When Greed Becomes an Obsession: The Case for Wealth Redistribution

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

–Jesus, Matthew 19:24

If you haven’t been watching “Silicon Valley,” HBO’s hilarious spoof of the technology boom, you might want to give it a look.  The series features five nerdy guys who happen to be super-smart and highly adept at developing technological breakthroughs that would make them very rich if they could just figure out how the business world works.  In the course of their fumbling efforts to cash in on their brilliance, they meet folks who have made it big and are all too anxious to add to their fortunes by “investing” in Pied Piper, the nerdy guys’ company.

Russ Hanneman is one such fellow, and he’s been bedeviling the Pied Piper guys in this season’s episodes.  Hanneman is a self-absorbed narcissistic billionaire who gained his wealth by “putting radio on the internet.”  But things don’t always go so well for billionaires, and in a recent episode such a fate befalls Hanneman.  It seems that several of his investments have crashed, resulting in a loss of $200 million.  That loss means his net worth is now only $986 million; hence, if you “round down,” as he sadly notes, he’s no longer a billionaire.

The humor is obvious.  The series, co-created by Mike Judge, who created the “Beavis and Butthead” TV series and also wrote and directed “Office Space” and “Ideocracy” (both highly inventive films), lampoons techno geeks and their beneficiaries with characters like Hanneman.  These are largely humorless and often clueless types who have singular focuses that sometimes provide them with a bundle of income.  In Hanneman’s case, the wealth he acquires becomes his identity, so much so that he considers it a personal crisis, if not a disaster, that he is no longer a full-fledged billionaire.

When Hanneman decries his financial reversal to the guys, they are slightly incredulous, since they are struggling just to keep their business alive due to a series of miscalculations and inept business practices.  Hanneman, though, is in his own world, one that consists of investing bundles of money in various enterprises as he seeks to add to his fortune, while he lives a life of opulence and depravity that includes not even picking up his dog’s poop on the floor of his home.

Do such people really exist?  Probably not to the comic extent portrayed in the show, but Hanneman’s character does resemble a class of individuals in American society.  They are the new super-rich who have amassed fortunes far beyond anything they actually need and yet always seem to want more.  Ironically, the “more” they seek often results from little to no work on their part.

And, of course, I’m referring to capital gains here, as opposed to retained earnings.   The latter is what a working stiff has left after all expenses are paid.  It’s the net profit line on a standard P&L statement for a small business owner, the result of work, the old-fashioned, get-your-hands-dirty, kind.

Capital gains, on the other hand, are what result from sales of investments by individuals from assets they previously acquired (or inherited).  They are the result of non-work by the individual, who may not even have put any thought into the investment (hey, that’s what financial advisors do for the super-rich).

Typically, when an individual’s retained earnings are low, the individual must roll up his or her sleeves and increase productivity, i.e., work harder.  But for the super-rich, the remedy for reduced capital gains (or in Hanneman’s case, actual balance sheet losses) is often nothing more stressful than firing a financial advisor (or maybe switching to a new investment).  And, to continue the comparison, the difference in net gain will often be significant.  Retained earnings can increase marginally with greater work productivity, while capital gains can increase dramatically with minimal, if any, actual work done by the investor.

Now let’s think about the American dream, juxtaposed with the American reality.  The American dream posits that with hard work an individual can have a good life, i.e., home ownership, a college fund for the kids, nice two week vacations every year, and maybe a little rainy day nest egg to cover unforeseen crises.  The American reality, on the other hand, is that for at least the last forty years, income levels have been stagnant for most working Americans.  Thus, they have had to work harder just to make ends meet.

But the super-rich are in a different category entirely.  They already have realized the American dream, often without working any harder than the average American, and their lives are much like Hanneman’s, i.e., they fret over paper losses that have no adverse impact on their life styles or their ability to make a lot more money by changing investment strategies.

In “Broadcast News,” the classic 1987 comedy about the television news industry, the network is forced to lay off scores of workers when the ratings drop.  As he watches many of his staff pack up their belongings and leave the office on their way to unemployment lines, the evening news anchor, played by Jack Nicholson, asks rhetorically if there is anything he could do to alleviate their plight.

“Well,” says the network’s news president, “you could give up a million or two of your eight-million dollar salary.”

Of course, he doesn’t, but the point bears consideration, not on an individual basis but as a matter of national policy.  The concept may sound un-American, but is it entirely inconsistent with the underlying principles on which the nation was founded?  The founders sought to establish a land of equal opportunity, but it is hard to imagine that they envisioned the creation of a class of the super-rich who acquired or inherited much of their wealth in the same manner that English barons and monarchs did.  Capital gains were not part of the founders’ conceptualization of America.  Retained earnings were.

Yes, I’m talking about the redistribution of inherited or “unearned” wealth, the wealth of the super-rich.  It’s radical, but what would Jesus say?

 

E. Haig’s Munich Philharmonic Review

Since her debut performance with a major orchestra, now over a decade ago, Yuja Wang has established herself as the pre-eminent young female concert pianist.  Over the course of the five performances we have seen her give (from her first appearance in 2009 at the Mondavi Center, on the campus of U.C. Davis), she has developed a sense of confidence in her “stage presence” that now can be said to equal the confidence she displays with her instrument.

We witnessed her performance earlier this month with the Munich Philharmonic in the orchestra’s Philharmonia Hall.  It provided ample evidence of her appeal.  Wearing a short black dress that would have turned more than a few heads at a cocktail party, she gave a stirring account of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, which, ironically, was the same work she performed in her Mondavi debut six years earlier.  Then, we had been impressed with her technical proficiency but had felt she needed to show more nuance in the work’s softer moments.

We had no such concerns with her Munich performance, as she brought out all of the emotion Prokofiev intended in the four-movement composition.  This was the 1924 version of the work (the score of the earlier 1912 version having been lost in a fire during the Russian Revolution), and it is as technically demanding a piano concerto as exists in the standard repertoire.  The first and fourth movements include extensive cadenzas, the first lasting for more than half of the entire 12-minute movement.  Simply stated, it’s a concerto that few should attempt and even fewer can command.  Ms. Wang is now one of those few.

On that cadenza in the first movement, Ms. Wang had the Munich audience mesmerized, as she flawlessly handled the tempo changes (from Andantino to Allegretto) and the dual melodic lines.  The cadenza really can be a recital piece unto itself, yet it is only one of the many challenges in this monumental work.  The orchestration Prokofiev provides is another of those challenges, as the soloist is asked on several occasions to dominate the performance in spite of fortissimo notations for the full orchestra.  In these parts, Ms. Wang’s playing was unintimidated, and her virtuosity continued to be evident.

And in the work’s softer moments, as in the third movement, “Intermezzo,” she provided the touch of nuance and subtlety that we felt had been missing when she performed the piece six years earlier.  (Ms. Wang was then all of 22 years old; she is now a grizzled veteran at 28.)  Her playing now reflects an understanding that virtuosic skill alone does not create a masterful performance.

The fiery fourth movement again required all of her technical skill, and she delivered a powerful account of the closing cadenza.  The audience responded with a sustained ovation, calling her back to the stage no less than six times before she finally acknowledged the demand for an encore.  And was it only coincidence that she played the same encore that the esteemed young male virtuoso, Lang Lang, had offered in his Mondavi recital earlier this year?  More probably, the selection, Chopin’s “Grande Valse Brilliante,” is in her normal repertoire, but the coincidence was, for us, intriguing.

And while she will never be the rock star that Mr. Lang is, she certainly played this particular piece with as much flair.  The audience was delighted and again called her back for another two bows, which she gracefully took.

The other major work on the program earlier this month was Brahms’ First Symphony.  When this symphony was first performed, Brahms had spent between 15 and 20 years on it (depending on which account is credited).  Part of his difficulty in completing this first of his four symphonies is said to have been his uncertainty of his ability to compose a major symphony (even though, or maybe because, he had been cast as the successor to Beethoven as a composer).

But his trepidations were ill-founded, for the first is a grand symphony that has been a prominent part of the orchestral repertoire ever since it was debuted in 1876.  It contains any number of notable passages and surprises, not least of which is the juxtaposition of the heavier, more solemn tone of the first and fourth movements (save for the finale of the fourth), and the lighter, more upbeat emotions that are evoked by the second and third.

The orchestra’s performance of the work was solid throughout.  Conductor Michal Nesterowicz emphasized the melodic passages effectively and drew out the strings for the rousing melody that sets the stage for the finale in the fourth movement.  His 70 musicians appeared to respond easily to his direction, even if he didn’t have the flair that other conductors use to communicate with the audience.  In the end, it was a satisfying and thoroughly competent rendition that elicited a long ovation from the audience.

As excellent as the concert was, we noted two points that warrant comment.  The first is that in the long, sustained ovation for Ms. Wang, only a handful of those in the audience stood.  The seeming inconsistency of the obvious enthusiasm for her performance and the lack of a standing ovation struck us as odd, and it may have accounted for Ms. Wang’s seeming reluctance to offer an encore (until she finally did).  The second point is that for as fine an orchestra as the Munich Philharmonic is, the hall in which it performs is problematic.  Architecturally, it is interesting, with sections of seats completely separated from each other (to the left and right of the stage) above the floor level.  But the acoustics, at least where we were seated (second level balcony right), were a definite problem.  And in speaking with residents after the concert, we learned that the acoustics of the hall are a recognized problem for which the city is seeking a solution.

Those points aside, Munich has much to be proud of in its orchestra, and this concert was certainly evidence of that fact.

 

Why Jeb and Hillary Still Don’t Have it Right on Iraq

Last week Jeb Bush sounded completely flummoxed when he tried to answer a simple question regarding his brother’s 2003 decision to invade Iraq.  His stumbling efforts first to evade the question and ultimately to answer it did little to suggest that he is qualified to be the country’s next president.  Pretending the Iraq invasion is ancient history isn’t going to wash, any more than claiming the question is too hypothetical.  Both suggest ignorance, if not cowardice, and neither answer addresses the real issue that the invasion poses.

Hillary Clinton has handled the question much better and much more forthrightly, decisively saying that she made a mistake in voting to support the invasion back in 2003, but she hasn’t really addressed the question fully either.  Ms. Clinton is clearly the most qualified presidential contender (including those either announced or available).  No one who reads her review of her years as the nation’s Secretary of State (“Hard Choices”) can come away with other than a sense of awe at how fully knowledgeable she is about the many issues currently crowding the future president’s foreign policy agenda.  It would take a Jeb Bush (or any other candidate) a full year in office just to gain a modicum of insight and understanding of the issues Ms. Clinton already possesses.

(Many will claim that “Hard Choices” is a self-serving politician’s book, but in it Ms. Clinton doesn’t duck any punches.  She addresses fully the Benghazi tragedy and covers every other incident of note (including those that could be considered personal disappointments or unattained goals) that her four-year tenure at State included.  You may not like Hillary for any number of reasons, but if you read her book, you will not be able to say you don’t admire her.  Simply stated, the book is the work of a true public servant.)

Jeb Bush got himself hooked on the petard of his brother’s Iraq invasion when he somewhat ignorantly blamed the existence of ISIS on President Obama.  That comment, clearly motivated to appeal to an ignorant GOP base, just doesn’t fly in the face of reality.  ISIS is clearly the outgrowth of the initial invasion of Iraq and the subsequent botched attempt to install a pro-Western democracy in the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s defeated regime.  No one, other than Dick Cheney and his band of merry fools (Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, et al.), today claims that the invasion of Iraq was a good decision or that the post-invasion administration of the country was anything other than grossly incompetent.

But just in case there are doubters on that point, here’s what we should all be able to agree to:

  1. Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction and was no threat to the United States.
  2. Saddam Hussein had no part in the 9/11 attacks and was never involved in any conspiracy with radical Islamists.
  3. Saddam’s regime, while brutal as to his citizens (particularly those who represented a threat to his continuing control), was a safeguard against the rise of an organization like ISIS or al Qaeda.
  4. The threat to U.S. security was exacerbated by the invasion of Iraq, since it led to the disenfranchisement of Ba’athists (Sunnis), many of whom now form the core of ISIS.
  5. The world in general, and U.S. interests in particular, are far less safe now with Saddam Hussein out of power and with Iraq torn between Shi’ite allegiance to Iran and its own corrupt and feckless government, which lacks a military capable of defending its own homeland.
  6. The people of Iraq are no more “free” now, with their country threatened by ISIS, and with a civil war fomenting even without ISIS, than they were under Saddam.

Jeb Bush may not need to acknowledge any of the foregoing realities to get nominated by his party.  Today’s Republican Party is almost ignorant enough to accept the falsities that Fox News purveys, and in a political campaign, whoever sounds the most anti-Clinton/Obama will probably get nominated.  But in a general election, any opponent should be able to skewer Mr. Bush with his inability to divorce himself from his brother’s incompetence and malfeasance.

Hillary should be able to carry that fight.  If she can’t, she doesn’t deserve to be the president.

But whether she does or not, neither candidate is likely to address the real underlying issue in the decision to invade Iraq, and it’s the one the country needs to hear.

The invasion of Iraq was illegal as a matter of international law, and it was immoral as a matter of natural law.  It was illegal because it represented an infusion of military force in a preemptive manner that violates the United Nations charter and generally accepted international doctrines.  The simple rule is that your country may not attack another country unless that country has attacked or is attacking you.  Iraq was not such a country.  It was a sovereign state with whom the United States had no military hostilities.  The claim of WMDs, even were it not bogus, was not a sufficient basis to render the invasion legal.

The war was immoral because it is wrong as a matter of natural law for one nation to unilaterally exert military force on another.  It was immoral for Japan to bomb Pearl Harbor.  It was immoral for the United States to invade Iraq.

Those realities aren’t being addressed by Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton or any other candidate.  They aren’t being pressed by the media, nor are they likely to be raised by the public.  But they are the realities that anyone who would be president should acknowledge.  For until we do, the United States will lack the moral authority to seek a new world order on matters of war and peace and on issues such as worldwide climate change, poverty, and disease control.

The next president should be qualified for the office.  But he or she should have more than experience and expertise as his or her list of qualifications.  He or she should also be prepared to affirm morality as the underpinning of our foreign policy.

 

E. Haig’s Review of STC’s “Pirates of Penzance”

If you’re a confirmed Savoyard, meaning you are a fan of any of the 14 operettas by W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, you don’t need much coaxing to see yet another production of one of the pair’s biggest and most enduring hits.  “The Pirates of Penzance” is one such hit, and, being confirmed Savoyards of long standing, we were fully prepared to enjoy the latest rendition of the classic at the Sacramento Theatre Company.

We saw the closing night performance last weekend and are happy to report that despite some limitations in the scope of the production, Director Michael Laun and his cast kept us chuckling throughout the performance with a mostly traditional treatment of the convoluted story that allowed Gilbert’s intended irreverent humor to blossom fully.  And we were also pleased to hear Sullivan’s score and music played so well.

Credit for the latter goes to pianist Samuel Clein, who adapted the full orchestral score for himself and three other musicians (Annie Coke on violin, Terry Shane on woodwinds, and Elaine Lord on percussion on the night we attended).  Mr. Clein’s arrangements were effective in conveying the complexity of Sullivan’s composition, and his musicians played with a high level of professionalism in making the musical aspect of the performance completely satisfactory.  Sir Arthur would have been pleased.

But, of course, any G&S production needs to emphasize the story and Mr. Gilbert’s often hilarious lyrics, and, in Mr. Laun’s tight direction, his sixteen member cast delivered that story with all the humor and nuanced irreverence that the script and lyrics intended.

The story, for those unfamiliar with this topsy-turvy tale, concerns young Frederic, a pirate’s apprentice, who, having believed he had reached the age of 21, thought himself free to leave the “evil” work of his masters for sunnier and fairer game.  And in meeting the fair Mabel, he seemed to have secured his eternal happiness, and would have, but for a “calendar issue,” the details of which we’ll leave unstated here.

The cast was headed by Zak Edwards as Frederic and Aviva Pressman as Mabel.  Both played their parts as the romantic leads well and sang beautifully.  Mr. Edwards is a solid tenor, and Ms. Pressman displayed a lovely coloratura, which is required for Sir Arthur’s arias.  Her singing was a definite asset in this production.

The best acting, however, was delivered by Michael RJ Campbell as the Pirate King.  From his opening solo (“I Am a Pirate King”), he portrayed the comical leader of the pirates’ cause with a series of facial expressions and perfectly intoned laugh lines as if he owned the role.  It was a great performance, one that added as much enjoyment to the production as Ms. Pressman’s singing.

Others in the cast worthy of mention included Gary S. Martinez as the bumbling Major-General Stanley.  He made a noble effort at the difficult aria (“A Modern Major-General”) that requires perfect enunciation while being sung at ever-increasing ridiculous tempos.  Also effective was Martha Omiyo Kight as Ruth, Frederic’s maid.  She enunciated perfectly in her opening aria (“When Frederic Was a Little Lad”), which conveys much of the back story on which the rest of the tale rests.

The first act was very strong, with “Poor Wandering One” (Mabel and her sisters), “Oh False One” (Frederic and Ruth), and the act one finale (by the entire company) standout highlights, along with the aforementioned efforts by Mr. Campbell and Mr. Martinez.

The second act suffered slightly in the presentation of the Sergeant (an otherwise fine Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly) and his band of three officers.  Part of the problem was the lesser number of gendarmes.  In a full “Pirates” production, there might be as many as eight (or at least six) cast members assigned to these parts, and the added numbers make a difference.  Thus, “A Policeman’s Lot is Not a Happy One” lost some of its comic punch as did “With Cat-Like Thread.”

Still the act was enlivened by the trios by Ruth, Frederic and the Pirate King (“A Paradox,” “My Eyes are Fully Open,” and “Away, Away! My Heart’s on Fire”), by the Mabel and Frederic duet (“Stay, Frederic, Stay!”), and by the Finale.

In all, this was a fine “Pirates.”  It lost some punch owing to the smaller cast and stage, but it made up for those deficits with strong performances by most of the cast, by obvious directorial attention by Mr. Laun, and by the excellent musical adaptations by Mr. Clein.  Additional credit should go to Jarrod Bodensteiner, Renee Degarmo and Brian Watson for their scenic designs, to Jessica Minnihan for the costume designs, and to Jessica Bertine for the lighting design.

For those unfamiliar with G&S, this production served as a good introduction to the mayhem that this form of light opera represents.  For those well-versed Savoyards, it was a relatively straightforward and entirely pleasant presentation of a standard in the repertoire.