Ivy League Hucksters!

Hello, registrar's office."
"Hi, is this the registrar's office at Columbia University?"
"Yes, it is."

"Well, I was hoping you could help me. I'm calling from Miami and I was trying to track down some information about a former Columbia professor, Alex Cooper. I believe he taught bullshitting."

"Excuse me?"
"Bullshitting. You know, a class in bullshitting. Maybe it was called Introduction to Bullshitting, or Advanced Bullshitting, or Bullshitting and Architecture."

"We don't teach bullshitting at Columbia."
"Are you sure? Professor Cooper is very good at it. What about obfuscation? Perhaps his class was called Obfuscation: Theory and Practice. Or maybe he led a practicum in prevarication."

"Why are you so interested in Professor Cooper?"
"I'm a reporter, and Professor Cooper recently spoke at a press conference where he unveiled plans for a new basketball arena in Miami. The Miami Heat made a big deal out of the fact that this guy was a famous urban designer who had taught at Columbia. One of his former students, Jay Cross, is overseeing the arena project for the Heat, and the two of them put on a real dog-and-pony show. Hey, maybe that's it! Does Columbia have an animal husbandry department?"

"Hold for a moment. (Hold music: Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major.) Are you still there?"

"Professor Alexander Cooper taught from 1974 to 1980 in the School of Architecture. He holds a master's degree in architecture from Yale University, class of 1962. At Columbia he taught urban design. Not bullshitting."

"Well, I gotta tell you, it sounded like a lot of bullshit to me."
"Oh, really."
"Really. Let me give you an example. Next month voters in Dade County are going to get a chance to decide whether public money should be spent to build a new arena. Plans call for the arena to be constructed on waterfront property that was supposed to be used for a park. And one of the biggest concerns for critics of the deal is that the arena will form a massive concrete monstrosity that will block the view of the bay. But when Cooper presented artists' renderings of what the project will look like, he showed every angle except street level."

"Maybe he didn't have time to draw it from street level."
"That's what he said. And if that was the only problem with his presentation, maybe I wouldn't be so bothered. But he did something else that seemed really sleazy."

"In addition to building a new arena on the waterfront, the county plans to expand the Port of Miami and dredge four deep-water slips to handle giant cruise ships. But Cooper's drawings only include two slips for two boats."

"He wouldn't say. Every time someone asked him, he artfully sidestepped. But the answer seemed obvious. If he'd drawn in four boats instead of two, his drawing would have confirmed everyone's worst fears about how ugly this project is going to look."

"Are you suggesting that this esteemed professor is trying to trick the public into believing they're going to get one thing when in fact they're going to get something completely different?"

"I didn't say that. I'm just saying it looks kind of suspicious. And later, when I asked Jay Cross, the guy who's in charge of all this, why the Heat presented artists' renderings that gave an inaccurate image of the plan he said, 'Why wouldn't we choose views that make for a more compelling story?'"

"In other words he's saying, 'We'll only show you the pictures that make the project look good and we'll bury the information that makes the project look bad.'"

"So it would seem."
"So the public shouldn't believe anything the Heat says. Who's paying Cooper?"

"The Heat."
"How much?"
"They won't say."

"Hmmm. Well, you know the old saying: He who pays the piper calls the tune. Say, how big is this arena going to be, anyway?"

"Mr. Cross said between ten and twelve stories high."
"Are you serious? My apartment building in Brooklyn is only eight stories! No wonder those weasels didn't provide any street-level drawings. How big are the cruise ships?"

"Seven or eight stories."
"Let me get this straight: They're going to put a ten-story arena and four eight-story cruise ships on downtown land that was supposed to be used for a park. Doesn't that sound pretty!"

"Professor Cooper said it was going to be very exciting. The artists' renditions seemed enticing -- he had pictures of fathers and sons fishing off one of the piers. He gave the whole project sort of a Norman Rockwell feel."

"Hucksters! Ivy League hucksters! Trust me, buddy -- I know their type. So how much is this arena going to cost?"

"About $165 million."
"Jeez Louise! Ah well, maybe I shouldn't get so upset. After all, you're the one who lives down there. But it still seems like a stupid idea to give up that waterfront land even if the team is going to pay $165 million to build a new arena on it."

"Actually the team is only contributing $50 million. The rest is public money. Most of it comes from a special hotel-room tax charged to tourists."

"What are you, an idiot? Is everybody down there senile? I don't care where the money comes from, where the hell are your priorities?"

"The Heat says a new arena is necessary in order for them to make more money so they can keep up with skyrocketing players' salaries."

"Now that's bullshit. Whose fault is it that salaries are so high? The owners. And now because they can't hold the line on these obscene salaries, they expect the public to bail them out. Who owns the Heat?"

"A guy by the name of Micky Arison. He's a shipping magnate. Forbes magazine says he's the 65th-richest man in the United States, worth more than $1.7 billion."

"I've got an idea: Why doesn't Mr. 65 build his own arena with his own money? But I guess he doesn't want to do that because it'd drop him down to number 71. The greedy corporate pig."

"You know, I called him the same thing a few months ago. Back in the Eighties, when the owner of the Miami Dolphins, Joe Robbie, wanted a new stadium, he built it with his own money. But Heat officials say Arison refuses to do that. And get this: Now Arison is talking about selling the team and moving it to another city if voters don't approve the plans for his arena."

"Has Arison ever heard of Art Modell? (Laughs.) Well, at least you're going to get to vote."

"Even that has been an uphill fight. Opponents of the arena collected more than 48,000 signatures on petitions to force a November 5 vote. The leader of that drive, Dan Paul, spent more than $60,000 of his own money to organize the effort after county commissioners refused to voluntarily place the arena question on the ballot."

"What does he get out of the deal?"
"Nothing. He has no financial interest in the property. He merely believes the land should be used for a park, like the City of Miami promised years ago."

"How does Arison hope to win?"
"First of all, he's going to court to try to block a vote. If that doesn't work, he's going to try to fool some of the voters into approving the arena: When the petition was presented last month, the county commissioners wrote a straightforward ballot question -- if you wanted the arena built you voted yes, and if you didn't want it you voted no. But a few days later Arison wrote a letter to commissioners urging them to fiddle with the language, which they did at their next meeting. Now a yes vote means you don't want the arena and a no means you do."

"I get it. People go into the voting booth and see the word arena on the ballot. They vote no, thinking they're killing the deal, when in fact they're voting for it. That's pretty sneaky."

"Especially since public opinion polls show that voters are overwhelmingly against this project. Not only that, but the Heat will mount a huge media blitz. Mr. Cross said they're going to spend 'hundreds of thousands of dollars' on an ad campaign to convince voters that this is a good deal."

"Hundreds of thousands of dollars?"
"Those were his exact words, 'hundreds of thousands of dollars.' What makes that figure even more startling is that in June, when the Heat went before the county commission to get the arena approved, one of the commissioners, Javier Souto, asked the Heat to immediately donate $500,000 to the county's parks system as a sign of good will to the community. You should have heard all the moaning from arena supporters. Finally a compromise was worked out whereby the Heat would donate $100,000 a year for five years. And now they're ready to blow hundreds of thousands of dollars in the next four weeks on TV ads and slick flyers."

"That should give you a sense of their priorities."
"Yeah. Well, I'd better get back to work."
"Me too. Give me a call and let me know how it turns out. Bullshitting. Sounds to me like the whole team could teach it. Amazing."

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede