Too Bad to Fail

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During the banking crises, the billion dollars bailout was given to those reckless, behemoth banks that were called too big to fail; the argument was that they would bring down the entire American economy if they were allowed to suffer the consequences of their greed-driven gambles. We learned of that shadow world of devious derivatives, short sales, and swinish swaps, etc. none of which meant a damned thing to me, but meant mega fortunes for Goldman Sachs and their brothers in that high stakes gambling casino called American banking; a casino in which the house always won, because the people would cover the losses. We were essentially held hostage to these banks, not daring to risk their failure which then might spread across the nation and the world and transform a horrible recession into a devastating depression.

Thus we had the Obama policy of bailout before they destroyed the entire world economy; note that both the scheme for bailout and the destruction had been in place before Obama came into office. And still, months later, the jobs situation is critical for millions despite the assurances of Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers. A situation made more critical by the stone-hearted Republicans who refuse to extend the unemployed benefits for the long term unemployed. Lionel Barrymore and Edward Arnold played these guys in the old thirties movies, political friends of the millionaires, and the enemies of the downtrodden, but Jimmy Stewart always saved the day. Where is Jimmy now that we need him? Can Obama find his inner Jimmy Stewart? We can only hope so. If this is class warfare it is unique, because it is a revolution started by the super-rich.

My first contact with the too big to fail mantra was many years ago when developer Donald Trump had borrowed so much money from various banks and was allegedly unable to meet the deadlines for payment on the loans. The banks found it necessary to prop up his various enterprises when he fell upon hard times to keep him from bankruptcy- he was too big to fail, and thus he was able to go on to play TV games that fire people who fail to meet his scrupulous standards for success. Only the small, those whose limited reach touches the lives of their friends and families are allowed to fail.

My elderly 76 year old friend Molly, promised a loan modification from the bank that held her mortgage, and nearly losing her mind in the endless paper trail she was forced to provide, was, despite everything she tried to do, recently foreclosed. She lost her apartment of thirty years, barely escaped living in the streets, after a lifetime of middle class decency working as a saleswoman at Filenes, raising two sons, and being a generous friend to all. Too small to succeed, I suppose. That is the new paradigm – too small to succeed. Size, alas, does matter when it comes to sticking the government for your gambling debts.

As an Obama supporter, I cannot ignore the shameful way that the loan modification program was announced with so much fanfare, only to be ignored in its application as the administration averted its eyes to “more important matters.” Good works depend more upon the works made workable than the good intentions, a lesson this administration has yet to learn. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I will be voting for Obama and for those who support his policies, not because I am under a spell of his enchantment -- I see his many failings as clearly as I see my own -- but because I view the Republican perpetual no vote as a seismic temper tantrum that defines their inherent selfishness, and not as they claim it to be, a frugal policy for running a government for its citizens welfare.

BP has introduced a new element into the business equation. Instead of too big to fail, it is too bad to fail. This company has despoiled our waters, ruined the lives of Gulf Coast residents, destroyed the most precious wildlife, and they are promising to pay their way out of what I must regard as a war crime committed against our planet. But we cannot set in motion the laws that would ruin this company, because in doing so they may not have the resources to make good on the damages and the crimes against nature which they have perpetrated.

I stopped looking at the oil spill a few days ago, realizing that it was like watching the death of a beloved friend under the most ghastly conditions – the operation overseen by an incompetent surgeon who had brought about the trauma from which the friend suffered and was desperately trying to save him, not for my friend’s sake, but from fear of the consequences to the surgeon’s own life and reputation. It is not just that BP is a pariah amongst oil drilling companies, the tragedy is that it is typical of all those companies, all of them complicit with the Bush and Clinton administrations who loosened the oversight and controls on deep water drilling, harkening back to the deregulating of St. Ronnie of Reagan, all partners in crime, and setting up the too bad to fail policy. We are told that only these companies have the know-how to save us from the attack of the undersea oil monsters – and we buy into it in our desperation. When will we learn that the undersea oil monster is a figment of the collective imagination? The oil that flows unchecked is innocent fossil fuel – it is the wicked incompetence of the drilling, and the failure to provide alternative energy that has created this catastrophe.

Maybe, just maybe, they will cap the well in the coming months. But if we allow them to pay out their damages (nothing can compensate for the psychological damage to the lives BP has ruined) and allow them to proceed with business as usual, as the clinically hysterical Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindel wants: he of the crazed eyes and crackpot plans for stone barriers which will only compound the tragedy, all taking place while shouting curses at the Obama administration, then we, as a nation, have proven that we cannot learn from hard lessons, that we are too spineless to succeed, and that oil companies such as BP are too bad to fail, and we shall forever be their victims until we learn to say “Stop!’ And mean it.


Contributing writer, Sherman Yellen, screenwriter, playwright, and lyricist, has won two Emmy Awards, first for his drama John Adams, Lawyer in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles, and later for An Early Frost, a groundbreaking drama about AIDS in America. His Beauty and the Beast was nominated for an Emmy and won the Christopher Award. Yellenwas nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the Broadway musical, The Rothschilds. Yellen's other plays include Strangers, December Fools and Josephine Tonight! Sherman Yellen received a lifetime achievement award in Arts and Letters from Bard College.