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Prize Duds

Apr 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 31 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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And next to that issue on our desk is a new compendium of essays from National Affairs, edited by Yuval Levin and Meghan Clyne. A Time for Governing is a sort of “best of” collection from the journal’s first three years, reprinting 18 essays focused on guiding us towards solutions to key policy problems. We enjoyed especially rereading Yuval Levin on the welfare state and Jim Manzi on “Keeping America’s Edge.” If Mitt Romney has room for only one book and one journal in his carry-on, this is the book, and this is the quarterly, for him to have at hand. (Along with the latest Weekly Standard, of course!) With these, he’ll have what he needs to read—and to win.

Edifice Complex

On April 20, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan returned to her old stomping grounds in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to rename a building at Harvard Law School after Finn Caspersen. A graduate of the class of ’66, Caspersen inherited a billion-dollar fortune and had been the school’s biggest donor during Kagan’s stint as dean of Harvard Law.

We refer to Mr. Caspersen in the past tense because he committed suicide in 2009, a fact The Scrapbook was vaguely aware of thanks to one of Vanity Fair’s patented articles about the lurid secrets of the rich and famous, e.g., “Oddly, Caspersen had not the slightest interest in golf and never played. His passions ran instead to the more esoteric sports of Olympic-level horse jumping, four-in-hand horse-drawn-carriage driving, and competitive rowing.” Unfortunately, Caspersen’s other great hobby was tax evasion—he may have owed the IRS as much as $100 million, having squirreled away much of his fortune in offshore accounts—and this likely played a role in his decision to end his own life. 

Anyway, Caspersen’s shady activities do not appear to have dampened Kagan’s enthusiasm for the man. The “Caspersen Student Center” was formerly named after Edward S. Harkness who, like Caspersen, was the inheritor of a considerable fortune. Beyond that similarity, Harkness was a more generous and modest philanthropist. 

A Yale alumnus, Harkness helped fund much of the student housing system in New Haven and paid to establish the now-legendary Yale School of Drama. (Harkness is said to have been the inspiration for a minor character in Long Day’s Journey into Night.) 

But in 1929 he also gave a $13 million donation to Harvard, or about $174 million in today’s dollars. Moreover, Harkness insisted that nothing at Harvard be named after him despite his massive gift. Only after his death in 1940 did Harvard administrators convince his widow to allow a building to be named after him as a show of gratitude. 

So you can imagine not all Harvard students are thrilled about the decision to dishonor Harkness by renaming his building after a tax cheat who gave a comparatively modest gift. Last week, flyers started to go up on billboards around the law school from a group calling themselves Harvard Unbound. They read, in part: 

On April 20 you’ll see Justice Kagan dedicate a monument to Finn Caspersen, a schmuck who cheated the IRS out of $100 million, gave $30 million of it to Harvard Law, then blew his brains out as IRS agents closed in. 

The corrupt donor is in the ground. 

The corrupt fundraiser is on the Supreme Court. 

Money talks. Kagan walks. 

While perhaps this message could have been expressed in a more tactful manner, we sympathize with Harvard Unbound’s indignation. But more than that, color us shocked that Kagan would honor a tax cheat, and thereby make such a mockery of the current campaign to ensure tax fairness for the 1 percent spearheaded by her former White House boss and fellow Harvard Law alumnus. 

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