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Life and death and the grift.

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1. Timothy Noah

I started reading Tim Noah before I moved to Washington in 1997. He has a Substack now and this essay about plotting life and death through the Brood X cicadas will take your breath away with its beauty:

Over a normal human lifespan a resident of the mid-Atlantic states can expect to witness five sightings of Brood X, the nation’s biggest cicada cohort, which emerges from the ground every 17 years.

I missed my first opportunity, in 1970, when I was 12. The cicadas crawled out of the ground that year shortly before my family moved from New Rochelle, N.Y., to Beverly Hills, Calif. Probably there weren’t many to see. New Rochelle is pretty far north for Brood X, which seldom extends north of New Jersey. Brood X does extend to Ohio, though, where one month earlier National Guardsmen fired into a crowd of antiwar protestors at Kent State, killing four of them.

Four days before I boarded the plane to California with my mother and sister, Brood X was making a racket in Princeton, N.J., where Bob Dylan, 29, was receiving an honorary degree from Princeton University alongside Coretta Scott King, 43, and Walter Lippmann, 81. . . .

Seventeen years later, in June 1987, I was 29 and leaving brunch at my friend Gregg Easterbrook’s house in Arlington, Va., when I noticed a lot of crunchy insect carcasses underfoot. My date, Marjorie Williams, 29, explained what these were, and she may even have noted the Dylan episode, since she’d grown up in Princeton. Marjorie was working at the time as a writer on the Washington Post’s Style section, and she’d probably read this explainer by Catherine O’Neill. I was a congressional correspondent at Newsweek. This was the month when President Ronald Reagan gave his speech in West Berlin urging Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” which struck me as dangerous showboating at the time. I was wrong; two and a half years later, the wall fell.

When Brood X resurfaced in late spring of 2004, Marjorie and I were married. We were both 46, with two young children, Will, age 11, and Alice, age 8. The large fact in our lives was that Marjorie had stage 4 liver cancer. We spent two weeks that summer in Great Island in West Yarmouth, a place Marjorie had visited frequently as a young girl, staying in the house of a kind family friend. Marjorie died the following January, three days after her 47th birthday, which was also mine. . . .

Now Brood X is back. I’m 63 and remarried to a beautiful and vibrant woman who will take me later this month to a cocktail party where cicadas will be served as hors d’oeuvres.

The large fact in my life right now is that my mother, Marian Noah, with whom I boarded that plane to California three cicada cycles back, died last week in Beverly Hills, at 92.

Read it here and subscribe. It’s worth your time. I promise.


2. BIG

Matt Stoller writes about monopolies in his newsletter and this story about what happened to the cheerleading industry when a monopoly took over is fantastic:

Cheerleading became a monopoly the same way that most monopolies form in America, through mergers. Over the course of a few decades, Varsity bought up 80-90% of the cheer contests, the most significant one being its purchase of Jam Brands in 2015. It also gained control over the nonprofit rule-making organizations for the sport, most importantly the U.S. All Star Federation, which it financed and staffed.

With control over the rules of the sport, and how the tournaments worked, Varsity gained power over the gyms where athletes train. It raised prices for its events, and charged inflated amounts for apparel, uniforms and equipment. At the same time, it gave secret rebates to gyms based on how many tournaments they attended and how much apparel they bought. Gyms and independent event promoters operated in fear of Varsity, not just because of this rebate system, but because Varsity determines which teams got to go to the best tournaments, and even the scoring systems deciding who wins and loses. Its control over the sport, and resulting pricing power over apparel and equipment, was so iron-clad that CNBC called Varsity one of the “few retail businesses of scale that may also have an Amazon defense.” . . .

One would generally think all of these problems, and a pandemic shutting down most live events, would be bad for Varsity’s business. But in fact, Varsity seems to be doing better than ever. In the midst of the pandemic, CEO Adam Blumenfeld announced they had raised $185 million in just ten days, four times what they originally sought. “This amount is distinguishable and differentiating in our marketplace,” he said.

And as it turns out, the pandemic was in other ways very good for Varsity, beyond just getting cheap capital. Bain Capital had been trying to clean house after buying the firm a few years ago, and it was able to do so with its layoffs. And canceling live events wasn’t necessarily bad for the corporation, because it had monopolized the space. As one industry participant told me, Varsity was able to get teams to compete virtually, and had virtually no costs - no stages, setup, or event costs beyond web streaming. “Varsity is a cash flow machine,” one person in the industry told me. Their costs dropped by 80-90%, but their fees only declined by a third. It’s no wonder that, according to the Dallas Morning News, Varsity has “grown its cash pile during the pandemic.”

Read it; subscribe. Peter Thiel was right: The best business is the monopoly business.


3. The Margins

Can Duruk is back with a meditation on grift in the business world:

If the battle chant of the 90s was “Greed is Good”, the animating phrase for the 2020s has to be “Grift is Better”. While Gordon Gekko’s defining trait was never satisfied with what he had, the grifters of our generation make their mark by being utterly shameless about what they are up to. It’s not enough to earn more, you have to do it while leaving any shred of dignity you might have at the door. . . .

Having been immersed primarily in Starting Something New the past few months, and trying to do it with both ambition and integrity, it’s been somewhat confusing, and maybe even disheartening a bit, to see many grifters grift so well. . . .

There are a couple of qualities that are common to all modern grifts. First of all, most of these grifts are enabled by a high-profile media personality who is good at content. Second, the grifts have to straddle a fine line where they are shamelessly unethical, but always one plausible deniability away from being extremely illegal. The third and the most important quality is that the main perpetrator of the grift has to be wildly shameless about their actions.

A true modern grift is not run behind closed doors. Instead, you do it fully out in the open, screaming about it from the mountaintops. While greed is about focus, grift is about shamelessness. With greed, the game is to find the path between the rules with the most profit. Grift, on the other hand, ignores the rules altogether, armed with the knowledge that with shamelessness comes zero social costs, and with absent enforcement, no real legal risk. . . .

Let’s start with a basic, simple grift like the one-time Seinfeld investor turned racist-in-chief Steve Bannon of the Trump Reich shilling his vitamin supplements. I mean, I am trying real hard to not be mean about this, but it almost feels sad to watch someone go from being the bookish face for fascism (with a penchant for layering?) to succumb to Alex Jones level cheap tricks to monetize their fame. But going back to our rubrics, you’ll see it fits neatly into all the categories.

America is a first-world country where you can have commercials on TV for drugs that most people cannot buy themselves. The “let the stupid be stupid” ethos runs deep in this country’s veins so I am not particularly shocked or even bothered that you can essentially claim anything about a food supplement and get away with it as long as you put a disclaimer somewhere in there, but still, this feels icky. You can’t, however, blame Bannon for trying to squeeze out every inch of value from his one-time fame (criteria #1), do it in a legally dubious way (criteria #2), and also being wildly shameless about (criteria #3).

The whole thing is killer. Read it and subscribe.

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