Sunday, October 28, 2018

Book Review - The Fifth Risk

In the movie Apollo 13, Tom Hanks, playing the astronaut Jim Lovell, is directed by NASA to shut down the computer that is guiding his crippled spacecraft back to Earth after an abortive mission to the Moon. Upon turning off his electronic lifeline to home, Hanks sardonically notes, “we just put Sir Isaac Newton in the driver’s seat.” I thought a lot about that line while reading Michael Lewis’s new book The Fifth Risk, a breezy, but nicely reported story that is masquerading as a paean to the faceless, nameless civil servants who are acting as our Isaac Newtons now that our country is being led by a man who knows very little about how the government he runs operates and has shown no inclination to learn. 

The federal government has been a long-used punching bag by Republicans. Ronald Reagan famously said the scariest words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” And Reagan’s acolytes have taken his words to heart, constantly railing against supposed waste, fraud, and abuse of a sprawling bureaucracy that is budgeted at hundreds of billions of dollars a year but which few people understand.

Here comes Lewis with a primer on the hidden corners of our government. His book focuses on federal agencies, but not ones you might expect - there are no FBI agents (Department of Justice), Green Berets (Department of Defense), or Ambassadors (Department of State). No, Lewis is plumbing the depths of the backwaters of lesser known offices tucked into the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce, where grunt work is done that quietly goes about ensuring everything from the safety of our food to reducing the chances geese will fly into plane engines on take off. 

Lewis is clearly enamored of the people he meets. Kevin Concannon is a diminutive septuagenarian who, over the course of a decades-long career in public service, launched and streamlined programs that expanded access to food, medicine, and nutrition for millions of people but who, while spending upwards of a trillion dollars to do so, can walk the streets without being recognized. Likewise, Lewis introduces us to career employees at the Department of Energy who work tirelessly to protect our nuclear arsenal and chase down rogue actors and the first-generation immigrant who, bitten by the Obama bug in 2008, went on to help manage our federal budget. 

There is a certain Kennedy-era New Frontier idealism in Lewis’s writing. If you believe in the importance of government of course you want Kathy Sullivan, a scrappy brainiac who outworked hundreds of men to become an astronaut and then had a second career leading NOAA during the Obama Administration, focusing obsessively on improving our ability to track major natural disasters, but the other side of the coin are the opposite numbers who are now in control - who don’t know, don’t care, or don’t want government focusing on issues of public importance. If you don’t think climate change is a thing, why research what is happening in the environment? If you think food stamps are a way for freeloading layabouts like Fox News’s “Surfer Dude” to get over on the system, you feel no compunction about making it harder for people to get them. 

The Obama to Trump transition is a major focus on The Fifth Risk. It was as if the Trump people had been handed an owner’s manual for the federal government and dumped it in the trash, unread. Indeed, Lewis goes to some lengths to highlight the extensive transition work done by Obama’s team, only to wait days, and sometimes weeks, for anyone from the incoming administration to show up and find out how these massive departments operated. The outgoing Obama team can be excused for their naivete. If anything, Lewis portrays them as decent public servants who want to help others, but as industry executives and lobbyists started popping up as nominees and appointees to take over, they realized the fix was in. 

Once the Obama team left, what was left were people who are only known when something goes wrong, but thankfully, most of them are quite good at their jobs. Lewis’s primary thesis is that the lights are on but no one is home at the upper reaches of many of these agencies, leaving it to the institutionalists, the apolitical employees who work for Democrats and Republicans alike to make sure that the infrastructure of our government continues to operate - in other words, the Newtonians showing that the laws of physics can pilot a spacecraft even when technology has failed.

It is no coincidence that the cover art for The Fifth Risk is a Jenga tower - much of the book talks about how small pieces are being pulled away,  like the data that was once widely available and crowd sourced to universities as a sort of force multiplier for studying issues like climate change, that may go unseen or unnoticed, but erode at the foundation of our democracy. Lewis’s book clocks in at just over 200 pages, but it easily could have been twice that long just focusing on the small programs that are being cut, offices being shuttered, and career employees walking out the door with the accumulated knowledge they possess. How many of these pieces can be pulled away before the whole thing comes crumbling down? 


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Saturday, October 13, 2018

Slow Burn - Season Two

There was a time in our nation not too long ago when things were humming along so well that we wasted months of our lives obsessing over the sexual peccadilloes of our President. In Season Two of Slow Burn, Leon Neyfakh examines the scandal that led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment. For the first seven of the season’s eight episodes, Neyfakh brings the same attention to detail, deft storytelling, and addictiveness that made his retelling of Watergate so enjoyable, but the season finale turns the entire story on its head by making the case that Clinton was a rapist who got away with it. It is an editorial decision I am sure Neyfakh defends, but it taints the entire product. 

For those old enough to remember the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, Neyfakh is quick to remind us that the affair was the culmination of years of Republican attacks on Clinton that predated his election but became louder and more aggressive once he took office. There is, for example, the shameful display of partisan outrage after the tragic suicide of Vince Foster and the naivete of White House lawyers trying to be respectful of the man’s death twisted into something mendacious and secretive. 

Early episodes focus on how the sometimes clumsy handling of things like personnel decisions were perverted into the “-gate” du jour for scandal mongering conservatives whose antipathy for Clinton only rose the longer he was in office. Of course, the Clintons exacerbated the problem by digging in their heels as the investigate state that arose around them kept probing more deeply into their conduct. It was the quintessential “whiff of scandal” that rarely bore fruit but made them look like they had something to hide and followed them all the way to Hillary’s 2016 run for President. 

As the season unfolds, the modern day connections, not just in the “cloud of suspicion” framing the media came to use about everything involving the Clintons, but the more direct links between Clinton-Starr and Trump-Mueller come into sharper focus. Where Trump rails about a prosecutorial witch hunt, Neyfakh shows what one actually looks like, how the disparate threads of a far-flung Arkansas real estate deal, the allegations of a young state employee, and a handful of Arkansas State Troopers lingered long enough so that when Clinton did give his enemies the ammunition they needed to take him down, the foundation had already been laid. When you hear Rudy Giuliani talk about a “perjury trap,” the Paul Jones lawyers actually set one for Clinton. Unbeknownst to him, they had the goods on his affair with Lewinsky and his lawyerly parsing of their definition of “sex,” among other actions, was the seed corn what would ultimately become a bill of particulars for his impeachment. 

There is no question Clinton’s behavior was sleazy and gross but what comes across even stronger is how much Clinton’s foes overreached in trying to convert his awful personal decisions into a vehicle to topple his Presidency. They missed, to borrow from the law, the fact that people saw the allegations against Clinton as what we would call “fruit of the poisonous tree.” That is, having decided that the initial “crime” - consensual sexual conduct - was not worthy of a multi-million-dollar investigation, much less the removal of a popular President from office, voters saw everything that flowed from it as illegitimate. Unlike Watergate, where the phrase “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up” was born, here, the cover-up was viewed as an understandable attempt to conceal an affair, not an impeachable offense separate and apart from the underlying conduct. Put differently, as Neyfakh wisely observes, Nixon was brought down because he used the power of the presidency corruptly, whereas Clinton’s failings were ones any person could fall victim to. 

Like its predecessor, Season Two of Slow Burn is a fully-formed eight-episode arc, but also provides stand out, stand alone episodes. The most difficult (and rewarding) of which is the fifth, entitled Tell All. It focuses primarily on Linda Tripp, a name many of us had erased from our memory hoping to never hear from again, but here she is, 20 years later, still as hopping mad at the Clintons as she was then, a Judas who was recognized for what she was at the time back to try and correct the record in the most hypocritical and histrionic of ways (she claims to have feared that the Clintons were going to have her killed, no joke). 

Tripp trots out her well-worn protestation of innocence, of merely trying to act as a sort of protective mother to Monica Lewinsky when every one of her actions at the time suggest precisely the opposite. It is not just the tape recording of their phone calls, it was the willful efforts to get Lewinsky to retrace the entire story in order to create incriminating evidence that could be used against Clinton. Moreover, Tripp’s rumination on Lewinsky as a naive young woman being taken advantage of by Clinton also runs counter to her own behavior - not the least of which was encouraging Lewinsky to preserve the now infamous blue dress knowing Clinton’s semen was on it in order to maintain its evidentiary value and, after each was issued a subpoena by Jones’s lawyers, recording conversations where Lewinsky does not even suspect it was Tripp who got the ball rolling with the Jones team. 

In fact, for those who thought Hillary’s riff on a vast right-wing conspiracy was hyperbolic, Neyfakh essentially exposes it at its creation. Tripp knew Tony Snow, a George HW Bush speechwriter, who put her in touch with a publicist named Lucianne Goldberg (whose son Jonah has made a nice career for himself in the same fever swamps as his mom), and Goldberg’s contacts with some outside attorneys assisting Paula Jones (including Kellyanne Conway’s now-husband and a a then-little known attorney named Ann Coulter) tipped Starr’s team to the whole story. 

All of which culminated in the pornographic work product Starr’s team produced. The Starr Report became a national sensation and a shame walk at the same time. Starr exposed all of Clinton’s dirty laundry in excruciating, prurient detail while readers would be excused if they missed any comment on the supposed scandals - Whitewater, Travelgate, etc. - that spurred the hiring of Starr’s predecessor, Robert Fiske in the first place. In fact, as Neyfakh notes, Whitewater is mentioned just four times in a report that clocks in at nearly 500 pages.

But just when you think you know how the story ends, Neyfakh throws a massive curveball in the season’s final episode. Instead of focusing on what was a preordained outcome - impeachment by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives followed by acquittal in the Republican-controlled Senate (a two-thirds majority was needed for conviction which everyone understood was never going to happen), Neyfakh takes the controversial tack of spending nearly the entire fifty-minute finale on Juanita Broaddrick’s rape allegation against Clinton. It is an unseemly choice for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that Neyfakh buries much of the evidence discounting Broaddrick’s claim under a largely sympathetic framing of her story. 

It is fair to assume that but for the #MeToo movement, it is unlikely Broaddrick’s allegations would have been given this much attention, but while I understand Neyfakh’s inclination to include her claim, in doing so, he throws out a very serious charge - rape - with the same “cloud of suspicion” reporting that suffuses much of what has done with Bill and Hillary Clinton for the past 25 years. Indeed, Peter Baker, one of the reporters Neyfakh interviewed, puts his finger on the issue. He notes that with Bill Clinton, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, but he fails to take that important observation to its logical conclusion. 

In their zeal to tar Clinton, Republicans blurred the two, and in their zeal to show they were not the “liberal media,” reporters did the same thing. NBC reporter Lisa Myers huffs that her interview with Broaddrick was initially kiboshed, but was it responsible to air such an extreme allegation without much support? Broaddrick’s claim was literally a footnote in the Starr Report and although she was interviewed by the FBI, nothing ever came of it. Even if you agree that victims should be heard (and I do), the contradictions in her story, her association with right-wing activists (not to mention Donald Trump in 2016), and her own attempts to enrich herself cast far more doubt on the validity of her story than, to take a contemporary example, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. 

And in elevating a rape allegation into the centerpiece of that final episode, Neyfakh reorients the entire story away from the consensual affair Clinton and Lewinsky engaged in to one that has a far more sinister tone without the evidence to back it up. Because of this, the story as we understand it becomes secondary, almost illusory. Lewinsky, the only character for whom sympathy is owed, is an after thought even though she became a national joke who spent the next 20 years carrying the burden of shame. 

Not only is Neyfakh’s decision to air Broaddrick’s claims a significant editorial decision, it had the side effect of exposing another shortcoming. Although the second season’s episodes were roughly a third longer than the first season’s, I do not know that the extra time was used judiciously. There was a bigger story to tell, one that began, and was traced well by Matt Bai in his spectacular book All The Truth Is Out about the tabloidization of political reporting that began with Gary Hart in 1988 and reached its apotheosis ten years later during the Lewinsky scandal. The shirking of journalistic standards in service of scoops and the rise of right-wing media outlets willing to air both fact and fiction is as much this story as whether Clinton’s actions, before or during his time in office, warranted his removal therefrom. 

Because of this, what also remains elusive is the true motivation of Clinton’s enemies. It cannot simply be his supposedly “liberal” policies, because Clinton was not a particularly liberal President. He modestly raised taxes on the wealthy, but he was also fiscally prudent and grew the federal government far less than the Republicans’ patron saint, Ronald Reagan. If, in the end, it was as those of us who lived through this time suspect, that the right deemed him morally unfit to hold that office, their blind allegiance to the current occupant is all the more curious.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Better Call Saul - Season Four

For a show that spent much of its early days with a decidedly low-rent vibe, Better Call Saul turned out to be quite ambitious. As any television fan knows, spinoffs are inherently risky - for every Frasier there is a Joey, for every The Jeffersons an After MASH. Not only did Saul follow one of the greatest shows of all-time, but it added an additional degree of difficulty - while most spinoffs pick up where the parent show ended, Saul is an origin story, tracing the arc of how “Slippin’” Jimmy McGill became criminal lawyer Saul Goodman. This choice created two additional challenges - first, a practical one. Saul relies on actors getting older in real life playing younger versions of themselves and second, a narrative one. How do you make a story compelling when people already know the ending? 

For the most part, Vince Gilligan and his talented cadre of writers, directors, and cameramen succeeded. Saul maintained much of Breaking Bad’s look and feel while creating two storylines that have been moving inexorably toward one another for the past four seasons. When we first met Jimmy McGill, he was a scuffling solo practitioner trolling the municipal court in Albuquerque, taking on referrals from the public defender’s office and working out of the back of a nail salon. As it turned out, one of the parking attendants at the courthouse lot was none other than Mike Euhrmetraut, all hangdog face and audible sighs. 

Gilligan is generous to both. Euhremtraut, we learn, mourns the death of a son who followed him into law enforcement by maintaining a relationship with his daughter-in-law and grandchild, Kaylee. Mike is also industrious, a man of his word, and good in a crisis. If he cannot help getting himself involved in Albuquerque’s drug underworld, it is because those traits make his talents remunerative and his concern for Kaylee’s well-being greater than the sum of what he can provide on his meager attendant’s salary. For Jimmy, his path to the law was motivated by that most basic of human instincts - the desire to please others. In this case, his older brother Charles, a leading light of the New Mexico Bar who is also crippled by mental health illness that manifests as electromagnetic hypersensitivity and leaves him cloistered in his house, the lights out, everything run on lanterns and natural sunlight. 

The push-and-pull of sibling rivalry proved a compelling choice. As Jimmy and Chuck grappled with their relationship, each had his own axe to grind against the other. Chuck’s attack resulted in Jimmy losing his law license for a year, but Jimmy’s exposure of Chuck’s illness in a crushing third-season courtroom scene was the domino that tipped Chuck to a devastating decision to take his own life. 

In the wake of Chuck’s suicide, Saul’s uneven fourth season considered an existential question - what is justice? You see, being a lawyer is a lot about following rules. “The law” after all, is simply a codified set of rules society has collectively agreed will guide decision making, from how fast you can drive to the maximum size of a conference room in a new bank building. Run afoul of these rules and the punishment varies. In Jimmy’s case, forging legal documents to embarrass his brother resulted in a year’s suspension from the practice of law. For Huell, Jimmy’s running buddy cum body guard, intervening in what he thought was an assault on his boss was going to result in significant time behind bars. For Jimmy’s girlfriend Kim, seeing how the system went after poor defendants proved it did not work as it should. And for Mike, he had to act as the literal executioner of an architect whose only crime was wanting to spend a few days with his wife.

Jimmy was always able to rebel against what he perceived as injustice with small acts of defiance, sometimes bringing Kim in as his co-conspirator on minor hustles that acted like the release valve on a pressure cooker. For Kim, these activities held their own allure. Jimmy is never more seductive than when he is scheming to stick up for the little guy or stick it to “the man.” For a woman whose professional reputation is built on attention to detail in the service of expanding a banking empire, hustling some rich asshole out of a few bucks or creating a faux letter writing campaign to get a better plea deal for her boyfriend’s bodyguard may feel like a subtle recalibrating of the scales of justice, but where hers are the acts of a tourist in the murky world of corner cutting, it is the environment Jimmy finally (and fully) embraces as the season reached its denouement. 

For someone who had a touch feel for vulnerabilities in the system, people too trusting or ignorant to realize they had a precious figurine on public display or could be taken in by a tale of woe so blueprints could be switched out or a fighter plane used as a backdrop for a TV commercial, it made sense that Jimmy thought he merely needed to check the boxes necessary to regain his law license - keep a steady job, bone up on the latest court opinions, and express some high minded belief in “the law,” and voila, the anonymous bureaucrats who sat in judgment would rubber stamp his reinstatement. 

But just as Jimmy used his glib tongue as a sort of corrective for righting perceived wrongs, the bar examiners were not satisfied with a mere pro forma expression of remorse. What Jimmy discovered were the collateral consequences of his actions. Those who sat in judgment of him were not merely interested in hearing about his efforts at rehabilitation or whether he kept abreast of the latest precedent, they wanted to see true contrition, an inchoate measure of justice that is demanded when your now-deceased brother was held in such high esteem by the people who make the rules. 

Keeping Jimmy away from the law for a full season also resulted in a far greater emphasis on the Breaking storyline. Here, the fan servicing was greater, but the storyline less interesting. For those who needed to know how it was that Hector Salamanca came into possession of the ubiquitous bell he rang as a lone form of communication, you were in luck. Had an interest in finding out how the meth “super lab” was built? Ditto. To be fair, there is a touching bond that develops between Mike and the lab’s lead engineer, Werner (who affectionately called Mike “Michael”), and the whole episode gave Gus another opportunity to show his meticulous attention to detail and Mike to show off his security chops, but ultimately, it felt like so much filler, right up to Werner’s untimely demise in the New Mexico desert. 

By the same token, Nacho, the mid-level Salamanca muscle whose pill swap results in Hector’s near-death, moves into the upper echelon of the organization but is squeezed by late arriving nephew Lalo Salamanca, a soulless killer with a cruel smile on his face. There is a weightiness in Michael Mando’s performance as Nacho, the path he has chosen drags on him, whether psychologically, as his father shuns him, or literally, as the dreaded Salamanca nephews Leonel and Marco stage a shootout that requires Nacho to be shot in order to make the ruse believable. His realization that money and prestige offer little other than the possibility of escape is a core tenet of the Breaking universe, but instead of getting out, Nacho’s fate is left hanging in the balance. 

To be sure, Gilligan and his crew have lost little on their collective fastball. The signature montages, quirky camera angles, and hustles are all there - at this point, it is just showing off because the quality of the work is so effortless. Whether it is the high-speed chase cold open in Something Beautiful or the juxtaposition of Jimmy and Kim drifting apart to the upbeat version of Something Stupid, Saul is a masterclass in these narrative devices. I just wonder whether this reliance on flash is now being used as a substitute for substance. But the other problem I found was one of plausibility. At 55, it is hard to suspend disbelief and watch Odenkirk portray a pre-Breaking Bad Jimmy McGill. There is only so much prosthetics and wigs can do to mask the aging process. In this way, the teaser “Cinnabon Gene” scene that starts every season feels even more elusive as the real-life actor’s age dovetails more closely with the sad sack, balding fast food manager we are only offered a tantalizing glimpse of yet remains just out of reach. 

Ultimately, what Season Four did, albeit in its own sweet time, was fill in the biggest piece in the puzzle of how Jimmy became Saul. After lecturing a failed applicant for his brother’s scholarship program in a monologue that dripped with anger and bitterness at how the system defines and treats those who run afoul of it, his summation basically being “fuck the haters,” Jimmy orchestrates a final hustle. He does all the things you are supposed to do when a family member dies - visiting the cemetery, making a large (but anonymous) donation to rename a reading room at a law school in his brother’s name, sitting on the panel selecting students who will receive scholarships set up in Chuck’s name to advance the legal profession, and finally, the piece de resistance, an Oscar-worthy act of penance before an appeals panel, disclaiming any interest in even being a lawyer again, but simply wanting to be a better person in order to meet the impossibly high standard set by his sainted brother.

When it is all over, after the “suckers” had bought his act hook, line, and sinker, came the final twist of the knife. As Jimmy celebrates his victory with Kim, reveling in the zone he found himself, spinning a manufactured story oozing with such pathos and sadness he knew he had won reinstatement before it was even confirmed, realization washes over Kim’s face. She has been conned too. “S’all good, man,” Jimmy glibly chirps out as he goes to sign the paperwork and Kim recedes into the background. All we are left with (in what I hope is the show’s last season) is the final unresolved question - what happens to Kim? 


Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 


Saturday, September 22, 2018

Things I Love - Jaws

The idea of a summer blockbuster did not exist until 1975, when a little-known director named Steven Spielberg put the fear of ever going in the ocean again on an unsuspecting populace. 

Jaws is a thing I love.

On the podcast The Rewatchables the hosts agreed Jaws is probably the most “rewatchable” movie of the past 50 years, and I could not agree more. I have watched some or all of Jaws dozens of times. It is a film that literally grabs you by the ankles in the first minute and does not let go until Chief Brody’s well-placed rifle shot blows Bruce the Great White Shark out of the water. 

On the surface, the story seems pretty simple. A man-eating shark menaces the small beach town of Amity (which means “friendship”), killing several people before the heroic Chief of Police (Martin Brody) dispatches the beast with the help of a cantankerous ship captain (Quint) and a snarky oceanographer (Matt Hooper). In fact, the book Jaws borrowed its basic plot from a real life series of shark attacks that occurred on the New Jersey shore in 1916, but it was that hard-to-define combination of storytelling, casting, and kismet that made the movie version of Jaws a sensation. 

Today, the movie’s brilliance is axiomatic, but at the time of shooting, there was no guarantee of success. The director (Spielberg) was an untested twenty-eight year old helming a film being shot on location with at least one of his lead actors constantly in the bag (Robert Shaw) and the movie’s main special effect (the shark) not even available for use until well into the shooting, which ran three times as long as scheduled. This type of horror movie was also unheard of at the time but became so iconic that its mimicry has stretched from the sublime (Alien was pitched as Jaws in outer space) to the ridiculous (Sharknado anyone?)

So what is it that makes Jaws so great? Of course, much has been written about how Jaws made a virtue out of necessity, that the delay in getting Bruce the Great White Shark operational accrued to the film’s benefit as the unseen menace lurking underneath the water was not revealed until the final third of the movie. Then there are the story beats, which condition you from the first scene to be prepared (thanks to the iconic John Williamson score) that things can go from peaceful to apocalyptic in the strain of a few violin notes. 

Spielberg taps this theme over and over again, carnage appears out of nowhere and swiftly recedes, from the brutal attacks on Chrissie and Alex Kintner to Charlie’s near-death experience when he and his fishing buddy go on a late-night jag trying to catch the shark. The remnants of these attacks, the blood-stained water, the shredded raft, the destroyed pier, impart a level of fear that makes the visual of the shark unnecessary. It all comes together impeccably, whether it is the now-famous “Spielberg shot”  - zooming Brody back and forth on the beach - to Ben Gardner’s head popping out of the destroyed hull of his boat. 

Jaws also serves as an allegory for what happens when we are exposed to something we cannot fully comprehend. This would be a theme Spielberg would go on to explore throughout his career, be it in regards to extra terrestrials or the horrors of Nazi Germany. But in Jaws the fault lines are quite clear - Mayor Vaughn and the town elders are far more concerned over lost tourist dollars that would result from closing the beaches than the well-being of the people who visit (or live) in their town. Chief Brody, on the other hand, is the Cassandra, identifying the risk at its earliest stage only to be shouted down by the mob until they are forced to reckon with their shortsightedness when an attack occurs in broad daylight.

The closing chapters with Brody, Hooper, and Quint on the Orca are a movie-within-a-movie, a master class in interpersonal dynamics, the toggling between anger, frustration, joy, and fear. It is male bonding of the most primal order, Quint’s hypnotic tale of surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, Brody seeing the shark break the surface, his cigarette falling from his lips as he utters the now famous line “you’re gonna need a bigger boat,” Hooper so nervous before entering the shark cage he tells Brody “I got no spit.” It is pulse-pounding and exhilarating at the same time, a tour de force by all involved. 

Not all was perfect. In addition to heralding the summer blockbuster, Jaws also started the lamentable pattern of sequels, each, successively worse than the one before and none coming close to the original’s high standard (Jaws 3-D? Hard pass.) But for one summer at least, the beaches were full, but the ocean was empty.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 



Saturday, September 15, 2018

Things I Love - Oasis Unplugged

In the 1990s, there was no greater rite of passage, no greater marker of a band’s success, than an invitation to perform on MTV’s Unplugged. The show was an opportunity for musicians to reinterpret their own songs (and those of others) using a stripped down sound in an intimate performance space that gave off a coffee house vibe. Of course, MTV did not invent this genre, early 1960s folk was probably the first to appropriate it, but when Eric Clapton’s 1992 Unplugged set went on to sell 26 million copies while garnering the Grammy award for Album of the Year, the format became iconic. A few years later, the biggest band in the world at the time, Oasis, almost self-immolated because just before showtime, the band’s lead singer, Liam Gallagher, refused to perform, leaving his lead guitarist brother Noel to step in and perform a set of music so flawless, the former’s jealousy over the latter’s success has (allegedly) precluded its commercial release for more than twenty years. 

 Oasis Unplugged is a thing I love. 

In the mid-1990s, few bands achieved the worldwide success of Oasis. In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide and the rapid end of the grunge era, Oasis’s modern Brit Pop sound quickly raised the band’s profile. Their first album, Definitely Maybe was released just months after Cobain’s death and immediately established the band in England, but it was the group’s 1995 follow-up What’s the Story Morning Glory? that shot them to superstardom. The album sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and the best known song, Wonderwall, is one of the defining ballads of the decade. 

And so it was that on August 23, 1996, the band was set to perform a set for MTV Unplugged at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Except they almost did not. An hour before showtime, Liam bailed out, claiming he had a sore throat. Power play? Possibly. He and his brother Noel were constantly feuding in that pissy, juvenile, oh-so-rock-n-roll way that has its roots with Jagger and Richards, Tyler and Perry, and, when it comes to siblings, the brothers Davies of Kinks fame. 

So what did the band do? Did they turtle in fear. No. Noel Gallagher, who was so small it looked like his Gibson guitar would swallow him whole on stage, confidently strode out of his younger, but more charismatic brother’s shadow and redefined what it is for one brother to dunk on the other, basically, for eternity. The sibling drama played out from beginning to end. As Noel strolled on stage leading the band, he casually mentioned that “Liam’s got a sore throat, so you’re stuck with the ugly four.” (a dig not only at his brother’s last minute drop out but his pretty boy looks). And then, without further ado, launched into a stunning performance of Morning Glory’s first track, Hello with confidence and brio. 

It was pretty much all over after that. Noel, his voice strong even as he carried both the lead and backup vocal duties, WHILE ALSO PLAYING LEAD GUITAR made quick work of the band’s still modest catalogue. Don’t Look Back in Anger is performed with wistfulness and longing while Some Might Say is invigorated by a zesty horn section and Live Forever is given a magisterial reading replete with violins and grand piano. 

Later, when Liam appears in a suite well above the stage, beer in hand and cigarette dangling from his fingers (you know, just the kind of things a man with a sore throat consumes), he starts heckling his own band. I mean, it does not get much better than that for debauched rock ’n’ roll behavior. Not to be dissuaded, Noel needles his younger brother, “oh there you are” he sniffs with a bemused tone in his voice before twisting the knife a bit further by introducing Cast No Shadow as “one that I wrote” (the joke being, Noel wrote ALL of the band’s songs). 

And when Noel brings the show to a close with a letter-perfect version of Wonderwall as the credits roll, you cannot help but be awed by the moment. Pushed into the limelight at the last minute, the second banana stood tall, nailing every last song in performances that are as compelling to listen to today as they were twenty-two years ago. But here’s the thing, for most people, this high water mark is lost to history. Because Liam did not perform, the show was never released commercially. In the early years of file sharing, you could find tracks on Napster and the like, and imports from Europe circulate if you look hard enough, but otherwise, all fans are left with is the occasional re-airing on cable TV and wonky You Tube clips to relive this brilliant night. 

Oasis Unplugged also stands as a cautionary tale about fame and success. At the time, there were few bands at Oasis’s level, but the very things that rocketed them to the top - the creative friction between the brothers Gallagher, led to the band’s demise. The band’s stay at the top would be short-lived, as internal tensions spilled out into the public and subsequent releases fared worse and worse. But that one night at the Royal Albert will live forever. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Other things I love …


Sunday, August 26, 2018

Book Review - Tailspin

When you put a bald eagle trailing blood on the front cover of your book, it is a fair assumption you are not writing about America in ascendence. Over 300-plus pages, Steven Brill’s Tailspin puts forth a thesis that well-intentioned efforts at societal reform have been perverted and turned our nation into one of crumbling infrastructure, decaying schools, and a society cleaved between a shrinking group of haves and an every increasing majority of have-nots. Expanding access to Ivy League schools? A great idea that has created a meritocracy (except those who benefitted have become greedy Wall Street types). Ralph Nader getting labels put on dangerous products? Also important until corporations transmogrified it into a legal rationale for unlimited campaign spending. Civil service protections? Important so workers were not fired at the change of an administration, but now making it far more difficult to remove underperforming employees. And on and on. 

The idea of no good deed going unpunished pervades Tailspin and will not uplift anyone hoping things will change anytime soon. Brill is not saying anything that was not already covered in John Edwards’s “Two Americas” message in 2004 or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes A Village” book of the mid-1990s but he puts a sharper point on things by rummaging into some of the darker corners of law and policy that someone of his background (a double Yalie, undergrad and law who transitioned to journalism) can do.

And so, Brill will drag you into the backwaters of regulatory agencies who have to sift through thousands of public comments submitted by lobbyists trying to kneecap any attempt at meaningful oversight of the workplace, the environment, or our financial institutions. You will see the procurement process (numbingly boring as it is) result in rubber stamping defense projects whose price tags soar without anyone complaining because the projects are sprinkled through hundreds of congressional districts and inject commerce into every one, and the decades-long process to get the permits and approvals necessary to replace critical transportation projects like a rail tunnel under the Hudson River, which was originally proposed in 1971 and is still years, if not a decade or more away from being constructed. 
In all of this, Brill makes the important point that if you are wealthy in America, not only is government dysfunction not a problem for you (you can, for example, sidestep mediocre public schools by paying for private education and shelter your wealth with the help of accountants) it actually benefits you - gridlock in DC means less chance that anything will be done to tinker with the carefully constructed matrix of benefits and protection granted to you by the tax code, access to higher education for your children, and the criminal justice system. It was not always this way, but as Brill illustrates, the rise of a new class of white collar professionals bent not on the common good, but personal enrichment, has hollowed out the middle class, concentrated ever more wealth at the top, and left most people behind. 

The villains are as familiar as they are unsurprising - lobbyists, lawyers, and venal corporate leaders whose raison d’ĂȘtre is to accumulate as much wealth as possible while sharing as little of it with the rest of society. While Michelle Obama observed that when you climb the ladder of success you should help lift others up, Brill is focused on those who have pulled up the ladder behind them, making it nearly impossible for the social mobility and success that is woven into the Alger Hiss version of America but bears little resemblance to the reality of our nation. 

His autopsy of the post-Great Recession years is emblematic. The after action, focused on squeezing financial penalties from banks as opposed to levying criminal liability on the individuals who made the decisions resulting in the housing market’s collapse may have resulted in some splashy headlines, but as Brill rightly points out, this path-of-least-resistance model did not curb the abuses in a meaningful way. If anything, financial institutions have consolidated their gains in market share while a now-favorable regulatory environment is already scaling back what modest reform was done to punish them. Not only was moral hazard not punished, but many innocent people, whose homes were lost, jobs destroyed, and lives turned upside down, struggle to get by while the real culprits got off scot free. 

I did part company when Brill turned to the political landscape that created these inequities. As a lawyer, Brill is surely familiar with the concept of contributory negligence, but his “both sides are to blame” conclusion is unfair. For whatever shortcomings Democrats may have, to place blame equally on them and Republicans for the current state of affairs minimizes the behavior of the latter while unfairly elevating the actions of the former. Democrats in Congress can point to any number of bipartisan efforts they engaged in with Republican Presidents from Reagan to both Bushes. Conversely, when Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were sworn in, they were met with lockstep resistance to anything and everything they proposed. When the stock market melted down in 2008, it was Nancy Pelosi who wrangled the votes to ensure passage of TARP; when Barack Obama proposed legislation to lift us out of that crisis, he got a grand total of three Republican votes - none in the House and three in the Senate. 

The idea that the gas tax has not been raised or the marginal income tax is not higher is not a bipartisan failure any more than it is fair to blame Bill Clinton for the Great Recession because Glass-Steagall was repealed. Politics requires nuance and context and so does journalism. While you can lambast Clinton for welfare reform, you also need to give him credit for raising taxes on the wealthy and balancing the budget. Republicans simply redistribute wealth through tax cuts while starving government of needed resources, a far greater sin without any of the upside of policy making that both Clinton and Obama engaged in. Lamenting the shortcomings in Obamacare without pointing to the efforts Obama made to get Republicans on board (he basically adopted a Heritage Foundation idea!) is a grave disservice to his work and hands Republicans a pass not just for refusing to help but not paying any political penalty for it. 

Of course, to see what a government values, you need only look at where it spends its money. As Brill discusses, the cost overruns on the F-35 fighter plane alone have been more than $100 billion, enough to fund universal pre-K and tuition-free community college for a decade. Yet, we barely bat an eyelash at this form of government waste while Republicans whine that there is simply no money for such important efforts. Similarly, tax cuts enacted last year that will reduce the burden even more on corporations, the wealthiest Americans, and heirs to multi-million dollar estates are being made up by borrowing money to fill the gap. 

In my view, Brill is imprecise in pinpointing our decline to the late 1960s. I would argue it is a more recent phenomenon dating to Reagan’s election in 1980. From then, the idea of progressive taxation has largely fallen by the wayside. Even Clinton and Obama felt the need to shield taxpayers well into the top 10 percent of all earners from any tax hikes while nosing the top rate just south of 40 percent for people at the very top. While doing so had the salutary effect of lowering deficits without any adverse effect to the economy, other changes, to capital gains taxation and the carried interest loophole, have provided accountants, lawyers, and lobbyists other opportunities to reduce their clients’ tax obligations. 

Brill does highlight some important initiatives - a job retraining program in New York City teaching people how to write computer code, good government watchdogs who monitor campaign spending and regulatory policy, and think tanks churning out sensible, middle-of-the-road white papers that surely circulate widely among the Georgetown cocktail crowd (one even became the foundation for a bipartisan immigration reform bill that Republicans snuffed out while Obama was in office), but they seem too few and far between to be of much consequence. And while Brill points fingers at the usual suspects, one group that escapes opprobrium are the voters themselves. The fact is, on many issues, from gun control to taxes, the majority of Americans support policies that are not being enacted into law, yet because voter participation is so low and so many congressional districts are gerrymandered (another bugaboo Brill discusses), politicians - and I am speaking specifically of Republicans - have no incentive to change. Instead of advocating for automatic voter registration, moving Election Day to Saturday, or making mail-in voting optional nationwide, Brill naively pins his hopes for “storming the moats” as he puts it, on the same type of black swan events that we’ve seen before, but led to little systemic change. 

It is, in its way, the same observation that Susan Sarandon made in 2016 that she did not fear a Trump presidency because it would accelerate the revolution. But here’s the thing - the closest we came to this situation was in 2008, and while it did result in Obama’s election and large Democratic majorities in Congress, within two years, some of the very same villains Brill laments - the Super PACs and their corporate funders - had mounted a counter-attack that handed the House of Representatives to Republicans and essentially snuffed out any further progress. After two two-term Democratic presidencies, it is clear that the better outcome is to elect a successor who will build on the hard-earned gains of others. 

Instead, I suspect what we have in store for us is a movie we have already seen twice. It will be left to some future Democratic President to clean up the fiscal, economic, and foreign policy mess of a Republican President, and, if history is any guide, have that gratitude repaid by electing a successor who will tear it all down again. 


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Sunday, July 29, 2018

Book Review - Men & Manners

If you define manners as David Coggins does, as “try[ing] to make the lives of people around you easier,” it is no surprise that his recently-released book, Men and Manners is a necessary addition to the niche etiquette market. Americans, and men in particular, are notoriously self-centered and narcissistic. The idea of putting the needs of others ahead of our own may have some valance when it comes to childrearing, but in our day-to-day lives, less so. Indeed, if you have spent any time in a men’s locker room, you also know we tend to be slovenly, unkempt, and show only the faintest interest in aiming for the toilet. Honestly, I wonder sometimes how we, as a species, survive.

Coggins is not the first to ruminate on the finer points of email correspondence, what to do when you forget someone’s name, or the importance of owning more than one set of sheets, but he is well-suited to share his advice on how to be a better man. An author of a prior book on men’s style and a contributor to publications that one might see in the waiting areas of upper crust offices that are clearly his target audience, this is someone who has given some thought to donning a tuxedo and picking up the tab at dinner. 

In brisk chapters on topics like public behavior, travel, and dating, Coggins rat-a-tat-tats through the basics - don’t ghost women you’ve gone out with or wear tracksuits in public (he’s obviously not spent any time in New Jersey), or hog the overhead bin, or wear an open-toed shoe anywhere, basically, other than the beach (feet are a REAL issue for Coggins). On the other hand, do learn a little bit about wine, provide a thoughtful gift when invited to a friend’s home, make friends with the hotel concierge, tip generously, and, if in doubt, overdress rather than underdress. 

So far, so good. And added to these morsels of information are little Q & A’s and essays by what you might think of as subject matter experts. I particularly liked the tips from Ted Harrington, the owner of a stationery print shop, who discussed the increasingly lost art of writing notes on actual paper with your name on it and Jon Birger, who has written about the unintended adverse consequence of there being more women graduating from college than men, resulting in worse behavior by the latter as they understand their relative scarcity for the former as eligible dating partners. Yes ladies, Birger essentially argues you are being punished for the sin of educating yourselves - either you expand your dating pool to include non-college-degreed men or you tolerate shitty behavior. 

All of these tips are well and good, but as I cruised through Manners I kept asking myself who it was written for. Are we simply adding it to the pile of gift options for college graduates and men obtaining their MBAs, JDs, and MDs? The all-thumbs crew who would not know a dust ruffle from a decanter, the former frat bros aimlessly making their way through their 20s swiping on Tinder and zealously avoiding anything approaching responsibility and adulthood? In this way, it felt like Manners is narrowly drawn. The good news is if you live in New York City, Coggins can recommend everything from a good tailor to a liquor store with an extensive wine selection. I am just not sure how that plays in Peoria.

Do not get me wrong, I think there is value in understanding these sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious (but ignored) social rules. Not every part of Manners seems targeted at a Flatiron District rooftop party, but I could not help but wonder what chance there is we will suddenly see a surge of men wearing sport coats on airplanes or a typo-free texting future, much less a rage-less commute to work (though I do agree with Coggins, better to yield to the right when some asshole is riding your ass than lose your life because they are in a bigger hurry than you are). 

For Coggins’s claim that the aim of his book is not to transport you back to a Mad Men era of taking your hat off when you enter a room, the book does have a retrograde vibe to it. Absent is a female perspective and, as best I can tell, the perspective of anyone other than heterosexual men. Which is fine, the book is, after all, directed at male behavior, but in doing so, the worldview is necessarily colored in a certain way while also excluding the voices and opinions of people who might have some thoughts on the subject. These were missed opportunities that could have improved on what is an otherwise entertaining exploration of social graces that includes a lot of good tips for people who do try to make the lives of others easier.


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Sunday, July 15, 2018

Book Review - The Secret Lives of Color

When we use the term “origin story” it is often in the context of a super hero - Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider or Bruce Wayne witnessing the murder of his parents as a young child, leading him down a path that would result in becoming a cowled avenger. But what of the more pedestrian elements of our world? It is one thing to fabricate a tale of a web-slinging teenager able to fly through the air on a lattice of literal spider’s webs, it is another to consider the shade of red Ferrari uses for its signature sports cars (Rosso corsa) or how it was that Saffron, that most vibrant of oranges, was first synthesized (not to mention why the color orange became so closely identified with the Netherlands). 

Leave it to Kassia St. Clair to act as your guide. In The Secret Lives of Color St. Clair takes us on a fascinating, well-researched, and beautifully written tour of the color wheel. Of course, color is something we often take for granted. There are some basic rules of complementary shades, the inevitable swatches married couples affix to the walls of their new homes, noodling over the subtle differences between eggshell and natural white, but St. Clair makes a compelling argument for color as a foundational aspect of human history, from the defining color of British warships during World War II (Mountbatten Pink) to the Bronze-era Uffington White Horse (Chalk). 

St. Clair is a quick wit who one imagines enjoys a bawdy joke. There is a tanginess to her writing that I found irresistible - whether it was describing the “egret-feathered top to glimmering cat suited toe” outfit worn by Bunny Roger, the inventor of capri pants, on the occasion of his 70th birthday as being “menopausal mauve” or digging up “piss brindle” as a pejorative for redheads, Secret is larded with bon mots that make the pages fly by. And St. Clair takes to her work with what feels like an encyclopedic knowledge of history that will have you pin balling across the centuries, from Mary, Queen of Scots adorned in a Scarlet undergown when she meets the headsman’s ax to the use of Baker-Miller Pink in prisons in the late 1970s because it was thought to make people less aggressive. 

At other points, you will marvel at how much St. Clair is able to squeeze into a single entry. To take one example, in three pages on Prussian Blue, you will learn of its discovery (a wonky chemical reaction in the 1700s caused by animal oil-laden potash), its scientific name (iron ferrocyanide), Picasso’s use of it during his famed Blue Period, and that it is used as a treatment for thallium and radioactive cesium poisoning (the only side effect being that it turns your poop blue - another little factoid St. Clair wedges into the discussion). It does not get much better than that. 

And lest you think colors-of-the-moment (looking at you Millenial Pink) are a new phenomenon, St. Clair is here to disabuse you of any such notion. Consider Puce, so named by the monarch Louis XVI because he thought it resembled the color of fleas, but loved by his wife Marie Antoinette, whose adoption of the color was met with widespread favor among the hoi polloi (that is, until the French Revolution). Or think of Violet, a color that became synonymous with then-radical painters in late-19th century France who are now recognized modern masters we call the Impressionists.  

It is unsurprising that art plays such a central role in St. Clair’s tale, for color - and specific colors within the broader spectrum - are associated with everything from Van Gogh’s famed sunflowers (Chrome Yellow) to the subtle nuance of nature “fading off into the distance.” (Payne’s Gray). But color is not limited to the artist’s palette. Shocking Pink was appropriated by Marilyn Monroe and Fluorescent Pink by the Sex Pistols to express two very different forms of libertine behavior. In the entry about Cerulean I was hoping for a nod to the famous monologue by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada as she explains how that particular shade of blue was used in haute couture before moving through the lower ranks of fashion and landing on the slumped shoulders of her dowdy assistant (played by Anne Hathaway), but alas, it was not meant to be. 

If there is one note of caution, it is this. For those of us who bombed out of the sciences right around the time we were asked to distinguish between protons and electrons, Secret can sometimes feel like a bad flashback to chemistry class. And this is not St. Clair’s fault, many of the colors she features stem from some form of chemical reaction or process that is beyond the understanding of people without a natural affinity for such things. But this is a minor quibble - Secret is a joy from Lead White to Pitch Black

The highest compliment an author can receive is that she has left the reader wanting more, and so it is with St. Clair. It is not the final entry that saddened me, but rather, the Glossary of Other Interesting Colors that followed as a sort of epilogue, for it was a list long enough to fill a book I suspect we will not see - The Secret Lives of Color, Volume II. 


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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Book Review - Political Tribes

Each new President brings with him an undertow of books analyzing “the moment” we are living in. In Reagan’s America, businessmen were deified, the biggest book of the 80s was Lee Iacocca’s autobiography, and yes, Trump’s Art of the Deal, sold in the millions. As the hangover from the Reagan years lingered, writers mused on the death of American competitiveness in the face of Japanese economic supremacy. A cottage industry of conspiracy theorists made their bones (not to mention their riches) attacking the Clintons and George W. Bush’s years were defined by our response to the 9/11 attack and Iraq War. Much was written about a post-racial America under Obama, but now, authors are flocking to cement the new narrative brought on by Donald Trump’s election - the magic word? Tribalism. To this growing list of books is Amy Chua’s Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. It is a thin effort that rarely rises above a freshman-level survey course before falling apart all together in a predictable lament about “our divided nation.” 

Chua’s thesis is simple - America is exceptional, a “super group” as she calls us, largely because of our heterogenous roots, a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures that have blended into one. It distinguishes us from almost every other nation on the planet but also creates a massive blind spot in believing others want our way of life. Chua spends most of the first half of her book examining how our myopia played out in failed foreign adventures in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Venezuela (the last appears to have been shoe horned in for no other reason than Chua had written on the topic years ago - nothing like shameless self-promotion). And here, her thesis is fleshed out to the extent an idea can be when generous margins are used and analysis does not go much deeper than a few inches below the surface. 

We backed all the wrong people in Afghanistan, failed to appreciate the Shia/Sunni enmity in Iraq, and books of far greater substance mused on our misadventure in Vietnam. It is not exactly atom-splitting writing, but to the uninformed, I suppose it is a useful primer; however, when the topic shifts from foreign to domestic, the “both sides are to blame” trope rears its head with the attendant anecdotal evidence and couched assertions with amorphous qualifiers like “many” and “some” to make limp points defensible. 

Consider the oft-fetishized demand (which Chua echoes) for seeking common ground among our national leaders. These laments are written as if attempts have not been made when in fact they have been - often - at least by one party, with null results. To take one example, after winning a landslide victory in 2008 and faced with an economy in free fall, President Obama could have pushed through a bill using only Democratic votes, but instead, he tried to get Republicans to work with him on a stimulus bill. On the one hand, he larded it up with tax cuts to entice Republicans, but on the other, kept the total under an artificial amount ($1 trillion) so as not to spook supposed conservatives. In the midst of a massive economic crisis, this effort was met with near total opposition from the GOP - no Republican House members and only three Republican Senators voted for it. To take another, when Obama tried to reform the health care system, he did not attempt to convert our system into a single payer system, no, instead, he took an idea hatched in the halls of the arch-conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. He tried to get Republicans to parlay, and in fact, more than 100 Republican amendments made it into the Affordable Care Act, but no votes were given. Indeed, Republicans have spent the eight years since the bill’s passage attempting to repeal it, undermine it, and delegitimate it in the eyes of the public. 

Of course, if you point this out, you simply prove Chua’s point about political division; however, the real sin, to me at least, is the failure of those with the platform to write about these issues to honestly engage in examining root causes and yes, pointing the finger of blame. When the economy collapsed under George W. Bush in 2008, it was Democrats who stood up and provided the needed votes to pass a massive bank bailout. Bush also got Democratic votes to authorize military action in Iraq, hell, he even got Democratic votes (at least more than a few) for his massive tax cut in 2001. Senate Republicans would not even let Obama fill the job of Public Printer of the United States (yes, that’s a thing) for months. Reason? Because they could. And of course, do not even get me started on Merrick Garland.

History continues to repeat itself. Donald Trump received three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, and yet he rammed through a massive tax cut without the pretense of bipartisanship. Media reaction? Shoulder shrug. Which is why I blanche at the idea that a Van Jones asking a white working class voter to help him “understand” (an example Chua cites for the kind of outreach we need) makes any difference. It does not. As astute commentators have observed, the Republican party has drifted rightward, moving the center to what was once considered “the right” a generation ago, while members of the media demand that Democrats continue chasing compromise. It is a fallacy that writers like Chua refuse to acknowledge.

Another “tribe” Chua fails to discuss is the largest one in America - that group of people who don’t even bother voting. Presidential elections tend to be high water marks for voting in our country, yet barely half of all eligible voters bother to do so. To be sure, some states do better than others, but turnout in mid-term elections is usually below 40 percent and many state and local elections struggle to attract even a quarter of the electorate. Examining this phenomenon and why it persists would have been a far more valuable use of Chua’s time, but instead, there is pollyannish coda to her book citing the musical Hamilton and the fact it starred a multi-cultural cast of actors as a sign of our country’s future. 

Regardless, the flaws extend further - on a myriad of topics, from raising taxes on the rich to enacting sensible gun reform, large majorities of the nation are in agreement, it is the politicians who are the stumbling blocks. In other words, the tribes are not nearly as at odds as books like this suggest, rather, it is elected officials - and largely Republican officials (and their donors) - who are a tribe apart. As the multibillionaire Warren Buffett has observed, the war that has been waged in America over the past 40 years, the tribe, if you will, that has routed the enemy is the wealthiest Americans, who have hoovered up more of our collective wealth than at any time in our nation’s history while simultaneously pitting everyone else against each other for the crumbs they have left behind. Had THAT book been written, and not some paint-by-numbers ramble about how red states and blue states talk past one another, it might have been worth reading.


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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Book Review - On Power

There is no shortage of self-help books on the market. Millions have discovered who moved their cheese and the color of their parachute. But while gurus try to extol the benefits of the four-hour work week or the liberating power of not giving a fuck, none of these authors has made a career (not to mention a large fortune) from spewing fake blood while clad in BDSM gear, six-inch platform shoes and a full face of kabuki make-up. Yes, Gene Simmons (from KISS) has joined the movement with his book, On Power.

For a guy who has adopted the nickname “Dr. Love,” Simmons (or maybe it’s his ghostwriter?) is a surprisingly fluid writer. Born Haim Witz in Haifa, Israel, Simmons emigrated to the U.S. with his mom as a young boy. Simmons’s telling of his own life has a bit of Horatio Alger about it, a mix of hard work (he picked up odd jobs from a young age and got his teaching degree even as he chased his dreams of being a rock star), clean living (he eschews the “drugs” part of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” though certainly implies he indulged heavily in the other two), and determination that resulted in his success and stardom. 

Simmons created his own image, changing his name and finding a passion that became his north star, pursuing music while doing what he had to make ends meet. If you get past the chesty bravado and, you know, the whole Gene Simmons oeuvre, On Power is a mainstream meditation on the way you can achieve success if you define that term by the amount of money you make and the power you exert. Simmons portrays himself as a clear-eyed realist, unafraid to tell it like it is, even if it means stepping on a few toes. This means (unsurprisingly) he has little patience for today’s everyone-gets-a-trophy attitude of child rearing and unapologetically encourages women to use their sexuality to get ahead. Simmons also has little patience for people who do not want to sully themselves with the tactics necessary to achieve power, explaining that wanting to do good is impossible if you are not in a position to do so (a fair point).

Other advice Simmons dispenses is basic but important - network to improve your career opportunities, have a back-up plan (and a back-up plan to the back-up plan), be frugal, focus your energy on what you are passionate about, understand the fine line between sucking up to your boss and being unafraid to tell uncomfortable truths (personally, I still have not mastered this one), associate yourself with the people who do the things you want to do, and on and on.

It all makes for light and fast reading and Simmons is heterodox in his examples, dropping references to everyone from Machiavelli (to whom Simmons offers a strong defense) to Warren Buffett (who shows that a shrewd businessman whose word is good can get very powerful people to do things they might not otherwise do) to further his points. Of course, Simmons’s success has also come from a relentless focus on his brand and that of KISS – they have licensed everything from coffins to comic books and, although the band has never had a number one album, retain a rabid following that has made Simmons a very wealthy man. In short, while you may not love the messenger, you cannot argue too strenuously with the message.  

That said, if it is possible for a small book of less than 160 pages to feel a bit padded, On Power certainly pushes the limit. The last third of the book is made up of what are essentially glorified Wikipedia entries for people Simmons looks up to or he points to as exhibits of the types of strategies he believes in – Churchill overcoming a speech impediment as a child and escaping from a prison camp during the Second Boer War illustrates tenacity, Oprah Winfrey rising from impoverishment and sexual abuse shows determination, Michael Jordan using the fuel of not making his varsity basketball team in ninth grade to feed his singular competitiveness, etc.

So, if you are looking for a pithy, sometimes potty-mouthed pep talk to tackle your life, DO NOT rock ’n’ roll all night and party every day - Gene Simmons’ orders.


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