Posts Tagged ‘theft’

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Special mention

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mike3may

One of the biggest crime waves in America is not robbery. It is, as Jeff Spross [ht: sm] explains, wage theft.

In dollar terms, what group of Americans steals the most from their fellow citizens each year?

The answer might surprise you: It’s employers, many of whom are committing what’s known as wage theft. It’s not just about underpaying workers. They’re not paying workers what they’re legally owed for the labor they put in.

It takes different forms: not paying workers the federal, state, or local minimum wage; not paying them overtime; or just monkeying around with job titles to avoid regulations.

No one knows exactly how big a problem wage theft is, but in 2012 federal and state agencies recovered $933 million for victims of wage theft. By comparison, all the property taken in all the robberies of all types in 2012, solved or unsolved, amounted to a little under $341 million.

Remember, that $933 million is just the wage theft that’s been addressed by authorities. The full scale of the problem is likely monumentally larger: Research suggests American workers are getting screwed out of $20 billion to $50 billion annually.

Actually, employers steal from workers in at least two different ways: when they don’t pay them what they’re legally owed, and even when they do. In the former case, the laws and enforcement are weak—but at least prosecutors and labor groups are getting more aggressive about pursuing wage theft. Maybe, then, workers will be able to recover the back pay they’re owed and employers, instead of just paying small fines when they’re caught, might actually go to jail.

In the latter case, fixing the theft that occurs even when workers are paid what they’re legally owed, is even more difficult, at least within existing economic institutions. That’s because, under the rules of capitalism, workers receive a wage (which, at least under certain circumstances, equals the value of their labor power). But then, outside the labor-market exchange, when workers start to produce, they create value that is equal not only to their wages, but also an additional amount, a surplus. Even when workers receive their legally mandated wages, that extra or surplus-value is appropriated by their employers. It’s legal and, within the ethical code of capitalism, “fair.”

So, within contemporary capitalism, we should be aware of two kinds of wage theft, both committed by employers: the theft of legally mandated wages and the theft that occurs even when workers receive their legally mandated wages.

The first is a case of individual theft, the second a social theft. Both, it seems, are countenanced within contemporary capitalism—and workers are made to suffer as a result.

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Gerhard Richter, “Vesuvius” (1976)—detail

 

We’re supposed to be grateful that finally, in “Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection,” we have the opportunity to see the paintings in Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen’s burgeoning art collection.

“We are very excited for this exhibition of paintings from Paul Allen’s collection—all extraordinary landscapes—to be seen by the public as it travels the country on its five-museum tour. The exhibition explores landscape painting through works by a wide variety of artists and artistic movements over almost four centuries—it’s this breadth that makes the show so fascinating,” says Mary Ann Prior, director of art collections at Vulcan, the organization that produced the exhibition.

The show is comprised of works spanning five centuries by such artists as Paul Cézanne, David Hockney, Edward Hopper, Gustav Klimt, Claude Monet, Thomas Moran, Georgia O’Keeffe, Gerhard Richter, and J.M.W. Turner. “Seeing Nature” is co-organized by the Portland Art Museum and the Seattle Art Museum, in collaboration with the Paul G. Allen Family Collection. “These are really exceptional pieces of art, and there’s something about landscapes that is universally attractive, which is why I find them so interesting,” Allen says. “By sharing these paintings with the public, it is my hope that people will have the same eye-opening experiences I had when I first saw them.”

But not Philip Kennicott. He focuses attention, first, on the Richter painting in the show.

It is one of several volcano pictures in the Allen collection, but it is perhaps the most ominous and unsettling. Rather than depict the drama of volcanic eruption, Richter shows the mountain asleep, barely visible in the distance, viewed from a small rock outcropping across a vast, hazy sea. The painting captures the double nature of the sublime, the terrifying power of nature (in this case dormant) along with the inherently arrogant belief that man can overpower, assimilate and tame nature (implied ironically by the vantage point, high and distant).

The Richter is the most keenly critical work in the show, dramatizing and undermining the idea that man can stand above and survey the world as if he owned it. Many wealthy people believe that this is true, but in the end they are always disabused of the notion. “Ars longa, vita brevis” comes for everyone at some point.

It’s not clear whether Allen understands this, sees the irony, or just likes the painting, which can pass surreptitiously for a postcard view of a pretty place. And that’s the problem. Like so many other shows devoted to work amassed by individual collectors, the collector himself is a cipher. His comments in the catalogue interview are disturbingly inarticulate and jejune. The promise that an exhibition such as this one will illuminate something interesting about the collector, or the idea of collecting, is almost never fulfilled.

And, then, Kennicott raises more general issues about the show itself and Allen’s collection:

In the end, we’re supposed to feel grateful. But I don’t feel grateful. I resent the fact that when this show is over (it will travel to Minneapolis, New Orleans and Seattle through 2017), all of the art will remain in the private collection of Paul G. Allen. And I can hear the retort: That’s life, that’s capitalism, and get over it because at least it’s not in Qatar.

But the problem with collecting masterworks of great artists is that the act of ownership is in itself a kind of theft, stealing from the public commons of genius. Put another way, once a work of art is important enough to be of interest to a man like Allen, it belongs to all of us. He may not know that, but we do. And so when the show is over and the art is subsumed back into the private palaces of plutocracy, one feels its loss more keenly than any fleeting gratitude to the person who made it temporarily accessible.

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Special mention

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Not surprisingly, the story of Monopoly is even more complicated than I knew and related before. It’s a history of not only landlords but also finance and monopoly.

The story [ht: ja] does, in fact, begin with Elizabeth Magie, in 1904. But, before we get to the modern version of Monopoly, there was another game, created by Dan Layman: Fortune. Fortune was first produced by Electronic Laboratories and then by Knapp Electric. By 1935, Finance was outselling Monopoly 10 to 1. That year, Monopoly again came to the attention of Parker Brothers, when they decided to purchase and produce the game.

Parker Brothers wanted a “monopoly” on Monopoly so they began trying to squash the competition. George Parker went to visit Lizzie Magie-Phillips to try to acquire her 1924 Landlord’s Game patent. The two knew each as Parker Brothers had published some of her games in the past and she considered George Parker the “King of Games”. The negotiation over the purchase was an easy one, Parker Brothers would pay Mrs. Magie-Phillips $500 and agree to publish a few more of her games including The Landlords Game (this was done in 1939 again with very little success). Patent number 1,509,312 now belonged to Parker Brothers.

Knapp (Electronics Laboratories) was another story. Already outselling Monopoly and beginning to market the game on a national level they weren’t convinced as easily. It took $10,000 of Parker Brothers Money (a huge amount in depression torn 1935) to convince Knapp to sell. Parker Brothers then changed Finance completely and, hiding behind a dummy company (The Finance Game Company), filled Knapp’s outstanding orders. In 1936 the board and rules were again changed slightly and Finance became a Parker Brothers game.

Parker Brothers wasn’t about to put all its eggs in one basket though. They had Darrow file for a patent, but knowing the true history of Monopoly they decided to produce their own version of the game. Fortune was the result of this work. As few as 5,000 of these games were made in 1935 before patent 2,026,082 was granted giving Parker Brothers proprietary rights to Monopoly. The name Fortune was then added to Finance which became Finance and Fortune until Parker Brothers used the name Fortune for another game in 1958.

So, as it turns out, the real history of Monopoly is the story of landlords, finance, and monopoly during the First Gilded Age and the First Great Depression.

I wonder what games will have been created based on the finances and fortunes of the Second Gilded Age and the Second Great Depression.

Apparently, the official story about the origins of Monopoly is wrong.

The official history of Monopoly, as told by Hasbro, which owns the brand, states that the board game was invented in 1933 by an unemployed steam-radiator repairman and part-time dog walker from Philadelphia named Charles Darrow. Darrow had dreamed up what he described as a real estate trading game whose property names were taken from Atlantic City, the resort town where he’d summered as a child. Patented in 1935 by Darrow and the corporate game maker Parker Brothers, Monopoly sold just over 2 million copies in its first two years of production, making Darrow a rich man and likely saving Parker Brothers from bankruptcy. It would go on to become the world’s best-selling proprietary board game.

Instead, the game was invented much earlier, by Lizzie Magie.

Three decades before Darrow’s patent, in 1903, a Maryland actress named Lizzie Magie created a proto-Monopoly as a tool for teaching the philosophy of Henry George, a nineteenth-century writer who had popularized the notion that no single person could claim to “own” land. In his book Progress and Poverty (1879), George called private land ownership an “erroneous and destructive principle” and argued that land should be held in common, with members of society acting collectively as “the general landlord.”

Magie called her invention The Landlord’s Game, and when it was released in 1906 it looked remarkably similar to what we know today as Monopoly. It featured a continuous track along each side of a square board; the track was divided into blocks, each marked with the name of a property, its purchase price, and its rental value. The game was played with dice and scrip cash, and players moved pawns around the track. It had railroads and public utilities—the Soakum Lighting System, the Slambang Trolley—and a “luxury tax” of $75. It also had Chance cards with quotes attributed to Thomas Jefferson (“The earth belongs in usufruct to the living”), John Ruskin (“It begins to be asked on many sides how the possessors of the land became possessed of it”), and Andrew Carnegie (“The greatest astonishment of my life was the discovery that the man who does the work is not the man who gets rich”). The game’s most expensive properties to buy, and those most remunerative to own, were New York City’s Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and Wall Street. In place of Monopoly’s “Go!” was a box marked “Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages.” The Landlord Game’s chief entertainment was the same as in Monopoly: competitors were to be saddled with debt and ultimately reduced to financial ruin, and only one person, the supermonopolist, would stand tall in the end. The players could, however, vote to do something not officially allowed in Monopoly: cooperate. Under this alternative rule set, they would pay land rent not to a property’s title holder but into a common pot—the rent effectively socialized so that, as Magie later wrote, “Prosperity is achieved.”