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Malcolm Gladwell Takes On Golf In A Peculiar Way

Longtime writer and now podcaster Malcolm Gladwell doesn't like golf very much. He chooses a peculiar path to attack the sport in the kickoff to season two of his popular podcast series.

Here is the pod description:

In the middle of Los Angeles — a city with some of the most expensive real estate in the world — there are a half a dozen exclusive golf courses, massive expanses dedicated to the pleasure of a privileged few. How do private country clubs afford the property tax on 300 acres of prime Beverly Hills real estate? RH brings in tax assessors, economists, and philosophers to probe the question of the weird obsession among the wealthy with the game of golf.

Since he picks on my home city and blames the clubs there for tax breaks and what was actually a lack of foresight by city planners to build more parks, I'll let Joel Beall of offer the first and most level-headed counterpoint.

Gladwell takes umbrage with California exemptions that allows golf courses to pay a small percentage rather than a variable tax like other properties. To Gladwell, golf courses are getting a free pass from paying their social dues, bemoaning the money that state and city governments are missing out.

Similar to his objection on golf-infatuated CEOs, Gladwell's outrage is fixated on the wrong entity. For the game is far from alone in receiving peculiar government regulations. Baseball's antitrust exemption is one of the most criticized doctrines in our nation's legal structure, and the stadium deals brokered between professional sports teams and their local governments continue to be a taxpayer burden. This is not to defend these policies, but let's just say golf has plenty of company when it comes to flaws with the tax code.

As always with Gladwell's work, I found his presentation and points thought-provoking. His podcast presentation style is fresh, and his roundabout methodology to backing a point is consistent with his popular books. But I struggle with his zeroing in on long-established private clubs as stealing from the public something their visionary founders created and fostered.

To suggest the public is subsidizing such facilities, while bemoaning their chain-linked fences and refusal to let the public stroll the grounds St Andrews style, ignores the history of Los Angeles, where leaders whiffed on multiple opportunities to create a better park system. (Here is the Olmsted Brothers 1930 assessment of Los Angeles that was ultimately ignored and would have created the kinds of places for non-golfers to recreate.)

The pod also suggests an underlying frustration with golf played by CEO's and President Trump ("crack cocaine for white guys"). While promoting the pod on the CBS Morning Show, Gladwell received one particularly fun bit of pushback from Charlie Rose, a golfer. The interview is worth watching.

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Reader Comments (41)

Taxation is theft. The problem with any tax code is its existence. The correct tax rate is, always has been, and always will be 0%.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterDrBunsenHoneydew
I love his books and podcasts but will not listen to this lecture of drivel by a left leaning wussy who equates all white men the same when playing golf.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Farrell
If Canadians were better at golf, he'd probably support the game.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterScott
Great show. He didn't need to bring his anti-golf slant so into it but I don't think it got in the way of his take or facts overall.

Appreciate the Olmsted links. Cool stuff.

I'd just add that runners shut down 26 miles of roads at a time when they do their marathons which is just as ridiculous as golf to the non-participants.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterDon
Yes Doctor, thank you for the extremism ad absurdum. And the corresponding counter view of equal absurdity is that private property is theft for the common,

His argument sounds like Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack. "Biggest waste of real estate..."
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterThe O
Gladwell is Mr. 10,000-hr. guy, right? Long debunked.

I can learn things even from people who are wrong, but it sounds like the standard progressive leveling.

Those founders and members didn't create those golf courses--*society* did.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterChriscom
With all the pressing issues today, it's hard to fathom how or why Gladwell would gravitated to private clubs in LA. Class envy or some past slight by a golfer. Or perhaps from his lofty perch he simply views golf as a silly, bourgeoisie activity that conflicts with his idea of a perfect society. Fine, no one's forcing him to tee it up. And none of us are examining his life to determine which of his activities should be discarded as 'crack cocaine'. Mr. Gladwell, live your own life and we'll live ours as we see fit.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterGreg
My guess is these course would be turned into mega mansions for the .1 percent or luxury condos if they were closed...the last thing we need is more traffic at the wilshire/smblvd intersection!

These westside courses were build in the the time, the westside of los angeles was a wasteland. Take a look at the old photos.

As for taxes, prop 13 means we have neighbors paying 100x difference in annual property tax in some of the wealthier communities...especially beachside in Malibu!
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterManku
DrBunsenHoneydew, anarchist golfer. That is special.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterMatt
Maybe I'm out of touch but I've never heard of this guy nor do I care at all what his opinion of golf or the local property tax code is.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterJupiter
People still (ever?) pay attention to Malcolm Gladwell? Who knew?

Also, too: Don't feed the troll. Prince Kropotkin his own self would ignore DrHoneydew.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterKLG
Easy there dinosaurs, Gladwell has a huge following still. I do wonder though what this will do for his corporate speaking circuit work.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterDavidC
Whats the point? LA is a concrete wasteland? No Kidding!

Property Tax codes are riddled with special deals and favors? Ask the Catholic Church or Cedars Sinai how much they paid in taxes last year?

Geoff makes a great point--the lack of park space is created by government choices, not secret deals.

Really bored with these people with funny hair and glasses "teaching" me stuff.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterAl
If Gladwell wants LACC to pay the same tax rates paid by residential property owners, then he should be perfectly willing to allow LACC to redevelop into 150 homes on 1 acre lots.

If we wave Gladwell's magic wand and turn LACC into a jogging park, then property taxes paid don't go up, they go to ZERO.

go back to the french fries.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered Commentered
Malcolm who?
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterMacDuff
Your insights are well-founded and spot-on Geoff. But Beall's response isn't much more than an "everybody is doing it, so must be okay,'' approach. And I don't see the connection between baseball anti-trust exemption and golf courses.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Pike
I'd love to rip the head off of this chicken, and throw its carcass to the wolves!

Dramatic? He's got a following? Please consider me not a part of it!

I'd like to address a few of the issues right from the get-go, which he brings up with his so-called landscape architect who should stick to worrying about the fertilization of her own ground! The only revision going on here is by Mr. Gladwell.

-You first talk about the fence at Brentwood Country Club as if it was a stalag, which, you liken to the Berlin Wall. Nice way to start, insulting the Jewish members of that esteemed club, many of them, no doubt having family who suffered at the work that came out of Berlin! So, let's establish you as a bigoted racist right off the bat! More on that later.

-That rocky strip of land your on that you took pictures of, well, it looks like you took it from the middle of San Vincente, which you failed to note, is a beautiful green belt of grass and coraltrees that hundreds of people use daily as the perfect jogging/walking ground. This proves you fail to show the full story, only use pieces of it to fulfill your delusion that you pass off as journalism--sadly giving credibility to the term "Fake News." This puts you on par with Kellyanne Conway!

-Private Clubs are private, no different then your home being your home. You work hard, you pay for it, you choose who you invite into your house. With most private club's, if their equitably owned, you have partners, and they share the same views in terms of who is a member; their background and worth, no different then anything or anyone you go into partnership with. Would you invite someone who wasn't solvent to be your partner? So, you come into our state, our city, think you can make waves by pointing out that you hate Golf, hate private clubs, hate rich white guys, hate one of the great freedoms of America--being out with a golf bag by yourself, walking, riding, enjoying the freedom of Golf and Tennis and dining and workout facilities and attack it because it furthers your own rhetoric, well, your an angry, psuedo-intelligent asshole hell-bent on blaming others for your plight!
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterTommy Naccarato
How much would property taxes drop if got rid of the courses that provide a respite from the concrete of LA. Typical liberal
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterJason
Love Gladwell's work. Love golf.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterDavid E
Isn't the spirit of prop 13 that land values get reset eventually.

Hard to argue a golf course should be exempt from that FOREVER.

New members paying something closer to current land value would be in the spirit of prop 13.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterDon
Did Cuck Gladwell add up how much the members pay in taxes compared to non-contributors?
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterGolfin' Dolphin
Got around to listening to some might say, "Fake News"...some tidbits:

1. Prop 13 was created because people had to sell their homes because of property tax increases. This benefited the retirees and middle class more than the wealthy in terms of lifestyle. But, IMHO, it shouldn't apply to commercial buildings or places like golf courses.

2. People have backyards and swimming pools in LA, one reason we don't use parks that much. And there are tons of little parks around LA, but very few large parks. One thing I've noticed, having grown up in Manhattan, is that wealthy don't seem to use the parks like they do in NYC.

3. Played Brentwood CC dozens of times, and drive San Vicente a few times a week...I've never noticed the barbed wire or crappy sidewalk. Everyone jogs on the median!

4. Blame the city planners 100 years ago for the lack of public spaces!
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterManku
+1 Tommy

Had to read your post in bits and pieces, I can only stay erect for so long!
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterGolfin' Dolphin
Advocating against golf is advocating for diminished health. Only an idiot would do that.
Absolutely there is room for improvement. But missing the bigger picture is not only dumb, but harmful. This braying donkey is obviously not bright enough to see that.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterChris Buie
Haven't listened to his podcast as it pertains to Brentwood CC. However the City of Los Angeles passed in 1947 on an opportunity to purchase it and make it a public course. This I was told in the 1960s by Brentwood members.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterLynn S.
"So, you come into our state, our city, think you can make waves by pointing out that you hate Golf, hate private clubs, hate rich white guys, hate one of the great freedoms of America--being out with a golf bag by yourself, walking, riding, enjoying the freedom of Golf and Tennis and dining and workout facilities and attack it because it furthers your own rhetoric, well, your an angry, psuedo-intelligent asshole hell-bent on blaming others for your plight!"

That's awesome Tommy.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered Commenterol Harv
This is the guy who said that the Beatles did nothing of substance before Sgt Pepper. I beg to differ, and offer Hard Days Night, Revolver and Rubber Soul as evidence.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterHardy Greaves
Yeah, Harv. I was about to tell Tommy to stop sugarcoating it and tell us how he really feels!

One good review of Gladwell's shtick in this TED Talk world:
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterKLG
Gladwell has a high IQ, I'm sure. But he also has Leo Sayer hair.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered Commenterlloydcole
Did Malcolm Gladwell dedicate 10,000 hours to becoming both a racist and a communist?
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterGutta Percha
Seems like you guys are all ducking the crux of his argument.

Frozen land values for a private course in perpetuity. To me that's obviously a broken system. I'm sure I'm wrong like usual.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterDon
Without including the tax exemptions for private church properties, Malcolm Gladwell's math used in analyzing taxation of private golf courses doesn't add up. There are entire square miles, 640 acres, held by private churches, not paying taxes.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterGutta Percha
There is so much wrong with this entire premise of his, puzzling for someone that prizes himself as a lonely intellect, an Outlier he likes to call himself.

Listening to this podcast, it smacks of extremist viewpoints which he feels blight the world--his world. One he doesn't even live in, let alone uses the soap box/podium of this great country to show how screwed up we are. Big news here for you fella: People have different likes and dislikes then you do. Leave the criticism to those learned to the subject matter, not one, where your digging a blind hole to something you know very little about (you hate both Golf and Rich White People, right?!?!) Yet your not a Golfer; don't reside in Los Angeles, you weren't born here and your not even a US citizen, therefore your entitled to an opinion because why? Because you can't figure out to look behind you and see the 35 foot wide median of green grass and trees to jog on; or, that this great state of California has no less then five nature trails, along with the Will Rogers estate for you to experience in this area alone?

Every club here in Los Angeles is special, because they not only offer fine golf, but it serves their members and guest delightfully so. When your a golfer and you come to Los Angeles, you leave fulfilled if not educated on the grandest aspects of the Sport and the beauty of the club itself, all which promotes not only good health, but friendship and community pride.

I'm not a member of any of these courses, but I feel I'm well-informed of their value to the community which I live as well as the purpose which they serve. Let's hear about something you love or cherish.

Lloyd, I couldn't put my finger on it, but like always, you find the perfect verse! You know I can dance! (Leo Sayer)

My critique of your writing goes further, because it exposes hate for those that donpkay the sport, as well as those that are members. Why don't you tell us of your personal experiences and frustrations with the game because of your shortcomings-something that Golf exposes in the very best, rather then your hate of other people.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterTommy Naccarato
Did you listen to the entire podcast?

It's a laundry list of reasons why all, not some but all of the country club's in Los Angeles should become open park space, as if that would actually happen. He brings in a woman landscape architect, who also isn't a golfer to prove his point, that she got half of the trees specimens correct, while saying the fence with barbaric double barbed wire around this private club needs to come down. He points out the lack of jogging space around the club, takes a picture of it, yet fails to mention 10' behind him is a median which used to be for the former Red Car line, but is now green grass and coral trees which people, hundreds of people use daily for jogging, walking, leisure. The Landscape architect then says first thing she'd do is take down the barbed wire and chain link fence. Why? So the club could be sued when an errant shot runs through a fence and hits one of those joggers on club grounds?!?!

He then attacks the privacy of the Los Angeles Country Club and its astute membership, who will open their doors to the world later this summer and again in 2023. He attacks "Rich White People", dead Bob Hope, all while turning a blind eye that these country club's moved out here before there was anything out here but ranch land. Yet, they should be held accountable again, taxing the money of people that's already been taxed and taxed again. Never once while telling us if he's even played, but more, that he's stumbled on a topic that he feels he's knowledgeable to pick at then comes down to the conclusion that these club's should be closed to its "over-privileged members" during the week, so he can utilize as his personal park--even though he doesn't live here.

No, I don't get the crux of his argument. Pardon my ignorance!
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterTommy Naccarato
Should prop 13 apply to golf courses or not? He says no. It's a defensible and I think logical position.

I agree his overall approach is needlessly antagonistic but that has nothing to do with the crux of the matter.
06.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterDon
Wow. Interesting reading.

I don't know who this guy is, and I certainly hope that me and those like me who have hair and glasses are not lumped with him. LA may have blown it on the parks, but the sidewalks and boulevards, the groundcover and painted lane descriptions on the roadways are a bit of what they did right, it seems.

Hey Tommy~ rock on!

06.16.2017 | Unregistered Commenterdigsouth
well, Don, the voters decided it should. get going on repeal if you disagree.

Gladwell is making another point--that because the city of LA made stupid zoning choices (some might say different zoning choices) years ago, we should now confiscate private property and turn it into parkland.

its another "I went to a really good school, so just give me all your hard earned money, and i'll give you back what I think you should need and use the rest to do (what I want to be) the right thing"
06.17.2017 | Unregistered Commenteral
It's unfortunate that many people will take what he says as fact. Really the same thing can be said about lots of multimedia that people are now using as their sources of information and news.
06.17.2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoe
HA! Doc Honeydew has lost his damn mind!
06.22.2017 | Unregistered CommenterDodd Gerhardt
Interesting that the tax payers of Los Angeles subsidized the private golf courses that the majority of them will never get a chance to visit.
08.8.2017 | Unregistered CommenterRobin S

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