“When I was growing up, the image of America, the self-image, was of a vast middle class country. Of course, there was a small, rich group, and there were some poor, but America prided itself and understood that its health was because of a vast middle class.” Now there’s a concept—health as a national self-image. But even as Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs frames this notion as nostalgia, it seems like a fantasy, like a metaphor without a real world connection.
Say you play out that metaphor, and seek causes for the nation’s loss of health, even as an idea. As Alex Gibney’s Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream reveals, these causes don’t include accident or illness or fate, but instead, are the logical result of a system, whether you understand that system to be working perfectly or exploited. Today, the 1% control more wealth than 90% of Americans, and the vast middle class is no longer vast.
This reshaping of the US economy has taken place over time, of course, and has accelerated over the past 30 years, since corporations have devised ways to influence and even fully shape policy that favors them. As Jack Abramoff—the very same—observes here, bills before Congress are typically written by lobbyists. The former super lobbyist (and subject of Gibney’s excellent film, Casino Jack and the United States of Money) allows that he came to his insight in hard ways (“It required my demise”), but now makes it his business to expose the system he once manipulated so effectively.
Abramoff’s contribution to the new film is minimal but jarring. When he describes the relationships that develop between congressmen and corporations, Park Avenue cuts to a title card that reads, simply, “He means money.” And indeed, this is the focus for the documentary, airing this week on PBS’ Independent Lens and part of the series Why Poverty?. Its lesson on US economic inequities is fundamental and perhaps familiar. It is also emphatic and framed by a bit of poetry, in the form of the Harlem River, which divides Park Avenue as if into two hemispheres, the wealthy, entitled Upper East Side and the South Bronx. On one side, penthouses go for $90 million and on the other, the average income is less than $40 a day. The distance between wealth and poverty, the film argues, is not only an accident of birth (or, as some might argue, a matter of will or hard work or taking advantage of opportunities). The distance, the film argues forcefully, is the result of a game that’s been “rigged” by those who have wealth and consequent power, and mean to hang onto it.
Based on Michael Gross’ book 740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building, the film takes particular aim at the wealthiest denizens of this address, including David Koch (who, with his brother Charles, used their organization Americans for Prosperity and super PAC Restore Our Future, sustained Mitt Romney’s recent bid for president) and Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the private equity firm, the Blackstone Group), featuring the latter’s speeches to shareholders. In one, he asserts outright that private corporations can only watch legislation happen, an assertion the film undermines repeatedly.
The participants in said rigging belong to both major political parties: New York’s Charles Schumer comes under particular scrutiny here, as a renowned fundraiser and supporter of Wall Street, as does Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan, late of the Romney campaign. Ryan takes in more money from the Koch brothers than any other member of Congress, the film points out, and also tends to quote from the “once discredited philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand.” Park Avenue includes a 1959 Mike Wallace interview with Rand, wherein she insists, “I’m opposed to all forms of control.” Deregulation, of course, is a favorite means for banks and corporations to expand their domains and reduce access to those domains for everyone else.
While Tim Phillips of Americans for Prosperity here contends that regulations “kill jobs” and that “folks from every walk of life” benefit from deregulation, the film offers a series of speakers who might represent “everyone else,” from Sachs to Pastor Colin Dunkley of the Ministry of Divine Light Food Pantry to Tim Smeeding, President Institute for Research on Poverty. Opportunity is a key concept in this argument, specifically as underclass and under-educated communities don’t have it. Journalist Jane Mayer puts it this way: “If you’re poor enough and your schooling is bad enough, you don’t really have the opportunity to compete.”
Mayer points out as well that the Tea Party was never a populist movement or a “spontaneous combustion,” as it was promoted, but instead was funded and instigated by “libertarian billionaires” (again, like the Kochs) devising numerous pressures on Congress, to continue to rig their game. It appears that such pressures are built into the US econo-political system (only refined now, or perhaps more accurately, sledge-hammered). And this returns you to the Sachs’ childhood memory of an American self-image premised on a vast middle class. Park Avenue suggests that this is not so much nostalgic but mythic, and that the disparities now so obvious were always in the works. The system is premised on myth, such that the generous contributions by the Kochs and others to arts and other needy organizations help to promote and so entrench the system. Self-image is what matters, whether that self-image is believed by the Tea Party or Congress or America.