Piety & Power / Troublemaker

The First Book of the Week is “Piety & Power, Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House” by Tom LoBianco, published in 2019. This volume recounted the political adventures of Mike Pence, elected vice president of the United States in 2016.

By November 1990, Pence had lost two Congressional races. “He didn’t grasp that using the campaign cash to make his mortgage and car payments was a clear violation of their [his Republican colleagues’] trust.” Thereafter, the Federal Election Commission deemed that activity illegal.

Pence lets political expedience dictate his religious / ideological bent. Over the course of twenty years, beginning in the late 1970’s, he proceeded to play the roles of: evangelist, conservative Republican, mainstream Republican, Libertarian, evangelical megachurch supporter, and finally, Christian Rightist.

Pence was finally elected to Congress in 2000. In 2013, he became governor of Indiana. He gave Hoosiers a small tax cut but promoted it as a big one. He proposed funding free pre-kindergarten for poor kids (of course, knowing him, he’d push for allowing pre-kindergarten to teach religion), but actually obtained more federal Medicare funding. He also proposed a state-run news service– which of course was looked at askance, and died on the drawing board.

In March 2015, Pence signed a bill that allowed (translation: encouraged) religious ministers and businesses to refuse to provide services for gay marriage ceremonies. He failed to anticipate the public relations crisis that ensued.

Pence figured that a Donald Trump loss in 2016 would increase his own chances of getting elected president in 2020. For, Pence was instrumental in helping Trump win the Rust Belt and other swing states.

Read the book to learn of other interesting factoids about Pence.

The Second Book of the Week is “Troublemaker, Let’s Do What It Takes to Make America Great Again” by Christine O’Donnell, published in 2011.

Born in 1969 into a family that was eventually comprised of six children, O’Donnell is of Irish and Italian extraction. The family moved from Philadelphia to Moorestown, New Jersey when she was little.

When O’Donnell participated in the commencement ceremony at Fairleigh Dickinson University, she still owed $8,000 in tuition, and was six credits short of graduating. At the podium, the leather portfolio she was handed contained a bursar’s bill instead of a degree. By that time, she had decided she wanted to pursue a career in politics. Her naivete was a blessing and a curse, as it is with so many passionate young people who seek to work for a cause that is bigger than themselves.

However, the more one reads, hears or sees about politics, the more cynical one becomes; one does not even need to run for office to see what dirty a business it is. The sooner one learns this, and the lessons O’Donnell learned, the better. Apparently, a certain political climate at certain times allows particular instances of what could be considered unethical, or at best, dishonest activities to proceed.

Anyway, O’Donnell wrote candidly about her work experiences. She described what some might say were conflicts of interest that were minor, in that the goals were to spread propaganda and cover all the bases, more than make money.

Some believe that a media outlet should not be used solely as a political mouthpiece. Nevertheless, in 1994, from Washington, D.C., the Republican National Committee aired a Haley Barbour-created TV show, “Rising Tide.” The weekly show had affiliates around the nation, including Chicago. O’Donnell– whose job was to sell the show– got it on the air on a cable access channel in New York City.

In another case, in 2008, Senator Joe Biden re-ran for the U.S. Senate at the same time he ran for vice president. Biden won both elections. As is well known, he has been a gadfly ever since. Currently, some people, even those from his own party, wish he would go away.

At any rate, O’Donnell advised the reader on ways she saved money after she again lost her run for the U.S. Senate as a Republican from Delaware, of all states. In her late thirties, she had crushing debt load, but she swallowed her pride and:

  • worked cleaning houses
  • babysat
  • became a laundress
  • sold her possessions on eBay and Craigslist
  • cancelled her cable TV subscription
  • borrowed free DVDs from her local library
  • got free internet access from her local library
  • moved into a small apartment
  • shopped at thrift stores, and
  • destroyed her credit cards.

Running for office is undeniably expensive, regardless of the age of the candidate; just ask even now-famous politicians who lost elections in the past. Those who emerge as election losers but are still wealthy are those who inherit endless money. Or obtain it through unethical means at the very least, or both.

O’Donnell clearly had a stronger desire to change the world than profit. Obviously, by the third time she ran for the Senate in 2010, she knew there would be adverse financial consequences. However, she did not anticipate the extreme abuse she would suffer.

During the author’s race, the opposition (unsurprisingly), but also her own political party (!) launched vicious smear campaigns against her. And the IRS audited her for years. Notwithstanding, in summer 2010, she went on Mark Levin’s national radio show, and listeners consequently donated $12,000 to her campaign in a matter of hours. After she won the nomination in September, Rush Limbaugh endorsed her on his radio show and donations poured into her campaign.

Mike Castle, O’Donnell’s primary opponent was a sore loser. Karl Rove and his GOP operatives cast aspersions on her, too. Toward the end of this book, she cast aspersions on Barack Obama. She blamed him for almost all the nation’s troubles.

O’Donnell didn’t understand that on the economic front, one economic period cannot be fairly compared to any other, because times and conditions are constantly changing. It is incalculable how much credit the current president deserves for the current success of certain economic sectors or indicators. Does former president Bill Clinton deserve full credit for the economic upturn that, without question, resulted from the rise of the Internet? Anyway– as is well known, Al Gore invented the Information Superhighway, so perhaps he deserves full credit.

One way to get an idea of the extent of dishonesty of idiot-box drama on a political show, or one momentarily reporting on politics– is to mute the TV and see whether the person reading the Teleprompter is blinking frequently. If they are, what they are reading is likely lies; blinking like crazy is body language that likely indicates lying.

O’Donnell gave the reader tips on how to be an activist. She wrote, “Whether liberal, conservative, Republican or Democrat, good people should be able to run for office without concern for getting trashed in the public eye or having phony claims thrown at them. Thug politics have to stop.” Good luck with that, all.

Read the book to learn of O’Donnell’s other political and personal experiences.

The Reckoning

The Book of the Week is “The Reckoning, Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land, a True Detective Story” by Patrick Bishop, published in 2014.

Born in 1907 in Poland near the Lithuanian border, Avraham Stern grew up to become an agent of the Irgun (one of the intelligence services in Palestine), coordinating the purchase of weaponry from Italian and Polish sources, to be smuggled into Palestine to help the Jews fight for an independent state, plus spreading propaganda about offensives in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky was a prominent Zionist in the same underground group, who gathered intelligence and launched military offensives in pursuit of Jewish statehood.

Stern, however, was a more radically violent sort, whose spinoff group (called Betar, or Revisionists) committed acts of terrorism against Arabs, even civilians, and later, the British. His group received funding from wealthy Jews who believed in the cause of helping oppressed Jews live freely in a land of their own.

In May 1939, Great Britain issued a White Paper– a follow-up document to the 1917 Balfour Declaration– stating that since there was then a significant Jewish population (450,000) in Palestine, only an additional 75,000 would be let in in the next five years, and those arriving later than that, would require Arab consent.

A governance arrangement would have to be made in the next ten years between the Arabs and the Jews. Of course, no one could know the untoward historical events soon to occur, let alone the number of Jewish refugees who would ultimately be seeking to reside in Palestine.

By 1940, Great Britain was in trouble militarily. In August, Jabotinsky unexpectedly died of a heart attack. Stern, who took the opportunity to occupy the resulting power vacuum, argued that the Zionists should ally with Germany because although anti-Semitic, the Germans might let the Jews emigrate to Palestine.

In desperate need of money, Stern plotted a successful bank robbery in September 1940 that was executed by his henchmen. He himself was an armchair warrior, only the mastermind behind the group’s activities.

Afterwards, Stern went underground, but got friendly with the anti-British Italians through his spy network, so if the Italians were to march into Palestine, they would be benign colonialists, rather than oppressive imperialists. Early 1941 saw Stern solicit the friendship of the German diplomatic corps, too. His overtures later proved to be a waste of time.

In 1941 and 1942, Stern went all out with planning violence because he knew his days were numbered. His group committed a robbery and launched an attack that resulted in the deaths of innocent people, including British cops. He became public enemy number one. A major historical event that might either discredit or make truthfulness more likely in connection with various historical accounts is: the Wannsee Conference held in late January 1942, at which Hitler discussed his plot to create a master race and eliminate all Jews. Thereafter, parties privy to such knowledge began to change their behavior.

Stern and his cohorts hated the British government because the British knew the Jews were seeking refuge from Hitler’s death camps, but they prevented them from reaching the shores of Palestine via boats, anyway. It was inexcusable not to save their lives. Two of Israel’s future politicians, Irgun members (Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin) fought with the ideologically dogmatic Zionists, newly renamed “Lehi.”

Read the book to learn of the way the British intelligence community treated Stern’s terrorist cell as an organized-crime gang– resorting to frontier justice out of fury when law enforcement officers were killed in attacks; the ensuing propaganda war between the Brits and Jews on a specific incident involving Stern; the fate of the head of British intelligence; and the activities of the British and Zionists from 1944 onward.

BONUS POST

I am pleased to announce that my book: “The Education and Deconstruction of Mr. Bloomberg, How the Mayor’s Education and Real Estate Development Policies Affected New Yorkers 2002-2009 Inclusive” is available through the following online channels:

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Whittaker Chambers

The Book of the Week is “Whittaker Chambers” by Sam Tanenhaus, published in 1997. This large volume described a situation that lends itself to the hypothetical board game “Survival Roulette: Alleged Commie Edition” (See “Blind Ambition” post).

Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers were just two of thousands of people starting in the late 1940’s who were losers of this game. The winners actually won only temporarily: Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon and other bullies.

The board’s spaces could describe wiretapped conversations of such evil Commie fronts as the Boy Scouts, and dossiers acquired through the Freedom of Information Act in which every word of every page has been redacted (blacked out) except the names of the 205 guilty State Department officials.

Of course, there could be spaces such as “Go to the Electric Chair” and “IRS Audit.” A “Commie Chest” (rather than Community Chest) card, for instance, could say “Collect $1 in a libel suit while your attorneys collect $50,000.” By the way, any player wearing a red necktie is a Commie.

Chambers, born in 1901 in Brooklyn, was accepted to Columbia University in 1920 through, at that time, simply passing an intelligence test rather than taking entrance examinations. He was fluent in several languages and was a skilled writer. As a commuter from Lynbrook in Long Island, New York, he paid only the school’s annual tuition of $256. The following year, living on campus, he also paid room and board of $400.

As a sophomore and rebellious intellectual, Chambers penned an offensive, blasphemous piece for one of a few campus publications for which he wrote. Fierce critics forced him to take a leave of absence from the school.

In the next several years, he traveled around Europe, came home, held short-term odd jobs he obtained through friends, returned to school, rode the rails out West, etc. in an effort to find himself; also in an attempt to escape his dysfunctional family. According to the author, Chambers suppressed his homosexual urges by having affairs with women.

In the course of his voracious reading– a lifelong passion– Chambers discovered a speech of Vladimir Lenin called The Soviets at Work. In it, Lenin advocated violent authoritarianism. Curious factoid: a line in the speech is reminiscent of a line in the Elton John song “Yellow Brick Road” paraphrased: “… where the dogs of society howl… I’m going back to my plow…”

Anyway, in February 1925, Chambers joined the Workers Party of America, a then-illegal political party that espoused Communist ideals. Its American members numbered about sixteen thousand. He also joined the International Workers of the World.

In the spring of 1927, Chambers was found to have stolen tens of books from Columbia University’s libraries and various other libraries. He was proud rather than ashamed. He wrote articles for The Daily Worker and other Communist publications, got a short story published in The New Masses, that was turned into a play performed internationally.

Some Americans became Communists because they felt that capitalism was the cause of the Great Depression— with its breadlines, labor unrest, suicides, protests, etc. In spring 1932, Chambers joined the OGPU– the Soviet agency that eliminated anyone who expressed the least negative thoughts about Comrade Stalin or his ilk.

Chambers was a valuable addition, as he had experience in bureaucracy, was fluent in German and Russian and literate in the Classics. The American chapter of the Party forced him to become a secret agent man.

But it was fun to play adolescent-boy spy games. And the pay was really good. He played well with others. He and his comrades got secret messages in invisible ink and microfilm from the Germans in their safe house on Gay Street in Greenwich Village. They spied on businesses and the military. He helped steal blueprints for weapons to be built by military contractors, and sent them to the Soviets.

In summer 1934, Chambers was relocated by the Soviets to Washington, D.C. to become a New-Deal advocate for sharecroppers and tenant farmers, who were opposing landowners and big growers in the agricultural industry.

Then Chambers started assisting with generating false passports to be used by his comrades. The initial step was to comprehensively extract information (such as birth dates and names) from the archives of obituaries of babies, in the research branch of the New York Public Library (yes, the one with the lion statues in front).

A birth certificate was then the only proof of citizenship that was required to obtain an American passport, which allowed the easiest travel. The above information (reflecting the then-age and gender of the agent who traveled internationally) would be used to apply for a fraudulent birth certificate, which could then be used to obtain a fraudulent passport.

The Party headquarters was in the U.S.S.R., though, and was the ultimate boss. It could shut down a cell if it saw little productivity. For example, an agent was reassigned to Riga (equivalent to Siberia). But before the transfer, the agent did win the handball championship at a YMCA in the closed Tokyo cell.

Across the United States, there were plenty of organizations posing as Communist fronts, such as a literary agency in San Francisco, the Unemployed Council in Queens county in New York State, and the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists and Technicians. Chambers used a series of aliases for himself, his wife and daughter with each new assignment.

Changes were always afoot. In the mid-1930’s, the OGPU became the NKVD. Chambers’ boss was purged by Stalin. His highly-strung new boss reflected the Soviet mentality of proactively engaging in an act of generosity to butter up his new office in Washington, D.C. He therefore gave it a large cash gift that was used to purchase Oriental rugs to be given to the top operatives there.

In December 1936, the Soviets considered Germany, Italy and Japan their fascist enemies. The United States, France and England were passively standing on the sidelines. Chambers’ new mission was to, with the help of comrades, procure stolen original State Department documents, take photos of them, and return them, turn the photos into microfilm, and send it to Moscow. Although the documents usually didn’t contain anything world-shaking.

Nevertheless, circumstances were getting dangerous for Chambers. He was considering withdrawing from the Party, but then he and his family would have to disappear. He didn’t want to end up like Ignace Reiss, a “…well dressed corpse, perforated with bullet holes.” In spring 1938, he took the plunge and went into hiding. About a year later, he was able to get a job through a friend at Time, Inc.

Chambers knew the NKVD could kill him or harm his family at any time. Besides that, he could be convicted and imprisoned for treason, and he couldn’t afford to flee. So in September 1939, he turned state’s evidence instead. He named names of Treasury Department and State Department members and discussed the U.S. military’s Communist spy ring.

Into the 1940’s, Chambers continued to work around the clock at Time, Inc., where he received an obscenely high salary for his new rabidly anti-Communist editorial bent. His intuitions were correct, however. He knew that the Soviets had designs on world domination.

In August 1948, Chambers was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Reputable officials and journalists were angry that in a public hearing, Chambers claimed that Alger Hiss, a high-level State Department official had been a Communist in the 1930’s. Hiss’s integrity had been irreproachable up to that point. The then-freshman Congressman Richard Nixon (R., CA) was the only member of the Committee who insisted on continuing the case against Hiss.

Initially, Chambers couldn’t name anything Hiss had done that was illegal. For, Party membership hadn’t been illegal in the previous decade. Neither had paying Party dues, nor meeting with other Communists.

However, with circumstantial evidence that Chambers produced in his own sweet time, he was able to convince the authorities that Hiss had lied under oath. Another crime that Hiss might have been punished for, was espionage. Fortunately for Hiss and Chambers, the three year statute of limitations on that had expired.

Political accusers always seem to scream about risks to national security!!! But it has become a cliche that more often than not, documents have been labeled top-secret, not to become declassified for decades– in order to cover up government’s bad, embarrassing behavior, NOT because American lives are at risk.

For approximately the last seventy years, on and off, vicious political vengeance has been the norm– best interests of the country be damned. However, the punishments haven’t fit the crimes. The most guilty and least punished perpetrators have acted in ways that have resulted in needless deaths and ruined lives.

Who knows what else Hiss did– making love to an intern in the Old Executive Office Building? He did get caught lying under oath.

Based on lies, the most guilty perpetrators have led the United States to attack other countries and smeared their political opponents for their own selfish political and financial ends. At least they didn’t get caught lying under oath.

Anyway, as is common with these kinds of situations, different government agencies are fighting to grab glory for bringing the perpetrators to justice. In the Hiss case, it was the Justice Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, and HUAC.

Individuals such as Nixon and Robert Stripling, the chief investigator of HUAC, were also jockeying for power and bragging rights. Then-Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter testified on behalf of Hiss, an unprecedented move, and possible conflict.

Read the book to learn why Chambers wasn’t also tried for lying under oath, even though he was the biggest liar in the world; every ugly detail of the Hiss case, and much more about Chambers’ life.

Lewis Carroll – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Lewis Carroll, A Biography” by Morton N. Cohen, published in 1995.

Born into a family whose children eventually numbered eleven, in January 1832 in Cheshire (England), Carroll was given the name Charles Lutwidge Dodge. His father was curate of the local parish.

The headmaster of “Rugby”– the boarding school Carroll attended (which gave rise to the eponymous sports game), couldn’t “… rid the school of drunkenness. The boys were served beer with their meals– water was unsafe– and from beer to strong libations is not a long leap.” Rugby was considered England’s best public school (in America this means an elitist private school) at the time.

Carroll endured the usual abusive hierarchy (frat boy behavior) that occurred at such a place for nearly four years. Later, he was accepted to Christ Church, at Oxford University. Students from wealthy families brought their hunting dogs to school, and continued their shooting and riding, as they had at home. Academics were way overrated.

Carroll, however, majored in and got high grades in mathematics. After graduating, he became a math tutor and lecturer. But he got upset when he saw freshmen who were ignorant of material he thought they should have already learned.

In an attempt to cover up this embarrassing truth, in April 1864, the school administration proposed lowering its standards, and finally succeeded in doing so in February 1865. In protest, Carroll resigned as Mathematics Examiner.

On another topic, of course, Carroll became best known for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It started in July 1862, as an extemporaneous story he made up about Alice Liddell, one of the middle daughters (about twenty years his junior) in a large family full of them. He became quite close with the girls socially, accompanying them on walks, picnics, boating outings, in playing croquet, etc.

Nearly a year later, he rode a train alone with the girls– who were without their usual adult supervision. Shortly thereafter, their mother forbid Carroll to see them. Wild rumors swirled around the mysterious incident; the page on which Carroll wrote about this in his diary was removed– lost to history– by his niece.

As an amateur photographer, Carroll had been taking photos of his aforementioned unnaturally close friends, as well as daughters of other families in his community. In spring 1867, he began taking photos of girls in the nude.

Read the book to learn of all of the details about the above, other highlights of his life, and how the “Alice” stories evolved into an enduring piece of work.

ENDNOTE: Curiously, the author of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie, befriended a family of sons. He took an especial liking to a middle son, Peter, about which he made up stories at the dawn of the twentieth century. Both Alice and Peter Pan have been enjoyed in various incarnations internationally for decades and decades. Parallels can be drawn between their authors. The stories must therefore delve into the deepest, truest universal aspects of human nature. That must be why they are still classics.

BONUS POST

I am pleased to announce that my book: “The Education and Deconstruction of Mr. Bloomberg, How the Mayor’s Education and Real Estate Development Policies Affected New Yorkers 2002-2009 Inclusive” is available through the following online channels:

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Highly Confident

The Book of the Week is “Highly Confident, The Crime and Punishment of Michael Milken” by Jesse Kornbluth, published in 1992. This volume described a situation that lends itself to the hypothetical board game “Survival Roulette: Wall Street Edition” (See “Blind Ambition” post).

There have been countless ultimate winners of this game through the decades: all the people never caught for securities-industry crimes. A million lawbreakers a day go unpunished. That doesn’t mean the crimes didn’t happen.

However, the most famous hypothetical losers of the game in this book were Ivan Boesky (an independent bond trader in New York) and Michael Milken (bond-trading executive at Drexel Burnham Lambert in Los Angeles). Other losers could include Dennis Kozlowski, Bernie Ebbers, Kenneth Lay, Steve Jobs and Richard Scrushy.

The board spaces could include Go To Jail (of course), and describe the financial crimes of: insider trading, Free Parking (or “stock parking”), disclosure failures, material misstatements, accounting irregularities, re-pricing stock options, and fraudulent conveyance, but also specific actions of conscience-salving philanthropy in which Milken engaged– such as throwing money at cancer research, and volunteering to teach math to nine and ten year-olds.

In August 1986, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York began an investigation into Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) violations in the bond industry. By October 1986, the head federal prosecutor there, Rudolph Giuliani, was taping phone calls between Boesky and Milken. This, because Boesky had immediately accepted a plea deal to turn state’s evidence in exchange for a slap-on-the-wrist, country-club jail sentence. Boesky was one of the game’s lesser losers, to be sure. He was the king of lying, cheating and stealing.

Milken was a creative workaholic math genius whose meteoric career-rise allowed him to head an entire bond-research department in his mid-twenties. But he had zero ability for honest introspection.

Milken was a master at controlling his environment and other people, but he deceived himself about his “breaking the rules of the game” in his industry. He thought he was helping people all the time, but didn’t see how others were indirectly hurt by his actions. This kind of hubris syndrome is not uncommon in alpha males.

In 1978, Milken initiated the push to have Drexel underwrite junk-bond deals that financed hostile corporate takeovers. This wasn’t illegal in itself, but Boesky persistently badgered Milken until, by the early 1980’s, the latter was eventually manipulated into breaking the law.

Milken had a history of selfless philanthropy, yet his business actions gave rise to obscenely high fees made by his employer, an obscenely high income for himself, and crushing debt load for his clients. This led to extremely adverse financial and social consequences for thousands upon thousands of laid-off American employees of merged companies, subjected to disrupted lives and untold stresses.

The mood of the securities industry could be described thusly: “… with the election of Ronald Reagan… All that mattered was an ability to make money — without concern for risk, without regard for regulation.”

The investigation and resulting plea deals had the law enforcement agencies patting themselves on the back for convincing the perpetrators (other than Milken and Boesky) to implicate others, but the immunity deals the perpetrators got were a joke, considering that they themselves had serious credibility problems, and serious violations. It was a kangaroo court.

Nonetheless, the following parties launched investigations: Drexel and its attorneys, Milken and his attorneys, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the SEC. Those last two, of course, engaged in fierce rivalry. By September 1991, there was an orgy of litigation against Milken. The roll call involved fifty-eight lawyers (!)

Around the same time, Wedtech was another 1980’s scandal borne of out-of-control greed. In that case, a personal injury attorney generated billing documents that purported to show charges for legal services, that were actually for lobbying. Wedtech’s executives bribed politicians for the purpose of influence peddling, and swindled shareholders. This kind of crime is not uncommon.

Along these lines, if, for instance, a real-estate mogul declared business bankruptcy repeatedly throughout his business career, why did investors trust him with their money again and again and again and again and again?? Perhaps there was influence peddling. The politicians were his puppets who eventually passed legislation favorable to them all. It was worth it to them to risk losing all their chump-change investment to get access to future (much more) profitable contacts and politicians who did their will.

Anyway, Milken hired a team of lawyers who were the cream of the crop of Northeastern elitists. Yet, unfortunately for him, the media and law enforcement made him the poster-boy / scapegoat for the greed of the 1980’s.

Ben Stein, a wannabe Hollywood writer, was, according to the author, an individual who fueled public outrage against Milken. He was unwisely hired to write articles for Barron’s (a major Wall Street publication) after Milken was indicted. The nature of his utterances in print were “Shocking, unsubstantiated, never-proven assertions made with absolute certainty.” Stein claimed his taking of the drug Halcion caused him to produce such libelous garbage.

Strangely enough, insider trading wasn’t what Milken was jailed for, but rather, a minor disclosure failure. The judge in his case was ridiculously misguided, considering that the court calculated the dollar value of damages Milken caused was a mere $318,000. But the court saw that the revenues generated by him and his firm were in the hundreds of millions of dollars. So the court fined him $600,000,000.

Read the book to learn of Milken’s prison sentence and numerous other details of the whole tabloid-crazy affair.

Ibn Saud

The Book of the Week is “Ibn Saud, The Desert Warrior Who Created the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” by Michael Darlow and Barbara Bray, originally published in 2010. This wordy and redundant biography described the life of a pivotal figure in the history of the Middle East in the twentieth century and his legacy in the twenty-first century.

Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud (hereinafter referred to as “Saud”) was born circa 1881. He was the oldest surviving son of his forever growing family. The culture of his Islamic, nomadic tribe involved a Robin-Hood like practice called “ghazzu.” Only at a time when a tribe was literally starving, would it rustle camels and/or livestock for itself, from a tribe that was better off, inasmuch as it needed to survive. The raid was not for the purpose of conquest.

A boy would become a man by aiding his fellow men in such a raid. Due to a forced evacuation by a militant attack by the Rashid family in the Middle Eastern desert in 1891, Saud left his family when he was about ten. He assisted with a ghazzu with the Al Murra– one of the poorer Bedouin tribes. They were Muslim, but not as fanatically religious as the Wahhabis in Riyadh, where Saud’s family lived.

Saud’s family was allowed to reside in Kuwait until his father could regain his sheikdom from the Rashid family. In the 1890’s, the whole region was being fought over by the Ottoman Empire, Germany, France, Russia and Great Britain for purposes of international commerce, rail transportation and shipping.

In 1899, Saud took a bride in his second arranged marriage, and his first son was born the following year. He was to have: more than one hundred wives, almost one hundred children, plus numerous concubines in his lifetime, but only three wives at any given time, pursuant to the Quran. At that time in Saud’s culture, divorce was cheap and fast.

Saud led men into the vendetta-laden battle between his family and the Rashid. Allying with other tribes in the area, they fought on camels with swords, rocks and fire. Saud achieved victory in January 1902.

Two months later, his messengers arrived to tell government leaders in London, India, Istanbul and Moscow. Saud’s father’s army retook the territory over the next two years, but the Ottoman empire had the resources to re-conquer the Saud family’s small military and tentative claim on land the Saud family had previously owned. So the two parties signed a treaty conditionally acknowledging the land’s owner.

Until WW I, Saud allied with the Wahhabi tribe, Ottomans and British, but would not help them during the war. To Saud, the Rashid remained an enemy, and Sharif Husayn– British diplomat and leader of a rival tribe– became a new one. All still had territorial claims to the Arabian peninsula.

In 1922, the presence of oil was suspected in the disputed territories. However, the oil drilling equipment at the time was too primitive to the find the oil.

In the mid-1920’s, Saud was allied with the Wahhabi-related Ikhwan tribe, which were fanatically religious and violent with their livestock-grabbing, looting, plundering, destroying Shia artifacts and killing enemy males of all ages– forcing them to flee the Arabia/Iraq border. Saud had to tell the Ikhwan to cool it. Even so, Saud didn’t compensate the enemy for his allies’ war crimes. He kept all the territory he got, and acquired more.

Into the early twentieth century, the Arab tribes thought of the desert as an ocean, around which they could wander because no nation had a sovereign claim on it. Since Najdis (residents of Najd) and Iraqi Bedouins (both allies of Saud) were having border skirmishes against the British, the British thought they had a right to build forts to clarify their claimed territories to corral the local nomadic tribes. Of course the British, having a more advanced military and weaponry, plus the world’s best navy, had the upper hand on the ocean too.

In 1928, one oil company each from America, Britain, Netherlands and France agreed to divvy up any oil that was discovered in the Middle East.

After various battles, finally, in September 1932, Saud named his territory the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, governed exclusively by a literal interpretation of the Quran. In other words, It was a theocratic, not a constitutional, monarchy. For the rest of Saud’s life, excessive amounts of money were spent on keeping Saudi Arabia’s citizens (Saud’s royal family and others, plus millions of charity seekers–to whom hospitality was an obligation according to the Quran) loyal to King Saud.

Read the book to learn what transpired:

  • when a significant amount of oil was finally discovered in Saudi Arabia;
  • what Saud did just before and during WWII;
  • that led the Americans to become besties with Saudi Arabia for decades– which was related to how Saud reacted to the debate over the territory of Palestine and how Saudi Arabia ran into financial trouble in the latter half of the twentieth century; and
  • when Saud died– how his successors led the country in the next half century.

King of the Club

The Book of the Week is “King of the Club” by Charles Gasparino, published in 2007.

The subject of this book “… was suffering from the downside of loyalty; he spent so much time surrounding himself with people he could trust that he forgot he also needed smart people who could get a job done in times of crisis, and he was now facing… the greatest crisis of his career.”

Sounds familiar. It was actually “Richard Grasso and the Survival of the New York Stock Exchange.” When he was fifteen years old, Grasso began trading stocks in an account held in his mother’s name, getting stock tips from his drug-store-owner-employer.

The author was rather vague about Grasso’s two years of military service which allegedly began in the mid 1960’s, spent: “…in Fort Meade, Maryland, though he did make periodic trips to Vietnam.” Apparently, Grasso’s eyesight was good enough to get him drafted by the U.S. Army, but not good enough to get him hired by the New York City Police Department, his first-choice employer after the military.

Grasso therefore began work as a back-office Wall-Street clerk at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in early 1968. The author failed to mention whether Grasso was told to put his stocks in a blind trust, or whether his new employer had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Grasso meteorically moved up through the ranks. He was innovative in executing new marketing initiatives for the exchange. He also poached companies that were listed on either the American Stock Exchange or the NASDAQ– that provided fierce competition to the NYSE. All three were stock markets of corporate entities that wanted to sell their shares far and wide. But the companies could be listed in only one place. Grasso convinced them that the NYSE was the best place to list.

By 1980, Grasso controlled NYSE listings, its trading floor and almost all its trading operations. In the mid-1980’s, the chair of NASDAQ, Bernie Madoff, claimed his market’s trading was more fair for investors because it executed trades electronically, thus multiple players were interacting continuously while setting impartial prices. The argument went that electronic trading made the market more “efficient”– as no buyers or sellers had significantly better pricing information than others on which to trade, theoretically.

In 1990, Grasso stepped up to the second-most powerful position at the NYSE. He was in charge of the exchange listees and, at the same time, in charge of regulating them. He did the legwork of bringing new business to the exchange. His boss, the chairman, did the public relations work of delivering speeches globally and persuading the federal government to keep conditions favorable for the exchange.

Several of the NYSE’s board of directors were Wall Street executives who passively continued to keep the status quo– lavishly rewarding Grasso monetarily for his undivided attention to lavishly lining their pockets year after year when times were good.

There was honor among thieves, as Grasso’s henchmen turned a blind eye to the various forms of illegal activity that allowed them to make obscene amounts of money on the trading floor. Until there wasn’t honor among thieves– as conditions changed.

From a not-for-profit-organization-legal-standpoint, most of the parties and individuals involved were engaging in various highly unethical activities, at best; conflicts of interest abounded as participants in the exchange network cooperated in a way that maximized profits for everyone until, as usual, some individuals got too greedy.

Being head of the New York Stock Exchange is not unlike leading the U.S. government. The marriage of politics and commerce is always fraught with conflicts of interest. Some are avoidable. It’s a shame that politics in particular tends to attract dishonest attention whores with hubris syndrome whose ethics are in the basement. Of course, they usually use the “everybody does it” excuse and change the subject if they can.

But there ought to be equal justice under the law for any of the accused– after an investigation of where the evidence leads— with NO jumping to conclusions, assumptions or biases prior to a thorough review of all evidence, if any. Along these lines, one would do well to ignore the superlative-laden, repetitive, sensationalist drivel emanating from the teleprompter box, um, er– idiot box.

Anyway, starting in the late 1990’s, unbridled greed led to a bunch of scandals. There was Long Term Capital Management, Enron, WorldCom, the dot-com crash, various major SEC violations committed by big-name brokerages; not to mention 9/11’s impact on the financial markets. All on Grasso’s watch. Yet, his pay kept soaring, anyway. It wasn’t pay-for-performance anymore.

Finally, Grasso got the same treatment, figuratively speaking, as other major historical figures. One week he was flying high and the next, kicked to the curb. Grasso was suffering from a bad case of hubris syndrome. In early September 2003, herd mentality / groupthink seized the board; jealousy (possibly subconscious) of his pay package reached critical mass.

Read the book to learn of the usual occurrences in such a situation (investigation, litigation, political machination and myth propagation) that led to the changing of more things, and more of same.

Undercover

The Book of the Week is “Undercover, The Secret Lives of a Federal Agent” by Donald Goddard, published in 1988. This was the biography of a New York City undercover drug agent allegedly named Michael Levine.

Born in December 1939 in the Bronx (in New York City) among blacks and Latinos, Levine’s childhood was fraught with fighting and underage drinking. At eighteen years old, he applied to join the Air Force but pursuant to his aptitude test results, was assigned to the Air Police. He, helped only by a German shepherd, ended up guarding American nuclear weaponry in a rural area near the Canadian border. He enjoyed the work, but after a year, got into a fight sparked by racial tension.

In the next several years, he found that intelligence work was his calling. That was the way to put his acting talent and street-Spanish language skills to use for good, to combat evil. He did time at the IRS Intelligence Division, and then the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agency, part of the Treasury Department of the federal government.

Sometimes as many as four other government entities (FBI, CIA, IRS, NYPD) were supposed to cooperate to surveil a mafia don in the neighborhood of Little Italy in Manhattan (New York City). The undercover work became a joke because the don knew he was being tailed, and the don’s driver told the spies where he would be going. Working morning, noon and night, Levine frequently got his man, arresting all walks of life of the criminal underworld– possessors of unlicensed guns, drugs, stolen driver’s licenses and credit cards– taking on five or six cases at a time.

From the ATF, Levine was promoted to customs inspector, under the auspices of the State Department, where he got more power than ever. He was able to execute searches without a warrant, and operate internationally. In 1973, he survived the consolidation of entities of law enforcement of cocaine, heroin, hash, marijuana, etc.– into one Drug Enforcement Administration.

Levine’s favorite place to work was on the street. He wasn’t meant to be a paper-pushing bureaucrat in an office. One kind of case he worked might involve a “buy-bust” on the Lower East Side (of Manhattan) in which the informer was an “orange-haired Cuban bisexual who lived with the female Jewish butcher” that resulted in the arrest of three Mexicans who possessed a full kilo of heroin.

Levine acquired more than two decades of experience masquerading as an insider in the New York City drug scene. He witnessed all aspects of it, handling thousands of cases, working harder, and more hours than most other law enforcement personnel. He testified in court as an expert witness countless times. Therefore, he felt he knew the least bad solution to the ever-increasing societal problems stemming from the abuse of drugs.

Levine said the drug users were the problem– they were the ones generating demand for the product. If they disappeared, so would the problems because the sellers would go out of business. He pointed out that the “… dealers weigh the risks against the money they make. They don’t respond to fear of the law.” The users would.

Levine recommended that there be strong deterrents: hard prison time for illegal-drug possession and illegal-drug intoxication of the slightest amounts.

At first glance, that recommendation seems logical. Of course, Levine’s career would get a gigantic boost in the event of such a trend. For, Levine described his undercover work thusly: “We’re paid to lock people up, that’s all. What happens to ’em after that has got nothing to do with us. It’s up to them, their attorneys, our attorneys, public opinion, politics, the media… Juries convict people, not agents… But that’s not to say you won’t face real dilemmas about guilt and justice.”

HOWEVER, considering the consequences, one begins to think, “Oh, that’ll end well.” Harsher punishments would create as many problems as they would solve. The trouble was that many of the users were also dealers. So if the users/dealers were the sole source of income for their families, and the users got locked up for a long time, what happened to their families?

The jails would become overcrowded, and there would have to be a massive hiring effort to build more prisons, and catch, process, judge, guard and legally represent the additional soon-to-be prisoners, not to mention the legal can of worms that drug-testing would open up.

Not only that, such a major change in the legal system would highlight the two-tier justice system in this country. Poor people of all ethnicities possessing drugs would be imprisoned. As always, the troubles of those people (most of whom began their lives in unlucky situations) would be compounded. Just ask any public defender– whose caseload would increase, but his or her budget wouldn’t.

This, while the rich people (such as those in the Hamptons– the summer-vacation region on Long Island in New York State), would skate. Those inheritors of wealth and privilege could afford to hire high-priced attorneys. They would squelch the bad publicity that would result from their indiscretions by paying people to shut up and go away with non-disclosure agreements. Their families might have been just as dysfunctional as those of the poor, but the public would never hear about any of that.

As is well known, addicts hurt themselves and their families, but are usually not a danger to society at large, unless they get behind the wheel of a car, or operate heavy machinery. Or get into a gunfight over a drug deal gone bad. However, as an aside– there ought to be NO inherent unfairness in imposing very harsh penalties on possessors of firearms that were acquired ILLEGALLY. Applying the “broken windows theory” of crime to such possessors would likely prevent countless violent crimes.

For, the kinds of people who get hold of guns when they shouldn’t, are the kinds who use them in not-so-nice ways. So it would seem that they would be much more dangerous to society at large, than addicts.

In recent decades, there has been a media trend to report on human interest stories of mass-shooting victims so as to not glorify the shooters. But the news cycle on them ends, and celebrity non-stories, hysterically reported, grab the headlines again.

There’s no follow-up– NO reporting of punishment, if any, for the shooters subsequent to their pleas or trials, if they weren’t killed at the scene of the crime. Perhaps if the media showed (with harsher, new laws) the serious punishments resulting from the shooters’ actions again and again, there would be less tolerance in society for illegal firearms. This might be a start.

Anyway, read the book to learn the details of Levine’s life.