Presty the DJ for April 17

The number one British album today in 1965 was “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”:

Today in 1970, Johnny Cash performed at the White House, getting a request from its resident:

Continue reading “Presty the DJ for April 17”

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Tax cut lies and reality

Madeline Osburn:

Monday [was] the first Tax Day under the new Republican tax bill passed in December 2017, and the results are not what Democrats and their media apparatus predicted. Many Americans are discovering that they are not only alive and well, but indeed paying less taxes.

As Ben Casselman and Jim Tankersley pointed out in The New York Times, there is a disparity between what Americans thought they would be paying the IRS this year, and what they actually paid. This myth, “appears to flow from a sustained — and misleading — effort by liberal opponents of the law to brand it as a broad middle-class tax increase.”

What falsities did these liberal opponents tell the American people would happen pending the passing of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act? Here are a few of the most outrageous examples of fear-mongering.

1. 10,000 People Will Be Killed Every Year

Economist and former Treasury secretary Larry Summers wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that “the conclusion would follow that the tax bill would result in 10,000 extra deaths per year.” On CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” he explained why he thought the bill was “very dangerous.”

“When people lose health insurance, they’re less likely to get preventive care, they’re more likely to defer health care they need, and ultimately they’re more likely to die,” he said.

2. The Tax Bill Is ‘Akin To Rape’

Bruce Bartlett, a writer and former Treasury official, said the bill would not create a single job, that Republicans want the poor to pay more taxes to force them to work more, and that the bill is “really akin to rape.”

3. ‘Armageddon’ and the Worst Legislation Ever Considered By Congress

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who was minority leader at the time the bill was passed, said the tax reform bill was “the worst bill in the history of the United States Congress.”

When a reporter asked her later about her hyperbolic descriptions, she replied, “No, it is the end of the world. The debate over health care is life and death. This is Armageddon.”

4. Grad Students Will Have to Quit Doctorate Programs

When graduate students were told their tuition waivers for working as teaching assistants and researchers would become taxable, they calculated that their taxes would increase by 61 percent.

As she started to do the math, tears welled up.

‘I would have to drop out,’ she said. ‘If this tax bill passes, I can’t support anyone, I can’t even support myself.’

5. America Is Dead

At least, according to Kurt Eichenwald.

6. Republicans Want to Kick the Poor, Middle Class In the Face

Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell described the ways Republicans are using higher taxes to “plan to punish the poor and middle class.”

I used to think the Republican Party’s obsession with top-heavy tax cuts was about pleasing wealthy donors and maybe also fulfilling some misguided Randian fantasy. If the poor and middle class happened to be collateral damage, so be it.

But it’s starting to look like shafting the little guy has become a feature, not a bug, of the GOP’s budget-busting tax plan.

The left-leaning Tax Policy Center reported that 91 percent of middle-class taxpayers are getting a tax cut this year.

7. Most People Are Getting Bigger Paychecks. Here’s Why That’s Bad

Rick Newman at Yahoo Finance wrote about a looming “tax surprise” in 2018, without ever explaining why giving the government a smaller interest-free loan with every paycheck might be better than a fat refund.

The TCJA lowered the overall tax burden for about two-thirds of workers, leaving a majority with slightly larger paychecks. But a quirk could leave some taxpayers with an unhappy surprise as they file their 2018 returns this year, and find that the refund they were expecting is smaller than before. Some people accustomed to a refund could even end up owing money, instead.

8. New Yorkers Allege All Americans Will Suffer

The day before the tax bill was signed in December 2017, protesters staged a “die-in” on Wall Street, near the New York Stock Exchange. One protester laying on the ground held a sign in the shape of a gravestone that read, “RIP/tax scam helped the rich/not me.”

“If we don’t stop this, we, the young people, are not going to have a future,” the protester, Nova Felder, told City and State New York.

A number of New York community leaders participated in the protests, too. “All of us will suffer as a result of those who care more about corporations than they do about the people,” said New York City Public Advocate Letitia James.

9. An Endless, Global Recession

“We are very probably looking at a global recession, with no end in sight,” wrote New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. “I suppose we could get lucky somehow. But on economics, as on everything else, a terrible thing has just happened.”

More from Casselman and Tankersley:

Experts are divided on whether the tax law was a good idea. But there is little disagreement on this core point: Most people got a tax cut.

The Tax Policy Center estimates that 65 percent of people paid less under the law and that just 6 percent paid more. (The rest saw little change to their taxes.)

Other analyses reached similar conclusions. The Joint Committee on Taxation — Congress’s nonpartisan team of tax analysts — found that every income group would see a tax cut on average. So did the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a left-leaning think tank that was sharply critical of the law. In fact, that group went even further: In a December 2017 analysis, it found that every income group in every state would pay less on average under the law in 2019.

So far, tax season seems to be playing out more or less as the experts predicted. H&R Block, the tax-preparation giant, said last week that two-thirds of returning customers had paid less tax this year than last (excluding people who owed no tax in either year). Taxes were down, on average, in every state.

“The vast majority of people did get a tax cut,” said Nathan Rigney, an analyst at H&R Block’s Tax Institute. That’s been clear all along, he added, “just now we have real data to back that up.” …

The tax savings were relatively small for many families, however. The middle fifth of earners got about a $780 tax cut last year on average, according to the Tax Policy Center.

Most Americans would probably welcome a $780 windfall. But in contrast to 2001, when President George W. Bush’s Treasury Department mailed rebate checks to taxpayers, last year’s tax cuts showed up mostly in the form of lower withholding from workers’ paychecks. A few extra dollars in a biweekly paycheck proved easy to miss. Moreover, as taxpayers filed their returns, many found they were due smaller refunds than in the past, which may have further skewed perceptions of the law.

“Most people didn’t recognize the increase in take-home pay, or at least didn’t attribute it to the tax cut,” Mr. Rigney said. Some of them might realize it now that they’re filing their taxes, he said, but “it’s little consolation to discover that you received a couple thousand dollars during the year but you already spent it.”

High earners did far better under the law. The top 20 percent of earners received more than 60 percent of the total tax savings, according to the Tax Policy Center; the top 1 percent received nearly 17 percent of the total benefit, and got an average tax cut of more than $30,000. And that’s not even factoring in the law’s huge cut to corporate taxes, which disproportionately benefit the wealthy households that own the most stock.

Surveys consistently show that what bothers Americans most about the tax system is not that they pay too much but that they think corporations and the wealthy pay too little, said Vanessa Williamson, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution who studies public attitudes toward taxation. The tax law only sharpened those concerns.

Envy is a sin. And if that’s how most Americans feel, most Americans are wrong.

John Phelan adds:

Data from the Tax Foundation shows just how ‘progressive’ the system is. In 2016, the top 10% of income earners earned 46.6% of all income in the U.S. and paid 69.5% of the total income tax received by the federal government. The top 1% of income earners earned 19.7% of all income in the U.S. and paid 37.3% of the total income tax. In other words, the top 10% of income earners pay, as a percent of total taxes, 50% more than what they earn. The top 1% pay, as a percent of total taxes, twice what they earn as a percentage of total income. When people say that the rich should pay their ‘fair share’, how much more disproportionate those people want these numbers to be?

‘The rich’ generally work for their money

Ok, but the predictable response to this graph is that the rich don’t make most of their money off income but instead off capital gains and other sources which are taxed at much lower rates.

This was one response I saw to this data. It it wrong. As I wrote last week, in a recent paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research titled ‘Capitalists in the Twenty-First Century’, economists Matthew Smith, Danny Yagan, Owen M. Zidar, and Eric Zwick ask the question “Are the richest Americans idle rich—who derive most of their income from their non-human capital—or are they entrepreneurs and other working rich—who derive most of their income from their human capital?”

After examining the data on how the top income earners make their money, their answer is that,

Consistent with the labor income view…top earners are predominantly working rich rather than idle rich, and that the majority of top income accrues to the human capital of these wage earners and entrepreneurs.

It isn’t popular to stick up for ‘the rich’ these days. But the data shows that, generally, they work for their money. It also hows that they pay a disproportionate share of income tax. As a consequence, a tax cut is going to ‘disproportionately’ benefit ‘the rich’; they pay a ‘disproportionate’ share of the taxes.

Gov. Empty Suit

Dan O’Donnell:

In less than a week, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers will mark his hundredth day in office with far less fanfare than most heads of state. Since the famous First Hundred days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the milestone has been something of a media obsession. What signature legislation can a new president get through Congress? What policy initiatives can the new governor spearhead?

Devoid of any actual achievement during his first hundred days, Evers has instead settled for giving the appearance of diligence while doing absolutely nothing substantive.

In Governor Walker’s first hundred days, he stared down an angry mob to pass collective bargaining reforms that brought Wisconsin back from the brink of financial ruin and set the stage for the economic boom that continues to this day.

In Governor Evers’ first hundred days, he replaced a painting.

The highly publicized move to return “Wishes in the Wind” to the Governor’s Mansion serves as a perfect metaphor for the ultimately meaningless virtue signaling of the Evers Administration thus far. Devoid of any actual achievement during his first hundred days, Evers has instead settled for giving the appearance of diligence while doing absolutely nothing substantive.

Consider his very first executive actions, signed on the day of his inauguration. The first was to “recognize the valuable contributions of state employees, promote positive morale, and foster a collaborative work environment.”

How, exactly? That wasn’t Evers’ concern. His action merely let state employees know that he valued them. Unstated was the implied belief that they hadn’t been under the prior administration. Still, Evers’ action didn’t actually do anything; it only gave the appearance that he cares more than Scott Walker did.

A second order, signed the same day, required state agencies to “develop and implement policies preventing discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.”

This sounds noble enough, but such discrimination is already illegal under the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act. Evers’ executive action essentially amounts to a request that state agencies enact policies to…obey the law.

A month later, Evers ordered 23 “Open for Business” placards taken down from the “Welcome to Wisconsin” signs on the state’s borders and replaced them with boards reading “Tony Evers, Governor.”

Apparently anticipating questions about the wastefulness of this move, Evers’ Department of Administration assured taxpayers that “the old signs would be cut in half with no material wasted.”

Fittingly, they were turned into “Detour” signs since the move served no other purpose than to signal a detour from the Walker Administration.

Evers, though, hasn’t been content to merely virtue signal his opposition to Walker-era slogans; he also used his office to symbolically lash out at the Trump Administration. Just two weeks after removing the “Open for Business” signs, Evers signed an executive order pulling Wisconsin’s National Guard troops from America’s southern border.

“There is simply not ample evidence to support the president’s contention of a national security crisis at our southwestern border,” he tweeted.

Nothing, however, could have possibly topped the pomp and circumstance with which Evers on Friday announced that he was…redecorating his living room.

The move had virtually no impact on President Trump’s mission at the southern border, as the 112 Wisconsin Guard members were simply replaced with the 3,750 active-duty troops the Pentagon had deployed in early February, but that didn’t matter: Evers had told Trump, hadn’t he?

A month later, just hours after Dane County Circuit Court Judge Richard Niess inexplicably ruled that the Wisconsin Legislature’s December extraordinary session was unconstitutional, Evers directed Attorney General Josh Kaul to file a motion allowing Wisconsin to withdraw from a federal lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act.

In the few days between Judge Niess’ laughably incorrect ruling and the Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision putting it on hold, Evers could have done anything. Instead, he did the one thing that had no practical effect whatsoever. Nearly 20 other states remain as plaintiffs in the case, which continues to make its way through the federal court system with or without Wisconsin’s involvement.

Again, though, Evers simply wanted to make a statement even if his action had no actual impact. This is the very definition of virtue signaling.

Nothing, however, could have possibly topped the pomp and circumstance with which Evers on Friday announced that he was…redecorating his living room.

Gone was the portrait of Old Abe—a Civil War painting put up as part of Walker’s 2011 commemoration the war’s 150th anniversary—and returned was a hyper-realistic picture of modern-day Milwaukee children playing with bubbles.

“Looking into their eyes should remind us of the responsibility we all share to work together to ensure a bright future for all kids in Wisconsin,” Evers said.

How exactly is the Governor working to ensure such a future? By holding a press conference to signal to Wisconsin that he cares more than Scott Walker ever did. You see, Walker even got rid of that painting so he wouldn’t have to look in those kids’ eyes. Well Evers is looking! See that, everybody? Evers is looking! Look at him looking and caring!

“Look-at-me” grandstanding is the last refuge of the ineffectual politician; a desperate attempt to pave the road to re-election with good intentions.  With his shameless virtue signaling, Evers is signaling nothing except his own ineptitude.

He is incapable of using sheer force of will and hard work to ram through legislation over the objections of a hostile legislature. He is incapable of using the power of persuasion to reach a compromise. He is incapable of using charm and charisma to convince the people of Wisconsin of the wisdom of his agenda.

He seems to be capable only of telling Wisconsin how good and virtuous he is—so much more so than his predecessor and his political opponents.

That isn’t public policy, it’s a Facebook post. And just like a Facebook post, the Evers agenda—such as it is—has been surprisingly easy to see, give a quick eyeroll, and ignore.

Maybe that’s why, Benjamin Yount observes …

Voters across Wisconsin are apparently souring on Governor Tony Evers.

The latest Marquette Law School Poll shows the governor’s disapproval rating jumped 15 percent since January.

Back then, 22 percent of people didn’t like the job that the governor was doing. This month, the poll said, 37 percent disapprove.

To be fair, Evers’ approval rating jumped as well. In January, 39 percent of people in Wisconsin approved of the governor. This month, the poll said, 47 percent approve.

The shift comes from more voters coming to a conclusion about Governor Evers.

In January, 38 percent of people didn’t have an opinion of the governor. This month, that number shrank to just 15 percent of people who don’t have an opinion.

In other words, most of the people who made up their minds about have decided that they don’t like the new governor.

Why? Because he is doing what he promised to do. He’s going to tax and spend.

It’s wonderful that the voters in Wisconsin are waking up. But wouldn’t it have been nice had people woken-up last November.

Presty the DJ for April 16

The number one British single today in 1969:

Today in 1969, MC5 demonstrated how not to protest a department store’s failure to sell your albums: Take out an Ann Arbor newspaper ad that says “F— Hudsons” (without the dashes).

Not only did Hudsons not change its mind, Elektra Records dropped MC5.

Detective Kenneth Hutchinson of a California police department had the number one single today in 1977:

Continue reading “Presty the DJ for April 16”

On Tax Day

Dan Mitchell:

There are some fortunate people (in the Cayman Islands, BermudaMonacoVanuatuAntigua and Barbuda, and a few other places) who don’t have to pay income taxes.

The United States used to be in that lucky club. The income tax did not become a permanent blight upon the nation until 1913 (there was a temporary income tax during the Civil War and an attempted income tax in 1894 – ruled unconstitutional in 1895).

Indeed, this odious tax is a relatively new invention for the entire world. If my memory is correct, the first income tax was a temporary measure imposed by the United Kingdom to finance the fight against Napoleon. And the U.K. also was the first country to impose a permanent income tax (ironically, to help offset lower taxes on international trade).

In every case, politicians followed the same script. Income taxes originally were supposed to have low rates and only apply to the rich.

But it was simply a matter of time before small taxes on the wealthy became punitive taxes on everybody.

Since today is tax filing today for Americans, let’s take the opportunity to highlight two specific unfortunate consequences of the income tax.

First, it enabled the modern welfare state. You can see from the chart that the explosion of redistribution spending only occurred after politicians obtained a new source of revenue (a problem that was exacerbated in Europe when politicians adopted value-added taxes and were able to further increase the burden of government spending).

Needless to say, this is a reason to oppose an energy tax, a wealth tax, or a financial transactions tax. Giving politicians a new source of revenue is like giving alcoholics the keys to a liquor store.

Second, the income tax enabled costly economic discrimination. Prior to income taxes, governments largely relied on trade taxes and excise taxes, and those levies did not create many opportunities for mischief.

An income tax, by contrast, allows the government to impose all sorts of special penalties – either with discriminatory tax rates or with extra layers of tax on saving and investment – on people who generate a lot of economic output.

And it’s worth mentioning that the income tax also allows politicians to create all sorts of special credits, exemptions, deduction, exclusion, and other preferences (about 75,000 pages of them) for politically well-connected interest groups.

These penalties and preferences are both morally troubling (rampant cronyism) and economically damaging (back-door methods of central planning).

Let’s wrap up today’s column with this helpful reminder that the income tax is basically a penalty on productive behavior.

P.S. Politicians can play games with other revenue sources (i.e., special VAT rates or differential tariff burdens), but the income tax stands apart because it is capable of generating large amounts of revenue while simultaneously giving politicians considerable ability to pick winners and losers.

The income tax was instituted in Wisconsin to reduce the property tax. Then the sales tax was instituted to reduce the property tax. The state sales tax is two-thirds larger than when originally instituted, and yet property taxes are still considered too high, but then again so are our other taxes in this overtaxed state.

Jeffre Tucker adds:

The income tax is enshrined into law but it is an idea that stands in total contradiction to the driving force behind the American Revolution and the idea of freedom itself. We desperately need a serious national movement to get rid of it – not reform it, not replace it, not flatten it or refocus its sting from this group to that. It just needs to go.

The great essayist Frank Chodorov once described the income tax as the root of all evil. His target was not the tax itself, but the principle behind it. Since its implementation in 1913, he wrote, “The government says to the citizen: ‘Your earnings are not exclusively your own; we have a claim on them, and our claim precedes yours; we will allow you to keep some of it, because we recognize your need, not your right; but whatever we grant you for yourself is for us to decide.”

He really does have a point. That’s evil. When Congress ratified the 16th Amendment on Feb. 3, 1913, there was a sense in which all private income in the U.S. was nationalized. What was not taxed from then on was a favor granted unto us, and continues to be so.

This is implied in the text of the amendment itself: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.”

Where are the limits? There weren’t any. There was some discussion about putting a limit on the tax, but it seemed unnecessary. Only 1% of the income earners would end up paying about 1% to the government. Everyone else was initially untouched. Who really cares that the rich have to pay a bit more, right? They can afford it.

This perspective totally misunderstands the true nature of government, which always wants more money and more power and will stop at nothing to get both. The 16th Amendment was more than a modern additive to an antique document. It was a new philosophy of the fiscal life of the entire country.

Today, the ruling elite no longer bothers with things like amendments. But back in the day, it was different. The amendment was made necessary because of previous court decisions that stated what was once considered a bottom-line presumption of the free society: Government cannot tax personal property. What you make is your own. You get to keep the product of your labors. Government can tax sales, perhaps, or raise money through tariffs on goods coming in and out of the country. But your bank account is off-limits.

The amendment changed that idea. In the beginning, it applied to very few people. This was one reason it passed. It was pitched as a replacement tax, not a new money raiser. After all the havoc caused by the divisive tariffs of the 19th century, this sounded like a great deal to many people, particularly Southerners and Westerners fed up with paying such high prices for manufactured goods while seeing their trading relations with foreign consumers disrupted.

People who supported it – and they were not so much the left but the right-wing populists of the time – imagined that the tax would hit the robber baron class of industrialists in the North. And that it did. Their fortunes began to dwindle, and their confidence in their ability to amass and retain intergenerational fortunes began to wane.

We all know the stories of how the grandchildren of the Gilded Age tycoons squandered their family heritage in the 1920s and failed to carry on the tradition. Well, it is hardly surprising. The government put a timetable and limit on accumulation. Private families and individuals would no longer be permitted to exist except in subjugation to the taxing state. The kids left their private estates to live in the cities, put off marriage, stopped bothering with all that hearth and home stuff. Time horizons shortened, and the Jazz Age began.

Class warfare was part of the deal from the beginning. The income tax turned the social fabric of the country into a giant lifetime boat, with everyone arguing about who had to be thrown overboard so that others might live.

The demon in the beginning was the rich. That remained true until the 1930s, when FDR changed the deal. Suddenly, the income would be collected, but taxed in a different way. It would be taken from everyone, but a portion would be given back late in life as a permanent income stream. Thus was the payroll tax born. This tax today is far more significant than the income tax.

The class warfare unleashed all those years ago continues today. One side wants to tax the rich. The other side finds it appalling that the percentage of people who pay no income tax has risen from 30% to nearly 50%. Now we see the appalling spectacle of Republicans regarding this as a disgrace that must change. They have joined the political classes that seek advancement by hurting people.

It’s extremely strange that the payroll tax is rarely considered in this debate. The poor, the middle class and the rich are all being hammered by payroll taxes that fund failed programs that provide no security and few benefits at all.

It’s impossible to take seriously the claims that the income tax doesn’t harm wealth creation. When Congress wants to discourage something – smoking, imports, selling stocks or whatever – they know what to do: Tax it. Tax income, and on the margin, you discourage people from earning it.

Tax debates are always about “reform” – which always means a slight shift in who pays what, with an eye to raising ever more money for the government. A far better solution would be to forget the whole thing and return to the original idea of a free society: You get to keep what you earn or inherit. That means nothing short of abolishing the great mistake of 1913.

Forget the flat tax. The only just solution is no tax on incomes ever.

But let’s say that one day we actually become safe from the income tax collectors and something like blessed peace arrives. There is still another problem that emerged in 1913. Congress created the Federal Reserve, which eventually developed the power to create all the money that government would ever need, even without taxing.

For the practical running of the affairs of the state, the Fed is far worse than the income tax. It creates the more-insidious tax because it is so sneaky. In a strange way, it has made all the debates about taxation superfluous. Denying the government revenue does nothing to curb its appetites for our liberties and property. The Fed has managed to make it impossible to starve the beast.

Chodorov was correct about the evil of the income tax. Its passage signaled the beginning of a century of despotism. Our property is no longer safe. Our income is not our own. We are legally obligated to turn over whatever our masters say we owe them. You can fudge this point: None of this is compatible with the old liberal idea of freedom.

You doubt it? Listen to Thomas Jefferson from his inaugural address of 1801. What he said then remains true today:”…what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one more thing, fellow citizens a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”

Don’t dislocate your shoulder from patting yourself on the back

Roy Peter Clark:

The disappearance of a pregnant woman out West became national news. What possibly could have happened to her? Her husband expressed his grief and anxiety in front of a national TV audience. I turned to my wife next to me on the couch. “He did it,” I said. And so he did.

Between cop shows and real-life crime stories, we all recognize the trope: The first suspect is the partner or spouse, often the one who reports the crime.

Detectives are trained to sniff out the truth. That’s why the slang for them is bloodhounds — because they “track down” the killer. The metaphor is apt.

Science writer Marc McCutcheon notes that “The bloodhound’s epithelial membrane, or ‘sniffing organism’ is 50 times larger and thousands of times more sensitive than a human’s. The trace of sweat that seeps through your shoes and is left in your footprints … is a million times more powerful than the bloodhound needs to track you down.”

Let’s hear it for the nose. Journalists have all kinds of noses, or maybe just one nose, but a nose with a third nostril.

Among professionals, journalists are the dogs. They are guide dogs and watchdogs, trackers and pointers, but never lap dogs. They stand guard in the public’s yard. When danger, or even uncertainty, approaches, they bark. It’s a form of news telling. Hey, pay attention! Look at this! This guy doesn’t smell right!

Reporters as dogs.

My wife and I are again on the couch. A story out of Chicago of a young celebrity, Jussie Smollett, black, gay, the victim of a hate crime. At 2 a.m. on a frigid Chicago street, he is assaulted by two vicious thugs who claim allegiance to President Donald Trump, pour some liquid over him, and place a noose over his neck.

“This doesn’t smell right,” I said. She gave me a disgusted “you doubt everything” look.

I have spent 40 years listening to journalists and learning their lingo, their slogans, their metaphors. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” That’s an old one. But at one time it may have been even more cynical. Melvin Mencher, an influential and curmudgeonly teacher at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, offered this version: “If your mother calls you Sonny, check it out.”

In other words, not only may your dear mother not love you, but how can you be sure that she is your real mother at all?

The distinction that most matters is the one between skepticism and cynicism. The practical skeptic doubts what he knows. His concern is about knowledge. The skeptical editor asks: “How do we know that?” Or “How can we know that?” The cynical editor has doubts about the ability of humans to act with good will. Her concern is about morality. That editor assumes the worst about people in general, especially those being covered.

“I better check that out,” comes from the skeptic. “They all lie, all the time,” comes from the cynic, a word, by the way, that comes from the Greek meaning “dog.”

Cover politics for any length of time and you will learn that, indeed, they all lie, all the time. Cover police and courts for any length of time and you will learn that, indeed, most of them lie, most of the time. However cynical you are about politics, you’re not cynical enough. Abyone who has something to gain by lying will.

I polled my Facebook friends — mostly the journalists among them — to get their sense of what it means when “something doesn’t pass the smell test.” How did journalists come to grow a third nostril?

Here are some of their ideas:

  • Veteran editor Walker Lundy wrote, “I always used the Two-Minute Mile Rule. It’s impossible for a human to run a two-minute mile. If you come across a story that sounds impossible, it probably is.”
  • Adam Hardy wrote: “If something doesn’t pass the smell test for a journalist, I think that’s shorthand for ‘More reporting is needed.’”
  • Dean Miller riffed on that strategy: “If too good to be true, too starkly good guy/bad guy, more reporting is needed.”
  • Tamara Lush wrote, “If you’ve covered crime long enough, you come to notice patterns. In motives, how events unfold, even how perpetrators/witnesses/victims tell stories. When things don’t fit those patterns, the intuition kicks in. That’s not to say a reporter shouldn’t pursue the story, but it’s one of the caution lights.”

Every veteran journalist I have ever met could tell me a story about being fooled or misled by sources. As a result of those experiences, reporters learn to be cautious with the statements of public figures, but sometimes the source seems so reliable that fabrications, falsehoods and distortions sneak through.

When editors intervene, they are looking for holes in stories, gaps of important information. At times, an editor will smell something in the text that is a little off and requires verification. In a collaborative spirit, the editor prosecutes the story, a kind of journalistic devil’s advocate. We love this story and want it to be true, and because we want it so much, we owe it to everyone to check it out, down to the last factoid.

Andrew Meacham, an expert practitioner of feature obituaries, shared this classic case on Facebook:

As an obit writer on a daily deadline, I was delighted to learn of a recently deceased physician who only did house calls. How quaint! Usually I checked backgrounds on potential subjects before investing a lot of time. But because he was a doctor, somehow that didn’t strike me as something to do immediately.

For me the “something isn’t right” element was physical but not olfactory. More like a nausea you try to deny or ignore until it’s just about time. In this story it was the too-pat responses from the widow about why he gave up his clinic to treat elderly shut-ins. He just enjoyed it more! He found it fulfilling. No anecdotes about that decision, maybe something he said about why he liked house calls better. It felt like a false bottom.

Four hours into my reporting I started searching his name, and quickly learned that four female patients had accused him of improver behavior. It was the state’s Board of Medicine that said he could no longer work out of an office, not some nostalgic desire to return to small-town America of the 1950s. We killed the story.

In summary, here are things I have learned about the smell test:

  1. Think of your nose as an early-warning detector. If you smelled something unusual in your house, you would get up off the couch and check it out.
  2. In the process of getting a story, more reporting is the antidote to many poisons.
  3. Both writers and editors must be willing to “prosecute” stories, especially the ones we most want to believe.
  4. A good question reporters can ask themselves: “How do I know this?” A good question for editors to ask reporters: “How do we know this?”
  5. If “everyone” believes something, it is still worth checking out. If that thing turns out to be wrong, that will make its own important story.
  6. You will not become a better reporter by assuming that everyone is lying to you. That makes you a cynic. Double-checking the assertions even of trusted sources makes you a dutiful, practical skeptic.
  7. The best way for an inexperienced reporter to develop a third nostril is to hang around with reporters who have one. Follow the work of such reporters and ask them how they sniffed out the evidence.
  8. All of these are versions of the same sensibility: “This doesn’t smell right.” “This doesn’t feel right.” “Why does my gut hurt?” “Where’s my B.S. detector?” “My spidey-sense is tingling.”
  9. You are not born with a third nostril; you grow one. In other words, this alert response is not based on instinct, which, technically, you are born with. These responses are learned, which is why more experienced journalists recognize and trust them.
  10. Your nose is more powerful than you think.

This last point is confirmed by science writer Marc McCutcheon in the book “The Compass in Your Nose”:

All humans have a trace amount of iron in their noses, a rudimentary compass found in the ethmoid bone (between the eyes) to help in directional finding relative to the earth’s magnetic field.

Studies show that many people have the ability to use these magnetic deposits to orient themselves — even when blindfolded and removed from such external clues as sunlight — to within a few degrees of the North Pole, exactly as a compass does.

And, for the record, if your mother says she loves you, you should probably say “I love you too, Mom,” but don’t be surprised or offended if she checks it out.

Well, aren’t we full of self-regard. Care to guess how much real investigative reporting most reporters do in your careers? Answer: None. We might like to tell ourselves we investigate as part of our jobs, but the fact is that most of us lack the time and resources to dig very far into stories.

How much investigative reporting do you think political reporters did during the Obama administration? Even worse, how much investigative reporting took place during the Clinton administration? (Notice any investigative reporting taking place in Wisconsin about the current governor, in stark contrast to his predecessor?) Similar to the way that dissent becomes patriotic during Republican presidential administrations, investigative reporting becomes cool again once the occupant of the White House has an R after his name.

Until I read this I had no idea who Clark was, or is. Maybe it’s unfair, but I have a hard time believing Clark has ever met a reporter from a real newspaper — that is, a newspaper where the staff isn’t angling for an appearance on the Sunday morning TV talk shows in order to further their careers. In other words, the veracity of this opinion doesn’t pass the smell test, since discerning readers can count the number of times big-time media either screws up something or fails to report what it should report. Bloviating such as this is a big reason the media is in poor regard in the eyes of the public, and getting worse by the day.

 

Presty the DJ for April 14

A former boss of mine was a huge fan of the Rolling Stones. His wife was a huge fan of the Beatles. The two bands crossed paths today in 1963 at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, England.

The number one British single today in 1966:

Today in 1971, the Illinois Crime Commission released its list of “drug-oriented records” …

You’d think given the culture of corruption in Illinois that the commission would have better and more local priorities. On the other hand, the commission probably was made up of third and fourth cousins twice removed of Richard Daley and other Flatland politicians, so, whatever, man.

Continue reading “Presty the DJ for April 14”

50 years ago on an NBC station near you

Readers know that I have bemoaned the lack of quality movie and TV depiction of journalists.

It turns out that 50 TV seasons ago, there was a quality depiction of journalists, though realism, as with most fictional entertainments, was not its forte.

Michael Callahan explains:

Fifty years ago, TV had mostly one flavor, and it was vanilla. In fall 1968, the airwaves were full of blandly loopy family-friendly fare like The Andy Griffith ShowGomer Pyle and Petticoat Junction. But on Friday nights on NBC, slipped between a Bonanza-clone Western called The High Chaparral and the troubled third season of Star Trek, there was an unusual little series that, even more than Gene Roddenberry’s show, seemed to be beamed in from the future.

The Name of the Game was a 90-minute cable-style adult drama that came on the air decades before anybody had heard of cable TV. Centered on the glamorous Howard Publications magazine empire and the adventures of its various writers and editors — played by Tony Franciosa, Gene Barry and Robert Stack, with Susan Saint James as their frequently kidnapped secretary — it drilled down into the inner workings of a media company a half-century before HBO got around to doing it with Succession. With a Game of Thrones-size budget ($400,000 an episode, the largest of its day) and a roster of soon-to-be-famous behind-the-camera talent — including a just-out-of-college story editor named Steven Bochco and a 23-year-old neophyte director named Steven Spielberg, along with directors Marvin Chomsky (cousin of Noam) and Leo Penn (father of Sean) — it opened up a world of glamour and luxury that TV mostly wouldn’t explore until Dallas and Dynasty. Even the name of the magazine the characters worked for was prescient: It was called People, six years before Time Inc. launched the real publication (“The dumbest title I have ever heard of,” cracked Fanciosa when he read the script).

“It was flat-out entertaining melodrama,” says Sid Sheinberg, then the maverick Universal exec overseeing the show (he would later become the studio’s president). “I actually looked forward to it every week. I would go home and sit on the floor and watch it every Friday night.”

As it happened, though, The Name of the Game was as melodramatic offscreen as it was on-. And after a tumultuous three-year run, the show exploded in a spectacular flameout during an episode shot in, of all places, Las Vegas.

The series’ three leading men rarely overlapped on one another’s episodes; in fact, Stack and Franciosa never appeared on the other’s at all. As Jeff Dillon, Franciosa was a lady-killing rulebreaker who’d grown up in East Harlem, spoke fluent Italian and, when he wasn’t flaunting a breezy insouciance, surfed and drank vermouth cassis.

Universal cast Gene Barry as imperious publisher Glenn Howard, a World War II veteran whose position atop his hard-built empire was epitomized by a sumptuous office with a private elevator and a Roman bath.

Robert Stack, by then famous for his portrayal of Eliot Ness on The Untouchables, channeled that same stentorian sobriety into Dan Farrell, the senior editor of Crime magazine and a former FBI agent whose wife had been murdered when a meeting with an informant went horribly wrong.

Tying the trio together was Saint James’ Peggy, a husky-voiced Seven Sisters-educated research assistant who typed 60 words a minute.

Never a huge hit, The Name of the Game failed to rank among the top 30 programs in any season. But its neoteric story arcs, groovy opening credits graphics and space-age bossa nova theme song (by Dave Grusin) helped NBC break out as the network of bold, innovative and comparatively highbrow programming. Its leading characters drove snazzy convertibles (Stack’s even had a car phone), bribed sources and upended the primrose publishing world of 1959’s The Best of Everything, the soapy tale of career girls taking Manhattan, turning it into a muscular boys’ club overflowing with cocktails, intrigue and penthouse sex. “Universal had sold NBC on the concept that Name of the Game was not going to be television, it was going to be movies. It was a pretty big sales job,” says Dean Hargrove, who produced Barry’s episodes. “And when it came down to it, it was pretty high-gloss television.”

The segments quickly took on each star’s personality. Stack’s law-and-order stories tended to stagger under the weight of his bellicose speeches. “Candidly, I thought Bob Stack’s episodes were the dullest of the three,” the late Bochco, who served as Stack’s story editor for two seasons, recalled, “because it was the dullest premise.” Adds Ed Asner, who appeared on the show, “He was not impressive as an actor at all. He was too stiff.”

Barry’s episodes tilted to the cerebral, and pivoted on international subterfuge and the misdeeds of the powerful. But the plots often took second billing to the star’s innumerable costume changes. “Gene was very interested in his wardrobe — perhaps more interested in it than he was in the scripts,” says Hargrove with a laugh. Bochco concurred, “What everybody used to say was, ‘If Gene has a problem, just get him a new blazer.’”

It was Franciosa’s character, prowling like a jungle cat amid a rogues’ gallery of loonies and wicked women, who gave The Name of the Game its snap, crackle and style. “[His shows] were more entertaining, more fun,” says Peter Saphier, a production coordinator who would later co-produce Al Pacino’s 1983 remake of Scarface. “There was more of a theatricality about them that played into what we were trying to do with the series.”

The mood on the three actors’ sets vacillated just as wildly. Stack, who reveled in his film-star bearing, showed up prepared and on time and played poker during breaks. He had a disarmingly wry wit but was slightly aloof and eminently unknowable. “I would look into his face,” says Ben Murphy, who played reporter Joe Sample, part of a trio of square-jawed, rheumy-eyed pretty boys brought aboard to inject some beefcake into the Stack and Barry sequences. “As an actor you do that, play off of someone’s expressions, emotions. And I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘This guy is not going to give me anything to work with.’”

The vibe on the Barry set was far more rococo, as if the star were appearing on Masterpiece Theatre. Saint James was instructed not to speak to him off camera; Dick Blair, Barry’s makeup artist, recalls the star regaling him about one episode filmed in London. “’Oh, they were so wonderful to me,’” Barry told him. “’They met me in a Rolls Royce — and the car had my initials on the license plates!’” Blair howls at the memory. “That was because [the letters] stood for ‘Great Britain.”

“I think he’d had so much smoke blown up his ass by this time he thought he was a demigod,” adds Cliff Potts, who played reporter Andy Hill. During one taping, Barry remarked to him, “I have a great idea: I think you should call me ‘Chief.’” Says Potts, “I think he meant on the show, but I wasn’t sure.”

By contrast, the Franciosa set was a roller coaster that rose and fell on its star’s notorious temper. He was forever micromanaging the props, lighting and camera angles. He occasionally disappeared for long stretches. He struggled to memorize lines. And he burned through producers. One of them, Leslie Stevens, told TV Guide, “Tony likes to be able to change the script. He likes to come in a half-hour late. He comes in knowing the lines but not ‘feeling’ it right. He is dedicated to The Tony Franciosa Performance. It is to his credit, but the physical drain leads to psychosomatic complaints.”

“To get the producers of the Tony Franciosa episodes, you’d need a group photograph,” says Hargrove. “He didn’t get along with very many people.”

At one point, Saint James approached Hargrove. “I was talking to Tony,” she said. “He saw one of [Barry’s] episodes and said, ‘Can we get him to come in and produce the show?’”

Hargrove went cold. “Whatever you do,” he told her, “tell him, ‘No.’”

There was a method to the Franciosa madness. His episodes were the highest rated and, by far, the best written and acted of the series. “It wasn’t just a job to Tony,” says Carla Borelli, who guest-starred a few times. “It was art.”

Despite the offscreen histrionics, The Name of the Game became appointment television for the younger, affluent demographic that advertisers craved. In its second season, it was nominated for an Emmy for best drama.

And then Tony Franciosa went to Vegas.

The episode was titled “I Love You, Billy Baker.” It revolved around a soul singer secretly tortured by his culpability in the death of a young woman years earlier. Planned as a 10-day shoot at Caesars Palace in summer 1970, it was a spectacle with a particularly dazzling array of guest stars, even by Name of the Game standards: Peter Lawford, Ray Charles, Redd Foxx, Ike and Tina Turner — with Xavier Cugat and Charo to boot. Billy Baker was played by none other than Sammy Davis Jr., wearing an odd Julius Caesar wig and enough groovy fringe to costume a Western.

Franciosa had only completed one episode of season three, and a lot was riding on the high-cost Vegas excursion. The executives in Universal’s notorious Black Tower, located on the studio’s sprawling lot smack in the middle of Hollywood, were nervous. They had reason to be.

For years, Franciosa’s mood swings and fickle behavior had rattled a string of publicists. There were volatile marriages to Shelley Winters and Judy Kanter, the daughter of Paramount Pictures CEO Barney Balaban. There was the time Franciosa belted an L.A. news photographer. And, once the show was in full swing, there was an incident in which Franciosa chased producer Dick Irving around the set with a two-by-four. During one scene, Franciosa deliberately kept darting into the path of guest star Darren McGavin and, after several frustrating takes, McGavin finally knocked Franciosa out of the way. “We used the shot,” Sid Sheinberg says dryly.

On another occasion, Franciosa threw a tantrum and stalked back to his trailer, phoning the unit manager to say he wouldn’t come out until he saw his psychiatrist. The doctor arrived and disappeared into Franciosa’s dressing room, finally emerging to announce the star would return to work after lunch. Perplexed, the unit manager asked what the problem was.

“His problem?” the psychiatrist asked. “He’s crazy, that’s what his problem is.”

For Norman Lloyd, the stage and film actor who produced four Franciosa episodes, the end had come a year before, during production of a gothic tale about a lost Shakespeare manuscript, a sort-of homage to Jane Eyre. (Peggy was, unsurprisingly, kidnapped.) At one point, Franciosa blithely announced he was going to perform a monologue from Henry V during the show.

A furious screaming match ensued between Franciosa and Lloyd, with the latter finally storming off the set. “I was on my way back to the office,” says Lloyd, today a hale 103, “and thinking, ‘I have to get out of this, this is ridiculous.’ This guy wants to do Shakespeare, and he can’t speak English properly.”

In the end, director Leo Penn agreed to film the Henry V bit — then edited it out. But Lloyd, who would go on to play Dr. Daniel Auschlander on the ’80s medical drama St. Elsewhere, broke his contract with Universal rather than endure the madhouse that the Franciosa set had become. “I don’t think it was any secret that he was on something,” he says.

By the time filming of “Billy Baker” commenced, gossip about Franciosa’s drug use was commonplace. Worried, Sheinberg assigned a staffer to tail him. “It’s one thing if you send a script to an actor on Thursday and start shooting on Monday and the actor turns to you and says, ‘It’s a piece of shit and I am not doing this,’” he says. “It’s quite another if you can’t find the actor.”

Rita Thiel, a German fashion model who was by then seriously involved with Franciosa and would become his fourth wife, accompanied him to Vegas. There, she often overheard the crew joking about his habit. “There would be all of this gossip going on: ‘Oh, you know, he’s probably going in his trailer to take something,'” she remembers. “That really hurt me.”

She admits that Franciosa went through a period where he was coping with what she calls “his demons,” but insists there were many days when shooting went fine. Sammy Davis Jr. gave impromptu concerts in his palatial suite; Franciosa arranged for Rita to meet Elvis Presely. She contends that Franciosa’s erratic behavior in Vegas wasn’t the result of drugs but rather a tactical effort by the star to get himself fired. “It was the third season,” she says, “and I think he already had so much hostility from people not having his back, especially friends, people he used to hang out with.”

Things quickly disintegrated. Franciosa became paranoid, believing that he was being shot in an unflattering manner; one day, he insisted on filming a scene in which he swims in the hotel pool in the rain, then comes out, sits by the edge in the lotus position and simply grins silently for a full minute. Director Barry Shear did his best to mollify his star, often to little avail. “They gave in a lot,” says Saint James, who remained agog at Franciosa’s talent, even as she watched him unravel. “And when you’re in a scene, and you’re doing 15 takes, and the one that the other actor finally gets right is not anything close to your best, and it’s after midnight …” She trails off. “What face do you put on after take three, after five, after eight?”

“Tony got into some fit and punched someone,” remembers Carla Borelli, who also co-starred on the episode. “It was quite a scandal.” Before filming concluded, Franciosa was fired.

“They love you, love you, love you,” says Saint James. “They’ll break their backs for you. And it’s, ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘Yes sir,’ and then they’re, like, ‘We’re done.’ And then you might as well be dead.”

The remainder of “Billy Baker” was scotch-taped together with body doubles, solo scenes of Saint James and heavy padding with Vegas acts shown in their entirety: a staggering 13 musical numbers and three comedy monologues. To top it off, there was that scene of Franciosa swimming in the rain. NBC, desperate to stretch out Franciosa’s appearances, ran the episode in two parts — three hours in all. But even though he would continue to show up in the opening credits, Franciosa never filmed another scene. And without its No. 1 attraction, the series began to limp toward cancellation. It was Game over.

Franciosa’s remaining episodes were filled by guest actors such as Robert Culp and Robert Wagner, their characters Dillon in everything but name and swagger. “They didn’t rewrite,” Saint James says. “They were just waiting for Tony to come back.” Only he didn’t.

As it was, the third season had already gotten off to a rocky start: The Nixon administration had ordered every TV series to produce an anti-drug episode, resulting in arguably the series’ worst program ever, a feckless Stack story about a group of recovering teenage addicts. It was Bochco’s first solo TV writing credit. Writer Phil DeGuere called him after the second commercial break and said, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

Realizing the curtain was coming down, Hargrove took some risks. In one episode, a Mamas and Papas-type Greek chorus sings spooky tunes in between scenes; in another, flashbacks show Barry as an Old West gunslinger wrongly judged by history.

But it was with an episode titled “L.A. 2017” that The Name of the Game may have made its most lasting mark.

Spielberg was a wunderkind who’d just directed Joan Crawford in a gripping installment of the Rod Serling anthology Night Gallery. Sheinberg wanted Spielberg to direct “2017,” but got pushback from Dick Irving, who he says “acted like I had suggested Adolph Hitler. And I said, ‘What the hell is this? Do you think I get a commission on Spielberg or something? I am responsible for Universal. I wouldn’t suggest somebody I didn’t think was a good idea.’” After Crawford called Universal chief Lew Wasserman to personally lobby for the young director, Spielberg was hired.

The script, by Philip Wylie, centered on Glenn Howard waking from a car accident to find himself transported into a postapocalyptic Los Angeles. The episode’s dark edge and creative pedigree became Name of the Game lore. That particular show, Spielberg remembers, “appealed to me because it was a cautionary tale about a future United States, no longer a country but now a corporation. But I was ambitious with it and got in trouble with the executive producers for going into overtime, incurring many meal penalties.”

The Name of the Game’s final episode aired March 19, 1971. Stack would later insist that the banning of TV cigarette advertising, in 1970, had killed the show — and that it might have stood a chance if only he’d been allowed to star solo. “There arrives after a certain amount of time a matter of ego and identification,” he said in 1975. “It’s my show. I work so hard; therefore I want the credit, or I want the blame. I don’t want to be lumped into a package with two other guys.” He would find a new generation of fans as the booming narrator of NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries; Barry also reinvented himself, playing on Broadway in La Cage Aux Folles. (Stack died in 2003; Barry in 2009.) Saint James went on to co-star as Rock Hudson’s meddlesome spouse on McMillan and Wife, where once again she was kidnapped regularly.

As for Franciosa, Rita says that after leaving the show he detoxed alone, “just locked himself in a room, and just got rid of it all” — a Method actor to the end.

Franciosa would star in two short-lived ABC series. He suffered a heart attack in the living room of his rustic Brentwood cabin in 2006 and died shortly thereafter.

“Funny enough, I think he was quite proud of [the series],” says Rita, today still a wispy, ravishing brunette. “He wished it would have been different, whatever his issues were. But I think he liked it very much.”

Today, The Name of the Game is television’s Atlantis. It is a program that virtually no one has viewed since the Nixon administration. And most of its real-world traces have simply vanished. All, that is, except one.

Spielberg’s most enduring memory of the program revolves around a particular doomsday scene. “We shot the Los Angeles River,” he says, “and in futuristic font painted serial numbers above a sluice gate that has just enough room underneath it to allow our futuristic car to make its entrance. Weirdly, that gate is still visible from my office window on the Universal Studios lot. It has survived 41 years of erosion and flood-stage conditions.”

If only The Name of the Game — a cosmopolitan and cocky series ahead of its time — had, too.

Thanks to YouTube, “Name” episodes are available, though of poor video quality.

The magazine setting allows for more investigative kinds of stories, which bails out the fact that there is not a whole lot of journalism depicted. (As ever.) The episodes I’ve seen so far include a couple of editorial meetings, and Franciosa, Stack and a couple of lesser characters do some interviewing. Saint James does, or is told to do, a lot of research. And it’s all very high-end and glamorous, including a couple of conversations between CEO Barry and reporter Franciosa about the latter’s expense-account spending.

I doubt “The Name of the Game” prompted anyone to go into journalism, but it was entertaining in a slightly offbeat way. As I’ve written here before, the reason there are few good journalism movies or TV shows is that the process of journalism is boring to watch.