Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Unbearable Bigness of Streetcars

Rustin and I were just talking about corporate malfeasance and how damn bloody difficult it is to get the average person to grok just exactly how huge the problem really is. The problem is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think political corruption, war, and poverty are big problems, but that's just peanuts to corporate malfeasance.

I mean, take Rustin and I. We're a couple of pretty smart folks. He's managed to drop out of both Carnegie Mellon and Reed College, has a patent, and is generally a know-some-of-it about a hell of a lot. I got an undergraduate degree from Canada's answer to Yale and a Master's from Canada's answer to MIT. Both of us have been scaring teachers (and other ordinary unfortunates) for most of our lives. (I once handed in an assignment which was returned with the note “100% This was the first one of these I've ever given – and it hurt.”)

In other words, what I'm saying is that we're a couple of badass brainiacs, and this shit has us constantly sanity-checking each other because of the scope of it. Honestly. Every couple of months, Rustin and I find ourselves on the phone kind of making Scooby-Doo noises at each other and asking ourselves, “Are we nuts? Are we seeing things?”

But this really isn't about us. We're not even the baddest of badasses this problem has devoured. Let me introduce you to the man who started it all, Bradford J. Snell. At the time, he had everything. He was young, good-looking, charismatic, at the top of his game, from a wealthy family (I get the distinct impression that he might have introduced himself as “Brad Snell of the [Somewhere] Snells,” you know?), and working in government antitrust actions in the swinging 1970s.

In 1974, Brad Snell was a 26 year old hotshot Congressional antitrust lawyer tasked with investigating corporate corruption in the American ground transportation industry. His explosive testimony before a United States Senate inquiry, and the landmark report American Ground Transportation, unearthed disturbing facts about how a handful of powerful corporations, including General Motors, Standard Oil, and Greyhound, had more or less literally remade the world in their own images. The facts in the case had been lying dormant since the late 1940s when the antitrust cases had occurred, except for a minor publication in a policy journal in 1970. It was a scoop and a coup. If there is such a thing as a rock star lawyer, Brad Snell used to be it.


Brad Snell has been going to publish a book on the subject – for about 25 years now. Rustin and I understand why he has never gone to press; the sheer crushing weight of the huge web of information is enough to paralyse even a hotshot lawyer who can crank out a 200 page report with 50 pages of footnotes in a year. Since 1974 – that's before I was born – he's been enmeshed in streetcars. Granted, it has given him a fairly lucrative sideline in helping Holocaust survivors track down and reclaim assets and property from Nazi-allied corporate profiteering. But that in itself is an indication of how staggeringly big this is: You start out writing about streetcars and robber barons and wind up as Simon Wiesenthal's forensic accountant.

Which also means you have a hell of a time writing a book on the subject. How do you keep your information straight? I mean, you know you have a citation somewhere for a particular fact, but if you have to dig through a couple of rooms' worth of documentation (the related papers for one antitrust case, US v. National City Lines, literally take up an entire room) to find something, you're, well, fucked. Even if you're an elite prep school-educated rock star lawyer. And where do you start? The tangled mess of facts is huge, and most of them are interrelated, and picking a specific thread apart to start on it might just cause the whole thing to unravel in front of your eyes. So you wind up doing more research, and more research, hoping to find the one thing, that smokingest of smoking guns, that you can hold up in front of people and say “This is it,” rather than having to subject them to a backtrail of facts that would put ole Brad's Con Law prof down for his afternoon nap.

So that's what he's been doing for the last almost four decades. And oh god, do I ever feel his pain. (I keep saying to Rustin, "The poor guy.") You start out writing about streetcars and robber barons and wind up as Simon Wiesenthal's forensic accountant...and then, somewhere in there...

The project eats your life. And keep in mind, that's only one tiny piece of the problem of corporate crime, which is only one tiny piece of the problems with corporations in general.

It's too big to see well without getting a bad case of vertigo of the mind. If you're not nauseated by the thought of trillion-dollar ad campaigns and worldwide social engineering experiments, you're not understanding it yet. I'm not saying that everyone has to let it consume them to the same extent it has happened to Brad Snell, but if you don't get that this problem is so big that just trying to understand even part of it can sweep you away like a woodchip in a spring flood, you cannot possibly do much about it. Yes, it looks impossibly big, but it's not (merely improbably big, and it didn't start that way).

Want to do something about corporate crime? Think big. Really big. And hang on to your barf bag.


Blogger Yaron said...

Well, just trying to feel what you're experiencing was difficult.

When are you going to get a facebook account? ;)

7:20 AM  
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