Park Avenue – Money Power and the American Dream
740 Park is the home of the 1% of the 1% and has been the home of the finance ‘masters of the universe’ since the robber baron architects of the Great Depression lived there. 10 minutes to the north, and over the Harlem River, is the other Park Avenue in the South Bronx, where more than half the population need food stamps and children are 20 times more likely to be killed. In the last 30 years, inequality has rocketed in the US – the American Dream only applies to those with the money to lobby politicians for friendly bills on Capitol Hill. The psychology of the wealthy and the poor in the US is like a rigged game of Monopoly where, before you play, you know what the likely outcome is. In the palatial status symbol apartments of 740 Park, the wealthy are visited by presidents and senators, promising them millions of dollars from their foundations in exchange for lower taxes. Residents of the Park Ave in Bronx can’t avoid tax or influence presidents, and they suffer cuts in public spending thanks to reduced tax revenue rom the rich – even though they still have the vote, has the door to social mobility now closed on them?
Alex Gibney’s documentary is an essay about the extreme wealth of a few people and the consequences of their buying of US politics for the rest of the country. The residents of 740 Park live in a self-justifying bubble of 36 units, judging each other’s actions on purely-business grounds without consideration of wider morality or the good of the American Dream. A former concierge of 740 testifies to the rude behavior of its residents with their lavish parties, and notes the training of its teenagers as the next generation of the economic elite, their enthusiasm for playing football soon replaced with their enthusiasm for seeing New York as a playground for their wealth. Meanwhile in the Bronx, parents just want their children to have health, safety, playing space and an education, but before they’re born, they know how it’s probably going to turn out.
The US has a particularly bad record on its citizens escaping poverty, and inequality is at its widest since the Depression. How did this happen? People like those in 740 discovered the power of lobbying – men like Steve Schwartzman from the Blackstone group, who raised $1.2m in 15 minutes for George W Bush at a home fundraiser, or men like David Koch, who spent an estimated $200m on getting up to a third of the House of Representatives elected in line with his interests. Whether Democrat or Republican, few politicians can resist the spend of 740’s residents, so is it a surprise that bills combatting tax breaks for the rich always get quietly dropped?
Those living on Park in the Bronx are simulatenously maligned by vast 740-resident-funded media campaigns against public spending, dressing self-interest of the rich in the clothes of an all-American commitment to personal freedom. The middle-class are motivated to resent the poor’s dependence on the rest of society, swallowing the omnipresent message that the private sector is somehow more American in character than a Government that bothers to care for the poor who voted for it. Only one Park Avenue is in control of its destiny – when a political class needs big money to keep the power machine going, the great intentions of a leader like Barack Obama hit a wall of special interests. Can there be hope through a counterpoint in civil society, if the remnants of the Unions, combined with the Occupy movement, fight back?