Opinion: Occupy Ideas

It’s May. The grunions are running and so are the members of Occupy L.A. They wriggle up from the cold and dark, plant their tushies on the warm ground and squirm about frantically, desperate to get something accomplished, until a massive tide sweeps them away.

And I’m not talking about the fish.

Grunions, at least, mate during their annual appearance. The Occupy movement, if it follows the same course as before, is destined just to beach itself and die.

Last year, when protesters camped from Wall Street to the lawn of Los Angeles’ City Hall, they made headlines and accomplished one significant feat: They focused national attention on the growing gap between the country’s rich and poor.

Why, some of our wealthier readers may ask, is that anyone’s problem? Because stable communities, and resilient nations, are built on a strong middle class. That’s a truism economists of all stripes and parties agree upon — though our political class, of all stripes, seems incapable of acting on it.

So the Occupy L.A. people put “We are the 99%” on poster boards and waved them in our faces, and for a while it worked. At least until they trashed the lawn outside City Hall and caused public safety employees to rack up endless hours of overtime, costing us middle-class taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

But that was all so 2011. When the Occupiers reappeared on May 1, the news media yawned, and the organizers themselves seemed, literally, directionless. 

A West Los Angeles contingent set out to join the May Day protesters downtown. They rode their bicycles down Santa Monica Boulevard, past the Beverly Hilton Hotel, and stopped to regroup in the parkway along Little Santa Monica. A small contingent threw an impromptu protest in front of the Prada store on Rodeo Drive — no doubt confusing the Chinese and Russians who could actually afford the stuff inside.

Meanwhile, back at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, I was inside standing among a dozen men in suits shaking their heads in utter dismay as Occupiers rode past.

“They really are clueless,” one said. “There’s billions of dollars of capital in this hotel, and they’re going to Prada.”

That’s right, the men and women fighting for the 99 percent bypassed what may be the largest and most influential annual gathering of the 1 percent in the United States. 

How large? The annual Milken Global Conference brings together 3,000 attendees over four days to discuss finance, politics and the state of the world. The cost of entry starts at $6,000. How influential? One year, I ran into Warren Buffett, Rupert Murdoch and Alvin Toffler all in the same moment — in the men’s room. Those Occupiers need to fire their research department.

The Global Conference combines graduate-level seminars on everything from equity formation to international policy with upstairs deal making and ferocious hallway networking. The attendees tend to be asset managers, investors, venture capitalists, corporate chieftains. They’re mostly men, in suits, clutching iPhones and BlackBerries. While people shake your hand, their eyes never leave the nametag on your chest. After a while I knew how Dolly Parton must feel. 

But here’s a greater irony: If the Occupy movement was clueless about what was happening inside the Hilton, the conference itself dedicated substantial time and attention to exploring the concerns of the 99 percent. This isn’t new or surprising: investor and philanthropist Michael Milken, who created the Global Conference in 1998, is driven by the idea that capital creates innovation and social change; that wealth, used in creative and aggressive ways, spreads wealth.

So the vast majority of the sessions focused on how investments in innovative medicine, food, technology, education and communication can help solve the challenges the world faces in those fields, even as they increase returns. One entire track looked at how free-market innovations in Israel and the Arab world can increase political stability throughout the Middle East (more on that next week).

At a luncheon debate titled, “What’s Happened to the American Dream?” historian Niall Ferguson and investor (and “car czar”) Steven Rattner agreed that rising wealth disparity and economic immobility hampers growth. They also disagreed loudly and brilliantly over what to do about it. Ferguson said we must focus on cutting back entitlement programs to prevent the growth of a motivation-sucking “transfer state,” where wealth is just given to those who don’t work. Rattner argued that the issue has to be tackled along with greater public investment and fairer tax codes. 

Not surprisingly, the one-percenters sided more with Ferguson, but at another panel titled, “Easy Money: Consequences of the Global Liquidity Glut,” it became clear that in Milken’s world, it’s just as big a shanda for capital as for people to be lying around doing nothing.

The day the bike riders blithely rode past, I attended a morning session called, “Community Development: Investing in the 99 Percent.” Panelists examined innovative ways for investors, NGOs and government to work together to solve poverty.

“There are 100 different interventions that work to prevent poverty,” said John Belluomini, founder and CEO of the Center for the Greater Good. “The number one killer in the country is poverty.”

One possible approach is the Social Impact Bond, an experiment promoted by the “father of venture capitalism,” Sir Ronald Cohen — he was at the conference, too — to allow private business to invest in solutions to prison recidivism and chronic homelessness.

“For a mainstream conference like Milken to focus on social impact investment underscores its importance in the marketplace,” panelist Sean Greene of the Small Business Administration said.

Yet another discussion, “New Strategies for Financing Social Innovation,” featured Jonathan Greenblatt, director of Social Innovation in the Obama White House. The discussion focused on the need to change current regulations to allow foundations to count program-related investments as part of their disbursements — in one fell swoop this could free up billions of dollars.

“You can go negative or go positive,” said Greenblatt, a co-founder of Ethos Water. “The fact that this conversation has infiltrated the mainstream shows the worthiness of these ideas. Capital holds promise to create the kind of communities we care about.”

The Occupy movement may have served a purpose, but it appears to be out of ideas. The good ones were at the Beverly Hilton.

The fault lies in our stars — stars like Bernie Madoff

Holiday Cover

I was not totally surprised by The Journal’s holiday cover showing a guy dressed in a red sweater and tartan pants (“True Confessions of a Real Jew,” Dec. 19). Festooned in golden glitter, he held a stick of candy cane in one hand and a quart of eggnog, complete with holly sprigs, in the other. At his feet were a gift bag, decorated with a snowman, and a wooden toy soldier.

I searched high and low for some sign of Chanukah — this being The Jewish Journal and all — but to no avail until I refocused on the carton of Alta Dena eggnog, which I figured had to be kosher. It warmed my heart when, with the aid of a magnifier, the indecipherable smudge, which I guessed to be a KD symbol, shone forth in all its glory.

Some people might think that you would never find a Jewish symbol on The Journal cover on a Jewish holiday, but they would be wrong. You could say that a very small miracle happened here. Hag Sameach, Happy Chanukah.

Bob Kirk
via e-mail

Madoff Madness

Marvin Schotland, Jewish Community Foundation president and CEO, tells your reporter that in reviewing the Madoff investment they employed “the same caution they use for each of the JCF’s investments” (“Financial Tsunami,” Dec. 26).

Since by all reports Bernard L. Madoff provided prospective and continuing investors with minimal information as to his strategy or operations and that the accounting for his multibillion-dollar money management operation was being handled by a two-man firm operating out of a minimall in Rockland County, N.Y., I find Schotland’s statement shocking and actually scary.

Jonathan Davidson
Valley Village

A shonda, a disgrace, a sin (“The Four Big Madoff Questions,” Dec. 26). The Jewish community is horrified that one of theirs would swindle and deceive not just his fellow Jew but charities.

Unfortunately, the Bernie Madoffs, the Ezri Namvars and the Ron Barnesses of this world are in danger of becoming scapegoats for the lack of our own personal accountability. None of them have been convicted of any wrongdoing; all are defendants in civil lawsuits accused of dishonesty.

All are Jews who traded on their religion for money. They sought trust by becoming notorious philanthropists for Jewish causes. And now we are outraged.

We must not let that outrage eclipse our own personal responsibility. We glorify money; too often we choose “Men/Women of the Year” and honorees on the basis, not of individual merit, but on the size of their contributions and the worth of their Rolodexes (how much money they can raise from others).

Why are we then shocked when the very basis of our trust, money, is exposed as false, as it was with Madoff, Namvar and Barness?

And whom can we blame other than ourselves for not making the effort to act prudently, especially when we are investing trust monies? Instead of blaming only others — the SEC, the financial planners, the trusted icons — we need ask ourselves, why didn’t we take the time to do our own homework and to ask the unspoken question?

We should not fool ourselves and simply blame the Madoffs, the Namvars and the Barnesses for their reported ethical bankruptcy, when we paved the road for them by glorifying their wealth and not their merit.

Louis Lipofsky
Beverly Hills

Far be it for me to wish any more harm on the wonderful institutions that lost significant money in the Madoff tragedy, but one has to openly wonder how and why in the world several of our charitable organizations need to squirrel away tens of millions of dollars in invested endowment money (“Jewish Money,” Dec. 26).

Yeshiva University loses $140 million, Hadassah loses $90 million, Technion loses $70 million. Yet there are countless superior Jewish social service agencies both here and in Israel taking care of the poor, the hungry, children at risk, the disabled, the elderly, etc., who don’t know from where their next quarterly operating expenses will be coming.

I urge you and the Jewish community at large to take a closer look at this startling inequity. Do these institutions have a right to sit on all this money?

Richard Cohen
Manhattan, N.Y.

Some of Hollywood’s biggest names have had the misfortune of finding out that money they had invested with Bernie Madoff has vanished (“Jewish Money,” Dec. 26).

Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks fame may have lost millions in Madoff’s alleged Ponzi scheme, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Spielberg and Katzenberg’s Wunderkinder Foundation had investments with Madoff that were made on the two celebrities’ behalf by their business manager.

Eric Roth, who wrote the screenplay for “Forrest Gump” and recently received a Golden Globe nomination as screenwriter of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” lost all of his retirement money.

Madoff, who was once the chairman of NASDAQ, helped the upstart stock-trading facility rise to become a respected alternative to the New York Stock Exchange.

When it came to the methods that his now-defunct investment firm used to achieve unusually consistent returns, Madoff was quite secretive. Reports sent to investors by him only disclosed general strategies, such as using stock options to take advantage of market volatility.

Now the mystery is beginning to be revealed. Madoff was paying existing investors with money from new investors. When the credit crunch hit, things swiftly fell apart.

At the time, if Madoff were managing your money, you had bragging rights. That’s how hot he was. Sources indicate that plenty of other entertainment industry figures have lost big time in the alleged scam.

Hollywood is unique, even in the financial sense. This is partly because there’s a fame meter that operates, and residents are all tuned in. A continuous internal read is taking place, and externals are used to project one’s measure.

How much fame does one possess? Stars consciously and subconsciously assess each other’s scores and respond accordingly.

Madoff’s score was super high, the result of his own eventual level of investment celebrity.

Like a Ponzi scheme, though, fame had been artificially multiplied for Madoff, which he used to gain more Hollywood clients and so on. When the bottom fell out, the fame itself changed character.

As circumstances unfold, Madoff’s score on the fame meter may still remain high, but it won’t be a measure he’ll feel proud of.

Brian J. Goldenfeld
Woodland Hills

Navy Rabbi

Thanks for the article about Rabbi Jon Cutler in Iraq in “Troops Can Practice Their Faith, Thanks to Navy Rabbi” (Dec. 26). I performed in Iraq last May and ended up at Camp Al Assad right before Shabbat. I met Rabbi Cutler and not only did he give me a challah for Shabbat, but everyone at the Friday night service came to the show the following Saturday night, and they were a great audience.

(I also dropped off a large delivery of kosher meat from Jeff’s Gourmet.)

After the show, the first thing I did was go back to Rodef Shalom (Chasing Peace), the synagogue Rabbi Cutler established, and did Havdallah. It is something I will never forget.

Avi Liberman
via e-mail

Return to Public Schools

Having worked for the current principals of both Emerson and Webster middle schools, I’ve nothing but praise for their skills and acumen (“Can Recession Fuel Return to Public Schools?” Dec. 26). Nonetheless, there’s little hope that their failing schools will achieve excellence in the current environment.

For administrators to succeed, they must have the authority to meet their responsibilities. Unfortunately in the Los Angeles Unified School District, it is the powerful teachers union that rules the roost. The union has successfully blocked every meaningful reform and continues to protect incompetent teachers.

The union opposes the breakup of the behemoth LAUSD, opposes charter schools, opposes standardized testing and opposes school vouchers. Competition strikes fear in the heart of the union hierarchy.

If the day ever arrived when parents could freely choose their child’s school without being concerned about the financial implications, the exodus from the LAUSD would cause a stampede.

Leonard M. Solomon
Los Angeles


I commend The Jewish Journal for its insightful analysis of the Mumbai massacre (“Mumbai Attacks Bring New Security Challenges,” Dec. 5). That event was indeed al-Qaeda’s follow-up to 9/11.

I know President Bush is not very popular these days, but it took al-Qaeda nearly eight years to get its act together after 9/11, and surely President Bush’s efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and here in America had a lot to do with that.

I trust the significance of the Mumbai massacre will not be lost on President-elect Barack Obama. The Muslim war against the West is obviously gaining momentum even as we speak and hardly seems something that mere reasonable discussion can deal with.

I would suggest Obama signal that he will hold countries that fail to aggressively challenge the presence of terrorists in their territory fully responsible for Mumbai-type outrages.

Brian J. Goldenfeld
Woodland Hills