Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Showbiz Econ 101

Yes friends, it’s TREATISE TIME!

You know, such as when you have to make statements and back ‘em up, like them Ivory – I mean, Ivy League scholars do, though they be brutalized by the hideous specter of Publish-Or-Perish™, but churning out bales of esoteric gobbledygook does wonders for tenure tracking, plus it does a body’s ego good.

So now we have TREATISE TIME. And why? Well, a yak is a yak (good ‘n cheap), but sometimes the cheeping has to abate for a spell, so that one can spout a tad bit of theory instead. What follows aims to be fairly serious, and I hope that it will be considered in that light. No Keynesian or Krugmanian authority here, but there might be a bit of tap dancing of some quality. It is not meant to add to the already burgeoning silage stew that bubbles and pops with expertness and analysis in the melted down media – concerning our blown-out economy. (Although I don’t see how it couldn’t.) Notwithstanding current conditions, I’m just offering up some cultural aspects that might be bitter food for thought as to why some personalities of power led us into this rather unpleasant and kerosene-tasting pickle – in which we now find ourselves.

At any rate, it’s my blog and I’ll ramble if I want to, ramble if I want to, ramble if I want to, and you’d ramble too if it occurred to you . . . So, here goes . . .

Part of the problem with today’s economic meltdown is that a whole culture of what I call ‘Lunge Economics’ has been built into the financial systems of contemporary (free market) capitalism.
‘Lunge’ meaning: those who have major control, or are key participants in the global world of money, have desired to get all they can out of its opportunities, and what’s more, they endeavor to do it as fast and as completely as possible. The preceding may be a run-on sentence that purports to substitute itself for one word: greed – but that’s not the whole of it.

In our accelerated consumerist world, where time has been crunched from blocks into filaments, the prevailing attitude is that the obvious is undeniable: that time passes quickly – more quickly than ever, because we are carried along with the packaging of it, and that means it’s all about impatience and superficiality – and with ever-increasing speed. Therefore, the old saw, ‘get all you can while the getting’s good,’ though it be hardly utilized any more, is nevertheless the banal but standard modus operandi of any smart money controller, whether they be a top CEO, or money-poor conservatives who are sympathetic to capitalists because they aspire to be one (but never will be, for someone has to serve as the ruling elite’s bedrock of pre-hornswoggled constituents).

By this simple phrase: ‘get all you can’, etc., stark mortality becomes a chief incentive for greed, more than heightened pleasure or mere power ever could be.

No longer do turbo-capitalists think and act in long-term frameworks. The imperative has been to seize (I think the term ‘lunge after’ is better) opportunities so as to maximize profit – ostensibly under the guise of honestly slaving for stockholders, while the true goal is to maximize personal acquirement, with the rest being ego-erotic gravy to slather on the soul’s nakedness before the altar of Mammonic Achievement. (Corny, but that’s how these primitive dick-size-obsessed organisms think, I should think.)

Of course there has always been a built-in tradition and expectation of carpe diem in free market capitalism – to be filed under the category of ‘competition’ – but never has that supposedly stimulating concept been firmer entrenched in the general image of the engine that powers the entity of money. Behind the perceived scenes, what proven money controller has not been tempted by the simple dream of monopolistic, center-of-the-universe-type mastery over all that lies below the Olympian upthrust he (or not very often, she) occupies? It is only natural that high stakes players think in absolute elimination terms regarding their rivals. Darwinism when applied to elites has to be an exercise in evolution achieved. Anything else would be a mockery to the progress of the human race.

Nevertheless, the steady institutionalizing of a Lunge Economy was clearly established in the Reagan Era, that liberalizing and legitimizing epoch of greed, under the friendly premise that, well, anyone and everyone can achieve monetary success without actually having to resort to old fashioned . . . greediness. If anything, the prospects were that financial windfalls would descend unto everybody who was worthy – you wouldn’t even have to work that much (enter entitlement complexes and the resultant sullenness that inevitably waits down such a road), as its powers were as yet undefined. The simple license was to just let the markets spread their beneficence over all. Even financial dumbos would be provided for, though way up there somewhere, the true masters would be far beyond mere peasant-expectations, in a realm where superstars of pecuniary power could not help but enjoy the bliss they deserved, free of all unsightly and dirty bits of the Great Unwashed. And in this rarefied atmosphere, power and product would only expand – exponentially. To the naïve but lucky participant: prepare to be blown away by the possibilities.

As a proper sobering notion, like the old man who rode with Emperors of Rome to remind them that they were only mortal, and to keep the lesser folk in willing thrall, the mass publicizing of Mutual Assured Destruction (M.A.D.™) betwixt the armed ‘n ready superpowers at the time, was at its height, and ready to brake the upstart intentions of any haughty comer who intended on muscling in on the Lungers’ Elysian domain.

Thus, a corollary: we live in apocalyptic times, therefore, since U-Haul trailers are not usually seen behind hearses that are still in undertaking service, and with the decline of mainstream religious faith (à la Western tradition beliefs) once prevalent in the upper moneyed classes (if much of it was never there at all, perhaps a touch of conscience was), and even psychology’s failure to convert society with its cause/effect-cum-environment premise, because the society had grown too ‘smart’ for any such massaging, due to the dearth of any serious philosophy to rival money as a principal raison d’être, license must logically and plainly be given to the goal of ‘get all you can while the getting’s good’. Simple as that. And the boom of the 90s, plus the Great Fear of 9/11 and its resultant wars of opportunity speeded up the lunging with real exponentiality, as it were, and indeed, legitimized it in the public’s mind (with the aid of Neocon publicizing, by the way).

However, the actual range of the lunging could not last. Though there were many Houses of Usher in numerous ghettos within that urine-gold city of Reaganopolis on the hill, their doors were not marked with conscientiously-applied lamb’s blood. Corruption tends to be chameleon-like in its adaptability and craft. It would take more years of milking the still bloated cow by the lungers to drain the essentials of growth that the snake-oiled public naively thought built for the ages, and whose buttermilk they would surely partake of, any day now. Collapse must, by the laws of physics, necessarily occur, due to the sheer weight of the lunged effect and its’ consequences (e.g. pillaging, for one), made chaotic by incompetence and greed-based mismanagement, as enacted by super-powered financial controllers. Thus, one person’s (me) hunch about the current econ crisis.

And there’s another thing, another part of the problem of today’s meltdown, and it’s an aspect to Lunge Economics that’s pretty important. It does not ‘legitimize’ the dizzying greediness, but it does serve as an understandably reasonable possibility in explaining any existing non-greed-based veering toward catastrophe in the state of capitalism, based on the sheer instinct of capitalism to multiply upon itself. And that aspect is: ‘The Showbiz Model’, I’ll call it. (I don’t at all like the overused and lazy-trendy term ‘model’ as a catch-all for imitative and non-creative emulation based on, say, ‘what experts tell us’; it sounds really cheap, but I suppose it’ll have to do . . . Blah, blah, BLOP, Frank Luntz!)

This – this Showbiz Model goes back to the 1960s-70s. It doesn’t exactly matter who was president at the time. The thing was, in Hollywood, the moguls who had founded and still ran many of the studios were aging or dying off, and had either been discredited due to flop productions (Spyros Skouras at 20th-Fox, due to ‘Cleopatra’; MGM’s ‘Mutiny On The Bounty’, which ‘they’ blamed on Brando!) or had sold out to the newly hip Wall St. corporate interests (Warner Bros., Paramount, United Artists). Those being the cases, studios were indeed picked up, basically for pennies a serving, by those new pioneers in globalism, the conglomerates. Such as Transamerica (United Artists), Kinney Services (Warner Bros.), Avco (Embassy Pictures), Gulf+Western (Paramount), and later, in the second great wave of corporate acquisitions, Sony (Columbia and TriStar), Matsushita (Universal), Rupy Murdoch’s News Corp. (20th-Fox), and Time-Warner (Warner Bros.), later AOL-Time-Warner (Warner Bros. again, plus New Line), Disney (Miramax and ABC) and Viacom (Paramount, again). Incidentally, people should remember that Viacom started as a spinoff of CBS, for the handling of its’ syndicated product – they succeeded in creating a monster, who tried to eat its mom . . .

(Quiz: what does AIG stand for? American International Group. You mean, American International Pictures is part of that ‘group’ – y’know, the studio that brought you ‘Beach Blanket Bingo’, ‘Sergeant Deadhead’, and Roger Corman’s Ed. Al. Poe series? Not this time, no. AIP was a profitable ‘minor’, and Sam Arkoff sold it to Filmways for a fortune. AIG is another matter entirely, and without benefit of Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, and Vincent Price . . .)

The essential fact with the Showbiz Model is that canny suits in Wall St. discovered that motion pictures, having entered the Blockbuster Age, could be good little – strike that – good big earners, because box office receipts meant cold hard cash in the till the very night of the show. No waiting months for transactions or decades to make a profit. Booms were possible, if not overnight, then certainly over the weekend. Granted, more people have seen ‘Gone With The Wind’ than ever saw ‘Love Story’, but with inevitable inflation of ticket prices, ‘Love Story’ turned out to be a monster – hit, which helped confirm the importance of the golden eggs to be laid in Hollywood for the studios’ conglomerational (sic) masters. Ali McGraw’s dying on Ryan O’Neal thus made Charlie Bhuhdorn of Gulf+Western (or as Mel Brooks wagged it, ‘Engulf+Devour’) a king of Hollywood for a time, and he didn’t even know what a dissolve or a glass shot were. (I say ‘a’ king, because there is room for many kingdoms in Tinseltown, though not too many. Besides, musical crowns are a tradition, baby.)

On the other hand, Blockbusterism indeed became a restoritative success that led to some wising up on the part of those who toiled in front of the cameras and who also happened to have celebrity status – plus, more than a few smarts. The suits and/or producers weren’t the only ones who got hip.

It is well known that showbiz is full of stories of artists who were ripped off of their just monetary dues. The most blatant cumulative example being numerous black artists who were shut out of their royalties by sleazy, lying shysters, managers and record companies (i.e. ‘That’s what it says in the contract, and you signed it!’). Among many others, Dorothy Dandridge and Doris Day were shamefully taken advantage of. Lots of kid actors, too.

But it was the unprecedented and mind-boggling profits from the new blockbusters in the early 70s that illustrated the naked contrast between performers and corporate profiteers. Film stars with clout, like Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Sidney Poitier and Steve McQueen got organized and formed their own company, the humbly-named First Artists, with the intention of controlling their associated finances and fates, from high concept to box office totals. (United Artists, formed by cinematic pantheon members Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks and Griffith, was of course the inspiration, the source of the famous phrase, ‘the lunatics are now running the asylum’, until acrimony and lack of will turned UA into an entity that was conventional in its corporate structure, but consistently adventurous in its projects, until they were ruined by corporate pressures and preferences. ‘Heaven’s Gate’ didn’t help much, either.)

First Artists did not have staying power as a company, but the legacy of the point it made is still with us today. That is, if a star or stars provide a guarantee or at least a promise of big B.O., that star or stars shall successfully negotiate a contract in which either a salary commensurate with the presumed receipts of said picture is secured, or else a percentage of the profits from said picture shall be delivered. The best example of the latter is perhaps Jack Nicholson’s humungous percentage of the take from the first resurgent ‘Batman’ picture of 1989. As Jett Rink, played by James Dean, said with a vengeance in ‘Giant’, ‘I’m RICH!’

Inspired by these glamorous and well-publicized achievements, the suits of Wall St. (and other financial climes), knowing of their own stardom in their own minds, embarked on their own lawyer-facilitated efforts to secure bigger and better pieces of the ‘take’, whatever their business entailed. There could be stars in the armaments industry just as much as their could be on the flickering screen, and hell, their numbers made the receipts from ‘Jaws’ look like housefly feed. But it was the Model that counted.

This eureka trend was/is particularly appealing to Baby Boomers, who, inculcated with their own rights to specialness and entitlement, usually seem to seek out and attempt to capture notions that promise fulfillment of their own aggrandizement (mostly as consumers, not contributors), with the expected side benefits of (inferred) sex, (prescription) drugs, and a bit of tasteful rock ‘n roll (but not too loud any more).

Most of them, of course, have not realized such success, but to the few who have, the disease of greed and its co-pathology, the notion of ‘enough-is-never-enough’ have infiltrated their personas to a potentially world-shaking extent.

Meanwhile, back on Wall St., the supreme lungers who attained M.U. (Master of the Universe) status, have, through their lunging and grabbing, brought the financial world to its bony knees. How else could the collapse of ’08-’09 be explained, free of ‘experts’ and media hacks, or of Bushistic Neocons? Those Neo-conservative strategists and egomaniacs were themselves key players in this Lunge Bowl, for they stood in the shadows of advantage, behind the movie stars and the vain spinning pinwheels of Young Executives in Wall St., a brotherhood rooted in Darth Cheney’s ‘dark side’, who expanded the playing field way past Boomed-but-Busted mundaneness and into some really nasty shit. For example, Dave Leasor’s ugly mug rules Halliburton from a discreet and extradition-proof citadel in Dubai, but he ain’t no fun-lovin’ Eagles fan, out for a good time. He and his kind are into war profiteering and related sick ventures. That’s what they do. Dave’s a lunger, ‘big time’, but he’d never admit it, not even to the mug in the mirror. He and his kind represent the full flower of toxic exploitation of the vulnerabilities of the human condition, in the name of, well, helping, or something. With mentors like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and anyone else out of the American Enterprise Institute, lunging even degrades into grabbing, clawing and trampling, for there is plenty of dusty death in Mesopotamia and greater Bactria to show for it. But there are capitalistic/corporate psycho-sociopaths, and there are common opportunists. I’m mainly talking about the latter here.

There are stars in all walks of life, of course. And the more important and/or glamorous the field, the more its stars have a right to shine. Even though the shine is decidedly dubious. Remember Malcolm Forbes? He was supposed to be making out with the babes on his Harley into his 100s, but he blew out years ago. Yeah, but there’s Kirk Kerkorian, now in his 90s, still mucking up American institutions, like MGM and Chrysler, and still doing more diabolical dinking around in Vegas than Howard Hughes ever dreamt of. At least H.H. was a genuine original. A lunger if there ever was one, Kirk has always toyed with, then devoured, then shat out whatever remains, then moved on, ever on. (Prediction: K.K. will be the prime agent in harvesting marble from US state capitol buildings for use in their serf-built castles by the New Warlords of the New Feudalism – when he’s 130 years old . . .)

Remember when General Motors was ‘the biggest company in the world’? That moniker lasted a long time. That’s when the deals with the unions were made. Like a movie studio being obliged to dish out fair profit sharing (to those who had negotiated it), the unions got a fair-ish chunk of GM’s profits. But now that the behemoth might be going belly-up, there’s no contingency plan in the event of fallen-into-the-cistern profits. None was created because profits were never designed to fall. Contracts are re-negotiable, but the same terms of profit and the sharing of it will still render any outcome exclusive of the possibilities of company failure. GM will blow out, reorganize, become successful again, and any profit sharing will be on management’s strict and discriminating terms. Take it or leave it. While unions are indeed guilty of their own corruption and hoggishness (like the management above them), blaming them for the downturn/collapse of, say, GM is a sour and absurd choice, though an easy one. But that’s like pre-blaming the unions under Exxon-Mobil for high gas prices. Never mind E-M’s unprecedented profits – the starkest example of Showbiz Econ ever – as gasoline is similar to box office profits for its instant gratification.

Oh, but let’s not cast GM adrift in the waters of Assured Bankruptcy without mentioning (newly former) CEO Rick Wagoner. Having presided over GM’s decline, the White House asked him to leave his office – but with 25 mil in tow. Not a bad U-Haul. Poor misunderstood Rick . . . There have been quite a few voices that thought he got a raw deal! Regardless, I notice that he went quietly. Smart guy. He could read the handwriting on the wall, because, with his divine powers, he wrote it himself. (Interesting trivia: there are more Lincoln hearses today than there are Cadillacs, though Jimmy Suburbans still do a lot of pre-embalmed body-hauling.)

Free market capitalism provides for many variations though, because the seeds of its destruction are permanently sown into the bedrock below it all, and growing seeds can crack and conquer stone. Thus, maybe the Epic of Money is cosmic in its destiny, way beyond even those who merit an M.U.

So, while it isn’t just successful movies that caused the present money crisis (experts will advise you to get hung up on stupid folks gittin’ involved in bad mortgages, ‘n stuff), the fact remains that, as great cinema inspires an audience, the tantalizing profit from blockbusters inspired those whose sole purpose in life it is to make money, and in maximum terms, with unlimited prospects.

It’s not a question of blame. Actually, it is a tribute to artistic creation. But, creation of what? Successful films are products of invention, and at least they give something back. Their success means that people like the movies, and are willing to access them by paying money up front. And to those who profit from the peoples’ tastes, they are supposed to reinvest their receipts into the system, for its perpetuation, naturally. But those who are apart from it, profiting through other means, but basing their technique on the Showbiz Model, have no intentions of giving much, if any, of their gains back into a culture of caring. Not even caring for the culture of capitalism, which got them to where they could leverage their destiny, no less. Their operations are not intrinsically charitable, of course. They are, to use an old fashioned term that is no longer very powerful, simply selfish.


These are not people who are burdened with ‘sin’ concepts, such as selfishness, greed, or hypocrisy. They are free of such limitations and repressions of behavior. That’s what’s handy about employing the term ‘sociopath’ here.

One thing about showbiz though, is its sincerity. There may be a lot of cynicism in entertainment, but compared to pure plutocratic endeavors, a money man who supports a tap dancer is saintly when compared with a financial lunger.

After all, lungers are only out for themselves. A tap dancer at least offers a diversion. But nothing can divert the lunger’s attention from the ultimate goal: to cheat death by sheer bribery. Hell, if you can buy a president, or a dictator, or even a religion, a creaky old rinkydink Grim Reaper’s got to be for sale. Probably cheap. So they’ll hitch that U-Haul to the hearse that will no doubt bear their pathetic remains (but without their egotistical expectations), not to any Valhalla, but to complete and utter oblivion.

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