It’s now established that a secretive political group linked to the billionaire conservative activists Charles and David Koch has agreed to pay a record fine for violating California’s laws requiring the disclosure of campaign donations. But much else about these dark-money maneuvers remains shrouded in the mystery that inspired the title “Covert Operations” for the story I wrote about the Koch brothers in 2010.
When the comedian Noré Davis was getting started, he would drive into Westchester County for his day job, in graphic design, and at night he would head to open mics in New York City—as he put it, “Collecting lots and lots of miles on my first car.” He wasn’t getting paid; the draw was having a chance to practice his new material and to see the headliners who took the stage after him. “The best way to learn is to watch,” he says. “There’s no formula, you just have to do it, see where you fall, and make adjustments.”
In the past, a city was said to have “Manhattanized” when it bulldozed old storefronts to make room for dense clusters of commercial skyscrapers: think San Francisco in the nineteen-sixties or Miami in the early aughts. Recently, however, city dwellers have adopted the colloquialism to refer to a different New York City phenomenon.
“How do you Manhattanize a townhouse?” Christabel Gough, a New York resident and the secretary for the Society for the Architecture of the City, asked last year in a speech about Brooklyn’s brownstones. “First, you pay a seven- or eight-figure price to buy it. Then you destroy it—except, of course, for the street front, if it is in an historic district. You expand underneath with new underground levels, which may include a swimming pool, a dog-grooming room, and other such essentials….” The list went on.
Last week, a significant milestone came and went with surprisingly little fanfare: the fortieth anniversary of the day, in 1973, that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries placed an embargo on oil exports to the United States. The embargo was in response to assistance the U.S. gave Israel during the Yom Kippur War, but its effects have lasted much longer than that three-week event. In showing us that our access to oil can’t be taken for granted, it fundamentally altered our relationship with fossil fuels.
“That was a real trauma to U.S. thinking on energy, and it rationalized the notion that we need to get off oil,” John DeCicco, a professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute, told me. An initial attempt came, in the early nineteen-eighties, from the Carter Administration, which tried and failed to make synthetic fuel out of shale oil. Then came California’s investment in methanol, and, in 1990, its controversial Zero Emission Vehicle program, which set an aggressive deadline for eliminating emissions from passenger cars. The early aughts saw George W. Bush rallying for “pollution-free” hydrogen-fuel cells, to no avail. “This hasn’t been a partisan issue,” DeCicco said. “Over forty years, this political support of getting off oil has been used to justify almost anything.”
Circa 1890. A machine shop on the thousand acres surrounding the original mine that became known as Iron Mountain.
A historical sign from 1935 marking the mine, then known as the Burden Mine, in Germantown, New York.
Circa 1950. The view from outside the mine during the initial construction of Herman Knaust’s storage facility, Iron Mountain Atomic Storage.
Circa 1950. Inside the mine during the construction of Iron Mountain Atomic Storage.
August 24, 1951. East River Savings Bank was the first client to store its vital records at the newly established Iron Mountain Atomic Storage. The documents included microfilms of bank ledgers, duplicate signature cards, and the balances of two hundred thousand depositors.
Circa 1960. Two employees carry Claude Monet’s “Boating on the River Epte” through the vault door to the entrance of the Iron Mountain storage facility.
Circa 1960. The cafeteria of a fallout shelter that would provide protection for Iron Mountain client executives and their families in the event of a nuclear war.
If you’ve ever wondered where it all goes—printouts, photocopies, purchase orders, meeting minutes, invoices, correspondence, training manuals, personnel files, audit reports, PowerPoint decks, tax returns, financial statements, contracts; all the stuff, in short, that your company produces and is often required, by law, to keep—your answer might be a decommissioned Hudson Valley iron mine called Iron Mountain. “The Mountain,” as employees sometimes refer to it, is a storage facility for a Boston company, also called Iron Mountain, that is one of the most successful document-storage firms in the United States.
The tentative thirteen-billion-dollar deal that JPMorgan Chase has reportedly struck, to settle several probes of its residential-mortgage-backed securities business, has sparked heated debates over whether the bank should have to pay more or less. There is also the question of whether the settlement is large enough to punish JPMorgan and deter other companies from behaving similarly.
The thirty-five-minute documentary “From One Second to the Next,” directed by Werner Herzog and released online by the four largest mobile carriers in the United States, opens with an image of an empty hand. It belongs to a young woman whose brother, Xzavier, was struck by a car driven by someone who, absorbed in a text message, ran through a four-way stop. Xzavier was paralyzed from the neck down, and now must use a ventilator to breathe. In another scene, a young man with startling blue eyes tells the camera, “This was the last text message I sent before I caused an accident that killed three people.” The words “I love you” flash on the screen. He was texting his girlfriend when he accidentally ran down an Amish buggy on the side of the road in Indiana.
The film is gentle to the people whose stories it tells, whether they are victims or perpetrators. Above all, it expresses a skepticism about the value of technological connectedness. “It’s just nuts, it’s crazy,” says a truck driver who hit a car that was pushed into his lane by another texting driver, about the popularity of sending messages from behind the wheel. And then, in the film’s final line: “I don’t know why people don’t want to talk to each other, anyway.”
Last Saturday, an elderly man set up a stall near Central Park and sold eight spray-painted canvases for less than one five-hundredth of their true value. The art works were worth more than two hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars, but the man walked away with just four hundred and twenty dollars. Each canvas was an original by the enigmatic British artist Banksy, who was approaching the midpoint of a monthlong residency in New York City. Banksy had asked the man to sell the works on his behalf. For several hours, hundreds of oblivious locals and tourists ignored the quiet salesman, along with the treasure he was hiding in plain sight. The day ended with thirty paintings left unsold. One Banksy aficionado, certain she could distinguish a fake from the real thing, quietly scolded the man for knocking off the artist’s work.
Normally, Banksy has no trouble attracting customers. Five years ago, two of his pieces were sold for more than three million dollars combined. It would take the elderly man in Central Park almost twenty years to amass the same lofty sum. What makes Banksy’s subversive stunt so compelling is that it forces us to acknowledge how incoherently humans derive value. How can a person be willing to pay five hundred times more than another for the same art work born in the same artist’s studio?
In last week’s issue, James Surowiecki pointed out that one reason for America’s increasing income disparity is a huge boom in executive compensation, with C.E.O.s at large companies earning nearly two hundred and seventy times as much as the typical employee. We know what present-day executives tend to spend this compensation on: opulent residences, top-of-the-line child care, and so on. But how did the one per cent of an earlier gilded age, the nineteen-twenties, spend its wealth?
Stocks were up sharply this morning, suggesting that investors are optimistic that Congress will, at long last, do the right thing and raise the debt ceiling. (The market has also been buoyed by the fact that earnings season has gotten off to a good start.) And that seems reasonable, given that a Senate deal appears close to being finalized and that, according to Robert Costa, of the National Review, John Boehner has agreed to allow a vote on the Senate plan in the House. While most Republicans would vote against it, enough would join with the Democrats to pass it. In other words, House Republicans will have brought the country to the brink of default, put us through weeks of economic uncertainty and turmoil, and accomplished absolutely nothing. And while that’s cause for a big sigh of relief (or, for my colleague John Cassidy, a tall drink), it should also be the impetus for Congress to do away with the debt ceiling entirely, so that we don’t have to go through this nonsense again.