After a 32-year exile, I am now back at home in the Boston area, very happy to be here and fascinated by what has changed and what has not. Most of the old bookstores are long dead, but three art-house movie complexes and a fourth single screen still survive within a 25-minute bike ride of my house, and my wife and I are taking full advantage. I've seen, I think, six movies already, including two documentaries in the last two days: The Queen of Versailles and Ballplayer/Pelotero. When I lived here for most of the time from 1965 to 1980, similar theaters were filled with my contemporaries, learning about life from the classics of the past and, by the mid-1970s, from the new classics of the present. (I will never forget a summer afternoon showing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at the Harvard Square theater, which sadly closed its doors about a week before my return. At the climax the screaming audience was ready to storm the stage and help McMurphy finish Nurse Ratchett off.) Now, however, films are playing little or no role in the emotional development of the younger generation. The West Newton showing of The Queen of Versailles had between 50 and 100 people in attendance but there could not have been ten of them under 60.
The movie, however, provided as much food for thought as Inside Job, if not more. David Siegel is the owner of Westgate, the largest time-share outfit in the world. He recruited a lot of his customers by giving them free tickets to Disney World (he lives, and is headquartered, in Orlando). He was on top of the world in 2007 when the shooting of the documentary began, building his Versailles-influenced mansion, soon to be the largest house in the United States, but then his empire crashed and most of his employees went out of of work. His own house went into foreclosure, although he has gotten it out again, apparently, by selling his huge Las Vegas hotel-casino. He is very proud of what he does--vacations, he explains,have been shown to save lives and marriages. Yet his whole empire was obviously built on sand, and throughout the movie he shows a truly astonishing lack of understanding of any of the larger issues that have nearly finished him off.
Siegel, to my utter amazement, gave his clients 90% mortgages. Now he might have understood, one should think, that banks give mortgages on homes (or used to) because they know people care more about their homes than about anything else, and that they will make sacrifices to make the payments even when times are hard. But timeshares? Isn't it obvious that many people will just drop them when they become short of cash? The great recession led untold thousands of his customers to default and destroyed his market. The movie suggests that he borrowed millions--probably tens or hundreds of millions--based on those mortgages--and now his future is in the hands of his banks. He has the gall to blame the banks, at one point, for having addicted him and others like him to cheap money. It was evidently entirely possible during the last twenty years to become nearly a billionaire without a substantial grasp of economics, and that was bound to have consequences.
Jackie Siegel spends a lot more time in front of the camera and seems like a nice person, but her irresponsibility is at least equal to her husband's. She now has eight children, delivered in rapid fire--and what will become of them now, heaven only knows. In one revealing moment, she mentions that she never expected to have more than two, but when she discovered nannies she decided there was no reason not to have as many as possible! Now most of her staff has been laid off and her current mansion--much smaller than the unfinished one--is a disaster area, virtually an open range for their exotic pets, whom they worry are eating each other. She says sadly at one point that the change in their financial position may actually force their children to go to college and get jobs. Elites like these are not self-sustaining.
The success of western civilization was built largely on education, dedication, and good judgment. None of these now seem necessary to rise to the highest levels of business, politics, or, for that matter, academia. And Siegel has political influence as well: at one point he brags of having used an illegal stratagem (what it is, he will not say) to secure George W. Bush's victory in Florida in 2000, and thus his election with all its extraordinary consequences. How typical is he of the kind of billionaire whose influence over our politics has become so critical since the Citizens United decision? I don't know, but I'm afraid he's not as unusual as he looks.
My career at the Naval War College--where some of the old virtues have survived--is now over, and my full-time career as an educator has one more year to run, as a visitor at Williams College. Since moving to Boston I have had a long talk with a very distinguished professor at a leading university who believes his institution has become hopelessly corrupt. We have assumed our civilization is self-sustaining, but it required a great deal of work, dedication, and thought to create. Those virtues are now increasingly lacking, and I'm not sure exactly how they will be revived.