Category Archives: Economics

“Being a stockbroker is like being a comedian”: Russia Today’s Max Keiser

Max with Ian Hislop on Have I Got News For You

Max (right) with Ian Hislop on Have I Got News For You

If you want to see the heir of the late American comedian Bill Hicks performing, where do you look?

Not in British comedy clubs where Bill Hicks is the comedians’ comedian. Certainly not in America,  where Bill Hicks only came to most people’s attention fairly recently.

Perhaps one place to look is a television programme transmitted three times a week on the RT channel (The channel used to be called Russia Today.) American presenter Max Keiser is RT’s economic guru; he fronts his own show: The Keiser Report.

Max Keiser (extreme left) on 10 O'Clock Live

Max (perhaps suitably on the extreme left) on 10 O’Clock Live

Last month, he was a guest on BBC1’s Have I Got News For You. Last year, he was a guest on Channel 4’s comedy series 10 O’Clock Livepresented by Jimmy Carr, Charlie Brooker, Lauren Laverne and David Mitchell. 

Jimmy Carr came up to me after the show,” Max told me yesterday in Soho. “He was very nice and wanted to know more about my views on the economy. A few weeks later, I was having lunch over at his place – beautiful house, beautiful tennis court. He had me up there to talk about gold and silver. He said he was prepared to buy a ton – that’s 32,000 ounces – of silver. Since that lunch, the price has dropped about 50%. So that’s probably why I haven’t heard from Jimmy since then.”

“And you’re a fan of Bill Hicks,” I said.

“If anyone is a big fan of comedy and they watch my show on RT,” said Max. “they’ll recognise that I borrow heavily from him. I liked Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks and that raw, unvarnished truthfulness is something we’ve always tried to strive for in The Keiser Report. It’s just very raw and sometimes it works not from having people’s funny bone tickled but because they are uncomfortable.”

Max Keiser presents his Report on Russia Today TV

Max presents Keiser Report next to Boris Johnson’s City Hall

“But The Keiser Report,” I said, “is a current affairs show – a news show covering business and finance – that is not normally a comic area.”

“At this point in time,” replied Max, “the financial world and the banks are so pathetically corrupt that it’s impossible to cover them without having, to some degree, a satirical view. Very few things which banks do, in this country at this point, are legal. Virtually 100% of everything all the Big Four banks do is illegal.”

“Could you be pushing this angle because you’re a presenter on the Russian government’s own TV channel?” I asked.

“Well, the show is produced by Associated Press,” said Max. “which is an American company. The show is recorded at a TV studio that’s part of London & Partners, which is London Mayor Boris Johnson’s public relations division. And we make other shows with Associated Press which are sold to other outlets. We sold a show to Press TV.”

“Thats worse!” I said. “That’s the Iranian government!. These are dodgy people we are talking about.”

“These are fine international news organisations,” said Max. “We’ve done a show for BBC World News. We did shows for Al Jazeera English.”

Max, in Paris, gives his opinions to Al Jazeera English

Max, in Paris, gives his opinions to Al Jazeera English, Doha

“Ah, now,” I said. “Al Jazeera English is a very, very good news channel, though I don’t know about the Arabic version.”

“When we were in Doha where Al Jazeera English is based,” said Max, “there was this famous car park with the Al Jazeera English building on one side and the Al Jazeera Arabic building on the other and they really did not get along. So there is a perpetual stand-off in Doha and occasionally executives would be taken out to the car park and…”

“Beheaded?” I suggested.

“…left to their own devices,” continued Max. “And that’s not easy to do, because you need an exit visa. So, if executives have fallen into disfavour with Al Jazeera, they have to sneak out of the country.”

“What show did you make for them?” I asked.

“We had a long-standing contract to make a series of documentary films for a show called People & Power.”

“And why is Russia Today doing a capitalist business programme?

“Well, Russia Today has left the Cold War far behind unlike America, which still seems to want to be fighting the Cold War. If you look at the rhetoric coming out of the US, they still think it’s 1970. They don’t understand that Russia and the Russian economy has leapfrogged well beyond what was happening during the Cold War, well past the Soviet Union. They are very entrepreneurial in Russia and the TV network is very savvy. They have a bigger reach than the BBC – over 800 million. I think they’ve really taken the top position in the world right now as far as global international satellite and cable TV is concerned. And whatever we can do to support that, we’re happy to do. In this country, I would say the relationship with the Soviet Union is quite strained. Other countries have moved on from their Cold War perception.”

“You’ll get a Hero of the Soviet Union medal,” I told Max. “You’ve had other comedians on The Keiser Report, haven’t you?”

Max Keiser (right) interviews comedian Frankie Boyle on Russia Today

Frankie Boyle (left) interviewed on RT’s The Keiser Report

“Yes, we’ve had Frankie Boyle. I’m a big fan of his. A no-holds-barred comedian who’s willing to take big risks.”

“What were you talking about?”

“I think he and I talked about the state of the media.”

“But you’re a business show.”

“Yeah, but so much of business now is driven by perception and that perception is driven by the media. The Stock Market – whether it’s the FTSE 100 or the Dow Jones – it’s a hologram driven by perception. There’s no actual equity in those markets; it’s completely a bubble puffed up on zero collateral.”

“What were you before being a TV presenter?” I asked.

“I started out as a stockbroker for Paine Webber on Wall Street in the early 1980s. Before that, I was at New York University and I was doing stand-up comedy. I made the transition from doing comedy to being a stockbroker at the height of the Thatcher/Reagan period.”


“Because, surprisingly, being a stockbroker is not that much different from being a comedian. You’re telling stories to people, going through a lot of stories quite rapidly and you are essentially getting people not to laugh but to say: Give me 1,000 shares. To get to that moment, you use the same techniques as a comedian: pacing, word-choice, empathy.

“I was at the Comic Strip on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Jerry Seinfeld was the MC. Rich Hall was doing improvisation down in the theatre district. Robin Williams was at Catch a Rising Star. On the West Coast, you had Steve Martin. It was the beginning of that huge new wave when comedy became the new rock ’n’ roll and then TV shows came out of that.

“Watching Robin Williams work was pretty remarkable. During that time, before he went on stage, his ritual was to line up seven or eight Kamikaze cocktails. They’re extremely potent alcoholic concoctions. As the MC was about to introduce him, he’d just go Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang and down those suckers and then hit the stage with all that energy.

Max Keiser stands up for his beliefs - possible in Edinburgh

Max Keiser is into a post “Comedy is Rock ’n’ Roll” period

“Now we’re into a post Comedy is rock ’n’ roll period. I’m hoping we’re getting back to the more politicised comedy – the Lenny Bruce type of comedy – that’s what I’m hoping, anyway. A lot of people who do comedy here in London go to the United States and come back and tell me: It’s great; it’s all very funny; but it’s homogenised. They’re all doing the same kind of jokes, which is because of this huge thing called TV: the sitcoms. They’re looking for a certain type to fill a certain spot and there’s 10,000 comics trying to get that one spot and they’re all doing the same act.

“I love the comedy here in London, because it’s completely different. There’s a lot of political edginess to it. A lot of comedians here identify themselves as ‘left wing’. In America, there is no left wing. There’s only slightly right-of-centre and extreme right-of-centre and the fanatical right.”

“Have you been to the Edinburgh Fringe?” I asked.

“I went for the first time last year.”

“You should do a show up there,” I suggested.

“I would like to take a show up there though, if I do, I’d have to workshop it here in London beforehand. But I’ve already been doing my Stand-Up Rage show in cities around the world: Dublin, Los Angeles, London.

“People are fans of my rages on The Keiser Report and this is a 60-minute rage without any control whatsoever. I go into a fugue state in a white rage. Afterwards, I literally have no memory of what I’ve said. It’s a cathartic experience and the audience, in many cases, achieve a level of ecstasy.”

There was a slight pause.

“So you don’t have a script,” I asked. “You just go off on a rant?”

“I start off on one basic idea,” explained Max, “and I will refer to headlines and each usually triggers a good ten minutes of rage. Then, to catch my breath, I will maybe cut to a 20 second music or video blurb.”

“And you rage about politics?” I asked.

“It’s about the bankers and the banksters because, when you have this merging of the private banking interests and the political interests otherwise known as Fascism… I mean, London is the capital of financial terrorism. This is where the financial Jihadis congregate.”

“You do good headline,” I said.

“If you go down to the City of London,” continued Max, “they have the madrassas – otherwise known as HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland. These are the madrassas of banking fanaticism. They pursue market fundamentalism which says they can blow themselves up and others around them – not to seek THE Prophet but some profit.”

(The Keiser Report is transmitted on RT, with editions also available on YouTube)

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Filed under Cold War, Comedy, Economics, Finance, Russia, Television

Comedy scriptwriter unmasks capitalist economics as no better than voodoo

(This was also published on the Indian news website WeSpeakNews)

Mark Kelly turns his back on the police state (and the dog)

With Greece and Spain still teetering on the brink of financial collapse, the NatWest Bank’s computers refusing to transfer money to anyone for two days this week and comedian Jimmy Carr getting attacked by the Prime Minister for tax-dodging, it seemed like a good time to talk money with comedy scriptwriter Mark Kelly, not a man known to dislike Marxist-Leninism.

“It’s perfectly reasonable for economists not to know what to do,” Mark said to me in a cheap cafe in Soho (I was paying), “because Economics is not a science in the first place.

“If you have a problem with an aeroplane, then aerodynamics IS a science. There’s a cause and effect as to why a plane isn’t working and you can fix it. You can’t do that with Economics because there’s no verifiable cause and effect. Economics is essentially no different from voodoo. It’s all based on belief. Things only exist because you believe they do.”

“Well,” I said, “I was always crap at Economics at school. They forced me to do Economics for ‘A’ Level because they said I had to ‘do a science’ and I was even more crap at Chemistry and Physics. I was useless at factual subjects because I could never remember abstract facts like Sodium Chloride = NaCl and Methyl Chloride = CH3Cl but I was good at conceptual subjects like British Constitution where you could discuss things. I was good at waffle.”

Mark quite rightly ignored this (and I added in those chemical system details when I was writing this blog). I was waffling.

“I think,” Mark said, “that the best essay on economics – but I would think this – is one by Lenin on fictitious capital. The idea of capitalist economies creating fictitious capital. Money breeds money. The history of capitalist economics is primarily the history of debt and debt itself can ultimately only be collected by force.

“So America has a phenomenal level of debt, but no-one has the nerve to call in America’s debt because, if you do, they’re suddenly going to find that you’ve got a very oppressive regime and it has to be overthrown. America can’t be ‘called’ on its debt, despite the fact it has an enormous debt… but other countries can.

“If you have a big enough debt, one of the ways of dealing with it is to get rid of the person you owe the debt to… in other words War. Bourgeois economists would never include War as an economic strategy; but it is.”

“So,” I said, “Greece should basically declare war on Germany and France?”

“It’s their best bet,” Mark replied. “No, seriously, what they should do is build an enormous horse, push it over the border and then, at night, the horse opens and all the Greek Communists come out and fiddle with the other bank’s computers.”

“Computers are the soft underbelly,” I said, “The NatWest computers have been in chaos the last two days and transactions were not being processed. A friend of mine who has been involved in banking computers said it sounded to him as if someone had tried to hack into the main computer system or its twin – because they presumably have a back-up system somewhere in some un-marked building.”

“Well, as for computers…” said Mark, “with the very very sophisticated credit default swaps, the parcelling-up of debt and stuff… basically people like Goldman Sachs have been employing for 20 years or so – well, really since Reagan became US President – they’ve been employing enormously highly-rated mathematicians and some of the formulae they come up with in credit default swaps and so on are so sophisticated that there are literally only a handful of people who understand the formulae.

“So banks have been operating on the basis of formulae which they’re quite happy to admit they themselves don’t understand. It’s ultimately no different from voodoo. You’re just taking the word of other people and everyone has a vested interest in taking everyone else’s word and that, itself, is the essence of a bubble. So you have a housing bubble or you go back to the 18th century and you have the South Sea Bubble and the Tulip Bubble in the 17th century.”

“The Tulip Bubble?” I asked.

Mark quite rightly ignored me.

“People,” he continued, “talk about The Market now as if The Market were a human being. What would The Market say? How would The Market react? As if The Market were a rational person with an identity, whereas it’s not. It’s composed of an enormous number of irrational, deeply avaricious fuckwits all racing around saying Buy! Sell! Buy! Sell! 

“The choice is between a rational, planned economy – which is what Lenin was after – and… and… the irony is that capitalist economics is actually anarchy in the worst sense of the word: it’s utterly chaotic.”

“Well, yes,” I said. “Pure capitalism without any restraints is pure anarchy because the strongest person wins.”

“It’s not a science at all,” Mark said, “It’s no different to voodoo. The basic problem isn’t how to fix the system. The problem is the system itself.”

Then we carried on talking about comedy clubs.

It seemed the best thing to do.

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Filed under Comedy, Economics, Finance, Politics

American comedian Lewis Schaffer gets unexpected $10 billion windfall

Lewis Schaffer smiles broadly after receiving the $10 billion

British-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer had a smile on his face last night, after he was given $10 billion.

I was there when the paperwork was handed over at the Source Below club in London’s Soho.

The money was given to him by two grateful ladies who had seen his twice-weekly Free Until Famous show. The ladies were from Zimbabwe. So was the $10 billion note they gave him at the end of his show.

Lewis Schaffer told me: “John… It’s not going to change me one little bit. Zimbabwe is a great country and I love the picture of the balancing rocks. I feel very humble.”

A close-up of the note is below.

The paperwork for Lewis Schaffer’s $10 billion windfall


Filed under Comedy, Economics, Finance, Zimbabwe

Mafia capitalism takes the same route as the Titanic on its maiden voyage…

Capitalism with a dash of  socialism to add a restraining touch of morality  is, arguably, the least-worst economic option for running a country’s economy. Certainly better than Communism under inevitably self-perpetuating elites.

But shareholder-based capitalism is flawed and possibly doomed, because its aim is the short-term maximisation of profits for the shareholder rather than the long-term growth and health of businesses in which the shareholders invest. The aim is short-term profit-taking, not efficiency. In that sense, it has the same flaws as countries run by dictators or businesses run by criminal organisations… or, indeed, countries run by criminal organisations.

Which brings me to Italy.

I have just arrived in Milan for a couple of days.

I have blogged about the Mafia before…

According to a report issued two days ago, the Mafia is now “Italy’s biggest business”. But this is hardly news – ’twas ever thus in my lifetime.

Post-War Italy was, in effect, run by the secret Masonic lodge P2 (Propaganda Due) for around thirty years: an unholy alliance of politicians, big business, the military, the intelligence services and the Mafia. It was a conspiracy theorist’s most paranoid dream come true.

The real ‘new’ news story about the Mafia’s financial power seems to be that the current world financial crisis has particularly hit Italy and has partially unified the traditional Mafia groups.

In the current economic crisis, traditional banks are reluctant to lend, so many Italian businesses nationwide have been forced to borrow at crippling rates of interest from organised crime, including the three big Mafia groups – the Cosa Nostra, the Camorra and the ‘Ndrangheta.

As a result, the Mafia now have an alleged annual turnover of around £116 billion with reserves of 65 billion Euros, making them “Italy’s biggest bank”.

This is according to a report issued a couple of days ago by Confesercenti, a prominent employers’ association which represents 270,000 small-to-medium businesses. They simply called their report Criminality’s Grip on Business  and it says the Mafia account for around 7% of Italy’s Gross Domestic Profit – and we are talking very ‘gross’ here.

Marco Venturi, the president of Confesercenti, was quoted as saying: “According to our estimates, loan sharking caused the closure in 2010 of 1,800 businesses and destroyed thousands of jobs. Right now, Mafia Inc is the only business enterprise willing to make substantial investments.”

That sounds to me like a man with an eye for publicity.

But, basically, if you are running a small business facing ruin and potential closure in the current economic crisis where banks are only interested in short-term strategies, you have few options to try to save yourself except to borrow from the Mafia… which ironically may itself result in ruin and the potential closure of your business.

Small business owners with tight margins and limited cash flow also, as always, face extortion and straight robbery by the Mafia, at a reported rate of one crime every minute.

This week’s Confesercenti report says the influence of various mafias is now being felt not only in traditional strongholds such as Naples and Palermo, but increasingly in the wealthy north of Italy, in regions such as Lombardy – in other words, the country’s business capital of Milan – and the report says the mafias have expanded there with the “complicity” of some politicians, as well as lawyers and accountants.

Again – perhaps especially in Italy – that comes as no surprise.

Another report this week – by Libera, an anti-Mafia association – says the average adult Italian spends nearly 1,300 Euros every year on slot machines, bingo and other forms of gambling. This 76 billion Euro market is Italy’s third biggest industry and the Libera report claims the Mafia have also now moved into what the report calls ‘new’ areas of business such as public health, transport and logistics.

Milan is known for its fashion industry and now seems to have picked up the latest street fashion – criminal organisations running not just Big Business but the country’s infrastructure.

Well, that is the story.

In fact, I think, as I said earlier, this is hardly news – ’twas ever thus in my lifetime.

In Italy, traditions run deep.

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Filed under Crime, Economics, Italy, Politics