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Burning Down A House: A Crime Beyond Denunciation

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Michael Moore

Michael Moore is an Academy-Award winning filmmaker and best-selling author

October 21st, 2010 3:24 PM


(Credit: flickr user dvs)

By Michael Moore

So how do the Wall Street boys feel after destroying the world economy while pocketing billions, and then getting bailed out by everyone else in America? I’m sure they’re filled with remorse and desperately trying to make it up to us. Right?

“The first thing that needs to happen, I think, is to get these people out of their homes,” a man wearing a bespoke blue-striped shirt, a Hermés tie patterned with elephants and Ferragamo loafers said recently. “Correct! I’ll explain,” the veteran member of a bank restructuring and advisory team said…

“The question to me is not do you foreclose or do you not foreclose. The question is when and with what philosophy you foreclose,” the man on the bank restructuring team said. “If you want to reduce the amount of leveraged homeowners you have, you need to ultimately kick them out of their homes.” A colleague walked up: His recommendation was to burn houses. “It would lower the supply.”

That’s from a new article about Wall Street in the New York Observer, the newspaper for Manhattan’s richest people. It’s the only paper I’ve ever seen that’s printed on pink newsprint — except for the Financial Times, the paper for the world’s richest people. (I don’t know whether rich people are naturally attracted to pink paper, or whether it’s really expensive and only they can afford it. Whatever the reason, it’s meant to say fuck you to everyone else.)

Anyway, here’s what I’m wondering: Millions of people are getting kicked out of their homes who need a place to live, millions of homes are sitting empty and their value decaying along with their neighborhoods, and all this banker can say — with a straight face, I presume — is to burn down the houses? Isn’t that insane?

It is — because capitalism is insane. It doesn’t matter that we have a giant oversupply of something, and a giant number of people who desperately need that specific thing. The only thing that matters is: can this something be sold at a profit? If not, the obvious solution is to reduce supply by setting it on fire. And maybe this will create a business opportunity for the Koch brothers to sell tissues to America’s newly-homeless as they watch the empty houses burn down.

And here’s the punchline: though I’m sure that Wall Street banker had no idea, there’s nothing new about this. We’ve been here before. Here’s a famous passage from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck about the insanity of a system that required California farms to burn food during the Great Depression, even as people starved:

Behind the fruitfulness are men of understanding and knowledge and skill, men who experiment with seed, endlessly developing the techniques for greater crops of plants…These are great men…They have transformed the world with their knowledge…

The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all. Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up? And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit. A million people hungry, needing the fruit — and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains.

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates — died of malnutrition — because the food must rot, must be forced to rot…

In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

The Democrats, led by Franklin D. Roosevelt and pushed by unions, harvested the Depression’s grapes of wrath and created with them the foundations of middle class America. And someone’s going to harvest 2010’s grapes of wrath. But it doesn’t have to be us. In fact, if you’re like me, you’re getting very worried about who it might be.

(h/t Paul Krugman for the New York Observer article)

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