Bruce Ratner: latest scumbag capitalist named to Bard College board of trustees
I read the Bardian, my Bard College alumni magazine, in the same spirit that I check in on the Militant newspaper online, to see the latest affront to decency that Leon Botstein and Jack Barnes, the cult leaders of these two institutions from my youth, have cooked up. Based on the evidence of the spring 2009 Bardian, they are running neck-and-neck.
In a tiny announcement, the magazine informed its readers that “Bruce C. Ratner, director of Forest City Enterprises, was appointed to the Board of Trustees.” Right off the bat, I had to assume that Ratner was cut from the same cloth as Asher Edelman, Susan Weber (George Soros’s ex-wife), and Charles P. Stevenson Jr. He was likely to have made his money through some ill-gotten gains or to have come by it through marriage as Susan Weber and fellow board member and ultra-Zionist Martin Peretz did. Edelman, a Bard graduate who the Gordon Gekko character in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” was based on, used to be a business partner of corporate raider Stevenson before the threat of arrest for insider trading forced him to relocate to Europe and out of the securities business.
George Soros, who is a major donor to Bard College particularly when it comes to spawning colonial outposts of the college in South Africa and Eastern Europe where the benefits of free markets can be sold to budding scholars especially those who are hard-up economically, has been found guilty of insider trading in France and his firm is now being sued in Hungary for $2.2 million for manipulating the share price of the country’s largest bank.
Bruce C. Ratner breaks with tradition to some extent by his connections to the real estate industry instead of the hedge fund business, the preferred base of operation for the other crooks on the board of trustees. As N.Y.’s most active real estate developer in the 1990s, he is best known for being the owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team that he had intended to bring to Brooklyn as part of an ambitious real estate project based in the Atlantic Yards development targeted for the Prospect Heights and Park Slope neighborhoods. The granola-eating and Obama-voting residents there had about as much use for Ratner’s white elephant as they would for a nuclear power plant so it switched locations eventually to downtown Brooklyn. Although the financial crisis seems to have put the kibosh temporarily on Ratner’s plans, there is also the possibility that neighborhood resistance also had an effect. The website http://www.nolandgrab.org/ lists links to over 30 other websites hostile to Ratner’s aims. It also links to “The Simpsons” episode that was to Bruce Ratner what “Wall Street” was to Asher Edelman:
When Mr. Burns wins the Boston Celtics in a poker game, he decides to build a new sports arena in Springfield for them, but Lisa is against it as it would destroy the last bee colony in Springfield; Homer tries to solve the problem by mating the bees – with “killer” Africanized bees.
It was Ratner’s intention to use a $1.1 billion dollar taxpayer subsidy to build a sports arena with seats that would be unaffordable to the very people who were funding it. Clearly he had been studying the business model of the N.Y. Yankees who were past masters at this kind of flim-flam.
As is so often the case nowadays, the real estate baron seeking to impose his will on a community will bring in an architect who would not seem at first blush to incorporate predatory values, namely somebody like Frank Gehry who was hired to design Ratner’s sports complex. This architect was also hired by Botstein to design the very expensive Bard College arts center, a symbol of the school’s having arrived in the prestigious world of upscale academia.
Slate Magazine, not known for challenging corporate values, allowed novelist Jonathan Lethem to unload on Gehry in an open letter:
Most people, if they’ve heard of this proposal at all, believe you’ve been hired to design a sports arena, to house the New Jersey Nets, a team owned by Mr. Ratner. Anyone who’s glimpsed the drawings and models, however, knows that other, larger plans have overtaken the notion of a mere arena. The proposal currently on the table is a gang of 16 towers that would be the biggest project ever built by a single developer in the history of New York City. In fact, the proposed arena, like the surrounding neighborhoods, stands to be utterly dwarfed by these ponderous skyscrapers and superblocks. It’s a nightmare for Brooklyn, one that, if built, would cause irreparable damage to the quality of our lives and, I’d think, to your legacy. Your reputation, in this case, is the Trojan horse in a war to bring a commercially ambitious, but aesthetically—and socially—disastrous new development to Brooklyn. Your presence is intended to appease cultural tastemakers who might otherwise, correctly, recognize this atrocious plan for what it is, just as the notion of a basketball arena itself is a Trojan horse for the real plan: building a skyline suitable to some Sunbelt boomtown. I’ve been struggling to understand how someone of your sensibilities can have drifted into such an unfortunate alliance, with such potentially disastrous results. And so, I’d like to address you as one artist to another. Really, as one citizen to another. Here are some things I’d hope you’ll consider before this project advances any further.
While I am sympathetic to Lethem’s pleas, I am far more dubious about the “sensibilities” of Frank Gehry that he is appealing to. In January of 2003, before I began blogging, I posted this piece to the Marxism mailing list on the topic of “Bard College, Frank Gehry, money and power” that will explain how natural it was for Bruce C. Ratner and Leon Botstein to hook up. They both have empire-building and the natural architect for that purpose in common.
After a long absence following a devastating fire, The Baffler is publishing once again. [It is now defunct.] This magazine can be described among other things as analyst/critic of a growing tendency in corporate America to co-opt the avant-garde and the counter-culture. While there are abundant images that come to mind to illustrate this tendency, the Gap Ads of the 1980s featuring the homosexual, drug addict and beat novelist William S. Burroughs should suffice.
The first post-fire issue of The Baffler has an article on Frank Gehry that prompts me to say a few words about Bard College, where the architect’s latest project is under construction. I would not dream of making aesthetic judgments, other than to say that it looks like a gingerbread house designed by somebody on an acid trip. I am far more interested in expanding on some of the concerns raised in the Baffler article that have as much to do with power and money as they do with art.
Before getting into these questions, it would be useful to say a word or two about Bard College’s president Leon Botstein, who has run the place for 27 years now. In many ways, it really has become Botstein College while retaining the old name. It is difficult to think of any other educational institution that has been so radically recast in the image of its CEO. For that matter, it is hard to name more than a couple of college presidents who have staked out such a high profile image as Botstein. Except for the braying reactionary John Silber at Boston University and the more circumspect but equally reactionary ex-World Bank boss Larry Summers at Harvard, one would be hard pressed to name any other college president so much in the public eye.
At first blush, Botstein’s style and politics differs from theirs. He is the slick, postmodernist liberal who would never be found guilty of bullying an underling in the manner of Larry Summers calling rap singing professor Cornel West on the carpet. Then again, perhaps not everything is so placid on the Botstein estate. As reported in the October 10, 1997 Chronicle of Higher Education, “his actions have earned him a reputation here as authoritarian.” Professor of Physics Peter D. Skiff is quoted as saying, “He does not fathom alternatives to his way of thinking.”
Botstein comes across as a Renaissance Man. When he is not dictating to underlings like Skiff, he is out conducting symphony orchestras (albeit mediocrely) or writing think pieces on a variety of topics in the mass media. Lexis-Nexis revealed 24 articles, including one promoting the values of self-reliance and risk-taking in the July 5, 1982 US News and World Report.
With such a premium placed on risk-taking, it should not come as a big surprise that Botstein was able to line up financiers George Soros and Leon Levy as major donors. In a January 27, 1996 NY Times article, Botstein fawned over the deep-pocketed nabobs: “These are people who made their money by doing something new, not something old. They haven’t clipped coupons.”
I imagine that everybody is familiar with the kind of new things that George Soros did in the 1990s, especially in Southeast Asia. It was widely reported that currency speculation carried out under the auspices of his Hedge Fund caused the Thai economy to crash. This led subsequently to financial failure throughout the region. A column in Bangkok’s “Thai Ray” commented at the time: “In this new era, there is no need to use troops, warships, bombs, or weapons to occupy any country. Just send out one broker and the target will be totally destroyed. In a war of the present era, people are killed by poverty.”
Botstein would seem to share Soros’s missionary complex vis-à-vis the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. With money siphoned from developing economies like Thailand’s, Soros has been able to foot the bill for Bard College’s colonizing effort in St. Petersburg, namely Smolny College, which sits next door to the organizing center of the October 1917 revolution–thus bringing the counter-revolution full cycle. Claude Allegre, the former French education minister, expressed misgivings about efforts such as Smolny College: ”That our students go and study in the United States and Britain is entirely desirable, but that the Americans install their universities throughout the world, all on the same model and with the same courses, is a catastrophe.” Well, what can one say–that’s just the voice of Old Europe once again. For the New Europe of Donald Rumsfeld, handouts from people like George Soros are eagerly accepted, especially since college professors in the liberated Russia republic average about $65 per month.
Until today, I had little idea of how Leon Levy put together his fortune. A few hours on the Internet revealed that he is what is known as a leveraged buyout artist. His Odyssey Partners put together deal after deal in the 1980s that left a string of bankrupt companies in its trail–with all the human suffering that entails. When the Levy family launched the Levy Institute at an old mansion called Blithewood, a trade union official representing workers who had been in a running battle with the management of a restaurant owned by the family, wrote the executive director raising some concerns, among which is the following:
As you may be aware, Odyssey Partners is also a named defendant in shareholder litigation that arose in the aftermath of the infamous accounting scandal at apparel-maker Leslie Fay. In the early 1980s, Leslie Fay underwent two management-led leveraged buyouts. The second LBO, in 1984, involved Odyssey Partners, Merrill Lynch, and Goldome Savings Bank. In June of 1991, the company underwent its third initial public offering, raising $40.6 million after expenses, all of which went to Odyssey Partners and/or to Steven M. Friedman, a former Odyssey general partner. In 1993, Leslie Fay’s accountants discovered accounting ‘discrepancies’ and contended in a subsequent lawsuit that Leslie Fay’s senior management conspired to conceal the true financial health of the company prior to and during the three public offerings. Odyssey Partners is a defendant in this lawsuit. Last year, Leslie Fay endured a 40 day strike over its proposal to close most of its domestic manufacturing operations (and to eliminate 1200 jobs), despite wage and benefit concessions workers had made to help return the company to profitability. Leslie Fay is now a sad shadow of its former self. Sales and profits are down sharply, and, according to Women’s Wear Daily, the company ‘now sits on the edge of oblivion.’
Despite their rather aggressive moneymaking appetites, both Soros and Levy now position themselves as friends of the left. Given the state of the world, one suspects that they are simply using a hedging strategy to protect their long-term interests. If at some point down the road the long-suffering masses decide to rid themselves of their oppressors, Soros and Levy might plead that they were with the revolution all along.
Soros writes books and articles lamenting globalization, while his Open Society foundation lavishes money on various grass-roots organizations fighting for social change, especially on the Internet. For example, alternet.org got a $78,660 grant–and so on.
Meanwhile, the Levy Institute at Bard constantly issues press releases and other material calling attention to irrational capitalist behavior. Old Leon Levy himself occasionally writes something for the New York Review of Books with Jeff Madrick, an Institute fellow with impeccable liberal credentials–including the October 8, 1998 “Wall Street Blues”. But to really show their “street cred”, the Levy boys went out and hired themselves a bona fide Marxist, namely Anwar Shaikh of the New School. As a research fellow at the Levy Institute, Shaikh wrote hard-hitting indictments of the capitalist system while the Levy brothers were out stripping assets in the same manner as Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” in order to pay for his stipend. We need a latter-day Bertolt Brecht to do justice to this sort of thing.
Turning now to the Baffler article (“Build It and They Will Pay” by Andrew Friedman), one understands completely why somebody like Leon Levy would write a blank check for something like the Gehry performing arts center. In 2001, when the Board of Trustees lavished $120 million on Leon Botstein, $50 million came from Leon Levy. From that gift, $100 million was put into the general endowment, while the remaining $20 million was set aside to endow capital projects like the college’s new performing arts center. For Botstein’s purposes, this would be money well spent since Gehry’s name has instant cachet, like a Rolex watch or a Prada handbag.
Although Friedman’s article focuses on the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the observations seem relevant to any Gehry project. He writes:
No sooner was the thing built, however, than the Basques started to learn what Gehry’s vision was costing them. In his book Chronicle of a Seduction: The Guggenheim Bilbao, Joseba Zulaika dissects the deal under which the museum was built. It’s a story of uneven power relations, mortgaged urban futures, and fiscal chicanery, most of which cannot be told by official sources because their agreement contains a clause forbidding public disclosure. But it seems that after a year of secret negotiations, the Guggenheim stuck the city–which lost 40,000 jobs with the demise of its largest steel plant, and which still struggles with 25 percent unemployment–with a stiff bill. By 2000, Zulaika writes, the Basques were in for $250 million–that’s $700 for each Bilbao resident. On top of that, the local government is committed to a perpetual public subsidy of $7 to $14 million a year.
My own prediction is that the Gehry building at Bard will involve the same kind of waste, but as long as Leon Levy is sitting on such a huge fortune then the sky is the limit. This kind of overweening ambition seems oddly out of place both for the Guggenheim and for Bard. It is rather 1990s, so to speak. In fact, this kind of excess has begun to backfire on Thomas Krens, who is to the Guggenheim as Botstein is to Bard. Deep in debt, Krens resolved to solve things in the manner that anybody from the high-flying 90s would–he fired 80 employees, a fifth of his staff.
There is another similarity between Krens and Botstein: both are empire-builders. While Krens had ambitious plans to create many Guggenheims around the world, Botstein spawns seedling institutions like Smolny College and the Bard Decorative Arts Museum run by Mrs. Soros. What better architectural design to express this overarching ambition than Gehry’s plastic, computer-generated postmodernist works, whose innovations, according to Friedman, “are better thought of as extensions of the logic of capitalism into the deregulated plastic economy of the Nineties.”
Hence it was no surprise that Enron, that symbol of the roaring 1990s, would tout Gehry’s work highly. As ex-CEO Jeffrey Skilling wrote for the catalog that accompanied an Enron-funded Gehry retrospective:
Enron shares Mr. Gehry’s ongoing search for the moment of truth, the moment when the functional approach to a problem becomes infused with the artistry that produces a truly innovative solution. This is the search Enron embarks on every day by questioning the conventional to change business paradigms and create new markets that will shape the New Economy. It is the shared sense of challenge that we admire most in Frank Gehry.