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Is the Sky Falling?

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I just finished watching the latest James Bond thriller, "Skyfall" for the second time since its release a couple of years ago. The first time, I guess I just enjoyed it for being one of the best Bond films of the series, as did many other fans. But, often, when I'm not just being pleasantly distracted by good entertainment, my mind starts wondering about what might have prompted the writer(s) to come up with some of the film's basic premises to begin with. So, this time, when the bad guy (played by Javier Bardem) starts regaling James with a shopping list of the kind of mischief a technologically savvy psychopath such as he, with some strategically placed hardware, could conceivably cause mankind, this slowly started striking me as much more science than fiction.

But what perhaps brought the point so poignantly home this time around was a very sobering experience I had many years back.

My father had introduced me to the stock market at a very early age, and by the time I was in my late teens I was trading stocks. This, naturally, required following the financial news extremely closely. Back then (early-to-mid 70s) everyone involved in the stock market watched FNN (the Financial News Network), which I don't even know still exists. But, to me, the most remarkable thing about it was this fellow who, each day, came onscreen during the last 5 minutes, from 3:55 to 4:00 PM, right before the closing bell. He would quickly assess the day's activity and often make predictions about what he thought would happen the next day. I knew even then that this was a particularly pricey time slot. The fellow's name was Richard Ney. He had actually been a movie actor many years earlier, and then segued somewhere along the line to becoming a portfolio manager. What was so striking was that when he would make predictions about the following day's activity, he would accurately state at what number the Dow Industrial Average would close. And he sometimes got it right within one-tenth of a point. At the time he had become rather famous nationally with a best-seller called "The Wall Street Gang" which had made it into "Time" magazine's Top 10 list. In it, he explained that the stock market was completely controlled by insiders (which at the time was quite revolutionary and scandalous), for the sole purpose of milking traders like me. To this day, the SEC charter has an absurd loophole allowing specialists, those people who literally set the prices of stocks, to trade for themselves and for their "friends"; making for the most egregious conflict of interest in the history of western civilization. And despite Congressional hearings into the matter (at which Mr. Ney testified due to his prominence) the charter, to this day, has never been amended. Thus was my early entree into the wonderful world of adult corruption.

In any event, I read Mr. Ney's book, which not only went into detail about how this scam was executed, but taught everyone (who read the book) how to predict where stocks were heading, almost as well as he, by "piggybacking" specialist trading. I did so, and quickly turned about $600 into $6000 in a couple of months.

This in itself might be worth going into detail about. But it is not the point I ultimately want to make. Although I do want to mention here one aspect of how the specialist system works for reasons which will become obvious (No I did not get rich. But that's not because the system wasn't quite sound. Many others did get quite rich, until the specialists had to get more cagey about because everyone was onto them- except the news media and politicians- of course... I just went on to other things). The specialists use "current events" to alibi movements in stocks which they, of course, are controlling themselves (at whomever's behest) unilaterally. For example, the financial pages will declare: "Stocks took a plunge today in advance of the Fed Chairman's expectation to raise interest rates." Now, no trader I'd ever met (at the time) bought or sold on this type of thing. Everyone based their decision on stock fundamentals, i.e. whether they thought the company would do well or not. Yet, this continues to be an essential part of the rigged system. But, as I said, I'll return to this later...

Meanwhile. at this same time, my smart and enterprising brother-in-law had started a publication called the "American Lawyer". And in addition to being the publisher, he was also writing the main column on the front page each month. I would often talk to him about this outrageous chicanery I had uncovered in the financial world, and he would (of course) just dismiss it as "conspiracy theories". But one weekend I was visiting him and my sister at their home in Westchester, NY. And as soon as I sat down on the couch in the family room he tossed the latest copy of the "American Lawyer" on my lap (with his column on the front page) and just said, "read it."

I had no idea what to expect. As it turned out, his column that month was a profile of the "corporate raider" Carl Icahn (who Forbes now lists as the 16th richest man in America), and it started out with a little story I will never forget. Even my brother-in-law, Steve, wrote that "it was straight out of some Hollywood script". Carl said that while he recently had been in negotiations to buy Philips Petroleum, he would regularly receive calls from someone he didn't know, who wouldn't identify himself, and would not say whom he represented. Nonetheless, Mr. Icahn said this fellow was intimately aware of everything which was going on, and would periodically call Icahn, even at phone numbers the gentleman couldn't possibly have access to. Icahn was once at his residence in Palm Springs, where he would go to get away from everything (even his mother didn't have the number), yet this fellow called. One of the reasons I believe the fellow was staying in such close touch with Icahn was to have material to place as those "current events", in order to alibi the stock manipulations. But the part about this story that most people found so unnerving and almost incredible was the following: At some point this guy asked Mr. Icahn if he could use some help buying Philips Petroleum. Icahn said he chuckled and replied, "Sure, if you have an extra $30 billion", which was literally how much it would have taken. Now, we're talking about the mid-70s here, when $30 billion dollars was probably closer in value to what $300 billion would be now. The character apparently didn't miss a beat and said, "To the people I represent, $30 billion is nothing." I guess Steve gave me the article as a concession to what he had previously regarded as just my crazy "conspiracy theories."

So, why did "Skyfall" remind me of this bizarre incident? Because part of what the clever makers of that film did was to take some of those wonderful little gadgets from the earlier Bond films, which would so transfix and delight us with their novelty and inventiveness, and juxtapose them with the utterly dwarfing reality of our current degree of technological sophistication. I'll never forget Javier Bardem's bad guy character, Silva, explaining to Mr. Bond, "Just a click there and a stock market crash, another click here, civil war in Somalia..." He might as well have said, "a click here and planes on TV fly into skyscrapers. A click here, and George Bush becomes President. A click here and Netanyahu becomes Prime Minister. A click here, a bomb goes off at the Boston Marathon or on a subway in London, or "terrorists" kill cartoonists, or gas drops to new lows, or the GOP takes control of the Senate or the NSA reads your email, taps your phone and then plants "incriminating evidence" on your hard drive, ad infinituum..."

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Is this too far fetched? Am I making distinct, individual events out to be part of some sinister master plan? Probably yes and no.

But, Carl Icahn's corporate stalker story was about 40 years ago, and already the "insiders'" resources were virtually limitless, their access to personal and/or proprietary information seemingly absolute, and ability to control and manipulate it for their own personal gain mind-boggling; all while keeping our lawmakers on a short enough leash so as not to interfere in the least.

About this time Norman Mailer once said, "This country is as tightly controlled as a Cellini painting." So, perhaps the technological advances and virtual wiring of the entire planet since that time are not literally responsible for every single move away from the principles on which this country was originally founded, and our inexorable movement towards a totalitarian oligarchy. But I think it's time to consider the possibility these same organizing forces and principles, which have kept moving forward and evolving, in tandem with our ever advancing technological know-how for nearly half a century, have now become impenetrable. And any attempt to address or undo them, through our traditional democratic processes, is essentially spitting into the wind.

If this is indeed the case, how then do we proceed?

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(Article changed on March 19, 2015 at 11:11)

(Article changed on March 19, 2015 at 11:30)

(Article changed on March 19, 2015 at 16:55)

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Former small business owner now retired.

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