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Does Michael Milken’s ‘American Dream’ Really Exist in America?

A few notes on Tuesday's Dallas Citizens Council luncheon
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I liked this carpet.

A number of weeks ago, I expressed my misgivings in this space about the lineup for this year’s Dallas Citizens Council luncheon. The Bush Center’s Ken Hersh was to interview Mike Milken on the topic of “how we may all work together to define a more equitable future for all.” I talked to the DCC’s CEO, Kelvin Walker, and its chairman, Rob Walters, who said to me, “[E]quity is in the eye of the beholder, right? And I don’t know exactly what you mean by it. I know what I mean by it. But this program is not about everybody’s equity, right?”

Right. And some animals are more equal than others.

Walters invited me to attend the luncheon and to reserve my judgment. So attend I did. And now I will judge. Here are some of my thoughts and observations from the Dallas Citizens Council luncheon held Tuesday at the Hilton Anatole.

Omicron Doesn’t Exist 

On the drive over, I listened to a report on the radio about how the new variant is sweeping through Europe and just starting to kick into gear here in the States. Then I walked into the ballroom and saw 700 people milling about, talking to each other, doing their level best to spread the virus. Music was turned up so that people had to get close to hear each other. No exaggeration: there were maybe 10 people wearing masks, including me. Correction: there were maybe 10 attendees wearing masks. All the servers wore masks.

So before we’d even taken our seats, before the salads were even dressed, I was filled with judgment. Let’s talk about the equitable future of the dozens of servers working that luncheon, nearly all of them people of color, a group whose lives have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. If one of those folks dressing our salads were to get sick and have to stay home, she doesn’t make money. I don’t know what an Anatole serving job pays. But I know it pays nothing if you can’t come to work.

And how about the attendees? I think I can speak for nearly every single one of them. When I get sick and have to stay home, I can jump on a VPN to access our server and do my work from my bed. Hell, even if I feel so lousy that I can’t do anything but finally start watching Succession because all my friends keep telling me I absolutely must watch Succession — I still get paid.

I think I know how someone from the DCC would respond to this. “Tim, would you prefer that we’d canceled the event? If we’d done that, those servers might have worked fewer hours this week, hours they need to earn enough to support their families. Maybe the Anatole would even have to lay off some of their servers.”

Yes, that’s true. Those servers need your money. And they need their health. Their lives are harder than yours. So until you cut into that wedge salad, maybe wear a mask.

My DMN Tablemate Didn’t Punch Me

I don’t know off the top of my head how many times I’ve publicly insulted the Dallas Morning News’ editorial board. As recently as October, I said the entire thing should be scrapped.

Naturally, I wound up sitting next to Elizabeth Souder, a member of the editorial board. And, naturally, she was far nicer to me than I deserved. Someone from the Dallas Business Journal joined our table. When introductions were made, Souder complimented my work to the DBJ person, which she absolutely didn’t need to do. I felt like a heel.

That said, the DMN should scrap its editorial board.

Rob Walters Didn’t Quite Nail It

Walters, as I said, is the chairman of the DCC. He made some remarks before Milken took the stage. At one point, he said, “Sadly, we remain a long, long way away from the economic and social mobility we must engender to fulfill our collective failure.” I later listened to a recording to make sure I’d heard him right. I don’t know what happened, whether the teleprompter or his mouth malfunctioned, but that’s indeed what he said.

Who cares that he misspoke? It’s not a big deal. Except that the words following “collective failure” were these: “You know, to make it, a kid simply shouldn’t have to be as talented — and I’m about to embarrass him — as talented as nationally renowned author Casey Gerald, who’s here today, who grew up in the toughest circumstances, but went on to Yale and into Harvard before publishing his critically acclaimed works. Welcome home, Casey. Glad to have you.” The ballroom applauded.

This shocked me. Gerald wrote a whole book about how he doesn’t want to be the poster boy for the American dream, how he rejects the role that some rich White people want him to play, the smart Black kid from Oak Cliff whose success proves that we all live in a meritocracy where everyone has an equal opportunity to eat wedge salads at the Anatole. Gerald’s memoir is titled There Will Be No Miracles Here. It led to a Vanity Fair interview that is titled “Memoirist Casey Gerald Takes Aim at the American Dream” and an NPR interview in which he talked about “illusions behind success and the American dream.”

To recap, Casey Gerald thinks the American dream is a myth, and he doesn’t want to serve the propaganda machine used to spread it. Which is exactly how Rob Walters used him. It’s hard to imagine that a teleprompter snafu created this gaffe.

Let’s Get to Mike Milken Already!

OK, start with this Simpsons clip in which Hank Scorpio reveals that Milken got at least one idea from him:

Now that I think about it, Milken bears more than a passing resemblance to Charles Montgomery Plantagenet Schicklgruber Burns. Both regard the world with chin lowered, looking through their eyebrows. That’s what Milken did yesterday, often looking at the stage floor as he answered questions posed by Ken Hersh, who shuffled through about 100 index cards with typewritten notes on them. The huge stack of cards struck me as odd, given that several of Hersh’s questions served only to give Milken an opportunity to introduce videos. One of the videos consisted almost entirely of a dramatically scored montage of schoolteachers crying and hugging Milken as he handed them $25,000 cash prizes for being great teachers.

I am being a snot. The 2,800 teachers who have received these Milken Educator Awards would agree. But how did that audience yesterday benefit from watching the crying teachers video? We weren’t presented with an argument. We weren’t told about how innovative school districts across the country approach teacher compensation and whether DISD’s pay-for-performance strategy is a sound one and, if so, how the pandemic might figure into the tricky process of determining exactly which teachers deserve more money. No. We were shown crying teachers.

It was marketing. From where I sat, Milken was the product being sold.

Milken Offered Some Wild-Ass Stats

Milken himself beat prostate cancer. He said he ate only fruits and raw vegetables for two years as part of his recovery process. He was talking about how important diet and lifestyle are. Then he said the following:

“Can you change how people are going to eat, how they’re going to live? As you pointed out, if we took a look at seven chronic diseases, a report we put out 20 years ago, it costs the United States $1.5 trillion a year, just the change in weight. Now, Dallas, you know, is a football town. You know, I think people would be astounded to know that in the first Super Bowl, there was not one player that weighed 300 pounds. OK, that you would actually go watch a football game without a player that weighed 300 pounds. Today there’s more than 400 players [over 300 pounds] in the National Football [League].”

From what I can gather from googling around, Milken is right about the increase in NFL players over 3 bills. But so what?! Shouldn’t he have been talking about the 20 percent of children and adolescents in this country who are obese and how that statistic relates to socioeconomic status? La’el Collins goes about 320. I promise you the Cowboys offensive tackle is not indicative of an obesity problem in the United States.

In 1967, the year of the first Super Bowl, there were something like 640 players in the league. Most of them had off-season jobs. And Len Dawson, the Chiefs’ quarterback, smoked during halftime of that game! Today the league has 1,700 players. Most of them work at football full time. And the reason a bunch of them weigh more than 300 pounds is precisely because they know a lot about diet and lifestyle.

When Milken said that, I looked around the ballroom, going like, “Is anyone else hearing this? What the hell?”

Canadians Have a Better American Dream Than Americans

Milken is big on the American dream. His cancer battle, he said, showed him first-hand what that dream means to our country. He said:

“That has been a lot of my focus over the last 50 years. The idea that you would be denied access to financial capital because of your race. I mean, it’s absurd. And we’ve seen that time and time again. If you look at Silicon Valley today, which someday will move maybe to Dallas, you’ll see that 50 percent of every scientist and every engineer in Silicon Valley was not born in the United States. If I go to the largest medical center where I got my care many years ago, almost 30 years ago, MD Anderson, 50,000 people. Sixty percent of the professional staff was not born here. They came for the American dream, and we are enriched by it.”

I’m not quite sure what to make of those numbers. According to MD Anderson, they have about 22,200 employees. I can’t find how many of those are foreign born. It doesn’t matter. It’s a facile argument whatever the real numbers are. Our immigration policy is a mess. Our higher-education system is a mess. Our healthcare system is a mess. So the explanations for the number of foreign-born workers at MD Anderson are far more complex than simply “They came for the American dream.”

Here’s what we can say about the American dream using data: Raj Chetty (born in India!) is an economist, Harvard professor, and so-called McArthur genius. I’ll quote from a Department of Housing and Urban Development report on a talk Chetty gave there:

“Using IRS data for over 40 million children and parents, Chetty’s research seeks to answer the question: is the United States really the land of opportunity? The research measures mobility based on the odds of a child from the bottom 20 percent of the income bracket reaching the top 20 percent. Chetty explains this measure as a quantifiable articulation of the American Dream: do children born in poverty have the opportunity to make it to the top?

“The overall results of the study demonstrate that the United States ranks particularly low compared to other developed countries. As Chetty states, ‘Your chance of achieving the American Dream is nearly twice as high in Canada relative to the United States.’”

Which raises one very important question that Milken did not address: how many players in the Canadian Football League weigh over 300 pounds?

Here’s My Takeaway

A couple days before the luncheon, I got into an email exchange with Geoffrey Moore, a senior advisor for Milken, who wrote to take issue with my first post about the DCC’s choice of speaker. He eventually wrote me a 3,100-word email defending Milken’s honor, pointing out that I was wrong to say he’d paid $600 million in fines, that it was only $200 million and the other $400 million was to settle civil suits, arguing that “the total economic effect” of Milken’s violations was just $318,082, saying that the only reason he pled guilty to felonies and spent time in prison was to save his family the anguish of seeing him attacked by overzealous prosecutors and their allies in the media. I think that’s a fair summary of Moore’s email. Like I said, it was lengthy. Oh! Moore also mentioned that Dallas’ own Sam Wyly defended Milken in his 2008 autobiography in which he claimed that Rudolph Giuliani prosecuted Milken only because he saw the high-profile case as a path to becoming the governor of New York and eventually president. Wyly, of course, is a tax cheat who hid his cheddar on the Isle of Man and settled up with the feds in 2019 to the tune of $500 million.

But I’m not here to re-litigate Mike Milken’s misdeeds! That’s old news. And who really cares that Milken accepted a presidential pardon last year from Donald Trump? I mean, if I’d done something wrong, and if Hillary Clinton had been elected president and taken my children to the basement of Comet Ping Pong and then offered me a pardon, I’d accept it. Who among us wouldn’t?

No, here’s what I want to leave you with: the Dallas Citizens Council threw a boring luncheon. That’s it. They went out and got a big name because (I guess) they needed butts in seats. It didn’t matter that the guest was out of fashion or that he wasn’t likely to say anything interesting. They appeared to just want something marketable. It’s like they brought in Andrew Dice Clay because they figured their audience knew the name and would enjoy some of his old jokes. It was dull, and when it wasn’t dull, it was confusing.

The saddest part is that they had a far better option right in the ballroom. I said in my first post about the DCC luncheon that they should have asked Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, to speak on equity. I’ve got an even better suggestion. He was sitting yesterday at the table of DCC chairman Rob Walters, who had invited him to attend. His name is Casey Gerald. Check out his TED talk and other performances on YouTube, especially this PBS NewsHour video titled “Why we need to stop sharing American Dream success stories.”

Now that would be an interesting lunch topic for the Dallas Citizens Council.

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