Government in Crime: The Penetrating Realism of Boardwalk Empire

Boardwalk Empire,the drama TV series set mainly in New Jersey during the Prohibition Era and chronicling the historical criminal kingpin and treasurer of Atlantic City Enoch L. Johnson (fictionalized as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson), is my absolute favorite television show. Is it because of its outstanding cinematographic qualities? The executive production by mafia movie experts like Terence Winter (The Sopranos) and the great Martin Scorsese? The brilliant acting of Steve Buscemi in the lead role; of Kelly Macdonald, and the rest of the cast; the witty and well-written dialogue; the great attention to detail (from old toasters and fridges to how they used to dress in the ‘20s);or the fact that it is based on real-life characters?

All of this is brilliant, but no. The reason why the series is my favorite is because of its penetrating realism in exposing the true face of government and politics. In contrast to other mafia series and movies that involve government only superficially and many times even portray it as the good guy, Boardwalk does not. Instead, it goes to great lengths to show that government is a central player in crime and only differs from ordinary criminal organizations because of its false legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

Government agents and politicians are portrayed as unscrupulous opportunists who don’t have even the smallest concern for the “public good” and instead not only turn the blind eye to the widespread crime that Prohibition generated but even partake in it as racketeers. In their spare time, they entertain themselves with the very product they would put you in jail for, often in combination with hookers.

Nucky Thompson exploits his position as Treasurer of Atlantic City and pulls his political strings to protect speakeasies from “Prohis” (government Prohibition agents) in exchange for money. As a result, Atlantic City of the ‘20s became something like Las Vegas today—a place where many rich people go to have fun.

Congress passed the 18th Constitutional amendment prohibiting alcoholic beverages in 1919 but it wouldn’t go into effect until a year later in January 17th, 1920, when the events begin in the series. The separate Volstead Act set down methods of enforcing the prohibition and defined which “intoxicating liquors” were prohibited and which were excluded from prohibition. Constitutional amendments require supermajority ratifications, so New Jersey being last to ratify(in 1922) posed no difficulty when 36 out of 48 ratifications were reached.

The economic and social effects of Prohibition were disastrous. People continued to consume alcohol and have their demands fulfilled by entrepreneurs who specialized in violence due to the hazardous nature of the trade. As a result of its scarcity and the improvised tools to produce it, alcohol was expensive and of bad quality. Many people died of alcohol poison and government corruption along with organized crime increased dramatically.The series depicts the corrupting effect that Prohibition had on the American society through the conversion of one of the main characters, Nelson van Halden, from a devout Christian and Bureau of Investigation agent into a murderer and an accomplice in the bootlegging activity.

Nucky’s brother Eli is a sheriff and is responsible for doing the dirty work through his government-granted powers. At one moment, Nucky asks Eli to kidnap and murder an innocent person in order to frame him for a massacre that someone else did but whom he couldn’t hold responsible for. In other instances, Nucky’s grit and unforgiving nature is portrayed through his refusal to forgive Eli and some of his associates when they betray him. He has his traitorous associates killed and Eli imprisoned for one year as punishment—again while pulling his strings in the Department of Justice.

Nucky could rely on the Justice Department through old his friend Harry Daugherty, who held the prestigious and influential position of Attorney General of the United States. Daugherty was appointed Attorney General after Warren Harding won the 1920 presidential election with him as campaign manager. Nucky helped Daugherty and the Republican Party win by delivering the delegates of New Jersey.

Of course, he didn’t do this out of ideological conviction, it was just politics. He promised Daugherty the votes in exchange for blocking Senator Walter Edge’s nomination for vice-presidency because Edge had secretly sided against him in funding new roads for Jersey City rather than Nucky’s own Atlantic City.The Mayor of Jersey City was the Democrat Frank Hague, even more notoriously corrupt than Nucky. Instead, Calvin Coolidge was voted as Vice President.

Although not mentioned in the series, the fact that Senator Edge was a leading anti-Prohibitionist in the Senate may have served as an extra incentive for Nucky to oppose him. Economist Bruce Yandle observed the famous model of politics known as the Bootleggers and Baptists which explains how opposite moral positions can lead to the same policy decision. In the context of alcohol, for example, Baptists (such as the Temperance movement in the U.S.) demand that alcohol be outlawed out of moral conviction. On the other hand, this directly benefits the Bootleggers—the moral opposite of Baptists—because outlawing alcohol decreases supply and raises their profits. Nucky knew that in absence of Prohibition his “services” wouldn’t be that useful.

Women’s suffrage was passed in 1920 and Nucky quickly exercised similar influence in the election of Republican Edward Bader as Mayor of Atlantic City by asking his mistress Margaret to rally women to vote for him. Here, too, Nucky stood to win from Bader’s election because he would prevent the election of a Democrat mayoral candidate who threatened to expose his corruption.At the same time, he would remain in line with the Republican Party.

After Nucky has a falling out with Daugherty, who plans to indict him in order save himself from a zealous prosecution regarding his past crimes, he seeks to acquire the help of someone stronger. Nucky’s great reach of influence extends to Andrew Mellon, U.S. Secretary of Treasury from 1921 to 1932, showing how deeply-rooted crime and corruption was in the government.

Mellon finds his role in the series because the task of enforcing Prohibition fell under his Department of Treasury. However, the twist is that Mellon himself was a fierce opponent of Prohibition.In the series, he calls it “a child’s idea of morality” and balks at its high costs of enforcement.But most importantly, his role was significant because he part-owned a defunct distillery which had produced the famous rye whisky Old Overholt.

After Nucky approaches Mellon in a private club, of course with difficulty due to his prominence, he introduces himself and confesses to having had dealings with Daugherty in the circumvention of the Volstead Act. He asks Mellon to have the infamous George Remus (biggest bootlegger at that time and direct associate of Daugherty) arrested so that he could lead him to Daugherty. In return, Nucky offered to revamp Mellon’s distillery and have it up and running within a month for Mellon’s and his own benefit.

Mellon despised Harry Daugherty as a person and this hatred led to a lot of friction between the Justice Department and the Treasury, at least partly explaining why the enforcement of Prohibition was bleak. He had therefore an additional incentive besides enforcing the law to have Daugherty and his associates arrested. Season three ends here and it remains to be seen to what extent Mellon cooperates with Nucky.

Austrian economists are of course very familiar with Mellon and recognize the key role he played in restoring post-WWI prosperity and ushering in the Roaring 20s. The fiscal reforms that he made (known as the Mellon Plan) through deep tax and spending cuts led to a quick recovery from the little-known 1920-1921 recession.

However, what made Mellon even more prominent was his approach to the income tax, which he had lowered drastically, and was accused of evading it despite being the third highest payer after John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford. In some emotion rattling for the libertarian viewer, Mellon’s character calls the income tax “sanctioned robbery, with no Constitutional basis” and bashes democracy because “it gets you bandits, fighting over a cut of the loot.” Mellon would fight all his life against the impeachment brought against him by none other than FDR who hated him as the embodiment of everything that was “bad” about the 1920s.

Now admittedly, Boardwalk is not a documentary so not everything is real and much about the real-life characters is fictionalized. The point is, however, that the series is based on something factual that existed and exists today. Even if little of what is there exists, it suffices to show that government is a bandit gang writ large.

I already knew but the series taught me conclusively to think beyond the illusion of ideology and understand that self-interest is, if not more, just as present in politicians than in any other individual. It convinced me that the rationale of politics is personal benefit with a public banner and that only a naïve person can believe in the benevolence of politicians. Boardwalk attempts to, though not consciously maybe, make the intelligent viewer question the true intentions of government and politicians. Hopefully the series will even succeed in convincing the viewer that crime and coercion is a feature of government, not a bug.

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One Response to “Government in Crime: The Penetrating Realism of Boardwalk Empire”

  1. Michael McConkey says:

    Nice general discussion of the show and its historical sources. For a broader overview of the cultural context, more theorized. Check out this: http://michaelmcconkey.com/talk/the-state-of-crim

    Happy to see an increasing interest in popular culture analysis in Austrian circles.

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