Friday, January 15, 2010

Change I: Move Your Money, Move Your Theater?

So, elsewhere, most of the internet is talking about Outrageous Fortune, which so far seems to be a wake-up call about how shitty our industry can be sometimes (see also: How Theater Failed America). Yet again, the refrain I hear is, "Yes, we know it's shitty, but how do we change it?"

That's not to say that solutions haven't been proposed (I'm going to update my list of solutions-heard soon to take into account more things I've heard), but that when the conversation veers back to what's wrong in the world, we have to remember the major question: and how do we change it?

Anyways, Scott Walters put up a brief post a couple days ago comparing our desire to change theater to the nascent Move Your Money movement spearheaded by Huff-Po. He compares it to the desire to decentralize American theater.

I remember when I first really started thinking about the decentralizing theater problem last summer (when I first came into contact with Scott), I felt torn. I thought his idea was brilliant and necessary, to get the arts out of New York/Chicago/Los Angeles and into the nation. I also thought that I would never leave New York City to make it happen.

It reminded me powerfully of a baseball fan on the Daily Show (sorry, I couldn't find the clip) who, in the wake of the Roger Clemens steroid scandal, said, "This has brought shame on the entire sport of baseball... but honestly, I'll have forgotten about this come next baseball season."

It also reminds me of how, no matter how low Congress' approval ratings get, the re-election of incumbents remains above 90% -- because in general, people may dislike "Congress" but they do tend to approve of "My Congressman." And if each person on average thinks their congressperson is alright, but as a mass of congresspeople they seem to continue to do stupid things, then our usual check of elections will not have any effect. It's a systemic problem -- we want to change not our congresspeople, but the system by which congresspeople as a mass become stupid.

When Eugene Jarecki appeared on The Colbert Report, I had the same impression. See, I bank with a big bank: JP Morgan Chase. I became a JP Morgan Chase client when Washington Mutual, my bank, collapsed.

I loved Washington Mutual. When I had a problem with a vendor, I would call them, and they would call the vendor themselves and work things out. I was never on hold for more than five minutes with them. I had great customer service. When they went out of business, I was in Europe.

My credit card, on the other hand, is from Citibank. Citibank are cruel bastards. Every month, they sneak on average $5 of fees. If I call them and threaten to cancel, they refund me the charges. After an hour on hold and only after direct threats. When I went to go look for other credit cards, however, I can't find any that pays me nearly as much as Citibank does -- they're literally bribing me with their cash-back scheme (which pays more than any other credit card I qualify for, even after the fees take away, I've done the math). I've considered simply not having a credit card, just to get Citibank out of my life. There's the chance that, in the near term, when I get a business bank account I might get a credit card for the business, and therefore I won't be running such large sums on my credit card, and can close my personal credit card and just go with my debit card for personal purchases.

At any rate, the comparison between Citibank and WaMu was what really cemented my loyalty for WaMu. Their website was easy to use -- Citibank's was always broken, and for a full year I had to hit the "stop" button halfway through loading or else it would freeze.

Also, I had some experiences previously with another bank that was at one time a "local" bank (they're now national, with the demise of one of the other big banks): Wells Fargo. When I was heading to college, I went to my local Wells Fargo bank and opened an account. Right before I left I suddenly remembered something. "You do have branches in New York, right?" "Of course we do." This was a lie. Although it was possible for me to pay my bills online and get things mailed to me on the east coast, I spend about a third of my time on the West coast and two thirds on the East Coast.

Jarecki would call having local branches to me whether I'm at home in California or at home in New York "a convenience" that I'd have to do without.

When I was in Europe, the financial crisis struck, and Washington Mutual went under. I was terrified. Who would I be banking with? Citibank? That was my worst nightmare: to have Citibank hemorrhaging my personal finances the way they try to hemorrhage my credit card. And would there be a break in services while I was in Europe?

When JP Morgan Chase emerged as the buyer, I was tentative. I had no idea who they were and I'd never banked with them before. I wanted to see what they were like. They handled the transition from Washington Mutual to JP Morgan Chase seamlessly. By the end of the year, I was a happy JP Morgan Chase person. I haven't had cause to call them for support yet because, well, everything worked. There was one day that my debit card didn't work in an ATM, but they'd warned me ahead of time and told me how to work around it.

So when Eugene Jarecki was telling me to leave my bank, I couldn't see a compelling case to do it. I mean, I knew that Big Banks were a problem. But my bank is not a problem! They provide me excellent service and excellent care, at basically no cost (there's no ATM fee, no fee on my banking, using my debit card like a credit card has no fees, and then they pay me interest).

That's the problem with Move Your Money. Individuals act based on individual motives. My choices are not only positive for me, but most of the time they effect the people I know positively, they are good on the economy, etc.. It's only on the very macro-est economic of levels that my choice is bad, because I'm one of many people who are contributing to the existence of a "too big to fail" bank.

So, Scott threw out this suggestion that moving our theater would be like moving our bank, and that's our hope of decentralizing theater. I'm saying it's got some of the same problems.

In theory, in terms of the artistic future of the United States, I think we need to leave New York City. But there are no institutions I love nearly as much as The Public Theater. My home in Orange County, California not only lacks institutions like that, but lacks the audience and the institutions to create such institutions. As Don Hall pointed out, the first domino in the problem is real estate, and Orange County has such an incredible real estate bubble (even now) that the cost of starting up a theater company is inhospitable, especially considering as there are no theaters for rent anywhere (the concept just doesn't really exist), and car culture means that there is no such thing as a cultural center, nothing with which to attract people who you don't know.

Other than that, following the dream of decentralization means that I would basically pick a community at random and wander in. But that's really just a different form of cultural imperialism. If I can't create theater in my own community, then I guess I should just go where I want to be--to the community I want to live in, which is Brooklyn. I love it. I love the people, I love my artistic contemporaries.

It's a problem. And I'm part of it.