The Grammy’s, Lin-Sanity, Jon Stewart (and Iran)

This is another column about the burgeoning crisis between the US and Iran. Since I have yet to gain any traction with this issue I have decided to sprinkle gratuitous pop-culture references throughout the piece to generate interest.

This column first appeared in the February 16th, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press.

Over the past couple of weeks my frequent collaborator, Dorian Dale, and I have set the burgeoning conflict between Iran and the United States in our sights, determined to bring this potential disaster further forward in our nation’s collective consciousness. But while Whitney Houston’s body is in search of an arena large enough to hold her mourners, talk of the next Great War generates barely enough interest to fill a teacup.

Therefore, I have decided to shamelessly sprinkle gratuitous pop-culture references throughout this column in order to reach a larger audience. (References are bolded for navigational ease.)

Iran is the slow moving accident you can’t take your eyes off of. It’s LIN-sanity. For that matter, so is the global economy, the crisis in the Eurozone and the price of oil. Let’s add in the GOP primary season for good measure to bring this tainted stew to a boiling point because the decision-making process in America this year will be guided by partisan politics rather than practical policies.

New Yorkers would be wise to look up from their smartphones for a moment to see what’s really happening. Not only is New York home to the United Nations and ethnic communities from around the globe, it bears visible scars of terrorism. Many of its residents’ livelihoods are directly or indirectly tied to the world financial district, and don’t forget that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is also taped in the city. Moreover, conventional wisdom (if there is such a thing) has it that should the wheels come off the Obama train, our current governor will be a top Democratic contender to challenge whichever GOP dipshit is lucky enough to hoodwink America into voting for him.

One way for Obama to lose the upcoming election is if oil prices continue to get out of hand. As it is, we are already experiencing higher-than-normal pricing during the winter months. Analysts are already warning that if the trend continues and conflict with Iran steers toward the inevitable, oil could hit $200 per barrel this year, translating into approximately $6 at the pump. If this were to happen, Barack Obama’s chances at re-election would be slimmer than Adrien Brody.

Many in the media have dismissed the likelihood of confrontations between the U.S. and Iran as “saber rattling,” but there have been some very real world occurrences that are beyond rhetoric. The attempted bombing of the Israeli embassy in Bangkok this week by an Iranian man and successful assassinations of nuclear engineers within Iran over the past few months have heightened tensions between Israel and Iran. For its part, the United States is positioning itself to defend against the threatened closure of the Strait of Hormuz, a key “choke point” for oil tankers in the Middle East. Along the way, the United States rescued Iranian fishing vessels twice in one week—events that garnered brief, but small international attention as opposed to George Clooney’s performance in “The Descendants,” which has received international acclaim and Oscar nominations.

While the world does its familiar dance of deadly brinksmanship, consider for a moment the case of Morgan Stanley. Never has one company had so much to say about, or perhaps to gain, from the pressing issues at hand. Morgan Stanley embodies the intersection of finance, politics, oil and war more than any other corporation on Earth. If ever there was an example of the “corporatization” of America, this is it. I’m reviving my frequent criticism of Morgan Stanley so we may, in the words of Belgian-born artist Gotye, “Walk the plank with our eyes wide open.”

First off, trying to drill down into Morgan’s structure is like jumping down the rabbit hole in search of Johnny Depp.  The list of Morgan Stanley subsidiaries is a 25-page, single-spaced document with 207 corporations registered on the Cayman Islands alone. What most people, and even some savvy investors, don’t realize is that among them you will find a host of companies directly related to or involved in the oil industry.

Take, for example, Heidmar, a global oil shipping company with 120 vessels. Or TransMontaigne, which controls a third of the oil terminal business in the United States. Both are wholly-owned subsidiaries of Morgan Stanley. Furthermore, Morgan owns $1.2 billion in shares of ExxonMobil and $900 million in shares of Chevron. Oh, and many of the oil futures contracts are traded on the Intercontinental Exchange in Atlanta, which was founded by Jay-Z. No, jk, lmfao. It was founded by Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and BP.

Piece this together and you will quickly understand that there are two things of critical importance to Morgan Stanley where the oil business is concerned: price and volatility. When you add to the equation that the leading energy analysts in the world who predict the future price and volatility of oil are from… you get the point.

To borrow from the Occupy Wall Street movement—This is what democracy doesn’t look like.

Now let’s get our conspiracy freak on for a moment and take a look at whom Morgan Stanley is backing for president of the United States. No, it’s not Steven Colbert. Morgan is steadfastly behind Willard “I support military action in Iran” Romney. In fact, it is Romney’s third top contributor in the 2012 election cycle behind only Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, two companies that also know a little bit about gaming the financial markets.

Allow me to go one step further. Conflict in the Strait of Hormuz would be the best thing to happen to Morgan’s oil interests, as they deal mostly in the Western Hemisphere and would benefit greatly from their own prognostications of skyrocketing oil prices. Because the United States is officially now a net-exporter of oil, the American petroleum business and those financial companies that profit from it would experience a boom like never before.

The very thought of gas and oil prices going even higher sends chills down the spine, especially here in New York where we rely so heavily on home-heating oil and transportation in our daily lives. But don’t worry, New Yorkers, we’re in good hands there, too: Morgan Stanley owns the majority stockpile of home-heating oil reserves in the Northeast. Charlie Sheen can only dream of “winning” as much as Morgan Stanley.


All photos from the Associated Press. 

Tesla Motors: Electric Car IPO

Tesla, who was prone to disturbing visions and hallucinations, would be in good company with the delirious investors in Tesla Motors. But Wall Street loves a fun story and glamour wins the day over pragmatism, and thus the era of the $100,000 electric automobile is upon us. Despite the company’s own admission that profits are a distant dream, and an IPO with several government requirements and restrictions, America is at least (momentarily) talking about zero-emission transportation.

Nikola Tesla In His Lab

The latest and greatest darling of Wall Street, Tesla Motors, rocketed onto the Nasdaq Exchange under the ticker symbol TSLA in its initial public offering this week. The isolated enthusiasm surrounding this company belies a greater unease that crept back into the markets as investors grow increasingly wary of a global double-dip recession. Tesla’s rise to fame has also had the effect of highlighting the company’s namesake, Nikola Tesla, who endures as one of the most significant influences on science and technology in the modern world. Tesla, an investor in the late 1800s and early 20th century, was the father of technology such as alternating current (AC Power), hydro-electricity, radio signals (sorry, Marconi fans) and the modern engine, among myriad other staggering accomplishments in the field of science.

But Tesla’s resurgence can also be seen as a cautionary tale to those that followed him, the Tesla Motor company included. While Tesla’s achievements are arguably more significant than even his contemporary (and mentor-turned-adversary) Thomas Edison, he rarely receives the recognition he deserves, and has been curiously relegated to footnote status in American education.

Tesla, who was prone to disturbing visions and hallucinations, would be in good company with the delirious investors in Tesla Motors. But Wall Street loves a fun story and glamour wins the day over pragmatism, and thus the era of the $100,000 electric automobile is upon us. Despite the company’s own admission that profits are a distant dream, and an IPO with several government requirements and restrictions, America is at least (momentarily) talking about zero-emission transportation. The blessing and the curse of American ingenuity is we tend to think big. Big inventions sometimes have big repercussions that spawn big solutions with several inevitable repercussions of their own. And the cycle continues.

But if Tesla Motors has Wall Street on its side for now, Tesla the inventor virtually had it in his pocket for a brief period. JP Morgan and George Westinghouse were early supporters of his genius, but it was Morgan who pulled the plug on what may have potentially altered the course of power generation forever. Tesla constructed a tower with Morgan’s backing in Shoreham (how’s that for Kioli?) that, according to Tesla’s laboratory research, would have essentially electrified the earth and used it to conduct power, thereby eliminating the need for power stations and transmission lines. At the 11th hour Morgan shelved the project upon realizing this model for energy would have provided free power. Free anything in Morgan’s world was a bad thing. Herein lay the cautionary portion of the tale about glamorous projects that are supported by Wall Street and the government.

Tesla continued working and lecturing for several years before fading into obscurity and dying penniless and alone in New York City. Not dissimilar to the fate suffered by pre-grunge rock band Tesla, who currently reside in the “where are they now” file. But I digress. The important lesson to be learned is that the vagaries of our national agenda coupled with the powerful counter-interests of oil companies should be enough to temper the enthusiasm of any investor in the electric car market. Add to this a product whose hype centers on its ability to reach a speed of 60 mph in less than four seconds—the auto equivalent of “this one goes to 11” and Tesla redux has the makings of flash in the pan. (Yes, I have now gratuitously referenced Spinal Tap twice in one paragraph. Tesla, the band, inspired this line of thinking.)

The electric car requires a national recharging infrastructure as robust as the network of petroleum filling stations. While there are notable entrepreneurs in this field and a loose patchwork of government subsidies to encourage investment in this arena as well, the movement isn’t even in its infancy; it’s still in utero. Any combination of the oil industry lobbying against it, the government running out of subsidies and a product that is impractical and expensive, and Tesla could very well wind up as the subject of a documentary titled Who Killed The Electr… Hey, wait a minute!

For now, we will ooh and ahh over this bright, shiny new bauble and marvel at the possibilities of zipping silently across the country at 180 mph under clear blue, smog-less skies. Ultimately, clean energy will be accomplished in less sexy ways. Somewhere Jimmy Carter is shaking his head. What would be really weird is if he was rocking out to Tesla on his iPod while doing it.