This is going to be short. Well, shorter than it should be for sure. Actually, it may not be that short. But this confusion is a consequence of my mental state being overwhelmed. Here is the deal. It is another gorgeous San Francisco morning. We have been having beautiful clear blue skies and temperatures in the high 60s, even 70s here and there for the past few days. And I am in the midst of a four-day weekend. Today, I woke up and had delicious locally roasted espresso and sat in the sunshine reading the latest issue of Rolling Stone (I still get it in the mail, and though I was bummed by the new, more uniform [I guess] smaller size, I imagine I will continue to subscribe because one of my favorite discoveries in mom’s garage were the heaps of decades old RS issues chronicling the decades that my mind might otherwise forget… oh those 80s and 90s…) I had already read the article on Lena Dunham because A has got me watching this show – which she absolutely loves – and frankly, Lena/Hannah basically is A. [When I read, “Her eyes are still lined with now smudged make up from a Daily Show appearance the previous day. (“I love what it looks like when it gets crumbly and shitty.”)” I realized this was a reality.] Anyhow, I had already checked that story out and so I moved on to Taibbi’s latest story on the big banks… not too big to fail, but “Too Big To Jail.”
I was interested in reading this article for several reasons, and not just because it was by Taibbi – one of my least guilty pleasures – but because it was looking specifically into HSBC, the bank I had consorted with for more than five years while living in the Far East. “HSBC broke every law in the book, but its executives got to walk anyway, in a case that may change American justice forever,” the subtitle claimed. I remember switching from B.O.C. to HSBC (mistake #1). I loved the Bank of China, primarily for the beautiful I.M. Pei tower, but it was sort of a pain in the ass bank for anything not directly China related. HSBC was so much more convenient because it was so multinational. And I was impressed by their tower as well, it is completely reassemble-able and looks lke the most bad-assed erector set ever. But it is no I.M. Pei. I should have placed more importance on their architectural stylings (mistake #1a). Apparently I forgot for a hot second about how multinational generally means fuckwittage of an equally grand scale.
I remember my pal Andy, a long time Hong Kong resident from England now in Oman, who had a real chip on his shoulder about HSBC. But, I mean, he is British and they have so many chips it is hard to know sometimes if it is not just a longing for their national cuisine. None the less, he hated this blinking bank. I didn’t give it much thought (mistake #2). Soon, my MPF, vacation funds, savings, credit cards and all auto payments were running in and out of HSBC (mistake #3). Granted, I was a teeny tiny customer in the Hong Kong banking scheme and I know this, relatively speaking I was like a microscopic entity in the world of unimportant HSBC customers. But this was okay – nothing wrong with flying under the radar. Anyhow, this is my connection to HSBC. Mostly.
As I read through the article, which details the way in which HSBC has colluded with the other big banks around the world to basically fuck us all by manipulating interest rates, financing terrorists and cartels, and convincing anyone with any power to address the corruption that to punish these banks would actually be more damaging to us than to let them continue to do whatever they want, I started to get, not exactly depressed, but more accurately, overwhelmed. The article, which clearly shows how the banks are actually a danger to the intentions of capitalism (a system in which authentic supply and demand would regulate the market fluctuations) and how people in power can really get out of jail free, because the resolution we should want *pats us on the head* is to “ensure that counter-parties don’t flee an institution, that jobs are not lost, that there’s not some world economic event that’s disproportionate to the resolution we want…” ends like this:
In other words, Breuer [assistant Attorney General, quoted above] is saying the banks have us by the balls, that the social cost of putting their executives in jail might end up being larger than the cost of letting them get away with, well, anything.
This is bullshit, and exactly the opposite of the truth, but it’s what our current government believes. From JonBenet to O.J. to Robert Blake, Americans have long understood that the rich get good lawyers nd get off, while the poor suck eggs and do time. But this is something different. This is the government admitting to being afraid to prosecute the very powerful – something it never did even in the heyday of Al Capone or Pablo Escobar, something it didn’t do even with Richard Nixon. And when you admit that some people are too important to prosecute, it’s just a few short steps away to the obvious corollary – that everybody else is unimportant enough to jail.
An arrestable class and an unarrestable class. We always suspected it, now it’s admitted. So what do we do? (Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone #1177, February 28, 2013, p. 57.)
Shit. It is things like this that make my job so hard… you know, trying to teach young people that they have a decent shot at, well, at anything really, that is supposed to be offered up on a (mythically) fair playing field. Sitting for a minute and contemplating Taibbi’s piece, which offered much in the way of evidence, both of corruption and a kind of spinelessness among many potential agents of change, I thought out loud: the problem is people need to know this, but what percentage of people are going to actually take the time to read through more than a standard column length article and try to make sense of this shit? I mean, I just sat for what, 45 minutes going through this and I am enraged, but are other people going to do this?
No. [My question – happily – did not seem rhetorical to my Sunday morning companion, but his answer was disheartening.]
This led me to the first of two directly related though still tangential thoughts I had on finishing the article. We have been watching Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom recently, which is show about a news program that is aiming to actually report news rather than the mind-numbing pabulum presented on regular broadcast news these days. The earnest (often overly-so) characters truly believe that people need to know the kind of shit that Matt Taibbi (and Paul Krugman and Jeremy Scahill and Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd and Amy Goodman and Fareed Zakaria and anyone on the Daily Kos and, shit, Tom Tomorrow for goodness sakes, among so many other interesting voices) want us to know. But, apparently people don’t want to do the work to know this shit, as the ratings clearly indicate – in real life and on Sorkin’s drama. When the news moved away from Weiner’s wiener and Casey Anthony so did the majority of viewers…
This is a conundrum. And one I can assure you that the powers-that-be are aware of. If we are too lazy to be bothered by the kind of outrageous scandals that are being perpetrated by people who are supposed to be on our side let alone those who are supposed to have some sort of common interests with us (market capitalism, a meritocracy, fairness) then, why should anyone else be bothered? [Cue Brave New World, or Idiocracy, or whatever metaphor or analogy you choose to remind yourself that those in power are aware you are not paying attention and that gives them unlimited freedom to perpetrate whatever the fuck they want.]
Taibbi’s article notes that doing business with those who are unable to do business elsewhere (terrorists and cartels, in particular) is extremely lucrative as you can charge whatever you like for your services. Most of us call this loan sharking. And there are elements of it that harken back to the goals of a market economy in terms of a supply meeting a demand… but the thing is, you are not supposed to be able to deal in illegalities.
At least we are not supposed to.
I won’t even get into the LIBOR scandal here that is discussed in the article – suffice it to say that Taibbi suggests the scale of the LIBOR collusion makes Enron look like a parking ticket. But I will say, without intentional hypocrisy, that I understand why the banks show no indication of ceasing and desisting their baseless, immoral dealings. Why should they if the people they are screwing over do not even care enough to protest. Maybe we do all get what we deserve.
Which brings me to the second quasi-related thing the article brought to mind for me: my own dirty little secret about the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Company, the bank born of the Opium Wars. When I was leaving Hong Kong and endeavoring to cease and desist all my dealings with HSBC I was having no end of difficulty getting them to cash out my MPF. MPF is the Mandatory Provident Fund that all Hong Kong workers pay into. It is a great deal and I would have never touched it had I planned on remaining in Hong Kong. I did not plan on remaining in Hong Kong. And I made this abundantly clear to HSBC. I also wanted to get the money – a fairly substantial sum – to clear out my tax burden with the bank. Long story short, they refused to cut the check until I was already home, at which point they sent it to me in HK dollars, which resulted in a substantial conversion fee (nearly US$1,000). They also made clearing the tax account a near impossibility, so I gave up. They called me and called me and called me about this for months on end threatening legal action and all sorts of “really scary things”. Then, all of a sudden, one day it stopped. And in a more recent effort to clear my good name with them, they had no record of me or my accounts.
According to the Taibbi article, in late 2010 HSBC liquidated its collections department to move all those people to their money laundering investigation unit. In what was an obvious fail in terms of efficacy for the bank as these people were not trained for or interested in dealing with their new duties, the clear win for the bank’s bottom line and their shady business partners also, it appears, made me a small winner.
So there HSBC. I may not be able to get people to use their brains and be outraged by this sinister global banking mob, but just once, I got to actually stick it to the man. And even though I am 100% positive they couldn’t feel it or give a shit about it, it felt good from over here.