chain of Title is the familiar tale of Main Street versus Wall Street — and, in the final analysis the result is familiar as well, with Wall Street emerging victorious. When cries for justice confront powerful economic interests, the outcome is almost always foreordained. Nonetheless, the three heroes in Chain of Title achieved something truly noteworthy: they exposed blatantly illegal activity by the big banks and collusion by federal, state, and local officials. Eventually, the media took notice. It’s due in substantial part to their efforts that we are aware today of the extent of the fraud in the foreclosure crisis.

What is “foreclosure fraud?”

During the peak years of the housing crisis, from 2007 through 2010, bankers and their allies in the criminal justice system and the media were fond of speaking about “foreclosure fraud” — referring to homeowners who defrauded the banks in order to “live free” in homes they didn’t own. Undoubtedly, there were a few people who took advantage of the circumstances to avoid paying their mortgages and committed such offenses. In fact, however, the pattern of fraud conducted by the banks was far more pervasive, far more blatant, and far more serious. Those truly responsible for “foreclosure fraud” were bankers, their business partners, and their allies in the criminal justice system.

As Dayen reveals, the overwhelming majority of housing foreclosures carried out after the bubble burst were conducted illegally — and those charged with holding the bankers and their business partners responsible almost invariably looked the other way. Why? Why have no bankers gone to prison for what we all know was their criminal behavior in setting off the Great Depression? In Chain of Title, by examining the ensuing mortgage crisis, Dayen explains why. The responsibility for this travesty starts at the top, with Larry Summers and others in the Obama White House, possibly including the President himself. However, Attorney General Eric Holder and his aides were directly responsible for shutting down the investigations into what Dayen terms “the greatest consumer fraud scandal in history.” In a just world, in my opinion, Eric Holder would have been sent to prison for obstruction of justice. However, the original sin in this tragedy was committed by bankers and their counterparts in the “non-bank financial institutions” such as Countrywide, the nation’s largest subprime mortgage lender. And it is sadly ironic that while I drafted this post the financial columnist Gretchen Morgenson revealed that the Justice Department has informed Angelo Mozilo, Countrywide’s former CEO, that he is no longer under investigation. More than any other single individual, Mozilo was responsible for the foreclosure crisis. To compound the pain of this announcement, the New York Times ran a long, front-page story explaining how huge private equity funds, which face far less regulatory scrutiny than the banks, have bought up enormous numbers of distressed mortgages and are “repeating the mistakes that banks committed throughout the housing crisis.”

The human face of foreclosure fraud

Since I was never personally affected by the mortgage crisis, I paid only cursory attention as the story unfolded in the last decade. I remember reading about the “robo-signing” of mortgage papers, thinking this meant that the banks were using machines to sign the documents necessary for them to foreclose on their debtors. I was astonished to read the truth in Chain of Title. The “robo-signing” was carried out by law firms operating as document mills, some of them offshore, churning out a flood of fraudulent papers. Why? Because in their rush to rack up enormous profits the banks had failed to meet their legal obligations in documenting chain of title. Entry-level employees signed hundreds of documents every day, day after day, in what sometimes became a ludicrous parody of legal procedure. Chain of Title is full of jaw-dropping examples. Consider just this one to get the flavor of the problem:

American Home Mortgage Acceptance . . . does by these presents hereby grant, bargain, assign, transfer, convey, set over and deliver unto BOGUS ASSIGNEE FOR INTERVENING AS[SIGN]M[EN]TS, whose address is XXXXXXXXXXX, the following described mortgage.

This document was actually included verbatim in the papers submitted to justify tossing one family out of their home! And, in the course of just a few days, a handful of the activists identified in Chain of Title turned up 36 largely identical BOGUS ASSIGNEE examples in foreclosure proceedings around the country, including at least one in each of the eight states tested!

However, the injustice of foreclosure fraud went far, far beyond the use of bogus documents. As one Wall Street analyst and blogger explained,

. . . we end up with the wrong house being foreclosed upon, the wrong person being sued for a mortgage note, a bank without an interest in a mortgage note suing for foreclosure, and cases where more than one note holders [sic] are suing on the same property that is being foreclosed . . . The only way these errors could have occurred is if several people involved in the process committed criminal fraud. This is not a case of “Well, something slipped through the cracks.”

In many cases, “there were horror stories: banks breaking and entering into homes in the name of ‘property preservation,’ with one company even taking the ashes of a woman’s late husband; families making all their loan modification payments and still getting foreclosed; a woman who paid off her house and then got a default notice; sheriff’s deputies conducting an eviction and finding a dead body.” Dayen also cites one case in which a couple paid off their mortgage early, and another whose mortage payment was 14 cents short: both were foreclosed!

Why did all this happen?

Dayen explains in great detail the origins of the housing crisis and describes its unfolding, with tragic consequences for millions of Americans. But the essential facts are clear: Beginning in 1980 (before Ronald Reagan moved into the White House), Congress legislated “reforms” in the laws governing home mortgages in the interest of saving the troubled savings and loan industry, “effectively legalizing consumer abuse to aid a class of financial institutions.” Those changes in the law, greatly magnified by the actions of the Clinton Administration to weaken regulations over Wall Street even further, lay the groundwork for the banks to indulge in financial hocus-pocus and effectively build a massive Ponzi scheme: the securitization, derivatives, and subprime mortgage loans that precipitated the Great Recession and upended the world economy.

When the whole system began crashing down, millions of Americans were forced out of their homes because the banks were scrambling to protect their profits; they cut corners mercilessly, ignoring the law, good business practice, and simple ethics. Judges and other officials at the state and local level failed to clamp down on them because they were beholden to the banks or in thrall to right-wing ideology, because “finding the fraud got people fired,” because sometimes there were financial incentives to overlook the problems, or simply because they were lazy. And the state attorneys general and senior officials in the Department of Justice refused to stop the unfolding disaster, much less send senior bankers to prison, partly because they themselves had come from the financial industry or from law firms serving the banks, and partly because the stakes were so high. They feared that the American economy would go into a tailspin and possibly never recover if the big banks were brought to heel. That, at least, was the rationalization that led the Obama White House to turn a blind eye to all the illegal activity.

About the author

David Dayen is a contributing writer for Salon.com and a weekly columnist for The New Republic and The Fiscal Times. Chain of Title is his first book.

 

 

 

 

A liberal icon finds fault with liberal politics

liberal politicsA review of Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, by Thomas Frank

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Blame for the widening gap between rich and poor and America is typically laid at the feet of the Republican Party, chiefly through the actions of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Without question, these two men, and their right-wing collaborators in Congress, bear a lot of responsibility for the dire circumstances under which millions of Americans now eke out a living. But Thomas Frank, an historian and widely read liberal commentator, forcefully argues that many of the policies at the heart of today’s economic dysfunction were shaped under Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. “It is time to face the obvious,” he writes, “that the direction the Democrats have chosen to follow for the last few decades has been a failure both for the nation and for their own partisan health.” He lays out the case in his eye-opening new book, Listen, Liberal: What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?

The conservative roots of today’s liberal politics

Economic inequality in America today is all around us. The income of all except those at the very top of the pyramid has been stagnant for decades. A single family (the Waltons of Wal-Mart fame) possesses more wealth than 42% of American families combined. And 91% of all the economic gains over the past decade have gone to the “one percent.” The causes are reasonably easy to see. In contrast to the period from 1945 to 1980, when the country’s prosperity was broadly based and the middle class was the envy of the world, changes in labor, law enforcement, tax, social welfare, and trade policies have shifted the balance of power to the uppermost ranks of bankers, corporate executives, and the heirs to large fortunes.

Though he points to the growing rejection of New Deal values and policies within the Democratic Party of the 1970s, Frank traces the ideological rationale for many of these changes to the neoliberal Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Founded in 1985, the DLC successfully moved the Democratic Party to the right, adopting traditionally Republican policies to broadcast its claim to the center of American politics. Among these were deregulation of finance and industry, “law and order,” deficit reduction, “entitlements reform,” lower taxes on the rich, and ending welfare — in other words, a shopping list of goals advanced by conservatives since the 1970s. Bill Clinton, who served as DLC Chair in the year before he announced his candidacy for President, took steps toward all these objectives during the eight years of his Administration. He enacted laws toward these ends in partnership with Congressional Republicans: witness, for example, his expansion of the War on Drugs, NAFTA, “welfare reform,” and the repeal of Glass-Steagall (the signature banking reform of the New Deal). Less well known were his secret negotiations in 1997 with Newt Gingrich to privatize Social Security. As Frank points out, “the deal [with Gingrich] evaded Bill Clinton’s grasp, but only barely” — because the Monica Lewinsky affair blew up in his face.

What is the difference between Democrats and Republicans?

The groundswell of support for the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders this year dramatizes the conviction among many, especially young Americans, that there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans. While it’s true that both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have staked out many positions that in other advanced countries might be considered conservative, the sad reality is that the Democratic Party is not alone in drifting to the right since the 1970s. Today’s Republican Party advances policies that might have embarrassed Ronald Reagan — positions that can no longer be legitimately described as conservative. What the news media refer to as the Tea Party wing that dominates the Republican Party today represents a perspective that ignores reality and defies rational thought. Regrettably, then, even the most “moderate,” middle-of-the-road Democrat is a paragon of logic, common sense, and compassion by comparison. Unfortunately, Frank merely pays lip service to this all-important distinction.

An indictment of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama

In Listen, Liberal, Frank spells out the many ways in which Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have betrayed the Democratic commitment to progressive principles. The case against Clinton is solid, encompassing a litany of policies that still raise the hackles of activist Democrats, as enumerated above. His indictment of Obama, while difficult to contest on economic issues, is less convincing overall.

Frank acknowledges some of the progressive accomplishments of both men. “Clinton raised the minimum wage and expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit,” he writes. “He secured a modest tax increase on the wealthy.” And under his presidency the country achieved nearly full employment. But in Frank’s view these modest accomplishments paled against Clinton’s signature achievements, such as NAFTA, welfare reform, and the repeal of Glass Steagall. In the final analysis, Frank contends, “Clinton made the problems of working people materially worse. . . To judge by what he actually accomplished, Bill Clinton was not the lesser of two evils, as people on the left always say about Democrats at election time; he was the greater of the two. What he did as president was beyond the reach of even the most diabolical Republican.”

Frank concedes the importance of Obama’s Affordable Care Act, but in his single-minded focus on economic inequality he dwells at length on the many ways that Obama continued to champion the same Wall Street-friendly economic and trade policies as Clinton. However, he largely ignores what the Obama Administration has sought to achieve in other areas, notably immigration policy and climate change. Frank would have been on solider ground had he limited his indictment to Clinton, whom historians are certain to regard as a conservative President. It would be difficult to render the same judgment about Obama without considerable qualification.

The root of the problem, as Frank sees it

For decades following the Great Depression, the Democratic Party’s success at the polls rested on what political historians have called the New Deal coalition, which found its greatest strength in trade unions, racial minorities, and white Southerners. This assemblage of forces began to unravel quickly with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which drove many working class whites out of the Party, not just in the South but nationwide.

Beginning in the 1970s, Democratic intellectuals began to search for a new formulation that would reliably return a Democratic majority. Eventually, they found what they thought was the answer in the New Economy. Frank’s prose drips with sarcasm in describing this shaky concept: “Postindustrialism! Globalization! The information superhighway! These were gods before whom everyone bowed back then, deities who made their will known to the country’s opinion columnists and management theorists.” And the gods demanded that the Democratic Party turn its back on the unions, adopt free trade policies such as NAFTA, deregulate industry, lower taxes on the rich, and set its sights on Innovation and the so-called Creative Class.

Instead of poor people and the working class, the Democratic Party came to identify itself with “the upper 10 percent of the population — the country’s financiers, managers, and professionals.” Frank refers to this diverse group as a “professional class” defined by graduate degrees and specialized white-collar work. At the apex of this class sit the exalted products of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and other elite universities — the sort of people who have dominated both the Clinton and Obama Administrations. Supposedly, “[p]rofessionals are the people who know what ails us and who dispense valuable diagnoses.” In Frank’s view, they have proven to be the crux of the problem, not the solution.

About the author

Listen, Liberal is Thomas Frank‘s ninth book. He’s best known for What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, a bestseller a decade ago. Frank is a columnist for Harper’s Magazine.

 

35 excellent nonfiction books about politics

politics - Dark Money - Jane MayerI was seven years old when I first became aware of politics. It was 1948, and the presidential race between Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey was underway. With all the wisdom of a seven-year-old, I picked the obvious winner, Dewey. We all know how that worked out. Maybe that’s why I didn’t get actively involved politics until I was in high school, when I actually did manage to pick a winner, John F. Kennedy. (I was the only member of my government class who did. It was a very Republican town.) I couldn’t vote for Kennedy, of course — the 18-year-old vote wasn’t permitted until 1971 — but I got a taste for the process. And from the time in college when I served as president of the Young Democrats, I’ve been engaged to one degree or another ever since.

All of which goes to explain why I seek out books about politics. Fiction, nonfiction — it doesn’t matter. If it’s credible and at least reasonably well written, I’m game. So, ever since I launched this blog six years ago, I’ve read and reviewed a fair number of books about the topic. Here, I’m listing only the 35 nonfiction books that have appeared in this space. These titles, and the underlying links to my reviews, appear roughly in reverse chronological order based on the dates of the reviews’ publication. I hope it’s obvious that this is not an attempt to provide a comprehensive reading list. I’ve only included recent books I’ve read from beginning to end and reviewed here.

Game Changers: Twelve Elections That Transformed California, by Steve Swatt, Susie Swatt, Jeff Raimundo, Rebecca LaVally

When Money Talks: The High Price of “Free” Speech and the Selling of Democracy, by Derek Cressman

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, by Jane Mayer

One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, by Tim Weiner 

National Security and Double Government, by Michael J. Glennon

Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United, by Zephyr Teachout

Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War, by Joe Bageant

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, by Stephen Kinzer

A Fighting Chance, by Elizabeth Warren

Taxing the Poor: Doing Damage to the Truly Disadvantaged, by Katherine S. Newman and Rourke L. O’Brien

The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man, by Luke Harding

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country, by Gabriel Sherman

Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class, by Robert H. Frank

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T. J. Stiles

Double Down: Game Change 2012, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—plus plenty of valet parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital, by Mark Leibovich

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin

Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin III

The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America, by Robert Scheer

Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, by Seth Rosenfeld

Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney

Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party, by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, by Robert A. Caro

Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, by David E. Sanger

Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It, by Jeffrey D. Clements

Rebuild the Dream, by Van Jones

The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham

99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It, by Chuck Collins

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement, edited by Sarah van Gelder and the staff of Yes! Magazine

Republican Gomorra: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party, by Max Blumenthal

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley

All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis, by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera

Obama’s Wars, by Bob Woodward

 

September 22, 2015

The fascinating story of Bitcoin

bitcoinA review of Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money, by Nathaniel Popper

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you’ve ever thought much about money, you may have wondered what gives it its value, especially if you’re aware that Richard Nixon took the dollar off the Gold Standard more than forty years ago. And if you’re at all involved in the world of finance and investment, you know perfectly well that very little money is tangible in any way: it’s almost all electrons, whizzing around the Internet at unspeakable speeds — and the ways in which we store and transfer money (bank accounts, credit and debit cards, checks, cash) are all notoriously vulnerable to loss, theft, and misappropriation. Wouldn’t it stand to reason in this age of the Internet that there should be a better, faster, more secure, and more reliable way to transact business?

That’s the thinking that has led many venturesome individuals to create alternative currencies. Traditionally — and unsurprisingly — most of these alternative currencies have been paper-based. (Yes, there are dozens of them.) In recent times, though, especially since the advent of the Internet, innovative thinkers have been programming computers to create entirely new forms of money that are completely divorced from material reality. After all, there are just three fundamental functions that money must perform:  “providing a medium of exchange, a unit for measuring the cost of goods, and an asset where value can be stored.” And none of these requires that money must be something you can hold in your hands.

Enter Bitcoin, the best-known of a long line of software-based alternative currencies. Introduced in 2009 by someone using the name Satoshi Nakamoto (probably a pseudonym), Bitcoin has attracted more media attention than all the other alternative approaches combined. The early adopters of Bitcoins were self-styled libertarians who saw the new currency as a way to free society from the grip of government everywhere. However, Bitcoins didn’t rise to the attention of many others until one early adopter — an anarchist, really, despite what he might have called himself — set up a website for drug dealers and arms traffickers called Silk Road. The enormous traffic in Bitcoins created by Silk Road raised the level of activity manyfold and helped Bitcoin gain wider acceptance.

Later, more mainstream investors and entrepreneurs became involved in the Bitcoin phenomenon, and government agencies inevitably took notice. “The unmistakable irony of these wild days,” writes Nathaniel Popper in Digital Gold, “was that a technology that had been designed, in no small part, to circumvent government power was now becoming largely driven by and dependent on the attitudes of government officials.” Not just in the United States, either. The Chinese government cast an even more jaundiced eye on Bitcoins than the U.S. government.

As the word about Bitcoin spread through the financial marketplace, word leaked out that JPMorgan “began secretly working with the other major banks in the country . . . on a bold experimental effort to create [a system based on the technology behind Bitcoin] that would be jointly run by the computers of the largest banks and serve as the backbone for a new, instant payment system that might replace Visa, MasterCard, and wire transfers.” In other words, what began as a libertarian and anarchist effort to seize power from the hands of  the Federal Reserve Bank, Wall Street, and the other arbiters of our financial lives might end up granting them even more power!

“[T]he system was set up so that, like gold,” Popper explains, “Bitcoins would always be scarce — only 21 million of them would ever be released — and hard to counterfeit. . . With a hard cap on the number of Bitcoins, users could reasonably believe that Bitcoins would become harder to get over time and thus would go up in value.” In fact, though Bitcoins were worthless when first created, the going price at this writing is now $235, having topped out last year at nearly $1,200. The price of Bitcoins is volatile, to say the least.

Just in case you’re thinking of taking a flyer and filling your piggy bank with Bitcoins, you might ponder its vulnerability. “Bitcoin itself is always one big hack away from total failure,” as Popper writes.On several occasions, hackers have raised questions about the security of the currency: the holes they uncovered have been plugged, but it’s anyone’s guess whether there’s more to be discovered.

Digital Gold represents a thorough job of research. Its picture of the many strange characters who have played seminal roles in the development of Bitcoin is colorful — worth reading for its entertainment value alone. If you’re interested in finance and money, you’ll enjoy this book.

 

Elon Musk wants to build a colony on Mars (for real)

elon muskElon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

When I was a child, I was addicted to science fiction. Many of the novels I read then rhapsodized about human settlements on Mars, the moons of the outer planets, and among the stars beyond. That fantasy morphed into an expectation as the Apollo Project achieved its seemingly impossible dream of landing men on the Moon: surely, some day within my lifetime, I thought, NASA would follow up the Moon landing with voyages throughout the solar system, and a colony on Mars would soon follow.

Sadly, that expectation was dashed as NASA was progressively defunded and disregarded, first, in the throes of the Vietnam War, then in the deep recession resulting from the OPEC oil embargo. The fantasy of my childhood seemed gone — perhaps not forever, but for any future I could foresee.

Now the dream is alive again: an entrepreneur with his roots in Silicon Valley has taken it upon himself to begin humanity’s reach for the stars. Chances are, you’ve come across his name: Elon Musk. Though for years he was vilified as a hopeless romantic, Musk has now founded or helped start three remarkable companies: Tesla, which makes electric automobiles and large batteries for home use; SolarCity, the country’s largest installer of home solar systems; and SpaceX, which is proving that private enterprise can put satellites into orbit and resupply the International Space Station at far lower cost than any government — or any other company, for that matter. Musk is CEO of both Tesla and SpaceX, dividing his time between Los Angeles and Silicon Valley.

On paper, Elon Musk is “worth” $10 billion, at least so far as Wall Street is concerned, but that doesn’t seem to mean much to him. Aside from his efforts to move the world into a solar future, it is SpaceX that is clearly the principal agent of his vision of establishing a human colony on Mars. Given the extraordinary skill Musk has displayed in building his three still fast-growing companies, it would be a huge mistake to write him off as a dreamer.

South African by birth, Musk made his first fortune in Silicon Valley as CEO of PayPal. The sale of that company to EBay made him a multimillionaire, providing the capital to fund all three of his companies. Musk went about as far out on a limb as any investor possibly could, “putting $100 million into SpaceX, $70 million into Tesla, and $10 million into SolarCity.” In fact, he came perilously close to bankruptcy and was only bailed out by the seemingly miraculous coincidence that a within a few days around Christmas 2008 a huge government contract saved SpaceX and Musk reached agreement with investors in Tesla to rescue the company.

Ashlee Vance’s well-balanced biography of this truly amazing man — the first authorized biography Musk has permitted — is based on interviews not just with Musk himself in monthly dinners but with some 200 colleagues, employees, former employees, ex-wives, and peers in Silicon Valley. Many of these people see him as a monstrous expression of contemporary capitalism, perhaps not quite as nasty as Steve Jobs but not far behind, either. A few others — those closest to him — know Musk as a warm, caring, funny husband, father, and friend. (With his first wife, he is the father of five boys, twins and triplets, and has them four days a week.) Yet everyone remarks on the ferocity of his single-mindedness in running his companies. Noting the world-class challenges Musk has chosen to meet — reaching Mars and converting the planet from fossil fuels to solar — Vance compares him favorably to Jobs, who gave us the iPod, the iPhone, and the Mac, none of them historically significant on anything approaching Musk’s ambitious goals.

As Vance puts it, “Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musks wants to . . . well . . . save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation.” The author even ventures the opinion that Musk’s achievements rise to the level of Thomas Edison’s. Only there does he venture overboard. Obviously, the jury is out. We’ll have to wait and see what comes of Musk’s work in the long run.

You might imagine that such an overachiever would be some kind of genius. You would be right. As a boy, he read as much as ten hours a day. He read two sets of encyclopedias, and his eidetic memory “turned him into a fact factory.” His contemporary coworkers continue to remark on his extraordinary memory for detail. Combined with an off-putting worth ethic that is the bane of his employees’ existence, Musk’s ability to understand and remember virtually everything makes him seem superhuman. Maybe he is. And at this writing he’s only 46.

For links to my reviews of other excellent biographies, go to 34 great biographies I’ve reviewed.

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