Cosby: His Life and Times

One of the more poorly timed authorized biographies, Cosby: His Life and Times, was not in very high demand at the local library. So I decided to learn a bit more about Bill Cosby, other than the sexual assault allegations that have flooded the media since November 2014.

Mark Whitaker’s book is interesting for its window into black-white relations in the 1960s when Bill Cosby was on his way to becoming America’s most successful entertainer. Were whites racist? The business executives running television networks were happy to employ talented actors of all races, according to the author, but sometimes they expressed fears that affiliate stations in the Deep South would not run shows featuring a black co-star. Their fears that “the other people are racist” turned out to be unfounded, with 180 out of 184 affiliates picking up the supposedly controversial shows. This is not to say that network executives are completely open-minded. They fought like tigers against Cosby’s plan to fill five minutes of one of his 1980s sitcom episodes with lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, believing that Americans could not accept the Bard in their living rooms.

The author, a former managing editor of CNN and bureau chief for NBC News, is criticized for his failure to include anything about allegations of sexual assault against Cosby. This Wikipedia page from September 6, 2014 does include an account of a 2004-6 case and as many as 13 other women with similar claims:

In August 2006, Cosby reached an out-of-court settlement in a lawsuit filed against him by a Canadian woman claiming he had attacked her in his Philadelphia home in 2004. The woman claimed she had been sexually assaulted after being given pills when she had complained of feeling stressed, and court documents show her lawyers intended to call 13 other witnesses who made similar claims of abuse. Cosby denied the assertions.

Thus it may be said that Wikipedia is a more balanced source than this $ 30 Simon and Schuster book.

Given our current public debates about optimum tax rates on our most successful citizens, the book is relevant for its portrayal of what Cosby did when he was earning a very high income in an environment of high tax rates. He frantically invested the money into film and recording projects, which qualified as deductible business expenses, to avoid giving 70 percent to the federal government. This ended up creating a huge personal loss for Cosby, as the projects did not pay off, but also a loss to the economy, as a lot of useless showbiz people in LA snorted up what would have been the U.S. Treasury’s money.

The book reminds readers how influential network television was back then. It was possible to get at least one member in nearly every American family to watch the same TV show on the same night. Cosby used this platform to put out a positive image of middle class black America.

The book is not without embarrassing disclosures. Whitaker describes a dalliance with a young lady in Los Angeles (Cosby was there for extended periods for work while the family remained in Western Massachusetts). Shawn Berkes turned up to meet Cosby in Las Vegas in 1975 with a photo of a 14-month-old baby girl and a hunger for cash. This was prior to the introduction of child support guidelines so the value of a pregnancy or child that resulted from a brief encounter was hard to calculate. Most of the cash value of an out-of-wedlock child was due to the potential for embarrassment, marital discord, and bad publicity. (A present-day successor to Ms. Berkes could have sex in Los Angeles with a high-income partner and then use the online California child support calculator to learn exactly how much the resulting child would yield. Note that she would be very unwise to have sex or a child in Las Vegas due to Nevada’s $ 13,000-per-year cap on child support for a single child.) The incident shows the price of celebrity in the U.S. because there was never any evidence that the child was Cosby’s.

The book reminds us that Cosby’s beloved son Ennis was murdered more or less randomly and pointlessly by an armed robber. It is tough to imagine how a parent could recover from that and go on trying to entertain the rest of us.

Whitaker also describes Cosby’s late-life jeremiads against black ghetto culture (e.g., the Pound Cake speech). Our interviews with divorce litigators nationwide and review of the research indicates that Cosby’s attack on black culture is unfair to at least some extent. Do black women have children in response to cash incentives provided by the U.S. welfare system? Perhaps, but the data show that white women also have babies to get cash. See “Parental Responses to Child Support Obligations” (Rossin-Slater and Wust 2014) in which Danish women, presumably overwhelmingly white, were more likely to have an out-of-wedlock child if they had previously received a cash profit on an earlier child. The change in behavior was significant despite the small size of the cash incentives (child support is capped at $ 8,000 per year in Denmark, lower than the value of welfare benefits, such as free housing, here in the U.S.). Child labor in the old days was mostly a white phenomenon. From our book:

A key assumption underlying most states’ divorce system is that a parent would never put personal financial gain ahead of his or her child’s interest. For example, a parent who believed that 50/50 shared parenting would be better for a child emotionally would not go to court asking for 67/33 or 100/0 in order to have more money.

“You know that this assumption is false,” said one litigator, “because 19th century parents sent their children to work in the mills and stopped only when child labor laws made it illegal.”

It turns out that this question has been formally studied by economists. See, for example, “Parental Altruism and Self-Interest: Child Labor Among Late Nineteenth-Century American Families” (Parsons and Goldin 1989; Economic Inquiry 27:4):

Nonaltruistic behavior by parents was pervasive. Even among families with positive assets, child labor was common…

The labor market evidence suggests that parents were willing to accept large reductions in their own wages to secure employment in areas having abundant child labor opportunities. They were implicitly willing to sell the labor services of their children very cheaply, indeed at a rate that suggest they placed very little value on the foregone schooling (and future income) of their children. … Neither did they permit children to retain their earnings for future use. The children were simply worse off…

The empirical results suggest that parents did not have strong (economic) altruistic concerns for their children. … the family provided little in the way of offsetting physical asset transfers (in the form of gifts and bequests) to compensate children for their lost schooling and future earnings. The increased family income was apparently absorbed in higher current family consumption.

Do black men run away from fatherhood? Lawyers and legislators that we interviewed told us that fatherhood for a lot of black men means being the only non-lawyer in a courtroom and being on the losing end of whatever the proceeding might be. One attorney said “white men spend all of their savings defending divorce lawsuits expecting to get justice; black men don’t bother because they know that they’re not going to be treated justly.” Regarding continuing to pay a lawyer and defend a lawsuit after losing a 10-minute “temporary order” motion in which custody of children are assigned to the mother:

“Realistically this is where one parent, typically the father, should give up,” said one attorney, “due to the court system’s bias toward the status quo, even a status quo that was created by the court. The judge has told the father ‘The only thing that you’re good for is paying the mother’s bills’ but dad has trouble believing that he’ll never be anything other than an ATM. In a lot of ways the ghetto dads are smarter than my [white] male clients. Ghetto dads try to minimize the financial damage, comply with court orders to pay money, but don’t volunteer to serve as unpaid babysitters of a child that the court has deemed to be essentially someone else’s.”

Cosby does not seem to account for the possibility that American blacks are responding to economic incentives in more or less the same way as American whites, but from a different educational basis.

What about the fact that the 500 pages of the book teach us less about the accusations of sexual assault against Cosby than does a casual visit to Wikipedia? To my mind that means we can’t accept this book as a definitive guide to Bill Cosby as a human being, but the book remains a definitive guide to his professional accomplishments.

Cosby was undeniably one of the most important and influential Americans of the 20th century and Whitaker does a great job of explaining that importance, albeit with some name-heavy sections that people who aren’t passionate about Hollywood would want to skim. For Americans who pat themselves on the back today for not being as racist as those white folks depicted in movies such as Selma, the book also serves as a reminder that the supposedly deeply racist America of the 1960s and 1970s was very happy to work with or be entertained by a talented black person. (This is not to say that we don’t have any race-related problems or didn’t have any back then, only that things are perhaps not so different.)

More: Read Cosby: His Life and Times.

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

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