Tag Archives: John Oliver

Pearls? Before Swine?

27 Apr





The Bedlamite

Our President. Really.



Until I can get help for this condition, I find myself expending some effort on the so-called social media platform entitled FACEBOOK. This activity is troublesome as there are multitudes of useless monads of information (validating the notion that it pays to choose your friends wisely) and much silliness as well as bombast and, well I could go on… So…when I occasionally review my contributions to the din, I am pleased that some are worth anthologizing,  And thus, with some tweaks here are  my recent Facebook posts:


1 More from the dissident hymnbook for the choir…

Chomsky, “And it turns out that the most powerful country in human history, the richest, most powerful, most influential, the leader of the free world, has just decided not only not to support the efforts [Paris Conference, December 2015] but actively to undermine them. So there’s the whole world on one side, literally, at least trying to do something or other, not enough maybe, although some places are going pretty far, like Denmark, couple of others; and on the other side, in splendid isolation, is the country led by the most dangerous organization in human history, which is saying, “We’re not part of this. In fact, we’re going to try to undermine it.” We’re going to maximize the use of fossil fuels—could carry us past the tipping point. We’re not going to provide funding for—as committed in Paris, to developing countries that are trying to do something about the climate problems. We’re going to dismantle regulations that retard the impact, the devastating impact, of production of carbon dioxide and, in fact, other dangerous gases—methane, others.”


Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the UnIted States.”

It’s possible your high school history covered the US theft of a vast swath of Mexico in the 1846 invasion known Guerra de Estados Unidos a Mexico (“War of the United States Against Mexico”). And maybe even included the scam known as thew Gadsen Purchase. Novelist Carmen Boullosa’s elucidation in her novel Texas the Great Theft sets the record straight. Among other things validating the Mexican saying, “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the UnIted States.”


Some clever shit about some dumb shit  Lindy West writes the truth…

  We must keep calling these ideas what they are, and to do that we need a shared understanding of what words mean. That’s why Trump’s 100 days of gibberish aren’t just disorienting and silly – they’re dangerous. Trump approaches language with the same roughshod imperialist entitlement he’s applying to the presidency (and, by extension, the world) – as though it’s a resource that one man can own and burn at will, not a vastly complex collective endeavour of which he is only a steward.


4 HBO should submit this for a Pulitzer…

5. Too true... Perhaps Andy Borowitz can have a shot at being Press Secretary


CHICAGO (The Borowitz Report)—In an appearance at the University of Chicago on Monday, former President Barack Obama unloaded a relentless barrage of complete sentences in what was widely seen as a brutal attack on his successor, Donald Trump.


6 If I oppose inviting the Bedlamite president* to the US Holocaust Museum that is not censorship or some mysterious infringement on the 1st amendment…

Not only did the US Holocaust Museum follow tradition and invite POTUS to speak but  screechy clown Ann Coulter attempted to desecrate the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement. One writer demurs from the sophistry that this is a 1st amendment issue

“To treat the open forum of the classroom or the campus like just another town square—and thus to explain value judgment and knowledge prioritization on campus in terms of censorship or “shutting down” speech—is misguided. No one really thinks Coulter’s ideas are “shut down” if she doesn’t get a chance to talk to Berkeley students. Indeed, as I’ve argued, the marketplace of ideas is more likely to reward controversy than substance. It’s reasonable for us to disagree over the value of bringing someone like Coulter to campus; but it’s unreasonable to insist that if people make successful arguments for why Coulter shouldn’t have a campus platform, that’s tantamount to censorship. Obviously, students can read, watch, and hear professional provocateurs like Coulter without an institution of higher education hosting her speech. An education opens minds and expands horizons by introducing students to people and ideas they otherwise won’t find trending on Twitter over the latest monetized controversy.”


7. As I am enamored of Julie Buntin‘s debut novel Marlena, I thought I would share the joy but pointing you all towards another bright, young writer...

“Influence is a tricky thing. I think it starts with love, with resonance, with the exhilarating feeling that what you’ve read articulates something you’ve always felt but never had the words for. It’s reading something and jumping into the conversation to say, yes, it was this way for me too. Yes, and. The and is the writing. The and is the book that is your answer. There are details and moments in Marlena I hadn’t even realized I’d borrowed—a family of French Canadians, for example—and there are also more direct links. I remember knowing I wanted to write a scene where the girls just laugh, really hard, and for no good reason, and when I wrote it I thought of Berie and Sils as much as I thought of moments in my own adolescence when my best friend raising her eyebrow could make me sick with laughter. And writing about memory by structuring a book as a series of memories: I looked closely at Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? to try to figure how to do that, how the transitions might work, how to hide the seams.”


8 More reading for the choir…Henry Giroux:

“…What has often surprised me is not that it unfolded or the neo-liberal orthodoxy that increasingly made it appear more and more possible. What shocked me was the way the left has refused to really engage this discourse in ways that embrace a comprehensive politics, one that go beyond the fracturing single-issue movements and begins to understand what the underlying causes of these authoritarian movements have been and what it might mean to address them.

You have to ask yourself, what are the forces at work in the United States around civic culture, around celebrity culture, around the culture of fear, around the stoking of extremism and anger that give rise to a right-wing populism and neo-fascist politics? About a media that creates a culture of illusion, about the longstanding legacy of racism and terror in the United States. I mean, how did that all come together to produce a kind of authoritarian pedagogy that basically isolated people, and made them feel lonely? All of a sudden they find themselves in a community of believers, in which the flight from reality offers them a public sphere in which they can affirm themselves and no longer feel that they’re isolated.”:


9 Here’s a hymn book for the choir… ever vigilant dissident Tom Englehardt at Tomdispatch

“…America’s forever wars have now been pursued by these generals and others like them for more than 15 years across a vast swath of the planet — from Pakistan to Libya (and ever deeper into Africa) — and the chaos of failing states, growing conflicts, and spreading terror movements has been the result. There’s no reason to believe that further military action will, a decade and a half later, produce more positive results.

What happens, then? What happens when the war honeymoon is over and the generals keep right on fighting their way? The last two presidents put up with permanent failing war, making the best they could of it. That’s unlikely for Donald Trump. When the praise begins to die down, the criticism starts to rise, and questions are asked, watch out.”



Matt Taibbi, Keith Olbermann, Lucian Truscott and Charles Pierce are erudite commentators on US politics and  unabashed critics of the 45th POTUS and his regime Taibbi, Pierce and Keith hit the trifecta


10 Here’s Keith:

11. Charley Pierce‘s miscellany

. “If he’s done nothing else, this president* has given every Republican politician license to let their freak flags fly. (Lindsey Graham is anxious to tee it up on the peninsula, too, it seems. This is insane.) But Pence seems to be liberated more than most folks.”

12 Mask? What “mask”? Historian Eric Foner is interviewed


The Nation: In the introduction to Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, you say that your aim in writing about the history of American radicalism was, in part, “to provide modern-day social activists with a ‘usable past.’” What does that phrase mean to you?

Foner: The “usable past” is a term that became popular in the late 1960s. Howard Zinn used it; Jesse Lemisch used it. Radical historians began talking about it. I like the term because the past should be usable. That does not mean propaganda; a distorted past is not useful. A past like the one I was taught in school when I was growing up is not a usable past. It was just about how America was created perfect and has just been getting better ever since.




13 Matt Taibbi reminds us of the real histiory of the USA


“Seventy years ago, affluent white people could huddle in the suburbs, watch Leave It to Beaver, and pretend that cops weren’t beating the crap out of people in East St. Louis or Watts or wherever the nearest black neighborhood was. But these days, the whole country regularly gawks at brutal cases of police violence on the Internet. Nobody can pretend it’s not going on, but millions of people clearly don’t want to do anything about it – just the opposite, in fact. They want more. Is this a twisted country, or what?”



Fuck this world, and fuck those who would impose their frail conceits of good and evil on it. Fuck the black man and the white, the junkie and the crusader, the philosopher and the fool. Fuck those who swagger and those who cower, those who pretend to truth and those who flee from it. Fuck the poet and the book burner, the leader and the led. Fuck God and justice and every other lie that ever held men back. Only when one set it all aflame and forsook it could one return, if only for a breath, to that time of purity when fire was the only philosophy…   from Nick Tosches’ Trinities

Tourette’s like Outbursts Posted to that Inescapable Social Media Platform

7 Apr




If you grew up on the mean streets of the 50th Ward in Chicago, Tucker Carlson, the embattled Fox Network Cerebus, comes off as a preparatory school prick. Now comes an article in the hallowed’ New Yorker magazine, providing more information and coloration than I ever wanted to know about a Fox headliner. Essentially learning that Tucker is a human being.

The big surprise for me is what the late, still great Christopher Hitchens observed about Tucker Carlson ( which is a timely reminder about the distortions of Television).

2. Syria is the nation, bordering Lebanon (in which arguably the USA has been complicit in that country’s destabilization) Yet another disgrace in which the world leader’s use human beings as shuttlecocks in their game of “World Domination.” Keep in mind this has happened before. There was even a time when the USA accepted refugees from areas where “national interest ” was allegedly operative, Hungary in, Cuba,1959 onward. Apparently also, unofficially, suburbs full of Persians (aka Iranians) landed in Beverly Hills. Need convincing of the awfulness of Syria and blaring moral failure attendant?

Here, from someone who knows…


3. Innovation without progress…Company Town tells about the bad shit that attends to the so-called sharing economy…

4.Pussy grabbing Bedlamite weighs in on one of the worst people in the world



5. Still your president

6 I expect many of us who view the Bedlamite regime as a nightmare wonder when the tipping point, the critical mass, the crossed Rubicon, the broken camel’s back, will come…

Enter Erik (the dark) Prince…(WAPOST to be commended for exposing this shadow play.

1. “…Current and former U.S. officials said that while Prince refrained from playing a direct role in the Trump transition, his name surfaced so frequently in internal discussions that he seemed to function as an outside adviser whose opinions were valued on a range of issues, including plans for overhauling the U.S. intelligence community.

He appears to have particularly close ties to Bannon, appearing multiple times on the Breitbart satellite radio program and website that Bannon ran before joining the Trump campaign.

In a July interview with Bannon, Prince said those seeking forceful U.S. leadership should “wait till January and hope Mr. Trump is elected.” And he lashed out at President Barack Obama, saying that because of his policies “the terrorists, the fascists, are winning.”

2. …War moves quickly: In less than an hour in Baghdad in the fall of 2007, American contractors working for Blackwater shot and killed 14 Iraqis, including children. Justice is slower, and it took until Monday [April 2015] for four of those contractors, who were convicted in August, to be sentenced to jail for 14 of those deaths. Three received 30-year sentences, while a fourth will spend his life in prison.

3. “Using a catchall term for the company, which keeps changing its name after successive scandals, the FBI’s Chris Briese didn’t mince worlds in court. “For an extended period of time, Academi/Blackwater operated in a manner which demonstrated systemic disregard for U.S. Government laws and regulations,”


Life isn’t fair, right? And sports, well…




Oliver saved his harshest critique for the defense that Nunes’ fellow House Republican Ted Yoho delivered on MSNBC, in which he tried to claim that Congress members work for the president and not their constituents.
“No! You absolutely do not! You do one of them, and explicitly not the other. That is literally the point of Congress,” Oliver exclaimed. “And that’s why this story is Stupid Watergate: It could very well take down the government, but nobody involved understands why, or how to cover it up, or what the government fucking is, or possibly how to breathe without getting regular reminders.”

Misc Miscellany : Covering the Waterfront

24 Aug

If there is such thing as must-see-TV for pissed-off people (POPeeps) like you and me than John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight would be it. I can rattle off a hand full of topics on which Oliver & Co. Swiftian lampooning point of view vivisected conventional wisdom and apathy (drones. sex education, food waste, Edward Snowden interview, Chicken farming). The lastest sacred bovine to feel the sharp blade of Oliverian wit — Televangelism.

The Daily Beast‘s Marlow Stern updates:

In order to prove how ridiculously easy it is to establish a tax-free “church” that pads its coffers with donations for “blessings,” Oliver established his own church—Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption—and asked his viewers to send cash donations to a P.O. Box that he’d then donate to charity….It turns out that, aside from the bags of seeds, beef jerky, and foreign currency, Oliver and Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption received a boatload of money from viewers….

How great it would be if Oliver targeted the exemption Scientology received after strong-arming the IRS with the threat of a 1000 lawsuits (as stated in the documentary Going Clear )

I guess if the New York Times is going to publish silly shit like this it makes up for it by good stuff like this


Nobody brings this up about the SHORT FINGERED VULGARIAN, who is always on about, ‘We can’t have foreigners coming into this country!’” said Maher. “His first wife is from Czechoslovakia. His current wife is from Slovenia. So, if you think crawling under a wall is the most disgusting way to become an American, somewhere there is a Panamanian woman hiding in a truck full of chickens with ten pounds of heroin-filled condoms in her stomach who’s thinking, ‘Well, at least I didn’t have to blow the SHORT FINGERED VULGARIAN.’

Speaking of “the short fingered vulgarian”, who is now the leading tag for click-baiting media, SFV weighed in on the other popular click bait tag, Deflategate (talk about a massive failure if imagination, 42 years later ‘gate’ is still the suffix of choice for mindless journalists)

Streaming video is coming close to taking over my life (a subject I expect to elaborate on in the fullness of time). In any case I chanced upon a baffling but compelling film entitle Upstream Color

Celebrities doing senseless and silly things

I had not known of actress Olivia Munn (which does highlight my pop cultural illiteracy)until The Newsroom featured her as a nerdy financial news reporter. Turns out she is a hysterically bawdy and quick witted lady

Book publisher Europa Editions deserves this attention

Will Cuba take over Major League Baseball?

NFL thug James Harrison made news by rejecting “showing up trophies for his adolescent boys. And what do you know, the usual know-nothing trolls lined behind him…

Good 70's by Mike Mandel

Good 70’s by Mike Mandel

As it is in limited edition, Good 70’s (and thus I don’t have firsthand, hands on knowledge of it, I can’t properly say much about) seems to be a special thing.

This boxed collection contains facsimiles of Mandel’s original publications, long out of print, including the Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards, Myself: Timed Exposures, Seven Never Before Seen Portraits of Edward Weston, plus previously unpublished work such as Motel Postcards, People in Cars and Mrs. Kilpatric, and ephemera from the projects, including selected facsimile contact sheets from the baseball photo shoots, a letter to Mandel from Charis Wilson regarding Edward Weston and a pack of ten of the original 1975 baseball cards.

Do Men In Blue (baseball umpires)make boo boos? A long as I am talking umps, baseball has a long memory

Move over Cuba and Dominican Republic, Uganda — the next baseball powerhouse?


18 Aug

The only news here is why the Times waited to report this previously well reported information

Jon Stewart, Steve Colbert, John Oliver, Keys & Peele, Barry Crimmins are great but these guys paved the way

Brady Vs Goodell: Being paid 46 million dollars a year to front a 10 billion dollar a year enterprise doesn’t necessarily make you the worst person in the world. Right?

There was a time when Maureen Dowd was worth reading and I get that The Short Fingered Vulgarian is hot stuff currently and that you get clicks by mentioning him but any regard I had for MS. Dowd has vanished. She now completes the troika of to be avoided Times columnists.

Amazon is a white collar sweat shop and the New York Times did some good work presenting that—which is plain to see if you have the old fashioned attention span to go through its 5100 word reportt

Jeff Bezos, the fifth richest person in the world, of course, demurs.Perhaps you are not famiiar with business magbate BEZOS:

That Amazon’s so called fulfillment centers were literally sweat shops is old news

Two things (at least) to note are that the Times Amazon expose garnered 5100 (and counting)comments and it stimulated bloviating pundits to moral ideation

Meta item of the day

DISPOSABLE  FUTURES by Brad Evans and Henry Giroux

DISPOSABLE FUTURES by Brad Evans and Henry Giroux

From Disposable Futuresby Brad Evans & Henry Giroux

It was against twentieth-century forms of human dispos- ability that we began to appreciate the political potency of the arts as a mode of resistance, as dystopian literatures, cinema, music, and poetry, along with the visual and performing arts, challenged conventional ways of interpreting catastrophe. We only need to be reminded here of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, Bertolt Brecht’s The Interrogation of the Good, Max Ernst’s Europe After the Rain, and Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 to reveal the political value of more poetic interventions and creative responses to conditions we elect to term “the intolerable.” Indeed, if the reduction of life to some scientific variable, capable of being manipulated and prod- ded into action as if it were some expendable lab rat, became the hallmark of violence in the name of progress, it was precisely the strategic confluence between the arts and politics that enabled us to challenge the dominant paradigms of twentieth-century thought. Hence, in theory at least, the idea that we needed to connect with the world in a more cultured and meaningful way appeared to be on the side of the practice of freedom and breathed new life into politics.

And yet, despite the horrors of the Century of Violence, our ways of thinking about politics not only have remained tied to the types of scientific reductions that history warns to be integral to the dehumanization of the subject, but such thinking has also made it difficult to define the very conditions that make a new politics possible. At the same time accelerating evolution of digital communications radicalizes the very contours of the hu- man condition such that we are now truly “image conscious,” so too is life increasingly defined and altered by the visual gaze and a screen culture whose omniscient presence offers new spaces for thinking dangerously. This hasn’t led, however, to the har- nessing of the power of imagination when dealing with the most pressing political issues. With neoliberal power having entered into the global space of flows while our politics remains wedded to out dated ways of thinking and acting, even the leaders of the strongest nations now preach the inevitability of catastrophe, forcing us to partake in a world they declare to be “insecure by design.”

Miscellany #47: 10 August 2015

10 Aug

One of the few reasons to watch the Red Sox

I am in the small camp of people who think its a waste of verbiage and pixels to attend to short fingered vulgarian. John Oliver sums it up brilliantly:

Now, if you want to hear more on the Trump/Kelly showdown, you can basically tune in to any news network because it is all they’re fucking talking about,” Oliver continued. “But we are going to move on, and I’ll tell you why: This whole debacle was meaningless. The 2016 election will not depend on this because it’s 457 days away. There will be actual babies born on Election Day 2016 whose parents haven’t even met yet. So everyone pace yourselves

Child 44

Tom Rob Smith’s trilogy Child 44, The Secret Speech and Agent Six set in the Soviet Union (Stalin era and post Stalin)in addition to being a page turning crime story is a skillful survey of life under in a dreary and fear-fraught so called socialist regime with an addition patina of paranoia provided by genocidal megalomania of our late WWII ally Uncle Joe.

Secret Speech

Agent 6

Now comes a Ridley Scott produced, Richard Price scripted film iteration of Child 44 with a well cast ensemble of actors lead by the increasingly visible Tom Hardy* (my favorite of his roles is Jewish gang leader Alfie Solomons, in the oddly inexplicably-underappreciated BBC seriesPeaky Blinders). Had I not been aware of the books it would have been some time before I came to this film as there was virtually no press attached to it—though its good enough that it will find its audience and credence sooner rather than later

Apparently the Ruskies are aware of Child 44 and reverted to a Soviet era response.

A few years ago I conversed with Nigerian novelist Uzodinma Iweala about his debut novel, Beasts of No Nation. It’s a harrowing story set in an unnamed West African nation beset by a civil war and being waged by child soldiers, a tragedy in and of itself. It’s cinematic version is coming soon with the redoubtable Idris Alba as the very scary military leader.

Some NY Times person thought this was clever? Useful? Amusing? Maybe the question should have been, “Name the Supreme Court Justices” Or “Who won the Battle of Mukden?”

Aerial photo of Nagasaki after Atom Bombing [Library of Congress]

Aerial photo of Nagasaki after Atom Bombing [Library of Congress]


No doubt there is a strong predisposition to forget about US deployment of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki but here’s a piece from Lapham’s Quarterly that talks about efforts to add to the dustbin of history:

Contradicting the new constitution’s guarantee of freedom of expression, and its explicit wording that “no censorship shall be maintained,” the occupation’s Civil Censorship Detachment (CCD) carried out broad media restrictions…Across the country, movie theaters could only show films approved after stringent review by the CCD; among other criteria, any challenges to the terms of Japanese surrender,…

No specific censorship rules referred directly to the Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic bombings, but the CCD nonetheless eliminated most statements about the nuclear attacks in print and broadcast journalism, literature, films, and textbooks. Public comments that either justified the United States’ use of the bombs or argued for their inevitability were sometimes permitted, but subjects that continued to be censored included the extent of physical destruction in the two cities; technical details about the bombs’ blasts, heat, and radiation; death and casualty counts; personal testimonies from atomic bomb survivors; and any reportage, photographs, or film footage of survivors suffering from atomic bomb injuries or radiation effects. Even phrases such as “Many innocent people were killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki” were banned. Nagasaki named its annual commemoration of the bombing “The Memorial Day for the Restoration of Peace,” calling it a “culture festival” to appease U.S. officials

Artist José Luis Vargas, in his Santurce studio [Christopher Gregory for Al Jazeera America0

Artist José Luis Vargas, in his Santurce studio [Christopher Gregory for Al Jazeera America0

I love Puerto Rico especially the strip of coast in the west, from Aguadilla to Mayaguez. It hasn’t escaped me that the poor benighted island (which was added to the US empire after the Spanish American Cuban War)has been under greater strains and burdens of late. It was encouraging to read

Baffler Issue #23

Baffler Issue #23

Frankly I don’t understood what LinkedIn is. In Baffler #23 Ann Friedman does a fine job of explicating what it isn’t.It seems I haven’t missed anything:

LinkedIn merely digitizes the core, and frequently cruel, paradox of networking events and conferences. You show up at such gatherings because you want to know more important people in your line of work—but the only people mingling are those who, like you, don’t seem to know anyone important. You just end up talking to the sad sacks you already know. From this crushing realization, the paradoxes multiply on up through the social food chain: those who are at the top of the field are at this event only to entice paying attendees, soak up the speaking fees, and slip out the back door after politely declining the modest swag bag. They’re not standing around on garish hotel ballroom carpet with a plastic cup of cheap chardonnay in one hand and a stack of business cards in the other.

* Hardy’s role as Bob Saginowski in The Drop is also compelling:

Bob: There are some sins that you commit that you can’t come back from, you know, no matter how hard you try. You just can’t. It’s like the devil is waiting for your body to quit. Because he knows, he knows that he already owns your soul. And then I think maybe there’s no devil. You die… and God, he says, Nah, nah you can’t come in. You have to leave now. You have to leave and go away and you have to be alone. You have to be alone forever.

Michael Lewis No. 5…Better than Chanel

4 Jun
Michael Lewis [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Michael Lewis [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

In the course of my prolonged post graduate education (and adolescence) I have been privileged to discourse with countless accomplished, talented, creative and socially conscious people—some a number of times. I may have lost count, but the conversation (my fourth or fifth)that follows with Michael Lewis, author of Flash Boys, Money Ball,The Blind Side, Coach and more, fills in the gaps between Lewis’s published endeavors. At this writing he is awaiting the green light on a series for Showtime (which we discuss) and just started the reporting on what may not be his next book. Not to mention his dedication to the upbringing of his children…

My teenaged jock son (baseball, football), Cuba, joined our table at Boston’s Four Seasons and so in addition to an update on the frequency trading issues (Flash Boys), the talk turns to the awful NCAA, the commodification and monetization of kid sports and our kids performance arts, The Peaky Blinders, the golden age of TV, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and whither goeth the NFL and the sport of football.

After spending four or five hours with Michael Lewis, I continue to be impressed by his reportorial skills and narrative talents and abiding decency, which is good reason to make this chat part of an ongoing, unfinished skein that may yet continue…

Robert Birnbaum: Okay, we’re rolling. This is the 26th of March. My son Cuba is in attendance. He will inherit the business (laughs).

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s all yours.


MICHAEL LEWIS: [to Cuba]Everything before you, the signed books and the microphone.[to RB] I’m sure you have a library.

Robert Birnbaum: I have a 100 cubic feet storage space —most of which is filled with signed 1st editions,art work and my photo archive.

MICHAEL LEWIS: They will have some value someday.

Robert Birnbaum: Maybe.


Robert Birnbaum: I remember when the man who was the director of the Toronto the International Festival of Authors was canned, after years of his service. And the organization tried to reclaim his[signed] book collection.

Flash Boys by Micheal Lewis

Flash Boys by Micheal Lewis

Robert Birnbaum: Okay, so is this a victory lap for Flash Boys?

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s the paperback tour. I think the war is still being fought. That’s the problem, and you can see that this war is for trying to establish fairness in the market … these guys [I write about ]in the book, it’s going to take years for them to get big enough.

Robert Birnbaum: Really?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I think so. They’ll become a public exchange in the fall. I just made a bet with someone, and I took the over.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re talking about Brad—

MICHAEL LEWIS: —Katsuyama. There’s such inertia in the financial markets, and the regulators seem inclined to help them a bit but not that much.

Robert Birnbaum: I thought a big problem was that it’s hard to regulate technology.

MICHAEL LEWIS: That’s right. That would be the real risk — that the regulators try to regulate the technology and it ends up screwing up the system in some new, other way. What could be done is the current economic model of the exchanges and the dark pools could totally be challenged. They could ban a payment for order flow. They could ban the maker/ taker model on the exchanges, the bribes and the kickbacks.

Robert Birnbaum: So simply stated, the litigation would be a mistake, right?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I think that’s right, but the market itself, it’s just got lots of inertia. People who work at giant, mutual funds don’t want to tick off their banker by saying, “We’re not going to send you stock market orders anymore because that dark pool is fleecing us’. You would think it’d be easy.

Robert Birnbaum: So they’ll accept that?

MICHAEL LEWIS: They accept it as part of the packages of services. If you are a big bank with Morgan Stanley and they’re covering your firm in various ways, the equity business you give them is a way of paying them for a whole bunch of other services that they’re charging you for.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re saying it’s sort of a ‘tribute’, a hidden cost?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Commissions are already a tribute, but no one wants to get into it with a Wall Street firm because if you’re the person…

Robert Birnbaum: …They’re too big to fail and what else?

MICHAEL LEWIS:They’re too big to fail, and you’re one person, even if you’re a big person inside the giant mutual fund. You don’t want to be identified as the troublemaker in the market.

Robert Birnbaum: Like Brad Katsuyama.

MICHAEL LEWIS: You don’t want to be that because your career is unlikely to be at one firm. You’re going to be out in the job market again. You’re going to be one of those rabble-rousers. It’s just that people are very reluctant on Wall Street to pick fights, and when it happens, it’s so extraordinary. This is why BILL Ackman gets into it with Carl Icahn. It’s very strange.

Robert Birnbaum: How would you rank the litigation, the findings and such that’ve happened since the book came out?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I’ve never had anything like this happen before.

Robert Birnbaum: In terms of effectiveness…

MICHAEL LEWIS: Maybe do it this way—what do I think the most important regulation, legal action that’s happened and what’s the least? I think the most important are the lawsuits brought by the New York Attorney General against the Barclay’s dark pool and probably will be followed up against other bank dark pools. Second, and this sounds, maybe a little loopy, but this class action suit that Michael Lewis, the big tobacco guy, is bringing against the exchanges, I think could be very interesting.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s still in process. How long does it take to litigate cases like this?

MICHAEL LEWIS: A long time. How long did the tobacco lawsuit take. So it’s slow moving, but I think that could be a big deal. The fines that the SEC have lobbied against various high-frequency traders for market manipulation are also really useful because you start to be able to see what’s going on so there’s transparency now.

Robert Birnbaum: Where does that money go, the fines that the SEC collects?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I asked this question yesterday, and I couldn’t get a straight answer. I asked the question of someone… people at MSNBC had calculated all the fines paid by banks as a result of the financial crisis to the Justice Department, and it comes to 82 billion dollars. That’s a piece of change, right?

Robert Birnbaum:Wow. You could buy a fighter plane with that, right? You can burn …

MICHAEL LEWIS: Someone had something for that. Sometimes the money is restored to victims, but most of the time it goes into the general treasury.

Robert Birnbaum: It wouldn’t go to the regulatory agency, like the SEC?

MICHAEL LEWIS: You would think it would be … I don’t think the SEC gets to keep it, and if they did, they’d be self-funded. They wouldn’t need Congress, so I doubt Congress would let them do it. It would actually be an interesting innovation, a way to free the SEC to do its job if it was allowed to keep the ..
Robert Birnbaum: It might incentivize them. Do you feel like you’ve become more of a crusader since you started writing?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I don’t mean to be, but I really do inevitably. I think it’s more that I stumble upon things that obviously need to be crusaded against, but the motive hasn’t changed.

Robert Birnbaum: Its because they end up being interesting stories, right?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah. The motive hasn’t changed. I think what has happened is I look for stories that I think are worthy, really long form and it just so happened the financial crisis has yielded a couple of stories.

Robert Birnbaum:You’ve said, I think, that Wall Street is the gift that keeps on giving, so are you done there?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Very cynically— the financial crisis has been very good to me, right? The last thing I want is for them to resolve all this. I don’t have any interest in writing another financial book right now. I’ve got a few other projects that I really want to do, and none of them are …

Robert Birnbaum: You haven’t started the next book?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I’ve been writing a TV show. I started the next thing in the sense that I’ve started reporting. I haven’t started writing it.

Robert Birnbaum: Are you still doing long articles as the first step to writing a book?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Sometimes I do do that, but in this case, I’m not doing that but I haven’t started writing another book. Again,[my] children [see Lewis’s Home Game] slow me down a bit.

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis

Robert Birnbaum: I was hoping that somehow after you wrote The Blind Side that you would take on the NCAA.

MICHAEL LEWIS:I did write a little op-ed for the Times arguing they should pay players.

Robert Birnbaum: Where do you see all that going? Is somebody going to take on NCAA?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Here’s the problem with that. I never take on anybody really, right? If there was a Brad Katsuyama inside college football and he was a really interesting character, it’s conceivable there would be a narrative that would undermine the NCAA.
Robert Birnbaum: What about the Northwestern quarterback who started, I think he started union or was a ..
MICHAEL LEWIS: And there’s Ed O’Bannon, the the former UCLA basketball player. I’m totally on the side of the agitators here. I mean, the NCAA is a grotesque institution right now. If you think about it, actually back away from it, it’s even worse than just pure economic exploitation because in the case of football, it’s exploitation while these kids play a sport that’s probably going to damage them in the long term. And there’s this wall that is put up between poor black kids and the rich white boosters. If you took it down, at the very least there would be some social relationships developed that the kids, after their football careers were over, could go to and lean on, and they’d start to develop … they’d have jobs in the summer and all the rest and would develop careers. I was thinking about what the solution here. In a perfect world, I’d actually say open up pay for players. Let them capture their market value, but something so crude as that is not going to happen. What I could imagine happening is a movement to create trust funds or that they could be tapped when they were 40. Big, fat very fat, pensions so that if you were going to essentially tax the future of these kids by one, not allowing them an education because they just play football all the time and, two, damaging their brains while they play, set aside the money down the road so they’re taken care of. You don’t have to pay them right away, but have a fancy pension plan.

Robert Birnbaum: For all the talk of the student athlete, the NCAA doesn’t seem to really care about the players.

MICHAEL LEWIS: No. On an individual level, I’m sure there’s plenty [who do]. I’m sure coaches care about the ..
Robert Birnbaum: Mark Emmert. The head of the NCAA. He doesn’t strike me as being concerned about the athletes… it’s so hypocritical. It’s so duplicitous.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes, it is. I would love to know if you just open it up and let the kids get paid what would happen to coaches’ pay. I’m sure it would decline, right? I’m sure it would decline, but by how much, I don’t know. Imagine a world where you say there are none of these rules anymore. If Alabama wants to be number one in the nation, you’ve got to buy the team. How much money would come into it? It would obviously cost the NCAA a lot of money and would probably cost the coaches who are being paid some money.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re assuming there’s a finite amount of money that they can take in, that any particular school could take it.

MICHAEL LEWIS: It would be interesting to price the athletes. I mean, this is an exercise, right, because it’s hard pricing an 18 year old. I guess the football players are more predictable than, say, baseball players are at that age, but even then, there’s lots of uncertainty. It would be an interesting intellectual exercise to decide what the star high school quarterback is worth in college football.

Robert Birnbaum: You might have to step back and figure out what is the whole university system worth today?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, our university system is much more complicated than the European, right? It exists for all sorts of reasons other than to educate people.

Robert Birnbaum: I just read that Tennessee is making its schools tuition-free — free college educations. The state of Tennessee …and Germany and Chile are also making college free.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I didn’t see that.

Robert Birnbaum: It seems to me that kids’ sports – I’ve become more aware because of my son – kids’ sports are big business, big money, and a lot of that money is made distinctly against the interests of the kids.


Micheal Lewis with Cuba Birnbaum [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Michael Lewis with Cuba Birnbaum [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum [to Cuba]: How much was your baseball program, the fee for one year? $4,000? [this does not include equipment, travel and other incidentals][

Cuba Birnbaum: They raised it to $5,000.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Where is this?

Robert Birnbaum: Near us.

MICHAEL LEWIS: [to Cuba] So which sports do you play?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: I play baseball and football.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Okay. Which is your better sport?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: I’d say now football is.

MICHAEL LEWIS: What position?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: I play offensive tackle and defensive tackle.


CUBA BIRNBAUM: I just got voted a captain so …I’m excited.


CUBA BIRNBAUM: Last year, 9 and 2.

Robert Birnbaum: They were beaten by the Catholic school teams.

CUBA BIRNBAUM: Yeah. Catholic conference team.

Robert Birnbaum: Those guys are always like Alabama, the Catholic schools[they can recruit].

CUBA BIRNBAUM: It’s crazy.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Do you have ambition to play in college?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: I do, yes. I have a big ambition. I’m definitely looking out there.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Is there a chance you’ll be recruited to play in college?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: I believe so, yeah. With my size projectability, I think I definitely have a shot. I need to start reaching out to schools, though. I’m doing a lot of camps in the summer, so I’m excited for that.

MICHAEL LEWIS: How big are you? What do you list at?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: Right now 6’2″, 265.

Robert Birnbaum: I try to put my arms around him, and I can’t … he’s pretty big. The reason I mentioned that baseball program is because now somebody is paying $5,000 a year. What’s the parent’s expectations? What do the people who have that program tell the parents? Of course, they tell the parents the kid’s got a lot of talent. He’s really good and he’s got a shot at Division 1 or something like that.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I’ve seen a slightly scaled down version of that in my girls’ softball a lot, and some sad things happen. Well, parents get too involved. It’s supposed to be fun. That’s the obvious problem, but beyond that, the kids start to get professional at a very young age and so when they’re on a team, they’re not actually teammates. They’re not rooting for each other. They’re rooting against each other because they want the playing time. They want to be the star, and there’s too much at stake.

Robert Birnbaum: The fun is being drained out of it. Now young kids are having pro sports aspirations.
Down in the Caribbean, a lot of these kids start playing seriously at8 or 9, 10,are funneled into academies. And they’re already in debt before they hit the age of 16 when they are eligible to be drafted by MLB.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, its also like now math, where you peak very young in life, and so it is a naturally tendency for the market to creep down to the children and professionalize it. Probably music is like this, too, right? Really gifted …

Robert Birnbaum: And tennis.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah, but I was thinking about things other than sports. It isn’t just sports where kids’ lives get disrupted by professionalism.

Robert Birnbaum: Chess.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Chess, yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Dancing, ballet, gymnastics.


Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Have you seen Whiplash?

Robert Birnbaum: No.

MICHAEL LEWIS: So Whiplash is the musical equivalent of what we’re discussing. It’s like Juilliard. It’s kids playing until their hands bleed, and the joy is being drained. Sometimes when you hear kids talk about, who are really gifted, say, pianists when they’re really young, they sound a bit like really gifted football players or softball players. The joy gets beaten out of it. It’s something that’s started as that joy and, through the professionalization of it, it becomes something else.

Robert Birnbaum: Well, all this stuff has become commodified.

MICHAEL LEWIS: True. It’s been made to pay in extraordinary ways, right? And the winners do so well, it encourages lots of people to try for it.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, and of course, lots of disappointment. Your writing career started because of your ignorance of the financial world, right?


Robert Birnbaum: The basic core of your writing has always been about interesting people and them solving problems. I can’t [at the moment remember why you wrote Moneyball *. What was the spur for that?
MICHAEL LEWIS:The original spur had nothing to do with the book. It was when free agency came to baseball in a big way.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Robert Birnbaum: Curt Flood or Andy Messersmith…

MICHAEL LEWIS: I always think of Andy Messersmith, right, but actually it was in the mid-90s, we moved to California. I started to watch the Oakland A’s and noticed at one point that the left fielder was being paid 6 million bucks and the right fielder was being paid 200 million, and my first thought was, “I want to write a piece about whether the right fielder’s pissed off when the left fielder drops the ball.”
But it’s a piece of a class warfare about baseball and I started watching the money, on the field. That led naturally to seeing the discrepancies between the payrolls. Which then led to just idling. I thought it was going to be a magazine piece, and I would call Billy Beane, “Can you explain to me how you compete against 6 times the money?” His answer was so interesting, I started to hang around. Books all go that way. It starts with something … it doesn’t ever start as a book. It starts as a question, and then the question, the answer to the question is so interesting that I want to come back and ask more questions. At some point, I’ve got so many questions, I see this is going to take some time to unravel.

Robert Birnbaum: So you’re normally not inclined to write a book, right?

MICHAEL LEWIS: The things that started … the things that were conceived as books, “Liar’s Poker”, “The New New Thing”, “Moneyball”, “The Blind Side”, “Big Short”, “Flash Boys” and that’s it. The rest could be the collections of magazine pieces or little magazine pieces that were tossed between hard covers, and even those that were conceived as books, I think it’s fair to say that all of them with the exception of “Flash Boys” and maybe “The Big Short” – because I could afford to do it now – were started as little magazine pieces. They just got out of control.

Robert Birnbaum: You couldn’t stop?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Couldn’t stop. I have to spend so much time investing in the subject before I’m comfortable saying I want to write a book about it. It wouldn’t make any sense to go in thinking it’s a book. It’s always you’ve got to go in with small ambitions.

Robert Birnbaum: The Heisenberg Principle says something about the observer changing what is observed by observing. Years ago, people didn’t know who you were. I suppose exponentially “Moneyball” put you …

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s changed. It’d definitely changed.

Robert Birnbaum: Right. When you talk to people now, do you feel like …

MICHAEL LEWIS: I’m changing what I’m watching?

Robert Birnbaum: Well, they’re changing themselves because of you.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Ah. Yes. The answer is yes, and the way to get around the problem is to spend so much time with them that your presence becomes normal. The first 10 hours of interviews are not all that useful in getting the character. Sometimes you get a lot of information, but if you move into their lives, eventually they surrender.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s like the photographer shooting blanks the first few minutes

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah. That’s exactly right. It’s just like that. I try to make my presence so normal that they just forget what it’s all about, and it takes long enough that there’s no way … it’s really hard if I’m with them for a year for them to … things happen. The kind of person who I’ve tended to write about is intelligent enough to realize that’s going to happen, so they just give up and they give up very quickly.

Robert Birnbaum: Most of the time when I talk to people, it’s an hour, hour and a half, and maybe the first half hour is just back and forth. It’s like a cop interrogating someone. At the 5th hour, the guy is not going to give up anything, but by the 20th hour, he’s going give up whatever you want…
MICHAEL LEWIS: You know, it’s funny you say that because I was just thinking about this because I’ve done several episodes of Charlie Rose in the last year, — the 25th anniversary of “Liar’s Poker” came out, the hardback, “Flash Boys”, paperback. I realized when I was sitting there talking to him two days ago that I had actually just completely forgotten I was on television. I was talking to him as I would talk to you in a private situation. Afterwards, I thought, “What the hell did I just say?” How is that going to play? It was very odd.

Robert Birnbaum: Thomas Jefferson, I think he said, “If you never tell a lie, you don’t need a memory.”

MICHAEL LEWIS: This is true. It’s true.

Robert Birnbaum: But we all need to shade some things and maybe not reveal other things.

MICHAEL LEWIS: No. It was more … I was talking about friends. I was talking about other people, and I just didn’t … without a filter.

Robert Birnbaum: He [Charlie Rose] did an interview* with Henri Cartier Bresson. He went to France for it, and Bresson is an incredibly charming old man — it was a great interview. Rose was never more attentive and sensitive to his subject than I saw him then.

MICHAEL LEWIS: He’s got a gift for making people comfortable, and it brings out … you know what it reminds me of? There are interviewers who think that the way you get things out of people is to needle them and the interviewers who realize it’s the opposite. I’m more like Charlie Rose when I talk to people. Do you know the Traveler’s Tale? It was a kid’s story, I think, but the story was about a man who was walking through the landscape with a cloak and the sun and the north wind challenge each other to see who can get him to remove the cloak. The north wind blows and blows, and he just holds the cloak more tightly around him. The sun comes along and makes it nice and gentle, and he removes it voluntarily. This is my approach. I’d rather be the sun.

Robert Birnbaum: The sun?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Right. I’d rather get people to remove their cloaks voluntarily.

Robert Birnbaum: Who actually does decent interviews these days in the mainstream media?


Robert Birnbaum: You’d expect, given some of his guests, you expect a little more persistence [he did hold reporter Judith Miller’s feet to the fire]… His great moment, I thought, was when he was on Crossfire and he just let those guys have it. Colbert is the same thing. I don’t know if John Oliver actually interviews people, …
MICHAEL LEWIS: Did you see his show on NCAA sports?

Robert Birnbaum: Yes. That was great. That was really great.


Robert Birnbaum: He did a show on the US drone program that was also really convincing. Chilling and funny at the same time—the effect is to see the absurdity .
MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s important journalism. It’s actually important journalism.

Robert Birnbaum: Which I think is an evolutionary step from the Colbert/Stewart thing which are still comedic.

MICHAEL LEWIS: It is still funny, though.

Robert Birnbaum: Absolutely.

MICHAEL LEWIS: My 8 year old doesn’t have any idea what the NCAA is or what is going on. He’s rolling with laughter as he’s watching the thing.

Robert Birnbaum: I wonder if there’s a critical mass of media that will affect them, affect the NCAA?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes. Oh, I think so.

Robert Birnbaum: I know that Joe Nocera at the Times is hammering them. Shelby … it wouldn’t be Shelby Foot, somebody in the Atlantic a couple of years ago wrote a scathing take down on the NCAA, and now some of the more articular players – Richard Sherman. Do you remember the guy at Houston, the runningback, Avery something talked about how they didn’t have enough food? He’s going, “My coach is driving an expensive car, an Infinity or something like that, and I’m here …” So we told the coach, we said, “Coach, we don’t have any food.” He went out and got us 50 McDonald’s burgers… Anyway … What would the critical mass be? The government’s not going to take them on

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, except the culture’s shifting on the subject. You can feel it just like you can feel the culture shifting on football. Generally, its to your detriment if you want to play, I think it’s this … we move slowly. You might have said exactly the same thing about smoking in the 1950s. You know this because you’re intelligent and on the edge. You know the studies that show there was a link between smoking and cancer. You’d be outraged that the big tobacco companies were able to rig the system and prevent change, then one day it all come collapsing down. I feel like that’s where the NCAA is headed. I feel that’s where football is headed, with concussions. Its not just concussions either. The thing about that sport is if you go and see a former professional football player at the age of 50, it is depressing. It’s not just their brains. It’s their knees. It’s their shoulders. You take such a beating. [to Cuba] With any luck, you won’t be good enough so you can only get so far.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m not a great fan. Cuba gets a lot out of it, and he’s good at it —so what are you going to do? And these kids, you tell them not to lead with their head, they lead with their head.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Right. They’re immortal. That’s the problem.

Robert Birnbaum: Right.

MICHAEL LEWIS: They think it.

Robert Birnbaum:He’s been lucky. You’ve had no serious injuries, right?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: Not a thing.

Robert Birnbaum: But also I have to say, to his credit, he’s not suicidal. He’s not one of these guys who gives up his body in every play. He’s the polite kid who pulls people up from the ground at he end of the play.

CUBA BIRNBAUM: Sometimes. Sometimes.

Robert Birnbaum: If he likes them. I noticed the NFL now has a neutral trainer at games.

MICHAEL LEWIS: To evaluate the players.

Robert Birnbaum: Evaluate the players and make a decision.

MICHAEL LEWIS: They’ll do whatever they can do to …

Robert Birnbaum: To masquerade.

MICHAEL LEWIS: … to put lipstick on the pig.

Robert Birnbaum: Why do Americans like football so much? What happened? Is this just brainwashing over year to year after year after year, spectacle upon spectacle?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I mean, I plead guilty. I think it really works on TV.

Deep Crossers by Nick Dawidoff

Deep Crossers by Nick Dawidoff

Robert Birnbaum: Right. I like the game, too, and I liked it a lot more after I read Nick Dawidoff’s book on the Jets* — the year he spent with the Jets. Did you read that? It’s a terrific book.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I bet it is a terrific book. He’s a great writer.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, and he seemed to do it with the right group, too. Ryan is actually a lively and likable subject, I think, from what I could tell in this book.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I think there are a handful of football subjects I would love to go after… that aren’t polemical… Why do people like it so much? It’s simulated warfare with enough violence to make it plausible. You’re watching generals command armies. You’re watching armies fight.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s interesting. For fans, I think that’s the case. One of Cuba’s coaches stated that he didn’t buy that comparison, and I think maybe that’s okay to tell the players.

CUBA BIRNBAUM: It’s giving respect to those who actually fight in actual war — not calling it warfare in that sense. We’re …

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, in the olden times, you did give respect to your opponent in warfare.

Robert Birnbaum: Right. That’s right. They were more formality. There were more rules.

MICHAEL LEWIS: You’re obeying a chivalric code.

Robert Birnbaum: Now they have people that bite each other’s ears, break fingers.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Biting seems to be one thing that an athlete does, and his reputation never recovers. You don’t want to bite your opponent. There’s something about a guy biting that just disturbs people.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you think Mike Tyson’s suffered?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert Birnbaum: Really? Well, look at him now. Interesting character, huh?


Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I haven’t looked that closely.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. He’s … a Broadway show. I’ve seen him speak.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Is he on Broadway now?

Robert Birnbaum: He had a Broadway show, I think.

MICHAEL LEWIS: He was good in The Hangover.

CUBA BIRNBAUM: Yeah. The tiger. The tiger is my .
Robert Birnbaum: Did you see Boyhood?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes, I did see it, and I thought it was extremely good. I still want so badly to know how Richard Linklater did that because how he plotted it, scripted it, whether he let the characters decide … there’s no way he could know where they were going to be or even if they were alive.

Robert Birnbaum: It was a total flier, right?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah. It was a total flier. Shocked that it didn’t get the Oscar.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m shocked that Citizenfour won an Oscar.

MICHAEL LEWIS: That it did? That’s interesting. Why?

Robert Birnbaum: First of all, it’s controversial. Second of all, because as a film, it’s pretty flat.

MICHAEL LEWIS: True, except the period when he’s actually in that hotel room.

Robert Birnbaum: Yes, there’s that tension.

MICHAEL LEWIS: There’s a real tension there when it’s actually happening. After that it goes flat.

Robert Birnbaum: I come away certainly from that thinking the guy’s a hero, and I think he should get the Nobel Peace Prize for what he did because he’s just blown open something that people were taking for granted. Maybe they’re still taking it for granted just like high-frequency trading still seems to be acceptable but people are looking at it. I think this NSA invasion of everything is starting to sink in.

MICHAEL LEWIS: One of the great things about that film is it totally undermined the public perception of Edward Snowden which was that he was a sneak.

Robert Birnbaum: And a traitor.

MICHAEL LEWIS: That he was a ne’er-do-well. That he wasn’t thinking when he did it.

Robert Birnbaum: And he had a character flaw, which is why he whistle blew. How did that happen? This big reversal about whistle blowers that are now treated like pariahs.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, it depends on the whistle blower, right? Whistle blowers have never, ever been extremely popular. My daughter right now who’s writing a paper for her 10th grade history project is writing about The Pentagon Papers, and Daniel Ellsberg happens to live blocks away.

Robert Birnbaum: Did she get to talk to him?

MICHAEL LEWIS: She more than talked to him. She’s turned her project into a piece about Daniel Ellsberg.

Robert Birnbaum: Wow. Like you. She found a character.

MICHAEL LEWIS: She found a character. That’s right. Her history teacher said, “Actually, forget about the Pentagon Papers. If he’ll talk to you, go do it about him.” There’s even ambivalence about him now. He’s a hero in Berkeley. There are places where they’ll lynch him in America. We have an uncomfortable relationship with people who turn on institutions.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. That film Michael Mann did on tobacco… The Insider, he lost almost everything, right?

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s not a good … usually being a whistle blower is not a good career move. It’s brave.

Robert Birnbaum: They are mostly viewed as turncoats.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes. Some subset of our population views blind loyalty as an admirable character trait, the capacity for it. Disloyalty, no matter what you’re being disloyal to, is a sin, but it’s funny. Even those people if you give them extreme cases – von Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Hitler – they’ll say, “Oh, that was great,” but when there’s more ambiguity to it, people fall back on their emotional, core response.

Robert Birnbaum: There’s a great novel by Justin Cartwright about the most famous plot to kill Hitler, and it involves Isaiah Berlin and some fictitious German. He really gets inside that story. I think it’s called
The Song Before it is Sung (2007)

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s an incredible story.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. Didn’t they put Tom Cruise in the movie called Valkyrie ?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I don’t know.

Robert Birnbaum: He plays a Wehrmacht Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. (laughs) What’s the television production writing part of your life now?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I’m a failed screenwriter. That’s the sad truth.

Robert Birnbaum: Most screenwriters are failed screenwriters.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I haven’t given up. I’m on my 4th or 5th pilot, Commissioned. Two for CBS. One for TNT. One for HBO, so this is the 5th, for Showtime. I’m getting better. I’m starting to figure out how to rig the system in my favor, and I’m handing in the pilot next month. It’s done. It just needs some touching up, and I haven’t had time because I’ve been on tour. I think there’s a real shot this time.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re just the writer. You’re not producing, you’re not casting?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Produce and writing.

Robert Birnbaum: So if you’re producing ..
MICHAEL LEWIS: I’ll help run the show if anything. That’s what I will do as a job, and I won’t write a book for a while. I’m that interested in it. I tell you, these are my ambitions. I would love to have a really great drama on the air and then use it as an excuse to write a play. I’ve always been interested in the theater, and I would love to do that. On the other hand, it’s nice to have things you still want to do, so maybe I should wait so I still have things I want to do. If I got to write a play right now, I wouldn’t have anything left.

Robert Birnbaum: (laughs) Well, something might come up. What are the great dramas that you think are on television now? Are there any for you?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Oh, my God. The ones that are … some have come and gone. Breaking Bad.

Robert Birnbaum: I never got that one, but I’m the only one.


Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. The Wire?

MICHAEL LEWIS: The Wire and The Sopranos were the originals. The Wire especially.
The Wire was just a breathtaking achievement.

Robert Birnbaum: Dostoevskian, I think.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Or Dickensian or … it was a novel on the screen, and it showed what you could do. In the moment, when they’re creating that thing, it didn’t attract, in the beginning, that much attention or that much of an audience.

Robert Birnbaum: They weren’t almost going to do a 4th or 5th season.

MICHAEL LEWIS: But they’ll sell DVDs of that thing forever, and it’s nice that model now exists because it means that you can do that kind of quality work and not go whoring after eyeballs right away and find a home for it. It’s the golden age of television… Well, Homeland, I think Homeland is fantastic.

Robert Birnbaum: Netflix stuff is getting interesting.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Mm-hmm (affirmative). House of Cards lost me the moment it became … it detached so far from whatever could happen.

Robert Birnbaum: I thought the 1st season was okay, but the 2nd season … it does have strong—it’s very strong casting.

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s beautifully performed.

Robert Birnbaum: Everybody looks good on screen— there is a 3rd season coming.

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s amazing what you can get away with if you have really talented actors. I was just watching … two nights ago, I went to a play in New York, The Audience, which is with Helen Mirren, a Queen Elizabeth thing.

Robert Birnbaum: She’s magnificent.

MICHAEL LEWIS: If you just read … I haven’t read the play. If you just read the play, you’d think, “This is going to be the most boring play ever produced. There could be nothing on paper that would be all that interesting,” and the performances are riveting. I mean, you’re totally captivated because of what the actor is doing.

Robert Birnbaum: I get that—I could never read Shakespeare, but I love watching the plays performed. I don’t get reading it. I guess I don’t have enough imagination to enliven the characters, but I love it. I love the drama. Netflix did that woman prison movie. Not bad.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Orange is the New Black? I have only seen a few of them, and it was really good.

Robert Birnbaum: Certainly an unexpected place to go. I don’t know if you’ve seen this one, Peaky Blinders?

MICHAEL LEWIS: What’s it called?

Robert Birnbaum: Peaky Blinders. This is about criminal gangs in Birmingham, England post World War I, and they’re all competing and one of them, the Peaky Blinders, is trying to get big enough to go to London.


Robert Birnbaum: They have Tom Hardy. Tom … is in this. Great actor. He just did this film called Locke where he does a movie entirely in a car. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that one. Anyway, he plays a Jewish mobster. He’s like Fagan. He’s funny, and he’s also an Elmore. Leonard character He’s funny, but he’s …

MICHAEL LEWIS: Where did it air?

Robert Birnbaum: Netflix. They’ve done two seasons, and I think they’re doing a 3rd. Yeah. You’re right. It is the golden age of television, and I think it’s finally because whoever’s doing it is letting writers write.

MICHAEL LEWIS:The shows no longer require big audiences. They require passionate audiences, and that is the key.

Robert Birnbaum: Right. That’s right.

MICHAEL LEWIS: The people who are producing or creating, producing these things are paid to understand that. All I need is a passionate following.
Robert Birnbaum: They’re enlarging the shelf life of these shows . I think ‘hit; used to mean we’re grabbing the money and six months from now, no one will remember, but now these things all have a longer life. Is your stuff fictional or …

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s fictional.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s all fictional?

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s fictional, but it’s drawn from …

Robert Birnbaum: Based on true stories? Or the ever popular “Inspired by a true story”?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Based on a true story. It’s actually not based on a true story. The characters are based on true characters. They’re characters pulled out of the 1920s on Wall Street. They’re some great characters. They’re characters who are worthy of being dramatized, and the situation rhymes with net (????). It’s a way of describing how the financial system first came to be, and there’s enough of an echo in that time with what’s happening now. You get at what’s happening now through that in a much more concrete, simpler way.

Robert Birnbaum: So you say you’re waiting for approval?

MICHAEL LEWIS: So Showtime hasn’t seen it. They’ve seen an outline with which they were very pleased, and the script will go in in the next couple of weeks and then we’ll wait and see.

Robert Birnbaum: You can do a lot more in a film version of something, of a story…

MICHAEL LEWIS: Each medium has its strengths, right? There are things that are hard to get across in film. There are things that are easier. I get a lot of pleasure out of figuring out how to do new things well, and it actually is informing the books and the magazine pieces because the storytelling that goes on in a script, it’s got to be so compressed. It’s so unforgiving, and everything has got to have a point and drive the story forward. That discipline is really useful to just have in the back of your mind when you’re writing something where you actually don’t have that constraint. I think I’m going to get better at keeping the reader because of it.

Robert Birnbaum: You just reminded me that now, these days, when I see the dog in the story in a film, I know something bad’s going to happen. I think these directors are including this as a cue … seriously. What’s the point of having a dog in the story unless something terrible could happen
MICHAEL LEWIS:Marley and Me.

Robert Birnbaum: Well, that was totally bad. Oh, yeah. Yeah.

MICHAEL LEWIS:Give me an example. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.

Robert Birnbaum: God, I just saw a movie [Mister Pip] and they shot the dog.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Where the dog got shot?

Robert Birnbaum: The dog got shot
MICHAEL LEWIS: Like Old Yeller. Actually, maybe you’re onto something here.

Robert Birnbaum Percival Everett* used a funny dog thing his Western send up In God’s Country the dog’s fate receives the most sympathy …

MICHAEL LEWIS: A sudden doom came over you.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, and I think I’ve been set up like that before. You’re still doing magazines? Are you exclusive to Vanity Fair?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes. I will write columns for Bloomberg, and I can imagine there might be some piece that Vanity Fair wouldn’t want that I’d have to go somewhere else.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you have to give it to them first?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I don’t have to, but I like them.

Robert Birnbaum Your were friendly with Adam Moss at the New York Times. He is gone, right?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I did stuff with Adam and my editor there was Gerry Marzorati who then took over for Adam.
Robert Birnbaum: They redesigned it didn’t they?

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s funny. There was a time pre-internet or even when the internet was in its early days when that magazine felt like the center of the universe. If you put something there, everybody you knew saw it, and now it feels like no matter where you put something, because it’s on the web everybody’s going to see it. Placement means much less than it used to. A lot of the value of that magazine has been undermined, I think, by the internet.

Robert Birnbaum: I do have a digital subscription to the Times and so when I look at the thing I just see so little to read that I want to read.
MICHAEL LEWIS: I think they’ve changed their minds about this – but they basically abandoned their commitment to long format. They shortened the articles. They shortened the magazine. They didn’t trust the attention span of the reader, and that was a huge error because that’s all they had. They can’t compete with the internet. If you want a distracted reader, you’re never going to beat the internet, but they could run a 10,000 word piece and make it big and say this is important and demand you turn off everything and read it. People did, and that was very, very valuable and they should never have walked away from it.

Robert Birnbaum: Well, I think the magazine is now designed for the net. It’s not designed for print.

MICHAEL LEWIS: That’s true.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s not designed to be held.

MICHAEL LEWIS: This is true.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s a sad thing. Have we missed any medium that you’re not in? Books, magazines, television.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I’m not really in television. I’m trying.

Robert Birnbaum: Well, I’d say you were in. You’re spending your time doing it. You’re in.

MICHAEL LEWIS: On Monday, the film for “The Big Short” starts shooting in New Orleans. I think it’s going to be really good, but I don’t have anything to do with it.

Robert Birnbaum: They just optioned it and that was it?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Paramount bought it with Brad Pitt. Brad Pitt’s in it, but the only reason it’s happening is this fellow, Adam McKay, who’s Will Ferrell’s writer and partner in crime on the Funny or Die website got obsessed with it. He wrote this spectacular script, and he’s attracted all this talent to it.

Robert Birnbaum: So they showed it to you? They showed you the script?

MICHAEL LEWIS: They did. It’s not a broad comedy like he’s done before. It’s different. It’s very powerful. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be fun.

Robert Birnbaum: Well, there are comedies that have punchlines and jokes and there are comedies that are comedic because the situations are comedic. As a New Orleansian, I meant to ask you, have you watched Treme?

MICHAEL LEWIS:Yes, the first couple of episodes.

Robert Birnbaum: What do you think?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Didn’t do it for me. My wife really likes it and swears that I would, if I sat down with the whole thing and tried to watch it in a gulp, I’d care about it and I may one day, but it felt … so often when people come from the outside in New Orleans, they notice the stuff that’s picturesque, picaresque and are drawn to it, and they direct it at the expense of getting at the actual soul of the place. They think that’s the soul of the place, and he isn’t that far off but it felt like very much an outsider’s take.

Robert Birnbaum: Did you watch Spike Lee’s movie on Katrina?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah. It seemed crazy, I thought. I don’t think the government tried to blow up the levees.

Robert Birnbaum: He’s does leave you with that impression.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Anybody who I think is being honest about New Orleans now would say the city is in so much better shape now than it was before the storm, so much better shape. There’s still problems, but it’s a vibrant place with a future instead of a charming place with a past.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s sort of like knocking down all the old projects. In Chicago, they knocked down a bunch of old housing projects. That had to be done.

MICHAEL LEWIS: You couldn’t have done it. You couldn’t have replaced the school system with a charter school system. You couldn’t have upgraded the healthcare system.

Robert Birnbaum: The charter school initiatives are taking a beating, a lot of bad examples of corruption and …
MICHAEL LEWIS: There are a lot of bad examples. There’s no way it could be worse than what was there before in that case, and I know because my mother helped create one of them, two of them. I’ve spent some time in these places, and there was no public school – well, maybe there was one, but for very gifted kids – but they’re basically so much better than before …

Robert Birnbaum: When do you have to leave for the airport?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I have to go now.

Robert Birnbaum: Thank you.

MICHAEL LEWIS: All right, Robert.

Robert Birnbaum:I hope it isn’t 10 years until the next time.

MICHAEL LEWIS: No, no. It won’t be. It really won’t be. Good to see you.

Robert Birnbaum: Good to see you.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Thanks for making the time for me.

Robert Birnbaum: Oh, absolutely.

MICHAEL LEWIS: It was a pleasure as always.

Robert Birnbaum: I feel the same way.

MICHAEL LEWIS: [To Cuba] If you ever get your bell rung, get yourself out of the game.


* My [2nd]and most recent conversation with Nick Dawidoff here

* My conversation with Percival Everett here.

* One of my conversations with Michael Lewis here.

*Charlie Rose interview with Henri Cartier Bresson here