Eliot Spitzer adds his two cents to Jews and Money series

It’s a deliberately daring title for a speakers series: “Loaded: Jews and Money.”

The talks at the JCC of San Francisco take on money, Jews and the media; money, Jews and elections; money, Jews and Hollywood stereotypes; and more.

It may be a topic many would balk at discussing, but you wouldn’t have known it on April 29 at the JCCSF. All 468 seats in Kanbar Hall were filled for former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s talk on the corrosive effect of money on American politics.

Eliot Spitzer (left) is introduced to Ingrid Tauber and Frank Taforo before his talk at the JCCSF. photo/ron scherl

As New York’s attorney general from 1999 to 2006, Spitzer was dubbed the “Sheriff of Wall Street” for the zeal with which he went after miscreant Wall Street firms.

He told the audience at the JCCSF an anecdote about when he was dining one night with the CEOs of the 10 largest corporations in the United States. “I realized I had served every one of them with subpoenas,” he said.

The Bronx-born Spitzer, who attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School, came off like everyone’s favorite professor — and just like a professor, he came with color handouts that he passed out to the audience.

Using statistics from various government agencies and surveys, the charts and graphs helped Spitzer show the growing disparity between the wealthy and the middle class, and the absence of any correlation between lower tax rates and economic growth.

“The great creation of the last century was the creation of the middle class,” he said. But since the mid-1990s, median family income has been “staggered.”

He dissected Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s assertion that 47 of Americans are “takers” who pay no taxes, explaining that while people earning poverty wages don’t have to pay income tax, they nonetheless pay excise taxes and sales tax.

But the Senate is where reform has to come from, he said. In particular, filibuster reform is the most essential process reform the nation needs to undertake.

“This is where the agenda of the president is being stymied,” he said. “We have given away our democracy.”

A wave of disappointed murmurs passed through the hall when Spitzer declared that the Citizens United case was decided correctly by the Supreme Court.

The case, ruled in 2010, gave free rein to corporations and unions to pay for political ads. If the case had been decided differently, Spitzer noted, newspapers could have had their editorial freedom snuffed since they, too, are corporately owned.

“Speech has to be protected,” he said. It is the direct funding of candidates that “has to be sharply constricted.”

A line of people during the Q&A period suggested otherwise. 

“I was a little saddened you didn’t take Citizens United to a deeper level,” one man said. “It’s not about talking. It’s about buying time on television … big bucks.”

The coming generation, however, does not get its information from televised ads, but from the Internet, Spitzer said.

“Allowing people to spend an unlimited amount of their own cash on political races does not guarantee success,” he said, mentioning the failed attempts by multi-millionaires at becoming California governor. “I don’t worry about it because it doesn’t work.”

The JCCSF’s “Jews and Money” series began on April 11 with a panel discussion that covered topics such as Bernie Madoff, Sheldon Adelson, the enduring stereotypes of Jews in Hollywood, who really owns the media, and how wealth and power shape Jewish identity.

Spitzer’s talk, “Money, Politics and Democracy,”  was the fourth event in the series. The next one is Tuesday, May 7, a talk by Jerry Muller, an expert on the history of capitalism, about the disproportionate success of Jews in capitalist economies and why anti-capitalism and anti-Semitism have frequently been linked.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.