Where the past isn’t even past.
Many of the groups who helped Scott Walker win the Wisconsin recall were 501(c)(4) Tea Party groups that worked in close tandem with his campaign despite their non-political tax designation. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File.)
My pixels have been absent from these precincts while I report a feature story for The Nation, and I’ll have more to say about the ersatz Scandalpalooza being ginned up by Republicans this week, but for now I wanted to drop a quick word about just how overblown the outrage is about the Internal Revenue Service flagging groups with “Tea Party” in their name for extra scrutiny when they apply for 501(c)(4) status. Jeffrey Toobin, in a New Yorker post called “The Real I.R.S. Scandal,” succinctly explains the legal background:
It’s important to review why the Tea Party groups were petitioning the I.R.S. anyway. They were seeking approval to operate under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. This would require them to be “social welfare,” not political, operations. There are significant advantages to being a 501(c)(4). These groups don’t pay taxes; they don’t have to disclose their donors—unlike traditional political organizations, such as political-action committees. In return for the tax advantage and the secrecy, the 501(c)(4) organizations must refrain from traditional partisan political activity, like endorsing candidates….
Particularly leading up to the 2012 elections, many conservative organizations, nominally 501(c)(4)s, were all but explicitly political in their work. In every meaningful sense, groups like Americans for Prosperity were operating as units of the Republican Party. Democrats organized similar operations, but on a much smaller scale. (They undoubtedly would have done more, but they lacked the Republican base for funding such efforts.)
So the scandal—the real scandal—is that 501(c)(4) groups have been engaged in political activity in such a sustained and open way.
Just how sustained and open a way? Well, in June of last year I reported from the closing weekend of the recall campaign against Republican governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin:
I drive to a microscopic town next to Racine, where a giant open field was a stop on the bus tour in which Americans for Prosperity, the fake grassroots group that fronts for the Koch Brothers, was shipping supporters from, among other places, Illinois, to these here rallies around the state. Not, they claim, to support the Walker campaign—that would violate election law—which they had nothing to do with, but just in the interest of “educating folks in the importance of the reforms.”
The three hundred or so (though National Review counts differently than me) white people—and one black, who stood precisely in the center of the front row and wore an AFP staff T-shirt—heard an AFP staffer hosanna “economic freedom, limited government, and lower taxes.” And that “even Barack Obama’s Bureau of Labor Statistics” said “we’ve created jobs in Wisconsin.” Then he introduced as an “honorary Wisconsinite,” the head of Americans for Prosperity—Wisconsin, Tim Phillips—a Southerner who made a joke about frigid weather. Apparently reverse carpet-bagging is a signal feature of this “grassroots” movement.
Then a third speaker, but I had already wandered off, bored by the conspicuous lack of energy, past a sign reading “Republican’s Are Makers Democrats Are Takers” [sic, of course], and tables featuring free DVDs on both the glories of Scott Walker and the United Nation’s plan to enslave the United States, in the direction of a second, entirely separate, stage across the field put up by the Racine Tea Party. A few minutes later, the rest of the crowd followed me there. For, yes, an entirely separate rally, which had “nothing” to do with the nonpartisan one two hundred yards away that had just ended [wink wink, nudge nudge]. There they heard Walker’s running mate Rebecca Kleefisch rant about the “big union bosses from out of state,” and how the unions were just like Goliath, and her boss was exactly like David.
Me, I fingered my slick Americans for Prosperity—Wisconsin flier, which I later noticed contained the most revealing typo in the history of politics. “The forces of BIG GOVERNMENT would like nothing more than for you to DO NOTHING,” it warned, but promised, “We are gathering citizens together from across Michigan to make phone calls, knock on doors and educate their friends, family and neighbors.”
As Toobin points out, this is the real scandal: the nakedly transparent flouting of the tax laws by groups claiming to be nonpolitical and nonpartisan. Count on the media in Washington to entirely miss that obvious point.
President Obama introduces Penny Pritzker as his nominee for Secretary of Commerce. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster.)
Did you know that in the early 1970s, the Internal Revenue Service investigated the Pritzker family, whose scion Penny Pritzker has just been tapped by President Obama to become Secretary of Commerce, because their Hyatt Corporation was paying no taxes? And that in the course of the inquiry, an IRS statement quoted an informant with access to the records of the offshore bank where they hid their assets that the family, “through their Hyatt Corporation, received their initial backing from organized crime”?
Did you know that this particular financial institution, Castle Bank & Trust of the Bahamas, was founded by a veteran of the wartime spy agency the Office of Strategic Services who specialized in creating front organizations for the CIA, and helped launder funds for attempts to overthrow Fidel Castro? That Castle operated by arranging for a Miami bank controlled by associates of mobster Meyer Lansky to accept the original deposits, which it then passed on to Castle with only code numbers, but not names, attached?
Did you know that the IRS dropped a major investigation of Castle in 1977, according to The Wall Street Journal, at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency?
And did you know one of the bank’s cofounders, the late Burton Kanter, was on the board of the Hyatt Hotels Corporation, and that—as The Kansas City Times discovered in a 1982 Pulitzer Prize–winning investigation following the collapse of a shoddily constructed skywalk that killed 114 at a Hyatt in 1981—the Pritzkers were Castle Bank’s largest depositors?
Did you know that Kanter was the Pritzker family’s tax lawyer, and was able to reduce the IRS bill when patriarch A.N. Pritzker died in 1986 from the $150 million the government said the family owed for his estate only $9.5 million? (Or that family itself claimed his estate only possessed $3,000 in taxable assets?) Did you know that, twenty-four years later, a tax judge ruled that Kanter was the “architect” of “a concerted effort” to profit from kickbacks involving the siphoning off of funds managed by insurance companies? (The hustle included the invention of sham companies—“pure tax avoidance vehicles,” the judge said—the destruction of documents, and “implausible” and “incredible” testimony by Kanter.) This 2007 article by David Cay Johnston on the “overwhelming objective evidence” that led another tax judge to uphold the conviction places the Pritzker family at the center of the scam. And it notes that Kanter’s tax returns, now public, “show he never paid any significant tax. Yet he amassed a fortune big enough at one time to make him a credible bidder for the Miami Dolphins football team.”
Did you know that A.N. publicly denied ever using the legal services of fixer Sidney Korshak, for decades the notorious transit point between the mob and legitimate business interests in Chicago, before Korshak admitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission that he was in fact the family’s labor lawyer? That a Los Angeles Police investigator’s report said A.N. was “[c]losely connected with members of the Capone syndicate, Tony Accardo, and other underworld characters? It is believed by the undersigned that Pritzker may be active locally, as a front for Eastern hoodlum money to be invested in the Los Angeles Area”? That A.N.’s law partner Stanford Clinton was general counsel for the notoriously mob-connected Teamsters pension fund?
I got much of this stuff from Gus Russo’s voluminous book Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America’s Hidden Power Brokers. It’s an over-the-top book, hanging all sorts of claims on insinuation and guilt by association, so I’ve only included here the stuff I consider solid. And let’s respectfully dissent from Shakespeare, who wrote in the Merchant of Venice, “The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children”: Penny is not responsible for the dodgy practices of her grandfather. It’s not her fault her late Uncle Jay, who bought Hyatt in 1957, deployed it as a platform for innovative “asset management” financial engineering that kept the family at arms’ length regarding risk and responsibility (nowadays with the assets coming from Chicago taxpayers). She can’t be held responsible for the way Jay, back before that, benefited from very questionable deals arising from his tenure in the Justice Department’s Alien Property office, responsible for assets seized by the government. Nor can she be held responsible for the mob money allegedly behind the expansion of Hyatt in the first place. “Behind every fortune lies a great crime,” is the Balzac quote Russo uses to introduce the Pritzker family in his book; but that’s not Penny’s fault either, is it?
But certain patterns still obtain. It is one of the most crucial stories for understanding our age: how tax-avoidance strategies of a previous generation that might have landed you in court are now legal—which does not make them any more ethical. In fact, it may make them less ethical—precisely because third-gen scions like Penny, born in 1959, have entered into the political establishment, where their representatives, their latter-day Korshaks and Kanters, do their laundering in the halls of government instead of in Las Vegas hotel room meetings with associates of Tony Accardo. The scumminess is the same, or, really, worse; as Charlie Savage wrote this week in The New York Times, “Republican senators are likely to be interested in the Pritzker family’s reputation as innovators in the use of offshore trusts and foreign bank secrecy laws to shelter their wealth from income, capital gains and inheritance taxes. Even after tax loopholes were closed, the family’s trusts were grandfathered in and it kept benefiting from them.” As well the Republican senators should. And, hell, Democratic senators, too.
The crime is what is no longer a crime. Indeed, wrote David Cay Johnston, Burton Kanter regarded himself as the nation’s premier expert at “legally eliminating taxes.” He even proudly documented his techniques in legal journals.
Savage asked the White House what made Penny Pritzker suitable for a confirmation fight she was not qualified for in 2008. The spokesman responded that back then, she “had an ongoing obligation to oversee her family’s restructuring of assets to separate out the interest of various family members.” Now, that task has apparently been completed, or, as “a White House official involved in vetting her” put it, “they had since completed dividing up their finances.”
Got that? It took lawyers four years to figure out how to divest her from the sleaze. And that’s what makes her qualified for the job—a job not unrelated to the devising and interpretation of tax policy itself. And, not incidentally, a job concerned with subjects like this:
Tax evasion by individuals with unreported offshore financial accounts was estimated by one IRS commissioner to be several tens of billions of dollars, but no precise figure exists. IRS has operated four offshore programs since 2003 that offered incentives for taxpayers to disclose their offshore accounts and pay delinquent taxes, interest and penalties. GAO was asked to review IRS’s second offshore program, the 2009 OVDP. This report (1) describes the nature of the noncompliance of 2009 OVDP participants, (2) determines the extent IRS used the 2009 OVDP to prevent noncompliance, and (3) assesses IRS efforts to detect taxpayers trying to circumvent taxes, interests and penalties that would otherwise be owed. To address these objectives, GAO analyzed tax return data for all 2009 OVDP participants and exam files for a random sample of cases with penalties over $1 million; interviewed IRS Offshore officials; and developed and implemented a methodology to detect taxpayers circumventing monies owed.
That’s the abstract to a paper published two months ago and distributed by the Commerce Department’s National Technical and Information Service. I would give far more than a penny to hear Pritzker’s thoughts about that.
Read Part One of Rick Perlstein’s Pritzker commentary.
President Obama introduces Penny Pritzker as his nominee for Secretary of Commerce. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster.)
For those who’ve been waiting for Barack Obama, unfettered from the constraints of re-election, to emerge from his chrysalis and take wing as the true liberal they have always known he was, well, here we are: a proposal to cut Social Security benefits via a cost-of-living adjustments (candidate Obama in 2008 said John McCain suggests “the best answer for the growing pressures on Social Security might be cost-of-living adjustments or raise the retirement age. Let me be clear: I will not do either.”) And now this.
In December of 2008, Obama’s choice for Secretary of Commerce, Chicago-based business tycoon Penny Pritzker, withdrew her name from consideration in the face of a triple-barreled onslaught. First, there was her position on the board of Superior Bank, which her family bought with the help of $645 million in tax credits for the federal government. In 2001, Superior collapsed after pioneering the bottom-feeding trade in subprime mortgages. In In These Times, David Moberg called it a “mini-Enron scandal”; 1,406 uninsured depositors lost their savings. Here was what one of the victims had to say: “The Pritzkers are crooks. They don’t care anything about people who spent their whole lives trying to save.” And here is how Penny responded: “We had seven years of clean audits and then the auditors said, ‘Well, maybe we’ll change the way we calculate.’ ” Exquisite humanity, that. The family coughed up $435 million in settlement money in exchange for not having to admit any wrongdoing. But why, Penny was asked, would they pay half a billion dollars to clean up a mess she said was none of their fault? Because, she answered, “My family is not going to litigate with the federal government at a time like this”—a reference to the September 11 attacks; classy.
Here was the second concern which kept her from the Commerce Department in 2008: “Whether she could disentangle herself,” as The Washington Post put it, from her family’s “vast financial holdings”—many of which they would prefer not to see scrutinized in public. How vast? Well, way back in 1973, The New York Times reported of “The Very Private Pritzkers,” “The family law firm, Pritzker & Prizker, hasn’t accepted an outside client for thirty years because of the potential conflict of interest with the Pritzker enterprises, which are too numerous for any one member of the family to recall at any given moment.” In 1982, when the list became public for the very first time—more on why later—the holdings included at least 216 separate corporate entities, from mining to motels. One current holding is TransUnion—Penny is chairman of the board—which is one of three companies controlling the creepy trade in credit reports. “After widespread consumer complaints about shoddy service in the credit checking industry,” Bloomberg reported back in 2008, “the US Congress passed legislation in 2003 that allowed people to obtain free copies of credit reports so they could check for mistakes and block information obtained from identity theft. That same year, a jury awarded Judy Thomas of Klamath Falls, Oregon, $5.3 million after she claimed TransUnion took six years to correct a mistake in her credit report.” Penny’s reaction? Public-spirited as ever: “The company has always encouraged consumers to monitor their reports, Pritzker says.”
The third reason Obama chose not to risk political capital on a Penny Pritzker nomination fight is that unions despise her. Among the reasons: the Hyatt hotel chain, which the Pritzkers built practically from nothing, is infamous for just about the worst treatment of their staff in the business. (Here’s a moving first-hand account.)
Since that near-nomination, Chicago’s new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, chose Penny Pritzker to join the mayor-appointed school board—a body, as I’ve been documenting here, that has fanatically devoted to breaking the Chicago Teachers Union, and turning over the system to charter school operators. Their excuse has been the school system’s alleged $500 million deficit. Which is where Penny comes in. For while the city’s budget for schools is alleged to be bare, the city’s tax increment financing (TIF) fund, a slush pile for rich developers, carries a surplus of at least $500 million. What does this have to do with Penny Pritzker? Well, as it happens, on my very street, she is building a Hyatt financed with $5.2 million in TIF funds. As the Chicago Teachers Union points out, the TIF fund is controlled personally by the mayor; members of the school board (from which Pritzker recently resigned ahead of her Commerce appointment), overwhelmingly his rich campaign backers, are personally appointed by the mayor; and nothing’s keeping them from leaning on the mayor to tap the TIF surplus to plug the school deficit—except the fact that this very deficit is the rhetorical foundation for all the things they’re doing to weaken the union. All in all, Penny Pritzker’s relationship with labor has become exponentially worse since her near-nomination in 2008.
So how has second-term Obama responded? By renominating her.
It should make for some interesting confirmation hearings. This family is famously secretive. In 2003 two family scions, siblings Liesel and Matthew Pritzker, sued their father Robert Pritzker for $6 billion, claiming he had looted their trust fund. In 2004, a judge gave them access to sealed financial reports. Explained investigating reporter Gus Russo, “that unearthed a secret family deal cut after Liesel’s uncle Jay Pritzker’s death in 1999, a plan that would have broken up the fortune into eleven shares valued at $1.4 billion each. In early 2005, rather than expose the complicated Pritzker offshore shelters to the light of day, the Pritzker family put the final touches on a private settlement agreement” giving Liesel and Matthew Pritzker upwards of $500 million each to drop the case.
Which is how these cats tend to do business: cash in exchange for quiet. In 1982, for instance, when The Kansas City Times published an investigation of family finances after the collapse of a skywalk at a Kansas City Hyatt killed 114, they discovered that the family’s casino purchases beginning in 1959 were funded by $54 million in loans from the notorious mob-connected Teamsters Pension Fund, without telling stockholders as the law required. (The family agreed to a consent decree that allowed them to neither admit nor deny the allegations—shades of Superior Bank). The paper also quoted an IRS informant, a vice president of the offshore bank where the family stashed their cash: “The Pritzker family of Chicago through their Hyatt Corp. initially received their backing from organized crime.” According to the reporter who won a Pulitzer for the series, Knut Royce, Jay Pritzker’s initial response was to try to buy the newspaper. Failing that, he arranged a private takeover of Hyatt, the family’s one company that has ever been public, so it never would have to file information with the Securities ad Exchange Commission again.
If Republican senators have any strategic sense, they’ll be asking in open hearings about this sort of stuff: how the Pritzkers came by all those billions in the first place, how they’ve kept it from the view of the public and the taxman both, and what it is they’ve been so eager to hide. I’ll have more to say about that tomorrow. To put it lightly: It’s not the kind of thing Barack Obama needs America to hear about one of his cabinet appointees.
Read Rick Perlstein on pyramid schemes and the right.
Bernie Madoff, pictured here after being placed under house arrest in 2008, is not the only one in the business of building pyramids. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)
Last year I published an article in The Baffler called “The Long Con” that demonstrated how practices we associate with snake-oil salesmen saturate the American right—not just in its ideological appeals but in the way right-wing politics corrals a fleecable multitude all in one place, which conservative publications literally rent out as a source of handy marks for con men. A lot of folks found this to be a revelation, a bittersweet pleasure for me. On the one hand, it’s a blessing to me to be able to teach people new things about the world around us. But on the other hand, it’s frustrating; I wish people already knew about this stuff. It reinforces a fact: America truly does harbor two separate and nearly incommensurate tribes, “Red” and “Blue,” if you will; how many of us Blue folks know that getting roped into coughing up hard-earned money you’ll never see again to Republican-affiliated “multilevel marketing” (MLM) companies—in hustles formerly known as “pyramid schemes”—is as common in Evangelical and Mormon culture as going to yoga class in our own?
Robert Fitzpatrick, the author of False Profits: Seeking Financial and Spiritual Deliverence in Multi-Level Marketing and Pyramid Schemes and an expert witness or consultant in more MLM cases than any other private citizen, estimates that the industry Hoovers $10 to $20 billion out of the pockets of Main Street Americans every year. And hardly any of us know anything about it. As he explained to me in an e-mail, “Just as the Tea Party exists as a kind of phantom, funded quietly and invisibly from on high, with amorphous, uncounted members, the MLM industry has permeated Main Street without media recognition of its scale or force and largely in disguise as ‘direct selling.’ ” But “the Tea Party is at least beginning to be studied, its funding traced, its leaders examined.” MLM? Not so much. His book, published in 1997, was the first on the subject, though the industry has been rampant since the 1970s—and, save for a notable exception two years later from the heroic folks at tiny South End Press, there have hardly been any others since. That’s why I’m beginning a series on the subject today—in the hope that people will spread the word as widely as possible, and start learning more, and even organizing, on their own.
Let’s start with some basics—with some key regulatory questions. Fitzpatrick wrote a report called “The Main Street Bubble” that he hopes members of Congress will use to enhance FTC oversight, and to persuade the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to put MSM scams under its umbrella. It notes, “When they began to appear in the mid 1960s, pyramid selling schemes were widely understood to be classic frauds and were widely prosecuted.” The model statute came from California, which in 1968 banned “endless chains”—in which a franchisee only or mostly makes money from recruiting further franchisees, not from selling actual retail products. (In the most extreme variety of pyramid scheme, there is no actual product.) Another, softer practice, “referral-based discounting,” was widely outlawed: that means franchisees had to recruit new customers if they wanted to buy the material they were supposed to be selling at the advertised price. “By design,” Fitzpatrick explains, both practices “doomed most consumers to losses.”
The marquee outfit practicing such hustles, of course, was Amway—short for “American Way”—founded by the DeVos family of Michigan in 1964. In the 1970s, the FTC lost a court effort to close down Amway as an inherent fraud. A 1979 administrative law decision, however, did limit the conditions under which it could operate. Via clever lawyering, Amway adjusted—which it found easy to do under the relaxed regulatory regime of the Reagan years. Endless chains could be successfully reframed as a legitimate “business opportunity” called “direct selling,” in which, Fitzpatrick writes, “Each new distributor was induced to purchase goods each month as part of the ‘investment’”—only at staggeringly inflated prices, with the profit designed to flow up the chain to fewer and fewer parties, ultimately to the company itself. In short, “without sustainable and profitable retail sales opportunity for the distributors, the reward can come only from one place: the investments of later recruits.”
Such companies “churn through 50–80 percent of victims annually, replacing them with new ones,” which proliferate like kudzu. They have to, in order for their sponsors to survive: without new marks, the base of the pyramid disintegrates. Their failure is the company’s success. According to the declaration of expert witness Peter J. Vander Nat in the case of Federal Trade Commission v. Trek Alliance, who studied a database of 22,281 distributors for a company that “sold” (not many) water filters, cleaning products, nutritional supplements and beauty aids, “Under several optimal scenarios in which the distributors do exactly what is needed to obtain the rewards proposed by the Pay Plan, approximately 98.8 to 99.6 percent fail to achieve any earnings,” and “in all likelihood more than 96% of Trek distributors experienced business failure.”
Under the Clinton administration, regulatory efforts were stepped up. Vander Nat became the FTC’s senior economist, expert at teasing out the fraud behind “direct selling,” devising a test that determined what percentage of purchases by “distributors” would have to be resold to actual retail customers (instead of future “distributors” down the chain) for the “distributor” to actually make money without recruiting further marks. That number, he learned, was typically 70 percent, which virtually no one ever achieved. His schema made it easier to prosecute and protect the victims under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which regulates business fraud. Prosecutions began, gathered steam.
And what happened next? Tune in next time, when, likes the sands in an hourglass, a new presidential administration turns—a Republican administration. We’ll learn what conservative elites think about such sorts of business practices: that they judge them, well, as the American Way. Why not? They’re often the very same people.
Fracking is a public health disaster for those who live near it. Read Ellen Cantarow's story.
Show World in Times Square in 1979. (AP Photo//G. Paul Burnett, File.)
I was in New York last week, and one of the people I visited with was my friend Mike Edison, whose qualifications for the job (being my friend, I mean, and for being your friend, too) are listed on the résumé that doubles as the title of his 2008 memoir: I Have Fun Everywhere I Go: Savage Tales of Pot, Porn, Punk Rock, Pro Wrestling, Talking Apes, Evil Bosses, Dirty Blues, American Heroes, and the Most Notorious Magazines in the World. The notorious magazines include stoner rag High Times, which he published, and the only-in-New-York Bible of repulsiveness known as Screw, which Edison helped take over upon the retirement of Al Goldstein. I met Mike after he sent me his most recent book, Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!, a history of pornography, to blurb. I did so from the bottom of my heart: “Mike Edison can go toe to toe with some of the best writers of the (old) New Journalism. This is foul-mouthed popular history at its most entertaining. Plenty smart, too—and also, strange to say, poignant and loving.” (Hugh Hefner is the villain. I liked that.)
We met for a play I got free tickets for, running in a theater tucked inside the innards of a massive theme restaurant called Times Scare. This was, Mike pointed out, the former environs of Show World, one of the monuments of the old, perverted Times Square, a place which deserved to have the word “Scare” in its name far more than the plasticized Disney hellscape that sits on the corner of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue now. The incongruity sent Mike into a fit of gauzy reverie. He insisted we duck in next door—where a much smaller version of Show World still stands, somehow, despite two decades of campaigns to close it down, and despite a larger inconvenience you’d think would have spelled its doom long, long ago: Everything it has to offer for a price is now available online for free.
We enter the antiseptic, overlit warren (I say it is “much smaller,” but the place is actually still pretty gigantic). Except for the clerk and one other customer, we are the only ones there. It is one of the most surreal things I’ve experienced in my life. Somehow, its survival feels like it says something about the simultaneous resilience and strangeness of the human spirit. Though I couldn’t have quite told you yet what that something was.
Once upon a time, Show World patrons visited enclosed booths where they pumped tokens into a slot to open up a partition, revealing a “LIVE NUDE GIRL” behind glass for precisely forty-four seconds, after which the partition closed. (This article recalls the gross old days. “You had to start out as a mop man…”) No longer. A sign, blunt, yellow, bold, reads: “To Our Patrons: Since July 26 1998 We have had NO LIVE GIRLS. Sorry for the Disappointment. Management.” In place of human beings are video screens; insert token, and the screens flash to life for that same forty-four seconds. A forty-four second YouTube video, for twenty-five cents. You can see why Show World’s commercial appeal is now limited. You can see my incredulity that this place still exists.
It gets stranger. Stranger, in fact—much stranger—than the wall of DVDs carefully arranged by genre and sub-genre and sub-sub-genre, “She-Male,” “Asian” (“Rising Sun, A Far East F-—Adventure featuring Chantz”), etc.; nowadays you can fish the phone out of your pocket and find weirder stuff in a matter of seconds. But nothing so odd as this: a copy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac from 2005. A TV Guide with Suzanne Somers on the cover. A fishing magazine, in an entire room full of un-dirty magazines, organized neatly in stacks.
In 1995 Mayor Giuliani got a zoning law passed (as a sop to developers, The Village Voice reported) stipulating that a store could be heavily regulated as “adult” if over 40 percent of its wares were “adult-oriented.” Which is how Show World became the place to go if you’re in the market, not for LIVE NUDE GIRLS, but EASY JUMBO CROSSWORDS. Mike considers picking one up and presenting it with a straight face to the cashier for purchase, then decides against it; the guy’s job sucks enough already not to have to suffer a smart ass.
We left, and I was struck by how oddly emotional I felt. A mourning sort of emotion.
It made me remember something I once read by the literary critic Richard Ohmann. He was writing of his passion and pleasure in analyzing the novels of Edith Wharton that conjure up the lost world of the old-money overclass at the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth—a world of leisure and excess, built on the exploitation of invisible toilers. Ohmann, as a Marxist, reflected that he by rights ought to despise this now-extinct world. But he argued instead from love: that the passing of any social world ought to be mourned; they are all products of human labor and passion; all have their own glories and agonies and inherent integrity; all our cherished by someone, and everyone should feel human compassion for the pain others feel from the loss.
For me, then, the loss of the world of Show World inspires abstract sort of meta-nostalgia. But not for everyone. For some, the loss was more profound. In 2001, the science fiction writer and essayist Samuel Delany wrote a book about this old Times Square at whose reliquary I had just paid respects, and what it meant to ostracized black gay men like him: a place to belong. “The population was incredibly heterogeneous—white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, native American, and a variety of Pacific Islanders,” he wrote.
In the Forty-second Street area’s sex theaters specifically, since I started frequenting them in the summer of 1975, I’ve met playwrights, carpenters, opera singers, telephone repair men, stockbrokers, guys who worked at Dunkin Donuts, guys who gave out flyers on street corners, guys on welfare, guys with trust funds, guys on crutches, on walkers, in wheelchairs, teachers, warehouse workers, male nurses, fancy chefs, guys who worked at Dunkin Donuts, guys who gave out flyers on street corners, guys who drove garbage trucks, and guys who washed windows on the Empire State Building. As a gentile, I note that this is the only place in a lifetime’s new York residency I’ve had any extended conversation with some of the city’s Hasidim. On a rainy Friday in 1977 in one such theater, the Variety, down on Third Avenue just below Fourteenth Street, I met a man who became my lover for eight years.
He writes of the Variety as “almost a kind of family, with a neighborhood feel—though men came there from as far as the Bronx, Queens, Westchester or (a tree service worker and his uncle) Brewster, New York.” Here he relates a story. An Asian kid is watching the straight stuff on the screen, um, enjoying himself all the while; the gay men enjoy him enjoying himself; a delighted dialogue ensues—“‘Ain’t that a trip?…That’s really funny, huh?’ the guy went on volubly. ‘I don’t mind, though. It ain’t nothin’”—about what all seemed to agree was a moment of mutuality and solidarity such that could never be enjoyed in that pinched, exclusionary world outside.
He’s describing a kind of accidental utopia. At a place most people considered repulsive. It takes all kinds to make a world. All kinds of places produce authentic meaning, and even love.
Read Rick Perlstein on the movie Cape Fear, in which Gregory Peck's character defeats the villain—while still respecting the law and civil liberties.
Not too long ago I saw, for the first time, the 1962 version of the film Cape Fear, directed by J. Lee Thompson. (You may know the 1991 Martin Scorsese remake.) It starred two men whose casting alone would have alerted early ’60s moviegoers about where their sympathies were supposed to lie. Robert Mitchum, famous for depicting characters of pure wickedness even at the risk of his status as a leading man (think 1955’s Night of the Hunter), plays an ex-con just out of prison. He’s convinced that one man is responsible for his incarceration: a lawyer played by Gregory Peck who saw him commit the brutal murder for which he went to prison. Peck played to type, too: a heroic, sweet, selfless lawyer, tough but fair, who would never cut a corner, even to restore order to a fallen world—just like the character he played in To Kill a Mockingbird, also from 1962.
I saw Cape Fear back when we were all discussing the meaning and ethics of Zero Dark Thirty. Remember that big old debate? Some, most prominently three senators in a position to know, argued the picture was “grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Osama bin Laden”—and was, thus, objectively pro-torture. Others, like Michael Moore, said the interrogation scenes were so off-putting that no one could but to conclude from them, Moore wrote, that “torture is wrong.” Others pointed out that the full plot, in its byzantine complexities, suggests that the tidbit of information that broke the case came investigators’ way before those interrogations happened—so the movie could not be read as objectively pro-torture. I disagree with both those latter two arguments. The reason is simple: ZDT is a genre piece, a police procedural, in which convention dictates that sweating the suspect—good cop, bad cop, and all that; an unpleasant job but somebody has to do it—is but one of the required stations of the cross to move the plot along to resolution, and justice.
In any event I couldn’t stop thinking about that movie while watching Cape Fear—thinking about what the Zero Dark Thirty debate says about 2013, from the perspective of this very different movie from 1962.
In Cape Fear, the Robert Mitchum character reappears in the Peck character’s life to deliver a veritable clinic in how you terrorize a family—to reduce the victim to a puddle of fear and make it impossible for his family to live their lives without being possessed by that fear. Peck has a lovely wife and pubescent daughter—that’s central to the plot. First, his daughter’s beloved dog is poisoned to death. He next learns that the Mitchum character’s girlfriend has been brutally beaten. Mitchum then starts bird-dogging Peck’s daughter, leering at her, harassing her–then chasing her into a corner of a scary building. Peck confronts Mitchum in a bar and tries to pay him off to leave his family alone. Mitchum refuses, pledging to visit the “death of a thousand cuts” on his adversary instead.
Mitchum’s character, as clever as he is wicked, is careful to leave no actionable evidentiary trail to tie him to his acts. And also, all the while, a smarmy defense lawyer he’s retained—we’re to think of the lawyer as almost as wicked as Mitchum himself—spouts American Civil Liberties Union–style bromides, keeping law enforcement at bay, leaving Mitchum free to stalk his prey with a free hand.
Bottom line: we know Mitchum and his lawyer are evil—there can be no mistaking that. (“A man like that is an animal,” a character observes. “So you have to fight him like an animal.”) Just as obviously, Gregory Peck is a pure manifestation of goodness. And in a certain way of telling a Hollywood story, knowing that is enough: the plot merely becomes about good guy vanquishing bad guy, it really doesn’t matter how. Just like in Zero Dark Thirty, in which the means happen to be torture.
But here is the moral grandeur, by contrast, of Cape Fear: Peck refuses to surrender to his rage, refuses to cut civil liberties corners, refuses vigilante revenge. That determination structures the entire texture of the second half of the picture—until, by the end, as Mitchum plots the literal abduction and rape of Peck’s pre-teen daughter, Peck cunningly wins the battle by fighting fairly and within the law.
It demonstrates a difference between that time and our own: the simple point that Americans then found the idea of hunting down genuine evildoers without violating due process or constitutional liberties credible. (It was a Cold War thing: civil liberties are what makes America American. Without civil liberties, there was no America.) Even more importantly, it showed that audiences then found such a plot device entertaining. There was pleasure in watching evil being put paid by good guys who didn’t descend to the level of bad guys. That changed, of course, by the 1970s, when revenge movies—like Dirty Harry (1972) and Death Wish (1974)—began wallowing in the pleasures of heroes who were heroes precisely because they sunk to the level of villains. Who agreed with the Dick Cheney who infamously put it regarding the watershed our nation had supposedly passed when confronting post-9/11 “evildoers,” “We have to work the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world.” Just like the good guys do in Zero Dark Thirty.
And, we are now to believe, just like the good guys are doing with Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
We are to understand that a novel “public safety exemption” prevents Tsarnaev from hearing that he has a right to remain silent, and the right to an attorney, that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be provided to him. Instead he is now being sweated out by authorities old-school style, perhaps by a “bad cop” boxing him around the head and the ears with a phone book (maybe Tsarnaev has never seen a cop movie, and doesn’t know that he doesn’t have to say anything…). Which makes no logical sense, because any competent defense lawyer would understand his first responsibility as keeping his client from being executed, and would thus encourage his client to sing like a bird about any possible wider plot. Meanwhile Senator Lindsay Graham added a mockery to constitutional mockery, insisting Tsarnaev be treated as an “enemy combatant”—whatever that means by this point, other than “scary not-really-American person we don’t like.”
Andrew Sullivan has recently pointed out the absurdity of the national pants-pooping that’s been going on after the Boston attacks. Citing the libertarian writer Ronald Bailey, he notes calculations that the “the chances of an American being killed in a terrorist attack over the past five years is one in twenty million. The risk of being struck by lightning is one in five million. The risk of dying in a car accident is one in 19,000. More strikingly, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism found that the number of terror attacks in the US in the decade before 9/11 was forty-one a year. Since 9/11, it has been nineteen a year.” He adds, by way of contrast, veterans are committing suicide now at a rate of twenty-two per day. And yet somehow none of us has seen fit to overturn the Constitution because of any of that.
Instead, the nation has surrendered to an inherently right-wing idea, one that I’ve written of here in the context of the gun control debate: the notion that the world is easily parsed into god guys and bad guys, never the twain should meet—and the corollary notion, which I’ve also written about recently, that once the world has been so divided, vanquishing the bad guys licenses any procedural abuse.
Indeed it is now hard for Americans to imagine the world working any other way. If someone tried to make a Cape Fear today, in the same basic way it was made in 1962, ask yourself this: would Gregory Peck even be conceivable as a hero?
More on fear: Americans' insulated existence gives us little perspective on terror and violence, Rick Perlstein writes.
First responders surround the site of the Boston Marathon bombing. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa.)
“Does that have something to do with the guy who sent poison to the president?” the guy who owns the cafe where I write asks about the melodrama unfolding this morning in Boston.
“No, that was just a crazy guy from Mississippi.”
A friend texts, two days ago: “Jesus wtf now explosions in Texas!?”
I write back: “Feels like an accident to me.” (What I thought, shamefully, was: “not political. Just an accident.” Just an accident!)
We live in interesting times, just like the old Chinese curse warns us again. A terrorist attack in Boston, followed by a state-of-the-art witch hunt: a cellphone picture of two Moroccans near the finish line, posted online, soon plastered on the front page of the New York Post, and suddenly lives are turned upside down for fear of vigilante justice. A Saudi national detained at the hospital, suspicious because he was “running” (running after an explosion: how suspicious), ginned up into a claim on Fox News that “he is now going to be deported on national security grounds,” then escalated by professional shrieker Pamela Geller into an obvious cover-up by the Saudi royal family in cahoots with B. Hussein Obama. Ideologues saddle up their hobbyhorses in order to ride; but at that, I am an ideologue, too. I spent much of yesterday lining up my argument for why a white nationalist militia type might want to spray shrapnel into a crowd on Tax Day, that shrapnel of this type is a classic marker of white-supremacist bombcraft, how an FBI obsessed with entrapping Arabs and anarchists ignores the right-wing lunatics in our midst. And, once I hear of the screen grabs of what I hear someone call “regular-looking white guys,” in baseball caps, no less, I get ready to pull the trigger on the argument…
And when Fox News wins in the end, I deflate. Chechens. Muslims! A Fox personality on my screen tells me one of the suspects linked to some site that had something to do with some jihadi prophesy about how the caliphate would unfold, then cautions that this doesn’t mean they’re Al Qaeda for sure…
A calamitous explosion near Waco. Waco! My friend who texted is a libertarian—which sets me to thinking that if even libertarians suspect some latter-day Timothy McVeigh must be responsible, I should be speculating that, too… And then, no: not terrorism. Just austerity, deregulation, a laggard Occupational Safety and Health Administration. As Lee Fang noted in this space yesterday, OSHA “has only inspected five fertilizer plants in the entire state of Texas—and the plant in West, Texas, was not one of them.” This particular facility was last inspected twenty-six years ago. “The US Chemical Safety Board, which came into operation in 1998, is the commission tasked with investigating safety violations. Like similar boards, the Chemical Safety Board has virtually no resources: only a $10 million budget to cover every violation in the country.” I recast my dudgeon: the outsized devastation in West, Texas—see the hospital, nursing home and middle school within steps of the factory on the map at the bottom of this article—owes to the absurdities of right-wing hegemony, too: what ever happened to zoning?
Yes, it’s true: having dismounted the “maybe right-wing terrorists did it” hobbyhorse, I’ve mounted another. So sue me.
Ricin-infested letters sent to Obama and Senator Roger Wicker. The FBI arrests in a man named Paul Kevin Curtis. I find my way to the web site of the Jackson Clarion Ledger, hastily comb my way through “Who Is Paul Kevin Curtis?”: Elvis, Johnny Cash, Prince (??), and Bon Jovi impersonator; apparently politically motivated (“I am KC and I approve this message,” his letters read), and then—bingo! Something posted this on Facebook after the Boston bombing: “We have let God down. We removed prayer from schools in 62.” I eagerly await confirming details that this guy’s some acolyte of Glenn Beck… and isn’t it interesting that my eye never noticed what came next in his post, that “we have staged wars simply for profits in oil and drugs.” Then, it’s revealed the guy’s simply in tinfoil hat territory: a paranoid bipolar off his meds, convinced he was being spied on by drones, having “discovered a refrigerator full of dismembered body parts & organs wrapped in plastic in the morgue of the largest non-metropolitan health care organization in the United States of America.” My knee stops jerking.
Interesting times. What does it all add up to? Nothing, probably. As ghastly, evil, overwhelming, tragic, as the events this week in Boston, Texas, the Capitol mail rooms have been, it’s easy to forget, in our oh-so-American narcissism, enveloped in the wall-to-wall coverage that makes our present catastrophe feel like the most important events in the universe, how safe and secure Americans truly are by any rational standard. Terror shatters us here precisely because ours is not a terrifying place compared to so much of the rest of the world. And also not really an objectively terrifying time, compared to other periods in the American past: for instance, Christmastime, 1975, when an explosion equivalent to twenty-five sticks of dynamite exploded in a baggage claim area, leaving severed heads and other body parts scattered among some two dozen corpses; no one ever claimed responsibility; no one ever was caught; but, pretty much, the event was forgotten, life went on and no one anywhere said “everything changed.”
A less narcissistic time, perhaps. Not now. Now, we let trauma consume us. Now, our desperate longing to know—to find easy, immediate answers—confines us, makes us frantic, reduces us to our basest cognitive instincts. And ultimately that’s all I really have to say today, and all I really have to write: to record a testament that people can reflect on fifty years from now, if they want to know it felt like to live in America the week of April 15, 2013.
Read Rick Perlstein’s latest in his coverage of the Chicago school closings.
Teachers, students and parents protest the plan to close 54 Chicago public schools. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast.)
I've been watching a lot of adolescents cry these days. First it was twelve-year-old Jasmine Murphy, on a media bus tour led by the Chicago Teachers Union to demonstrate the devastation likely to follow from Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to close fifty-four schools. She was relating how she felt when the elementary school she loved and in which she had thrived was shuttered in 2011. Then, this week, all over town, Chicago Public School bureaucrats have sat before hearings to hear public comment on each individual school set to close this coming September. In my neighborhood, Hyde Park, I joined seventy-five or so community members who sat—and, angrily, stood—in an auditorium at Kenwood Academy High School, six blocks directly east of Barack Obama's family home, to address the closing of a middle school next door known as Canter Leadership Academy. The whole thing pretty much went down like this. Picture a tough-looking black teenage boy. His name is Shane Ellis. Shane takes the microphone for his allotted two minutes. He begins listing all the schools he's attended in Chicago. He says, "Of all these schools, Canter is the only one that showed it actually cared." He relates a story about the principal telling him that given all the things he's been through in his life and with his family it's a testament to his depth of character that he can carry on at school all.
It is upon that recollection that Shane breaks down. A pal approaches, comforts him; Shane breaks down again, overcome, overwhelmed, beside himself. He can't continue. He leaves the hall, head hung low. That's how much losing his school means to him.
Imagine stories like this happening again and again and again. That was how I spent last Friday evening. An earlier hearing a week ago about the same school drew two hundred community members and was, I'm told even more passionate than this.
The question of whether a school like Canter closes down, as the school board wants, or stays open, as the community overwhelmingly desires, will provide a case study for whether the mayor's school closing plan can truly serve the city's children, parents, teachers in any sort of humane way. It also offers a window into the larger meaning of what the billionaire stats-besotted ideologues driving what our benighted political discourse insists on labeling education "reformers" have in mind for the rest of the country. By the Gradgrindian statistical reckoning of Rahm Emanuel's school board, Canter's closing is an open and shut case: it is a "Level 3" school, the system's lowest rating; if it closes, its students will be spread across two schools all the way across the neighborhood that both rate as Level 2. Which, on paper, looks like an obvious improvement. At the hearing, though, it becomes plain that absolutely none of the stakeholders involved—students, parents, staff, and assorted community members, all of whom unanimously and passionately speak against the closing—see this as an improvement. What they tell is the kind of stories statistics don't know how to register.
Diane Hamm, a theater artist and wife of a Canter teacher, who speaks third, gave an especially articulate summary as to why: a "school is a microcultural environment in itself." Canter being an especially "safe, caring, and vibrant" such environment, closing it "simply creates chaos." Her husband, she says, "has taught in many school environments that were not as supportive," including ones in neighborhoods of great privilege; Canter, by contrast, by hard work and by design, maintains a community and is maintained by a community. Another wife of a Canter teacher provides an illustration as to how: "students who've been randomly dropping by his classroom for twenty-one years because they know where he'll be." Their family runs into families of these kids while walking the family dog, shopping at Hyde Park Produce; all are embedded in "a community that transcends the school environment." This is one thing would be lost.
Here is another. There are other students who do not come from this particular neighborhood, and speak to the school's value yet more eloquently. For they come from much worse neighborhoods, their parents having busted their tails to get their kids into this safe, caring, and vibrant environment (one parent described how she risked homelessness so her kids could get educated there)—where, like Shane, they consistently thrive. The fact that a school like Canter gets a "low" rating seems a paradoxical testament to strength: it is a welcoming school—it welcomes bad students, and makes them better.
I use the word welcoming with irony: "welcoming schools" is the slyly Orwellian phrase used to describe the buildings where kids from closed schools are being shunted off to. But community, a speaker says, that precious, delicate thing, "does not transfer to a welcoming school."
Over and over, students at the hearing attest to the transformations this supposedly "failing" community has worked in their educations. "All my teachers are the best people I've met in my life," says a kid named Elizabeth Johnson, who graduated on to a college preparatory high school. She starts sobbing, then addresses the panel directly: "What type of people are you?" She names her teachers one by one—Mr. Fishbein, Mr. Papczun, Mr. Paranjape, Mr. Windsor (a wizardly math teacher who helped eighteen out of twenty students in his algebra advanced placement class last year test out of high school algebra): "They've changed my life! It's outrageous that you're going against the community and the kids and the teachers! I just don't understand."
Mr. Papczun tells of students relating to him their victimization by gangs at other schools, and how safe they feel at this one: "I think we really save these kids.... And this is going to be lost.... We are not a failing school! We are a great school!" A kid named Jose, a salutatorian and honor roll member, asks of his "better" school, "Would I be valued at that school just like Canter valued me?" (He walks back from the microphone, and Mr. Fishbein gives him a fist-bump.) A student says she never learned anything at her last school because of all the bullying (bullies aren't tolerated at Canter), and because there were forty students in her class ("And I understand that's why you want to close Canter!"—because there aren't forty students in every class). A kid named Darius testifies that he got all F's on his report card at his last school "in all the easiest subjects. But this year, as I came to Canter, it actually changed me. This year, I'm actually working on all the things that are inside me." He concludes, "We really, really love this community. We're all in this together." Can't have that.
A pastor points to a word obsessing the city's black South and West Sides these days: violence. He turns it around, and applies it to the school-closing process itself: "This act seems violent to me. Without warning. It is a violent act." He gets a large measure of applause: "The question is, have you all taken into consideration the violence of this act itself?" A charter school guidance counselor speaks up and gives his name, first and last—despite the fact, he says, "I could lose my job for being here." He says he has to be here: it's about community. A nervous student ("I'm shaking") says, "I'm from East Africa, and I'm from a community where it takes a village to raise a child. And when I got to Canter—"
She stops. Yes, she starts crying. Mr. Fishbein moves to comfort her.
She continues: "When I came here I lost the sense of a village raising me, but when I got to Canter I got the feeling of every teacher...replacing that spot.... I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Canter." She then tells the story of a fellow student, who had never been interested in art, being guided to find a gift for it within herself. "And that's all thanks to Canter.... And I can't believe they're closing this school that made me what I am today."
Now the student council vice president comforts her, and leads her back to her seat. It all would have made for dramatic video. City Hall apparently knows this all too well. Before the meeting, when a man in front of me begins setting his camera atop a tripod, a large fellow rushes forth to inform him no video recording is allowed. The man with the camera agrees to comply. I ask the security man the reason for the rule. He says it's a policy of the school board. The man with the camera continues setting it up—and the security guard dashes his way again. The cameraman assures the security man that he's setting the devise on its still-camera setting. Unsatisfied, the security guard asks him to prove it—and peers closely at the machine to make sure.
The arrogance is the most grating part. The big public meeting at school headquarters on the closings is Wednesday. That, one speaker, a social worker at Canter, thunders, is a report card pickup day. "CPS is making us choose: going to the hearing to keep our schools open, or attending report-card pickup and conversing with the parents about our children's progress. Or maybe, just maybe, you don't want community input. Why else did you double-schedule these?" She addresses her last remark at the three bureaucrats before her: "People, tell me how you've allowed this to happen." They sit, stony, unresponsive. As they told the very first speaker, when she asked how they were going to prevent the abandoned Canter building from becoming a neighborhood eyesore, driving down property values, "We're not here to answer questions, we're only here to listen to your questions and take them back to [schools CEO] Barbara Byrd-Bennett."
There are murmurs; the scene is so bizarre as to almost be Kafkaesque. "So what's the purpose?" someone asks. But they can't answer that either; once more they implacably sit, Sphinx-like. And sit, and sit, and sit—as the tenor of the meeting gets angrier and angrier ("People coming in front of you crying ... greeted with silence?"). People begin feeling more and more helpless, and citizens start murmuring about how this all will change how they plan to vote. One parent suggests of the ESL interpreter, "It seems like she should turn around and do sign language to you guys." A graduate student says he will address the note-taker instead. Though he actually addresses them—with the school system officials: "If I were in your position I would actually be worried" about the system's "inveterate failure to live up to promises"—such as the promise that another neighborhood school, Kozminski Community Academy, which is on the system's "Track E" schedule, which means it is in session in summer, would get air conditioning and never did.
"Please conclude your remarks," the bureaucrat serving as master of ceremonies, CPS deputy chief of operations Tom Terrell, intones.
He's said that over and over at each speaker's two-minute point, and seems to do so with an especially robotic flatness—an almost ostentatious flatness—precisely during the testimonies that are most impassioned. (It sounds especially unmannerly when he does so to Evan Canter, the son of the community activist after which the school is named.) The only time one of the figures on the stage, CPS "Chief of Networks" Denise Little, showed signs of life was when a witness addressed our little mayor's imperious decision-making style: "What is he, an emperor?" She giggled. It must have been be tough, carrying out this farkakta assignment; I felt for those poor bureaucrats then—felt for them having to follow the dictates of this awful, awful man. (The other figures sitting at the table were Eric Pruitt, deputy chief of elementary schools—and the area's police commander, I guess in case a distraught twelve-year old rushed the stage.)
Rahm Emanuel is supposed to be some sort of political genius. The only thing he seems good at now is manufacturing enemies. ("This is not for the children ... you think we're dumb, Emanuel?": sustained applause.) Every week new stories come out completely undermining the system's claims that the school-closing plan will make students better off. Perhaps the most stunning was an investigation by the schools watchdog publication Catalyst Chicago demonstrating that eleven percent of the students whose schools closed between 2001 and 2006 simply disappeared from the system: no one knows where or whether they continued in school at all. Then came this: Chicago Public Radio's Linda Lutton noted that the city is borrowing $329 million to upgrade the receiving schools (despite announcing last year the system was too broke to approve more than a bare-bones capital budget). "A district spokesperson confirmed CPS did not factor in debt service costs when calculating savings to be achieved by closing schools."
This bad faith (the spokesman, noted Lutton, was "authorized to speak to media but not to have reporters print his name") has been politically galvanizing. At a table at the cafe where I write this six mothers busily plot their role in the campaign to save Canter. "You don't really know how a school is until you go to it," I overheard one. Later, an employee at a charter school who hears me talking about the hearing on the phone turns around and tells me about her own work fighting for the neighborhood schools. Meanwhile, through it all, amidst the obvious political collapse in Emanuel's position in the face of all this consternation, well-informed City Hall watchers I know scratch their heads. No one can figure out what the play is. Turn the buildings over to charter schools? But CPS promised that no charters would occupy closed schools. (The system abandons its promises all the time, but this one would be particularly embarrassing to break.) One particularly shrewd Rahm-watcher I know suggests they're doing it to get more federal money; but he's not sure, precisely, how that would work.
Then there is that nagging suspicion of a meta-explanation, one that feels almost too awful to contemplate. Destroying the village in order to save it, all in order to rebuild it on a more overclass-friendly foundation, Republican-style: Since the other ones simply don't add up, you're almost left with no choice but to entertain the idea. That would be, after all, how Rahm Emanuel rolls. Consider Bruce Rauner, the local leveraged-buyout titan who mentored Rahm's move into investment banking after he left the Clinton White House and before he ran for Congress. Since 2006, he's had a charter school named after himself, "Rauner College Prep." Rauner loves charter schools, and hates the Chicago Teachers Union. Rauner recently announced an exploratory committee to run for governor of Illinois as a Republican. The morning of the Canter hearing I noticed a tweet from him: "Thrilled to have FreedomWorks President & CEO Matt Kibbe join my exploratory committee." You know, Matt Kibbe: co-author of Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto. You know FreedomWorks: the right-wing front group that traces its lineage to David Koch, the one that produced the fake Hillary Clinton sex tape, the one in which the Secretary of State had oral sex performed on her by a person in a panda suit.
These are the types Rahm pals around with. Kids like Shane: well, I guess they can just go to hell.
In his previous post, Rick Perlstein looks at another infuriating policy with no apparent logic: The idea that tax cuts "pay for themselves," now debunked by none other than the National Review.
Protestors rally against higher taxes in Santa Barbara, California. (Reuters/Phil McCarten, File.)
Happy Tax Day! Or maybe, instead, we should call it "Ronald Reagan Day." Consider the advertising slogan of TurboTax: "The Power to Keep What's Yours." With Ayn Rand, with our fortieth president and his fawning acolytes, the nation's best known suite of tax preparation software presumes taxation to be theft, and the very opposite of what jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (who left his residuary estate to the United States government) more accurately called it: "the price we pay for civilized society." Here in our not-so-civilized society, when it comes to taxes, Ronald Reagan has won. For example, his claim that tax cuts "pay for themselves"—i.e. unleash so much economic mojo that the government ends up receiving more revenue for the U.S Treasury when rates are cut. Even though that is actually "magical thinking," a "fantasy," and a "just-so story," and a "bedtime fairy tale Republicans tell themselves."
But don't take my word for it. I'm just a Bolshevik with a laptop. The quotes above come from a 2010 article debunking the right's "supply side" fantasies by National Review staffer Kevin D. Williamson. That piece, entitled "Goodbye Supply Side," pointed out, "There is no evidence that [George Bush's] tax cuts on net produced more revenue than the Treasury would have realized without them." And I remember thinking when I read that that this was an extraordinary piece of truth-telling—perhaps even some sort of watershed moment in the intellectual life of American conservatism. Perhaps it would inspire a brace of self-reckoning, in which the right's perfervid army of ideological hacks suddenly started questioning for the first time whether claiming black is white and up is down was intellectually or morally sustainable.
Even Rick Perlstein, at this here late date in the game, can sometimes fall prey to naive fantasies about the American right.
The article was ignored. It received a grand total of thirteen tweets. I rang up the author, Kevin Williamson—who, by the way, when he's not telling unseasonable truths to fellow conservatives about economics can spread the Orwellian horseshit just as deep and wide as any other of his benighted comrades—to ask him what effect it had. "None," he replied. Williamson then reflected upon further questioning that, well, some: Certain Republican politicians admit privately that he is correct, but "it's hard to get them to acknowledge it in public because it's become such a piece of dogma."
And so it is—still.
Mitt Romney made the claim that his tax cuts would not increase the deficit a centerpiece of his campaign. Paul Ryan's latest budget presumes the idea as a given. (Kevin, that pretty much belies your claim to me, in your attempt to exculpate your party, that "nobody who is writing budgets who says tax cuts are self-funding.") Every Republican member of the House Ways and Means Committee signed a letter saying tax reform "would lead to higher tax revenues which would simultaneously address both the nation's economic and fiscal reforms.") Supply-side's pioneering bullshit artist—again belying Williamson, who told me, “if you press Arthur Laffer on this stuff I think he comes down roughly where I do"—returned to form last month to argue that a law lowering corporate tax rates should be a Democrat's wet dream and will "simultaneously achieve the Republican longstanding goal of lower tax rates"—bipartisan consensus!—because it will produce "higher government revenues" (must have scrawled the draft on a napkin...). And so on.
Reality boxes them around the ears, and still they keep scrapping: the Bush administration commissioned the Treasury Department to say whether his income tax cuts pay for themselves and Treasury came back with a report explaining that they did not; and yet Bush went a head, unperturbed, passing his income tax cut, which, yes, promptly did not pay for itself. Romney's tax claims received a staggering number of debunkings. Before all that, Williamson's article recalls, "The Congressional Budget Office did a study in 2005 of the effects of a theoretical 10 percent cut in income-tax rates. It ran a couple of different versions of the study, under different sets of economic assumptions. The conclusion the CBO came to was that the growth effects of such a tax cut could be expected to offset between 1 percent and 22 percent of the revenue loss in the first five years. In the second five years, the CBO calculated, feedback effects of tax-rate reductions might actually add 5 percent to the revenue loss—or offset as much as 32 percent of it."
Thirty-two percent is less than one hundred percent—the number required for a tax cut to "pay for itself." So how have conservatives responded? In just the way they do to the 99 percent of scientists who say man-made climate change is a civilization crisis: They say, "Well, they must be counting wrong."
Enter "dynamic scoring." An "idea" Republicans have been goofing around with since 1994, it resembles how a ten-year-old plays one-on-one up to twenty-one with his eighteen-year-old brother: the grownup spots the kid fifteen points. "Dynamic scoring" works like this: You plug numbers into budget predictions that "forecast" what you seek to prove—that tax cuts will do what tax cuts have never done, which is increase revenue. It is opposed to what the dynamists denote as "static scoring," which sounds awful—who wants to be static when you could be dynamic? It's an invented term, apparently; I couldn't find any references to it before the first "dynamic scoring" proposal appeared in 1994. Late last month, meanwhile, "dynamic scoring" was enshrined as the official policy of the United States Senate in a 3 a.m. vote engineered by Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, George W. Bush's former director of the Office of Management and Budget.
So what can you do about it, dear taxpayer? First, call and complain to the six Democratic senators—Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri—who put Portman's amendment over the top. Second: one of the things I discovered while researching this piece is that Ayn Rand has been busy on her laptop. The Wikipedia entry on "dynamic scoring" asserts the following embarrassing tautologies: "The method yields a more accurate prediction of a policy's impact on a country's fiscal balance and economic output when it can be performed accurately...Dynamic scoring is more accurate than static scoring when the econometric model correctly captures how households and firms will react to a policy change." It adds an absurd invention, beloved of conservative history-inventors: "Some trace the philosophy back to President Kennedy." Well, yes, "some" do—but hilariously, the article Wikipedia links to to support the claim actually debunks it. Meanwhile the entry does not include the customary section on "controversies." We are to belief this is simply Capital-T Truth. Orwell's 1984 had a ministry devoted to that, didn't it?
And so, Wikipedians: after you get back from the post office to mail off your return, or are done logging on to TurboTax, fix this meretricious crap. The responsible way to begin, I think, is to cite the flagship right-wing magazine admitting it's all mostly made up. Then link to the Forbes contributor who says the same. Then go to sleep satisfied, knowing you've done your bit to sustain civilization—twice in one day.
For another Reagan legacy, read Rick Perlstein's post "Duck Genitals, Bisexual Frogs and Other Right-Wing Anti-Science Inanities."
Many of today's conservatives take a page from Ronald Reagan and unfairly malign funding for various research. (AP Photo/Jim Cole.)
Conservatives manufacture outrage; such is their (anti)civic function. A favorite tactic from time immemorial has been to find "outrageous" federal outlays get and present them as stand-ins for the supposed recklessness of government spending altogether. One of Ronald Reagan's mentors was a pioneer. H.R. "Charlie" Gross had been news director of WHO in Des Moines in the 1930s when Reagan worked there as a sportscaster, back when Reagan was a New Dealer. Gross, though, was a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, and the two would get into knock-down-drag-out debates over lunch. ("Somewhere around the last months of Dutch's employment at WHO," one of their colleagues remembered, "I recall thinking that maybe Gross was winning him over.") Beginning in 1949, Gross moved on from his career as an early Rush Limbaugh to a seat in Congress, where he specialized in the aforementioned activity; in 1953, for example, he went after the Navy for supposedly requiring a board of three commissioned officers to investigate whenever a pet died aboard a navy vessel. Did the Navy pay “as much attention to the death of children?” a Republican colleague chuckled appreciatively. “I doubt it,” Gross replied.
When it came Reagan's time to address the nation himself as a syndicated radio commentator in 1975, he showed how well he had learned Gross's hustle. "If you're not familiar with the term 'boondoggle,' consider the fact that our federal government recently underwrote the cost of a study dealing with Polish bisexual frogs," he intoned on one broadcast. How absurd to waste $6,000 of hard-earned taxpayer money for that! No matter that, over a year earlier, after an Idaho congressman had introduced the "scandal," newspaperman in lowly Boca Raton, Florida investigated the claim and found it a thoroughgoing cock-up: first, the money hadn't come from taxpayers but from Polish money owed the US in a balance of payments deal; second, the researcher was a pioneer in research on the genetics of plant hybrids (a rather lucrative business, should you, like Ronald Reagan, happen to like capitalism), for which these asexually reproducing amphibians, it turned out, were crucially helping in the understanding.
The point being, Ronald Reagan was not a scientist. How would he know whether supposedly ridiculous-sounding basic science research was useless? A point, in fact, which brings us right up to today, and the latest such supposed outrage being trumpeted by Republicans. There's nothing new under the wingnut sun. As Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo points out, "conservative trolling of...publicly funded scientific research is at a historic high." For instance, research on the subject of duck genitals. Listen to the Club for Growth's Steven Moore excoriate that here: Genitals!! Get it? Sex!! Sex is silly!!! (He said 'genitals'! Heh heh heh!) Never mind that the research that received the $400,000 grant, as Michael Tomasky wrote, "is rather fascinating and just self-evidently deserving of human study." So, Beutler points out, is the "study of bear DNA that John McCain mocked as [either] 'a paternity issue or criminal,' but a waste of money' either way," but which "yielded information that turned out to be valuable to the people of Montana who live and work among grizzlies"; or Eric Cantor's oh-so-clever intervention "that 'President Obama wants to raise your taxes so he can pay people $1.2 million to play World of Warcraft"—a study, in point of fact, of "how audio-visual stimulus of that kind might slow the cognitive effects of aging,” which may prove to be useful if you are, you know, aging.
Now, I wish I could pigeonhole this dubious rhetorical tradition as an exclusively right-wing sin. Unfortunately, one of its most distinguished architects was a Democrat, often one considered a liberal one. I wrote about him at length in 2009: William Proxmire, "who left public service in 1989 and died in 2005, may be best remembered—it's what I remember—for a monthly publicity stunt called the Golden Fleece Award,' bestowed upon what he would claim was the month's most wasteful and ridiculous pockets of government spending. The pundits fell in love with the notion's good-government pretensions, and for all I know the stunt did the nation some good paring the federal budget of waste, fraud, and abuse. I suspect, though, the exercise was largely a silly waste of time. One of my professors in graduate school won a Golden Fleece award. Senator Proxmire awarded it for a supposed grant to fund her "mountain climbing hobby." Actually, she's one of the nation's most distinguished anthropologists. She has never climbed a mountain in her life, but used her field work among Sherpas of Nepal to arrive at some of the most incisive theorizing extant on how societies work. Second-guessing the peer-review process of National Science Foundation grants made for nifty headlines. But it was also numbingly reactionary. According to the Wikipedia entry on Proxmire, the prizes sometimes "went to basic science projects that led to important breakthroughs."
I hope Democrats won't take the bait on this latest round of knuckleheaded anti-science demagoguery. I fear, though, in our austerity-besotted age when Obama's budget plan cuts more out of Social Security and Medicare in the next ten years than the Republicans', well, they just might.
Those who have really sinned understand best how lead the crusade against immorality. Or at least that's the argument that can get hedonistic Christian conservatives re-elected, Rick Perlstein writes.