Who Is Upton Sinclair? (Weekend Comment Competition)

By 1906, it was obvious to many people that the industrialization of food production in the United States had brought with it some unpleasant and even unsafe practices.  Consumers were definitely not getting exactly what they thought they were getting.

But efforts to reform the industry – and to protect consumers – were mired in the power of this lobby (with strong political power based on its great economic power), the resilience of laissez-faire ideas, and the intransigence of powerful individuals in the Senate.  There were legislative proposals, but the overall reform agenda was not really going anywhere fast.

Then Upton Sinclair published The Jungle.  No one could look at meat packing or its products in the same way again, and this directly and immediately helped produce stronger federal legislation regulating the industry.

So who is our Upton Sinclair and when will they write the definitive piece that captures imaginations and changes the terms of the debate?  Is it about how consumers were mistreated, politicians captured, or the public treasury ransacked?  Will it be a novel or nonfiction? 

Or perhaps it is a movie, with all the modern Hollywood marketing techniques and tie-ins? 

By Simon Johnson

85 responses to “Who Is Upton Sinclair? (Weekend Comment Competition)

  1. Just as Upton Sinclair wrote his exposé, it has also become clear that investors are not getting what they thought they were getting either. And those trusting the FDA are in for a rude awakening as well. Read Mark Mitchell’s serialization (now on chapter 10)of the connections between Michael Milken and his cronies in the hedge fund cabal (and Mafia/Mob associates) and the captured FDA as they attempt to squelch a successful treatment for prostate cancer. An amazing write… http://www.deepcapture.com

  2. And to me Upton Sinclair in his “Oil” (1926) describing the horrors of some individual oil magnates did not even scratch the surface of the potential oil horrors that derives from having to live under the thumb of States with Petro-autocrats.
    http://theoilcurse.blogspot.com/

    But on the financial crisis I do indeed have my own movie script proposal in http://www.theaaa-bomb.blogspot.com/ though it might be pointing to a slightly different direction than what some well known pseudo-regulators wish.

  3. Let’s not forget Rabelais. (Years since I read Gargantua but truly memorable.) Rabelais skewered the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church in feudal Europe.

    The High Church of our time might be Basel II. Its clergy the Zombie bankers, Shadow bankers, and Wall Street casino rats.

    Didn’t Milton Friedman and his followers give the markets an all-powerful God-like status? Their faith being markets are self-correcting and rational.

  4. So who will they write the definitive piece that captures imaginations and changes the terms of the debate? Will it be about regulatory capture and how the public treasury was ransacked?

    The creators of The Simpsons might give it a try. Here’s my cue and contribution to the Creative Commons:

    Zombie Bankers are now blaming the financial meltdown on the Mortgage Brokers. Meanwhile, the philospher Michael Sandel inspired a character in the The Simpsons named Charles Montgomery Burns (Sandel’s Evil Twin.)

    Maybe the team at The Simpsons will take a cue and create a character based on Simon Johnson who leads the charge as the folks in Springfield, who are plain fed up, storm and takeover the local branch of Zombie Bank with James Kwak and Homer Simpson bringing up the rear.

  5. And don’t forget Sinclair’s book, “It Can’t Happen Here”. You can read it online here: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0301001h.html

    One again may need to ask of this work: “Will it be a novel or nonfiction?”

  6. Writing in a compelling way about derivatives and other financial products is nearly impossible. Even people like myself who read economics blogs, academic journals, and research papers by the Fed nearly everyday, find many of these concepts hard to grasp. How could you write a novel about it that grabs people emotionally and stirs them?

    I think you would have to write in a way that makes it clear these derivative and hedge products are the root of the cause, but not bore people to death with the details before they get to Act 2. You have to connect with the suffering of the average person. Recently there hasn’t been enough coverage of housing foreclosures in my opinion. Or what about the person who rents, and has made every rent payment, but loses their home because their landlord was foreclosed on? We had pictures in the paper of guys leaving with duffle bags of stuff on the sidewalk after he lost his job at Lehman Brothers. But how many pics did we see of the working Mom thrown out of her home?? And I tell you, I want to “go postal” when I hear people talk about bailing out Commercial Real Estate when people are losing their homes. Maybe a more modernized version of the Michael Douglas movie “Falling Down”?? Showing the process between the father/husband losing his work and desperately trying to renegotiate with his banker the terms on his mortgage??? I always thought that movie “Falling Down” was so under-rated.

    James B. Stewart’s book “Den of Thieves” was quite good. I’m sure there’s some great writer out there who can do it. Hopefully not some jerkwad like Michael Lewis who’s never experienced real poverty. The novelist that is usually proclaimed as “THE” writer of “THE” novel that expounds a crisis is usually written by somebody whose closest experience with poverty was taking a wrong turn walking the streets of Paris on his one year hiatus after college.

  7. What an excellent follow up to James K’s previous post.

    Weekend comment competition! Hope it starts to flame.

  8. I imagine the problem is that, unlike with the current crisis, the hideous descriptions in The jungle could provoke such a visceral reponse because they were clear, easy to understand, and went directly to the safety of food.

    Meanwhile it’s not so easy to capture in a way the public mind can understand what kinds of maggots and rats infest the financial slaughterhouses of wealth.

    People understand that their invested wealth has been vaporized, that fat bankers, traders, and other parasites are the culprits, and that the criminals are now being rewarded for their crimes.

    But it seems like the response, after a few waves of outrage, has been the old defeatist “You can’t fight city hall”.

    I suppose that defeatism is on account of the size and perceived power of the banks, and perceived infinite complexity of the problem.

    But in fact the problem is simple: just politics. And the banks’ size and alleged power is simply a political tumor which can easily be cut out, if only the people roused themselves to do so.

    (It’s especially demoralizing that you dedicate two elections to getting rid of Bush and the Republicans only to end up with..Bush and the Republicans.)

    So I’m not sure what kind of book could help. I’d say not another technical analysis. What’s needed is a strong narrative which isolates and crystallizes evil.

    Since the physical slaughterhouse and rats aren’t there, we need to manufacture it metaphorically.

    [Getting back to that vile food system, where’s the modern Jungle to make clear to the people the truth about CAFOs, every bit as disgusting as Sinclair’s picture, and far more dangerous. CAFOs are literal bioweapons factories, the real “ticking time bombs”, the source of the swine flu (a Smithfield subsidary in Mexico), and the inevitable future source of a truly lethal pandemic. It’s only a matter of time.

    Certainly if here the people could see the truth clearly, they’d immediately outlaw factory farms. It shouldn’t be so hard to provide that book or movie.]

  9. Well some here have already tried to jungle it calling all the bankers oligarchs while ignoring that most of these bankers were just innocent buyers of meat, like you and I, and who do now have all the right to complain about some dirty mortgage brokers.

    Only some very few bankers were really in the meat-securities packaging business, making the most out of the AAA labels empowered by Basel.

  10. Per, you should start a Twitter account. Then your followers can receive your “epigrams” on the AAA-Bomb blast and its aftermath.

    Kind regards

  11. Tippy, thanks, it has now been duly twitted

    ” The AAA-bomb is proving to be more destructive than the two dropped A-bombs but no one talks about an AAA disarmament http://bit.ly/gNemy

  12. Well, technically speaking, the modern Upton Sinclair is either Michael Pollan or Eric Schlosser but I don’t think this is about food… Michael Lewis is probably the financial version.

  13. Make it a novel. Cormac McCarthy is the writer we need. I’ll take my prize in the form of two bottles of Gordon’s Gin and a medium container of kosher orange juice. Where should I send my postal address?

  14. Michael Lewis……….. don’t do this to me man, puked up pancakes don’t taste good.

  15. Um ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ was Sinclair Lewis, not Upton Sinclair. But I think Michael is not a bad bet.

  16. Or maybe Tom Wolfe?

  17. Over at the AAA-Bomb plot Carlos Molotov Pavlov wore 24-carat gold cuff links embossed A$$. A birthday present from his less-than-loyal staff.

    But singularly gifted, with tunnel-vision imagination, Pavlov never got the back-handed compliment.

  18. As a non-expert commenting here, I believe the Canadian literary critic Northrup Fry argued that the literary canon was a “great text” comparable in “great truths” to the Bible and other revealed texts.

    Perhaps Baseline Scenario is the first draft of a chapter in this tradition.

  19. Gillian Tett, of the Financial Times recently published “Fools Gold”. It is an excellent synopsis of the whole DNA of the dirivitive gene. Starts with JP Morgan trying to satisfy their client Exxon. Story goes something like this, valdez oil spill happens, exxon needs to insure funds are available if they lose a large settlement. JP Morgan is their banker and Exxon is a very good client, but Morgan does not want to tie up millions at low interest rate. a quant in their organization comes up with the idea for the first dirivitive and I believe they hook up with a european bank, pay them a fee to quarantee they will loan exxon said funds if the need arises. Ms. Tett protrays this as the very first dirivitive. This group of quants become stars over a period of years, wildly wealthy, and ultimately incredibly distructive. Jamie Daimon, et al. Ms Tett does a very good job taking the dirivitive vernacular on, and educating the neophyte.

  20. Show Me The Money

    The question presumes that, somehow, public outrage fueled by some new perspective can actually change modern insanity which, in reality, is the controlled rape of The People’s assets, rights, and freedoms. Sorry, but the money controls the propaganda machine so effectively that average people are said to be thinking “the worst is over” with the destruction of the currency going on right under their noses and Socialism being shoved up their bums. Upton Sinclair, or his modern equivalent, whomever that might be, wouldn’t stand a chance.

  21. Not happening. Half of the population is predisposed to disbelieve anything just based upon who writes it.

    Steve

  22. I think it will be drastically more difficult to address now than it was at the turn of the last century. Last century, it was a matter of bring market forces under control with adequate regulation. Now, it is not only bringing market forces under control (i.e., anti-trust action against some of the big agribusiness corps??) but also un-doing a long list of the market-distorting forces — particularly the heavy subsidies that corn and soy get. You not only have agribusiness lobbying for them but also farmers even though it is really not in their long-term self interest. In addition, built up around it the entire American lifestyle that can’t be sustained without the cheap food that corn and soy subsidies provide — even if it is killing us, which we all know, McDonald’s continues to do just fine and the 10% of our income we save by eating so poorly, we can spend buying cheap electronics from China. (In Sinclair’s day, the family farm was still the norm and even though the country was rapidly becoming urbanize, a significant portion of the population still got most food from very local sources, if not their own farms).

    My dad is an small independent fruit farmer – there are no subsidies available to him, the farm is not my parents’ only or even primary income. My cousin raises corn and soy beans and supports a family of four on that income. I would wager that at least half of my cousin’s income is via subsidies – direct and indirect. Dad’s fruit is eaten fresh (or home canned, homemade pies, etc. – he sells all of it locally), the corn and soy go to feedlot cattle, ethanol/biodiesel plants, soda, and God knows where else, my cousin certainly doesn’t. Do we have this right?

  23. I would have to agree on that Upton Sinclair would have found the current climate of gross misinformation much more channeling to get any message through, though let us not forget that Sinclair was also involved in some misinformation of his own making.

    What do we have in front of us? A crisis caused by the channeling of a couple of trillions into the safest assets, houses; into the safest country, the USA; into the safest instruments, triple A rated instruments… and the misinformation agents, a Nobel Prize winner included, have even been able to label it as “excessive risk- taking”… when it clearly was a case of misguided excessive risk-aversion stimulated by the Basel wimps.

  24. At the risk of getting flamed by folks that think these guys are liberal versions of Rush Limbaugh, I suspect that in this day of modern media it will be someone like documentary film maker Michael Moore (of “Roger and me”, “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Sicko” fame) or Morgan Spurlock of “Super Size Me”. The point is, as Upton Sinclair’s book did (and as I recall Upton was considered by most folks back then to be in a similar liberal vein as Moore and Spurlock), that whatever/whoever it is has to make as much impact on the social conciousness as possible, and I hate to say it but not as many average Americans read these days but they do watch.

  25. I’m afraid our present generation is much more apathetic than any previous one. The gigantic bailout, the outrageous bonuses should have been a much more potent wake up call than any Upton Sinclair novel. If we didn’t stir for that, we won’t move for anything bar generalized mass starvation.

    It’s hard to explain how we have come to this. There’s probably a complex combination of factors.

    The babyboomers, at least in their youth, still believed they could change the world (civil rights movement, hippies, …). It seems to me that they grew up in a period of continuous economic expansion. Was there any serious recession between the end of WW2 and the 70ies? Theirs is the generation where if you had a university degree you had a good job. This is not true for the generation that followed, the X generation. X-ers have known several serious recessions. I know many X-ers with degrees from top universities in fields such as sociology or psychologies. They go from small jobs to small jobs. Our generation is defined by insecurity. How can we dream of changing the world when we have lost all confidence in ourselves? Despite the Obama “yes we can” I think the true feeling is more “whatever we do they’ll beat us”.

    Maybe one of the major tectonic shifts described in “Brave new world” has actually happened. Maybe we’re satisfied if we can indulge in small hedonistic pleasures from time to time. The sacrifice of small comforts for a great cause has become unacceptable.

  26. I don’t know who the author will be, but it will probably be written in Chinese and we will have to wait for the translation into English. Or perhaps it will be written in Portuguese. When President Lula blamed this mess on the blue eyed white people, you could hear the cheers from Tokyo to Tel Aviv.

  27. Peter Elkind and Bethany McLean, authors of the Smartest Guys in the Room, could nail it technically, and Eric Schlosser (suggested earlier) and Mike Taaibi might give it a shot, but hey they’re not novelists. To achieve the proper mix of outrage and lyricism I’m wondering about Philip Roth or Richard Ford. Please not Tom Wolff. Or maybe Krugman’s favoite Stross, if I remeber his name correctly, could modify his financial sci-fi and achieve art. Or Margaret Atwood! I’m not a fan of her later stuff but imagine the deep water effect of Surfacing set in the GSax tower. Morally neutral and drowning in injustice.

  28. I went to a farmer’s market near my home yesterday.
    The garlic is from the Klipper Farm in the Okanagan. Four large beautiful organic garlic heads (green stems included) for $10. I thought the price was right.

  29. Tom Wolfe is a washed-up has been, lucky he EVER WAS, walking around in a pathetic all white suit, licking lint off his blazer. If we’re gonna go “retro-writer” lets at least choose a man who didn’t fake that he had class and bring Truman Capote back from the dead. In fact, we’re tossing around which is the better
    choice—nonfiction or novel—Truman Capote was the master of walking the tightrope between nonfiction and novel.

  30. If all you want is to get at the “bank oligarchs” then I guess any decently indecent lampoonist or pamphleteer will do.

    But if you really want to get to the bottom of it all and be able to cut through the dense fog that almost two years into it stops “experts” from understanding what happened then you need someone really outstanding.

  31. Russ: “Getting back to that vile food system, where’s the modern Jungle”

    How about the movie, “Food, Inc.”? If anything, sanitation is worse than 100 years ago. Why should I have to make my kitchen a clean room, just to prepare supper? Don’t cut your finger, folks!

  32. What we are talking about is making people realize that they have been brainwashed into believing that being in debt is good for them. Acknowledging this truth is a hard blow to one’s self-perceived intelligence, and will not be easy to bring about unless the painful consequences of chronic indebtedness become a vivid horror scenario in peoples’ minds. For the sake of the indebted, let us all hope that interest rates remain low. Forever.

  33. I think Russ is right. A large part of what made The Jungle work is that the problems Sinclair were describing could be described viscerally and provoke a profound reaction of horror in the readers, and they could relate it to the very food that they were eating.

    What’s different now? Well, for one, as strongly as I feel about CDSes and CDOs, etc., I don’t think anyone could write a few pages on the matter that would affect me as strongly as The Jungle.

    Also, one thing that made The Jungle so powerful was that no one really had known what was going on. Nowadays, what could someone write that would really surprise us? I mean, people are still writing about food in ways that should shock and appall us (I just saw a trailer for Food, Inc. last night), but we’re so numb to that matter that no one’s really willing to take up arms or do anything more than blog about it and “vote with their dollar”. Jeff Tietz’ excellent exposé of Smithfield Farms is as shocking as anything in The Jungle, but the reaction has been, well, much more muted.

    http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/12840743/porks_dirty_secret_the_nations_top_hog_producer_is_also_one_of_americas_worst_polluters

    and if you’re looking for today’s Upton Sinclair, keep in mind that Sinclair didn’t want The Jungle to be about food safety and the unfortunate consumer; he wanted the book to be about labor. To a leftie, the working conditions and living conditions described in The Jungle are every bit as appalling as what goes into the meatpacking industry’s food products, but much to Sinclair’s chagrin, that all got lost in the shuffle. Yet it took someone who cared about all those things to uncover the matter that his readers ended up really caring about.

    Today’s story about financial despair doesn’t really have clear victims to write about. It’s a story about greed, in every link of the chain from the consumer to the producer, and so what kind of really affecting story can we write about that? Where is the pathos? The real victims are too abstract or indirectly affected (third world countries faced with compounding debt and little growth, employees of companies decimated in the economic contraction, government workers that see their employment lost, at risk, or their chances of a raise in the years to come vanish)

  34. All we will need is:

    A straightforward summary of 2009 income for all individuals who work at financial institutions that have relied on government programs for necessary funding over the last two years. The names of these people need to be published.

    and

    A straightforward summary of financial sector contributions to every Senator and US Representative for the past 30 years.

    If this information becomes widespread, we may get the change we need in 2010.

  35. Ze “What we are talking about is making people realize that they have been brainwashed into believing that being in debt is good for them.”

    So true, that even the brainwashers have been brainwashed. Of course, for any poor taking on debt, for anything else than that what could be essential to survive, at a rate over the risk free rate, must by definition impoverish him even more…

    To then have that loan rate often be thousands of basis point more and no one says a word is mindboggling especially in a world where they even inform you that your bottle of water contains zero calories.

  36. brendan… and if so don’t forget to ask the names of everyone that has occupied important posts in regulatory functions or entities and never said a word about it all. That list would provide us with many surprises.

  37. Per:

    My prescription is not offered as an explanation of what has gone wrong. It’s merely what I think will effect the smashing of the current ruling elite. The first part will cause widespread anger and resentment among the population of the USA, and eventually fear among the rank-and-file members of the elite (i.e., people who work for financial services companies). The second part will make it clear who needs to be removed from positions of political power. Of course regulators will have to brought to heal as well, but only some new, as yet only imagined, representatives of the people will do that.

    I should add that all of this is dependent on the Dow and the economy moving sharply down this autumn, as I believe they will.

  38. Brendan… Yes but let us pray reason prevails and that there is not an unproductive chase of the usual suspects or of the ones on the other side of any political spectrum… since that is not where we could find the future we all should strive for.

  39. I haven’t seen it, though I’ve read several reviews.

    Who knows, maybe productions like that and the work of Michael Pollan can eventually coalesce into a critical mass, but so far they don’t seem to be having a big effect.

    (As we speak, radically pro-agribiz, anti-small farmer/food producer legislation is gnawing its way through Congress: HR 2479, also the bill which would establish the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). Not only aren’t people alarmed, but anyone who reads only the MSM probably doesn’t even know this is happening at all.)

    So far as I know, it’s only animal rights activists who have had any success vs. the factory farms, with the recent California initiative.

  40. For a modern day Jungle, you may want to check out My Year of Meats, by Ruth Ozeki:

    http://www.amazon.com/My-Year-Meats-Ruth-Ozeki/dp/0140280464

    Not for the easily squeamish….

    The book I keep thinking I need to revisit, since the great crash of 2008, is the classic we all had to read in HS – The Great Gatsby – the story of a man who clawed his way out of the tarpit to great wealth, a man who believed he could repeat the past, and in the end was murdered as a result of mistaken identity – the story of how the nouveau riche had to take the fall for failings of the eternally wealthy.

    The story included a low-class mistress who was killed by the high class wife of the mistress’ lover.

    The cuckolded hubby of the mistress murdered Gatsby.

    The very wealthy icons of American aristocracy – Daisy and Tom Buchanan – did heinous things but could always retreat back into the sanctuary of their wealth, never held accountable for their actions.

    The green light flickered endlessly at the end of the pier and Nick Carraway retreated back to the Midwest, unable to stomach the morality found out east….

    Been a while since I’ve read it – but that’s my memory of the story. For something written nearly a century ago, not a far stretch from modern times.

  41. 1. Upton Sinclair’s concern in writing “The Jungle” was not industrialized food production. His concern was for the brutalization of the working class that seemed at the time so inherent to industrialization. He is famously quoted as saying “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident hit its stomach.”

    2. A better question is who will be our Ferdinand Pecora or Joseph Kennedy (First SEC commissioner – Wall St. initially welcomed his appointment thinking he was one of them. Big mistake. He knew where the bodies were buried and methodically dug them up.)

  42. The Great Gatsby is timely, but for a more up-to-date dissection of our national consciousness, THE book to read is Infinite Jest by the late David Foster Wallace. This novel is most fundamentally about desire, and desire run amok is the number one cause of our current wretchedness.

  43. E-coli in spinach? Isn’t that a wake-up call? Where did it come from? That’s probable cause for search warrants for nearby animal farms. Get some pictures on the evening news. People don’t like it when their children get sick and some of them die from eating their vegetables.

  44. Maybe someone could take Bernie Madoff’s case as a baseline and then add some material about MBSs, and CDSs, and AIG .. terms and companies that most people have at least heard of by now. Maybe Gordon Gecko, long out of jail but still full of ideas, could be added to the mix of characters .. so that the previous story will get people in the mood for this tale.

    AIGFP probably would provide an interesting story, if all of the details could be extracted, and a screenplay written. Certainly a lot of visual background in London to increase viewer interest.

  45. Like ifaforo, I also thought of Sinclair’s quote about aiming at the public’s heart and hitting its stomach instead.

    In order to have an emotional effect, the human effects of the story must be shown as well as how the more abstract parts relate to the way people actually live and survive. It might be necessary to do it on a large scale. The most effective American novel to arouse public oppinion was possibly Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Not only did Stowe show the immediate horrors of slavery, she also showed how people who were not directly involved also contributed indirectly to suffering and misery.

    Today, it might have to be as a dramatic, rather than written, work. A t.v. series would probably be ideal, but getting it aired might be next to impossible. No matter what form it were to take, it would need to have that one galvanizing, emotional moment in order to shake people out of their complacency.

    I can’t think of anyone right now who could do it. It would have to be someone who can connect emotionally with a large swath of the American public. Perhaps someone who is regarded as popular rather than serious. Could someone like Spielberg study up on the technical side of the problem?

    Interestingly, I just started reading George Lippard the other day.

  46. ANOTHER EPISODE FOR THE SIMPSONS: THE TRAIL TO SPRINGFIELD

    Meanwhile, a former World Bank official based on Per Kurowski takes up residence in Springfield. Per is hot on the trial of a former Soviet central planner turned Swiss banker Carlos Molotov Pavlov. Using Federal economic stimulus money, Pavlov intends to set up a nuclear AAA-Bond Rating factory in Springfield.

    Per’s undying mission is to expose the magnitude of destruction when the AAA-Bomb detonates. But Per’s more than one thousand letters-to-the-editor at the Springfield Times are ignored. This is because the only local daily newspaper is owned by the billionaire Charles Burns (who also owns the Springfield nuclear power plant where Homer Simpson works.)

    Pavlov pays a social visit to the Burns Manor, where he is received by Burns in the manor den. Together they read over some of Per’s letters-to-the-editor. Gleefully, they toss each letter read into the burning fireplace. The butler arrives with sherry. Burns and Pavlov toast one another to the success of their New Secret Partnership.

    Close up of a letter burning in the fireplace. Voice over by Per to the sound of crackling flames: “The Radical Middle or the Extreme Center is not any wishy-washy place to be, in a world where swimming to any of the ideological shores provides for a much calmer shelter.

    THE EPISODE ENDS WITH LISA SIMPSON’S MOURNFUL PEACE SONG AND MESSAGE OF HOPE.

  47. Ummm, have none of you seen “Food, Inc”?

    http://www.foodincmovie.com/

  48. Tippy Golden

    Thanks Donna,

    Here’s the trailer to Food Inc.

  49. It occurs to me that it’s much too early to be asking this question. Sadly, the aftermath of a bubble of this magnitude proceeds very slowly.

    Consider that although the downturn that became the Great Depression is officially dated as having begun in summer ’29:

    -The Pecora Commission wasn’t seated until 2.5 yrs later. (We’re “only” 1.5 yrs into our downturn).

    -The law creating the SEC wasn’t enacted until June ’34, almost 5 yr after the depression began.

    -“The Grapes of Wrath” wasn’t published until 1939.

    It’s a little soon to be expecting the next Sinclair or Steinbeck.

    And more to the point is the question: Who is Roosevelt? (I’d take a Theodore or a Franklin)

  50. Beautiful comment. Lovely imagery. Apt metaphor.

  51. The author has already made his appearance. The pivotal work is…

    The Great American Bubble Machine by Matt Taibbi.
    http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/28816321/the_great_american_bubble_machine

    We’re gonna see some green shoots in the grass roots with this one.

  52. The only name that comes to mind is Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone. In particular “The Big Takeover” enraged me.

    A more obscure, but interesting character is Emmanuel Saez of Berkley who has put together some great income studies that depict the growing inequality in american incomes.

    Putting the pieces together is not that hard. The general public can gather that banks have seriously hurt them. There’s an obvious distaste for finance professionals now. That might be a start in the right direction toward being more critical of the economy. However I still think that there’s a real feeling of disenfranchisement (not apathy), especially in terms of economic policy.

  53. I was just thinking of Grapes of Wrath, too, with ifaforo’s point: it’s too soon. And the passion (anger) than has been missing can only be brought out over time and because of severe loss, like the Great Depression.

    But I’d wager this answer to “fiction or non-fiction”: what our culture does so famously well is movies, and those visual illustrations of ideas, with concentrated focus on a few themes, would be the right vehicle to cut through the fog.

    BTW: The movie version of Grapes of Wrath (Fonda et al) came out in 1940.

  54. I can see it now: “2004”, the movie, starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer. Sutherland tracks down Jimmy Cayne and kidnaps him from a bridge tournament in Nashville. He takes him to Billy Bob Thornton’s shack and they torture him until he explains Credit Default Swaps. ;) They report to Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who buy AIG and divest it of all its toxic derivatives. The housing bubble bursts and there is a stock market crash. The Chinese bail out BOA and CITI in exchange for taking Bauer and Greenspan into custody. At the end, Buffet and Gates agree that the recovery will be V-shaped.

  55. I hadn’t read that particular piece before; thanks for linking it.

    It certainly has a Jungle-esque vibe and import.

    I assume Sinclair’s book was Tietz’s model to some extent.

    And you’re right, right alongside the truths of CAFO as bioweapons vector and CAFO as environmental disaster is CAFO as socioeconomic disaster.

  56. It is not going to work – Upton Sinclair wrote the story from the little people’s plight and all the writing that is out there up to now is about the machinations of the big guys and how they involved their personnel via all kinds of slippery slopes

    and to enrage people about the little man’s plight like the Jungle did by combining it with disgust that is really hard in a climate in which nobody really wants to get too close to anybody smelling of loser – read the first reactions when the bubble burst how those home”owners” via subprime mortgages were sneered at – deserve their fate, why should we pay for them. The consequent rise of the anger level in that part of the population and their sympathizers could make a compelling story.

    the only one I remember who pulls off this generating sympathy for the down-trodden is John Grisham and why not, Upton Sinclair was after all also rather plain in his writing but knew how to get pags turned

    – and at the “base” there is so much anger now somebody has to give voice to all those wronged and cheated people and so make the big ones realize on what a powder keg they are sitting while cashing in their bonusses –
    take the basics the amount of commission these outfits are charging (via Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair). In any other context that would be called a rip-off and it is not that the rich are ripping eachother off – who cares. Via mutual funds it is the small investor who gets charged these rates which in another context would rightfully be called usury.

    as to the big ones how they are conniving is such an old and a 1000 times told story that it makes one only yawn, exception I make to Michael Lewis piece in the last Vanity Fair but that probably only turns me on because I have spent my working life in an office and therefore can imagine all those all too familiar scenes and settings all too vividly.

  57. TonyForesta

    Thanks for all the erudite discourse. Sadly, there does not seem to be any Upton Sinclair on the horizon. Our 21st century, 4th generation asymmetric warfare, information domination, perception management, innovative financial product quantum or chaos universe does not allow for the simple easily definable realities of Upton Sinclairs time. The world today is vastly more complex, and again chaotic.

    From my pedestrian perspective, – the only hope for any movement or individual to truly give voice to the voiceless is rebellion. A Robbinhoodlike substance. A gang or SLA, or Symbionese Liberation Army, or FARC, or some kind of peasant uprizing that is willing and able to strike out at our abusers, and violators, and the tyrants, and thieves and heartless criminals swindlers, and reprobates, and pathological liars, and PONZI scheme snakeoilsalesmen. Until these monsters feel pain, and know fear, (real pain and real fear) there will be no change of the status quo, and the predatorclass fiends and shaitans will continue raping and pillaging poor and middle class and promising crumbs off the rich mans table. The Upton Sinclairs of the past are dead and gone, and any future heroe’, will be 21st century asymmetric operators, – insurgents – who strike at the heart, and draw the blood of the predatorclass.

    The predatorclass has turned it’s cold, dark, obdurate heart, and greedmongering psychopathic back on the rest of humanity. Our only hope is for someone or some group or some movement to strike real fear and terror into the hearts and minds of the predatorclass, and force these shaitains, shades, and fiends to realize that poor and middle class human beings have value and substance and perhaps even certain unalienable rights, “…and to secure these Rights, governments are instituted among Men, (and Women) deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” Until and unless the predator class is forced into recognizing, appreciating, and accepting that NO ONE is above, or beyond the law, and that there are no KINGS RIGHTS, and that in a world where there are no laws, – there are no laws for anyone biiiaaatches – there is no hope for poor and middle class human beings, and no Upton Sinclair to force change in an abusive, predator, and criminal system and government.

    The predatorclass must feel pain and know fear. Then the field will be level, and then the people will once again have hope for “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Until that day we (the people) are like abused and voilated children, victims of sick and perverted parents who will continue to rape and sodomize us until we gather the strength and courage to say NO MORE!!!

  58. One more suggestion: The Cohen brothers. The social decay that unfettered market forces causes has been a theme in their work from Blood Simple & Raising Arizona, to The Hudsucker Proxy & Fargo, and now through No Country for Old Men.

    Alas, this is America, and most people just like their movies for the funny accents.

  59. I was at the UN Conference on the impact of the Finance and Economic Crisis on Development and where I heard a President of a nation lambasting the US for its trade deficit while everyone knew that his criticism would have been even worse had the US a trade surplus.

    I read the article by Matt Taibbi referred to above and though I accept it can please many readers of 150 pages western novels destined to reinforce their beliefs in simplicity of life there is little “pivotal” in the article nor do I think this author has a chance to produce it. You see he already knows who the guilty is before he even started writing.

  60. Thanks Tippy and please keep on writing.

    That said I would not mess with nuclear power since whether we like it or not it seems to be the only economically rational bridge by which we could mitigate climate change disasters given that in this crisis and our general lack of resources we cannot afford wasting them on green placebos like hybrid cars and solar voltaic panels.

    The more concerned you are about climate change the more concerned you have to be that the solutions are economically feasible and that they will be able to really impact. Otherwise we all be poisoned by gases or drown in the sea or cook up in the heat or freeze in the cold or blow away in the hurricanes while digging our green organic gardens.

    Cheers and I hope our kind host forgives these walkabouts.

  61. Sinclair Lewis wrote “It can’t happen here.” Not Upton Sinclair, Lewis actually takes swipes at Sinclair.

  62. A good question and great comments, all; your erudition is intimidating. We remember or were taught about the few voices that were heard most widely and forcefully – Sinclair, Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Martin Luther King, etc. But, their voices were just a few, soloists that emerged from the chorus (Keynes, I. F. Stone, Budd Schulberg, Evan Hunter, all those novels, articles and screenplays that comprise the chorus). Food, Inc., Sicko, Frontline, Bill Moyers, Bob Kaiser (“So Damn Much Money”), Akerloff and Schiller (“Animal Spirits”), Tom Frank (“The Wrecking Crew”), even Oliver Stone (“Wall Street”) are all important voices in the chorus. Soloists will emerge, but, such voices will continue to require the chorus and the band for support.

    We’re not seeing anything new, here, and the tale is well told in the histories of America (see, e. g. “Freedom Just Around the Corner” William McDougall, for an outstanding account of early America 1885-1828). It’s like making horseshoes – you just have to keep hammering away…:-).

  63. Strictly Auric

    I live a stone’s throw from Archer Daniels Midland’s headquarters and in the midst of oceans of corn fields, and I can tell you, without the slighest hesitation, that the people behind our agribusinesses are about as soulless as the most vile movie monster. Don’t fall for their ‘Aw Shucks’ persona; they could care less what happens to your health, and even less what they do to agriculture in lesser developed countries.

  64. Have not read this story – Fools Gold.

    But if indeed Henry Paulson appeared before Congress last fall suggesting that nearly a trillion needed to be handed over to Wall Street that weekend or else – all because the Exxon Valdez hit a reef 20 years ago and spilled a large quantity of oil into Prince William Sound – there will never be a writer with the ability to write a novel that will adequately illustrate the story….

    The Jungle worked because it was about something we all care about – our food – and it had easily identifiable bad and good guys.

    Today’s story…not so simple. The creation of derivatives to protect Exxon’s money in case a lawsuit was unfavorable to them – its link to mortgages made to people who could not afford them – the influence of ratings agencies that gave triple A ratings to horrible investments – AIG’s issuance of insurance policies to cover investments it knew nothing about, backed by the stupidity to think that the rise in housing prices would continue into the stratosphere…

    That’s just too long and winding a road to be capably addressed in novel format.

  65. Yes, I hope nobody here thinks that the issues Sinclair brought to light, which mobilized such action at the time, have in the long run been solved.

    On the contrary, today they are much, much worse than in Sinclair’s time. That’s true of pollution, of disease, and of socioeconomic devastation.

    (That’s why I wrote about today’s food in my comments. To remind people that, as bad as the finance crimes are, the food situation is much worse.)

  66. You can forget about Hollywood, if for no other reasong than the story hasn’t a happy ending.

  67. … as bad as the finance crimes are, the food situation is much worse…

    well maybe – after all Orwell had a teacher who asked his class regularly what is the most important thing in the world and the class had to shout back “food”

    … only without finance there is going to be no food, at least not for the city dweller, for her even really bad food is only to be had against money, maybe through charity but even those outfits need money

    and as long as food is not outright sickening it tends to keep people alive ;-) – I bet a lot of sub-Saharans would be only to glad to fill their stomachs with what we snobbish Westerners so sneeringly call junk-food.

    By this I do not want to say that any professional shouldn’t be proud of delivering good material for good money, be it the food industry or be it bankers.

    What has happened to the pride in being a professional (Berufsstolz)? Has it become an outdated feeling?

  68. CBS from the West

    It’s not so much of a walkabout as it seems. To my mind the real obstacle to the use of nuclear power is that we cannot trust anyone to assure its continued safe operation.

    The consequences of a worst-case accident (including sabotage) at a nuclear power plant or storage facility are so horrendous that no owner or insurer could cover the losses. These facilities have to be run with a safety record that far exceeds that of the aviation industry (which is the best example around, I think). And the safety effort has to be robust and dependable 24/7/365 for a period extending thousands or even tends of thousands of years. Interestingly, my friends who know something about engineering assert that, in principle, it can be done!

    The problem is that there is no reason to believe it _will_ be done. It is easy to foresee that in bad times the owners will view safety as a cost with no return and will cut corners. Regulators are likely to be captured, but even if they are not, there would be pressure from politicians, possibly even well-intentioned, to ease up on the energy costs being faced by hard-pressed strapped consumers, by relaxing regulations.

    Nuclear power would be a good solution only in a society which could assure relentless maintenance of all components of safety. But everything we see around is in the financial world tells us that we are not such a society. Ultimately short term greed will undermine public safety (financial or physical).

  69. Suggest all watch the current documentary “Food, Inc.” made by Robert Kenner, 94 minutes. See: imdb.com.

  70. Oh please. Yes, the boomers did a bit of rioting and protesting but then went comfortably into middle age, playing their part to vote in Reaganism, Clinton middle way, and tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts as the only winning political formula…. talk about not sacrificing small hedonistic comforts for some greater cause.

  71. Much of the problem with changing public attitudes toward the bailed out banks is the success of the strategy of aggressively blaming the financial crisis on the government. Conservative, libertarian, and business sources (with some honorable exceptions) have aggressively blamed the financial crisis on three major government scapegoats:

    1. Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve, for lowering short term interest rates.

    2. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac

    3. The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) and some other affordable housing programs, which are repeatedly alleged to have forced the banks to make loans to unqualified poor minority home buyers, causing the crisis.

    In addition to these “Big Three” scapegoats, there are a range of lesser government scapegoats ranging from Elliot Spitzer’s investigation of AIG to the supposed sponsorship of the rating agencies by government investment and lending regulations.

    Of course, Alan Greenspan and the Fed did not force the banks to make or acquire bad loans. Whatever may have gone wrong with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the banks such as Goldman Sachs, JPMorganChase, and Citigroup that are in trouble are “private” banks. Amongst other obvious objections, the Boards of Directors and senior executives of the banks were conspicuously silent about CRA from 2001 to 2007 when the Bush Administration was presumably using CRA to force them to make or acquire bad home loans to poor minority homebuyers.

    In fact, there is a long history of conservative, libertarian, and business sources aggressively blaming business failures and economic problems on the government, especially when those problems occur after the adoption of policies billed as “free market” or “pro-business”. The late Milton Friedman made a career out of blaming the government, specifically the Federal Reserve, for the Great Depression. Conservative, libertarian, and business sources aggressively blamed the Savings and Loan fiasco of the 1980’s (which followed the putative deregulation of the Savings and Loans in 1982) on the government. Conservative author and stock picker George Gilder blamed the failure of his high tech investment advice on … Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve as well as obscure regulations that he somehow missed when recommending such winners as Global Crossing. Conservative, libertarian, and business sources aggressively blamed the failure of California’s electricity market deregulation in 2000 on … environmental regulations.

    Liberals and progressives often find these arguments utterly absurd, particularly when they follow the apparent failure of policies billed as “deregulation”, and do not counter them well (if they even try). Many conservatives, libertarians, and business people are so enamored of free market and anti-government ideas that they will accept even the most lame excuses wrapped in anti-government rhetoric.

    I have written more about this in:

    “It’s All About Alan”
    http://www.jmcgowan.com/alan.pdf

    “The Silence of the Banks”
    http://www.jmcgowan.com/silence.pdf

    “Mommy! The Government Made Me Do It! (V)”
    http://www.jmcgowan.com/Mommy5.pdf

    “Mommy! The Government Made Me Do It! (IV)”
    http://www.jmcgowan.com/Mommy4.pdf

    Sincerely,

    John

  72. Per and CBS, to tie some themes together:

    There is certainly promotion for nuclear power as “clean energy”. But CBS makes good points.

    Furthermore, we are transporting food from all over the world (China, India, Africa, South America) by container ship across oceans and then by railcars, to supply big box grocery stores in North America. In sum, our food is subsidized by cheap energy. We are not paying for the real cost of food.

    We need to support our local farmers. Here is the Klipper farm in the Okanagan. The Klippers sells at my local farmer’s market. I admire them tremendously.

    Thanks Kcar for telling your story.

  73. Thanks Kcar for telling your story. It’s an important one.

  74. CBS from the West you say “The consequences of a worst-case accident (including sabotage) at a nuclear power plant or storage facility are so horrendous that no owner or insurer could cover the losses.”

    You are right but, if you think that the consequences of unmitigated climate change is even worse, you have to risk going nuclear and do all you can to diminish the possibilities of disaster. Now if you do not think climate change is a major problem then go ahead and enjoy the green toys and the green placebos.

  75. Tippy Golden

    Green toys you say. I too am concerned about climate change. Here’s my reply: Engineers can build anything. They gave us the Manhattan project, NASA, the Hadron collider at Cern, nuclear power plants …

    So rather than nuclear reactors in California or Nevada, why not an infrastructure project. A pilot project to — retrofit — every roof top in a small town with solar panel roof tops that feed excess energy back into the grid. If this worked it would create (1) more work in the housing sector, (2) a clean alternative energy source.

    Best case scenario. California and Nevada could have so many solar roof panels they would become net exporters of energy and thus improve their “balance sheets”.

  76. Simon,

    Many of these comments point to the idea that this problem is sooooo… much bigger than simply financial corporations. It is actually about why corporations/businesses of all strips own our Congress. Yes, THEY OWN OUR CONGRESS! Maybe the story you are looking for is an historical novel about the corporation, capitalism, colonialism, materialism, energy, global warming and ??? Maybe it begins 150+ years ago and tells of the vote buying of the 19th century. Maybe it goes back 250 years and tells the story of why corporations became a symbol of freedom and the American way when in fact corporations have enslaved the American people. Maybe it goes all the way back to the formation of the Dutch East India Company in 1607 with great emphasis on the British Economic Empire the fore runner to the American Economic Empire. The point is the American people have become slaves to the corporation and it did not happen overnight. It would be a story about corporations and government and how governments have come to be the pawns of corporations instead of being the voice of the people.

  77. Yes Tippy that sounds great. Unfortunately we cannot afford it with current technology, even before the crisis, much less now. While we would be spending resources on solar roof panels in California the Amazon jungle could disappear. The world really needs to put every single green dollar where it generates the most green benefit, and even so we might not be able to stop climate change from running away.

  78. We’ve already got our Upton Sinclair for monetary reform. Stephen Zarlenga, author of the Lost Science of Money and founder of the American Monetary Institute.

  79. I have no idea who America’s Upton Sinclair will be, but it won’t matter. America’s politicians are the kind of people who look at Judas Iscariot and think:
    1. I could have gotten at least 60 pieces of silver for that information.
    2. What a gutless quitter.

  80. A newer version of Upton Sinclair? –don’t know. But the medium is a film & its title is Food, Inc. as others have suggested.
    The villians are corporate Agriculture, abetted by the regulatory capture of the US Dept. of Agriculture, by the large agro-processors, Cargill, Archer Daniels, Midland & most evil of all, Monsanto, Inc. & its patent for its GMO’s.
    A subsidiary evil doer is Clarence Thomas, a former attorney for Monsanto, who cast the deciding vote on the Supreme Court granting Monsanto a patent on the DNA for a corn variety.

  81. Per,

    My concern with nuclear power is we cannot trust “engineered” safeguards to back stop disaster.

    Consider the AAA-bond ratings that the “best and brightest” of financial engineers using sophisticated computer modeling assured, risk could be spread safely. (As much as 1:157 leverage you say.) Common sense dictates that engineered safeguards to prevent a nuclear power disaster would prove equally as untrustworthy.

    I also don’t agree that nuclear power is the only solution to global warming.

    Here in British Columbia, where I live, the public will not accept the large hydro-electric dams that were built in the 50s and 60s. So our “radical middle” is promoting wind power and run-of-river power. There are also moratoriums on uranium exploration, and offshore oil and gas exploration. While our right-of-centre government has started to privatize our very-profitable public power utility.

    You reside in Maryland. Would your neighbours accept a nuclear power plant in Maryland? Most likely, nuclear power plants only get built in countries where citizens do not get to vote on such matters.

    Baselines: Do people have the right to decide if they want a nuclear power plant in the region where you live? Should power be a public utility?

  82. I do not want to give an impression “nuclear” is risk free of course not. If wind and river power makes economic sense for you in British Columbia, fabulous, great but do the calculations. What I mean is that given the seriousness of the climate change threat we should not proceed haphazardly without calculations just because we might not be happy with the results of the calculations.

    Also, I have no idea of the answer but may I ask where would we have been climate-change wise today had the world not risked it with the nuclear power plants it already has? And of course, no one wants a nuclear plant in his backyard, so the question might then be… how much you would anyone be willing to pay to have it someone else’s backyard?

    But please let’s move this discussion to a greener valley before they throw us out.

  83. Per, a brief answer: I am not sure paying someone to build a nuclear power plant in their “backyard” is the solution to global warming.

  84. CBS from the West

    Catching up a bit late on this–perhaps the thread is cold and this will not be read. But, I think you may misunderstand my position, Per. My post was triggered by the reference to energy issues as a “walkabout” and I wanted to make the point that some of the same issues of regulation/deregulation/regulatory capture that we routinely see on this blog in connection with finance also apply to environmental issues, and in particular to the issue of nuclear power.

    I agree that the consequence of unmitigated climate change is even worse, far worse, than that of a nuclear power plant/storage facility disaster. I also happen to agree that more nuclear power generation would be one of the best solutions to our carbon overuse. I was trying to make the point that we are blocked from implementing that solution because we cannot trust our social institutions with the responsibility for managing it.

  85. And my reference to “walkabouts” was that we were having a discussion about green issues on someone elses financial issue blog.

    But besides that I guess that though of course we should try to improve on the institutions we have we still got to risk it with what little we have.