The Real McCall

While New Yorkers ponder the possibilities of Hillary and Rudy, Al and Bill, John and George, State Comptroller Carl McCall is quietly preparing a full assault on the Governor’s race for 2002. Letters have been written to big-shot Democrats; a Web site has been established; two fund-raising events are scheduled for February. Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, another possible gubernatorial candidate, has already declared he will not run and will back Mr. McCall. It is a good thing the would-be candidate is starting early; perhaps he is hoping that he will have the nomination sealed up before voters have a moment to examine his unscrupulous record as Comptroller, a tenure that has been distinguished by the ease with which he has rewarded past campaign contributors with multimillion-dollar deals from the $120 billion New York State pension fund. Directly and indirectly, he has let local and out-of-state investment firms know that, if they want business from the state’s fund, they had better “pay to play.” Despite his public image as a shrewd fiscal monitor, Mr. McCall is hardly as pure as Caesar’s wife.

Just to note a few examples, most of which have been reported extensively in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal : In December 1997, executives of a Los Angeles firm, Freeman Spogli & Company, gave $16,000 to Mr. McCall’s re-election war chest. Three days later, the New York State pension fund invested $85 million in a fund managed by Freeman Spogli. The Times discovered that this was not unusual: “Mr. McCall has repeatedly awarded contracts and other work … to businesses that have given sizable sums to his re-election campaign.” Indeed. In January 1998, real estate mogul Paul Milstein gave $28,000 to the Comptroller’s campaign; just weeks later, the Comptroller’s office agreed to lower the interest rate on 7 Hanover Square, a building co-owned by Milstein Properties. And then there’s Colony Capital, a West Coast investment fund, which received $170 million from the state pension fund–and whose executives and associates contributed $49,000 to the Comptroller’s campaigns.

In turning the office into a cash machine for his ambitions, Mr. McCall has certainly fallen a long way from Arthur Levitt Sr., who ran the State Comptroller’s office between 1955 and 1978 as a trustworthy, politics-free zone.

Mr. McCall seems to think he deserves a promotion. New Yorkers who care about old-fashioned ethics won’t give him one.

Torricelli Breaks His Vow

Political promises are hardly the stuff one expects to be engraved in stone. Still, even cynics have to be stunned by the latest antics of Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey. Like former Senator Alfonse D’Amato of New York, he never seems far from odiferous dealings, whether political or personal.

In an attempt to show that he had come a long way from his days as a minor-league power broker in northern New Jersey, Mr. Torricelli made a promise five years ago that he would avoid personal investments that are not available to ordinary people, i.e., the taxpayers who pay his salary. Well, good intentions don’t pay the bills, and a senator from New Jersey, especially one known for his dating habits, sometimes needs spare cash. So now we learn that he has gone back on his vow of financial celibacy. Last year, he invested $5,000 in a technology company that was later bought by a larger group. Mr. Torricelli was one of only 15 people who were given a chance to invest in the company, called E.Volve Technology Group. That investment is now worth $225,000. Nice work, if you can get it.

And, of course, you can’t. That’s the point. And this is hardly the first time that Mr. Torricelli’s financial dealings have come into question. Six years ago, when he was a U.S. Representative, he made a $144,000 profit on an investment in a New Jersey bank. It was after that deal that he made his vow to walk the fiscal straight and narrow. Ah, but that was before the great bull market of the 1990’s, which he watched like a kid in front of a closed candy store. Finally, he couldn’t resist.

Some close scrutiny is in order. Mr. Torricelli, after all, is a champion of that great cattle-futures trader, Mrs. Clinton. Care to wonder what the two of them would be talking about in the Senate cloakroom?

Analyzing Arrogance

It looks like science may finally be getting closer to offering an explanation for a bizarre human phenomenon that is particularly pronounced in New York. Namely, why are the very people who are incompetent–at work, at play, at politics, at social intercourse–often the ones who appear the most self-confident and arrogant? Just ask Dr. David Dunning, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, who, after studying Cornell undergraduates, has published research in the Journal of Personality and Psychology that explores why people “tend to hold overly favorable views of their own abilities in many social and intellectual domains.”

Dr. Dunning’s conclusion: The skills that make you competent are the very same skills that allow you to recognize competence. In other words, the incompetent simply cannot grasp that they are incompetent.This, of course, helps explain a lot, such as the “Peter Principle,” or failing upward, in which a bad manager is promoted because of his or her connections or charm. Or take those who fumble their way through something, be it a political career (see above) or a tennis match. Where any reasonable person with a sliver of humility would have given up long ago, the dunces press forward. The doctor quotes Charles Darwin: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

Dr. Dunning also found that people who indeed do have true skills are often the ones most beset by self-doubt. Meanwhile, all of the nincompoops, he writes, “are left with the mistaken impression that they are doing just fine.”