Even President Biden’s male dog is an aggressive jerk
My initial reaction upon learning that the first family’s dogs have been sent packing back to Delaware after the newest addition, a German Shepherd rescue, was involved in an “aggressive biting incident,” was mild horror. I’m already concerned about Joe Biden’s mental acuity, and the uncharitable part of me wonders if a guy who whiffs on picking out a puppy should be making decisions regarding, say, multilateral defense treaties. The much larger part of me, the part that wants to see my country successfully navigate the hazardous waters of modern international relations, chalks it up to a staff mistake. After all, picking out first canines isn’t exactly a cabinet level assignment.
Choosing the breed and name is, however, a presidential responsibility, and in the context of the image the first family presents to the world a small but not insignificant one. First pets (or in the case of a certain recent ex-President, the lack of them) help project the family’s personalities, presidents’ most of all. The relentlessly fashionable and hypoallergenic Obamas had fashionable, hypoallergenic Portuguese Water Dogs. The Clintons burnished their aw shucks routine with a goofy Chocolate Lab named Buddy. The Reagans had working and hunting dogs fit for their California ranchers made good personas. My favorite First Pet has to be George Washington’s Coonhound, Drunkard. We should nominate Drunkard the Dog to be the new mascot of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms immediately. At the very least he needs to be added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But I digress.
Now comes Joe Biden, who named the family’s new German Shepherd Major. Major joined the family’s older German Shepherd, Champ. Which is where I sigh, shake my head, and mutter “of course.” Of course Joe Biden chose a breed famous for its physicality and martial prowess. Of course he named them Major and Champ. And of course one of them is an aggressive jerk. This is the same man who named one of his sons Hunter, who also turned out to be a toxically masculine reprobate. If the Bidens got a family hamster Joe would name it Patton and it would end up biting off a Secret Service agent’s pinkie.
Joe Biden is Exhibit A for the Democrats’ inveterate toxic masculinity, which boils down to a massive exercise in overcompensation. A while back I was talking with a friend about the 2020 presidential campaign, and the subject of Biden’s bizarre push-up challenge came up. During a town hall event in Des Moines, Iowa a man asked about Hunter’s activities in Ukraine and also inquired whether, at 77 years old, Biden was too old to be President. Uncomfortable questions to be sure, but hardly beyond the pale. Nevertheless, they triggered the former Veep, who jabbed the air with his finger and snapped, “Look, the reason I’m running is because I’ve been around a long time and I know more than most people know and I can get things done.” Then his boast shifted to the push-up challenge: “You want to check my shape, let’s do push-ups together. Let’s run. Let’s do whatever you want to do.” He ended with personal insults, calling the man fat and saying without a hint of self-awareness much less irony that he was “too old” to vote anyway.
It was peak Joe Biden, a career politician issuing a faux tough guy challenge to an average citizen while surrounded by machine gun toting Secret Service agents. This is a man who once dared a Detroit auto worker half a century his junior to “go outside” after the man questioned his gun control stance. He routinely told voters he wanted to “beat Donald Trump like a drum,” and even fantasized about traveling back in time to high school so he could take Trump behind the gym and “beat the hell out of him” (Trump, of course, gleefully responded in kind). Over the years he mused about “smacking him [Trump] in the jaw,” “popping him a good one,” and “throttling him.” The act is at once hilarious, pathetic, and toxic. It’s also dangerous.
Big Bad Joe’s Bat Shit Crazy Origin Story
Every super hero has an origin story. To appreciate Joe Biden’s tough guy routine, and to better understand the bigger problem of toxic masculinity that infects his party, you have to start with Big Bad Joe’s Bat Shit Crazy Origin Story. This is the infamous “Corn Pop” tale, in which Biden claims to have single-handedly thwarted four razor wielding gang members when he was a high school lifeguard. The story, which instantly joined Jimmy Carter’s killer rabbit in the pantheon of History’s Most Cuckoo Political Yarns, centered on a fellow named Corn Pop, whom Biden described “a bad dude” who “ran bad boys.”
I preface the story by saying that I grew up with an Irish grandfather. I know from blarney, and the Legend of Corn Pop meets the gold standard. It reminded me of exactly the kind of story John Patrick would tell at the bar at Honan’s in Tacoma, Washington after a couple-three whiskeys started to kick in. It’s so elaborately bonkers there’s even a slight possibility it’s true. I kind of hope it is, because it makes me like Joe Biden a little more. It is well worth two minutes of your life to watch him tell it himself.
The clash of the Wilmington, Delaware teen titans began when Mr. Pop violated a pool safety rule related to the diving board. Joltin’ Joe never revealed the specific transgression, but apparently it involved Pomade and a swimming cap. Because of course it did. His memory of his reaction, however, was crystal: He shouted, “Hey Esther! You! Off the board, or I’ll come up and drag you off!” He meant Esther Williams, the famed synchronized swimmer, in what is my new favorite epithet. From now on when someone cuts me off on the 405 I’m not going to yell “f**k you!” I’m going to yell, “Hey, Esther! You!” Mr. Pop, no doubt thrown off his own game by the audacity of the admonition, climbed down from the diving board as instructed. Crisis averted. Except not, for in the next moment he challenged his antagoniste to “meet him outside” (Biden’s heroic labors often begin with the gauntlet being thrown thusly, someone challenging him to step outside a la John Huston).
To Joe the Lionhearted it was game on. Manhood challenged, gauntlet accepted. Only Pop wasn’t taking any chances. He had three other guys with him and they all had armed themselves with straight razors. Rusty straight razors, Biden hastened to point out. Though he didn’t name the others I like to imagine they were a brand conscious gang, so we’ll call them Honey Smack, Alphabit, and in keeping with the story’s overall tenor, Fruit Loop. This is the story’s Act II break. Next, in what must go down as one of the longest build-ups to a fight in history, before stepping outside for the climactic battle Biden consulted his own personal Mr. Miyagi, a pool mechanic named Bill. Biden went out of his way to point out that Bill was “the only other white guy” (a whole separate essay could be devoted to the cringe-inducing race aspects of the Corn Pop story). He cut off a six-foot length from a chain that “went across the deep end” and instructed his young grasshopper to wrap it around his fist. In a final touch Sensei Bill suggested that Biden warn the four (rusty!) razor-armed gangsters, “You may cut me, man, but I’m gonna wrap this chain around your head!”
Do not take martial arts pointers from people like Sensei Bill.
Nevertheless the story progressed to its climax, when Joe Biden completed his transformation from mild-mannered teen lifeguard to Greater New Castle County Man, and – hang on a sec, did he say he was going to wrap the chain around the guy’s head? Huh? What does that even mean? How would you physically accomplish that feat? Even if you did, what would giving a guy a chain link hat accomplish in terms of winning a fight? Threatening to wrap a chain around someone’s neck, sure. That’s how good guys have dispatched bad guys in the movies for decades. Very cinematic. But “I’m gonna wrap this chain around your head”? That sounds like a guy who doesn’t know how to sound tough trying to sound tough. It reminds me of the scene in The 40-Year Old Virgin when Steve Carrell’s character, who has never touched a woman’s breast, describes a woman’s breast as feeling like a bag of sand.
Despite their overwhelming superiority in numbers and weaponry, and despite all logic, rationale, and common sense Sensie Bill’s ploy worked. Joe Biden walked out to the parking lot, his righteous Fist of Justice clad in glittering chain link, and fearlessly confronted four (rusty!) razor armed toughs who at this point had had enough time to plan and carry out an armored car heist, much less prepare to fight a skinny lifeguard four-to-one. The crowd leans in as the story reaches a fever pitch. The newly emergent Big Bad Joe rights the earlier wrong by courageously striding up to Corn Pop, looking him dead in the eye, and …. apologizing for calling him Esther. They all walk off arm in arm, new friends, Biden’s character arc complete and fully realized as Big Bad (But Nevertheless Magnanimous) Joe.
Worst damn ending since Orson Welles resolved War of the Worlds with the sniffles. Come on, man!
Big Bad Joe reflects a deeper pathology among Democrats
Joe Biden’s tough guy act would be easy to laugh off except that it’s in keeping with a particularly noxious brand of toxic masculinity that’s plagued the Democrats for decades. In the modern era it goes all the way up to the party’s standard bearers. Joe Biden has Corn Pop and Major the Maniac. Barack Obama has bragged about breaking a classmate’s nose in high school after the person used a racial slur.
The former president recently repeated the story during an interview with Democrat booster and admitted fake tough guy Bruce Springsteen, who has completed his own story arc from Dancing in the Dark and Working on the Highway to celebrity podcasting and political messaging. Laughing, Obama told the singer, “I remember I popped him in the face and broke his nose. And we were in the locker room.”
Like Bangin’ Biden’s story, Iron Man Obama’s is hard to swallow. For starters, it takes some doing to break someone’s nose. Unless it’s a sucker punch (not a good look on anyone, least of all a former leader of the free world) it’s extremely difficult to land that precise a blow. Professional fighters go entire bouts pummeling the stuffing out of each other without breaking each other’s beaks. Hell, Ken Norton shattered Muhammad Ali’s jaw in his 1971 upset of the champ, but not his nose. So the notion that Obama did it with a single swing – like Corn Pop, it’s possible, but highly unlikely. Unless it was a cheap shot. Also, you have to hit someone hard to break their nose. As in, violently. And a broken nose is a fairly gruesome injury involving copious amounts of blood and often visible physical deformation.
Which is only part of the point. Obama wasn’t just laughing and bragging about violent behavior and inflicting physical pain on another human being, which is bad enough. He was bragging about doing it to a teammate and friend, a person he admitted probably didn’t even understand the significance of the word he used. Who does that, even if they’re in the right? Let’s assume the rest of Obama’s story is, erm, “true,” and that he at least had the moral high ground in the situation. It’s still positively demented to laugh about the violent consequences, much less about inflicting serious, potentially permanent physical harm, much less about doing it to a friend. It’s borderline psychotic.
Two kinds of people fantasize and brag about violence: Lunatics and cowards. Actual, normal tough guys, at least the ones who aren’t paid professionally to wail on each other for others’ entertainment, generally go out of their way to avoid physical violence. When they do encounter it, it is not something boast worthy. And even in the rare instance when it’s justified, the average person is positively traumatized by inflicting physical harm on another person. Again, to brag about it is madness.
And that’s where the problem goes from the largely cosmetic to something far more insidious. By definition a president is going to kill people. Probably lots of them, in a variety of ways, many of them horrifying by any reasonable moral standard. A wartime president gives orders that lead to the deaths of tens or even hundreds of thousands in combat. As a citizen, I want that person, male or female, to at least have taken a real punch once or twice in their own lives. At the absolute bare irreducible minimum I expect them to respect violence enough to not make up stories about it to pad their own egos. A person in their 50, 60s, or 70s who treats the idea of violence casually should not be the one sending 18, 19, and 20 year olds into harm’s way.
Yet this preening machismo has long been a Democrat calling card, even among those with otherwise legitimate military experience. We can go back to John Kerry’s cringey speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, where he declared “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty.” The haughty Boston Brahman never missed a chance to remind people that he didn’t just serve in Vietnam, he saw combat, leading a Wall Street Journal editor to dub him “John Kerry, who by the way served in Vietnam.” Again, most combat veterans, including those who have become presidents, don’t boast of their combat experience. And then there was the infamous “Dukakis in a Tank” picture that sank the campaign of the Massachusetts governor and Army veteran.
There are real world consequences to these Democrat men’s physical puffery. It leads to bad judgment, bad decisions, and bad policy. A telephone tough guy may actually start to believe his own schtick, particularly when he’s been coddled by enablers and surrounded by yes men. Andrew Cuomo clearly believes he’s a real life tough guy despite the fact that he’s probably never so much as been in a frat house scuffle. That’s not just a personal or political problem but a fatal weak spot for people in his position. Someone whose toughness is an act, someone whose scars are superficial if not applied like makeup is profoundly dangerous. When a leader doesn’t understand violence, violence is easier to unleash. It’s the difference between LBJ and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who spent a good deal of his presidency devising ways to avoid conflict with the Soviet bloc.
It leads to real life catastrophes the “red line” in Syria, one of the worst foreign policy blunders in recent U.S. history. When Bashar al-Assad called Obama’s bluff and unleashed chemical weapons on his own people Obama blinked, giving a giant green light to bad actors and adversaries not just in the region but globally. The consequences have been measured in hundreds of thousands of lives. Of course, Obama did prove a downright enthusiastic drone assassin. He ordered hundreds, possibly thousands of killings, including of American citizens, from the sanitized safety of the Situation Room. A literal telephone tough guy.
LBJ, a confirmed coward who lied about his one actual combat experience during WWII, felt enormous pressure to show his backbone in the escalating Vietnam crisis. Alas, becoming commander in chief did not surgically insert a spine into the bombastic Texan, who spent the next six years fighting a war via public opinion polls and surrounding himself with flattering toadies. By the time the war was over 58,000 Americans and some one million Vietnamese had paid the price of his constant indecision and contradictory policies with their lives.
The irony is that Bill Clinton, whose toxicity takes a different form, arguably was the most sensible modern Democrat president when it came to use of force. He never tried to convince anyone he was physically tough, yet his commitment to the air war against Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbs in Kosovo almost certainly prevented a wider regional or even general war. Ironically, even his worst foreign policy blunder, refusing to dispatch a Marine Expeditionary Unit to Rwanda in the opening days and weeks of the genocide, was a result not of cowardice but over caution.
Creepy Cuomo and the coming reckoning
Which brings us back to Andrew Cuomo. As a princeling raised safe within the castle gates and eventually affianced to the daughter of another “royal” family, the Kennedys, overcompensation was all but inevitable in him, not to mention his little brother (the less said about Chris “Fredo” Cuomo and his fake weightlifting on CNN, the better). Toss in the unearned sense of entitlement and you have yourself the most toxic masculine sludge since Joe Kennedy taught his boys that beautiful women were prizes to which they were entitled by virtue of the wealth and privilege. In fact Andy of Albany may be the biggest telephone tough guy in recent political history, who postures himself as an old fashioned bare knuckled New York brawler. Which he was, kind of, as long as his people and a pliant media had his back.
It’s been nothing short of an object lesson to watch the Democrats fall over themselves to try and put their own personal spin on the situation. Like so many political legacies Cuomo stumbled badly when – with apologies to another pair of make believe Bad Boys – shit got real. His executive order to send COVID patients back into nursing homes caused as many as 15,000 unnecessary deaths, half of which his staff have since admitting to attempting to cover up. He’s been exposed as a serial harasser of women, an intransigent bully, and a political charlatan.
And yet. And yet, as of today there is an excellent chance that he will survive politically, and possibly even secure a fourth term. In the process the scandal is ripping open the civil war inside the Party of Women, with roughly half the party calling for his head and the other half pleading to “hear the facts.” I can’t help but think this is partly due to the fact that three years into the #MeToo era, the long overdue reckoning has claimed far more liberal careers than conservative ones. In Hollywood and Silicon Valley, bastions of do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do feminism, it’s been a veritable bloodbath, and rightly so. The hypocrisy of the men in those industries was poisonous, their comeuppance long, long postdated (also, let’s be crystal: women are far from innocent lambs in all this – for every powerful male sexual predator there were women who eagerly assisted, enabled, and covered for them; some of those women, like the monstrous Ghislaine Maxwell, arguably are even worse than the men, because they are the ones who groom victims and earn their trust before throwing them to the wolves).
One could go a step further and suggest that the entire history of the modern Democrat Party is steeped in toxic masculinity. The Kennedys, who perversely remain the archetypal modern Democrats, were some of history’s most notorious abusers of women, culminating with one of the most grotesque chapters in political history, Chappaquiddick. Abuse and even sexual violence weren’t merely commonplace, they were as quotidian as breakfast. During his last birthday party, aboard the family yacht in May 1962, a stone sober JFK assaulted a female guest while Jackie was literally ten feet away. The woman described it firsthand as “a pretty strenuous attack.”
And of course there is an extensive list of modern Democrat luminaries who have been accused or proven to have committed all manner of sexual assault up to and including violent rapes, many of whom remained in the party’s good graces until the very end and some of whom remain in positions of power today: People like Harvey Weinstein, Ed Buck, Jeffrey Epstein, Anthony Wiener, Bill Clinton, Gavin Newsom, Eric Garcetti, John Edwards, Al Franken, Eliot Spitzer, John Conyers, and on and on.
Which is where the Democrats’ toxic masculinity problem becomes an existential one for the party itself: Many liberal men have used feminism as a cloak for their own personal bad behavior. Serial predator, Epstein pal, and credibly accused rapist Bill Clinton is Exhibit A. In spite of a well-documented, three decade track record of predation the Democrats nevertheless were willing – eager, even – to welcome him back into the White House as First Gentleman.
Like racism, misogyny and sexual exploitation are written into the Democrats’ DNA. Four of the seven Democrat presidents over the last century were not just philanderers, but confirmed exploiters and even abusers of women. Not once or twice, not isolated incidents. It was central to the identity and life experiences of FDR, JFK, LBJ, and Bill Clinton, all of whom remain not just in the party’s good graces, but essential to its identity and governing philosophy.
The question is, does a party with all that baggage have a future in the 21st century? It is increasingly difficult to see an affirmative answer to that question, much less a path forward.
I recommend they start with a guinea pig named Duncan.
Perhaps it was inevitable, but we’ve reached the point at which conversation has devolved to schoolyard taunts of “You’re a Nazi!” and “No, YOU’RE a Nazi!”
In the midst of a historic pandemic that’s killing millions worldwide, a spiraling economic crisis, record crime rates, riots in the streets and the Capitol, and social divisions not seen since the years leading up to the Civil War, it stands to reason that the political and media class have taken up the urgent question of who gets to compare their ideological adversaries to Nazis.
It wasn’t so long ago that anyone who resorted to what’s known among rhetoricians as the reductio ad Hitlerum – comparing your opponent and/or her arguments to Nazism – was laughed out of the room. From Mel Brooks’s “Springtime for Hitler” to the Blues Brothers’ feud with Illinois Nazis, for decades white supremacists of all stripes were little more than punchlines in modern society. No one debated the merits of National Socialism because it was like debating the merits of a flesh eating bacterium. Anyone with a reasonably functional frontal cortex knew as much.
The vapidity of the argument was captured perfectly in a scene from the Mike Judge classic Office Space. Jennifer Aniston and Ron Livingston are arguing over the awfulness of the companies they work for, in Aniston’s case a cheesy casual dining franchise called Chotchkie’s. The job is humiliating both for the insufferable Silicon Valley clientele and the fact that employees have to wear not only garish uniforms but a prescribed number of pins, buttons, and badges the company calls “employee flair.” Pounding his point home Livingston’s character declares solemnly, “You know, the Nazis had pieces of flair they made the Jews wear.” To which Aniston responds with an incredulous, “What?!“
I felt a lot like her character as I watched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s videotaped response to the January 6, 2021 Capitol riots. He posted it on the 9th, when Americans were barely starting to process the implications of the day. He started off innocuously enough, saying that as an immigrant he had a particular perspective. It took all of 15 seconds to go off the rails: “I grew up in Austria. I’m very aware of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass.” At which point normal people heard a voice in the back of their heads asking, Where we goin’ with this, Arnie? Sure enough, the Governator declared that January 6 was “the Day of Broken Glass right here in the United States.”
He went further. In a too-clever-by-half turn of phrase he referred to the perpetrators of Kristallnacht as “the Nazi version of the Proud Boys.” Which is a new one: Using the reductio ad Hitlerum to reframe the baseline of evil as the reductio adPuerorum Superbus.
The riots of January 6 were many things, but they most assuredly were not a government approved and supported ethnic pogrom that killed more than 100, resulted in the destruction of some 7,500 businesses, and marked the beginning of the single worst crime in human history that ultimately led the deaths of six million Jews and as many as 11 million in total, not to mention the expansion of a global conflict that ultimately cost some 75 million lives. To compare that to a few hundred morons mostly taking selfies in the Capitol rotunda one has to be either catastrophically ignorant or irretrievably mendacious. That’s not to suggest there wasn’t terrible violence on January 6th, but Schwarzenegger was comparing the SS Minnow to the Titanic. [UPDATE 2/17/21 Over at Substack, Glenn Greenwald has written an excellent analysis of the media’s systematic exaggeration of the events of January 6, particularly the intentionally misleading (if not outright false) reporting of the circumstances surrounding Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick’s death]
As of today Schwarzenegger’s video has more than 50 million views on various YouTube and social media channels and has been shared millions more times. No one is calling for his cancellation; indeed quite the opposite. The media praised his “insight.” Vanity Fairgushed about his “level of understanding” and “righteous anger.” The New York Times, NPR, Newsweek, CNN, and other outlets reported with varying degrees of approval (It’s worth noting that CNN also ran a piece explaining how, no matter how much one may loathe Donald Trump, and there are plenty of reasons to do so, he was in many ways the opposite of a fascist; then again that piece wasn’t written by an American but a Scottish professor).
Compare the general approval, if not outright adulation, of Schwarzenegger’s video with the cancellation of another practitioner of the same logical fallacy. It involves someone named Gina Carano, who apparently stars in the Disney series The Mandalorian. At least she did, until she said more or less exactly the same thing Schwarzenegger said just a couple of weeks earlier and Disney fired her for it. The Mouse’s termination announcement was adorned with the usual pearl clutching and garment rending.
Ms. Carano’s sin was writing the following on Instagram: “Jews were beaten in the streets, not by Nazi soldiers but by their neighbors…even by children. Because history is edited, most people today don’t realize that to get to the point where Nazi soldiers could easily round up thousands of Jews, the government first made their own neighbors hate them simply for being Jews. How is that any different from hating someone for their political views.” She included a graphic, disturbing black and white image of a bleeding, half-naked woman running from what appear to be children attacking her. The picture presumably is from 1930s Germany
We can all agree that this is an incandescently stupid, insensitive thing to say and post. Conservatives, even of the noxious white nationalist stripe, are not being beaten in the streets much less rounded up and sent to camps to be worked, tortured, and gassed to death. The second failed impeachment of Donald Trump was about as close to the Night of the Long Knives as January 6 was to Kristallnacht. Even people who recognize the hypocrisy in the political and media classes’ disparate treatment of Conan and Cara Dune don’t defend the latter’s comment.
And yet. Ms. Carano’s post arguably is relatively more on point than Schwarzenegger’s (the wishy-washiness of that sentence is intentional; we’re still talking about idiotic and hurtful statements). She referred the political environment in Germany prior to the Holocaust, the social forces that ultimately led to millions of Germans embracing National Socialism policies. Yes, that’s likely giving her far more credit for nuance than she deserves, but nevertheless it’s inarguable that the Final Solution was presaged by a decade of anti-Semitic agitation not just in Germany but throughout Europe. Indeed, it’s one of history’s most tragic ironies that prior to the rise of the Third Reich European Jews had seen Germany as one of the few relatively safe havens on the continent. Ms. Carano is accurate insofar as demonization and outright dehumanization were essential precursors to the Holocaust.
LucasFilm, which produces The Mandalorian, said in its press release announcing Carano’s termination that “her social media posts denigrating people based on their cultural and religious identities are abhorrent and unacceptable.” Once again the only sane reaction is, What?! To understand LucasFilm’s (or rather, their woke PR department’s) transmutation of an ill-advised, insensitive political statement into an intentional and conscious act of cultural denigration requires unpacking several levels of woke postmodern abstraction. It also requires one to reckon with the mind-altering history of anti-Semitism in Hollywood (it’s worth noting that far bigger stars with histories of intentionally anti-Semitic tweets, including John Cusack, Chelsea Handler, Ice Cube, and others remain firmly in Hollywood’s and the media’s good graces because they dutifully toe the woke PC line). By the same token, while Schwarzenegger’s Nazi comparison was exaggerated to the point of absurdity there’s not the slightest indication he intended to denigrate the victims of Kristallnacht.
Which makes her post at least relevant and worth discussing, particularly in light of subsequent reactions. Regardless of how one feels politically it is undeniable that large swathes of America’s media, technology, and entertainment industries routinely – at this point, reflexively – vilify conservatives, with a strong assist from academia. People are being shamed, silenced, deplatformed, even fired and criminally prosecuted for having the wrong views or acting the wrong way. Chillingly, more than a few mainstream Democrats have called for some form of “deprogramming” or “reeducation” of their political opponents. It’s not difficult to imagine a slippery slope (in that regard Ms. Carano would have been better advised to compare the current climate in the United States not to anti-Semitic violence in interwar Germany but to the ideological warfare of 1920s Russia – including demonization and dehumanization of disfavored classes and violence against them – that paved the way for Stalinism and the gulag archipelago).
Take it a step further: For the last seven months scores of American cities have endured unprecedented violence from the political left, from the so-called “autonomous zone” in Seattle where three people were murdered and dozens were beaten and raped, to the flames that consumed places like Kenosha, Wisconsin. In the week after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police more than 20 people died in riots. In Santa Monica during the May 30-31 riots an elderly man was dragged from his car and beaten nearly to death in the middle of the street, more than 50 others were injured, some severely, and more than 200 businesses were looted, ransacked, and burned (the riots of that weekend literally hit home: looters broke into lobby of my building in Santa Monica, emptying the mail room and breaking into several cars).
The violent felons behind the nationwide riots received constant encouragement from prominent Democrats, who praised the “mostly peaceful protests” and prostrated themselves before Black Lives Matter and ANTIFA. The support went all the way to the top: As a Senator Kamala Harris urged people to donate to a bail fund in Minnesota that ultimately helped free accused murderers, rapists, even gun dealers (oh, the irony).
In short, regardless of one’s politics it is undeniable that Leftist shock troops have engaged in far more violence and mayhem than the Trump flag waving idiots did on January 6. Yet even as they fomented and encouraged their own brand of political violence and murder Democrats, liberals, and progressives spent much of the last five years comparing Donald Trump to Hitler and his supporters to the brown shirts. A quick web search for “Donald Trump Nazi” returns thousands of hits, including stories in CNN and BBC from just last week.
With the exception of monsters like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Idi Amin no one – repeat no one – can be compared to Adolph Hitler. To do so merely reveals the speaker’s ignorance. The reductio ad Hitlerum is insidious precisely because it minimizes the Holocaust. Staged speeches like Schwarzenegger’s, complete with his Conan the Barbarian prop sword and his own life size Muscle Beach self-portrait hanging conspicuously in the background, outright belittle it. If we’re going to cancel people for making stupid, hurtful, and historically illiterate comparisons, we should cancel them all.
Or, alternatively, this being a free country in which anyone can make a complete ass of themselves in front of millions, don’t cancel any of them.
Last week’s Capitol Hill riots drew condemnation from the very folks who have spent decades encouraging and engaging in far worse behavior
The usual suspects on the new corporatist American Left – politicians, billionaires, corporate executives (especially in Silicon Valley and Hollywood), Wall Street investors, journalists, activists, entertainers, and “influencers” of various stripes – have spent much of the last few days expressing shock – shock! – at the violence that consumed the nation’s capitol for a few hours on January 6, 2021 as Congress convened to certify the results of the presidential election. The same people who for more than a century weaponized ideology by encouraging and using political violence and intimidation as standard operating procedures suddenly discovered that political violence and intimidation are bad. To paraphrase Lieutenant John McClane, welcome to the party, folks.
Here we insert the obvious caveat: What happened in Washington DC last week was beyond the pale. People who fancy themselves “patriotic Americans” engaged in a pattern of behavior that wouldn’t pass muster in a mid-century banana republic. By following an individual politician who by all appearances is increasingly disconnected from reality they betrayed the most fundamental values of the U.S. Constitution they claim to cherish. They were a dangerous ship of fools who should be counting their blessings that they “only” got four people killed. Like their counterparts on the Left they set their cause back by years if not decades, and their arrogance was matched only by their ignorance. They would have fit in perfectly at an Occupy rally.
It also must be added that there is a distinction – albeit an ever shrinking one – between mainstream Democrats and Leftists. Mainstream Democrats respect the rule of law whereas Leftists seek to tear it down. Mainstream Democrats value American history and culture. Leftists’ primary goal is nothing less than their complete extermination. Unfortunately Leftists increasingly control the power centers in this country, from the Democrat Party itself to technology, media, and entertainment to corporate boardrooms to athletic fields. Indeed, the infiltration of seats of power at every level by radicals is one of the central narratives of the last half century of U.S. history. The normalization of political violence was inevitable.
Which is the proper lens through which to view last week’s events. Ignore the histrionics of people like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who compared an Animal House like riot to the Nazi pogroms on Kristallnacht (note to the Governator: if you have to resort to the reductio ad Hitlerum you’re losing the argument). Ignore the breathless invocations of the woke crowd when the call January 6 an “insurrection” (again, note to the woke: before making an assertion you should check your Funk and Wagnalls). It was no such thing. It was, with apologies to Eric Stratton, a really stupid and futile gesture.
Despite the violence of the day January 6 also was an exception to the rule, and a pretty minor one at that. The fact remains that for at least the last 100 years political violence in this country overwhelmingly has been a product of the Left. In fact it’s close to an unbroken lineage, from KKK lynch mobs and Socialist bomb-throwers in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s to Baby Boomer “militants” in the 1960s and 70s to the tediously combative Occupy movements of the early 2000s and today’s ANTIFA. Much of the Democrat Party’s leadership can trace their personal political journeys to practitioners of political violence. Barack Obama infamously studied for decades at the feet of a racist, anti-Semitic Black Liberation preacher who routinely called for violence against the U.S. government (remember “God damn America”?). Hillary Clinton’s political mentor Senator William Fulbright was a segregationist, as was Al Gore’s father. The former rabid Klansman Robert Byrd served more than 60 years in various elected positions including 51 years in the Senate, 30 of which he was the Democrats’ majority/minority leader. Put simply, it’s rather rich for the very people who gave the most violent political group in U.S. history a prime seat at the table in Washington, D.C. for the better part of a century to now take to their fainting beds over a brief – albeit deadly – right-wing melee in the Capitol.
The irascible septuagenarian Bernie Sanders is a living fossil record of the Leftist tradition of political violence. At various points in his political career Bernie has sounded and behaved like a full-throated Stalinist, an old-school New Dealer, and a standard-issue New Democrat. In the 1976 and 1980 presidential elections, as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont he “proudly endorsed and supported” a Socialist Workers Party (SWP) presidential candidate named Andrew Pulley, a man with a long history of violent rhetoric. During the ’76 campaign he railed, “if America don’t come around…it should be burned down to the damned ground, it should not exist to see 1980….We advocate a Socialist Revolution in America by any means necessary.” He encouraged soldiers to “take up their guns and shoot their officers.” Mr. Sanders, on the cusp of a Cabinet position in the incoming Biden administration, has never disavowed these statements.
The tradition, such as it is, continues: Today’s Leftists get positively fizzy when the likes of anti-Semitic Minnesota Representative Illhan Omar (D) says, “My work has been to figure out where I’m going to burn down everything around me.” They Twitter cheered when a journalist said Democrats would “burn the entire f****g thing down” if Republicans confirmed a successor to their diminutive heroine Ruth Bader Ginsberg. They celebrated when groups like Code Pink stormed and disrupted Congressional hearings and – wait for it – overran House and Senate offices. They lionize celebrities who truck with murderous dictators like the Castro brothers and Hugo Chavez. At the conservative website The Federalist the aptly-named Tristan Justice has compiled a list of 28 times Leftists excused or encouraged violence in just the last six months. It is far from exhaustive: USA Today identified more than 700 instances of political violence nationwide between June and December 2020. Meanwhile, Vice President Elect Kamala Harris infamously established a legal fund for ANTIFA protesters to fight their arrests and criminal charges.
Ms. Harris knew what she was doing: Frighteningly, at this point Leftists have succeeded in installing hundreds, maybe thousands of practitioners of political violence directly into the system itself. With a little help from friends like George Soros they elect people like Chesea Boudin. Mr. Boudin, the new San Francisco District Attorney, is the son of political terrorists and convicted murderers. Both served decades in federal prison for the cold-blooded, cowardly killing of three people during a botched bank robbery attempt in 1972 as part of the “Weather Underground” group (apparently radical anti-capitalists still like the greenbacks, who knew). Mr. Boudin, who has never renounced his parents’ adherence to violence, was raised by another pair of terrorists in Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dorn. He’s now in the process of unleashing a novel kind of political violence at the county level by refusing to prosecute thousands of felons, instead turning them loose on a daily basis to terrorize the innocent people he swore to protect. His mentor, George Gascon, is doing the same in the nation’s second largest county, Los Angeles. Leftist D.A.’s in Philadelphia, Houston, Seattle, Minneapolis, and elsewhere also are on board. As a direct result of their politically-motivated policies many people already have died, such as the two San Franciscans killed by a career criminal on New Year’s Day. He’d been arrested barely a week earlier for a violent carjacking, but Mr. Boudin turned him loose. Because progress. In yet another example of the institutionalization of violence on the Left, Mr. Boudin’s mom – again, a confessed, convicted triple murderer – is these days the co-director and co-founder of the Center for Justice at Columbia University.
Here we pause while your heads explode.
When Leftists aren’t actively engaged in political violence they’re encouraging it. Less than 48 hours after violent riots destroyed entire neighborhoods in Los Angeles in May 2020 Mayor Eric Garcetti – the son of a former L.A. District Attorney – was taking a (non socially distanced) knee among protesters outside city hall, literally bowing to the violence. In the next week the riots claimed 19 innocent lives, with nary a peep from the man who would be president. A few days after that, with fires still burning in the streets of dozens American cities the entire Democrat leadership in Congress took a knee in the Capitol rotunda while dressed in traditional Ghanian kente cloth – a bizarre spectacle that even the Washington Post called a “mess of contradictions.”
Regardless, the message from Democrat politicians, media figures, and coproratists was clear: The riots and destruction are justified, have at it, we’ll keep law enforcement at bay. Countless thousands of Americans paid the price of that perverse moral certainty with their livelihoods and even their lives.
It was no surprise to witness Democrats fall over each other to throw their support to violent Leftist rioters and criminals over the last six months. They treated the laughable-if-people-handn’t-actually-died temper tantrum that was the “autonomous zone” in Seattle as if it was the Bastille. They flat-out rationalized violence and looting, as when the architect of the New York Times’ historically illiterate “1619 Project,” Nikole Hannah-Jones, explicitly rejected the idea that destroying property even constitutes “violence” in the first place. She said, ““Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence,” which will come as news to the thousands of business owners nationwide whose lives and livelihoods were destroyed by violent rioters.
The Orwellian spin ultimately, inevitably, devolved into self-parody when a CNN reporter wearing protective gear stood in front of rioters and a row of burning vehicles in Kinosha, Wisconsin while the chryon on the screen read “fiery but mostly peaceful protests.”
All of which is why it’s been so entertaining to watch those same Leftists wedge their underwear into their cracks in response to last week’s flash riot in the Capitol. Suddenly the same “progressives” who thought it was dandy for hooligans to take over parts of American cities are clutching their pearls at a brief (albeit historically stupid) riot. The same Leftists who’ve spent years braying about police brutality turned on a dime and lamented the lack of police brutality. The folks who want to defund the police were screaming for more police.
These are the same Democrats who in June unanimously voted against Florida Republican Representative Greg Steube’s thoroughly measured resolution condemning the violence (hat tip: Instapundit) and rioting that consumed the country following the death of a career drug dealer and violent felon named George Floyd while he was in police custody. This, even though the resolution condemned Floyd’s death. That’s the Left for you: Riots for me, but not for thee.
There’s no question that, by their refusal to condemn violence over the last six months Democrats sent an unmistakable signal to the cowardly thugs and ANTIFA types in the streets: Violence by the left in pursuit of its political goals is acceptable. Indeed, it’s not just acceptable, it’s a form of “social justice.” If a few innocents are beaten and killed along the way – and Leftists have beaten and killed hundreds at this point – well, then, those are just the eggs that need to get broken to make the Utopian omelet.
There’s an old Jewish saying that the definition of chutzpah is the man who murders his parents then begs the court for sympathy because he’s an orphan. This week the American Left’s chutzpah is on full display as Democrats fall over themselves to re-impeach President Donald Trump for encouraging the riots. That’s right: With tens of millions of Americans still unemployed and struggling, and even as they botch the second stimulus, Leftist political class is obsessed with scoring a few last political points.
If that’s not political violence, what is?
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The state’s political class will never solve the homeless crisis. In fact, they depend on it.
History is replete with tragic examples of powerful rulers sending citizens to die in futile wars, often with little more at stake than the rulers’ own egos. The term “cannon fodder” was coined by François-René de Chateaubriand during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1814, as Napoleon Bonaparte grew ever more desperate to preserve his collapsing empire Chateaubriand wrote a pamphlet called “Bonaparte and The Bourbons” in which he excoriated the French dictator: “The contempt for the lives of men and for France herself has come to the point of calling conscripts ‘raw material’ and ‘cannon fodder.'” Thousands of young men were killed or wounded on the battlefields of Nivelle, Bayonne, and Toulouse in a vain effort to sustain a dying imperium. The most visceral example of cannon fodder is the World War II Battle of Stalingrad, in which the combined megalomania of Josef Stalin and Adolph Hitler led to the deaths of some two million combatants and tens of thousands of Soviet citizens in the bloodiest military confrontation in history. Two million deaths in the name of two men’s imperial ambitions.
In the twenty-first century California’s political class has created a new kind of human silage: Bureaucracy fodder. The state’s homeless population supports a head-spinning array of well-funded government agencies, nonprofits, charities, foundations, think tanks, law firms, consultants, and developers, all funded and enabled by the state’s (allegedly progressive) political class. As people suffer and die on the streets by the thousands these Brahmins rake in the paychecks, plan scores of multimillion dollar “affordable” and “low income” development projects, hold extravagant galas, and attend posh retreats and “team building” events while clothing themselves in the guise of altruism and community.
While developers vie for literally billions in project funds, many executives on both the public and private side of this archipelago make handsome six-figure salaries, such as disgraced former Congresswoman Katie Hill. Before leaving to run for office she was making nearly $200,000 a year as deputy CEO of a nonprofit called People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) – at the age of 27. That organization itself has grown its revenue from $8.3 million in fiscal year 2012 to $45.8 million last year. The organization’s CEO, Joel Roberts, made $241,370.
In Los Angeles County, homeless services are coordinated by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). According to Transparent California, in 2014 LAHSA had 118 employees, nine of whom made over $100,000 a year. As the homeless population grew so did LAHSA’s staff: By 2018, the agency had grown to 424 employees, with 31 earning six figures and another 16 earning more than $90,000. The Director pulled down $242,242 (coincidentally nearly identical to Mr. Roberts’s salary at PATH). Assuming an average salary of $50,000 LAHSA spends $21.5 million annually on salaries alone. As LAHSA has grown so has the county’s homeless crisis. Coincidence?
At the state level, the Department of Social Services employs more than 4,200 people whose jobs – theoretically – are to help California’s poorest residents get back on their feet. Nearly 100 employees make more than $200,000 a year, with the Director, William Lightbourne, receiving $313,760. And the state’s homeless crisis grows. Coincidence?
These numbers, which are just a few of myriad examples, raise obvious questions: What would those 424 LAHSA employees do for a living if they were to actually end homelessness in Los Angeles? The answer is equally obvious: If they were to eliminate homelessness and poverty, they’d have to find new jobs. And no one in their right mind intentionally puts themselves out of work.
It’s important to understand that these people are not contractors, nor consultants hired to solve a problem and then move on to the next one. They are full-time, salaried employees. Public employees also receive generous benefits packages and as many as 45 days of paid vacation annually (many take even more time off). Presumably most of them expect to have their jobs for years and decades, and many will retire with their nonprofit or government agency. For that to happen the homeless crisis must continue in perpetuity.
Equally important is the fact that the public employees are dues paying union members. LAHSA’s employees are part of the Service Employees International Union, one of the most powerful in the country (their most recent collective bargaining agreement is quite the read). Those unions are among the most important sources of campaign contributions for California’s Democrat majority, adding yet another layer of self-interest.
The famed economist William Niskanen developed the budget maximizing theory of bureaucracies. He showed how bureaucrats acting in their own rational self-interest seek to increase their budgets in order to increase their power. It’s axiomatic that success in government is a matter of raising your department’s budget and headcount. In the context of homeless services this phenomenon creates the ultimate paradox: The only way for an agency whose mission is to end homelessness can justify increasing its staff and budget is if there are ever increasing numbers of homeless people in the state. Perhaps that’s why Governor Newsom said during a recent tour of a homeless shelter in L.A. that, “Many [homeless people] see California as a place of compassion. If that’s the case, we match our values with action, and as people of faith, we have a responsibility to all of them, regardless of whether they got here last week, last month, or were born here 30 years ago.” That statement amounts to a blank check thrown at the feet of bureaucrats and nonprofit executives.
As barbaric as tyrants’ use of human beings as cannon fodder was, it arguably was more humane than California’s bureaucratic fodder. Soldiers died relatively quickly from combat wounds or – more frequently – illness and exposure. In contrast, California’s bureaucratic fodder suffer excruciating circumstances for months, years, even decades. So long as the solutions are in the hands of self-interested bureaucrats, nothing will change.
His scandal-plagued tenure in L.A. doesn’t merit a national promotion, and his departure would throw the entire southland into disarray at the worst possible moment
Don’t do it, Joe. Don’t offer Eric Garcetti a job. You ran on a platform of competence and decency. Mr. Garcetti is neither. Americans can disagree whether you are as beyond reproach as you portray yourself – but they can agree that the L.A. mayor has no business in Washington, DC.
It’s hard to find anyone in Los Angeles who thinks much of their mayor these days. By every conceivable metric, life in the City of Angeles has gotten worse during Eric Garcetti’s seven and a half years in office. Not a little bit, not marginally, not just here and there. Huge swaths of the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest country in human history have descended into post-apocalyptic anarchy – and that was before the riots and looting he all but cheered forin May and June. Homelessness, poverty, addiction, crime, traffic, pollution, and living costs all have spiraled on Mr. Garcetti’s watch, with no relief on the horizon. Walking the streets of L.A. in 2020 is like living through an episode of The Walking Dead. Every day at least three homeless people perish on the streets, while tens of thousands more languish in unthinkable conditions. Diseases that humankind eradicated decades and even centuries ago are making a comeback in Mr. Garcetti’s own city hall, which had to be closed and cleaned last year due to an outbreak of typhus. Public defecation, urination, and masturbation have become daily facts of life.
The City of Angels recently passed the grim milestone of 300 murders for the first time in more than a decade – with a month of 2020 yet to go. In September a 23-year-old graduate student was assaulted, beaten, and raped on the Venice Pier. Her assailant left her for dead outside a public toilet and last reports were that she remains in a coma. The horrifying story didn’t even make local news broadcasts or the Los Angeles Times, and was barely mentioned in a couple of local blogs. It was just another Tuesday in Eric Garcetti’s L.A.
Even before the COVID-19 economic shutdown businesses were fleeing and the city’s budget was in shambles, with serious people seriously discussing the possibility of bankruptcy. Now, with countless thousands more businesses – and their tax receipts – gone the city faces financial Armageddon. Mr. Garcetti has played a central role in this decline, first as a city councilor elected in 2000, later as president of the city council, and for the last seven years as mayor. The city’s finances have literally gotten worse every year that he’s been in public life. And while obviously it’s not all his fault he’s proven either unwilling or unable to tackle the increasingly dire situation.
Meanwhile his administration has been a prime source of the stench of corruption that, along with homelessness and crime, has become L.A.’s grim calling card. On Monday the FBI indictedhis former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Raymond Chan, on charges of bribery, racketeering, and other charges. As Dan Guss wrote in CityWatch earlier this month, “In elected office in LA since before 9/11, Garcetti planted, watered and grew the seeds of LA’s ongoing FBI corruption troubles with his cronies, and their pals.”
Despite this near-perfect record of failure it’s widely reported that President-elect Joe Biden is considering Eric Garcetti for a cabinet position, likely in either the Department of Transportation or Health and Human Services. You can’t make this stuff up: The mayor of the city with the worst traffic congestion on earth and the worst homeless and poverty crisis in United States history apparently is being considered for national transportation and housing jobs. In another layer of irony, in January Mr. Garcetti told a writer for The Atlantic he didn’t want those two jobs specifically: “To be HUD secretary or Transportation at some point might be interesting—but not at this point in my career, because it’s kind of like the last job that you have.”
Mr. Garcetti’s national aspirations are no secret. After L.A. voters reelected him in 2017 he repaid them by spending much of 2018 outside California trying to gin up support for a presidential run (with his L.A. taxpayer funded staff and security in tow, natch). He incessantly toured primary states where no one had ever heard of him and spent lavishly on consultants, focus groups, even testing campaign jingles.
Joe, don’t haul Mr. Garcetti’s many skeletons with you into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, especially when there are plenty of equally or more qualified candidates.
The moral arguments against “Secretary Garcetti”
Despite his myriad failures and scandalsa, until recently Mr. Garcetti skated through his political career on a carefully cultivated image as a good guy. He emotes like a Beyond Meat version of Bill Clinton and embraced the moniker “Mayor Yoga Pants” in a nod to his Mr. Sensitive act. He makes a big deal out of his fondness for urban gardens, organic tea, and Coldplay (that last one ought to be disqualifying in and of itself). His speeches and public comments brim with touchy-feely language and allusions. He’s known to leave the less palatable aspects of politics governance to staffers and loyalists, allowing him to float above the fray unsullied.
Unfortunately for the ambitious young mayor reality has a way of catching up with imagery, especially in the digital era. In July an LAPD officer who worked on the mayor’s security detail sued the city, alleging years of sexual harassment by top Garcetti aide Rick Jacobs. Insiders say that Mr. Jacobs is Mr. Hyde to the mayor’s Dr. Jekyll, one of those bare knuckle political hacks who does the dirty work. The allegations include forcible kissing, grabbing, groping, sexually explicit comments, and objectification. In a sworn pleading the officer claimed that Mr. Garcetti not only was aware of Mr. Jacob’s behavior but brushed it off and even laughed at the antics. At least four other individuals subsequently came forward with similar claims even as the mayor continued to plead ignorance, including freelance journalist Yashar Ali. In October Mr. Ali published a detailed account of his alleged experiences with Mr. Jacobs. Another man claimed Mr. Jacobs grabbed his buttocks at a party at Mr. Jacobs’s house in 2012, while another said Mr. Jacobs approached him at a party in 2019 and “tried to hug and kiss me forcibly.”
Garcetti’s denials were dealt a major blow last week when the Los Angeles Timespublished a 2017 group picture that shows Mr. Jacobs making a crude gesture at another man’s crotch while the mayor grins into the camera inches away.
It might be one thing if Mr. Jacobs were the sole source of taint in Garcetti’s world. If that were the case the mayor’s protestations of ignorance at least would be more plausible (despite the above picture).
Quite the contrary: Mr. Garcetti wears scandal like one of his dark skinny suits. Despite his dismal showing early in the Democrat Party primary he doggedly remained in the race. That is, until he called a bizarre Tuesday evening press conference on January 19, 2019 to announce he was dropping out. The announcement was attended by none of his senior advisers nor his family. He was flanked by city hall staff and secretaries who looked positively baffled to be there. By way of explanation he gave the standard political pablum about finishing the job at home. However, his announcement came less than a week after the Los Angeles Times had reported that the FBI’s ongoing investigation into corruption in L.A. politics had ensnared two top members of the Garcetti administration, including his Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Raymond Chan. This past Monday the Times reported Mr. Chan has been indicted on charges ranging from bribery to racketeering.
There may be an even darker reason behind the mayor’s decision not to run. According to city insiders he has been dogged for nearly two years by rumors of a domestic incident at his private residence in January 2019, an allegation the Times mentioned in passing in its Monday story. Earlier in his political career insiders raised troubling questions about he and his wife’s treatment of the seven children they fostered before adopting their daughter. There was wide speculation in L.A. political circles that the couple were literally auditioning kids for the role of first child.
Mr. Garcetti is rapidly running out of friends in his hometown. In order to placate his party’s left flank he has all but declared war on the Los Angeles Police Department – a move that Black Lives Matter most recently rewarded with a ten day’s worth of protests at the mayor’s mansion in Hancock Park (the protests continue). To say his COVID-19 policies have alienated the city’s business community is an understatement. With just under two years to go in his term he is rapidly approaching lame duck status.
The worst possible time for L.A. to lose a mayor
To be sure, few Angelnos would shed a tear should Mr. Garcetti leave for Washington. The fact of the matter is, however, he must serve out his term. His departure in January would throw the City of Los Angeles, and consequently the entire Southland, in to political disarray in the midst of an historic public health and economic crisis. It would result in either the appointment of an interim mayor by the city council or a special election. It would throw the city’s coronavirus response into (greater) disarray precisely as the virus’s second surge reaches its apex. It would paralyze L.A. politics as the viper’s nest of city council jockey for advantage to succeed him.
Last bu not least, Mr. Garcetti should stick to his own pledges. In October he told the Los Angeles Times that “it’s more likely than not” he’ll serve out his term. A week after the election he told ABC7 that a cabinet position is “not something I’m weighing right now, quite frankly.” And of course there were his statements about the importance of finishing his job in L.A. back in 2019.
Eric Garcetti personifies the California political tradition of the privileged failing upward. He’s a scion of Los Angeles royalty whose father served as Los Angeles District Attorney and had the dubious distinction of losing the O.J. Simpson criminal trial. Garcetti fils attended the exclusive Harvard-Westlake School before matriculating at Columbia University. He spent his early and mid 20s amassing various graduate degrees, culminating with Ph.D. studies at the London School of Economics. Before launching his political career at the age of 29 he’d never held anything resembling a real job, though he apparently was briefly an assistant professor of diplomacy at Occidental College between 1999-2000.
For all his privilege, for all his advantages Mr. Garcetti cannot point to much of anything in the way of accomplishments for the people of Los Angeles. His skeletons could burst out of the closet at any moment, potentially tainting the Biden administration before it even gets started.
So, Joe, please. For the good of the people of Los Angeles, for the good of the country, don’t bring Eric Garcetti to Washington.
Mark Twain copied a friend’s remark into his notebook: “I am not an American; I am the American.” That is a claim—to be the American, the exemplary or representative American—that very few Americans could plausibly make. Twain himself could. Benjamin Franklin could and did. Abraham Lincoln could but didn’t, though admirers made the claim for him. Surely some number of others could, too. But among all Americans past or present, no one could make such a claim more compellingly than Frederick Douglass.
Like his country, Douglass rose from a low beginning to a great height. Like his country again, he won his freedom in a revolutionary struggle, by his own virtue and against great odds, and he matured into an exemplar of universal liberty, admired the world over. And like his country, finally, Douglass the individual was divided by race.
Unlike America, Douglass could hardly think of himself as “conceived in liberty.” But even in this respect—especially in this respect—he represents a larger American promise. The son of a white slaveholder and a black slave, Douglass became, along with Abraham Lincoln, post-Founding America’s most important exponent of the natural-rights argument summarized in the Declaration of Independence. Pursuant to the same principles, he became America’s most prominent representative of the aspiration toward racial integration, reconciliation, and uplift.
One must emphasize: he became that. It didn’t come naturally to him. To become the great apostle of those aspirations, Douglass had to overcome a sentiment about and among black Americans that is recurrently present in U.S. history, powerful in his day and again in ours—the feeling or conviction that to be black is to bear an identity antagonistic to American identity.
This sentiment received its most memorable expression from W. E. B Du Bois, now a larger presence in the minds of many educated Americans than Douglass. Du Bois wrote, in the most famous passage in his book The Souls of Black Folk, that as a black American, “one ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring idealsin one dark body.”
In his younger years, Frederick Douglass felt that psychic dividedness every bit as acutely and painfully as Du Bois did. In an 1847 speech, Douglass askeda troubling question and provided a dispiriting answer. Speaking for black Americans as a class, he asked: “What country have I?” He answered: “I have no patriotism. I have no country.” Then 29 years old, for nearly his entire life recognized in American laws only as an article of property, Douglass here lamented that even as a legally free man, he had no country that honored and protected him, no country to which he belonged and none that belonged to him.
He made that speech at a meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, an association founded by America’s leading abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison. In 1847, Douglass was a faithful Garrisonian. When he declared his profound alienation from the country of his birth, he was rendering a personalized expression of what was standard Garrisonian doctrine.
What alienated the Garrisonians from America, most of all, was their opinion that the U.S. Constitution was decisively pro-slavery. Garrison near the beginning of his career calledthe Constitution “the most bloody and heaven-daring arrangement ever made by men for the continuance and protection of a system of the most atrocious villainy ever exhibited on earth.” From that premise he drew what seemed to him the necessary inference. “Henceforth,” he announced in 1845, “the watchword” of abolitionists must be disunion: “NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS!”
According to William Lloyd Garrison, then, the destruction of slavery required the destruction of America—of the American constitutional union. And in 1847, that was Douglass’s position, too. Given Douglass’s life experience, there is nothing very surprising in this. What issurprising, though, is how quickly and decisively he came to reject the Garrisonian position. Douglass launched his own abolitionist newspaper in early 1848, and after spending a few years reading and rethinking, he announced that he had come to reject the Garrisonian doctrines of disunion and the pro-slavery Constitution.
His turnabout came partly for prudential reasons. First was the realization, as he put it in his speech on the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott ruling, that “it would be difficult to hit upon any plan less likely to abolish slavery than the dissolution of the Union.” The disunion strategy would strengthen, not weaken the forces of despotism in America. Again from the Dred Scott speech:
If I were on board of a pirate ship, with a company of men and women whose lives and liberties I had put in jeopardy, I would not clear my soul of their blood by jumping in the long boat, and singing out no union with pirates. My business would be to remain on board.
Even among slavery’s adversaries, the Garrisonians were not alone in wanting to jump ship. The counterparts to Garrisonian advocates of disunion were black advocates of emigration, led in the 1850s by Douglass’s sometime friend, colleague, and rival, Martin Delany. Emigrationists were never a majority of black Americans, but their arguments gained influence in those periods when the prospects for freedom and equal rights appeared especially bleak.
The decade of the 1850s was such a period. So Douglass felt the need to respond to the Garrisonians and the emigrationists, and an invitation from the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society provided the opportunity. The occasion was the commemoration of Independence Day in 1852. Douglass’s Fourth of July oration, which has been called the greatest of all abolitionist speeches, presents his fullest reflections on the meaning of America and on the question Du Bois would pose a half-century later—the question of black identity in relation to America.
It’s a very complex speech. Douglass biographer David W. Blight aptly compares it to a symphony in three movements. One way Douglass divides the speech is temporally, as its sections move from past to present to future. Another way is by sentiment: he begins with a somewhat cautious, reserved expression of hope, then shifts to outrage mixed with something approaching despair, and concludes with a more confident expression of hope. A third mode of division appears in his adoption of three distinct perspectives: he considers the Fourth as it appears to white Americans, then as it appears to black Americans, and finally from a universal or fully integrated perspective.
For much of the speech, the reader could be forgiven for thinking that Douglass had joined Delany in the black-nationalist camp. First addressing the white members of the audience, he told them, in effect, this is how your national holiday appears to you. He addresses them in a chain of second-person pronouns: not our but “yournational independence”; “your political freedom”; “your fathers”; “your nation.” The driving spirit seems little different from what animated his 1847 renunciation of patriotism. While admiring the “revolutionary fathers,” he yet declared: “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.”
Coming to the present, he excoriated post-Founding America: “There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”
Perhaps the worst of the nation’s crimes, to that point, was the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850—“that most foul and fiendish of all human decrees,” Douglass called it, a law that “stands alone in the annals of tyrannical legislation.” For free black Americans, the effect was essentially to legalize kidnapping, leaving many to conclude that there was no protection by law for them anywhere in the U.S. What followed were upsurges in pro-emigration sentiment and in actual emigration.
Douglass fully understood that sentiment, but he believed it to be self-destructive and rejected it repeatedly over the course of his career. He understood, too, however, that the case againstemigration, like the case against disunion, had to be buttressed by a case forAmerica. He concluded the July Fourth oration, as he concluded virtually all his speeches, with an expression of hopefulness.
This was not mere wishfulness. Douglass thought hopefulness in America was rational—grounded in evidence and reason—in part because of America’s Founding. America’s revolutionary fathers were “brave men,” he remarked. They were “great men”; they dedicated the country to eternal principles. Against the Garrisonians, also against those debauched (as Lincoln put it) by John Calhoun, he maintained that the Founders’ Constitution was not pro-slavery; it was “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.”
The case for hopefulness required that and more. At the conclusion of the Fourth of July speech, Douglass said something particularly interesting about the further grounds of his hopefulness. “A change has now come over the affairs of mankind,” he said. Developments in the modern world, crucially enabled by modern philosophy, were making slavery increasingly impossible.
“The arm of commerce,” he continued, “has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe.” We are living in an age of commerce and enlightenment, he believed, and those developments were closely related.
So monstrous an injustice as slavery could only survive in a condition of seclusion, and in the modern world the seclusion it needed was becoming impossible. “No abuse,” said Douglass, “no outrage . . . can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.” Douglass believed what Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine believed: the principles of natural right held irresistible power for minds uncorrupted by interest, and freedom of speech, if properly protected, would propagate those principles throughout the world.
Douglass was a strong believer in the power of speech. This was a man who almost literally talked his way from the bottom to near the top of American society. But he didn’t think speech was all-powerful, and he didn’t think that the fostering of a healthy sense of American identity was merely a matter of persuading people, white or black, to believe in American principles.
To cultivate a genuine sense of American identity requires more than agreement with its principles. It requires a sense of belonging and affection. It requires a loveof America as one’s own. On this point and others, Douglass was a good American disciple of John Locke.
In Locke’s well-known reasoning, we own our own labor, and we own what we make. This can apply, however, not only to material property but also to political and patriotic affiliation. What Douglass wanted to teach his fellow citizens, his black fellow citizens in particular, was that we can buildAmerica, and in building or rebuilding it, we can make it our own. We can improve it by our labor, he argued, culturally and morally no less than materially. And to do this, we need first to improve ourselves. We need to cultivate what he called the “staying qualities,” fostering a faith in ourselves and our country. This is why hopefulness is a moral imperative, for Douglass, and why a spirit of alienation is so dangerous.
We are now just over 200 years from Frederick Douglass’s birth. In remembering him, we must certainly say today what he said in 1852: Our business is with the present. Republics, he liked to say, are proverbially forgetful—most importantly, forgetful of their own first principles. We live, as Douglass lived, in a period when the first principles of American republicanism are increasingly neglected and even maligned.
We live in a time when many Americans have forgotten our principles, or never learned them, or learned to revile them; when many young people, young men especially, grow up in the belief that they have no grounds for hope for their future and no reason to identify with their country; when many of our educational institutions have become purveyors of alienation and disintegration, teaching that America is an evil, hateful society and that speech to the contrary must be vilified and suppressed.
At such a time, as we search for models of understanding and inspiration, it is a vital imperative for us to recover the moral and political vision of Frederick Douglass. In the long history of African-American political thought, there is no more forceful proponent of the cause of integration, and there is no more insightful analyst of the varieties and dangers of national and racial disintegration.
“No people can prosper,” Douglass reiterated late in life, “unless they have a home, or the hope of a home”—and “to have a home,” one “must have a country.” America, in Douglass’s abiding vision, was black Americans’ proper home, their only realistic alternative and also the locus of their highest ideals. By its white and black citizens together, America must be cherished and perfected as a genuine home for all, not merely by the accident and force of necessity but as an object of rational and sentimental identification. For Douglass as for Abraham Lincoln, their common country was, through it all, the last best hope of earth.
The richest state in the richest country in human history is on the edge of physical, fiscal, and moral collapse
The cold open to a horror movie
In the movies it’s called a cold open. The film jumps directly into the story before the title sequence or opening credits. In horror movies the cold open is often a familiar scene in which something or someone is slightly off: The haunting figure walking down the street in an otherwise picture postcard small town, the eerie sound emanating from the woods at the edge of the idyllic farm.
A man named Ronaldo was the cold open of what I have come to call my journey to the fire. I met him on side of the highway somewhere north of Fresno on November 23, 2018. I was driving up Route 99 through California’s central valley on my way to Paradise to survey the Camp Fire burn zone and potentially interview survivors. I didn’t know it yet, but the three-day trip would change my life, my career, and my perspectives on what’s happening in my beloved home state. In many ways my encounter with Ronaldo set the stage for everything that has followed.
It was the kind of dreary, drizzly morning that in most people triggers the hibernation instinct, the desire to curl up at home with a book, a cup of coffee, a loved one. Instead, Ronaldo was slogging through mud and undergrowth along the side of the highway holding a slapdash bindle as if it was 1930. The ground fog muted his orange shirt; he looked almost spectral amid the washed out colors.
Like the trip itself, I don’t know what compelled me to pull off at the next exit, backtrack, and pull to the shoulder to offer him a ride. He seemed not even to notice me as I walked up to him while cars, buses, and eighteen wheelers roared past. I couldn’t imagine walking 20 yards along that road much less whatever distance he had traveled.
Approaching him I noticed a construction site a half mile or so behind him. It was a viaduct for the planned California bullet train. The project is a decade behind schedule and tens of billions over budget, and has for many become a symbol of all that is broken, corrupt, and dying in the Golden State. Indeed, the backdrop was grimly appropriate: A construction site for California’s $90 billion train to nowhere rising through the polluted air like some post-apocalyptic industrial wasteland, framing a homeless wayfarer.
I offered Ronaldo $20 to take his picture. He agreed. Afterward I gave him a ride to the next town. In the car I tried striking up a conversation but it quickly became clear that he was developmentally disabled. So I let him be, driving wordlessly as together we watched the scenes of decline and decay pass outside while a haunting tune called “Paris, Texas” by Ry Cooder played on the radio.
I let him off at a truck stop near Madera so he could at least get some food and maybe someplace dry to sleep. Hopefully. As I eased toward an onramp I glanced in the rear view mirror. Ronaldo had made it all of 20 feet, laying down on a bus bench and pulling his tarpaulin over his head as the mist swirled around him. It was the last I saw of him.
This is life in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history. Outside of war it’s difficult to recall a great civilization that careened toward total collapse so fast.
A long, strange trip
I didn’t know what was pulling me to the raw wound of the Camp Fire, what woke me at 5am and set my course 400 miles north. To this day I still don’t. I had no friends in the town, no connections except as a Californian and a human being. I’d yet to publish anything as a journalist and didn’t have a press badge – I was hoping my California bar card and a little blarney would allow me into the burn zone itself.
Along with millions of other Americans, for days I had watched video after video on social media of people fleeing through the flames, a binge watch in a hellish alternate reality. By the time firefighters and Mother Nature snuffed the last of the flames 153,000 acres had burned along with some 19,000 homes and buildings. 52,000 people had evacuated. At least 88 were dead, some having succumbed in or near their cars when evacuations ground down into gridlock.
The place tugged at me like something supernatural – which is how many of the survivors I would meet described the fire itself. The night before I made the spontaneous drive north I watched two particularly powerful videos on Facebook. The first was posted by a man named Mark who filmed the sheer chaos of the evacuations. Gridlock forced him to reverse course a half-dozen times, by which time he was repeating over and over, “This is it, man, this is it. I’m a goner.” Fortunately he survived.
The second was filmed by a woman named Avalon Kelley. Avalon, her husband Rocky, and their cat Loki drove through a sea of flames hundreds of feet high. Avalon narrated the four minute video and there was something in her voice – an almost inhuman combination of terror, grief, and disbelief – that lodged in my mind like a red hot spike. She sobbed as she watched the inferno devour her friends’ and neighbors’ homes in minutes, sometimes even seconds, while Loki mewed mournfully in the background and Rocky, a Vietnam combat veteran, offered what reassurance he could from behind the wheel. I was as moved by the sound of Avalon’s voice as I was shocked they made it out alive. Their home, needless to say, did not.
I didn’t know what I was going to find in the ashes of Paradise. Nevertheless, the 72 hour journey would transform my view of the place five generations of my family have called home. Or, perhaps more accurately, it brought into consciousness and stark relief truths that had lurked in my subconscious for years.
The death of hope, the triumph of despair
Driving half the length of the state that November day I didn’t cover more than a handful miles at a time without passing a homeless camp, a tent city, a shantytown. People relieved themselves in broad daylight, shamelessly exposed toward the highway as families in cars and minivans passed. Others lay on the hillside shoulders as still as the dead. Given the numbers of homeless people who perish in California every year it’s entirely possible a couple of them were.
I stopped for a fill-up and road snacks on the outskirts of the agricultural town of Turlock. Behind the gas station convenience store was a neighborhood of decaying single family homes whose backyards were occupied by campers, trailers, and RVs. I wandered over to the fence and sure enough families were living in them. Children played in the mud amidst decomposing garbage. The scene was reminiscent of a refugee camp in a war-torn country, or a survivalist camp after an extinction-level event. It’s how millions of people eke out their lives in the Golden State.
These days most everyone in the state, for that matter most people in the country, know that the central valley is far from unique. Some of the world’s worst slums have formed and metastasized from San Diego to Siskiyou, nightmarish places where mental illness, drug addiction, infectious diseases, and crimes of every imaginable (and unimaginable) sort are daily realities for millions of men, women, and children.
Officially, there are 151,278 homeless people in California, nearly half the nation’s total in a state that accounts for 12% of the population. It’s the kind of too-precise number that obscures an even more dire reality: According to an independent 2014 analysis by The National Center on Family Homelessness at the National Institutes for Research as many as 500,000 children experienced some form of homelessness in California in 2013. That was seven years ago, before the crisis truly began to spiral. Other studies bear out similar conclusions.
As many as 15% of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District experience homelessness in a given year – roughly 75,000 kids. Kids who when the 3pm bell rings go to emergency shelters, motels, even cars and RVs. That number has jumped by 25% in the last three years. Many of those children will grow up to lead lives not all that different from Ronaldo’s. Or worse.
As a whole California’s schools, once the envy of the country, have like so much else descended into decay. Today California has some of the worst public education systems in the country, with nearly half of the lowest performing individual schools. Meanwhile teachers’ unions rake in millions in dues and dole out millions in campaign contributions to politicians content with an educational system that qualifies as a crime against humanity. In 2017 barely a third of students the the LAUSD met or exceeded math standards and fewer than 40% did so in English Language Arts. In poorer areas like Compton the rates were 6.6% and 11.8%, respectively. The state’s high schools routinely graduate thousands of seniors who are functionally illiterate – young adults starting their life’s journeys without the ability to so much as fill out a fast food job application.
When you consider these numbers and these realities, California’s homeless crisis, and Ronaldo’s plight, become easier to explain.
Failing the future
When I first started tutoring Leon* in February 2019 he was living with his mom, older sister, and two older brothers in a nondescript homeless shelter in Inglewood. He was 14 and going into seventh grade. Despite the fact that he reads at a third or fourth grade level and can’t do multiplication beyond the number five his school routinely awards him honor roll status.
Leon loves music, computers, and video games. He dreams of a career as a music engineer. I quickly learned he has a mischievous side and is a bit of a prankster. He also loves history. Whether Genghis Khan or Easter Island, the American Revolution or the Industrial Revolution, he couldn’t get enough during our all-too-brief weekly sessions. He has a remarkable ability to focus: Give him a set of math problems and the world vanishes until the last one’s solved. It’s a thing to behold. One day I gave him a set of 10 problems on the computer. After nearly ten minutes I asked him how many he had left. “Eight,” he replied. My heart sank until I glanced at the screen and realized I’d made a mistake: I’d given him 30 problems, not 10, and he was grinding away with fierce determination.
Leon’s ability to focus is all the more remarkable given the deafening noise in his world. He and his siblings take different routes to school everyday because in their neighborhood patterns are dangerous. He speaks with a pronounced stutter that started after his best friend was killed in a random drive-by when they were both eight. They were playing in his friend’s front yard when a car pulled up, two men leaned out and sprayed the lawn and front door with bullets. Leon says he didn’t actually see the bullet hit his friend as they dove to the ground, but what difference? The killers were never found, his friend’s murder joining the nearly 50% of homicides that go unsolved each year in Los Angeles, the majority in South L.A. Leon would talk about the demons he sometimes sees at night. They crawl out of the air ducts and window cracks in the small two room apartment he shares with his family. He said they’re the ones that killed his friend. He keeps them at bay by praying.
After six months working together, through no fault of his own Leon broke my heart: His mom got a part time job in the baggage department at Long Beach Airport and the family moved away. I arrived for our regular Thursday session to learn they were gone. Of course my heartbreak was selfish, yet it exemplified another persistent issue: California children with no sense of place, much less the kinds of stability and security that are essential to development and learning.
In a very real sense the state’s political class has abandoned millions of children (except their own, of course, who are safely ensconced in $50,000 a year private academies). In the process they have abandoned the future to broken lives and government dependence – which may be the very point. Children like Leon grow up to be adults like Ronaldo – that is, if they don’t end up in prison. Either way their broken lives are extremely profitable for what many call the Poverty Industrial Complex.
The stark reality is that California’s political class depends on suffering and human misery. It is their sustenance. If they were to save our schools and solve our homeless crisis many thousands of government bureaucrats – not to mention armies of lawyers, consultants, nonprofits, and other white collar professionals – would have to find real jobs. And we can’t have that.
Fleeing the fire on broken roads
Forty miles north of Sacramento you hit Yuba City. From then on you’re in mountain country, though the mountains themselves are another forty miles to the north and east. It’s one of those invisible California thresholds where little changes except the feeling, and maybe the air. You start to see more heavy agricultural equipment both on the roads and working the fields, a few more Bible passages on billboards and shunted tractor trailers beside the road.
On this trip Yuba City also functioned as another kind of break point, one that marked the edge of the fire zone. What had been occasional whiffs of smoke over the last hundred miles became a permanent sort of suffocation and the air turned a several shades darker.
Yuba City was also where I saw the first RVs, campers, and overloaded cars filled with families fleeing the fire. A slow trickle quickly became a flood of vehicles of every imaginable sort. Some of the refugees flew defiant American flags, others flew San Francisco 49ers or Sacramento Kings pennants. Many had home made signs in their windows with home addresses and lists of family members’ names. A battered and charred blue F-150 pickup had a sign in the rear window with a single word: Gone.
I use the word “refugees” advisedly, for these folks were no longer evacuees. Evacuees are temporarily displaced people who fully plan to return home. In contrast, refugees know that all is lost. As a Californian I had seen evacuees over the years: From previous fires, floods, or earthquakes. My own family once evacuated our home in West Los Angeles in 1983, when I was eight years old and a fire threatened Beverly Glen Canyon.
The difference between evacuees and refugees manifests on people’s faces. Evacuees look terrified and alert. Refugees look defeated and resigned.
The conditions of the roads didn’t help their escape. Along with our schools and our social safety nets California’s infrastructure is collapsing. A May 2019 report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state an overall C-. The report also noted, “Googling ‘water main breaks’ in California will unfortunately yield a very long list of infrastructure failure stories covered by the media, and many more occur every day that don’t receive media attention.” Meanwhile, California – birthplace of the freeway – has some of the most decrepit roads in the country. Driving on those roads costs Californians $61 billion annually in congestion-related delays, accidents, and increased vehicle wear and tear. It will cost $150 billion over the next decade just to to bring the system back to a state of good repair. Yet instead of spending money to mend the roads on which 40 million people rely cities and the state are spending billions on trains and buses no one rides and bike lanes that serve vanishingly small cohorts of overwhelmingly young white men.
Meanwhile, state testing has revealed high levels of lead and other contaminants in the drinking water of 17% of public schools. According to a previously undisclosed report by senior officials at the California State Water Resources Control Board more than 1,000 water districts, accounting for more than one in three statewide, may be failing to deliver potable drinking water. These reports come on the heels of stories last year out of south Los Angeles, where the Sativa Water District in Compton became California’s very own Flint, Michigan. At least 678 dams are considered to be high-hazard potential. In February 2017 the Oroville Dam collapsed, forcing the evacuation of more than 180,000 people.
Human beings have been building and maintaining roads, bridges, and dams for millennia, yet here in the wealthiest place on Earth officials can no longer accomplish those basics of civilization. In California, potable water increasingly is a luxury.
As I neared Chico and the flood of refugees became a veritable tsunami all of those potholes and cracks felt like insults added to the grievous injuries Camp Fire survivors already had experienced.
I soon learned that the survivors fleeing south were the luckier ones: They had somewhere to go. Thousands of others were less fortunate, relegated to campsites like the one in a field behind a Lowe’s in downtown Chico. Hundreds of tents and other makeshift shelters turned the rough ground into a literal refugee camp, the kind of scenes you’d expect to see in places like Cameroon, not California. Yet again my attention was on the children. They played muddy games of soccer and tag in the smoke filled air (in yet another insult, as the field continued to fill with families in tents a light rain converted the ground into a sticky mud). It is unknown how many Camp Fire refugees remain homeless today.
In yet another sign of the times the camps at Lowe’s and elsewhere already had attracted criminals and vagrants who preyed on the helpless. Suffice it to say the local police and Highway Patrol were otherwise occupied, leaving the refugees at the malcontents’ mercy.
Here and there were a few bright spots, if they could be called that. In contrast to the myriad failures of the state’s political class, private companies, charities, faith groups, and organizations like the Girl Scouts were providing food, clothing, shelter, and other essentials. Some were from out of state: A truck loaded with clothing sported Oregon plates, and a van full of food had tags from Oklahoma. In the ashes of one of the worst disasters in California history the only sign of government activity was a FEMA trailer.
As I pulled onto the aptly-named Skyway Boulevard and began the final climb to Paradise, the Spotify app played “Nowhere to Run” by Martha Reeves and the Vandalls. Hauntingly, the computers seemed to know where I was headed: The soundtrack to the rest of the afternoon included the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” and “Ticking Bomb” by Aloe Blacc.
Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide
Entering the town of Paradise was what it must have been like to drive through Hiroshima on August 7, 1945. I kept thinking of that sign in the pickup’s window: Gone. Amidst the devastation the atmosphere, and the world, felt a hundred times heavier. Everything pressed in, the air, the smoke, the sights. Even the sound, or rather the lack of it, seemed to have a physical presence. Time and space seemed somehow contorted, folded upon themselves. There’s an almost complete absence of color in burn zones, everything washed out in sepia: The ruins of buildings and houses, the burned-out cars, the hills, the trees, the sky.
Then there was the smell: Along with the people who lost their lives many thousands of wild and domestic animals perished in the fire, leaving behind the hideous, unmistakable odor of death. It would hang on my clothes, my skin and hair, and inside my car for weeks after I returned home.
I was still several miles from Paradise itself when I passed the fist burned-out cars. The traffic got so bad during the inferno that many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were forced to abandon their vehicles and flee on foot. At least half a dozen people burned alive in their cars.
We’re from the government, and we’re here to help
Ronald Regan famously quipped that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Perhaps the biggest revelation from my journey to the fire was learning the role the California state government, the Butte County Association of Governments, and even some leaders in the town itself played in created the perfect conditions for people to become trapped as they fled. The Camp Fire was not the first time fire evacuations had bogged down in these mountains. During the 2008 Humboldt Complex Fire, evacuations in many parts of Paradise and the neighboring town of Magalia similarly gridlocked.
The situation prompted an investigation and report by the Butte County Grand Jury. Among the Grand Jury’s main recommendations were that the county widen the shoulders and turnouts along existing evacuation routes, of which there are only three, clear vegetation the Skyway between Chico and Paradise, and add a new evacuation route to the north by paving an existing gravel road from Magalia to Butte Meadows.
Inexplicably, in September 2009, the Butte County Board of Supervisors called the grand jury report “not reasonable.” A couple years later the county actually narrowed dozens of miles of roads throughout Paradise. Without a hint of irony officials named the initiative “Livable Streets.” The three major evacuation routes, Skyway Boulevard, Clark Road, and Pearson Street, all were narrowed in places. The county also installed center medians, sidewalk bulb-out’s, bollards, and other traffic obstacles throughout the city, supposedly in an effort to make the streets more inviting for bicyclists and pedestrians.
After the fire officials implausibly claimed that the reductions – called “road diets” and obstacles had no impact on evacuations. Then Mayor Jody Jones told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t believe that [the changes] really mattered.”
The survivors I spoke with had quite a different take. An emergency room nurse who described fleeing on foot when traffic came to a halt said, “Even before the fire we wondered what in the Hell they were thinking.” Many people said that traffic in town had gotten so bad after the changes that they started calling it “Paradise’s 405” in reference to the notoriously congested Los Angeles freeway. During the frenzied evacuations many of these new choke points became what one Cal Fire captain described to me as “kill zones.”
Far from learning the tragic lessons of the Paradise road diets California is imposing hundreds of similar changes to evacuation routes statewide, part of an effort to combat climate change by discouraging people from driving. Some call it a war on cars. This summer, as another swarm of fires engulfed the region, the roads remain narrowed. Indeed, a recent picture in the L.A. Times showed traffic bogged down on the Skyway during the current fires (the picture, shown above, has since been removed).
It’s impossible to know how many people in how many towns are being put at risk because of these ideologically motivated projects. A study conducted by a San Francisco-based traffic analytics company called StreetLight Data has identified dozens of communities statewide that already have limited evacuation routes relative to their populations. Many are considering or have implemented road diets already. For example, in the Marin County city of Mill Valley plans to replace two of four lanes on part of a main evacuation route, East Blithedale Boulevard, to make way for bicycle lanes, widened sidewalks, and other obstacles. In the even of a fire thousands of people will have to negotiate the new obstacles as they evacuate.
California is a time bomb
Virtually no one I spoke with in Paradise that November weekend, and no one I’ve spoken with since, believes the official death toll of 88 from the Camp Fire. Most people believe it is substantially higher, perhaps by several times. When I asked a Cal Fire captain back in Chico about it later that Friday evening, he just shook his head and said, “I can’t talk about it,” before walking away. His thousand yard stare said everything. A survivor named Patricia Clark, an emergency room nurse who presumably had seen it all before the fire, broke down in tears on the phone as she described seeing at least three people burn to death in their cars as she ran through the flames. A survivor named Chuck Keogh posted a video to Facebook showing at least five charred bodies in and near cars (warning: graphic content, viewer discretion highly advised).
The Camp Fire was triggered by faulty transmission facilities. Pacific Gas & Electric, the region’s quasi-public energy provider, recently agreed to a $25 billion settlement with victims, cities, and insurance companies related to the Camp Fire and others.
But these fires are going to happen no matter what. So far this year some 4 million acres have burned, by far the worst fire season on record (though an average year by historical standards – before white settlers arrived as much as 12 million acres burned annually). While the political class blames climate change the fact of the matter is their own policies are as much to blame. Environmental radicalism so dominates policy that logging and other vegetation thinning measures are little more than quaint memories. Old fashioned greed also plays a central role, as lawmakers and officials continue to encourage and even subsidize development in wildland urban interface zones, placing millions of Californians at risk. And the political class’s obsession with bicycles and mass transit means more and more evacuation routes will be severely limited in coming years.
A reckoning is coming to California. More than half the state’s residents (and nearly two thirds of young people in the state) say they would leave if they had the chance. If not for immigration the state would have lost population over the last 20 years. Unchecked spending, particularly in the form of generous pay, benefits, and retirement packages for government employees, has put the state on the hook for some $1.5 trillion in unfunded future liabilities. That means it’s only going to get more difficult, if not impossible, to spend the money needed to save our schools, repair our infrastructure, and prevent mass casualties in future fires and floods. Forget about planning for the future: California increasingly is sliding toward a pre-industrial state of anarchy.
Every bad policy decision, every ounce of corruption, and every example of rank incompetence from California’s political class was on full display during my journey to the fire. As I traveled back south, joining the endless caravan of refugees, I wondered if my beloved home state already is beyond salvation.
Passing through Fresno I scanned the highway shoulders for Ronaldo. He was nowhere to be found. Like a million other Californians he had simply vanished into the abyss. On the other side of the freeway an elevated bypass for the bullet train was under construction. It was already covered in graffiti.
I couldn’t make out the words, but it occurred to me that only one would have made sense: Gone….
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Officials including Governor Gavin Newsom were behind outrageously expensive efforts that only made the crisis worse
“The plan produced by the Ten-Year Planning Council is both a blueprint and a bold step toward a new and revolutionary way to break the cycle of chronic homelessness.” San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, June 30, 2004
“This crisis has been more than a half century in the making, and this Administration is just getting started on solutions.” Governor Gavin Newsom, October 19, 2019
“This Bring L.A. Home plan initiates a 10 year plan to end homelessness in Los Angeles County.” Bring L.A. Home final report, co-authored by Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, April 2006
“We can cut this problem in half in five years. And in 10 years we can end life on the street.” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, March 2018
Advocates for changes to California’s approach to homelessness were disappointed last year when the Supreme Court denied certiorari in City of Boise v. Martin. The petitioners in that case sought to challenge a 2018 Ninth Circuit ruling preventing cities from citing or fining people for camping in public spaces overnight unless alternative shelter is available. In reality, even though more than a dozen cities in the western U.S. urged the Court to take the case, like all petitions to the high court review was always a long shot.
Nevertheless, it was viewed as another setback as California’s homeless crisis continued to spiral with no end in sight. In Los Angeles public anger erupts routinely and with increasing frequency on social media, at community events, and at town halls hosted by city councilmembers. It spawned an effort to recall Mayor Eric Garcetti and prompted calls for the resignations of Councilmembers including Mike Bonin and Paul Kerkorian. Mr. Bonin has all but stopped appearing in public outside of carefully stage-managed events.
In fact, officials in Los Angeles and across California have been failing for far longer than most people realize. In 2018 Mayor Garcetti promised to end chronic homelessness in ten years. The pledge came on the heels of his 2014 pledge to house all of the city’s homeless veterans, first by 2015 and then 2016 (he eventually scrapped the timeline). Back in 2013, during his first mayoral run, Garcetti vowed to end chronic homelessness in ten years. Likewise, upon assuming office as Mayor of San Francisco in 2004, Gavin Newsom pledged to end homelessness in that city within – wait for it – ten years.
California’s political class has not lacked for grand plans, all of which seem to fall under the ten year category. Mayor Newsom’s pledge was accompanied by the formation of a “Ten Year Plan Council” comprised of 33 local leaders. Advocates criticized the body for being too heavy on political insiders and light on subject matter experts. Nevertheless, they released their Ten Year Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness in July 2004.
Likewise in 2004, the City and County of Los Angeles convened their own “blue ribbon commission” called Bring L.A. Home, to study homelessness and recommend workable solutions. Like San Francisco’s Council the 60 members comprised a who’s who of ensconced city insiders and power brokers, including Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greuel, Jan Perry, Mike Feuer, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, then LAPD Chief William Bratton, and Antonio Villaraigosa.
The result of Bring L.A. Home’s efforts was a report released in April 2006. As in San Francisco the authors promised “a 10-year campaign to end homelessness in Los Angeles County by setting forth a broad range of strategies that address a multitude of issues related to homelessness.” They declared, “Nothing of the magnitude proposed by this Plan has been attempted before in Los Angeles.”
It turned out that nothing proposed by the plan was attempted, either. Today the website https://www.bringlahome.org redirects to what appears to be an Indonesian consulting firm (caution: possibly unsafe website). Email and telephone inquiries to several members of the blue ribbon committee were not returned.
Officials like Messrs. Newsom and Garcetti have been failing for nearly two decades
When Bring L.A. Home released its report and recommendations, Eric Garcetti was president of the City Council. No one other than Mayor Villaraigosa himself was better positioned to turn words into action. Yet nothing happened. No new housing was built, no programs launched. Now, fifteen years later, Mayor Garcetti rarely goes a month without a new, equally grandiose plan.
The road to Hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions. Bring L.A. Home and San Francisco’s Ten Year Plan were nothing if not ambitious. The Chair of San Francisco’s Council, the consummate insider Angela Alioto, declared, “For the first time in the twenty years that I have been in public life, I feel the united excitement, the electric energy, the profound intelligence, and the strong will to end chronic homelessness in our great City.”
Likewise, L.A.’s blue ribbon commission said, “In the last twenty years, bold initiatives to end homelessness have come and gone.” Ironically their plan quickly joined that sad retinue, as the city’s approach to the issue devolved into a money grab by officials complete with allegations of impropriety, nepotism, and outright fraud (an excellent 2012 article in CityWatch by then-mayoral candidate and current president of L.A.’s Public Works Commission Kevin James highlighted some of the abuses).
Then again there’s good cause to question whether the reports themselves, and the individuals behind them, were serious. L.A.’s plan was replete with gauzy lingo that belied an underlying lack of focus, much less specific actionable steps. Indeed, much of it consisted of virtually incomprehensible bureaucrat speak: We must build, support and develop funding and legislative strategies for 50,000 new units. As a matter of urgency, we must create at least 11,500 units of housing targeting homeless families and individuals earning less than 30% of the area median income (AMI) and 15% of AMI, including 4,900 units of housing linked to services and 2,845 units made affordable through tenant-based deep subsidies. We cannot be complacent, however, as we need to develop an additional 38,500 units of housing targeting homeless families and individuals earning less than 30% and 15% of AMI, including increasing from 4,900 to 21,000 the number of units of housing linked to services and from 2,845 to 12,452 the number of units made affordable through deep tenant-based subsidies.
If you can translate that, please email us.
Moreover, consider that over a decade later, with none of the units proposed in Bring L.A. Home having been built, voters in the City of Los Angeles approved Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond measure to support 10,000 new units in 10 years. That works out to $120,000 each, compared to the 2008 Plan’s anticipated $165,000. Apparently, officials thought that in ten years construction costs in L.A. had dropped by 30%. Of course, Angelenos know now that the actual costs are averaging more than $500,000 per unit, with some projects potentially exceeding $700,000 per unit.
Worse, in October of last year Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin released a damning report that concluded, “Not a single bond-funded unit of homeless housing has opened since voters approved the bond measure three years ago.” His office followed up with an update this summr. And if the units end up costing on the low end of $500,000 each it would require $18 billion to house all of the city’s 36,000 homeless. That’s nearly twice the city’s total annual budget. To house all 59,000 homeless people in the county would cost nearly $30 billion.
Suffice it to say, these are not real numbers. They are no more real than the math found in Bring L.A. Home all those years ago. Meanwhile, according to San Francisco’s 2004 Plan there were an estimated 15,000 homeless people in the city by the bay that year. Last year there were at least 17,500. And the conditions in which homeless people exist statewide continue to deteriorate, in many places reaching downright post-apocalyptic scenes on a regular basis.
While the political classes in L.A. and San Francisco are the worst offenders, they are tragically far from alone:
In 2006 the City of Sacramento released a Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. The homeless population in that city has continued to increase, including a 20% spike in 2017 alone.
In 2006 Marin County issued a report called “The Next Decade: Marin County’s Ten Year Homeless Plan.” Nearly ten years later the Marin County Grand Jury released a report entitled “Homelessness in Marin —A Call for Leadership.” That report concluded that County-wide efforts were “unfocused and disorganized due to a lack of collaboration between the County, the cities, and the service organizations.” A subsequent 2018 “progress report” concluded, “This Grand Jury sees homelessness as a continuing and urgent problem in the County worthy of reconsideration” (Marin did report a drop in its official homeless population last year).
In 2006 Alameda County released a report called Everyone Home, which “outline[d] a reorientation of housing and service systems to end chronic homelessness within ten years and significantly reduce housing crises for these vulnerable populations in Alameda County over fifteen years.” Over the last three years Alameda has led the state in the rate of increase in its homeless population.
Numerous studies have concluded that California’s official homeless numbers, based on federally-mandated annual counts, are highly suspect. The true numbers are significantly higher. To cite one of myriad examples, a 2014 report from the National Center on Family Homelessness at the American Institutes for Research estimated that 526,708 children were homeless for any amount of time in California in 2013. One in four Californians live in Los Angeles County, suggesting that as many as 131,677 children experienced homelessness in L.A. that year, or more than three and a half times the total number of reported homeless that year.
As the cliche goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. While not strictly accurate it’s an excellent description of conditions in California. How many more chances will Californians give to the same failed leaders?
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Property owner captured video of St. Joseph Center staff dropping the woman and her belongings
On Monday afternoon the owner of The Wood Restaurant in Culver City filmed two staffers from the nonprofit St. Joseph Center appearing to drop off a wheelchair bound homeless woman and her belongings in his parking lot.
The lot is big enough for about 20 cars. It’s private property and the restaurant is closed temporarily due to the coronavirus economic shutdown, so no one else was around when owner Demetrios Mavromichalis happened to stop by (disclosure: Mr. Mavromichalis is a personal friend). As he started filming, one of the staffers called their manager, who offered to speak with him. He refused, not wanting to share a phone with a stranger in the coronavirus pandemic. He said that they remained in the parking lot for about an hour, mostly on their phones, then loaded the woman and her possessions back into the van and left.
Ironically, the parking lot is where Mr. Mavromichalis hosts food giveaways by Nourish L.A., a youth-driven grassroots organization that provides families in need with healthy, restaurant quality food. Every Sunday lines of cars stretch many blocks down Washington Boulevard. According to the program’s director they feed more than 1,000 people every week. The organization’s efforts recently were the subject of a New York Times feature.
On the video, when Mr. Mavromichalis asked the St. Joseph Center staffers why they were leaving the woman on his property, the female staffer can be heard saying, “We have offered shelter and everything to her but she declined it at the last minute. We tried to take her somewhere else and she’s just like ‘leave me here.’ She had a shelter to go to and she turned that all down. She literally declined it. Everything was set up [for her].”
The telephone number for the manager to whom the employees referred Mr. Mavromichalis has gone straight to voicemail for the last 48 hours, and she has not returned messages. However, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit provided the following statement:
[A]t no time was this client going to be left or just dropped off. I spoke to our outreach team Director, and the situation was that the client had been in a motel for over two months, and we needed to move her, but she refused to go to the new location at the last minute. It was communicated to her that we couldn’t continue to pay for that motel, but we could take her to a shelter. The woman became irate and asked to get out of the car. To deescalate the situation, our outreach team stopped the car and let her out as she requested. Since she was in a wheelchair, it was better to let her out somewhere safer than along the street or curb until she calmed down. When she refused to go along with the team, they called their manager to ask what they should do. They were told to bring her back to the motel, and the manager would try to work something out for her to stay longer. Our staff was able to secure another motel, and that is where she is now. We are continuing to work with her and hope to find her permanent housing with her voucher.
Dierdre Robinson, VP of Marketing & Communications, St. Joseph Center
On the video the woman did appear to be in emotional distress, though she claimed she didn’t turn down shelter. She said a motel voucher was available and the room was “wide open.” When Mr. Mavromichalis told her the staffer said she had turned down shelter she said “bulls**t.” Eventually she said she wanted to “get away from” them because they “weren’t doing the right thing.”
The situation, and the competing stories, raise more questions than they answer. Most obviously, if the St. Joseph’s staff were trying to deescalate things why did they also unload the woman’s belongings, including two bags they placed next to a dumpster? Why did they park the van – which did not have St. Joseph logos or other identifying markings – at the back of the large parking lot, and in the position they did?
In a subsequent email Ms. Robinson explained that St. Joseph Center has “limited funding for motels due to the cost so clients are only able to stay in motels a relatively short period of time.”
The nonprofit is funded by tens of millions from city and county sources, as well as foundations and high net worth individuals. Are they still stretched thin? How often are St. Joseph’s clients downgraded from motels to homeless shelters or the streets? And if staff were able to secure another motel on such short notice that same afternoon, why didn’t that happen in the first place?
The situation raises another issue: Starting about five years ago videos of ambulances dropping homeless patients on sidewalks and in camps prompted outrage throughout L.A. In 2018 Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation prohibiting hospitals from releasing homeless patients onto the streets. No such law applies to nonprofits.
To be sure, one of the central challenges of L.A.’s and California’s homeless crisis is that in all too many cases individuals are unwilling (or unable) to accept shelter. That’s a big part of the reason so many shelter beds go unused every night. A significant portion of the homeless population suffer from mental illness that makes it all but impossible for them to exercise sound judgment, or even free will. Many more are addicted to drugs or alcohol and are unable or unwilling to abide by rules inside. And some simply prefer life outside and have no interest in shelter or services.
A May 2018 investigation by KPCC radio determined, “Reviews conducted at 60 shelters funded by [Los Angeles County] last year found more than half — 33 — were not filling all of their beds. Overall, LAHSA-funded shelters had a 78 percent utilization rate, well below the 90 percent required in their contracts. Monitors also found that 25 of those facilities were failing to meet the minimum standards required by their contracts to get people off the streets for good.” The report added that in many cases the conditions of the shelters themselves are deterrents, citing “Rats, roaches, bedbugs, and mold.”
Still, it has long been clear that the city’s network of nonprofits is falling short despite generous funding from public entities, private foundations, and high net worth individuals. Their budgets balloon while the crisis gets ever worse.
Indeed, public records reveal that St. Joseph Center is swimming in cash. According to IRS Form 990 filings the organization received more than $130,000,000 in funding between 2010 and 2018. In that span its annual receipts increased from $7 million to more than $25 million and the CEO’s salary almost doubled, from $126,250 to $240,570. In comparison middle and lower class Americans saw their salaries increase by barely 13%, representing a net decrease when factored for inflation.
Its funding sources are diverse. In 2017 St. Joseph Center received more than $11.3 million in public funds from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) through Measure H. In 2018 it received nearly $10 million. Since 2005 St. Joseph Center also has received millions in funding from Culver City, often in the form of no-bid contracts. Last year the nonprofit received a $5 million grant from Jeff Bezos’s Day One Fund for its eleemosynary work.
These numbers are difficult to square with the spokeswoman’s statement that St. Joseph Center could no longer pay for the homeless woman’s motel room.
The nonprofit seems less generous with its rank and file: According to Glassdoor, case managers and regional coordinators make just $39,000 a year. About half the employee reviews are negative, referring to mismanagement, lack of transparency, and misappropriation of funds. An anonymous current employee wrote, “Employees are taken advantage of for their good nature and asked to work in unacceptable working conditions at offsite locations with no air conditioning, no break space, 1 toilet for all staff, and no parking.” Even many of the positive reviews complain of low pay, high case loads, and lack of support from management.
According to public records the public funds St. Joseph Center has received were for programs including “Homeless Prevention for Single Adults” and “Partnering with Cities to Expand Rapid Re-Housing.” The nonprofit has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the City of Los Angeles for efforts including “efforts to find permanent housing for homeless city residents.”
Yesterday, at least, it appeared St. Joseph Center did not meet those obligations.
Note: We contacted the woman, Shawna, and she gave permission for us to use her pictures. This story is developing. Check back for updates.If you have information related to the homeless woman and/or St. Joseph Center, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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There’s capitalism, crony capitalism, and as of 2020, COVID capitalism. Since the coronavirus crisis shut down the U.S. and global economies the world’s billionaires have seen their net worth increase by an incomprehensible (to mere mortals) $637 billion. That’s in barely six months. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos leads the pack with an estimated increase of nearly $50 billion. It would take the average American employee – who according to the Census Bureau makes $48,672 a year – more than 986,000 years to earn that kind of money (sliced another way, over the past six months Mr. Bezos has made $182,149 per minute). And there’s no letup in sight. According to many estimates he will become history’s first trillionaire well before 2030.
Jeff Bezos deserves to be a billionaire, a few times over. In Amazon he’s built one of the half dozen most successful and transformational companies in a generation. Millions of Americans of all stripes benefit from not just the company’s online retail platform but offerings like Amazon Prime, Amazon Home Video, Whole Foods, and the Washington Post. Much of the Internet itself depends on Amazon Web Services, used by other tech companies like Netflix, Adobe, Airbnb, and Lyft. Even rivals like Facebook and Apple are dependent on Amazon’s cloud computing services for some of their core retail offerings.
But in the COVID era Mr. Bezos is playing a rigged game. With the closure of large and small traditional retailers Americans, not to mention the rest of the world, have little choice but to purchase many necessities online. Unknowable thousands of those businesses won’t ever come back, making much of the shift effectively permanent. Arguably it amounts to the greatest transfer of wealth in human history, and it’s happening at a head spinning pace. Moreover, since Amazon had a two decade head start as the go-to online retailer it’s all but impossible for new online competitors to catch up, much less challenge the company’s dominance.
Mr. Bezos isn’t just playing on an uneven field: His competition have been forced to cede the contest entirely. He’s just running up the score.
Putting it bluntly, Jeff Bezos doesn’t deserve his COVID windfall. While some 50 million Americans have filed for unemployment he personally has benefited from what contract lawyers call an act of God. That $50 billion is not the result of competition and superior products and services. Amazon hasn’t come up with new ideas or innovations, it’s just kept on keeping on. Yet the company’s second quarter profits were double last year’s. That’s not supply and demand. That’s not even a free market anymore. It’s COVID capitalism. It doesn’t seem like much of a coincidence that Mr. Bezos has gained roughly $1,000 per unemployed American.
To be sure, captains of industry have long benefited, often handsomely, from historical moments that inflicted suffering on the masses. In World War II aerospace executives got rich in part making bombers and fighters that played a part in the deaths of millions. But at least no one ever doubted whose side they were on: The young men flying B-17s into Hell knew that Bill Boeing’s name on their yokes meant they had the best fighting chance American industry could produce. When those four thunderous Pratt & Whitney Hornet engines spooled up they knew every ounce of domestic ingenuity literally was at their fingertips.
In contrast Mr. Bezos is watching the zeros spool up in his bank account. He’s not at the forefront of public health efforts like the Gateses, nor establishing nonprofits and charities to help those most devastated by the pandemic and economic shutdown – the working poor, struggling middle class families, the small business owners who’ve been forced to shut down as he cleans up.
Jeff Bezos is the most conspicuous but not the only example of COVID capitalism. Mark Zuckerberg’s accumulation ($28.7 billion and counting) is in its own way more unseemly: He’s benefiting from countless millions of families who’ve been unable to celebrate birthdays, weddings, graduations, funerals, religious services, and other life events. People are spending hours more time on Facebook each day not because the platform has adapted and changed and offered something better, but because they have no choice. There’s an emotional component to Facebook that doesn’t exist with Amazon, yet as with online retail people don’t have alternatives right now. The same can be said of Eric Huang of Zoom (enjoying a relatively modest $7 billion so far), perhaps the luckiest billionaire of all in terms of timing. Meanwhile Elon Musk ($13.6 billion) is the most inexplicable: Even as the domestic auto industry craters into a historic slump from which it will take years to recover Tesla’s stock continues to reach new record highs.
Nor is it a matter of these companies being in the right place at the right time. In a very real sense circumstances (with a solid assist from governments) have made Amazon, Facebook, Zoom, and other tech giants the only places to be during these times.
The new billionaire class aren’t just watching their net worth increase like the odometer on the Ferrari in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: There’s an increasing recognition that they’re shoving it in people’s faces. As documented in a Vanity Fairarticle last week, they’re throwing lavish parties, snapping up real estate at historic rates, and even jetting from place to place to stay in areas where coronavirus numbers are lowest. Meanwhile, Joe and Jane America worry whether they can keep a roof over their families’ heads and prevent their children from falling behind educationally. It makes the Gilded Age look like the 1950s.
It is worth noting that there is another category of billionaires that soon will benefit from the pandemic: Institutional real estate investors who are eyeing the coming wave of foreclosures. The likes of Blackstone are positively salivating at the prospect of millions of homes going to auction in the coming months and years as individuals and families fall irrecoverably behind on their mortgages. They’ve already formed hydra headed LLCs to obscure their activities.
Today’s tech titans are household names because they built companies and in some cases created new technologies that benefit the masses. Of course, they didn’t do it out of the goodness of their hearts: As Adam Smith famously observed, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg are in their own way every bit as ruthless today as J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie were in their day.
As President Teddy Roosevelt demonstrated sometimes it is necessary for the greater good that the government, and the people, prove equally ruthless. It’s time for a billionaire COVID tax. To paraphrase former President Barack Obama, “They didn’t earn that.”
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