Sam Zell, Corporate Raider & Certified Asshole

In case you’re unfamiliar with businessman Sam Zell, he’s the billionaire who a few years ago managed to acquire the Tribune media empire (which at the time included the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Baltimore Sun, and Hartford Courant). While the newspapers were already losing money, the advent of Zell’s ownership and the ways he leveraged his acquisition of the media company saddled it with additional enormous debt, whereupon he began downsizing newsrooms, laying off journalists and gutting the papers. At the same time, he fashioned himself a media critic, supposedly knowledgable about what news organizations must do to survive amid a transformed media landscape.

By now, several years after his Tribune purchase, the company is embroiled in a number of lawsuits over Zell’s attempt to walk away from various pension obligations. Zell has remained what he was at the outset–a foul-tempered, profane, corporate raider who routinely exhibits contempt for news and media professionals. By the standards of Geoffrey Nunberg’s provocative new book, Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years, Sam Zell is a certifiable “asshole.”

This all brings us to today, where I see on ThinkProgress.org in a story by Pat Garofalo that Zell’s done an interview on CNBC TV’s “Squawk Box” program, during which he offered these observations, complaining:

ZELL: The reality is as follows: the whole focus has been on how the, quote, one percenters, the 10 percenters, whatever these top earners have moved ahead of everybody. I wonder if there’s any correlation between while they were moving ahead, the rest of the government was subsidizing, subsidizing more and more people and disincentivizing them. Why is it always assumed that somebody doesn’t succeed because he can’t, as opposed to he doesn’t want to, or isn’t incentivized to. […]
SORKIN: There’s no suggestion, at least that I’ve heard, that the reason why people have had a harder time rising through the ranks today is a function of the fact that they’re disincentivized to rise through the ranks.
ZELL: Wait a minute. I think that they are disincentivized by, in effect, if you don’t have to pay for your health care, that’s another thing you don’t have to worry about…For every step contributing to the progress at the top, there’s an additional step on the bottom to increase the earned income [tax credit], to extend unemployment insurance for 28 years.

This guy doesn’t even know what he’s talking about. My wife and I damn well pay for our expensive healthcare, and hope each year to get the benefit of a tax deduction for having obtained coverage through the small business we operate. And, “unemployment insurance for 28 years”? What rank hyperbole! Ninety weeks is the absolute limit, as I recall, and mine in NY State didn’t even last that long after I was laid off from Sterling Publishing in 2009, an experience I’ve recounted in a personal blog essay, Three Years Ago Today.

So, let’s get this straight–a man who used Bain-like tactics to strip money out of a company he acquired, laid off hundreds of experienced professionals, and ignored his obligations to their pensions, is now lecturing the rest of us on why many Americans lack full-time employment–it’s because we’ve been conditioned to be lazy by government policies that “disincentivize” us. This guy would fit in perfectly in Mitt Romney’s 47% video reel. What an asshole.

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