On Jan. 6, for the first time in more than two centuries, Congress was attacked and overrun, this time by its own citizens. The PBS NewsHour’s anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff talks to correspondents Lisa Desjardins, Amna Nawaz and Yamiche Alcindor about what they saw as they reported from inside the Capitol, the grounds that surround it and the White House, respectively– and what they and other Americans will remember from that day.
“Postmaster General Louis DeJoy defended his management of the U.S. Postal Service to the House on Monday amid concerns that his cost-cutting measures have jeopardized the agency’s ability to serve Americans.
Mail service has slowed across the country, according to internal documents obtained by the Oversight Committee, but DeJoy denies that is part of any attempt to reduce throughput to complicate voting by mail this year.
In fact, he said in his prepared opening statement, DeJoy expects the Postal Service to be able to accommodate all the mailed ballots that Americans send this year.
The postmaster general encouraged voters to request ballots early and return them early but said he is confident that the Postal Service can handle any surge in ballot traffic, which in the most extreme case would amount to less than one day’s worth of current volume.”
Deputy Treasury Secretary Justin Muzinich has an increasingly prominent role. He still has ties to his family’s investment firm, which is a major beneficiary of the Treasury’s bailout actions.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have become the public faces of the $3 trillion federal coronavirus bailout. Behind the scenes, however, the Treasury’s responsibilities have fallen largely to the 42-year-old deputy secretary, Justin Muzinich.
A major beneficiary of that bailout so far: Muzinich & Co., the asset manager founded by his father where Justin served as president before joining the administration. He reported owning a stake worth at least $60 million when he entered government in 2017.
Today, Muzinich retains financial ties to the firm through an opaque transaction in which he transferred his shares in the privately held company to his father. Ethics experts say the arrangement is troubling because his father received the shares for no money up front, and it appears possible that Muzinich can simply get his stake back after leaving government.
When lockdowns crippled the economy in March, the Treasury and the Fed launched an unprecedented effort to buy up corporate debt to avert a freeze in lending at the exact moment businesses needed to borrow to keep running. That effort has succeeded, at least temporarily, with credit continuing to flow to companies over the last several weeks. This policy also allowed those who were heavily invested in corporate loans to recoup huge losses.
Muzinich & Co. has long specialized in precisely this market, managing approximately $38 billion of clients’ money, including in riskier instruments known as junk, or high-yield, bonds. Since the Fed and the Treasury’s actions in late March, the bond market has roared back. Muzinich & Co. has reversed billions in losses, according to a review of its holdings, with 28 of the 29 funds tracked by the investor research service Morningstar Direct rising in that period. The firm doesn’t publicly detail all of its holdings, so a precise figure can’t be calculated.
The Treasury is understaffed, and Muzinich was overseeing two-thirds of the department before the crisis hit. He spent his first year as the Trump administration’s point man on its only major legislative achievement, the landmark $1.9 trillion tax cut that mainly benefited the wealthy and corporations.
As the markets panicked about the economic impact of the coronavirus, Muzinich’s responsibilities expanded. The Treasury worked with the Fed on the emergency lending programs, and the agency has ultimate power to sign off. Muzinich was personally involved in crafting the programs, including the effort to bail out the junk bond market, The Wall Street Journal reported in April. He communicates with Fed officials daily by phone, email or text, the paper said.
That effort has many skeptics. The Fed has never bought corporate debt in its more than 100 years of existence, much less that of the indebted and fragile companies that raise money through the sale of junk bonds. Private equity firms, hedge funds and specialty investment firms like Muzinich & Co. dominate the market for junk-rated debt. In effect, the Fed has swooped in to protect the most sophisticated investors from losses on some of their riskiest bets.
Justin Muzinich’s ongoing ties to the family firm present a thicket of potential conflicts of interest, ethics lawyers said. Instead of immediately divesting his stake in the firm when he joined the Trump administration in early 2017, Muzinich retained it until the end of that year. But even then, he did not sell his stake and use the proceeds to buy broad-based securities such as index funds, as is common practice. Instead, he transferred his piece of the company to his father, who owns Muzinich & Co. In exchange, he received what amounts to an IOU — a written agreement in which his father agreed to pay him for the shares, with interest, but with no principal due for nine years.
“This is something akin to a fake divestiture,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor and ethics specialist at Washington University in St. Louis. “It sure looks like he is simply parking this asset with a relative, and he will likely get it back after he leaves the government.”
A Treasury spokeswoman declined to say whether Muzinich has pledged not to take back the stake in the family firm once his public service ends. Muzinich “takes his ethics obligations very seriously” and “any suggestion to the contrary is completely baseless,” she said.
She added the arrangement with his family firm was approved by the Office of Government Ethics and agency ethics lawyers, who recently reexamined the setup given Muzinich’s role in the economic crisis response. They concluded that there is no currently envisaged scenario in which Muzinich would make decisions as a government official that would affect his father’s ability to repay the money he owes under the IOU.
“Treasury’s career Designated Agency Ethics Official has determined that there is no such conflict of interest, as there are no current or reasonably anticipated matters in which Deputy Secretary Muzinich would participate that would affect the note obligor’s ability or willingness to satisfy its financial obligations under the note,” she said in a statement. (The note obligor is Muzinich’s father.)
Muzinich & Co. did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Muzinich’s relationship with the family firm also creates potential conflicts related to Muzinich & Co.’s clients. The firm makes money by charging investment management fees to several dozen wealthy individuals, insurance companies, pension funds, as well as what filings describe as a “quasi foreign government corporation.” The client list is not public and it’s unclear whether Muzinich would know about clients that came on board since he left. But any large investor has much to gain, or lose, from decisions being made by the Treasury about the bailout policies.
“The clients of this firm, I imagine, must be thrilled that Muzinich has this vitally important, powerful position with a huge amount of discretion and authority,” Clark said.
The Treasury spokeswoman declined to answer a question about the firm’s clients.
Even as Justin Muzinich has presided over bailout policies criticized by some observers, Muzinich & Co. executives have praised the government’s actions in recent briefings for investors. One described the interventions “as providing somewhat of a floor underneath the high yield market.”
Another Muzinich executive, David Bowen, who manages one of the firm’s high-yield bond portfolios, said during a May 20 webinar, “The Fed has been about as supportive, helpful, accommodative — whatever word you want to use — as anyone could imagine.”
Untangling the Financial Relationship
When Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin hired Justin Muzinich as counselor in early 2017, in many ways he was selecting a younger version of himself.
Like Mnuchin, Muzinich grew up in New York City, the son of a wealthy finance executive. Also like his boss, Muzinich spent years collecting a series of elite credentials: He attended Groton and holds degrees from Harvard College, the London School of Economics, Yale Law School and Harvard Business School. He worked at Morgan Stanley and spent a few months at a hedge fund associated with billionaire Steven A. Cohen, followed by a few years at EMS Capital, which invests the money of the wealthy Safra family.
Colleagues praise Muzinich as hardworking and serious, and Democrats have expressed relief that he isn’t as inflammatory as many other Trump appointees. Powell, the Fed chair, called Muzinich “creative and extremely capable” in a statement to The Wall Street Journal in April.
In 2010, he joined the family firm and became its president. His father, George, founded the company in 1988, specializing in handling portfolios of American high-yield bonds for European pension funds. The company expanded to offer funds to other institutional investors and wealthy individuals, but it stuck to its focus on corporate credit — particularly the riskier type that pays higher interest rates. Headquartered in New York and London, the firm has eight offices across Europe and one in Singapore.
“Talking about credit all the time might sound boring, I’m sure it does,” Justin Muzinich said in a 2014 interview, “but that is what makes you good.”
As he rose in the family business, Muzinich also launched himself into GOP policy circles, advising the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney in 2012 and Jeb Bush in 2016. He owns a $20 million ultramodern beachfront house in the Hamptons and a $4.5 million Park Avenue apartment and commutes from New York City to work in Washington.
When Muzinich entered the Trump administration, he reported owning stock and stock options in the family firm collectively worth at least $60 million. The true value could be much higher, but disclosure rules don’t require officials to give a specific figure for any asset worth more than $50 million.
The Treasury’s ethics officers are frequently called on to rule on complex questions, given that the department tends to attract people from careers on Wall Street who have large, complicated financial holdings — from ex-Goldman Sachs Chairman Hank Paulson to banker and Hollywood financier Mnuchin.
But government ethics officials did not require Muzinich to sell his stake in the family firm through his first year in office as counselor to Mnuchin.
According to ethics filings, Muzinich said that he did not divest it until December 2017, the month the tax law was signed. (Several months later, in April 2018, Trump nominated him to be deputy secretary.)
Muzinich did not receive cash for most of his stake in the family firm. Instead, his more recent financial disclosures show that the stake, held in a family trust, was replaced with an opaque asset described as a “receivable from family,” valued at over $50 million.
Muzinich’s disclosure filings don’t reveal much about this asset at all. They don’t say who the family member is or explain the arrangement. They don’t say how the terms were negotiated, or even if the valuation of the deal was vetted by an independent third party.
It turns out that Muzinich transferred his stake to his father. But his father didn’t have to pay him right away. According to a Senate Finance Committee memo obtained by ProPublica, Justin received two promissory notes from his father in return for the shares. The notes pay Justin between $1 million and $5 million in interest over a year, at a rate of 2.11%. Moreover, his father does not have to pay any principal on the loan for nine years.
Neither the financial disclosure forms nor the Senate memo say how long the agreement is supposed to last. Neither addresses the possibility of his getting the shares back after he leaves the government. The Treasury says the transaction is “not reversible” but did not elaborate.
In other words, Justin still has an ongoing long-term stake in the financial well-being of Muzinich & Co., since his father now owes him more than $50 million. If the company were to plummet in value or even go under, it could cost Justin. Actions the Treasury and the Fed take can either enhance the chances he gets his money back or lower them.
The Treasury defended the IOU transaction as an appropriate remedy for any conflicts of interest. The agency provided a statement from Elizabeth Horton, an ethics attorney who left the agency in 2019 and who worked with Muzinich on the divestiture from his family business. Horton said that when Muzinich first joined the agency, “the Treasury ethics office correctly advised him that he did not need to divest his holdings in his family business because of the generalized nature of his work on tax reform legislation.” She said that when his duties changed, “I advised Mr. Muzinich that an exchange for a fixed value note was an appropriate way to divest.”
Horton said that advice was “consistent with practice in previous administrations” — though the Treasury declined to cite similar cases. “Muzinich worked very closely with the ethics office and was extremely attentive to his ethics obligations,” Horton said.
ProPublica reached out to four ethics officials, including two former Treasury ethics lawyers. None could recall a similar divestment transaction. Three of the four disagreed that it resolved Muzinich’s conflicts, while one said that turning it into an asset with a value that doesn’t fluctuate with future developments should shield him from any allegations of impropriety.
The deal does not look like an arms-length transaction, said Virginia Canter, who served as a career ethics attorney at Treasury during the George W. Bush administration and is now at the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
“The terms of the loan suggest something less than a bona fide transaction,” she said. “Once he leaves office, nothing in the arrangement appears to preclude Muzinich from forgiving the debt owed to him by his father so they can amicably agree on returning to Muzinich the interest in the Muzinich family business.”
As ranking member of the Finance Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden opposed Muzinich’s nomination as deputy secretary because of his role in crafting the tax bill. Although he would have preferred a cash sale of the Muzinich & Co. stock, Wyden said in a statement that in July 2018 Muzinich had agreed to “strengthen his recusal commitments to include matters where his family’s company is a party.”
That satisfied Wyden at the time, but it is a very narrow restriction. A vast range of issues before the Treasury could affect Muzinich & Co. regardless of whether the firm was directly a party to any of them.
How Justin Muzinich treated the transaction for tax purposes could reveal whether it was a true and final sale or not.
Ordinarily, a sale of an asset such as equity in a company would trigger a capital gains tax bill. In Muzinich’s case, that could run into the tens of millions of dollars, even though his father paid him no cash upfront. But there is an exception if the asset in question is merely transferred with a commitment to have it returned, said Steve Rosenthal, a tax law expert at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.
“If you are merely parking or pledging securities, and you are going to get them back, that’s not viewed as a taxable transaction,” he said.
It is not clear how he reported the transaction to the IRS, and whether he was left with a huge tax bill. The Treasury declined to comment on the tax issues.
Tax Reform — for Friends and Family
Through his first year in the administration, even as Muzinich continued to own his stake in the family firm, he met with a wide range of business executives to hash out major tax provisions that would affect them, according to his 2017 calendars that ProPublica obtained after suing the Treasury last year under the Freedom of Information Act. Others were obtained by the watchdog group American Oversight. The Treasury redacted large sections of the calendars, saying that they required consultation with the White House before they could be released.
One of the most important principles in the federal government ethics rules covers whether an official is dealing with a “particular matter” that would affect a discrete group of people with specific interests or a “general matter” that affects a larger and more diverse group.
The Treasury spokeswoman said the tax reform bill was to affect a very large and diverse group, so ethics rules did not prevent Muzinich from working on it. He was allowed to keep his equity in the company while working on the tax bill because his “duties did not include particular matters that required divestiture of certain assets.”
But many industries had specific interests in the tax bill that they lobbied on — industries that may include clients of Muzinich & Co. Insurance companies, for example, featured prominently. Muzinich met with trade groups representing insurers as well as Liberty Mutual, The Hartford, Zurich and Blue Cross Blue Shield. In the final tax bill, property and casualty insurers fared particularly well by dodging new limitations on deductions that applied to other companies.
Insurance companies invest their premiums in order to increase their profits. In its regulatory filings, Muzinich & Co. reports that 17 of its 89 clients are insurance companies, which have given the firm more than $1.4 billion to invest. Muzinich & Co. did not provide a list of its clients.
Some of the companies Muzinich & Co. has stakes in also have been lobbying the Treasury on their own behalf. For example, Muzinich & Co. helps its clients invest in business development companies, a type of investment fund that enjoys lower taxes in exchange for providing capital to medium-sized companies. The firm itself owns stock in BDCs, many of them run by private equity companies such as Ares Capital Corporation, which has paid millions of dollars to lobby for looser rules governing the BDC industry.
Even beyond any overlap with the family firm’s interests, Muzinich’s calendars, which cover the period from February to September of 2017, reflect the administration’s priorities in negotiating the tax deal. Muzinich spent long days in meetings with private equity titans, energy company CEOs and heavy-hitting interest groups like the Business Roundtable and the anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity. His calendar shows no meetings with labor unions or progressive groups.
Muzinich did meet often with the Treasury’s in-house tax experts but frequently didn’t follow their recommendations. Richard Prisinzano, who served in the agency’s tax analysis office until August 2017, recalled trying to tell Mnuchin and Muzinich that drastically lowering corporate tax rates would likely prompt businesses to transform into C corporations, which often pay lower rates under the new law.
He argued that such a change would further reduce tax revenues. Muzinich disagreed, Prisinzano said, protesting that businesses wouldn’t change their corporate form just to lower their taxes. “He really pushed back,” Prisinzano recalled. “He said to me, ‘The secretary is a numbers person, and the numbers don’t make sense to him.’”
“‘I’m a numbers person, and they make perfect sense to me,’” Prisinzano said he responded. “That was not an answer that they liked.”
In the following two years, many large businesses did indeed convert into C corporations, including private equity giants Ares, Blackstone and KKR. The government hasn’t produced an estimate of how big a hit taxpayers took from these conversions.
During his confirmation hearing as deputy secretary in July 2018, Democratic senators pressed Muzinich on whether he agreed with the White House that the tax bill would “pay for itself,” despite the dire projections of independent forecasters such as the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. “Yes,” Muzinich responded.
It has not come close, as corporate tax collections plunged and left the national debt at historic levels on the eve of the pandemic.
Muzinich Takes on the COVID-19 Crisis
As the economic response to the novel coronavirus consumed Washington in March, Mnuchin turned again to Muzinich to negotiate with Congress over the shape of a bailout intended to sustain companies as they weathered the worst part of the crisis.
Ultimately, Trump administration officials and lawmakers settled on a package worth more than $2 trillion, divided into aid regimens for different sectors of the economy. While setting general parameters, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act gives the Treasury wide latitude over how the money is to be distributed. It calls for $50 billion in grants and loans for the airline industry, for example, with few rules on who should get what. (In another potential intersection with Muzinich’s Treasury work, Muzinich & Co. started a new business line to loan money to airlines to buy planes in February.)
Perhaps the greatest power the Treasury now has is the authority to sign off on Fed loan programs funded with CARES Act money. The Fed has said it will leverage that money to lend up to several trillion dollars.
Among their biggest decisions: Which firms to include in the $600 billion Main Street Lending Program, which will lend directly to mid-sized businesses, and how to structure two programs that will purchase up to $750 billion in corporate bonds.
The Main Street program, which has yet to launch, changed substantially after it was first announced to sweep in bigger companies and those with heavier debt loads. Offering a glimpse into how the Treasury directly shaped the Fed programs, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette told Bloomberg the change was made in part to make sure beleaguered oil companies had access to the program’s favorable terms. Muzinich & Co.’s U.S.-based funds include dozens of energy companies.
Mnuchin also deputized Muzinich to fix problems that arose during the first round of funding for the Paycheck Protection Program, which offers forgivable loans to small businesses. The government hasn’t said who got money through the program, but Muzinich & Co.’s portfolio includes many companies that are small enough to be eligible.
The Fed’s bond purchasing programs will go even further to help companies with poorly rated credit.
On March 23, the Fed and the Treasury announced a sweeping stimulus program that would involve buying hundreds of billions of dollars of investment-grade bonds. Selling bonds is a way for large companies like Boeing or PepsiCo to raise money for new investments, to fund day-to-day operations or to pay back older loans. Companies that are strong and profitable are expected to be able to pay back the borrowed money. Their bonds are deemed “investment grade” and come with lower interest rates. The news of the Fed program on its own heralded a dramatic recovery in the bond market, which in three weeks recovered nearly all of the 13.6% it had lost since the plunge began on March 6, according to one index.
Then, on April 9, the Fed announced, with the Treasury’s approval, that it would expand its efforts to buy some junk bonds. These carry higher interest rates because the borrowing companies are viewed as riskier and may already be heavily in debt. One index tracking that market segment surged nearly 8% on the news, the most in a decade. This risker category of bonds has expanded dramatically in recent years as companies took on higher debt burdens to do things like acquire competitors and buy back stock. These are the bonds in which Muzinich & Co. has long specialized.
At the end of 2019, Muzinich & Co. reported it had $2.8 billion of assets under management in its U.S. high-yield bond strategy. A Muzinich fund that focuses specifically on those bonds took significant losses in March, as companies like oilfield services provider Targa Resources and Caesars Entertainment saw the price of their bonds fall 30% and 35% respectively.
The government’s announcement buoyed Muzinich & Co.’s high-yield holdings along with everyone else’s. The portfolio manager for the firm’s U.S. high-yield offering also praised CARES Act’s tax provisions that would “help high yield companies.”
In a separate development in May, the Fed expanded another Treasury-backed lending program in a way that could help Muzinich & Co.’s portfolio. The central bank said May 12 it would support “syndicated loans,” another form of corporate debt often in which riskier firms borrow money from multiple lenders. Muzinich & Co. had more than $3 billion in assets under management in U.S. and European syndicated loans at the end of last year.
The good news for Muzinich & Co. keeps coming. As the firm’s head of investment strategy, Erick Muller, told investors in a May 13 webcast about the junk bond market: “The recovery is pretty spectacular.”
A point-by-point exploration of their arguments would exceed the space allotted for this column by several thousand inches. But I think one can sum up the libertarian approach to Warren with a single question: How big a problem do you think billionaires, and the mega-successful corporations they helm, pose to the average American? Actually, come to think of it, I think that’s about how you’d sum up the question of Warren from any angle.
Which is why this debate ultimately matters to a lot more people than just some cranky libertarians: It speaks directly to a whole lot of young people who see that the economy doesn’t work for them the way it did for their parents and grandparents, and therefore conclude that somewhere along the way, the people it is working for — the barons of finance, the giants of Silicon Valley — must have rigged the system in their favor.
To be fair, they’re not entirely wrong. As Adam Smith once wrote, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Bankers and tech executives very much included. So I find myself nodding in agreement with Wilkinson — and, by extension, with the progressive base of the Democratic Party — when he says: “Warren’s general diagnosis of the problem — it’s a rigged system of anticompetitive rent-seeking enabled by insufficiently democratic and representative political institutions — is broadly similar to my own.”
Yet they’re not entirely right, either. Are big corporations, or billionaires, or banks, or tech giants, or health insurers and pharmaceutical firms — to name some of Warren’s favorite targets — really the reason that young people are struggling
Sure, Warren may be eager to sic her Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on your mortgage lender if you fall afoul of some obscure clause, but that’s not the problem for most Americans. They’re much more likely to struggle with finding affordable housing in prosperous cities. In fairness, Warren does have a plan to ease the zoning regulations that cause the shortage — but for some reason she rarely talks about it on the campaign trail, possibly because it’s constitutionally dubious, but more likely because it would alienate her affluent suburban base.
Similarly, Warren is eager to forgive student loans — a $1.6 trillion transfer to some of the most affluent members of society — but not to attack degree creep, which has walled off most of the best jobs for those who hold a bachelor of arts while enriching a lot of colleges. She targets insurers and drugmakers, but not the hospitals and medical workers who drive most of our health-care costs.
Too many of her proposals are like this; they focus on corporate villains or billionaires while ignoring the much broader class of people that Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution dubbed the “Dream Hoarders” — the well-educated upper-middle-class people who are desperate to pass their privilege onto their kids, and are unhappy about the steadily mounting cost of doing so. They’re Warren’s base.
Unfortunately, the Dream Hoarders — and I include myself in their number — are a much bigger problem for the rest of America than the billionaires whose wealth Warren promises to expropriate. Those billionaires got that way by building companies that disrupted cozy local monopolies, and they fund coding camps for high-school dropouts; Dream Hoarders
- protect their professional licensing regimes and
- insist on ever more extensive and expensive educations in the people they hire. Dream Hoarders also
- pull every lever to keep their own housing prices high — and poorer kids out of their schools — while
- using their wealth to carefully guide their children over the hurdles they’ve erected.
Which may be why the best predictor of a neighborhood with a low degree of income mobility is not the gap between the top 1 percent and everyone else — the gap that Warren focuses on with all her talk of taxing billionaires — but
If you really want to unrig the system, you need to focus less on a handful of billionaires than on the iron grip that the Dream Hoarders have on America’s most powerful institutions — including, to all appearances, Elizabeth Warren’s campaign.
The Dire Dangers of Narcissism
Though I’m professionally distant from today’s media luminaries, I have a particular personal interest in the current narcissistic spectacle du jour: I went to college and was friends with Harvey Weinstein nearly a half a century ago.
With an admixture of feelings, I watch the scandal unfold. I’m horrified and angry at what Weinstein is charged with perpetrating. I’m confused and saddened by my former friend’s behavior. Yet, I’m not surprised, given what I remember about Harvey when we were students. That’s not to say I could have predicted this. I don’t identify with interviewees solicited by journalists to tell what they knew of ignominious scoundrels before they committed their heinous acts. Harvey Weinstein—from first impression of him being grandiose, sycophantic, and magnanimously generous to the progression of his unstable and rampant ambition—was intense, needy, insecure, ingratiating, and over-the-top in his endeavors.
I’m not invested in justifying or scourging Harvey. He’ll get whatever the consequences of his actions bring—spiritually and legally. I feel sorry for him, but ever more sorry for, and indignant about, the victims he is accused of abusing, exploiting, bullying, and oppressing. Such injustice must be vindicated—but that is not up to me. As a psychologist, my goal is to unravel and shed light upon the inner forces that develop into disastrous behavior. Since I consorted with Harvey and knew him well decades ago, I want to lay bare the seminal roots of an accused tyrant before he became one.
As a psychologist, I have something to contribute by explaining the wily dangers of narcissism, thus allowing potential victims to be informed and better protected. As an American citizen, I am alarmed and wary about the course and future of our country, our people and our principles. As a father, husband, and person with strengths and weaknesses who is desirous of healthy relationships, I, too, am vulnerable. Narcissism is an insidious monster, born of a needy and unstable ego that lurks for years, nursing its perceived wounds, until it explodes in aggressive and blind perpetrations. A healthy self-image must be nurtured. It can be achieved by hard work that includes the basis for self-respect and the practice of respect for others. Though the development of narcissism is neither predictable nor clearly delineated, certain factors may contribute to a self-aggrandizing ego and overbearing sense of entitlement:
- a “silver-spoon” upbringing, where material things and excessively indulgent opportunities became integral elements in the family culture;
- exposure to a series of traumas and humiliations;
- use of embarrassment to modify childhood misbehavior;
- employing self-flagellation to cope with insecurity; or simply
- relying on an escapist fantasy and the transformative illusion of becoming a legend and hero in one’s mirror.
Though we may recoil from the exaggerated hubris of the narcissist, we should also be respectful and thankful for not traveling along such an isolating and destructive path. As my mother often said: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” To live a life of worthiness and honor, one must embrace gratitude and humility.
What Happened to You, Harvey Weinstein?
Do you remember me, Harvey? I know you’ve got a lot on your mind these days; but I’ll bet that if you heard my name, you’d say, “Mark… how the hell are you doing?” We go back a long way, Harvey, to some wild days at the University of Buffalo.
Remember the crowd? Janis Siegel (affectionately called Pumpkin), who went on to acclaim as a singer with Manhattan Transfer. And the creative and iconic Jay Beckenstein, jazz saxophonist with Spyrogyra.
Remember those all-nighters, the 4:00 AM greasy burgers at Your Host Restaurant? The anguished, drugged-out rants and discussions about the universe, who we were, and where we were going?
We grew up and went out in the world to different places. You were amazing, Harvey: intense, sycophantic, driven, disturbed, and needy. I identified with you—Jewish kids from New York, arrived in a blue collar city, ready to take over and show how much we knew and how things should be done.
You floundered, and then soared. It wasn’t long before you traded academics for an entrepreneurial path, on your way to becoming a juggernaut. You founded Harvey & Corky Productions, bringing big-name musical talent to downtown Buffalo. You soon rubbed shoulders with the top names and icons of our generation. It must have been intoxicating, far beyond the drugs that most used to reach for peace and imagined self-importance.
Throughout the years, I watched your movies and cheered you on. There goes Harvey Weinstein—I knew him in college; we were friends. I envied your success. From my intimate knowledge of your personality, I suspected that you were not happy or fulfilled. How could you be, never filling the immense void within you with something other than riches and accolades? Not to diminish your sweeping achievements. But you were so needy and insecure. How could anything the world had to offer be enough?
I wrote to you fifteen years ago, hoping to reconnect. But I never got a response.
Apparently, you tried to fill your deep inner void with surreptitious trysts, using your money and influence to sway and dominate young women—impressionable and aspiring beauties you used for your lustful and egotistical purposes. You used your money, power, and influence to lord it over people, to take advantage of them, and to coerce their silence. The chickens have come home to roost; the truth will not be hidden; you are exposed and in trouble.
It’s not for me to judge you Harvey. I just want to tell you something about women and men and power and accountability.
Females are not immune from deceit, hypocrisy, and the fleshly litany of sins. But females are to be protected and respected. They are “weaker” in some sense, but immensely more powerful than men in many respects. Our society inherently imposes on women mixed messages, psychological traumas, economic discrimination, and often the raw end of many deals. Our culture exalts and worships physical appeal, but quickly disregards and discards worthwhile human beings when their outward beauty fades. Ironically, we exalt and worship physical beauty, and yet we exploit it. The fleeting blooms of pulchritude and stardom leave women vulnerable and with undeserved dismissal or ostracism. Too many men strut their machismo, stricken with envy (and with the fantasy) that a woman can have sex any time she wants (whereas many men have to feel they must lure or seduce). Unfortunately, some men act out of this context to take advantage and force or exploit women. When the playing field becomes overly imbalanced, many women either withdraw into resentful passive aggressiveness—avoiding or manipulating intimacy—or act out with hostile projection—rejecting men or typecasting them as insensitive and only interested in exploitative sex. Though there’s plenty of blame to spread around, men bear the burden—historically, we have been at fault by dominating women and isolating them from full and equal participation in society.
With your overarching success, Harvey, you now have trouble (tsouris, in Yiddish) on a grand scale. My heart aches for you, and I pray for you.
I have some advice for you, Harvey, my dear old friend: it’s time for you to make amends, to acknowledge your wrongdoing, to seek forgiveness, and to make restitution—no holds barred. I know you must now resort to posturing for strategic legal reasons, but you are going to sacrifice a lot of money to pay for your mistakes. You can no longer “buy” people (and certainly not their silence). You will feel alone, and will be alone. You will have to give up the pretenses you have long abused to fill the abyss and mollify the gargantuan ego that hides the empty Harvey Weinstein.
Yet, there is someone valuable, tender, sensitive, worthwhile inside the blustering and offensive Harvey. This is an opportunity to find out who you really are, to change the offensiveness, and to develop into an honorable person.
God has used you, Harvey, and he is not done yet. Through these scandals, he is using you writ large to teach others; and he is bringing you to your knees in the hope that you will stay there and begin to acknowledge and worship him.
Truer riches await you, my friend, if you will only repent and ask for divine forgiveness and guidance. You must also seek forgiveness from the people you hurt, so many of them. It’s time to be open, sincere, and humble. You must unequivocally repent.
Years ago, you founded a big company—Miramax—named after your parents, Max and Miriam Weinstein. What would they think of their son now? I never knew Max or Miriam, but I am sure they always loved you. Why, Harvey, has it been so difficult for you to feel love?
The Harvey Weinstein I knew nearly half a century ago could never relax. He always had to prove something, to get more and show more. You were an intense and difficult person. But you were likable, Harvey, and you didn’t have to try so hard.
The term narcissism is taken from Greek mythology. Narcissus was the son of the river god Cephissus and nymph Liriope. He was proud, in that he disdained those who loved him. He was drawn to a pool, where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it (himself), not realizing it was merely an image.
Today, narcissism is a psychiatric diagnosis and considered a mental disorder. It is also often used disparagingly in common parlance and description. Narcissism involves extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration, and has come to characterize a personality type. Narcissists think extremely highly of themselves and are often driven to seek validation of their worthiness and inflated self-opinion by soliciting and even demanding the approval of others. They delude themselves that their boorish machinations and manipulations of others testify to their own self-worth. Though they may be capable of compassion and empathy, narcissists are so preoccupied with their own selfish interests and with validating themselves that they typically ignore or do not consider or recognize others’ needs, even the people closest to them.
Narcissists’ classic “me-first” posture often leads them to resort to aggressive acts that allow them to dominate or “win,” regardless of the costs. They love and need to be the center of attention, often usurping the limelight, dominating conversations, and controlling situations and people to serve their own ends.
It is when they are challenged or confronted with reality that the true pathological character of narcissists flagrantly emerges. Narcissists’ fragile self-image and ego structure do not allow them to acknowledge the egregious nature of their self-importance. Thus, is it is rare for them to apologize or admit wrongdoing. Remorse and repentance for their offensive actions almost never occurs (think Trump).
Thus, narcissists often have a problem with reality-testing; that is, they can only perceive events and circumstances from the same perspective as others when such “reality” supports and buttresses themselves in a positive and flattering light. Unfortunately, this infrequently happens. Instead narcissists twist and distort reality to suit their own views, inevitably causing confusion, alienation, and damage to relationships and the integrity and well-being of others. They constantly use people in devious ways, and invariably deny their motives and the unpleasant effects upon others. Narcissists have confounding and appalling obsession to blame others for what they themselves have done. A psychological term for this is projection. This is denial at its craftiest, and it is infuriating (again, think Trump).
When dealing with and referring to people who thought too highly of themselves, a dear friend of mine use to quip. “I’d like to buy you for what you’re really worth, and sell you for what you think you’re worth.”
We can shake our heads in disbelief or disgust at narcissism, and we can mock this condition with humor. However, don’t underestimate the dire danger of narcissism as the disorder affects all those who come into contact with the narcissist. Narcissists cannot have good relationships because they view others as opportunities to validate and gratify themselves. In psychoanalytic terms, they have poorly developed object relations. In plain language, this means that they cannot separate and distinguish between themselves and the legitimate perceptions, opinions, values, desires, and needs of others. What others experience (including hurt or neglect perpetrated by the narcissist) is blocked by the arrogant, center-stage prominence of the narcissist’s own needs.
Dealing With Narcissists
Because narcissists live in a bubble of self-absorption and denial, it’s very hard to break through their manipulations and defenses. Normal people (allowing for differences among individuals) have varying abilities to admit mistakes, acknowledge wrongdoing, apologize with sincerity, recognize their flaws and trespasses along with the negative impact upon others, and modify their behaviors to minimize the negative effects of selfishness. Not so with narcissists, as this is the core of their personality disorder.
It may be helpful to review the following guidelines in dealing with people you suspect of narcissism:
Expect self-centeredness and reality distortion
Because narcissists’ self-absorbed attitudes and responses are often provocative, it’s tempting to react with consternation, indignation, umbrage, and the like. However, if you keep your dismay and outrage to yourself, you’ll be in a better position to question the behaviors with a strategy of setting limits. Instead of expressing your emotional reactions to narcissistic self-centeredness, practice the strategies listed below.
Refrain from demonstrative emotional reactions
Tie responses to facts, evidence, and questions
When faced with narcissists’ bold claims, quietly question the bases for such statements. Or, just ignore them. For example, someone may proudly announce, “These people don’t know how to drive. I happen to be one of the best drivers on the road.” You could say, “ I guess so. But there is the issue of your three moving violations and numerous parking tickets.” Or, you could just let it go, and smirk to yourself.
Sometimes, simply questioning the basis for outrageous statements is enough to slow down the narcissist’s bluster. Remember Trump’s tirades about how he “knows more about Isis than any general in the military,” and his defiant complaint that he is “the victim of the greatest witch hunt in history”? There is no shutting down such an ego. However, one might ask, “Where did you acquire your military knowledge, and why were you not consulted and solicited before you became president?”
“Please give us some details about the other witch hunts against which you compare your own alleged persecution.”
And don’t expect an intelligent and coherent response to your questions!
Preface accountability and confrontations with acknowledgment and legitimate praise
Narcissists perceive questions, challenges, and alternate opinions—even facts—as threats to and defamation of their integrity. Therefore, it’s helpful to preface and intersperse your messages of accountability with reasonable and relevant praise toward the person whom you’re trying to get to really listen to you. Even appealing to their putative sense of discernment and justice may get you farther along on your attempts to bring reality into the conversation.
When I deal with pie-in-the sky people who live inside dreams inflated by their own sense of self-worth and entitlement, I find it prudent to ask, “I understand that, given your abilities and track record (?!), you expect this to work out as you’ve favorably planned…, but because you are smart, have you formulated an alternative scenario and plan?”
Set boundaries and repeat if-then consequences as they pertain to the narcissist’s behaviors
Inevitably, narcissists repeatedly step on the toes of others. Their transgressions may be verbal and/or they may take vindictive actions (hello again, Mr. Trump). Their self-aggrandizement can make it hard to keep a straight face; or, their attitude of entitlement may carry implicit threats for noncompliance or resistance. (Harvey Weinstein got away with his egregious behavior in large part due to his political and economic influence, much of which he wielded against much less powerful women. When he ultimately confronted a woman who was formidable and courageous, she pulled the plug, and the dirty slimy water that had accumulated in the bathtub over the decades slurped down the drain. Harvey was left sitting naked and shivering in his own filth.)
Granted, it’s not for individuals to take on the President of the United States. But the collective violations and outrage are propelling Trump to his comeuppance. Kudos to the brave people who have spoken the truth and challenged Trump, even at risk to their own reputations and careers! That takes integrity, confidence, and courage!
And Harvey? My old friend, your bullying and predation have ironically transformed the zeitgeist. Your secret life of lust, aggression, and intimidation now exposed has caused trauma and harm—shame on you! However, the notoriety has caused a groundswell of indignation, objection, and cries for justice. You have become the agent of change, long overdue.
The message is clear: If you abuse or intimidate women, it will come to light and you will pay.
Solicit commitments, promises, and contracts in writing
Remember that, as part of their sense of entitlement, narcissists do not hesitate to change the rules—including their agreements, commitments, promises, and respect for others’ needs—when it suits their purposes. Therefore, it’s wise to make a habit of solidifying commitments and promises in writing, with dates and signatures if possible. Though the self-entitled may scoff and sneer at such requests, pretend you are prone to mistaking the details, since your memory might not be as good as theirs (!) and remind them of the pithy saying, Black and white on paper is a lot clearer than the gray matter of the brain.
In other words, play dumb, like a fox. The narcissist may pity you and indulge you.
At the very least, keep your own meticulous records with details of words, actions, and dates. E-mails and texts establish a continual, accessible, and practical audit trail, useful for holding the narcissist accountable, especially when deception and conflict arise.
Be prepared for breaches of trust, intimacy, and fidelity
Precautions and attentiveness notwithstanding, you cannot change the basic flawed character of the narcissist. That’s not to say that people don’t change. Life experience, traumas, pain, and consequences are all great teachers. They even teach to the seemingly robust and impregnable bravado of narcissists (and, at best, it takes awhile). In his own way and with his own timing, God chips away at the lives and consciences of the foolish and hurtful. At his own discretion, he causes miracles to happen.
But the very nature of narcissism attacks trust, empathy, and consideration. Don’t be surprised when the narcissist (repeatedly) violates boundaries, flaunts rules, and sabotages trust, intimacy, and even your own faith. Remain loving, but be cautious and be prepared. Your sensitivity and good intentions are no match for the power of narcissism. Engaging in an argument or a major adversarial battle with a narcissist can be akin to stepping into the ring with a mixed martial arts fighter. No holds are bared. Be prepared for the unexpected. Be on guard. Protect yourself at all times. Expect hyperbole, manipulated facts, concocted falsehoods, inconsistencies, and outrageous lies. It’s all part of the package.
Narcissism’s Dire Consequences
Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein are but two notorious narcissistic icons—caricatures writ large in a field of opportunism. Their transgressions leave us aghast, wondering how such egregious behavior could have escalated and continued.
Surely, someone like Weinstein, if indicted and convicted of a crime or crimes in a court of law, must be thwarted and punished. Trump is a much more complex matter involving political and constitutional issues that are still in the process of unfolding. However, the important take-home message is that there are many like them—young, old, male, female, prominent, less significant—who foist their attitudes and perpetrations upon the unsuspecting and vulnerable, the psychologically and experientially less sophisticated, and those with fewer defenses and resources.
Narcissists may be overtly offensive, or they may be furtive and wily—sheep in wolves’ clothing. In a culture that has inveterately promoted self-centeredness and a “me-first” value system, narcissists may seem to embody the cultural virtues, to blend in and prevail over the competition. But you will recognize them by their intransigence and lack of compassion for the basic welfare and psychological well-being of others. As legends in their own mirrors (or pools, as with the Greek Narcissus), they deem themselves the only ones who matter.
As a society, we should focus attention on identifying, dissuading, and modifying the development of narcissistic character. Respect for women—pervasive societal, legal, accommodating respect—is surely a good place to start. We are beginning to painfully learn those lessons.
But the battle against misogyny is not enough. Parents must teach their children that the world does not “owe” them. The government should provide more than minimal education and health care—service, schooling, and training that focuses on character development and resources for the ravages of character failure, including disorders of emotional bonding, anxiety, depression, trauma, and the depredations of addiction.
We need to return to God, individually and collectively. Each of us determines our own personal relationship with or abandonment of our Creator. Religion should not be forced. But spiritual living should be foundational and institutionally encouraged. The development of the soul and its conscience and compassion is incompatible with the “me-first” ethos that culturally reinforces narcissism.
When tragedy strikes, we become voracious Monday morning quarterbacks. We scrutinize the history of assassins and predators, looking for clues that should have exposed them earlier. However, social autopsies on misfits will not relieve us of the larger problem, nor will those efforts alone avert the perverse development of unhealthy, megalomaniac egos.
We must become a society, through and through, that values humility and teaches people, rank and file, to put others first. Against such a social norm, the Trumps and Weinsteins will identify themselves early as faulty people who need discipline, correction, and guidance to develop true and healthy self-love.
Narcissism may never be eliminated, for we are a prideful and sinful species. With regard to selfish insensitivity, some are given to robust excess, even to the point of outright cruelty. Recoil as we might from Trump and Weinstein, we should learn that we need to expose them earlier in order to prevent the devastating potential of narcissism from exerting its will.
Farewell to the Harvey I Knew
We can’t live in the past. The Harvey Weinstein I knew nearly a half century ago has gone his own way, as have I.
In college, you looked up to me, Harvey. In your desperate neediness, you couldn’t see through my pretense, my needing to appear hip and avant-garde. If I’d had your talents, Harvey, perhaps I would have gone much farther astray than I did. Money and fame eluded me, but I guess I was luckier than you. And life did not let me get away with what, in my insouciant arrogance and ambition, I secretly wanted to.
If we could have coffee, I’d share with you some of the ordeals that happened in my life, what I’ve learned and about the people who taught me. Despite many setbacks and traumas, I’ve been fortunate. I have loved and been loved. Women have been great teachers to me, some intimate, some maternal, and many have been platonic, wonderful influences. I have learned to respect women and to not take advantage of them. Except for my wife, I regard them as sisters, mothers, and daughters. I treat them with biblically directed protection, respect, and deference. I joke (respectfully) about the differences between men and women. I note with professional acumen the stereotypes that frequently characterize the brains and demeanors of the two sexes. I’ve written a book about this, too, aimed at improving harmony and satisfaction in marriage relationships.
With maturity, I have more confidence and less need to prove myself or be the center of attention. I’m more able to appreciate the difficulties women have in a male-dominated world. I’m grounded enough to speak up and to model for males how to respect, value, protect, and share equally with females.
With God’s help and the stringent sanctions of many people who knocked me off my self-constructed pedestal and put me in a proper place, I’ve tamed most of my narcissistic tendencies.
The Harvey Weinstein I knew has grown and devolved. Farewell naïve and callow college buddy. I still recognize you, Harvey; beneath the atrocities, there is a boy, now a man, desperate for satisfying love. I hope this is God’s way of teaching you how to find it.
— Mark Steinberg, Ph.D.