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The Face of Philanthropy in Florida

The Story of Leonard Abess, Banker

by ALAN FARAGO

In his first speech to Congress, President Obama briefly bonded with popular outrage at Wall Street’s excess and greed. He picked a counter-note from South Florida: "hope is found in unlikely places," the president said, "I think Leonard Abess, the bank president from Miami who reportedly cashed out of his company, took a $60 million bonus and gave it out to all 399 people who worked for him, plus another 72 who used to work for him."

A Miami banker’s story is an unlikely place for positive news these days. The markets for condos, platted subdivisions, and commercial real estate in South Florida are in broad disarray. Miami is, in addition, the political epicenter of the housing boom that propelled Jeb Bush, a developer’s developer, to the governor’s mansion in 1998, long before 9/11 gave Alan Greenspan the excuse to cut interest rates to historic, low levels; rescuing American investors mainly terrified by the collapse of the dot.com bubble.

Florida’s bankers and builders had earlier conceived powering the engine of the state’s economy with financial derivatives tied to loans and mortgages: It all began in farmland and wetlands and ring suburbs, where opportunism meshed the interests of New York financiers, local bankers, real estate speculators, mortgage companies, and elected officials who deformed the purposes of government to zone platted subdivisions and condo canyons like there was no tomorrow.

In early 2008, the Spanish bank Caja Madrid paid $927 million in exchange for an 83 percent stake in City National Bank founded by Abess’ father, Leonard L. Abess, in 1946. The bank grew steadily and then rapidly on successive waves of real estate development that, in the final phase of the housing boom, fed insatiable demand for obscure and risky financial instruments that are plunging world economies into the deepest economic crisis since the Depression.

The Abess family have been prominent Miami philanthropists for decades. In 2007, Leonard Abess and his wife, Jayne, received the highest award of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. Buried in the Chamber press statement: the fact that the Abess’ also contribute to the environment.

"Jayne and Leonard Abess are devoted environmentalists," reads the Chamber press statement. "They created the Abess Center for Environmental Sciences at Miami Country Day School and founded the Abess Floating Research Station in the Brazilian Amazon. Leonard’s long-standing environmental affiliations include the World Wildlife Fund’s National Advisory Council, the Palm Society, the Audubon Society, and the Nature Conservancy/Florida Chapter."

Sad to say, in Florida the list of bankers who contribute to the environment doesn’t go much further than Leonard and Jayne Abess. And even here, caution is warranted. While The Nature Conservancy and Audubon serve their members well, neither group is on the front line where grass roots and citizens sue over zoning decisions; civic unreasonableness that strikes at the heart of those new platted subdivisions in wetlands. On the other hand, both organizations solicit contributions and are broadly supported by corporations.

This point is not meant not diminish the importance of the Abess’ largesse and commitment to the environment. But it underscores in a way that is discomforting how "green" has been in the eye of the beholder. It is particularly important in view of the fact that the pendulum has shifted in the United States. Today, a vast amount of real capital, taxpayer investment, and political energy is being spent on "green" jobs and a "new economy."

It is no simple omission that grassroots environmental groups are vastly under-funded in comparison to groups who could be counted on to behave nicely when they were invited to the table.

Miami is a little bit like "Chinatown" in this respect; every gear of the growth machine is etched with the effect of a rotten system that made bankers, insurance companies, and a totem pole of lobbyists wealthy beyond the dreams of most ordinary Americans. What happened to wetlands like the Everglades was just the lowest tranche of their concern. Consider, for example, how the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce was so absorbed with shilling for growth at any cost, that it allowed itself to be fleeced of nearly $2 million by its former finance director and finance manager. But that was in 2004. Such a long, long time ago.

ALAN FARAGO, who writes on the environment and politics from Coral Gables, Florida, and can be reached at alanfarago@yahoo.com