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by Will Parrish, May 9, 2012
To paraphrase Upton Sinclair’s 1923 book The Goose Step: A Study of American Education, some of the greatest sociopaths in this country’s history have affixed their names to university buildings in an effort to burnish their reputations.
Sonoma State University provides a perfect illustration. One of the individuals most criminally culpable for the predatory banking practices that led to the 2008 economic meltdown, former Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill, donated $12 million to help construct a new music venue on campus. The main concert hall, adjoining lawn, and commons performance venues are now named after Mr. Weill and Mrs. Weill, whose name is Joan.
SSU will go even further in the effort to plaster over Philanthropist-Cum-Banking Crook Weill’s reputation this Saturday when, as part of the university’s annual commencement ceremony, SSU President Ruben Armiñana will bestow him with an honorary doctorate. In other words, a public university is giving an advanced degree to someone on the basis of their making hundreds of millions of dollars engineering mega-scams that have immiserated millions of people around the world, and who subsequently gave a relatively small portion of the loot to one program of the university, which has suffered massive budgets cuts largely due to the political and economic aftermath of same said mega-scams.
Weill’s honorary degree has rightfully aroused strong opposition in Sonoma County, including from many people associated with the Occupy groups in Santa Rosa and Petaluma. They are conducting a protest of the commencement activities. More info is at http://shameonssu.org/ .
One of the questions worth pondering in all this, however, is one not generally being asked. Sanford Weill is donating to Sonoma State because he currently lives, at least part-time, in Sonoma County.
Why do Sanford and Joan Weill live part-time in Sonoma County?
The Weills purchased a grandiose $35 million, 362-acre estate in the hills west of Sonoma in 2010. The previous owners were a private equity investor family, the Shansbys, who had taken up tequila-making as a hobby and who next wanted to become winemakers. The Shansbys eerily named their property Shanel, after the Shanel Pomo band who inhabited the area for many thousands of years. It’s no small irony that the Shanel Pomo were decimated first by the Spanish mission system, then by waves of Gold Rush-era settlers stricken with greed.
The final five paragraphs of the realtor advertisement for the Weills’ “Shanel” estate, which boasts the headline “Northern California’s Premier Wine Country Estate,” read as follows:
“Shanel’s seven fireplaces cast a warm glow and provide the perfect remedy for Sonoma Valley’s cool evenings.
For all its beauty and ageless design, the residential compound at Shanel is just the beginning of the story. As you venture beyond the grounds of the [13,162 square foot] main residence, two-bedroom guest house and pool/cabana area you find something akin to your own national park.
Lake Miwok, named after the Native American tribe that once called this valley home, is stocked with bass and trout and filled by a winter creek and a powerful upstream well. For hikers and horseback riders, there are miles of trails as well as an equestrian center complete with four paddocks, an immaculate five-stall stable, tack room, office and his and her locker rooms. The over 6,000 square foot covered riding arena also doubles as a superb location for events.
In the foothills of this great estate lie approximately 8 acres of top quality syrah vines planted with laser precision. The first vintage scored 87-90 points from Robert Parker, Jr. who described it as ‘meaty, blackberry and cassis-scented wine [which] includes some pepper and coffee bean notes. The wine seems to gain stature in the glass, so perhaps my rating is conservative.’
And if your own vintage is not enough, the close proximity to both Sonoma and Napa counties many wineries provides hundreds of choices for exploring and building your cellar.”
Weill’s purchase price for the Shanel estate is the largest in Sonoma County history, among the largest in the history of California. But plenty of other people of his ilk have followed down the same road of planting foothill vineyards with “laser precision,” not to mention hillside and mountain-top vineyards that have eroded massive amounts of soil, resulted in denuded forests, and gravely harmed watersheds.
Sanford Weill lives in Sonoma County because more any other artifact or image, it is the vineyard and wine glass that have come to epitomize the “good life” of Northern California for a global market of real estate investors, vacation-takers, and home buyers. As the Santa Rosa Press Democrat noted in a story last year, one way in which the premium wine industry is a pillar of the local real estate is that it “attracts [wealthy] outsiders who want second homes nestled near vineyards or close to town squares with trendy restaurants.”
Crushed grapes and autumnal vineyards became a symbol, and an important economic component, of the region’s land boom in the 1990s and 2000s. The grape-alcohol plantations, fetishized as “family estates,” or “small farm vineyards” served, through a peculiar symbiosis, to both “preserve” the pastoral countryside, while simultaneously increasing land values, thereby creating a market for both McMansions and tract housing, and especially for trophy vineyards for the enormously wealthy.
It is an economy of millionaire owners, a landed class with mansions surrounded by a sea of grapes, served by an army of dispossessed waiters, baristas, cashiers, and clerks, not to mention grapevine pickers, pruners, and tenders. Sales of premium wines have correlated strongly with rising income inequality between the wealthy few and the indebted majority (not to mention their mostly immigrant Mexican workers). The wine industry’s power and prestige have grown in parallel with the increasing inequality fostered by this get-rich-quick economy.
Sanford Weill lives in this place, in others words, because he is right at home here.
Think of it as a back-to-the-land movement for millionaires and billionaires, captured no better than by Pete Kight, founder of CheckFree, a leader in what company literature calls the “electronic billing revolution.” Kight sold the company for several billion dollars to a larger digital technology conglomerate, Fiserv, so that he could focus on buying and managing several properties in the Dry Creek and Sonoma valleys.
“It’s fun to see billions of dollars moving electronically around the country and watch paper and old-fashioned bills disappear,” Kight told Wine Enthusiast in 2009. “But I craved a tangible business. I wanted my hands in the soil and then to drink wine with friends.”
Weill’s particular path to purchasing “Northern California’s Premier Wine Country Estate” is worth recalling in some detail. During the late 1990s, Weill was instrumental in convincing President Bill Clinton and leaders of both major parties to support legislation revoking the Glass-Steagall Act, the Depression-era law that kept commercial and investment banks separate. With the elimination of this restriction on banking, Weill’s Citibank was able to merge with Travelers and create one of the first mega-banks.
At the signing ceremony, Clinton announced, “Today what we are doing is modernizing the financial services industry, tearing down those antiquated laws and granting banks significant new authority.” Robert Scheer noted in a recent column on TruthDig, “At the signing ceremony, Clinton presented Weill with one of the pens he used to ‘fine-tune’ Glass-Steagall out of existence”
A 2010 New York Times profile of Weill, entitled “The Man Who Laughed All The Way From The Bank,” told of “an enormous wooden plaque” in the bank’s headquarters that featured a likeness of Weill with the inscription “The Man Who Shattered Glass-Steagall.” Clinton’s treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, then went off to be a $15-million-a-year exec at Citigroup and was in a key position there when the bank made toxic derivative packages that would have forced it into bankruptcy had U.S. taxpayers not bailed the bank out. Citigroup received $45 billion in direct government investment and a $300 billion guarantee of its bad assets to avoid bankruptcy.
Weill has been quite busy converting the loot into university-affiliated prestige in recent years. He also donated more than $250 million to Cornell University, where the medical school is named in his honor, so-called.
That said, there are far better illustrations of Sinclair’s Goose Step maxim. One can stroll along the northern flank of California’s most prestigious public university, UC Berkeley, for example, and sequentially encounter buildings named for the man perhaps most responsible for driving the country into the Spanish-American War (Hearst Memorial Mining Building), for the founder of the world’s largest nuclear industry contractor and one of its greatest war profiteers (the Bechtel Engineering Building), for a man whose company ran the US’ most productive uranium mines during a period of the late-’50s and early-’60s (McLaughlin Hall), and for the director of the CIA when it engineered the 1965 coup of Indonesia President Sukarno that resulted in the massacre of more than 500,000 people (McCone Hall).
Sonoma State has a long way to go if it ever hopes to match the major universities in regard to the sheer number of knaves and criminals whose names adorn its buildings.