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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Cover Me

My new Think Again column is called “Bad News About the News” and it’s here.

My Nation column is called “Let's Just Say It: The Republicans AND the Media Are the Problem” and it’s here.

I did a list of my favorite Springsteen covers for David Remnick to accompany his 17,000 (or so) word Bruce profile and that’s here. I did it kinda fast, so I forgot to suggest these two gems. And also the wonderful acoustic “I Don’t Want to Go Home” he did with Steve in Jersey in 1996, here.

Not everything got included. Here are the ones for which there was no room, or good audio or whatever, I dunno, but I also strongly recommend:

Back in the USA ,The Main Point, 1975
High School Confidential, MSG, 1978
It’s My Life Passaic, 1978
Heartbreak Hotel, Roxy, 1978
I Fought the Law, Palladium, 1978
Follow That Dream, Stockholm, 1981
Drift Away, Meadowlands, 1984
Across the Borderline (Christic Institute, LA) 1990
I Don't Wanna Go Home with Little Steven, Count Basie Theater, 1996

And in retrospect:
Angel Eyes from that Sinatra tribute
Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For with U2 at U2s Hall of Fame Induction
And any version of “Up on the Roof” and “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.”

Phew.

And you know, if you watch the Bruce/McCartney video on backstreets, you get pretty much all of Twist and Shout. I didn’t realize that the song was pretty much over when the Live Nation guy killed the sound. Anyway, Im pleased with the song choice. I think “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Twist” are two of the most pristine, nearly perfect examples of what a rock song is, say for martians, that have ever been written or performed. Having Paul and Bruce pick those was right on (though I know Paul’s been doing that all over, still.) And if you want my other three nominations for this category I’d go with: Double Shot of My Baby’s Love, Do Ya Love Me, and the Beatles’ version of “Money.”

Oh, and I see new dates have dropped here (I think I’m goin’ to Kansas City…)

Enjoy.

Alter-reviews:
Columbia has been putting out a nice, relatively inexpensive series of “complete” box sets with reproductive covers and decent notes, especially for the price. The three most recent in the jazz series include Weather Report’s early, pre Jaco work. Weather Report: The Columbia Albums 1971-1975, contains Weather Report, I Sing the Body Electric, Live In Tokyo, Sweetnighter, Mysterious Traveller and Tale Spinnin' with remastered sound plus Live In Tokyo, which was previously unreleased, except as part of I Sing the Body Electric and features the band at its best, in 1972.

The Thelonious Monk Quartet: The Complete Columbia Studio Albums is a goldmine, bringing together Monk's Dream (1962), Criss Cross (1962), It's Monk's Time (1964), Monk (1964), Straight, No Chaser (1966) and Underground (1967). This was arguably Monk’s most fertile and creative period, and really, if you don’t have these albums, you should. Nice photos, too.

Charles Mingus: The Complete Columbia and RCA Albums Collection is a more demanding collection but intensely rewarding as well. Stretching from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, the 10-CD set includes Tijuana Moods (1957) (now 2 CDs); Mingus Ah Um (1959), Mingus Dynasty (1959), Alternate Takes (1959), Let My Children Hear Music (1971) and the double disc, Charles Mingus And Friends In Concert (1972). The addition of Epitaph (1989), which captures an all-star ensemble led by Gunther Schuller interpreting Mingus's epic composition, rounds it out. The booklet features photos from the various recording sessions as well as liner notes by Sue Mingus, Charles's wife and keeper of his flame. An education in and of itself.

And our pal Harry Shearer has a new cd called “Can’t Take a Hint,” and being such a great guy and so he got Dr. John, Nicholas Payton, and the Fountains of Wayne and a bunch of other people too. Harry plays the bass on many of the songs. It’s the only album this year that has a song from the point of view of a BP executive who wants his life back after the oil spill. More here.

Now here’s Reed.

Who Gets What?
by Reed Richardson

As far as marketing strategies goes, naming one’s book Who Gets What bespeaks a rather insightful understanding of the American condition. We, as a nation, have long suffered from a love that dare not mention its salary, so to speak. “I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, and that was roughly 150 years before the first collateralized debt obligation ever appeared.

Near the end of the introduction to his new book, Who Gets What: Fair Compensation after Tragedy and Financial Upheaval (PublicAffairs, $26.99), mediator Kenneth Feinberg cites a line from Democracy in America as well. But his chosen quote from de Tocqueville seeks to make the point that our country’s fondness for cold, hard cash even extends into our court system, where it has always been the preferred form of judicial redress. Righting wrongs here in America is a mostly a matter of leveling out account balances. And when it comes to putting an exact dollar figure on an individual’s tragic circumstances, one could argue that Feinberg, best known for his role as the special master overseeing the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, knows more about this unfortunate process than anyone else. There is a reason, in other words, that his book’s title is not posed as a question.

Nevertheless, Feinberg makes it clear he is no cold-eyed, green-shade-wearing automaton. In fact, he comes across as a fairly dyed-in-the-wool liberal. Of his youth growing up in Brockton, Massachusetts, he says he was a devoted JFK fan and gained an appreciation for good citizenship, the collective goodwill, and a “notion of communitarian reinforcement and obligation.” Thus, by page two of his book, he has already lost the 27 percent of the country who will read those comments as tantamount to someone foreswearing the free market and insidiously humming the “Internationale” during the national anthem. Then, on page three, Feinberg no doubt makes matters worse when he speaks of “socializing in Greenwich Village” during his years attending law school at NYU.

Perhaps his strongest liberal credentials can be traced back to an interesting historical anecdote from his days working in the federal government. In it, he explains how the current Supreme Court might be much different had he not convinced his former boss, Senator Ted Kennedy, to go along with an idea of his in the last weeks of 1980. Only days after Reagan had trounced Carter at the polls, Kennedy suggested that 68-year-old Archibald Cox of Watergate fame fill a vacancy on the First Circuit Court of Appeals, in the hopes that the lame-duck Congress would approve a bipartisan choice. Carter shot down the name, however. Seizing the opportunity, Feinberg says he convinced Kennedy to nominate a Senate staff colleague of his instead—the then chief counsel of the Judiciary Committee, a 42-year-old jurist by the name of Stephen Breyer.

After this brief biographical business of name-dropping, however, the book’s narrative engine takes over, driven by Feinberg’s five separate stints—organized in five separate chapters—as special master during his career. Whether it be the Agent Orange lawsuit settlement, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, or the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, whenever national calamity has struck, it seems Feinberg has been called in to sort out the aftermath and, inevitably, cut the checks.

Though the book’s emphasis remains firmly rooted in the specific, sometimes arcane, details of each case, as a whole, it nonetheless functions as an interesting prism through which to view what kind of lives and livelihoods our democracy sees fit to value. Due to their unique circumstances, each of these payout funds Feinberg has commanded should be considered sui generis, yet a common thread to their existence can be detected: Only those disasters created by the hand of man are deemed worthy of extra-judicial reward. Thus, Gulf Coast victims of Hurricane Katrina don’t enjoy additional payback, while Gulf Coast victims of BP’s negligence do.

Feinberg’s last two examples—which cover his tenure running the TARP executive compensation board and the BP Gulf Coast claims fund—provide the most compelling parts of the book, by far. This is mostly because of the grand scale involved and their ongoing relevance. (A successor to Feinberg continues to set executive pay at TARP recipients AIG, GM, Chrysler, and Ally, and a subsequent, court-managed fund still pays claims to Gulf Coast residents affected by the BP oil spill.) Still, it’s worth a brief aside to point out the sad poignancy, at this particular moment, of his work on a much smaller in scale man-made disaster—the mass shooting at Virginia Tech five years ago.

Indeed, to read Feinberg’s short chapter on running the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund is to be frustrated at the shocking sameness that incident shares with last week’s gun-driven massacre in an Aurora, Colorado theater. Then, as now, compassionate donations poured in after the fact through a variety of platforms. (For a list of those supporting the victims of the Aurora shooting, go here.) And Feinberg’s decision to distribute this money in equal amounts to victims and/or their families was a masterstroke, one that served to unite rather than divide the community and facilitated healing. Yet what he leaves unsaid is the failure of the policymakers to address the root cause of these types of tragedies and to prevent adding yet one more place name to the tragic roll call of places like Columbine and Virginia Tech, a list to which Aurora will sadly now be added.

The gun lobby will, shamefully, survive this latest outrage, as the political willpower to staunch these self-inflicted wounds simply doesn't exist. Likewise, this hunker-down-until-it-all-blows-over mentality colored the Wall Street mentality Feinberg encountered when he took over the TARP executive compensation board. Even as the nation's financial structures teetered on the brink of collapse due to rampant negligence, many of the people who had been a big part of creating the problem wanted to be paid as if, J. Pierrepont Finch-style, they thought they could still do no wrong.As a result, Feinberg explains how the seven biggest TARP-funded companies that fell under his purview “spent millions of dollars” to justify their executives’ exorbitant pay to the Treasury’s overseers. This whining from the boardroom, he notes, concluded in thinly veiled threats—give us what we want or we might just leave for the competition, either here in the U.S. or abroad. One quickly gets the sense that, if there was a market that traded on these executives' sense of honor and patriotism, one could make a lot of money selling short.

I discovered that contrary to public perception, compensation meant much more to a senior corporate official than mere material gain. Although not minimizing the benefits of wealth—a second home at the beach, a second (or third) automobile in the driveway, private schools for the children—most corporate executives who came to see me emphasized that adequate compensation was a symbol of self-worth. Compensation mirrored individual fulfillment, that without generous pay, company officials would view themselves as failures. Individual success could be determined only be comparing oneself to the competition, and dollars paid would be the deciding factor. By comparison, family, friendship, and community respect paled in significance.

This peek into a world 99 percent of us will never experience is perhaps the most powerful lesson of Feinberg's book. It reveals how our society's values have been radically skewed to greatly reward those who take excessive risks in creating impenetrable 'vehicles' that have almost no intrinsic societal value. Just how steeply the scales are tilted toward the rich is hard to fathom. In fact, a recent "Building a Better America" study by behavioral economist Dan Ariely found that when showed two anonymized national breakdowns of 'who gets what,' 92% of Americans (which, presumably, includes a whole lot of 'free market conservatives') preferred the actual distribution of wealth that exists in Sweden rather than the lopsided one here in the U.S.

That this broad, almost unheard of level of bipartisan agreement on a political issue doesn't generate more news coverage is, of course, unfortunate yet old news. Case in point, the overwhelming stilted and sneering tone of most of the journalism covering the recent Occupy movement. And given enough time, the well-funded forces of excess count on a fickle public, an easliy distracted press corps, and an overweening punditocracy from dwelling too long on such a substantial, but often unsexy topic. And despite coming down firmly on the side capitalism and the free market in his book, Feinberg's time dealing with corporate America has clearly opened his eyes and taught him a lesson that we all should heed:

In past times of public anger over financial industry excesses, Wall Street has played a waiting game, lying low until the political storm subsides. History is on Wall Street’s side, at least when it comes to government fine-tuning of corporate internal decision-making. Add to this the government deregulation philosophy that followed in the wake of the Reagan administration, and it is easy to see why American businesses are emboldened when it comes to pay. To most on Wall Street, the seven companies had only themselves to blame forTreasury’s interference. They assumed that such interference would never, ever apply to them. And they’re almost certainly right.

Though the "they" at hand in the passage above is more narrowly defined, the larger point can and should be taken. Perhaps, then, it is no great mystery why Feinberg entitles the epilogue of his book "A Sense of Entiltement." Seen as a microcosm of our nation's larger and ongoing discussion about wealth, his book underlines the dichotomy of our democracy: A tiny portion of it currently enjoys almost uninterrupted access to power and freedom from accountability, yet when those of us who don't find ourselves (increasingly, because of who are parents are) in this moneyed class finally do get some sort of recompense—only after having suffered horrendous tragedy, I might add—it is ironic that the latter get all the scrutiny and opprobrium for "getting something for nothing." So maybe the point here is that it's time to stop thinking about "Who gets what" in our democracy as mere statement, something that merely is and cannot be changed. Instead, it's time start talking about how our nation’s wealth should be distributed and to put the question mark back on the end of “Who gets what?”

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

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