John Stossel, ABC’s self-appointed scourge of “junk science” and the “liberal media,” wielded a fine-point Sharpie last Wednesday night, scrawling his name on the inside leaf of his new book titled — no surprise — Give Me a Break. Reason magazine, with an assist from the L.A. Press Club, booked Citrine, a restaurant that could double as an executive dining room at Fox Studios, to give a little stroke to the 20/20 co-host who, back in the mid-’90s, used its pages to announce his conversion from consumer advocate to Templar of capitalism. Stossel, sipping a vodka tonic, seemed a lot more hedonistic than his admirers. While they kept up a steady bleat about the wonders of free markets in places like Chile (“It has a completely privatized social security,” businessman Paul Harberger swooned, “and you get 4 percent return on your investments. You can’t beat that”), Stossel maintained his televised distance. This was a roomful of people out to feed their individual dreams of riches and all that wealth confers, and it was obvious that Stossel knew he was among converts who had the bad habit of forcing him to listen while they recited the catechism. An awkward moment for a celebrity who just wanted to drink and schmooze a bit. Besides, he didn’t need reminding. Years ago, when he quit exposing consumer rip-offs, he told a Federalist Society audience, “I got sick of it. I also now make so much money, I just lost interest in saving a buck on a can of peas.”
Not that Reason or Stossel were loath to reprise an Econ 1A lesson plan. A hosted bar, pouring a Kirralaa Shiraz and a Terra di Tufi pinot grigio, abruptly ended at 7 p.m. The welfare state — Stossel’s bête noire, a.k.a. “freebies” — was replaced with the self-avowed libertarian’s beloved free market. Henceforth, his well-wishers would have to pay $9 a glass for wine, an adroit baptism in what the latter-day followers of Adam Smith like to call “economic shock therapy” — the cure so disastrously applied to, among others, the former Soviet Union. Still, with so many people quoting Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, it seemed only fair that the prevailing ideology ought to give shape to the facts, and not the other way around. One was left to wonder, however, at the lavish, scrumptious scallop and tuna tartare canapes that kept coming out of Citrine’s kitchen, gratis. Shouldn’t a tab have been run for these, too?
At around 8, it was time for Stossel to formally acknowledge his hosts and the adoring crowd. Employing his boyish looks and Midwestern twang to conjure his trademark tone of Everyman common sense upended, Stossel defended himself against his detractors. “Where I live [New York City, presumably], they use the word conservative the way they use the words child molester. George Will and John Stossel: right wing, conservatives. But I’m neither a conservative nor a liberal. I think drugs and prostitution ought to be legal. You ought to have the right to burn flags, if that’s what makes you happy. I’m a hardcore libertarian.”
“The book’s No. 1 on Amazon,” someone from the floor blurted out.
“It was No. 1, but has fallen down below Al Franken, sadly,” Stossel replied. The crowd booed.
“Capitalism,” Stossel continued, “equals free minds, free markets, limited government to create the prosperity we have in America, and in Hong Kong.” With his practiced note of strained credulity, he summarized what libertarians were up against. “People hate their employers and they pay them. People love their government and it takes their money. I toast to freedom!”
A young man, wading into the audience, pointed out that markets aren’t always prudent or wise. “During the electrical crisis,” he said, “L.A. was the only place that wasn’t affected because we had public power. Meanwhile, Enron stole billions of dollars.”
Stossel, the seasoned TV personality, knew how to parry the anxious young man’s attempt to prick the air of invincibility: stay on point. “There are no big national scams except for Enron,” Stossel said. “Because markets figure it out. Not the government. Enron is an example of how well the market worked for people. Enron’s stock came tumbling down. When the government fails, we give them more money. So, yes, there are Enrons, but the exception proves the rule.”
And then he moved on, without giving anyone a chance to challenge the Dumpster-load of falsities in that shambles of a paragraph. But then, Stossel knew that while it’s no fun to have the choir preach to you, preaching to the choir has its distinct advantages. You can always be sure that dissent will be laid promptly to rest. And so it was — without a peep. Stossel’s performance lasted all of five minutes. The crowd settled back into the individual pursuit of happiness. Oddly, as they drifted for the door, no one seemed especially cheerful. All that talk about the laws of supply and demand proved the old saw. Economics is the dismal science.
“Demand for Entry,” read the note taped to my front door. That got my attention. The City Housing Authority wanted access to all 12 condos in our co-op building Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. — less than 36 hours from the time the notice was posted.
My neighbors and I tried to fathom the cause of this alarming demand.
Of course — the chicken coop!
A couple of years ago, I obtained permission from my fellow owners to build a small pen in our jointly owned garden for a trio of hens. Except for some brief unpleasantness when I tried to introduce a rooster into the pen, everyone seemed happy with the chickens.
Then one neighbor started advocating a change in the co-op’s “owner occupancy” rule, so he could buy up multiple units and rent them out. The rest of the owners said, “No thanks.” He next proposed a barbecue in the back yard, and people said, “Let’s think about it” — then didn’t. Our neighbor’s frustration ran so deep that when the coop was temporarily vacant, he dismantled it and started building his own redwood barbecue landing in its place. We called the cops, who, to everyone’s amazement, showed up promptly and mediated the dispute by insisting that everyone stop everything until a special election of all the owners could determine a legitimate use of the land. Three days later, the owners authorized reconstruction of the chicken coop in a 7-3 vote, with one abstention. Rather than vote, our neighbor filed a complaint about the chickens with the city. The new coop, now with just two hens, is slightly closer to our building than city code allows.
And so, Tuesday morning at 9:45 a.m. sharp, two inspectors, one from Animal Regulation and one from the Housing Authority, arrived at our locked front gate, which is only about 3 feet tall. I had evacuated the chickens to a nearby farm, just in case, and walked to the barricade with our association president and his brother, who came out aiming a video camera at the city officials. Our neighbor gleefully watched from a distance.
The Housing Authority inspector presented his card across the iron barrier and introduced the inspector from Animal Regulation. He asked if they could come onto the property. Our association president — let’s call him Tom — said no.
“Do you have a warrant?” I asked.
The Housing Authority inspector flushed with anger and barked that he was calling the LAPD. Tom ran upstairs to do the same, then returned a few minutes later with good news: The LAPD wouldn’t be coming out over two chickens. We were going to have to work this out among ourselves. After a 30-minute standoff, the inspector from the Housing Authority drove away, and a supervisor replaced him.
“I’m with the Housing Authority, and first I want you to know that we have no intention of entering your property without your permission,” the supervisor reassured us. “Can you please turn off that video camera?”
I signaled to Tom’s brother to shut the thing down. It was a good gesture that helped alleviate the tension. “The reason we’re so jumpy is this notice,” I explained, showing him the paper. “You can’t just barge into our homes like that. Our lawyer — even the cops — say this is totally illegal.”
The supervisor turned slightly green.
“I want to apologize,” he said. “My inspector thought this was an apartment building.
We have no jurisdiction — I shouldn’t even be here.”
“Besides,” I added, “there are no chickens here.”
“Might I ask where they are?” asked the inspector from Animal Regulation.
“They’ve been removed from the property,” I replied.
The inspector nodded.
“Then it’s in your interest to let him inspect,” the Housing Authority supervisor told us.
“If we don’t observe any code violation, it’ll help close the case,” added the inspector.
To trust or not to trust? Tom, his brother and I looked at one another. I nodded, and we accompanied the city officials to the coop, where they observed cedar chips, chicken wire and a lot of feathers where chickens had obviously been yesterday, and would obviously be tomorrow. The Animal Regulation inspector wrote on his business card that he observed no violation of code and handed it to us.
“This is your neighbor’s second
complaint,” he said. “After one more, we
dismiss him as malicious and stop responding. Next time, we’ll call you to
let us in. Just make sure there’s no violation of code.”
The two officials now stood on the sidewalk, leaning in on our gate, chatting amiably with my wife. I asked if they would perhaps be more comfortable on the other side — on our property — but they declined. A few minutes later, from my upper landing, I looked down to see our neighbor gesticulating wildly and complaining as our new friend from Animal Regulation stood with his arms folded across his chest, listening patiently.
—Steven Leigh Morris
Janet Jackson Exposed
After Justin Timberlake manfully rent the bustier of Janet Jackson during Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime spectacle, exposing to the chill night air the blushing lady’s breast, some have suggested the “wardrobe malfunction” (Timberlake) was a publicity ploy. Lost in the outcry, however, was the real motive: self-preservation. Both singers were aware that, immediately after their performance, an inspirational message would be broadcast over the stadium’s public-address system: “Choose your music . . . Choose to be different . . . Choose to be independent.” Timberlake and Jackson took bold action in a desperate attempt to distract attention from such propaganda, which, if widely taken to heart in such an influential context, would have dealt their careers a fatal blow. Sympathizers can show their support for J & J’s resourcefulness by exercising the unstated but always appropriate option: Choose Pepsi.
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