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Geoghegan: Learning from Europe

Of course, many Americans aren’t receptive to the notion that anyone else could do anything better.  And the charge of “European socialism” has often been flung at the middle-of-the-road Obama administration, which appears to be terrified by it.

But really – health care, transportation, taxation, labor standards, media policy, not to mention foreign relations, military budgets, and promoting manufacturing – don’t they do it better?  Could it have to do with the growth of labor parties following the defeat of fascism there, at a time when progressives were subjected to witch hunts here?  European social democracy, or what remains of it, is dedicated to capitalism with a human face.  America, let’s face it, not so much.

Tom Geoghegan talks about this – surely some of us can find it within ourselves to listen – in his new book, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?, which gets a launch party Friday, August 6 at 5:30 p.m. in the Skylight Room of the Dan Haus German Cultural Center, 4740 N. Western.

(Here’s our review of a previous Geoghegan book, which we liked a lot.)

Interest rates and safety nets

In his monthly American Prospect column, Chicago attorney and author Tom Geoghegan calls for a “national usury act, ” with payday lending as a case in point.

“In a country of no real safety nets, the ersatz American safety net is a payday loan of 700 percent. In 38 states, payday lenders run wild.

“I should say that in Illinois, there is a cap of 400 percent. But this applies only to loans of 120 days or less, so the lenders just make the loans of 121 days or more. The Illinois General Assembly, in the grip of the bank lobbies, just looks the other way.

“If you like, we Americans are ‘at fault.’ We go into debt too easily, we have bad moral character. But who corrupted us? America’s financial and political elites, when they deregulated interest rates and loans.”

Getting What You Ask For

Last year Newstips reviewed Tom Geoghegan’s pamphlet, “The Law In Shambles,” and suggested that the subject might warrant fuller treatment than the pamphlet format allowed.

“Geoghegan writes with wit and charm and sometimes too much brevity; his connections and explanations could use some fleshing out”.

(If you google “predatory charities,” our review comes up third.)

Now the Chicago lawyer has come out with a full-fledged book, “See You In Court: How the Right Made America a Lawsuit Nation.”

The Year In Books

The Law in Shambles by Thomas Geoghegan, Prickly Paradigm Press

Predatory charities?! Yes, and it’s just one sign of the collapse of the rule of law in modern-day America, Tom Geoghegan argues in his recent book.

Indeed, this year public officials here added their weight to the voices of community and labor groups which have questioned the tax exempt (i.e., charitable) status of nonprofit hospitals that charge inflated rates to the uninsured – and use collection agencies to get their money.

“Today the charities that are supposed to take care of us hunt us down,” Geoghegan writes of these hospitals. “In Chicago many law firms exist just to chase patients.”

This trampling of the law of charitable trusts – which mandates not just prudence but care and loyalty – parallels other trends following the collapse of the labor movement and its American version of a social contract, and the rise of a cut-throat, nihilistic, post-New Deal legal and political philosophy. Contract law has given way to tort law, with rational, inexpensive grievance procedures replaced by invasive, costly, scorched-earth lawsuits over employment issues. Administrative law, undercut by deregulation and the defunding of enforcement agencies, has been given way to whistleblower lawsuits.

In a book rife with sarcasm (clearly the shield of an idealist against encroaching cynicism), one prominent irony is that trial lawyers who sue doctors and hospitals are the ones blamed for the nation’s litigation explosion. “Hospitals and doctors sue their patients far more than their patients sue them,” Geoghegan points out. And they sue thousands of low-income, uninsured patients, garnish their wages, and force them into bankruptcy. This is “charity turning into Frankenstein,” he writes.

“The universities may be even worse than the hospitals.” They charge “unconscionable tuitions,” force students to mortgage their lives with loans, and sharply limit their ability to apply their education to public service – which was once the reason that universities were made tax-exempt.

“Those who really shape the values of these kids are not the people who do the teaching but the ones who chase down the loans,” he writes. “The university, like the hospital, creates a culture where people prey on each other, and use the law to take from each other.”

Geoghegan proposes state-level legislative action to “bring back the rule of law,” starting with contract and trust law. And he has proposals, again at the state level, for expanding majority rule. He notes the numerous anti-majoritarian features of our political system (of which the Electoral College is only the most notorious). And he notes that industrial countries with newer constitutions, and voting systems that encourage participation and increase representation, are advancing social and economic rights while we hasten in the opposite direction.

A Chicago labor lawyer and author, Geoghegan writes with wit and charm and sometimes too much brevity; his connections and explanations could use some fleshing out. He discusses in passing lawsuits he’s filed here – against a large nonprofit hospital chain, handgun manufacturers, payday loan companies and others.

“The Law In Shambles” is part of Chicago’s Prickly Paradigm pamphlet series, and with ten chapters in 140 pages, it’s the perfect stocking stuffer, not just for the judge or lawyer on your list, but for any political critic or just plain curmudgeon. — CB

Sidewalks: Portraits of Chicago by Rick Kogan and Charles Osgood, Northwestern University Press

2003 Studs Terkel Award winner Rick Kogan has been poking around Chicago all his life, and this new book is taken from the “Sidewalks” column he and photographer Charles Osgood produce for the Tribune’s Sunday Magazine, revealing forgotten places and people of the city, from Maxwell Street to the lakefront, from Bensinger’s Pool Hall and the world of bike couriers.

Restoring Power to Parents and Places: The Case for Family-Based Community Development by Richard S. Koresh, iUniverse; see

This book transcends the liberal-conservative stalemate over “family values,” arguing that families have been weakened as they’ve become less self-sufficient (or “productive”) and that strengthening the productive family – which may no longer grow its own food but does grow children, among other things – is of central importance as a stimulus to community development. Oak Park author Kordesh drawns on 20 years of experience as community development professional, public official, professor and father to fashion a fresh and provocative analysis and call to action, with the family as the starting point for community development strategies.

Miracle In Progress: The Story of Casa Central by Rev. Daniel Alvarez and Ann Alvarez, Chicago Spectrum Press

The story of the first 50 years of the largest Hispanic social service agency in the Midwest, told by its founding and current executive directors. Beginning of the Near West Side, Casa Central now operates 23 bilingual programs out of nine facilities in Humboldt Park, West Town, and Logan Square. Ann Alvarez says the book is “a tribute to the people who have devoted themselves completely to Casa Central, seeing it through good times and other times.”

There Goes the Neighborhood: Racial, Ethnic, and Class Tensions in Four Chicago Neighborhoods by William J. Wilson and Richard P. Taub, Random House

Looking at four working-class neighborhoods, this sociological study explores how the influx of Latinos is changing the racial dynamic in Chicago, which is no longer characterized by a black-white divide. It focuses on the varying capacity of diverse residents to work together on common goals, and the role of social organization in managing ethnic change.

Police and Community in Chicago: A Tale of Three Cities by Wesley G. Skogan, Oxford University Press

Northwestern’s Skogan has directed the evaluation of Chicago’s community policing program for 14 years, and here he looks at how effective the highly popular program is, finding distinctive responses among blacks, whites, established Latinos and new immigrants. Residents in African-American communities were most enthusiastic about community policing, and crime and fear dropped most dramatically there; predominantly Spanish-speaking areas fell behind. The book offers a window on the challenges posed by immigration and our increasingly multiethnic future.

Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, Harvard University Press

Explores the underground economy ranging from storefront preachers and alley mechanics to drug dealers and sex workers, and impacting every resident and household, in Chicago’s South Side Maquis Park neighborhood. With gang leaders helping to mediate neighborhood conflicts, some stereotypes are challenged.

Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America by James Green, Pantheon

Views the Haymarket Affair of 1886 – the strike for an eight-hour day, the bombing of police who were charging a labor rally, and the subsequent repression – in the context of Chicago’s rough-and-tumble history as America’s Gilded Age boom town and center of the first national labor movement – as well as the first ‘war on terror’ aimed at alien subversives. Green is right that America’s overlooked labor history is “the repository of some of the most dramatic, even epic, stories in U.S. history” – and that 19th-Century Chicago offers a remarkable setting and cast of characters.

Prairie Alligators: A Nick Spivak Mystery by Henry Polz, iUniverse

A community activist is murdered during an urban poverty seminar, and his investigator friend and a team of neighborhood crusaders follow the trail through Chicago’s blighted industrial districts and ethnic neighborhoods, through drug and gang wars, and past politicians pushing casinos, unearthing development and underworld scandals that reach the highest levels.

And A New Year’s Present?

The Genius of Impreachment: The Founders’ Cure for Royalism by John Nichols, The New Press

Our friend Studs Terkel’s blurb: “Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: ‘Bugger off!’ So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so.”

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