“Mad Money” Indeed: CNBC’s Jim Cramer, High Priest of Death

While I was posting the following Wendell Berry quote yesterday, I was thinking about Libby, Montana in which a company (W.R. Grace) watched townspeople sicken and die for 30 years after realizing their responsibility in the sickness and deaths of dozens of townspeaple but deciding to sacrifice those lives, and cover their culpability in order to keep profits up. By the time the E.P.A. showed up in Libby, 120 people in this tiny town had died from asbestos poisoning and 25% of the population was sick with lung abnormalities related to asbestos exposure. In the face of 100,000 asbestos claims (amazingly, most of these were unrelated to Libby), W.R. Grace hid in bankruptcy while $120 million taxpayer dollars went into the first stages of cleaning up the mess in Libby.

Berry’s quote is worth repeating:

Were the catastrophes of Love Canal, Bhopal, Chernobyl, and the Exxon Valdez episodes of war or of peace? They were, in fact, peacetime acts of aggression, intentional to the extent that the risks were known and ignored. (Wendell Berry)

Had Berry been writing his essay a few years later, he surely would have included Libby in his list of catastrophes. Berry’s words come from his essay “Word and Flesh” and is one of the collected pieces What Are People For? It’s worth quoting some of Berry’s other thoughts:

[Our leaders] believe that the difference between war and peace is still the overriding political difference—when, in fact, the difference has diminished to the point of insignificance. How would you describe the difference between modern war and modern industry—between, say, bombing and strip mining, or between chemical warfare and chemical manufacturing? The difference seems to be only that in war the victimization of humans is directly intentional and in industry it is “accepted” as a “trade-off.”

It’s important to note that Berry is not drawing a good-guys versus bad-guys dichotomy here, he’s saying we’re all to blame.

The problems are our lives. In the “developed” countries, at least, the large problems occur because all of us are living either partly wrong or almost entirely wrong. It was not just the greed of corporate shareholders and the hubris of corporate executives that put the fate of Prince William Sound into one ship; it was also our demand that energy be cheap and plentiful.

The economies of our communities and households are wrong. The answers to the human problems of ecology are to be found in economy. And the answers to the problems of economy are to be found in culture and character. To fail to see this is to go on dividing the world falsely between guilty producers and innocent consumers.

While I agree with Berry on much of what he says, I would shade this last bit about producers and consumers slightly different. I believe there is a third-class/group in that equation, a group I think of as the priestly class. This group basically functions like priests did in the middle ages (or in some parts of the country/world today).

Which at last, brings me to my point….(so much for the inverted pyramid).

Some of this is rather shortened in the interests of time and attention, but I think you’ll get the point.
Your average citizen 500 years ago was illiterate. As such, they relied on priests to translate the opaque and magical world around them into coherence. Priests had enormous power, often helpful and often abused, as power is wont. Once we began to have a literate populace and a dynamic word-dissemination technology (the printing press), priestly powers were potentially tempered by alternative opinion. Of course, this isn’t a smooth, one-way journey “up from ignorance.” Witchcraft trials reached their peak at the dawn of the Enlightenment, and new insidious forms of discipline and power (to riff on Foucalt) rose out of humanist and rational inquiry. One needn’t look much further than the French Revolution for a disturbing telos to rationalism and enlightenment thinking.

Wendell Berry of course looks at the industrial revolution in similar terms, those of Blake’s “dark, satanic mills.” And I would agree.

But I digress. The point not to miss is that the conditions of these debates were enabled by literacy and by individual inquiry, not priestly reliance.

Fast-forward nearly a millennium and we think we’re all pretty astute don’t we? We even use words like astute. But in a world of increasing knowledge and increasing complexity and specialization we have a kind of exponentially increasing sets of illiteracies.

The Ever-Dimming Lights
If we have learned anything from the past year, we should have learned that we are plagued by a kind of dark age, an age of ignorance, an age of economic illiteracy. Sure, we know what a budget is even if we ignore the concept. And we get interest rates (maybe). Most of us, however, do not comprehend the nuances and complexities involved in most financial instruments, things like collaterialized debt obligations and credit default swaps. These are highly specialized arrangements and they remain largely opaque to those of us who do not take the vows and devote our lives to them. The complexity of the system far outweighs most individual’s understanding of it.

We rely on the priests and the prophets who have unmediated access to the gods of commerce. They translate the dense, opaque, confusing world to the rest of us. And they wield enormous power. They are often referred to in otherworldly, nearly priestly terms. Warren Buffet is interchangeably the “Sage of Omaha” and the “Oracle of Omaha.”

While I was ruminating on Libby, along comes Amy Linn over at NewWest.net who picked up that CNBC’s Jim Cramer was out touting W.R. Grace as buy now that they’ve reached an agreement to shield them from future asbestos prosecution and are willing to come out of bankruptcy.

And so I watched Cramer’s piece (it’s embedded below). Cramer is both shaman, priest, and prophet. He’s on a first name basis with the gods — “hey, these guys are friends of mine.” He predicts the future. And he wraps it all up in various forms of religious iconography.

The title of Cramer’s spew is “Amazing Grace,” playing off that well-known early enlightenment hymn. He calls W.R. Grace a “post asbestos bankruptcy play” comparing it favorably to other dead-beat dad corporations who knocked up the world and skipped town.

He then goes on to say that W.R. Grace “went into bankruptcy not because the business was awful but because of asbestos lawsuits.” I’m sorry, say that in my good ear. W.R. Grace went into bankruptcy because its business (profits) were predicated on abuse, on skirting the law, on ignoring common human decency.

He then calls the President a “Bolshevik” and compares the November election to the October Revolution. The result of this commie takeover is that environmental stocks should do well, and W.R. Grace is an “environmental play.”

I don’t know where W.R. Grace is planning on “playing” its environmental credentials next, but God help whomever they decide to decimate next in the name of the unholy dollar.

Real Amazing Grace
Cramer should pay more attention to his segment title rather than treating it like a smug pun. The song’s lyricist was John Newton, a slave trader enamored of the profits of the trade. Newton experienced a kind of Damascene-road conversion, left slave trading, entered the ministry, and eventually joined the abolition movement.

I thought Cramer had his moment on the road to Damascus on The Daily Show (you can see that unfold below).

Of course, Newton took nearly 40 years after conversion to “come around” to the truth. Let’s hope it doesn’t take Cramer as long.

Below is a series of Cramer clips. For more info. on Libby, check out the film done by Missoula’s High Plains Films here. High Plains Films is located here and more direct from them is here where you can also watch the trailer (they don’t allow embedding of the trailer).

Cramer’s Amazing Grace

Jon Stewart trashes CNBC: In The Begninning…

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
CNBC Financial Advice
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Joke of the Day

Cramer vs. Not-Cramer

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Basic Cable Personality Clash Skirmish ’09
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Joke of the Day

The Full Cramer The Daily Show Interview, part 1

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Jim Cramer Extended Interview Pt. 1
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Joke of the Day

The Full Cramer The Daily Show Interview, part 2

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Jim Cramer Extended Interview Pt. 2
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Joke of the Day

The Full Cramer The Daily Show Interview, part 3

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Jim Cramer Extended Interview Pt. 3
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Joke of the Day