Like a lot of people, I don't really care about these late-night shows or the celebrity "controversies" they generate (if I can stay up that late, I'm watching Colbert or the Maddow rerun anyway). But NBC's Jay Leno/Conan O'Brien saga has started to display the same structural shape--that is, high-handed corporate incompetence in which all nasty consequences are relentlessly shifted onto workers below the perpetrator in the pecking order--that has characterized our nation's financial crisis. And Conan has the cojones to be admirably, even hilariously, petty about it in public.
Jeff Zucker, the NBC/Universal chief who juggled Leno and ultimately displaced O'Brien, is--like Goldman Sachs head Lloyd Blankfein when he was holding onto those worthless liens against AIG--the sort of grasping corporate exec who will not make tough decisions and instead ties everyone around him into contractual knots while hoping it will all work out in the end. After promising Conan that if he waited five years The Tonight Show would be his, Zucker pulled the half-baked, absurd gambit of moving Leno to 10 p.m. every weeknight with a terrible show that killed local news ratings and strangled Conan's lead-in. When the network's affiliates complained, Zucker just said "nevermind," and tried at first to squeeze Leno into Conan's first half hour; when that proved to be DOA, NBC agreed to pay the younger star $45 million to just go away.
The dollar amounts are spelled with m's instead of b's or t's, but that, writ small, is Obama's conundrum with the banks. Like NBC, American bankers in the boom years could not make a tough decision about the bloated and obviously unsustainable derivatives market because they were reaping huge fees by pushing subprime mortgages. They weren't even able to entertain the notion that their magic algebra couldn't go on forever, much less that it could add up to a Ponzi scheme that would sink the entire economy. They were hoping that some slapdash patch, some absurd dodge, some last-minute fix--like giving Hank Paulson nearly a trillion dollars in TARP money and the keys to the Fed window in the last 10 minutes of George Bush's presidency--would save their butts.
It did, too. But when you look at the financial equation the bankers and their friends in the two political parties wrote out for us, you can see immediately that it was a raw deal. The moneymen raked in at least $10 trillion in taxpayer funds as aid to the banks and other financial entities like AIG. Obama assumed in return that he'd get a stimulus bill of about $.8 trillion and the long-needed overhauls of America's health insurance system, environmental policies, and fiscal regulations. He got the .8 (though he had to dedicate a third of it to pointless tax cuts rather than to actual job creation or aid to the foundering states). But when the time came to pass health reform, the political/financial complex dug in their heels. They went so far as to mount a deviously phony-populist slander campaign against reform, with much of the corporate ad money secretly laundered through the Chamber of Commerce, FreedomWorks, and other such fronts. (With today's Supreme Court's decision that corporations may spend as much as they want in ad campaigns for a politician, who needs a laundromat?)
So, what Obama needs is a little bit of Conan's anarchic elan. If the banks--who, as Sen. Dick Durbin said of the Congress, "own the place"--won't let him spend money to reform healthcare, he should use his majority to rewrite the tax laws (tax rate changes require only 50 Senate votes and the Vice President's) to take Wall Street's bonus money back. After all, as Rediscovering Values author Jim Wallis said on Jon Stewart last night, the $150 billion that just six banks paid out as bonuses in 2009 could eliminate or postpone all home foreclosures through 2012, or erase the budget gaps in all 50 states. At the least, it could help rebuild Haiti.
Yes, O'Brien could show Geithner how it's done. And to paraphrase Scott Brown, Conan is available.
By Leslie Savan:
Reprinted with permission from The Nation