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Evening Long Reads: Sears, Muncie, and More

A long and longform look at the past, present, and future of Sears; an examination of west Humboldt Park’s active heroin market; going back to Middletown; and the U. of C. and its role in law and order.

Willis tower ledge

 

* Crain’s Brigid Sweeney has a lengthy, excellent examination of the troubles at Sears (which, she explains, have been really ongoing since the Sears Tower was built). Jaw-dropping stat: the Sears Catalog used to employ 50,000 people. There are lots of engaging details:

Today, several former executives portray Mr. Lampert, who owns 62 percent of the company through ESL Investments, as a capricious micromanager fond not only of 7 a.m. teleconferences but also of bouncing from one pet project to another. Initially obsessed with e-commerce and online sales, he next became enamored of social media, going so far as to establish a proprietary internal Twitter-like system over which he prolifically communicated with employees via a nom de plume, Eli Wexler (a reference to Yale, his alma mater).

Speaking of proprietary systems and facing competition from the Internet, Sears is moving into cloud computing. Which might sound odd, but chasing the competition into the credit card market helped keep the company afloat.

* Mick Dumke kicks of a series of stories in the Reader about the drug trade on the west side with a look at west Humboldt Park:

The volume of drug busts here is astounding: more than six a day, for everything from low-level pot possession to dealing crack. But the neighborhood is probably best known for heroin. In those two beats alone, there were more than 1,000 arrests for dealing or possessing heroin last year, accounting for one of every six heroin arrests citywide.

This is one of the city’s most violent areas as well—hardly a coincidence, since, police say, the drug market is tied to most of the area’s bloodshed. Last year at least 17 people were murdered in the two beats, more than the three- or four-year totals of many of the city’s quieter neighborhoods.

* Speaking of law enforcement, Mike Konczal has a brief history of the political evolution of mass incarceration in America. As always, it’s hard to escape the long arm of the Chicago School of Economics:

There are two distinct lineages that bring us from there to the Chicago School’s law-and-economics approach to crime. There are those who follow in the footsteps of Bentham, such as the [University of Chicago] economist Gary Becker in his 1968 “Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach.” This approach involves applying the concept of optimization and rational behavior modeling to crime and the law. And there are those following Friedrich Hayek, like the [NYU/U. of C.] law professor Richard Epstein, who adheres to a natural law theory.

[snip]

Where these two intellectual traditions intersect is the Coase Theorem, which states that in a world with no transaction costs, negotiations between individuals will always leads to the results that maximize wealth. [U. of C. law professor emeritus Ronald] Coase, a student of Hayek, incorporates Hayek’s notion of “spontaneous order,” and rejects the idea that government could improve on the outcome created by rational individuals bargaining among themselves. Criminal punishment, as Epstein would argue, creates the boundaries of the free market, and as such is the place where the government should focus. Epstein notes, “I do think that the prohibition against force and fraud is the central component of a just order.”

And then Konczal moves on to [U. of C. law] professor Richard Posner.

* Speaking of Midwestern cities that serve as sociological laboratories, the National Journal goes to Middletown, aka Muncie, probably the Midwest’s second most intensively studied city (via Longform):

Whitmire is a story of Muncie, and Muncie is the story of America. In this place—dubbed “Middletown” by early 20th-century sociologists—people have lost faith in their institutions. Government, politics, corporations, the media, organized religion, organized labor, banks, businesses, and other mainstays of a healthy society are failing. It’s not just that the institutions are corrupt or broken; those clichés oversimplify an existential problem: With few notable exceptions, the nation’s onetime social pillars are ill-equipped for the 21st century. Most critically, they are failing to adapt quickly enough for a population buffeted by wrenching economic, technological, and demographic change.

 

Photograph: Jeff Dlouhy (CC by 2.0)

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