Sunday, February 12, 2012

Vultures' Picnic - book

Vultures’ Picnic In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores, Greg Palast (Dutton, 2011)

On one of the first pages of this book it says “Everything that happened here, happened.” I suspect in general this is true. Greg Palast is almost certainly the finest investigative reporter working today. In this book he reports on basically four major types of crimes: (1) voter suppression, (2) those of oil companies in the gulf of Mexico and around the world, (3) the rather fantastic scams and crimes of the nuclear industry, and (4) the vulture capitalists that prey on failing countries for unbelievable profits.

Palast, who studied economics at the University of Chicago under the (I hope now discredited but famous Milton Friedman), where I believe he took a degree in Finance and did very credible academic work. Friedman’s free market economic theory did not appeal to Palast who spent some twenty years seriously investigating corporate fraud and then became an investigative reporter for the BBC (as news companies in the United States did not want to recognize his work). You might say he first “made his bones” as an investigative reporter when he exposed Jeb Bushs’s fraudulent manipulation of the Florida voter rolls to insure his brother’s (very questionable) 2000 win/loss in Florida. In any case, with his background and experience he can speak with authority on the complicated details of international finance.

In Vulture’s Picnic he recounts his work in exposing the failure of the BP drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, following a lead from a similar and identical failure in the Caspian Sea that had occurred two years previously and was covered up by BP that blatantly lied about it. It is an interesting tale of his trip to Azerbaijan to investigate the tip that led to exposing BP’s attempt to cover up their obvious wrongdoing. This also takes him to Alaska and the facts surrounding the Exxon Valdez disaster, also distorted and covered up by BP. I found his account of these disasters both fascinating and entirely convincing.

Palast is unrelenting in his criticism of the nuclear energy crowd. He demonstrates, quite convincingly to me, at least, how it is mostly a scam to bleed the Federal and State Governments of taxpayer dollars with constant delays, overruns, excuses, and false promises, while pocketing the funds and lying about the safety of projects that will ultimately fail to produce the promised profits. He goes beyond just the financial problems involved to explain why the diesel engines failed to perform, how the basic designs were fudged, the basic safety standards compromised, and so on. I admit to being totally opposed to nuclear energy in any form, and I cannot understand why anyone or any country with even a smidgen of intelligence would promote such a dangerous threat to not only themselves but even the planet itself. The U.S., of course, is not noted for smidgens of intelligence when profits are involved.

When it comes to the “vultures” of the Vultures’ Picnic, I think the author is at his best. Like vulture capitalists in the U.S. who prey on failing companies, there are vultures that prey on small countries in trouble. In its simplest form this involves buying the bonds of such countries at ridiculously low prices, holding them until the country manages to get some form of international aid for health care or development, and then suing for the face value of the bonds. If the vultures win they of course make millions of dollars in profits, the country and its citizens benefit not at all, and basically the aid money ends up in the pockets of the vultures. It’s clever, unscrupulous, immoral, unethical, disgusting, merciless, unconscionable, and, alas, technically legal.

I do not doubt the basic truth of what Palast offers in the Vultures’ Picnic. I believe that in general this is the way international companies, including all energy companies, operate. They have by now so much money and so much power they can basically do whatever they wish and get away with it, however immoral and criminal. I also do not doubt Palast’s abilities as an investigative reporter. Further, I can also understand how many can be enthusiastic about this book and praise it highly. I like it. But there are what I believe to be some interesting questions having to do with the style of the reportage and how well it represents the subject matter.

As far as the style goes, it is a curious melange of Dashiel Hammet, Damon Runyan, Mickey Spillane, Max Schulman, and John LeCarre, with a bit of H. L. Mencken cynicism thrown in for good measure. While this makes it readable and entertaining I’m not sure I think it is entirely appropriate for the seriousness of the subject matter. I have the impression that Palast has become so enamored of his work he has come to see himself as a kind of Sam Spade, with his faithful female companion the sexy Ms. Badpenny and others of his jolly band of investigators. Why he has chosen this style I do not know. It is obvious, if you look at his various web sites, he is trying to get on the best seller list. This is not necessarily bad. It is also quite possible that when you know what he does, and have seen what he has seen, you become so cynical as to find it difficult to present yourself in any other way. He might also believe writing in this rather sensational, sort of non-stop manner, will be beneficial for his not-for-profit Palast Investigative Fund (see www.PalastInvesigive As he offers no references or citations you must accept his claims on faith. He does, however, name specific individuals, specific occasions, and specific information, details it would be difficult to dismiss as false.

In any case, Vultures’ Picnic is a most worthwhile book and well worth reading. If you ever had any doubts about the ruthlessness and predatory behavior of international corporations, especially energy corporations, and why they might well be described as “vulture capitalists,” your doubts should be dispelled.

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