Ave atque vale Mr. Black

Dec 11th, 2007 | By | Category: Key Current Issues

TORONTO. TUESDAY, DECEMBER 11. 12:30 PM. Now that the day of Conrad Black’s sentencing is over, and the endless TV coverage up here in Canada has ended, my own most prominent emotion is no emotion.

I see that the Globe and Mail is still referring to “Lord Black,” with no apparent satire intended. And I wonder if this particular local “relic of the 19th century” – to quote Canada’s current prime minister in another context – will ever vanish? On TV yesterday I heard again about how much becoming a British Lord meant to Conrad Black. He gave up his Canadian citizenship to get it. Why anyone would do this is beyond me. Robert Fulford in the National Post has similarly just called “Lord Black …the most remarkable, confident and versatile Canadian of his generation.” This too seems to me altogether bizarre.

And I wonder whether, if and when Conrad Black finally does go to jail in Florida, all this kind of absurdity up here in the true north will end? In my weaker moments I would say probably not. But who knows? Maybe it will, at last.

Does he deserve it?

I should make clear that I think the US court sentence Mr. Black has apparently now received for his non-violent white-collar crimes (in the United States in this case) is excessive. Even just some 85% of 6 years, even in a minimum security jail, and a $125,000 fine, for defrauding Hollinger International investors of an alleged $6.1 million seems unreasonable to me – especially when you consider that the act of bringing Mr. Black to trial and so forth itself appears to have lost these same investors considerably more money in declining stock market value.

As best I can make out from what was reported on TV yesterday, that is to say, the average Hollinger investor – in the United States and everywhere else – would probably be considerably better off now if Mr. Black had never been prosecuted. And this just seems to me to underline the essential (and highly ironic) foolishness of trying to deal with the injustices and inequities of some recurrently over-aggressive American “gilded-age” capitalist ethos by periodically throwing a few unlucky random capitalists in jail.

The Chicago judge who has sentenced Mr. Black has declared that “the sentence would serve as a signal to executives that no one is above the law.'” But I doubt it myself. It will likely enough serve as a signal that executives should be more careful about not being among the few who get caught for such white collar crimes. As best I can calculate the moralities and realities involved in any event, Conrad Black has not really done anything all that much more immoral (or amoral?) than a great many of his fellow high-rolling business colleagues do every day. To really serve as a serious deterrent, a lot more of them would have to be put in jail beside him.

I agree, for instance, that Donald Trump probably summarized the matter most succinctly, when he said that Mr. Black’s greatest mistake lay in trying to run Hollinger as a public company the way he ran it as a private company. (Others have made the same point, though Mr. Trump seems to have been the first who the mass media picked up?) And as a shareholder in a number of North American public companies myself, I am glad enough that he has been prosecuted for not taking his fiduciary responsibilities to public company shareholders properly into account.

Yet in the real world, where the rubber hits the road and all that, these things inevitably become matters of degree. According to what was on TV yesterday, the actual amount that the Chicago court has finally found Conrad Black guilty of keeping from his shareholders is some $6.1 million. Now turn, e.g., to page 154 of Kevin Phillips’s excellent book of 2002, Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. Here you will see that the annual compensation of the top 10 US executives rose from between $2.3 and $5.7 million in 1981 to between $104 and $290 million in 2000.

As so many observers have pointed out, it is hard to understand how the performance of the US economy between 1981 and 2000 improved to the degree that such a dramatic increase in executive compensation might suggest. In drastically increasing their salaries by so much, weren’t the top 10 executives arguably ignoring the interests of their shareholders just as much as Conrad Black? And how many of them wound up in jail?

Should we feel sorry for him anyway?

Considerations of this sort no doubt help feed Mr. Black’s own conviction that he ought to be able to avoid serving any jail time at all for what he has done, when he appeals his recent convictions, as he is certainly going to do. But at this stage I lose interest in his case myself.

In more just and fair free and democratic societies than the ones we actually have – in the United States and Canada, and any other part of the world of course – it does seem to me that neither Mr. Black nor any of his colleagues, among the top 10 most highly compensated US executives or anywhere else, would be able to get away with the obscenely greedy impulses and depredations of public shareholder value that they do. (And especially as they have done over the past quarter century – in the new gilded age that such public figures as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan did so much to bring to the English-speaking world. Again Kevin Phillips‘s Wealth and Democracy strikes me as one excellent source for getting a grip on all this.)

Meanwhile, however, like so many others in the United States and Canada today (and many other parts of the rest of the global village too, it does seem), I have about as materially comfortable enough a life as I seem to want or need. I am ready and even want to vote for better public policies about wealth and democracy in the part of North America where I live – and work and invest and save my money for the future. But I do not feel any great need or urge to rise en masse against the likes of Conrad Black – and the various public officials who support them.

As long as the early 21st century robber barons in the US, UK, etc leave me alone – and don’t rip off so much of my hard-earned modest savings and investments that I am unable to keep myself afloat, in the modest style to which I and my own (much cheaper) version of the aging Barbara Amiel are accustomed – I will leave them alone too, as they rot away in their vast mansions of Palm Beach and elsewhere. But I am not going to spend any of my time feeling sorry for any of them who happen to stumble across a patch of bad luck. (Or even, alternatively, to enjoy their misery, which takes almost as much energy.)

The “struggle of nameless Canadians to improve their lives”

At any rate, trying to get a grip on public events like the trial of Conrad Black in Chicago probably does at least help you understand what you believe yourself a bit better.

At this exact moment at least, I have concluded that the “most remarkable, confident and versatile Canadian” who has done the most for his country in my lifetime has been the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau (who also wrote books like Conrad Black, had a beautiful wife, at one point, and was intellectually masterful and recurrently arrogant in a way that I do not much like myself).

I have just rummaged through my own permanent book collection. (It includes no volumes by Mr. Black, though I did once take his early book on Duplessis out of a library.) And I have found something Trudeau wrote not long after he first became prime minister of Canada in the late 1960s. It summarizes a few important things about what the still developing free and democratic Canadian society of today still means to me:

In the past the teaching of history in our schools has been dominated by traditions inherited from Europe. On that continent history has been filled with battles, and the lives of national heroes. In Canada we have had few decisive battles and not many dominant leaders. Much more important to our history has been the struggle of nameless Canadians to improve their lives in our often hostile environment. This struggle has produced its share of adventure and heroism.”

Conrad Black, it seems to me, has played almost no part in this struggle of nameless Canadians – constructive or otherwise. He is an heir of a strand of an older Canadian colonial society that has now outlived whatever vague usefulness it may once have had. And in that same tradition he renounced his Canadian citizenship to become a member of the British House of Lords. Now that he may or may not actually be going to jail in the United States soon enough, it is time for the (anglophone) Canadian mass media to stop paying quite so much attention to his ups and downs.

But will the wise heads in the Canadian mass media today do this, just yet? I am not sure. (And I do know that my wife, e.g., remains fascinated by what happens to Mr. Black – as well as rather discreditably very pleased by his latest misfortunes.) I do nonetheless hold out some hope that we will start hearing rather less about the trials and tribulations of Lord Black up here in Toronto, than we have had to suffer through yet again, over the past day or so. There are, it certainly does seem to me, so many much more interesting people in this city nowadays. It is time we heard a bit more about them.


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