Weekend update from the editor's desk.
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Who is Michael Milken, and what did he do?

The name Michael Milken may not mean much to anybody under the age of, say, 40, but during the 1980s he flew high as the so-called “Junk-Bond King” of Wall Street and sank low as a guest of the Federal Correctional Institution in Pleasanton, Calif.

After serving 22 months on securities violations, he went on to survive cancer, and contributed millions to cancer research and public health, Jewish educational, cultural and human services organizations and Israel causes. He founded the Milken Institute, a nonprofit think tank that focuses on economic policy. The largest and best-known non-Orthodox Jewish day school in Los Angeles is named the Milken Community Schools.

President Trump’s decision last week to pardon Milken revives a once hot topic of debate: What exactly did he do wrong and did the punishment fit the crime?

Responses usually break along political and ideological lines. The Wall Street Journal, not surprisingly, said his prosecution “was an example of prosecutorial excess in an era like our own when political gales were raging about ‘the greed decade.’” James B. Stewart, in The New York Times, quotes the judge who sentenced Milken, Simba Woods, who said he was charged so that “our financial markets in which so many people who are not rich invest their savings” can be “free of secret manipulation.”

So what did he do? It’s hard to find a disinterested account of Milken’s prosecution and plea deal, or to separate the Milken case from an era in which Wall Street was both revered and reviled.

Milken’s defenders say he was one of the great innovators in finance, pioneering high-risk issues of corporate debt that offered new opportunities for entrepreneurs to get money and start new businesses.

His critics say his underhanded, self-enriching dealings led to the collapse of the savings and loan industry, which cost taxpayers some $500 billion and countless small investors all or part of their savings.

Views of Milken’s guilt and teshuvah also depend on what you think of plea deals. Originally, Milken was the target of a 98-count criminal indictment, as well as a civil case filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission. According to The American Prospect, the “charges against him included insider trading, price manipulation, falsifying records, filing false reports, racketeering, and defrauding customers.”

At the center of the case were Milken’s dealings with Ivan Boesky, another since-disgraced ’80s investor whose own legal woes rocked the Jewish philanthropic world at the same time. The indictment accused Milken of “parking” stocks with Boesky – that is, asking his accomplice to trade stocks in companies in which Milken’s firm had a confidential interest, deceiving shareholders and regulators.

Boesky, in his own plea deal, offered damning information on Milken, who in turn pleaded guilty to six felony securities violations, including securities fraud, mail fraud and aiding in the filing of a false tax return. In addition to a 10-year sentence (reduced to two years), he was fined $600 million and barred for life from the securities industry.

Milken’s defenders have ever since emphasized that the violations for which he went to jail were minor and technical. The White House said Tuesday that Milken “had been charged with numerous technical offenses and regulatory violations that had never before been charged as crimes.”

But his critics counter that mobster Al Capone was only convicted on tax evasion. In truth, they say, Milken got off easy considering the damage he did to investors large and small and to the integrity of the markets.

In sentencing Milken, Woods was careful to note that she wouldn’t be swayed by those who held Milken responsible “for the massive job losses and the financial failure of savings and loan associations.” Nor would she “take into account the claims of those who urge leniency for [the] defendant because he allegedly created jobs and business opportunities or drew capital to its most productive uses.”

Instead, she told Milken, “Your crimes show a pattern of skirting the law, stepping just over to the wrong side of the law in an apparent effort to get some of the benefits from violating the law without running a substantial risk of being caught.”

She adds:
When a man of your power in the financial world, at the head of the most important department of one of the most important investment banking houses in this country, repeatedly conspires to violate, and violates, securities and tax laws in order to achieve more power and wealth for himself and his wealthy clients, and commits financial crimes that are particularly hard to detect, a significant prison term is required in order to deter others.
In 1996, Milken was asked by New York magazine to respond to those who said he had not shown sufficient remorse. “I’ve given interviews, I’ve stood up in court,” he said. “And today, I find that for my own well-being, if I can spend my time working on prostate cancer, if I can spend my time working on education, if I can spend my time going into a classroom, then I feel better about it. It’s part of my therapy. And ultimately, for all these years [I’ve gone through], there are some things you just can’t do.”

In The New Republic, Emily Tamkin asks if people can criticize Michael Bloomberg – a Jewish billionaire frequently accused of “buying” his influence -- without perpetuating harmful anti-Semitic stereotypes. “To ignore this history [of anti-Semitism] would be dangerous,” she writes. “But to refrain from critiquing certain Jewish people—and the way in which they use their money to interact with the electoral process—simply because they are Jewish would also be dangerous. In fact, it’s just another kind of prejudice.”

So how do you write about Jews without sounding like an anti-Semite? A few years back I wrote “An idiot’s guide to anti-Semitic tropes,” which boils down to this: Don’t compare Jews to the Rothschilds, don’t draw them on a pile of money bags or inside a Jewish star, don’t joke about their business acumen, don’t exaggerate their influence on policy, don’t group them exclusively with other Jews – don’t, you know, be anti-Semitic about it. 

I spoke this week with Becca Heller, the co-founder and executive director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, about two big immigration cases brought by Jewish groups against the Trump administration. “This is deeply personal for me,” the MacArthur “genius” and Charles Bronfman Prize winner told me. “What if I had been born in 1925 in Warsaw? Any Jewish person knows it could happen to us and did happen to us. What if I hadn’t been born in Northern California in 1981? I am paying it forward for people who weren’t as lucky as me.”

I totally stole the recipe for this lunch salad from Trader Joe’s: My homemade version of their Legume & Spinach Salad Palette includes baby spinach (or kale) leaves, cooked lentils, chickpeas, diced red apple and pecans (you can also add roasted cauliflower). I used a homemade vinaigrette of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, which I sweetened with raspberry jam.

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