President Obama is close to setting a modern record, one his liberal base is unlikely to applaud. The Democrat still has not commuted one prison sentence since taking office, a constitutional right every president
except George W. Bush exercised earlier in his first term. Obama’s been stingy
with his presidential pardons, too, officially forgiving the crimes of just 17 Americans, despite a massive backlog of applications. The Village Voice
published a lengthy analysis
of the trend a few weeks back, assigning blame to Obama’s political team, a skittish Attorney General Eric Holder, and the “arcane internal activities of the Justice Department,” which author Graham Rayman argues has “dismantled the administrative functions of the pardon office.” For those who've been wronged by the criminal justice system or have rehabilitated themselves following their initial incarceration, the light at the end of the tunnel is dimmer than it used to be.
Of the 17 people who did receive clemency from the current administration, most committed minor crimes (coin mutilation, alligator hide possession) decades ago. Not that they aren’t grateful; depending on the jurisdiction, ex-felons of any kind forfeit some of their core civil rights, including the right to vote, to hold public office, and/or to serve on a jury. Indeed, Junior Johnson
-- one of the most accomplished Americans ever to file for clemency -- considered his 1986 presidential pardon one of the great thrills of his life.
And Johnson had many. The first superstar of NASCAR, Junior won 50 major stock car races between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s and another 139 as a team owner in the three succeeding decades. Behind the wheel, he perfected two racing techniques that forever changed the sport: the power slide and drafting. The former, when the driver slows through a turn by cocking the wheel to the left and gunning it before
hitting a bend in the track, allows the car to come out of turns more quickly than consistently laying on the brake, while the latter -- when one car trails in the wake of another to minimize wind resistance -- helps slower cars keep pace with souped-up competitors.
It was on the dusty roads of Wilkes County, North Carolina where Junior gained his dexterity behind the wheel. Like thousands of Scot-Irish descendants before him, Johnson ran untaxed moonshine* through the back country woods. To the locals, it was a business with no less legitimacy than any other. Junior worked for his father, who operated one of the biggest individual copper-stills in the region. On a given night, young drivers could make $300 transporting a few dozen cases of mountain dew**, so long as they outran the federal tax agents known as “revenuers
,” which Johnson always did. “I never got caught behind the wheel running," he later bragged
. “I've still got my marks on a bunch of those trees all along the roads there.”
Yet he was clipped once, in 1957, when officials staked out his father’s home and found the son on his way to fire up the family’s still. Johnson was arrested and served 11 months and three days in federal prison, the crime for which he was eventually pardoned. In a funny way, the booking was a blessing; as an older man, the driver claimed that in prison he “found out that I could listen to another fellow and be told what to do and h'it wouldn't kill me." His felony helped reinforce his bonafides as a rebel, too, setting the stage for his emergence as legitimate southern folk hero.
That image was solidified in 1963, the most memorable season of his career. The good ole boy grossed $100,000 in earnings and set multiple qualifying records driving a Chevy, an inferior car not bankrolled by Detroit’s two earliest NASCAR investors, Ford and Chrysler. Those qualifying runs were often more thrilling to fans than the races themselves; because a stock car track is a giant oval and circling it requires very little handling ability, the sprints became, as Tom Wolfe describes it in his famous profile
of Johnson, “a test of raw nerve -- of how fast a man is willing to take a curve.” In those early days, nobody was quite as fearless as Junior.
Last year, Johnson was one of the inaugural inductees
of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, an honor he shared with legendary mustachioed driver Richard Petty. Since 2007, he’s also returned to his liquor roots, distilling and distributing
Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon, a legal moonshine. (Reviews are mixed.) Working through an authorized dealer is certainly preferable to rejoining the underground industry, which investigative reporter Max Watman
says “shows no signs
of letting up.” If he ran into trouble again, Johnson would probably have less success convincing the new occupants of the White House to throw him a bone.
*A home-brewed whiskey distilled from corn, potatoes, or anything that would ferment.
**Other hilarious nicknames include White Lightning; Kickapoo, Joy Juice, Hooch, Ruckus Juice, Happy Sally, Hillbilly Pop and Panther's Breath.
Mere steps from my front door sits one of the most opulent buildings in the country. I’ve never been inside, nor have the vast majority of my neighbors. It’s not because we don’t appreciate beautiful things. Quite
. It’s because the local treasure has sat abandoned for over three decades.
Last week, the Tribune’s
Mark Caro wrote an excellent feature
on the Uptown Theater, Chicago’s luxurious and endangered North Side landmark
. Despite the sour economy and hefty price tag ($70 million), Caro found a “newfound sense of optimism” among preservationists and public officials that a full restoration of the structure’s elegant lobby
and 4,400-seat interior
-- badly damaged by flooding and years of neglect -- was a legitimate possibility. "It's like the stars are all in alignment," gushed Chicago Cultural Affairs and Special Events commissioner Michelle Boone.
Whoever ultimately bankrolls the project will earn my enduring admiration. They’ll also salvage the crown jewel of Balaban and Katz (B&K)
, an entrepreneurial local company that transformed both Chicago’s entertainment scene and its visual landscape in one short decade.
Before Lowes or AMC, there was B&K. From 1916 to 1926, West Siders Barney Balaban and Sam Katz developed "chain store organization for movie exhibition within the city of Chicago,” opening more than 50 separate movie theaters, including the Chicago (with its famous marquee
), the Riviera, and the Congress, among many others
. Their explosive growth was a product of the firm’s creative business plan, which Sam and Barney developed to compete directly with theaters controlled by film production studios, which at the time held exclusive rights to air Hollywood’s first-rate fare.* Instead of promoting the pictures themselves, B&K took the “films others did not want
” and sold the experience
of going to the show. As the firm noted in its 1926 book The Fundamental Principles of Balaban and Katz Theater Management
, “we must build up in the minds of our audience
the feeling that we represent an institution taking a vital part in the formation of the character of the community.”
Douglas Gomery, a journalism professor and broadcasting business expert, credits
B&K with several crucial innovations that allowed the small-timers to construct its movie empire. Most notably, Barney and Sam were early believers in transit-oriented development; the firm built most of its theaters in neighborhoods newly served by the L and home to a small but booming population of upwardly-mobile consumers,** a slice of the city overlooked by the existing purveyors of vaudeville and silent cinema. And these movie houses weren’t just holes in the wall. With the help of architects Rapp and Rapp
, B&K erected entertainment palaces, with giant lobbies, comfortable seats, colonnades, marble floors, massive chandeliers, and stained glass windows. The structures also boasted state-of-the-art carbon dioxide cooling systems, a luxury at the time,*** along with impeccable customer service. One advertisement for the company promises that each usher -- generally college-aged men -- is “trained by a graduate of West Point,” “selected with as much care as the cadets at the Nation’s Military Academy,” and “must come from a good family.” “The theater[s] occupied a rare moment of shared democracy,” Lynn Becker noted
a few years ago, “where anyone with a quarter or 50 cents could spend a couple hours steeped in the sort of luxury usually reserved for the ultrarich.”
In 1926, just 10 years after B&K opened for business, the company was bought out by Famous Players Lasky (now Paramount) in a deal that represented $100 million in assets ($1.2 billion in 2010) and consolidated over 500 theaters under the control of one banner. Katz was named president of The Publix theatres group, a subsidiary of FPL, and immediately went about implementing on the East Coast the same strategies that worked so well on the Third Coast. In five years, Publix opened 900 new theaters, all of which were supervised intently by the Chicago boys planted in NYC. Barney Balaban was eventually elected President of Paramount Pictures
, a position he held for 28 years.
The first major cinema wave crashed with the popularization of free television in the 1950s, and the majority of B&K’s local palaces were ultimately demolished. But before business tanked, the execs back home saw the writing on the wall and purchased multiple experimental television licenses. In 1943, using a 400-foot television tower that the Tribune
(April 20, 1941) said “surmount[s] all but the tallest skyscrapers,” they began broadcasting over WBKB (now WBBM
), the first commercial television station in the city. Unfortunately, B&K tried to have its cake and eat it too by televising sporting events, parades, and news reels on its big screens, a promotion that failed to draw crowds. “The high hopes Balaban and Katz officials held a year ago for theater television have crumbled,” read one blunt Trib
lede (March 4, 1952).
For more about B&K’s imprint on popular culture, read this 1993 interview
with Barney’s younger brother Elmer or click through the website
of the Balaban and Katz Historical Foundation. Don’t miss their slide show
, which features some wonderful stills of glamorous theaters and theater-goers.
*The U.S. Supreme Court would eventually declare this type of vertical integration monopolistic
in a landmark anti-trust case.
**Lawndale, Woodlawn, and Uptown.
***In newspapers, B&K usually printed icicles near their theater listings to remind customers that the central air would be pumping.
I take seriously two fantasy sports leagues. The first is a fairly traditional (but highly entertaining) fantasy football
operation. The second is an insanely intense and unique fantasy college basketball league, started from scratch by three creative brothers nine years ago. We have our own website
and our own original scoring system. We spend an inordinate amount of time watching non-conference tilts like Nebraska vs. Florida Gulf Coast and late Sunday night contests between Pac-10 (Pac-12?) bottom feeders. By the time March Madness
rolls around, every owner has seen Duke play roughly 15 times. It’s no joke.
Our draft kicks off today and I couldn’t be more excited. To mark the occasion, I’ve written a list of current collegiate hoopers with funny names. I assure you that each one is completely real and that I know an embarrassing amount about his statistical utility. Enjoy:
-Antonio “Scoop” Jardine
-Michael (Mike) Scott *
**Only funny if you sing the theme song to MacGruber every time Rodney scores. Which I do.
Ed. note: I'm tied up this week, so Jonathan Doster -- clean air advocate, grad student, purveyor of On the Records -- chipped in with a guest post about crime laws. Enjoy! And be sure to subscribe to his OtR twitter feed for fun articles and jams.
Starting in the 1990s, sex offenders have been targeted by some of the more boneheaded crime laws the country has ever produced. Take the combination of registration and notification laws. The former requires convicted sex offenders to provide valid contact information to law enforcement authorities, and the latter forces corrections officials to post information on sex offenders publicly. The policies seem reasonable enough on their face, but a new study
by University of Michigan's J.J. Prescott and Columbia University’s Jonah Rockoff found that notification might actually increase
recidivism rates by imposing “social and financial costs on registered sex offenders” and making “non-criminal activity relatively less attractive." Like a scarlet letter, publishing details of past behavior can complicate the process of finding work and reintegrating into community life for those who have already served their sentence.
Inconsistencies in registration and notification programs haven't stopped punitive legislators and policymakers from passing further, unproven regulations of sex offenders, either. Civil commitment is another striking example. Similar to the “sex psychopath” laws
of yesteryear, these statutes force the state to retain custody of an individual found by a judge or jury to be a “sexually dangerous person.”* We've witnessed a staggering growth in the use of these draconian laws; according to U.S. Justice Department statistics, 20 states currently employ civil confinement, involving near 4,000 rapists, pedophiles, and other sex offenders nationwide. Yet comprehensive data documenting their effectiveness has never been produced. Indeed, it's not even clear that courts are capable of determining who among us is "sexually dangerous."
That very question has confounded criminal justice experts for decades. Our earliest sexual psychopath policies
(PDF) were crafted with four basic assumptions in mind: sexual psychopaths are distinguishable from generic sex offenders; individuals commit sexual offenses because of a mental disease; mental diseases are treatable and curable; and mental health professionals can successfully predict which sex offenders are likely to reoffend in the future. Critics, however, said the labeling of offenders as sexual psychopaths lacked scientific merit and the prediction of future offending was suspect. Law professor Deborah Denno points out that “dangerous offender” is not a psychiatric diagnosis at all but a legal term, and is thus “overinclusive, misleading, and confusing.”
Recently, courts have started to use more advanced tools for assessing the dangerousness of individual offenders. In Washington State, the End of Sentence Review Committee, which makes recommendations regarding sex and kidnapping offenders prior to their release from the Department of Corrections and Department of Social and Health Services, requires a forensic psychological evaluation to conclude whether those offenders who appear to meet the definition of a sexually violent predator do in fact warrant civil commitment. According to their state statute, the evaluation is completed by a member of the Joint Forensic Unit (JFU), a pre-selected group of expert forensic psychologists who specialize in sexually violent predator and sex offense risk evaluations. If a JFU evaluator decides that an offender qualifies, he is referred to the appropriate prosecutor’s office for civil commitment consideration. Then, civil commitment referrals are reviewed and processed by the King County Prosecutor’s Office Sexually Violent Predator Unit or the Washington State Office of the Attorney General SVP Unit.
This particular system provides several levels of bureaucratic accountability, limiting the likelihood of subjectivity in the sentencing process. Still, members have questioned how lawmakers defined "mental abnormality" in the text of the law. This problem is not new; even in 1950, E.H. Sutherland argued the concept of the "sexual psychopath" was so vague that it could not be used for “judicial and administrative purposes without the danger that the law may injure the society more than do the sex crimes which it is designed to correct.”Actuarial formulas
-- akin to the tables used for life insurance -- play another central role in deciding who is menacing enough to be committed. By looking at factors such as the number of prior sex offenses and the sex of the victims, judges will calculate someone’s risk of offending again. Men with male victims are graded as a higher risk, for example, because statistics show they are more likely to repeat their offenses.
Actuarial advocates profess that their formulas outperform clinical judgments when utilized at a civil commitment hearing. Although actuarial data can be used to identify a group of persons to be considered for possible civil commitment, it cannot predict accurately the likelihood of future acts of sexual violence for any specific offender within such a group. And by introducing actuarial data at the commitment hearing itself, courts run the risk of committing offenders inappropriately
. As Eric Janus puts it, “the danger is that these numbers will blind people.”
Before states build more $388 million facilities
to house former sex offenders, it might behoove policy makers to figure out whether or not it’s even possible to identify future transgressors.
*Offenders are involuntarily and indefinitely committed to a secure rehabilitation facility after his or her prison sentence is complete.
“It’s rats and roaches, blood, guts, and talent … It’s being young, creating, doing things with dignity.”
That’s Berry Gordy Jr., on November 6, 1966, describing to a reporter from the Los Angeles Times
what he considered the essence of the Motown Sound. As the owner of the most beloved independent (and black-owned) record label in American history, Gordy was in the business of selling records, so an unsympathetic critic could read the quote as mawkish myth-making. I’ll be generous and say the sentiment reflects with some accuracy the sensibility young audiences found appealing about the bevy of singers who belted out hits from the famed bungalow in 1960’s Detroit. Solid Motown tracks always felt simultaneously specific -- rooted in diverse, mid-century black neighborhoods -- and universal. It didn’t hurt that the pop-infused soul tunes were catchy as hell, either.
The label’s linchpin was undoubtedly The Supremes
, the all-female pioneers who ultimately registered 12 chart-topping singles and first signed a contract with Gordy 50 years ago
this year. As a creative person trying to catch a break myself, I find some inspiration in their famous (and quirky) origin story. The original ensemble -- Diana Ross, Florence Ballard, Betty McGlown, and Mary Wilson -- grew up together in the Brewster-Douglass* housing projects and were initially brought together by Milton Jenkins, a small-time promoter for the local men’s quintet known as The Primes (later The Temptations). Jenkins thought a sister act might be good for his business, so he started booking the young ladies at block and basement parties under the moniker “The Primmettes.” "I used to get whipped every night for going to those parties," Ross told Time
in 1966, "but I always went. We sang because we loved to sing.” The gigs, while exhilarating, didn’t pay much, which forced Ross and her high school colleagues to try some creative tactics to grab Gordy’s attention and secure steadier work. More from Time
: In 1960 they made their first bid for a recording contract with Berry Gordy, the hiphazard impresario of Detroit's Motown Record Co. "They seemed like just three skinny teen-age girls," he remembers. "I told them to go back to school." Back they went, but in her junior-year Diana wangled work with Gordy as an assistant to his secretary. "I didn't know anything about being a secretary," says Diana, "and I used to sing every time he opened his inner door." She was fired within two weeks, but did manage to land the girls some recording jobs in a background chorus. One day after school, they dropped in to tell Gordy he owed them some back pay. The ensuing conversation led to the audition and the contract that was to make Berry the U.S.'s largest producer of 45-r.p.m. records last year.
Given the label’s enduring cultural impact, it’s easy to forget that Motown -- powered by The Supremes -- really had just one creatively significant decade. Gordy’s tight-fistedness and mechanized production model
eventually turned off popular musicians who rightfully deserved better contracts and more promotion for their work. Between 1967 and 1980, Motown lost control of the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Smoky Robinson, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, and the famed songwriting team of Holland–Dozier–Holland
, not to mention Diana Ross herself.** That’s a murderer’s row of talent. And when Gordy felt the wanderlust for Hollywood and moved operations to California in 1972 to focus on films and television, he didn’t spend enough time developing new voices to replenish his cupboard. (Rick James and The Commodores sold some albums, but were not critical darlings.) Jheryl Busby, who took over Motown in 1988 amid lagging sales, explained the problem diplomatically in an 1989 interview
with the New York Times
: ''When Motown moved from Detroit to Hollywood and Berry diversified into movies, there may have been a failure to keep their ears on the street, where the creativity comes from.''
I guess it’s fitting that Hitsville U.S.A. was transformed into a popular museum
while the building that once housed the business side of the enterprise was left to decay
and was ultimately razed
to make way for a parking lot. The label’s music was iconic, and its management imperfect.
*My buddy Paul is finishing up a documentary
on the B-D homes, which I am excited to see.
**I especially like Tito Jackson’s blithe comment
announcing his group’s departure for Epic in 1975: “We left Motown because we look forward to selling a lot of albums.”
The only thing presidential hopeful Rick Perry loves more than locking and loading at his racist hunting camp
is running for office. In an insightful profile
for The New Republic
, reporter Alec MacGillis surveyed the Texas governor’s career and concluded that Perry is not really motivated by ideological principles or an appreciation of well-crafted public policy. Rather, he’s moved by “the business of politics: ladder-climbing, deal-making, campaigning, and, most of all, winning.” This explains why a conservative hell-bent on slashing government spending has no compunction about doling out
grants, tax breaks, and contracts to serious campaign supporters like he was Rod Blagojevich on some drunken binge. For Perry and his coiffed ‘do, the game means everything.
If we assume MacGillis’ characterization is accurate, I’m curious what a young Perry -- bored at home in West Texas following college and a stint in the Air Force -- took away from his visit
to Washington D.C. in 1978, when he witnessed the first major protest of the fascinating, controversial, and short-lived American Agriculture Movement
To understand the significance of this jolly band of farmers, an amateur lesson in agrarian economic policy
is helpful. Thanks largely to technological improvements, farmers have gotten better at their jobs over time; between 1948 and 2002, total U.S. agricultural output rose
by a factor of 2.6, while population didn't even double. When suppliers harvest more food than Americans can gobble up in a given year, the surplus exerts downward pressure on prices. That’s good news for families trying to save a few bucks at the grocery store, but bad news for the laborers whose income depends on the sale of those crops. The problem gets worse when thousands of farmers across the country all decide individually that the only way their families can eke out a living is by planting more seeds. What seems like a rational economic calculation in the face of falling prices actually floods the market further, lowering premiums in the process.
For 40 years, beginning during the Great Depression, the United States tried to solve this dilemma by limiting the amount of seed farmers sowed. If American agriculturalists churned out more than their neighbors could chew, the government would simultaneously purchase and store excess grain and pay the farmers to leave portions of their land fallow. This command-and-control system worked reasonably well until the early 1970s, when synthetic pesticides and new machinery overwhelmed the government's ability to minimize agricultural output. “Given such leaps in productivity,” wrote Tom Philpott in his concise overview
of the Roosevelt-era initiative, “it was inevitable that the New Deal paradigm would break down.”
In stepped the Nixon Administration and one of the great names in American political history, former USDA Secretary Earl “Rusty” Butz
. To boost prices, Butz and his colleagues decided they would focus their efforts on the demand side of the equation by opening up foreign markets to U.S. crops. Quickly, he engineered a massive grain sale to the Soviet Union and then pressed farmers to till their bare farmland “from fencecrow to fencecrow.” If his strategy caused prices to dip below the cost of production in the short-term, the free-marketer agreed to make direct payments to the landowners to protect them from falling into debt. A new era was born.
This is where the AAM enters the story. In 1973, with the passage of the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act, Congress established its first set of “target prices” for crops. If the average price for a certain commodity fell below the given estimate, the government would simply write a check to the farmers who grow it. Four years later, with that first omnibus bill scheduled to expire, lawmakers and the Carter White House renegotiated target price levels. Surveys taken at the time showed
that a huge majority of food producers -- whose purchasing power was at its lowest level since the 1930s -- were keen to keep the new law in place so long as target prices were raised. The final legislation did, but only modestly. And that’s when some young American farmers got radical.
That fall, 3,000 small farmers from 24 states convened in Pueblo, Colorado to berate U.S. Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland for ignoring their plight. His response -- that they should "just wait a while and things will get better” -- was unsatisfying, to say the least. After the meeting, frustrated farmhands decided to organize the AAM formally. Their sole demand? Establish “100 percent parity,”* described informally as a “minimum wage for farmers.” The movement spread
like a wildfire. Optimistically claiming the support of one-third of U.S. farmers, AAM allies held rallies at statehouses across the country that winter, and even secured a meeting with President Carter on December 24, one that the Washington Post
described at the time as “mostly symbolic.” Their agitation culminated in a giant tractor rally (or “tractorcade”) in the nation’s capital just a few weeks later. The AAM’s resident historian, biased as he or she may be, sets the frantic scene
: AAM's tactics in those early days brought harsh criticism, but also much needed publicity. Farmers learned to tell their story in front of TV cameras and on radio talk shows. Soon the whole nation knew there was a problem, whether they agreed with the farmers or not and whether they condoned their tactics or not. When Congress reconvened on January 18, 1978, 50,000 farmers were in Washington, D.C. to greet them. Again, all of this was done with no formal communications network. On March 15, 1978, 30,000 farmers marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in one of the largest farm demonstrations ever. Some farmers from Missouri had brought along some goats, and somehow they got loose just as the parade approached the Capitol. The versatile goats nimbly climbed the steps, the statues, the fences or whatever else they wanted to. Police, not used to herding goats, tried to catch them. The news media barely noticed what the farmers were saying for the antics of the goats.
Though not for lack of effort, AAM leaders failed to initiate a “national strike,” whereby farmers across the States would stop buying equipment and selling produce until their demands were met. But the Carter administration agreed to halt temporarily all foreclosures conducted by the Farmers Home Administration as a result of their actions. Six months after the D.C. fracas, the Post
offered a largely positive assessment of the AAM’s experiment. “What the movement brought can be measured largely in intangibles: a new political awareness for farmers, some small political victories, and a new sense of community among people who pride themselves on their individualism.”
The next winter, a smaller and more aggressive band of AAM members, again riding their John Deere’s, returned to Washington and snarled rush-hour traffic in an attempt to drum up publicity. In just a matter of hours, 19 farmers were arrested, 17 tractors were impounded, and the goodwill AAM officials had generated 12 months earlier was squandered. “This is not a legislative year, and there ain’t much going to happen,” the chairman of the House Ag subcommittee told Scripps-Howard
. “You cannot find the sympathy for them they had last year.” It was the group’s last true moment in the limelight.
These days, it’s large corporate conglomerates who suck up
a growing percentage of the farm subsidies Rusty Butz first set aside. (Archer Daniels and the like then use the government cheese to buy out young farmers who the USDA initially intended to support.) If elected president, it’s not yet clear if Rick Perry -- himself a mild beneficiary
of direct subsidies -- would do anything to alter the status quo. I guess we will just have to wait to find out what lessons he gleaned from 1978.
*Adjusted for inflation, the farmers wanted to earn as much profit-per-acre as their predecessors did in 1910.