Monday, April 30, 2018

Anonymous Owner, L.L.C.: Why It Has Become So Easy to Hide in the Housing Market

By Emily Badger

When Sean Hannity, the popular Fox News host, was revealed this month to be a property owner and landlord of considerable scale, it highlighted how opaque the housing market has become.  

Owning real estate in limited liability companies, as The Guardian reported that Mr. Hannity does, is a perfectly legal and increasingly popular practice. But the whiff of secrecy — and the umbrage Mr. Hannity has taken after the secret got out — speaks to the growing role of L.L.C.s in the nation’s housing market.

L.L.C.s shield property owners from personal liability while obscuring their identities. In some cases, so much anonymity also enables money laundering, and it can mean that tenants struggle to hold landlords accountable, that cities fail to fix blight and that researchers can’t answer basic questions about the housing market.

As much as people may want to keep their financial dealings private, the housing market has long been an unusually transparent place.

“We basically have a property system where you’re supposed to be able to look up who owns what property,” said Dan Immergluck, a professor at Georgia State University. “Our English system of property recording doesn’t really give you that privacy. People can look up what my property taxes are any time they want.”

L.L.C.s have eroded that expectation. There is little good national data tracking the rise of L.L.C.s. But in 2015, according to the Rental Housing Finance Survey from the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, about 15 percent of all rental properties were owned by L.L.C.s, limited liability partnerships or limited partnerships. That represented one-third of all rental units, and that can include single-family houses or apartment buildings.

Put another way: 92 percent of rental properties in America back in 1991 were held by individual owners whose names tenants could easily know. By 2015, that number had fallen to 74 percent, driven largely by the growth of L.L.C.s, although the market today includes other kinds of institutional investors as well.

In the single-family market, which includes investors who built rental empires after the housing crash and others who’ve used empty properties to store wealth, about 9 percent of home sales last year were to L.L.C.s, according to ATTOM Data Solutions, a real estate data company. That’s twice the share a decade ago. The rent-to-own company Vision Property Management, for example, has bought homes across 24 states through nearly two dozen L.L.C.s.
In his own research, Mr. Immergluck tried to identify the largest buyers of foreclosed properties in the Atlanta area. But because one unidentified buyer could be behind many L.L.C.s, it’s hard to know who is acquiring the most property, or which property owners are behind the most code violations or the most evictions.

That makes it impossible for city officials to aim scarce resources at the most problematic owners. And it makes it hard for researchers to know, for example, if property has become concentrated among fewer owners.

Because the stakes are so high and the spillovers significant, there has always been a public element to private property, said Susan Pace Hamill, a law professor at the University of Alabama who has written about L.L.C.s since the late 1980s.

“Should tenants have a right to know who they’re renting from?” she said.

“Should cities have a right to know who owns the property? The answer is a resounding yes.”

L.L.C.s today hide what should be public information, she argues.

“I am quite disturbed by that,” she said. “Having participated in the evolution of L.L.C.s from their early days, I feel like they’re being abused.”

Wyoming passed the first L.L.C. statute in 1977 at the prodding of oil and gas interests, creating an entity with the liability protections of a corporation without the tax responsibilities of one. Hardly anyone took advantage of the tool, and few states followed until the I.R.S. blessed L.L.C.s a decade later. They then quickly became the entity of choice for all kinds of businesses, and by the mid-1990s, all 50 states had L.L.C. laws.

In Milwaukee, according to research by a Harvard doctoral student, Adam Travis, L.L.C.s have grown to about a quarter of the rental market in the two decades since they became legal in the state.

The original idea was never specifically about real estate, and anonymity wasn’t particularly the appeal. But over time, Ms. Hamill said, state laws have made it easier to conceal who’s behind L.L.C.s. So they have simultaneously grown more common and less transparent.

L.L.C.s are required to list a registered agent who can receive legal and government notifications, but they’re often not required to name the people who financially benefit from the investments.

Luxury condominiums in New York, like these in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, are popular with foreign billionaires, many of whom conceal their identity behind L.L.C.s.CreditEmon Hassan for The New York Times

The downsides of all of this have become clear, at both high and low ends of the market. In expensive cities like New York and Miami, L.L.C.s have helped foreign investors launder money through luxury condo purchases. In poorer cities like Memphis and Milwaukee, they have enabled investors to walk away from vacant properties and tax bills.

For renters, or tenants mired in rent-to-own contracts, these entities mean they often don’t know whom they’re dealing with — or who’s evicting them.
These consequences worry even real estate lawyers who advise their clients to use L.L.C.s.

“The lawyer in me that represents clients says ‘privacy, secrecy, keep my people out of the papers,’ ” said William Callison, a lawyer in Denver who specializes in L.L.C. and affordable housing law. “The policy guy in me says, ‘Well, wait a second.’ ”

Why? “Because good things happen in the light,” he said, “and bad things happen in the dark.”

In Memphis, parcel surveys of the city have revealed that a majority of the most blighted properties belong to L.L.C.s. Many have effectively gone out of business without selling the homes, leaving their ownership in limbo. When the city has tried to hold some responsible, there is no one to contact — the duties of those listed as registered agents having expired along with the companies.

“The liability protections we’re talking about are liability protections from external forces,” said Steve Barlow, a Memphis lawyer who directs Neighborhood Preservation, Inc., a group trying to fight blight there. L.L.C.s are supposed to personally shield owners from, say, a tenant who breaks an ankle on the property. “It shouldn’t be a protection from you, yourself abandoning it,” he said.

There should be a way, he and Ms. Hamill believe, to keep the liability and tax benefits of L.L.C.s without all the secrecy. Unless or until there is, cities like Memphis are left with properties no one wants to buy and frustration from the public.

I hear that in community meetings all the time: ‘What’s being done with this property? Why can’t you guys do something with it?’ ” said Robert Knecht, the director of public works in Memphis. “You have to explain to them our job is to get the owner to court.”

But it is no easy thing to get a faceless company to court.

Matthew Goldstein contributed reporting.
Emily Badger writes about cities and urban policy for The Upshot from the San Francisco bureau. She's particularly interested in housing, transportation and inequality — and how they're all connected. She joined the Times in 2016 from The Washington Post.@emilymbadger

Michelle Wolf Did What Comedians Are Supposed to Do By Adam Conover Mr. Conover is the creator of “Adam Ruins Everything” on TruTV.

Comedy has no rules, per se. But in my 15 years of writing and performing, I’ve come up with a few guidelines that I find helpful:
1. Be funny.

2. Tell the truth.

3. Make people in power uncomfortable.

By that math, in her performance at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on Saturday night in Washington, Michelle Wolf did exactly what a great comic is supposed to do. She made the crowd of assembled journalists, politicians and guests laugh; she made them squirm; and she made them gasp in astonishment (and yes, a little delight) when a sharp sliver of the truth cut a little closer to the bone than they were expecting.
In other words, she killed.

Yet in return for her excellence, Ms. Wolf was criticized not just by partisan defenders of the president, but by members of the press, too. Journalists called Ms. Wolf’s set “offensive,” “deplorable” and “a debacle.” Margaret Talev, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, who booked the comedian to perform, released a statement on Sunday night that said “unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit” of the group’s mission.

There is no president of the Comedians’ Association, and though Ms. Wolf and I know each other professionally, I’m not her spokesman. But at risk of speaking out of turn, I’d like to offer this official response from America’s comics: If you don’t want comedy, don’t hire us.

The journalistic and political classes are very eager to borrow the cultural authority of comedians when it suits them, sending out gala invitations and posing for photos in hopes that a bit of that edgy satirical shine will rub off on them. From Senator John McCain’s chummy on-air relationship with Jon Stewart to President Barack Obama’s hyperactive zeal to appear on every comedy product from Jimmy Fallon’s “Slow Jam the News” to “Between Two Ferns,” the message was clear: Comedy is cool.

But as soon as a comic does his or her job too well and uses comedy to speak a truth that could jeopardize the press’s attempt to befriend the political players they cover, reporters put away their cellphone cameras and cry, “Who invited such a rude woman?”

No one who hired Siegfried & Roy was shocked when they brought a tiger onstage. So you shouldn’t be shocked if you book a comedian and she points out that the emperor has no clothes. Or when she points below the emperor’s waistline and makes a rude joke.

Contrary to what several prominent journalists said, the transcript shows that Michelle Wolf did not make a single joke at the expense of Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s physical appearance. Rather, she did something much worse in the eyes of those assembled: She ridiculed the White House press secretary’s mendacity, hypocrisy and complicity. And in a searing, brutally funny segment, she criticized the willingness of the press to play along:

“You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him. And if you’re gonna profit off of Trump, you should at least give him some money because he doesn’t have any.”
No wonder the crowd seemed so uncomfortable.

Some people noted that Ms. Wolf’s routine was poorly received in the Hilton ballroom itself. But watching her at home I recognized exactly what she was doing. Every performer who has done comedy on television knows that the people in the studio don’t really matter. They’re uncomfortable, they’re tense, and they have to be polite because they’re sitting six inches away from Chris Christie. You’re never getting a real laugh out of them. Instead, you focus on the audience that counts: the folks at home. And the folks at home don’t want comedy that’s polite and tasteful, and secures them access to an interview next Wednesday — they want comedy that stands on the rooftop and calls out hypocrisy and deceit at the top of its lungs.

The way the press corps treats the brilliant comedians it hires is an old joke by now, and we all know the punch lines. In 2016, when Larry Wilmore tore into the cable news industry’s history of racist coverage and greeted President Obama in a manner some took offense to, he was deemed to have gone “too far.” In 2006, Steven Colbert mercilessly mocked President George W. Bush from just feet away. Yet that now legendary performance was very poorly received at the time.

I went back to watch the video again: The assembled press squirms in their seats, barely laughing as Mr. Colbert drops bomb after bomb of brilliant satire. The reviews that followed were just as scathing as those Ms. Wolf received: The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen wrote that Mr. Colbert was “not funny” and “rude”; the New York Observer’s Chris Lehmann said that his “timing was dreadfully off”; Representative Steny H. Hoyer said that the comedian had “crossed the line.” In response, the next year the White House Correspondents’ Association booked the celebrity impressionist and sexagenarian Rich Little, who did Johnny Carson impressions while President Bush happily smiled. So much for satire.

Comics are regularly asked to perform for impossible rooms. They’re called “hell gigs.” I’ve done standup on a ferryboat, at a youth hostel where no one spoke English and, on one memorable occasion, at an electronic music festival where the entire audience was on ecstasy. All three went better than you’d expect. All a comic really needs to put on a show is a microphone, low ceilings (more important than you’d think!) and an audience that’s willing to hear what he or she has to say.

So, which is it? Does the White House press corps want to use the platform to let the unvarnished truth be spoken to those in power? Or would they rather prioritize the preservation of politeness and a chummy relationship with the administration we rely on them to cover? If it’s the former, great! That’s what we do.

If it’s the latter, please, leave America’s comedians off the invite list. Better yet, cancel the whole charade and head out to your local comedy club. You’ll find us there, doing what we’re paid to: telling jokes and telling the truth.

Adam Conover (@adamconover) is the creator and host of “Adam Ruins Everything” on TruTV.

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Migrant Caravan, After Grueling Trip, Reaches U.S. Border. Now the Really Hard Part.

TIJUANA, Mexico — A long, grueling journey gave way to what could be a long, uncertain asylum process Sunday as a caravan of immigrants finally reached the border between the United States and Mexico, setting up a dramatic moment and a test of President Trump’s anti-immigrant politics.

More than 150 migrants, part of a caravan that once numbered about 1,200 and headed north in March from Mexico’s border with Guatemala, were prepared to seek asylum from United States immigration officials.

But in what was likely to be one of many curves on the road, the migrants were told Sunday afternoon that the immigration officials could not process their claims, and they would have to spend the night on the Mexican side of the border.

It was only the latest twist in an immigration drama that has played out in relative obscurity in recent years. Usually during the Easter season, immigrants have headed north together as a form of protection against the kidnappers, muggers and rapists who stalk the migrant trail, and to draw attention to their plight. But this year it has become a volatile flash point in the immigration debate ignited by Mr. Trump.

For the migrants, the moment was a fraught, deeply personal one.

Mario Quintanillo, 30, and Cecilia Sarai Carillo, 23, who are from El Salvador, were among four couples who wed at the beach in Tijuana on Sunday morning, in the company of their 2-year-old daughter, Daryeline Ariana.

They planned to apply for asylum at the American border, but knew there was a good chance that they would be split up during the process — possibly for months.

“But I’m going with the feeling that it’s going to be worth the effort,” said Mr. Quintanillo. He said his family were fleeing a gang that had attacked him and killed a close relative. “In the name of God, everything is possible,” he said.

Overlaying the personal struggles was a dense tangle of politics and policy — the ill will between Mr. Trump and Mexico that began the day he announced his candidacy; the acrimony between Mr. Trump and Gov. Jerry Brown of California over immigration; the politics of sanctuary cities; and the political logjam in Congress over funding Mr. Trump’s proposed border wall.

It all plays out in the context of Mr. Trump’s goal of making immigration a galvanizing issue in the midterm elections with Republicans worried about losing control of the House and perhaps the Senate.

Heather Cronk, co-director of Showing Up for Racial Justice, one of several American advocacy groups that have been helping the caravan and its participants, traveled to Tijuana to support the migrants in the final stretch.

“For us, this is all about who we are as a country,” she said. She added: “This is an existential moment. This is a spiritual moment. I want it to be true that when we say, ‘Liberty and justice for all,’ we mean it.”

It is a debate Mr. Trump apparently relishes.

With the migrants on the doorstep of the United States, Mr. Trump, in a tweet last week, ratcheted up his rhetoric, vowing “not to let these large Caravans of people into our Country.”

Mr. Trump repeatedly came back to immigration issues at a rally in Michigan on Saturday night, saying at one point: “If we don’t get border security, we’ll close down the country,” apparently referring to a government shutdown when a funding deadline is reached in September.
Other administration officials have also been vocal.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the caravan “a deliberate attempt to undermine our laws and overwhelm our system.”

Joined by supporters and dozens of members of the news media, the migrants gathered in a park on the Pacific Ocean about 10 a.m. local time and then later on a pedestrian plaza in front of a community center in downtown Tijuana. Scores of supporters, some of whom had walked from as far as Los Angeles, rallied Sunday morning just north of the fence separating the United States from Mexico on the American side of the oceanfront park.

What was supposed to be the final act of the caravan began about 3:30 p.m., when more than 150 of the participants, accompanied by relatives, supporters and the press, marched several blocks to a border crossing in Tijuana called El Chaparral. As they walked, they chanted and waved Honduran flags.

To qualify for asylum, applicants must prove they have been persecuted or fear persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political beliefs or membership in a particular group.

People who request protection at a United States entry point must be referred to an asylum officer for a screening, known as a credible-fear interview. If the officer finds that an applicant has a chance of proving fear of persecution, the person must then present his or her case before a judge. More than three quarters of applicants pass that initial review.

“We’re only sending people who we think will pass the credible-fear interview,” said Nicole Ramos, a volunteer immigration lawyer helping the caravan.

But Customs and Border Protection, whose officers are stationed at ports of entry, announced late Sunday that it had exhausted its capacity to handle people traveling without documents.

Still, caravan organizers escorted some 50 participants along the long, elevated pedestrian walkway at El Chaparral that leads from Tijuana to the entrance to the United States in San Diego. At the gate leading into the American immigration checkpoint, American border authorities reaffirmed that they would not be able to process any more asylum-seekers on Sunday.

Alex Mensing, project coordinator for Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a transnational group that organized the caravan, told reporters gathered at El Chaparral that the migrants would remain at the gate, overnight if necessary, until border officials once again had the capacity to process them.

“We wish that the United States government were capable of accepting more than a few hundred asylum seekers at any given time, since we can certainly pick up more than a 1,000 people in an ICE raid on any given day,” he said, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an arm of the Homeland Security Department.

Meanwhile, the rest of the asylum seekers, their relatives and supporters laid out blankets on a plaza outside the entrance to El Chaparral and prepared for a long, chilly night.

When they get a chance to make their case, migrant families that request asylum at the port of entry are likely to be placed on buses to Texas, where they will remain in detention centers for mothers and children. Adult men are likely to be detained in any number of facilities across the country that hold undocumented immigrants.

It is in these facilities that the migrants would be screened by United States immigration officials over the next several days. If they pass the credible-fear interview, the migrants will be allowed to make their case for asylum before an immigration judge, a process that unfolds over several months or longer.

Migrants, typically fitted with ankle monitors, often are allowed to travel to the interior of the country, where they stay with relatives or friends while their cases run their course.

Mr. Trump, however, has denounced that practice because some migrants have skipped their court hearings; he dismissed it as “catch and release.” In recent months, migrant advocates say, the Trump administration has kept many migrants seeking asylum in detention.

For all the high political stakes, the human stakes for the individual migrants planning to seek asylum Sunday were at least as high.

Byron Claros, a Salvadoran immigrant, joined the caravan with his 18-year-old brother, Luis Alexander Rodriguez, and their stepfather, Andres Rodríguez.

Mr. Claros and Mr. Rodriguez planned to petition for asylum Sunday afternoon; their stepfather, after consultation with volunteer lawyers in Tijuana, decided that his case for sanctuary was not strong enough and that he would remain behind in Mexico.

“The hour I’ve waited for my entire life has finally arrived,” Mr. Claros said early Sunday afternoon as he, hundreds of migrants, scores of their supporters, reporters and cameramen gathered in and in front of a community center and cafe in the downtown district of Tijuana, blocks from the border crossing.

Mr. Rodriguez said he was nervous, “because the United States can support our rights but can also deny us our rights.”

Still, he said, there was only one way to push: north.

“We’ve fought too much to get here,” he said. “And we’re here.”


James H. Cone, a Founder of Black Liberation Theology, Dies at 79

The Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, a central figure in the development of black liberation theology in the 1960s and ’70s who argued for racial justice and an interpretation of the Christian Gospel that elevated the voices of the oppressed, died on Saturday. He was 79.

His death was announced by Union Theological Seminary, where he was a distinguished professor. A spokeswoman for the seminary said he died at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.

Dr. Cone was a theologian, minister and author. He described black liberation theology as “an interpretation of the Christian Gospel from the experience and perspectives and lives of people who are at the bottom in society — the lowest economic and racial groups.”

In an interview in 2008, Dr. Cone said that in the 1960s, he saw his faith imperiled by the growing appeal to blacks of the Nation of Islam and the black power movement.

“Christianity was seen as the white man’s religion,” he said. “I wanted to say: ‘No! The Christian Gospel is not the white man’s religion. It is a religion of liberation, a religion that says God created all people to be free.’ But I realized that for black people to be free, they must first love their blackness.”

For decades, Dr. Cone spoke forcefully about racial inequalities that persisted in the form of economic injustice, mass incarceration and police shootings.

“That kind of consistency is just rare in American intellectual life, to be focused so unflinchingly on the most vulnerable in our society,” said the Harvard philosopher Cornel West. “James Cone was the theological giant in our midst who had a love affair with oppressed people, especially black people.”

Dr. Cone’s 1969 book “Black Theology & Black Power” is considered the founding text of black liberation theology.

James Hal Cone was born on Aug. 5, 1938, in Fordyce, Ark. He graduated from Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., with a Bachelor of Divinity degree and received a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University.

He pointed to the Detroit riots of 1967 — a series of violent confrontations between mostly black Detroit residents and the police that resulted in the deaths of 43 people — as a turning point that inspired him to challenge white theologians more forcefully. “I heard the voices of black blood crying out to God and to humanity,” he said last year.
His 1969 book, “Black Theology & Black Power,” is considered the founding text of black liberation theology. In a 1997 introduction to an updated version of the book, Dr. Cone wrote that he “wanted to speak on behalf of the voiceless black masses in the name of Jesus, whose Gospel I believed had been greatly distorted by the preaching theology of white churches.”

As a professor, he encouraged his students to pursue their own ideas rather than imitating his, said the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, an author, priest and the dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary.

“He gave many of us the opportunity to study and find our own theological voice at a time when we would not have had an opportunity to do so,” Dr. Douglas said.

In 2008, black liberation theology made headlines because one of its proponents, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., had been a minister for Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate.

Mr. Wright’s comments on racial issues became a campaign liability for Mr. Obama because he had suggested that the United States was attacked on Sept. 11 because it engaged in terrorism of its own, and that the government could have used the virus that causes AIDS as a tool for genocide against minorities. Mr. Obama renounced Mr. Wright in April 2008.

The next month, Dr. Cone described the theology to The New York Times as a combination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

“You might say we took our Christianity from Martin and our emphasis on blackness from Malcolm,” he said.

He added that while he disagreed with Mr. Wright’s more incendiary comments, “deep down in all of us is that Malcolm X who cries out in such strong language.”

This year, Dr. Cone won the Grawemeyer Award in Religion for his most recent book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” which drew parallels between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people in the United States. His recently completed memoir is expected to be published later this year.


Happy Birthday, Karl Marx. You Were Right!

CreditRalf Hirschberger/European Pressphoto Agency

SEOUL, South Korea — On May 5, 1818, in the southern German town of Trier, in the picturesque wine-growing region of the Moselle Valley, Karl Marx was born. At the time Trier was one-tenth the size it is today, with a population of around 12,000. According to one of Marx’s recent biographers, Jürgen Neffe, Trier is one of those towns where “although everyone doesn’t know everyone, many know a lot about many.”

Such provincial constraints were no match for Marx’s boundless intellectual enthusiasm. Rare were the radical thinkers of the major European capitals of his day that he either failed to meet or would fail to break with on theoretical grounds, including his German contemporaries Wilhelm Weitling and Bruno Bauer; the French “bourgeois socialist” Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, as Marx and Friedrich Engels would label him in their “Communist Manifesto”; and the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.

In 1837 Marx reneged on the legal career that his father, himself a lawyer, had mapped out for him and immersed himself instead in the speculative philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel at the University of Berlin. One might say that it was all downhill from there. The deeply conservative Prussian government didn’t take kindly to such revolutionary thinking (Hegel’s philosophy advocated a rational liberal state), and by the start of the next decade Marx’s chosen career path as a university professor had been blocked.

If ever there were a convincing case to be made for the dangers of philosophy, then surely it’s Marx’s discovery of Hegel, whose “grotesque craggy melody” repelled him at first but which soon had him dancing deliriously through the streets of Berlin. As Marx confessed to his father in an equally delirious letter in November 1837, “I wanted to embrace every person standing on the street-corner.”

As we reach the bicentennial of Marx’s birth, what lessons might we draw from his dangerous and delirious philosophical legacy? What precisely is Marx’s lasting contribution?

Today the legacy would appear to be alive and well. Since the turn of the millennium countless books have appeared, from scholarly works to popular biographies, broadly endorsing Marx’s reading of capitalism and its enduring relevance to our neoliberal age.

In 2002, the French philosopher Alain Badiou declared at a conference I attended in London that Marx had become the philosopher of the middle class. What did he mean? I believe he meant that educated liberal opinion is today more or less unanimous in its agreement that Marx’s basic thesis — that capitalism is driven by a deeply divisive class struggle in which the ruling-class minority appropriates the surplus labor of the working-class majority as profit — is correct. Even liberal economists such as Nouriel Roubini agree that Marx’s conviction that capitalism has an inbuilt tendency to destroy itself remains as prescient as ever.

But this is where the unanimity abruptly ends. While most are in agreement about Marx’s diagnosis of capitalism, opinion on how to treat its “disorder” is thoroughly divided. And this is where Marx’s originality and profound importance as a philosopher lies.

First, let’s be clear: Marx arrives at no magic formula for exiting the enormous social and economic contradictions that global capitalism entails (according to Oxfam, 82 percent of the global wealth generated in 2017 went to the world’s richest 1 percent). What Marx did achieve, however, through his self-styled materialist thought, were the critical weapons for undermining capitalism’s ideological claim to be the only game in town.

In the “Communist Manifesto,” Marx and Engels wrote: “The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.”

Marx was convinced that capitalism would soon make relics of them. The inroads that artificial intelligence is currently making into medical diagnosis and surgery, for instance, bears out the argument in the “Manifesto” that technology would greatly accelerate the “division of labor,” or the deskilling of such professions.

To better understand how Marx achieved his lasting global impact — an impact arguably greater and wider than any other philosopher’s before or after him — we can begin with his relationship to Hegel.

What was it about Hegel’s work that so captivated Marx? As he informed his father, early encounters with Hegel’s “system,” which builds itself upon layer after layer of negations and contradictions, hadn’t entirely won him over.

Marx found that the late-18th-century idealisms of Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte that so dominated philosophical thinking in the early 19th century prioritized thinking itself — so much so that reality could be inferred through intellectual reasoning. But Marx refused to endorse their reality. In an ironic Hegelian twist, it was the complete opposite: It was the material world that determined all thinking. As Marx puts it in his letter, “If previously the gods had dwelt above the earth, now they became its center.”

The idea that God — or “gods”— dwelt among the masses, or was “in” them, was of course nothing philosophically new. But Marx’s innovation was to stand idealistic deference — not just to God but to any divine authority — on its head. Whereas Hegel had stopped at advocating a rational liberal state, Marx would go one stage further: Since the gods were no longer divine, there was no need for a state at all.

The idea of the classless and stateless society would come to define both Marx’s and Engels’s idea of communism, and of course the subsequent and troubled history of the Communist “states” (ironically enough!) that materialized during the 20th century. There is still a great deal to be learned from their disasters, but their philosophical relevance remains doubtful, to say the least.

The key factor in Marx’s intellectual legacy in our present-day society is not “philosophy” but “critique,” or what he described in 1843 as “the ruthless criticism of all that exists: ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” he wrote in 1845.

Racial and sexual oppression have been added to the dynamic of class exploitation. Social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, owe something of an unspoken debt to Marx through their unapologetic targeting of the “eternal truths” of our age. Such movements recognize, as did Marx, that the ideas that rule every society are those of its ruling class and that overturning those ideas is fundamental to true revolutionary progress.

We have become used to the go-getting mantra that to effect social change we first have to change ourselves. But enlightened or rational thinking is not enough, since the norms of thinking are already skewed by the structures of male privilege and social hierarchy, even down to the language we use.

Changing those norms entails changing the very foundations of society.

To cite Marx, “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”

The transition to a new society where relations among people, rather than capital relations, finally determine an individual’s worth is arguably proving to be quite a task. Marx, as I have said, does not offer a one-size-fits-all formula for enacting social change. But he does offer a powerful intellectual acid test for that change. On that basis, we are destined to keep citing him and testing his ideas until the kind of society that he struggled to bring about, and that increasing numbers of us now desire, is finally realized.

Jason Barker is an associate professor of philosophy at Kyung Hee University in South Korea and author of the novel “Marx Returns.”

Now in print:Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.

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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Michelle Wolf’s Routine Sets Off a Furor at an Annual Washington Dinner

WASHINGTON — The panna cotta had been served and the First Amendment duly celebrated by the time the comedian Michelle Wolf took the stage on Saturday at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

What followed was a roast that took unflinching aim at some of the notables in the room — and quickly opened a divide, largely but not entirely along partisan lines, over the limits of comedy and comity under a president who rarely hesitates to attack the press.

Ms. Wolf described Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, as “an Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women” and took a shot at her “smokey eye” makeup, saying that it was made from the ashes of “burnt facts.” She called Ivanka Trump “as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons.” She labeled Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, an inveterate liar, and asked: “If a tree falls in the woods, how do we get Kellyanne under that tree?”

“I’m not suggesting she get hurt, just stuck,” Ms. Wolf added, puckishly, as an icy silence — and a few scattered chortles — fell over the black-tie crowd here. Ms. Conway sat expressionlessly. Ms. Sanders, granted a seat of honor on the dais, limited her reaction to an arched eyebrow and pursed lips.
It was an earthy performance by Correspondents’ dinner standards, if nothing out of place in an average comedy club. But feedback from the political left and right quickly leapt to extremes.

“It was personally offensive,” Brian Kilmeade, a co-host of “Fox & Friends,” said in the ballroom, minutes after Ms. Wolf ended her set.

“To me, that was an attack to impress Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert,” Mr. Kilmeade added, previewing a line of criticism that would be dominant on Fox News by Sunday morning. 

“Congratulations, when the three of you go out to dinner, I’m sure you’ll be laughing a lot. But in terms of the people here and the people at home — totally offensive, horrible choice. In fact, it’s the reason why the president didn’t want to go.”

Critics of President Trump — who is no stranger to lobbing insult-comic punch lines at his opponents and is the first president to outright skip the Correspondents’ gala since Jimmy Carter — wondered what the fuss was about.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders Credit Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

“Before we criticize Michelle Wolf, let’s remember that Donald Trump has done and said some of the crudest things that any president in history has ever done,” said Howard Fineman, a left-leaning analyst at NBC News and MSNBC. “Just have a little perspective.”

By Sunday morning, Ms. Wolf, a contributor to “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” whose Netflix talk show starts in May, had seemingly scandalized Washington’s intersecting political and media tribes. President Trump weighed in on Twitter, writing, “Everyone is talking about the fact that the White House Correspondents Dinner was a very big, boring bust.”

In one Twitter exchange, Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary — who recently turned up at Madame Tussauds to promote a wax statue of Melania Trump — described the dinner as “a disgrace,” netting around 4,000 retweets.

“Thank you!” Ms. Wolf replied. By Sunday morning, her response had about 13,000 retweets.

Prominent Washington journalists, meanwhile, took pains to defend Ms. Sanders — earning their own opprobrium from some liberals who asked why reporters were sticking up for an administration that routinely impugns their work.
Andrea Mitchell, the NBC News correspondent, tweeted that an “apology is owed” to the press secretary. Her network colleague Mika Brzezinski wrote that “watching a wife and mother be humiliated on national television for her looks is deplorable.”

Several reporters who cover the White House approached Ms. Sanders in the Hilton ballroom to express sympathy in the immediate aftermath of Ms. Wolf’s monologue. Later, at a windswept after party hosted by NBC News, Ms. Sanders appeared in good spirits as reporters swarmed her. (She even took time to chastise one journalist for asking a question at a news conference that she disliked.)

Going back to Stephen Colbert’s blistering monologue in 2006 — delivered as President George W. Bush sat unsmiling a few feet away — the comic portion of the Correspondents’ dinner has courted controversy. Roast-style humor is an odd fit for protocol-oriented Washington, and some comedians praised Ms. Wolf for discomfiting the audience of elite journalists and administration officials.

“If you want to focus on the journalism do a boring award show,” tweeted Kathy Griffin, the comedian whose own brush with crude presidential humor — posting a photo of herself holding what appeared to be Mr. Trump’s decapitated head — led to her losing a CNN job. “Journalism is all about the 1st amendment. If you don’t see the import of what @michelleisawolf did tonight then you don’t get it.”

President Trump at a rally on Saturday in Washington Township, Mich. Credit Tom Brenner/The New York Times

The doyens of Washington did not agree. Mike Allen, a prime voice of the city’s establishment, declared in his newsletter on Sunday: “Media hands Trump embarrassing win.” There were even whispers about a revolt against the Correspondents’ Association by news organizations displeased by the night’s events. (The New York Times stopped attending the dinner in 2008.)

“My aim — and the way I sought to put together the program — was to build the spirit of unity in that room,” Margaret Talev, president of the Correspondents’ Association, said on CNN on Sunday. She pointed out that the dinner had praised Mr. Trump for meeting with aspiring journalists at the White House and featured the story of an Egyptian social activist who was freed from prison with the help of the Trump administration.

She said she regretted that Ms. Wolf’s monologue had overshadowed the rest of the evening, but added: “When the entertainer is a comedian — as has been the case for the last 30 years or so — they are often controversial, they are often to some extent polarizing, or provocative, and it’s a night about free speech.”

Ms. Wolf’s 19-minute set also took on Democrats and the news media itself. She quipped that “it’s kind of crazy that the Trump campaign was in contact with Russia when the Hillary campaign wasn’t even in contact with Michigan,” and joked about CNN’s hyperactive approach to coverage.

“You guys love breaking news, and you did it, you broke it!” Ms. Wolf said. “Good work! The most useful information on CNN is when Anthony Bourdain tells me where to eat noodles.”
Her most cutting joke came at the end, when the 32-year-old comic took direct aim at the journalists in the room. Mr. Trump, she said, “has helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster and now you are profiting from him.”

Kyle Pope, the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, posted a message on Twitter suggesting that even journalists had had enough of the annual ritual. “The #WHCD debacle was inevitable, destined to be either sycophantic, on one extreme, or mean spirited, on the other. Neither is a good look at a time when trust in media is tenuous. Can we finally all agree to put an end to this thing?”

Speaking with The Times in February, after her selection as the evening’s entertainer was announced, Ms. Wolf said that comedians at the Correspondents’ dinner “are not necessarily performing for the room.”

“You’re performing for everyone that’s watching it,” Ms. Wolf said, adding: “If you’re willing to say something when someone’s not there, you should definitely be willing to say it to their face.”


Saturday, April 28, 2018

Trump’s Role in Midterm Elections Roils Republicans

President Trump campaigned in March for the Republican candidate in a Pennsylvania special election, but the Democrat, Conor Lamb, ended up winning. CreditTom Brenner/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — President Trump is privately rejecting the growing consensus among Republican leaders that they may lose the House and possibly the Senate in November, leaving party officials and the president’s advisers nervous that he does not grasp the gravity of the threat they face in the midterm elections.
Congressional and party leaders and even some Trump aides are concerned that the president’s boundless self-assurance about politics will cause him to ignore or undermine their midterm strategy. In battleground states like Arizona, Florida and Nevada, Mr. Trump’s proclivity to be a loose cannon could endanger the Republican incumbents and challengers who are already facing ferocious Democratic headwinds.
Republicans in Washington and Trump aides have largely given up assuming the president will ever stick to a teleprompter, but they have joined together to impress upon him just how bruising this November could be for Republicans — and how high the stakes are for Mr. Trump personally, given that a Democratic-controlled Congress could pursue aggressive investigations and even impeachment.
Over dinner with the president and other Republican congressional leaders this month, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, phrased his advice for the president in the form of a reminder: Mr. Trump should never forget his central role in the 2018 campaign, Mr. McConnell said, explaining that Republicans’ prospects are linked to what he says and does and underscoring that their one-seat advantage in the Senate was in jeopardy.
If Mr. McConnell’s warning was not clear enough, Marc Short, the White House’s legislative liaison, used the dinner to offer an even starker assessment. The G.O.P.’s House majority is all but doomed, he said.
Continue reading the main story
But Mr. Trump was not moved. “That’s not going to happen,” he said at different points during the evening, shrugging off the grim prognoses, according to multiple officials briefed on the conversation.
The disconnect between the president — a political novice whose confidence in his instincts was grandly rewarded in 2016 — and more traditional party leaders demonstrates the depth of the Republicans’ challenges in what is likely to be a punishing campaign year.
Mr. Trump is as impulsive as ever, fixated on personal loyalty, cultivating a winner’s image and privately prodding Republican candidates to demonstrate their affection for him — while complaining bitterly when he campaigns for those who lose. His preoccupation with the ongoing Russia investigation adds to the unpredictability, spurring Mr. Trump to fume aloud in ways that divide the G.O.P. and raising the prospect of legal confrontations amid the campaign. And despite projecting confidence, he polls nearly all those who enter the Oval Office about how they view the climate of the midterms.
According to advisers, the president plans to hold a fund-raiser a week in the months to come and hopes to schedule regular rallies with candidates starting this summer. But there is not yet any coordinated effort about where to deploy Mr. Trump, and there are divisions within his ever-fractious circle of advisers about how to approach the elections.
Among his close associates, a debate is raging about whether to focus on House races that could earn the president chits with Republican lawmakers who might ultimately vote on impeachment, or to dig in to defend the party’s tenuous Senate majority.
“We need to be unified, and I know this is a frustrating business that we’re involved in, but rather than having circular firing squads, we need to be shooting outward,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican, said of the White House.
Nearly every modern president has lost seats in his first midterm election, and Bill Clinton saw both the House and the Senate fall to Republicans in 1994. But given Mr. Trump’s polarizing administration, the results this fall are likely to hinge more than ever on the man in the White House.
Anger toward Mr. Trump has become a crucial motivating tool for Democrats. Already, Republicans have spent millions on House special elections in strongly conservative areas of Pennsylvania and Arizona, losing one seat and retaining the other by a relatively narrow margin.
Anger toward Mr. Trump has become a crucial motivating tool driving liberal and moderate voters to the polls. CreditPeter Foley/European Pressphoto Agency
At the same time, Republican leaders believe he is an essential force for savaging Senate Democrats and turning out voters on the right.
Yet congressional leaders remain deeply frustrated about Mr. Trump’s improvisational pronouncements. At the White House dinner, Mr. McConnell raised one such policy and expressed hope that Mr. Trump could resolve the matter of his proposed tariffs, which have instilled deep worry among farm-state Republicans.
“If we can get trade resolved that would be exceptionally important,” Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma said when asked in an interview how the president could help in the midterms.
Other Republican lawmakers have begun pleading with the president to be disciplined and hold up the growing economy and sweeping tax overhaul they passed in December.
“He’s always defied political convention, but this is a political convention I think that we should adhere to,” said Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, “which is to focus on that which is important to people, which is their wallet.”
When House Speaker Paul D. Ryan hosted a meeting of major Republican donors in Austin, Tex., this month, the head of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the primary House G.O.P. super PAC, delivered a presentation with a plea that the party “must sell the benefits of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” to retain the House.
Slides from a presentation to major Republican donors in April that was hosted by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and the Congressional Leadership Fund in Austin, Tex.
Mr. Trump, though, has little appetite to carry a singular tax-cuts-and-the-economy argument and is grousing about what he sees as uninspired messaging by congressional leaders like Mr. Ryan.
Appearing in West Virginia this month at an event meant to showcase the party’s tax agenda, Mr. Trump discarded his prepared remarks — even describing them as “boring” — and turned to more incendiary issues like immigration.
Eric Beach, a Republican strategist who leads a pro-Trump political committee, Great America PAC, said Mr. Trump was rightly suspicious of the political formula favored by conventional Republican leaders like Mr. Ryan and Mr. McConnell.
“He doesn’t think that’s how you win elections because that’s not how he won his election,” Mr. Beach said. “He knows and understands that the core issues of today are illegal immigration — including building the wall — and trade inequity.”
Congressional leaders have left little doubt in private that they see Mr. Trump as a political millstone for many of the party’s candidates. In recent weeks, Mr. McConnell has confided to associates that Republicans may lose the Senate because of the anti-Trump energy on the left.
And at Mr. Ryan’s retreat, a Republican pollster, Kristen Soltis Anderson, identified Mr. Trump as a major source of the party’s woes, according to multiple attendees. Ms. Anderson noted that his job approval was markedly weaker than past presidents, including President Barack Obama in the months before Democrats lost 63 House seats in the 2010 elections.
Mr. Trump, for his part, has complained to associates about having been deployed to campaign for relatively weak Republicans like Roy S. Moore, who lost last year’s Senate race in Alabama, and Rick Saccone, who lost the special House election in Pennsylvania last month.
He has taken the losses personally, particularly in Alabama, because the vacancy there was a result of his decision to make Jeff Sessions attorney general, an appointment he has since regretted. Mr. Trump has subsequently blamed others in the party for thrusting him into episodes of humiliating defeat.
The scars from those races have made Mr. Trump reluctant to weigh in on the race that Senate Republicans most want his imprint on right now: the contest to replace Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who resigned this month.
The president met this month with Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, the Republican appointee there and the favorite of the party establishment. Reflecting his fixation on personal loyalty, Mr. Trump quizzed Ms. Hyde-Smith on whether she had supported another candidate for president in 2016 before endorsing him. When Ms. Hyde-Smith said she had not, the president exclaimed that he needed more supporters like her in Washington, people briefed on the meeting said.
But his staff pointedly told her not to request the president’s endorsement at the meeting. White House officials have created a series of fund-raising and organizational benchmarks that they want to see the new senator reach before they make a decision — a sign of how wary they are of entangling a president sensitive to political setbacks in elections that Republicans are not guaranteed to win.
Despite the lingering disputes with congressional Republicans, White House officials say the president is eager to return to the campaign trail.
Although some Republicans in competitive states may not want to appear with Mr. Trump — Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, for example, has told associates he is unlikely to campaign with the president — there is no lack of lawmakers eager for his help.
Representative Lee M. Zeldin, Republican of New York, said he would welcome Mr. Trump on the trail anytime.
“I would expect the president and vice president to be in congressional districts all across the country,” Mr. Zeldin said. “I’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback on the desire of the president’s team to be as helpful as possible.”
Mr. Trump has also won praise on Capitol Hill for intervening in a handful of Senate races — including Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota and Ohio — that were threatening to grow messy.
What has stunned Republican veterans outside the White House is how, even 15 months into his presidency, Mr. Trump still lacks any unified political organization.
John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff and a retired Marine general, has scant political acumen. And while the White House political staff has sought to bring a measure of order, curbing some of the president’s knee-jerk endorsement tendencies, Mr. Trump does not necessarily view them as his primary political counselors.
This vacuum has, as is often the case with this White House, triggered fierce internecine scrapping among those vying for Mr. Trump’s ear.
The president’s announcement that Brad Parscale, his 2016 digital guru, would manage his 2020 re-election campaign caught many of his most senior advisers by surprise, according to multiple Republicans. And the hasty decision immediately raised suspicions it was part of a power play by Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, to isolate Corey Lewandowski, the president’s 2016 campaign manager and occasional adviser.
Mr. Parscale has rankled Trump advisers by giving the president a perpetually rosy assessment of his poll numbers. He often tells Mr. Trump his numbers have “never been higher,” according to two advisers.
Mr. Parscale has also irritated some Trump officials by attempting to take over the political portfolio, with his scheduling of meetings to devise an as-yet-unformed midterm strategy getting back to other factions.
But his ascension marks only the newest power center in Mr. Trump’s political orbit: There is his White House staff, his vice president, the Republican National Committee, his family, his campaign alumni, his super PAC, his congressional allies, his conservative media friends and now his re-election team.
All are expected to want a voice in Republican strategy for Mr. Trump in the midterms, adding only more chaos, as one White House official phrased it, to an already unruly presidency.

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