Saturday, October 18, 2014

DUE DILIGENCE (Rachel Gold Mystery) by Michael Kahn | LibraryThing

Due diligence. Utter that dull gray phrase around a pack of corporate lawyers and watch them leer. That’s because the final tab for the due diligence in a significant transaction will easily exceed ten million dollars. Those kinds of numbers enchant even the most somber of practitioners.”


The plot revolves around an accountant who was doing due diligence on a company before a merger could take place.  Rachel had received a call from him explaining he needed her advice on some details of the merger.  When his body is found in the basement having gone through a trash compactor, Rachel is hired to help clean up some of the affairs and discovers an intricate web of deceit and malfeasance.  Soon her investigation leads to a presidential candidate and what he might have done many decades earlier and whether doing something that might benefit millions of people but leads to the deaths of some elderly patients might be ethically suspect.


Each of Kahn’s books takes a legal issue and builds a plot around it. There’s usually some kind of list with obscure combinations of letters and numbers Rachel must decipher. While the details of the characters appear repetitive from one book to the next, I didn’t find that as disconcerting as have some readers.  


Some interesting history of trademarks. I knew little of their origin and raison d’etre. “During medieval times, trademarks became a symbol of responsibility as the powerful guilds of Europe required their members to each use a unique mark. That way a defective product could be traced back to its maker. A trademark was thus the highly personal symbol of a single worker: when his life ended, so did his trademark. By the middle of the twentieth century, however, it had metamorphosed into the multibillion dollar world of brand-name marketing—a world where a single word, such as Xerox or Corvette or Chanel or Kodak, can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Not to mention that St. Louis became home to many brands of beers because it’s built over the top of hundreds of limestone caves.  I just had to check out whether all this was a figment of Kahn’s imagination.  It is not and the caves play a central role in the solution to the puzzle. Note that claustrophobic activities appear in other of Kahn’s novels.  (http://books.google.com/books?id=A-qxHKZcF_AC&pg=PR6&dq=st.+louis+caves&hl=en&sa=X&ei=_mNCVKejOs3-yQSCyYCQCg&ved=0CDIQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=st.%20louis%20caves&f=false)

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Johnson V. Johnson by Barbara Goldsmith | LibraryThing

Reading this book is like watching a train wreck in slow motion.  We know it’s painful and really shouldn’t watch, yet the grinding and twisting of the family members, bashing each other and causing pain and suffering to each other, has a salacious interest that draws the reader in for more.   It’s truly a Bleak House.

Americans suffer from the conflict of two myths:  the lottery get-rich-quick syndrome versus the Puritan ethic of hard work and avoidance of luxury.  The result of this struggle means that we love to see the rich suffer and be unhappy despite, or especially because, of all that money.

This Johnson family will battle presents a good case for why inheritances over, say $1,000,000, should be taxed at 100%.  Not to mention a lesson in why there should be better oversight over the trustees. It’s a sad story of kids fighting over huge amounts of money they have done nothing to earn.  The whole idea that a will could be successfully contested makes a mockery of the legal system.  Johnson had a battery of lawyers drawing up the 48 page will.  The children, after his death, didn’t like the result so it was challenged in court.  It wasn’t fair,” was their argument. The lawyers didn't care, they were making millions off the battle.  So why bother with a will if a court can intervene and change how the money is allocated?  Just go straight to probate and let the court decide.  Or, as I noted above, tax it all at 100%.

The trusts were set up in a rather bizarre fashion so that the children were skipped and the benefits devolved onto the grandchildren.  They were also designed in such a way that control of the huge corporation remained in the hands of the family and not stockholders which provided  substantial tax benefits.  The trustees were virtually untouchable and exerted control at the expense of everyone but themselves, making themselves quite rich.

The book is structured in an unusual way, laced with snippets of interviews with the family members, often contradicting each other, always hostile.  It sometimes feels disjointed with little sense of connectedness or linear feeling. Lots of interesting detail, but little of substance.  You feel empty, sad, bewildered, and not a little angry at the selfishness and stupidity of nearly everyone.

The first part of the book is background, family history, setting the stage for the longest trial relating to a will in US history.  When the elder J. Seward Johnson died in 1983, he left the bulk of his estate to Basia Johnson, his most recent wife, who was 42 years his junior.

The trial occupies the last section and here the  anomalies were most apparent.  One juror was heard to exclaim how she couldn't live on $12 a day and what was she to do. She was being asked to sit in judgement on a family, the individual members of which had a net worth of $50 to $100 million each and were fighting over the distribution of another $500 million.  In the end, the trial, which lasted 17 weeks before it was settled, was hog heaven for the more than 200 lawyers who participated and who shared more than $24 million in legal fees. There were over 300,000 pages of documents.  Had it gone to the jury (many of whom reported being totally appalled at the time they had spent for very little money when` a settlement ultimately resulted) no matter who had won, there would have been decades of appeals until, most likely, all of the inheritance had been transferred from the defendants and plaintiffs to the lawyers.  Even lawyers who observed the case thought it represented a nadir of American trial law. I would disagree.  We haven’t seen the bottom yet.

Audiobook that’s good shower listening.  The dirt can be washed off immediately.

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Sunday, October 05, 2014

The Republic in Crisis, 1848-1861 by John Ashworth | LibraryThing

There have been more than 55,000 books and pamphlets written about the Civil War since 1861. Why another?  The author, in his introduction suggests it’s because he has a reinterpretation, proposing that the Civil War was inevitable given the illiberal reactions of the south based on their justified fear of slave insurrection, rebellion, sabotage, and impact  of the growing  differences between between free and slave labor..


Ironically, racism was enhanced by the American Revolution as class differences disappeared and racial differences became necessarily more pronounced in order to make slavery palatable. “Blacks” were genetically “inferior” and well suited for being mastered was the claim.  The social history of slaves and slavery really only got started in the sixties, and historians discovered that slavery was resisted, often quite violently.  Ashworth proposes that slave rebellion played itself out politically and was a major contributor to the war.  


It was the fear of slave rebellion and slave violence that moved whites to take actions that violated white liberties which helped fuel anti-slavery feeling in the north. Constant vigilance against slaves running away and then efforts to get them back (slaves often represented a considerable investment, perhaps the equivalent cost as a nice car in today’s dollars) resulted in pressure for the federal government to enforce the Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution and then later the stricter Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. As the number and membership of abolition societies grew in the north, actions by the south, including censoring the mails to (prohibit distribution of pamphlets, and the gag rule in the Senate intended to prevent petitions to eliminate slavery, began to identify antislavery with freedom of speech. (See also  William Miller’s Arguing about Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress.)  The murder of abolitionist Lovejoy in 1837 made things worse.


No slave society in history has managed to urbanize or industrialize and the distinction in that regard between the north and the south became ever more manifest. By the time of the civil war 90% of manufactured goods came from the north and barely 10% of the southern population was urbanized. The contrast between free labor and that of slaves also became more obvious.  It wasn't that industrial slaves weren’t profitable.  They were, but the potential for sabotage was much greater and the economic effects much more damaging while the  implements required for an agricultural economy didn’t require nearly the economic investment.  Not to mention that white labor deeply resented competing with slave labor and that “agitators” could much more easily organize slaves to revolt in an urban setting.  According to James Henry Hammond, one of South Carolina’s most prominent statesmen, “whenever a slave is made a mechanic, he is more than half freed”. “The field”, another southerner concluded, “is the proper sphere of the negro”.


A further reason for the lack of urbanisation and industrialization was the self-sufficiency of the plantation.  Since the need for labor on a farm was seasonal at best, but the slaves were property, and it was important to keep them busy,  it became an economic necessity for owners to encourage slaves to raise their own food which in turn reduced the need for labor-saving equipment further reducing the impetus for industrialization while in the north wage-labor could be laid off when times warranted.


Support of non-slaveholding whites was important since they were needed to patrol areas and to provide assistance in case of slave revolt. In most southern states, whites were outnumbered, often by considerable numbers, so creating an image of the savage black man became essential, but at the same time the myth of Christian protection was created to salve their own consciences, i.e. that the black man needed saving and protection because he was “childlike.”  In other words, slavery was “good for them.”  An extension of this was that by having slaves do menial jobs, the free white man didn’t have to.  And, of course, they could point to the founders of the republic, many of whom had owned slaves, so how could it be a bad thing?  The slaves themselves were quite happy, they insisted, all suggestion to the contrary coming from northern agitators.


This review is getting a bit long, so I’ll end with this quote:  
"In the following decades these attitudes began to change dramatically. It would be a pardonable exaggeration to claim that in the nineteenth century, the United States went from a belief that democracy was incompatible with wage labour (on a large scale) to an assumption that a successful free society and democratic government depend on wage labour and are scarcely possible without it. From the 1830s onwards the abolitionists were in the vanguard of this movement. The adjustment to the arrival of wage labour on a large scale would bring with it a new hostility to slavery. . . In the United States, the writer continued, “the wheels of fortune revolve too rapidly, and the rich and poor change places too frequently, to allow a foundation for such an agitation as this”. The driving force of the entire system was, of course, self-interest: the prospect of upward mobility gave the worker a huge incentive to labour. At this point the antislavery implications became apparent. The slave simply lacked these incentives. In the vast majority of cases he could never cease to be a slave. Moreover because his labour was given under duress, it could not, abolitionists were confident, energise an economy and foster its development. Nor was it properly respected. As a result “indolence” and “dissipation” ruled in the South. According to abolitionist Charles Beecher, “slavery degrades labor, discourages education, science, art; enfeebles commerce, blights agriculture, and continually works society towards barbarism”. As northerners re-examined the basis of their labour system and stressed the incentives available to wage workers (as to other northerners), in increasing numbers they found it difficult to ignore the antislavery implications."

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Thursday, October 02, 2014

Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto | LibraryThing

Roy Cody is a bagman for a mobster in New Orleans. He has terminal lung cancer. He has also dallied with the girl of the boss. For that he suspects he was sent to warn off someone but told not to take any guns along.  Obviously he did and managed to extricate himself from  potentially being hit.  Deciding to leave town quickly, he takes along a hooker who  happened to be present when the failed hit went down.

They take to the road and complications arise.  Soon, Rocky, Roy’s traveling companion has picked up her three-and-a-half-year-old-sister (a gunshot was fired - she says it was just to scare her step-father) and Rob’s better judgment keeps warning him to drop them off somewhere and split.  But he’s pulled by the normality of his new situation.  He should have kept running.

What follows is classic noir, but it’s also a tale of redemption, with Roy attaining an almost Christ-like status at the end, although if you are looking for a nice feel-good book, look elsewhere.  Very well written with some haunting images.

“[Life] doesn’t seem fair, because it’s random. But that’s why it’s fair. You get me? It’s fair like a lottery’s fair."

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

FLESH WOUNDS (A John Marshall Tanner mystery) by Stephen Greenleaf | LibraryThing

Shit!.  I’m running out of Greenleaf books to read.  Only one left.  For whatever reason, Greenleaf has given up writing -- or at least publishing -- and that’s a real shame. As I have said numerous times, he ranks up there with Ross MacDonald.

Peggy, Tanner’s former secretary and close friend, has been gone now six years much to Tanner’s regret.  Out of the blue he gets a call from her asking for help.  It seems she has become engaged to Ted, a wealthy venture capitalist, whose daughter, not happy that Ted will be marrying Peggy, has disappeared and Peggy knows that Ted won’t get married until she’s found.  He’s hired an investigator also, but to no avail to Peggy asks for a favor, one Tanner can hardly refuse.

The case involves pornography, digital technology (it’s a bit dated, but, no matter) and a rather nasty man.

As good as the others, I recommend reading all of them.

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