We cannot rely on Erin Brockovich to save the day

Three recent events have flooded my brain with the need to call out to Erin Brockovich. She is a real life person portrayed by Julia Roberts in the movie by the same name. Not to spoil it for others, but she fights for the disenfranchised whose water has been polluted by an electric utility that denied such linkage. Yet, we should not be made to rely on white knights like Ms. Brockovich, to make business and government leaders do the right thing.

The first event is the most well-known, with the city of Flint facing a huge water crisis when the state of Michigan tried to save money by retapping into water from the Flint River using pipes that had significant lead build-up. The story goes deeper when state officials were aware of issues and did nothing. People complained and they did nothing. The people had tests done by a reputable source and the findings were denigrated. The governor holds much of the blame for letting his state down. Finally, the tidal wave of complaints and notoriety reached a boiling point and something is being slowly done. I think it can be successfully argued that if this was a more affluent community, action would have been taken sooner.

The second event is the continuation of the coal ash leakage in North Carolina. Duke Energy has been ordered to pay another fine for the Dan River coal ash spill last year. In their own documents, the company knew dating back to 1986 that the pipe that breached was not the type that would survive long term. They also failed to spend on at least two occasions $20,000 to fix the pipe as late as 2007. On top of this, the company has continually denied that people living near other coal ash dumps have water that is contaminated. They have been ordered to do something with these sites, but are accused of using faulty data leading them to a conclusion away from moving the coal ash, which is the more expensive solution.

The third event is equally disappointing about a disappointing court case. About thirty Republican-led states are suing the EPA on violating its authority under the Obama Clean Power Plan requirements which phase in changes over time. My state is one of those states, which is odd as we can easily meet and blow past the plan being the 4th most prolific state in solar energy. The US Supreme Court ruled yesterday to freeze the implementation requirement until the court case is completed, a ruling even surprising the complainants. On top of the campaign finance rulings, this may have been the poorest ruling I have witnessed by this court. It is very disheartening and runs counter to what the world needs us to do to address climate change.

We cannot rely on Erin to save the day, We cannot rely on governors to always do the right thing, as it is not uncommon to look to save money at the expense of citizens who are less inclined to vote for them. We cannot rely on business leaders to “be more than profits” and invest in our community and remedy actions when they are harmful. We must pressure our leaders to think about the environment. Truth be told, the groundswell of actions that have been occurring have propelled us forward. In fact, the best thing coming out of Paris is The Breakthrough Energy Coalition which is led by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. But, we need government and industry to do their part and help, not hinder these efforts.

Our biggest risks over the next ten years, as measured by the World Economic Forum, are actions on climate change and our global water crisis (the latter goes beyond Flint, but we cannot waste water). Yet, neither of these topics is discussed by one political party and the other does not talk enough about them to distinguish themselves for voters. We can ill-afford a President who does not address these issues going forward. And, we certainly do not need one who said “global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese to steal our jobs” and who unsuccessfully sued the Scottish government to stop them from putting wind mills off the coast of his golf course development.

Three Current Movies worth seeing

I just completed watching a triumvirate of movies that deal with three uphill battles against institutions, where the latter had either harmed or took advantage of others. These movies are based on true stories and are worth our time to learn from what corruption can do and how hard it is to fight and expose it.

The three movies are “Spotlight,” “The Big Short,” and “Concussion.” I will give you a glimpse of each below, without stealing too much thunder. It is hard to avoid being a spoiler, as these stories are more widely known at this point. But, some of the challenges and stories beneath the corruption are not public knowledge.

Spotlight

The more sober of the three movies, but extremely well done, is the pursuit of a series of stories by reporters within a special investigative unit of The Boston Globe called Spotlight. This unit ties together what turns out to be a significant cover up of pedophile priests in the Boston area. This story helped shine a spotlight on a much bigger problem that was not restricted to Boston.

It has an excellent ensemble cast with Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel MacAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan and Stanley Tucci. Tucci, in particular, is excellent as an attorney who is painted eccentric, but is the stalwart behind the kids who have been abused. And, the young adults who played the abused kids as adults are marvelous.

The movie will have the feel of “All the President’s Men,” as a team with support from the Editor try to get the story right before they go public. It is what good journalism represents and what is missing in so many places today.

The Big Short

This movie was directed by a comedy director, Adam McKay, based on the book by Michael Lewis on four groups of people who saw the housing meltdown in the US coming and tried to warn others. When they were laughed at, they helped the same bankers create an insurance product that would, in essence, allow them to short the market before it fell. They were laughed at in doing this as well and the banks gladly took their premiums.The one problem for the big bankers and investment community is these guys were right.

The movie has an all star cast with Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Marisa Tomei and Finn Wittrock plus several other good performances. Since the topic could be very dry, the director, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Randolph, peppers the film with a few cameos to explain what is going in layperson’s terms. Pitt serves as the conscious of the movie when he tells the guys not to celebrate too much as their gain means people will lose their homes and jobs.

Many parts of the industry are not shown in a favorable light, nor should be. From aggressive mortgage sales people who sold complex mortgages to people who did not fully understand them because they made more money off them to lenders who packaged high risk mortgages together and then sold them to investors to the rating agencies who sold their ratings for market share growth, there are many who are at fault. Of all of these groups, I have always held the rating agencies as the most blameworthy, as we trusted them the most.

Concussion

This is the movie the NFL did not want people to see. Just like the Catholic Church with abused kids, the NFL leadership covered up knowledge about their concussion problem. The also went to great lengths to discredit a Nigerian born pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu, who had significant other credentials, when he discovered that trauma from football eventually took the life of Mike Webster, a retired Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Will Smith plays Omalu quite convincingly, with key roles played by Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin, David Morse, Adewale Akinnuoye, Luke Wilson and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Mbatha-Raw plays Omalu’s wife and you may remember her from “Belle” and “Larry Crown.” Morse does an excellent job as Webster, showing what transpired following his career. But, the movie is about Smith and his excellent portrayal of Omalu.

Each of these movies shows what corruption can lead to. The Catholic Church and NFL were both more interested in protecting their institutions than considering the victims. The Church preyed on its faithful flock to remain silent while they moved pedophile priests around. The NFL was more interested in band aiding its players while they served their game’s interests, then abandoning these men when they needed help. The players were unaware that their brains were being harmed as much as they were.

The financial sector also preyed on people through greed and arrogance. People were selling and trading stuff they did not fully understand and people were being harmed. Countries were being harmed. As a result, their bossed did not fully understand the risk, nor did their shareholders. Nor did the regulators.

Why does it take a Bennet Omalu, team of reporters or savvy investors to uncover the truth. These are the modern day “Erin Brockovich” with different institutional targets. If you have seen these movies, let me know your feedback. If you have not, I would still love your opinions.