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Paradigm shift in Architecture: Steve Jobs, Rem Koolhaas…Simon  Sadler essay

Posted on March 30, 2013

An émigré architectural historian who teaches across disciplines in California, at a public university near Apple’s lair in the Bay Area (close to San Francisco), is posting an essay.

Since architectural stories are surprising rare on the edge of the continent, he needed a shtick; no matter what’s his connoisseur-ish personal tastes and leftist political dispositions.

Simon  Sadler published an essay on March 13/2013 in The Design Observer Group: “Steve Jobs: Architect”

Top: Apple store, Fifth Avenue, New York. [Photo by Eric Wüstenhagen]

Bottom: Steve Jobs and Rem Koolhaas. [Photos by James Mitchell, left, and Rodrigo Fernández, right]


1. An Apple for the teacher Yet another treatise on Steve Jobs? As an “architect”?And with Apple seemingly waning,  aren’t we behind the curve on this?  Suffice it to say that my interest is not solely in Steven Paul Jobs himself, but rather in the challenge that the late computer impresario and legendary technologist poses to the methods and purpose of an architectural historian.

My job and my location place me close enough to Silicon Valley that students might fairly assume that I have something cogent to say about all this.  Apple is working with Norman Foster to build a donut-spaceship as its headquarters in Cupertino.

So what are my options?

1. Compare and contrast, that trusty standby of art history, in which I drill my students. I can compare Jobs with … with whom, exactly? Bill Gates, or maybe Thomas Edison? That route would take us away from design, away from architectural history, away from aesthetics.I like to pay close attention to both Science and Technology Studies and Cultural Studies, which are the disciplines perhaps most comfortable with technology and the American experience.

But neither the Apple HQ, or the iPhone for that matter, readily lend themselves to STS and Cultural Studies’ emphases on flattened and distributed innovation and on user-generated meanings.So any methods I might borrow from those anthropologically-inclined fields will need to be augmented by the emphases on authorship and aesthetics that architectural history traditionally draws from art history. Peel away his ruthless command of global consumer markets and Jobs can seem to the art historian more akin to Gropius than Gates.

2. Criticality.  Since Jobs’s ruthless command of markets is a fact that cannot be peeled away, we are obliged to deploy the criticality that has been central to architectural historical method that was started by Tomás Maldonado and Manfredo Tafuri.I am duty-bound to tell students that design is not necessarily benign, especially when it seems to be.

Yet they can see me teaching from the MacBook I am writing on even now. Some of the students I have trained will graduate into Silicon Valley. I wonder what that suggests about my own complicity with the very things which I am attempting to critique?How does my salary, my adopted state, my consumption, tie me to all this?

So I discreetly edge the conversation back to my own disciplinary competence by comparing the design for the new Apple headquarters with other corporate buildings. We take another iconic and somehow ominous HQ — OMA’s recently completed CCTV tower in Beijing — and we then compare Jobs with OMA’s head, Rem Koolhaas. As if they were both architects.

And then we treat Jobs as though he were an offshoot of a Bay Area design history that was substantially driven by architecture. My concern is to have something to say about design in the far western region where I teach; even though major monumental buildings are scarce on the ground here, and even though the politics of good design are adulterated by my state’s politics of good business.

This effort becomes a test of the limits of my discipline, devoted as it has long been to the maintenance of European critical traditions, and to monumentality and the public sphere, and to the continued preeminence of the academic institutions of Northern Europe and the U.S. Eastern Seaboard.

Such is the fate of many an émigré architectural historian in California, at once living and working within a global engine of economy, design, ideology and media, yet rather far from the concatenations of Greater New England architectural historical scholarship.We wonder whether there is any more that can be said about the Mission Style, the Case Study Houses, the freeways; or whether anything whatsoever can be said about California’s inland agricultural empire of the Central Valley, which is where I live.

Norman Foster’s design for the Apple headquarters, center, surrounded by the California architectural historian’s canon.[Photos, clockwise, by Eli PoussonNeil KremerDystopusKeith DalyChris McSorleyAllan FergusonMyDifferentDrum and Roberto Estremo] Talk about Jobs as though he were an architect — already a dubious proposition — is to talk as well about advanced capitalism, about global systems, the counterculture, Zen Buddhism, and all manner of phenomena apparently inimical to the critical tradition, to monumentality and the public sphere.

This approach might threatens to liquefy my discipline through a Golden State looking-glass.Maybe I should emulate the resolve of the philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer who were stranded in sunny Los Angeles during the war, refused to succumb to California languor.To be frank I think that architectural-historical methodology can benefit from this modest test, and prevail. 

This is one of those experiments in method encouraged — forced — by the study of California: here subject and method evolve symbiotically, as befits scholarship in a region enamored with holistic thought, even as my disciplinary training prevents me from ever going fully native.

2. Why it’s simpler to treat Jobs as a California Modern Architect To the subject at hand?To me, treating Jobs as an architect has merit, if for no other reason than to bring sort of conclusion to the popular psychologizing of what made Job tick.It is no secret that Jobs was a “complicated” man. Nothing more typifies the persona of the “great architect,” driven to get his ideas executed with minimum compromise, somehow distrustful of people yet seemingly concerned about their welfare, preferring to channel politics through design rather than to actually participate in political activity.

Eric Alterman writes in The Nation’s: Despite the myriad ways his companies improved our lives, Jobs was a hero only in the Ayn Randian sense…” de facto connecting Jobs, via Rand, to that archetype of the “complicated” architect, Howard Roark, a.k.a. Frank Lloyd Wright

A sense of what you might call “psychopathic humanism” attends such personalities: they are determined to improve the human lot no matter how many individual humans they offend along the way.Bucking our current postmodern era, Jobs and Koolhaas both seem to have been driven by the possibility that they can act inside, or around, a postmodern world resistant to purpose.

Jobs and Koolhaas share, I suspect, an attraction toward design as a type of hermeneutics — a will to learn about the world through the attempt to change it. Koolhaas assigned his Harvard students and OMA assistants to track aesthetic multiplier effects through the study of shopping and of African urbanism; he is passionate, in a manner worthy of a surrealist or second-order cybernetician, about paradox and overdetermination.

Meanwhile both the personnel and the customers of the Apple Corporation functioned as an extension of Jobs, and not simply through the authoritarian exertion of will. In this sense Jobs hasn’t died in the same way that Mies van der Rohe hasn’t died: something of his very thinking, his gestalt, has been learned by other designers and consumers, and in this way Jobs’s legacy — like influential pedagogy — is “architectural.”

That Jobs’s work, his products, has constituted a daily part of people’s lives over several generations was testified to by the peculiar and public demonstrations of grief at his passing.
Steve Jobs memorial, Apple store, San Francisco. [Photo by raumish] Koolhaas, for sure, is a redoubtable figure for historians and theorists of architecture in a way that Jobs never will be. Judged by his impact on architectural pedagogy and his reception by critics, he probably remains our most important living architect, popular with scholars to the degree that he is apparently unpopular with, even obscure to, the public at large.

Koolhaas invites interpretation. In contrast, scholars are left practically redundant by the sheer popularity of Jobs’s work: there is, apparently, no work of interpretation left for us to do.We can try to deepen our analyses of Jobs by citing the pivotal influential of industrial designers like Dieter Rams; but accounting for Koolhaas’s interests in the surrealist paranoiac-critical method, Soviet Constructivism and Italian Autonomist Marxism would require graduate-seminar-level exegesis.

Put another way: if Koolhaas’s aesthetic is difficult, Jobs’s is dumb. The categorical difference is that one really is an architect, steeped in the arts, and the other is an ambitious industrial designer, steeped in the applied arts; which is why Koolhaas presents an explanatory challenge, Jobs a functional literalness.I am not so sure about this distinction, though; whatever the philosophical and formal challenges which Koolhaas’s buildings pose, they function well.

And Jobs’s intellectual formation was easily as esoteric as that of Koolhaas.It’s no surprise that architect Norman Foster has referred to Jobs as though he were a professional peer, “in every way so much more than a client,” as Foster put it in his tribute. “We are better as individuals and certainly wiser as architects through the experience of … working for him. …  Job participation was so intense and creative that our memory will be that of working with one of the truly great designers and mentors.”(This is the sort of language we might expect Foster to have reserved for his earlier mentor Richard Buckminster Fuller — another figure whose functionalism, anathema to the richly formal work of Koolhaas, is adored in Bay Area.)

When Jobs’s name is used as a search term in the scholarly Avery Index to architectural history, it retrieves a 2005 article from Britain’s ID magazine that lists, in this order, the most influential design thinkers in the world: the Museum of Modern Art’s Design Department, Steve Jobs, Rem Koolhaas.For ID, at least, we are in some way comparing like with like. And the listing of Jobs with MoMA and Koolhaas has the intriguing effect of drawing a westward axis of transnational design, as it transposes from The Netherlands, then to the United States via New York and Northern California, then onward to China, where Jobs and Koolhaas confirm their incendiary reputations in the factories of Shenzhen and the political machine of Beijing.The modernist tradition becomes — to use Koolhaas’s celebrated term — increasingly delirious, as it gravitates from the Heroic Age Netherlands, to Jazz Age New York, to Aquarian Age California.If Koolhaas has capitalized upon a distinctively Dutch taste and Northern European aesthetic, Jobs has championed a distinctively Californian energy.In the early 1980s, the German industrial designer Hartmut Esslinger proposed that there should be a “born-in-America gene for Apple’s DNA,” one that would produce what Esslinger called a “California global” look. Esslinger, then newly arrived in the United States, initially suggested that Apple’s aesthetic be inspired by “Hollywood and music, a bit of rebellion, and natural sex appeal.”But Hollywood, rock music, sex appeal and rebellion did not prevail in the iconic forms that embody the Apple brand identity created so obsessively by Jobs. In its stores, in its devices, even in the book cover he designed for Walter Isaacson’s biography (which he himself commissioned Isaacson to write), Jobs recovered a vision of the modern as clarified, normative, truthful, perhaps somewhat German though even more Zen.Is there a relationship between California and these qualities of clarification, normative, truthfulness and Zen? I believe that Apple really does represent a genus of Californian design — that the slogan “Designed by Apple in California” conveys something like an ethos.


Top and Middle: Norman Foster, drawings for Apple headquarters, Cupertino, California, projected 2015. Bottom: Bernard Maybeck, Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, 1915. [Photo by Wally Gobetz]Apple’s image evolved markedly from the early 1980s to now, but it remained consistent with Bay Area taste, from the counter-cultural feel of the offerings to be found in (say) its early-’80s gift collections —with their totes, kites, belt buckles, wall hangings and rug kits — to the New Age aura of transcendent consciousness and spirituality of more recent Mac products, their concealed LEDs practicing controlled yogic breathing when left on standby.

Apple was a Bay Area company led by a lifelong Bay Area homeboy steeped in such Bay Area enthusiasms as the Whole Earth Catalog and The Grateful Dead.In the dominant culture of the Bay Area — if I can indulge in a sweeping summary — you find a deep distaste for representing established culture: culture is to be invented, here and now, and to be lived rather than observed and learned. It is a culture that imagines itself as exploring truth and possibility.

This is a trait stretching back through several generations of Northern California designers — Bernard Maybeck is my personal favorite, with his eccentric combinations of materials, technique and historical association. Jobs, too, pursued an aesthetics of truth and possibility.Compare the design of two corporate animation facilities, one for The Walt Disney Company, in Southern California, the other for Jobs’s Pixar, in Northern California. In his 1991 design for the Team Disney building, in Burbank, Michael Graves employs the Seven Dwarves as Atlantes not only to symbolize a passing world of animated arts but also to make an inside joke about the conclusion of classical civilization.

In contrast, in their Pixar Studios, in Emeryville, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson deploy the patterning of bricks of different hues to make decoration immanent to the materials themselves, in this way suggesting that the building itself is pixelated — a pattern waiting to be orchestrated. Facts before pictures.The tectonic and material truths of this factory of the virtual feel hyper-real. Its hand-laid brick courses suggest an unnerving sincerity far removed from the postmodern irony of Graves or the postmodern tragedy of Koolhaas.

The Bohlin Cywinski Jackson practice, founded in 1965 in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, under the sway of Louis Kahn (that vital transitional figure between modernism and postmodernism who recovered architectural verity from dogmatic functionalism and returned it to custom, ritual and place) has proven adept at delivering to commercial and technological clients buildings of a local phenomenological intensity. In 1997 the firm completed the residential compound of another computer maven, one Bill Gates of Bellevue, WA, in an earnest regional “Pacific Lodge” style. A couple of years later, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson opened its San Francisco office to handle the Pixar campus for Jobs. What they delivered doesn’t look much like a fun factory.

The main pavilion is an elegant warehouse, its flat arches an acknowledgement of the local light-industry context, with plate glass recalling the notoriously generic corporate architecture of Silicon Valley.

The Pixar campus is a place for serious research, not decorative puns; a place where the arts of animation from the classic era of Disney are preserved within three-dimensional computer modeling originally developed for medical imaging; a place to discover the sorts of truths about the self and the world that were earlier discovered in the Marin County summer camps, Palo Alto garages, East Bay cafés, Silicon Valley laboratories and Silicon Alley warehouses recalled by the campus ensemble.


Top: Michael Graves, Team Disney Building, Burbank, California. [Photo by Loren Javier] Middle and Bottom: Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Steve Jobs Building, Pixar Campus, Emeryville, California. [Photos by John Lambert Pearson, middle, and Michael Heilemann, bottom] The comic foil provided by the monumental Luxo lamp is an addition.The lamp — an homage to Pixar’s celebrated 1986 demo reel, “Luxo Jr.” — was a gift from Australia, as though Pixar were a new nation — a corporate nation that reaffirms the Bay Area as a center of the creative world (with a nod, in the naming of its new building “Brooklyn,” to an East Coast counterpart).

Jobs was the undisputed ruler of this nation; Pixar employees knew him to be the hidden hand in the building’s design,  [11] and Jobs was always adamant that all core creative production for his companies would happen in the Bay Area in real diurnal time, defying the industry trend for the globalized dissipation of the design process across facilities, specializations and time zones.

At a Cupertino City Council meeting in June 2011, a clearly ailing Jobs made what I assume was his last public appearance to present the plans for the new Apple HQ; he promoted the Foster + Partners design as a great entity in a traditionalist Bay Area landscape to be designed by Stanford University’s arborist.  The building thus becomes the capsule, the beehive, the phalanstery for 15,000 engineers circling the wagons against the outsourcing of Californian design.Apple had thus become the new Californian “machine,” reproducing local tastes and predispositions even through its immigrant employees, like the British designer Jonathan Ive, or the German Esslinger and his practice frog design, all of whom were required to relocate to the region as part of their association with Jobs.

Even the design presence of Baron Foster, whose ideas were profoundly affected by his admiration of the Case Study houses, does nothing to deflect the broad, synthetic Californianism of Apple’s trajectory. Yet ultimately Jobs’s phenomenology can be founded on certainties of place and language no more than the modern-day Bay Area can be founded on certainties of place and language.

It is a light phenomenology, slickly tuning consciousness through sensory experience.This calibration of affect, surely at Job’s behest, explains how Bohlin Cywinski Jackson effortlessly switched from the vernacular brick and iron opacity at Pixar to the Zen-like transparency of the 2006 Manhattan Apple Store.Opacity, transparency, Jungian forms, materials, place, tectonics: Jobs and his collaborators were trying to access phenomenological truths at the office and at the store.

Top: Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Apple store, Fifth Avenue, New York, 2006. [Photo by Jorge Láscar] Bottom: Early graphical user interface, Xerox Star, 1981. [Via DigiBarn Computer Museum]Along the way Jobs conscripted the very typology of the window from the Graphical User Interface — which he explored soon after it was invented at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto — to the service of his light phenomenology that sought to reveal the world.

Floor-to-ceiling windows, beloved by Bay Region architects, became the central motif of Jobs’s inventions — from the computers to the phones to the stores, the windowed grids of the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue relaying attention to the windowed tablets relaying attention to windowed operating systems, propelling us steadily out of history.

Though routinely described as iconic, Apple products seem actually to be moving away from idiosyncratic forms like the trend-setting colored-jellybean style of the late ’90s iMac series. The aluminum, glass and radius edges of the recent products strain for ascetic neutrality.Without much difficulty the Apple consumer could imagine information one day floating in the environment, dematerialized into the “cybernetic meadow” forecast in the celebrated (if ridiculed) 1967 poetry collection by San Franciscan Richard Brautigan when he was poet-in-residence at Caltech. [15]

So at the end of his life, Jobs settled on a Zen-like approach as the appropriate phenomenological architecture for information technology, just as a Zen-like transcendence had attracted generations of Bay Region aesthetes.

Bay Region Style itself bore the clear imprint of Japanese Zen architecture.

In a famous 1947 essay on “Bay Region Style,” Lewis Mumford described the style as “a product of the meeting of the Occidental and Oriental architectural traditions,” and 6 decades later Steve Jobs concurred: “I have always found … Japanese Zen Buddhism … to be aesthetically sublime.

Zen is to California as Greece is to Germany“: so an uncommonly insightful student quipped to me recently, bridging the Bay Region’s dogged pursuit of higher consciousness and the German phenomenological tradition. Jobs’s seemingly existential understanding of design does indeed remind one of the fascination exerted over architects by Martin Heidegger, for whom design functioned best in the background, the better to “bring forth” Being.

Bay Area and German existentialism are even linked by a proud sense of their higher provincialism, the disdain for metropolitan affectation. William Wurster, referring to the Bay Region Style, wrote in 1956  that “Architecture is not a goal. Architecture is for life and pleasure and work and for people. The picture frame, not the picture.”Jobs enthused about the Bay Area’s mid-century stick-built houses developed by Joseph Eichler: Eichler’s “houses were smart and cheap and good,” Jobs told Walter Isaacson. “I love it when you can bring really great design and simple capability to something that doesn’t cost too much. … It was the original vision for Apple.

And so we have that paradox that the normative or the provincial comes to embody rarefied taste and so occupy a central place in design culture. (Something similar happened with critical regionalism.) [22] By the early 21st century, Apple products were the summary forms of international modern design, recalling the abstemiousness of Viennese architect and journalist Adolf Loos at the turn of the 20th century, of the German industrial design of the Dessau Bauhaus of the 1920s, and of the Braun products of Dieter Rams in the 1960s, admiration for the latter of which Jobs developed when attending the Aspen Institute’s conferences in the early 1980s.


Top: Eichler home, original advertisement. [Via Architizer]Bottom: Dieter Rams, Braun radio and record player. [Photos by Nite Owl, left, and Toby Evans, right]

3. Thinking inside the box What did it mean for Jobs to attempt to recuperate “normative,” “classically” modernist values for a postmodern, late capitalist world order — for a world order whose anguish seems better captured by the old-world Koolhaas, and in which modernism’s promise of emancipation is trammeled in the off-shore factories of Apple’s manufacturers? Is this nothing but a travesty of modernism? For of course we know that aesthetic culture is at best a poor substitute indeed for truly political society, and a sickening lie in its absence.

The  clamshell form of the late ’90s MacBook was redolent of the sort of cigarette case that Loos identified in 1908 as the touchstone of modern culture: stripped, portable, repetitive. Ornament became Crime, in Jobs’s mind as it had in Loos’s. The Mac and the cigarette case were trade objects emblematic of their respective epochs, their meanings indefinite, not predetermined: as a content-producing machine, the Mac strenuously obliges society with cultural “running-room.”

Yet the aluminum sheathed MacBook is not quite the quintessential Loosian object. It is almost too refined for its purposes, courting the status of a commodity fetish, mystifying and objectifying human relations through its market exchange.

The MacBook confuses the urn with the chamber pot, to borrow Loos’s terms; it struggles to distinguish the ceremonial from the functional. It ennobles the rituals of everyday life, like writing email, but it is too slick to disrupt our life continuum, which for Loos was the critical function of art, architecture and language — a way in which to make sense of our world.

So it is to Rem Koolhaas and his firm, OMA, that we must turn for manifestation of the disjunctions of tradition and modernity, of place and space.The contrast in taste, in aesthetics, between Jobs and Koolhaas is illustrated most obviously by comparing the two headquarters buildings.

With its twisting and grotesque form, the China Central Television tower underscores the tragic deterioration of the public sphere, as the production of information is impressed into the service of the capitalist dictatorship of the People’s Republic.

It is practically a Salon work of art, simultaneously repulsive and fascinating, politically and aesthetically, in a way that reminds me of that classic of the Salon genre, Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818–1819).

Whereas the Apple HQ suggests a very different version of the Romantic legacy, of the recovery of a primordial reason beyond intellectualization — it strains to be “insanely great,” in Jobs’s famous phrase. The circle of steel and glass suggests no history, no past; its gesture is spontaneous, or Jungian, or Zen,  childlike in its simplicity and secrecy. It needs no interpretation because, as designer Sean Daly blogged in The Architects’ Newspaper:

The ensō, or “circle,” is perhaps the most enduring motif in the Zen tradition, one that first appears in Japanese monasteries in the mid-1600s. The Zen circle is not a linguistic character, but rather a symbol that conveys a host of things — the universe, the cyclical nature of existence, enlightenment, strength, and poised contemplation. It suggests the Heart Sutra, which explains that “form is void and void is form” … [27]

Like Pixar in Emeryville, Apple in Cupertino exemplifies a light phenomenology. It’s Zen kitsch. Jobs’s Zen postmodernism, of which Foster’s building is an embodiment, acts upon the world through process, intervening in a cybernetic cycle for which the record of historical struggle is but a dysfunctional footnote.

In sharp contrast, the tragic postmodernism of Koolhaas and the CCTV feels jagged, a beauty of terribilità.

Top: Norman Foster, Apple headquarters, Cupertino, California, projected 2015.

Middle and Bottom: Rem Koolhaas/OMA, China Central TV headquarters, Beijing, 2012. [Photos by Jim Gourley]

Koolhaas’s abstraction of modernity appeals more to critical tastes than Jobs’s interaction with modernity. It is almost as though Koolhaas courts his appeal to art-historical criticality, even contributing to its veritable organ, October.

Koolhaas, who clearly rejected “interactive” and “gadgety” design — as a young architect at the Architectural Association in London in the ’70s, he had little use for the Archigram influence — seems to think like an art historian, and his relative lack of name recognition in the broader culture perhaps confirms the discernment of the specialists.

Whereas the outpouring of grief over Jobs’s death was often in questionable taste. “It sounds crazy,” a student in my modern architecture class said the day after Jobs died, “but for people of my age, it’s like we lost our Bobby Kennedy.” Could my students be so lacking in discrimination? Perhaps … but perhaps not.

I would be fuming if that student had responded in the same way to, say, the untimely passing of Mark Zuckerberg. No disrespect, but Zuckerberg is, we might agree, no Kennedy. So maybe we might agree as well that my student was simply one of many seeking inspiration as an Obama administration elected upon the promise of hope struggled to the end of its third tumultuous year.

And apparently she found it: I noticed her in the crowd when Occupy arrived at my university campus not long after Jobs’s death. One of the few commentators to understand the strange politics of the mourning of Jobs was Frank Rich. Writing for New York Magazine, Rich compared Jobs to Edison as an inventor-entrepreneur whose American technological “architecture” (so to speak) was constructive to the same extent that the upstart American financial-services “architecture” — of the type built by the GE Capital division that had eclipsed the GE industrial division founded by Edison in the 1890s — was destructive.

“Some on the right were baffled that the ostensible Marxists demonstrating in lower Manhattan would observe a moment of silence and assemble makeshift shrines for a top 1% like Jobs, whose expensive products were engineered for near-instant obsolescence and produced by Chinese laborers in factories with substandard health-and-safety records,” said Rich. But, he continued:

If you love your Mac and iPod, you can still despise CDOs and credit-default swaps. Jobs’s genius — in the words of Regis McKenna, a Silicon Valley marketing executive who worked with him early on— was his ability “to strip away the excess layers of business, design, and innovation until only the simple, elegant reality remained.” The supposed genius of modern Wall Street is the exact reverse, piling on excess layers of business and innovation on ever thinner and more exotic creations until simple reality is distorted and obscured.

The paradox was also understood, more viscerally, by that bellwether of campus humor, The Onion:

Steve Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple Computers and the only American in the country who had any clue what the fuck he was doing, died Wednesday at the age of 56. “We haven’t just lost a great innovator, leader, and businessman, we’ve literally lost the only person in this country who actually had his shit together and knew what the hell was going on,” a statement from President Barack Obama read in part, adding that Jobs will be remembered both for the life-changing products he created and for the fact that he was able to sit down, think clearly, and execute his ideas — attributes he shared with no other U.S. citizen.

Sit down, think clearly, and execute ideas: this is what draws students to design in a postmodern age, yes? “Obama added” (according to The Onion) “that if anyone could fill the void left by Jobs it would probably be himself, but said that at this point he honestly doesn’t have the slightest notion what he’s doing anymore.”

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Apple store, North Michigan Ave, Chicago, 2003. [Photo by Almond Dhukka]

We might decry the chirping of an Occupier’s iPhone as a mere simulacrum of political society.  We might better see the fate of political society in the metaphor of Koolhaas’s atolls of beauty and social space cast adrift in a neoliberal world. But by a remarkable historical turn, the Pollyanna-ish aesthetic of the Apple Mac has forced us back (somewhat) to actual political society, to actual consumer-political activity. What R. John Williams has called Californian Techne-Zen was articulated so forcefully by Apple that it has seemingly necessitated its own exposure as a false consciousness.

Millions of consumers seem to have understood instinctively an incongruity between Apple’s aesthetic triumph and its refusal to advance social justice: it failed our expectation that advanced bourgeois art will articulate or resolve contradiction. Instead the iPhone starkly verified the dichotomy of its slogan “Designed by Apple in California.

Assembled in China”: capitalist differentials in land and labor value exclude millions from the Bay-Area nation. In so nearly sublimating the contradiction, Jobs’s art drew attention to the contradiction. Jobs’s electronics were so beguiling that their users were forced into a classic, bourgeois, visceral encounter with guilt, contradiction, tragedy: it was this that finally confirmed Jobs as an architect-provocateur on a par with Koolhaas.

Both are indeed Salon designers, ageless enfant terribles and lightning rods, prompting and giving shape to otherwise formless feelings and debates. Still, nobody seems to be holding Koolhaas responsible for the work conditions of his building contractors or steel millers, though the unnatural and monumental gesture of CCTV did indeed draw attention to the furtive modes of production — the state censorship — of Chinese information.

When it was occupying its old building (whatever it was), I had never heard of CCTV, nor paused to consider its role in censorship. And when I was using a Dell laptop, the working conditions enforced in China by Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn were remote from my awareness, even though Foxconn supplied Dell and practically every other electronics manufacturer of which I am a customer. Was it preordained, one wonders in retrospect, that Jobs’s iPad — which he loved to point at the front page of The New York Times during his famous new product presentations — would deliver New York Times reports about the wage and health and safety scandals in the Shenzhen factories in which the apparatus was made?

I used my MacBook Air to sign a petition demanding that Apple redress Foxconn worker grievances. Every keystroke on the superlative machine reminded me of my desire for a better world, for a more complete and transparent political architecture, and of my complicity with forces I prefer to imagine as beyond my control. To borrow the terms popularized by anthropologist Bruno Latour, the works of both Jobs and Koolhaas function as “things” in and around which are assembled public “concerns” that might otherwise slip through the net of parliamentary discourses arrayed around both left and right.

Even the Wall Street Journal felt compelled to question the “secular prophecy” of technological salvation wrought by Jobs. Apple and OMA objects succeed as works of art, and also as catalysts of public attention, not just by being so astonishingly outré, but also by picturing the world unexpectedly — in extreme resolution, in extreme disjunction — and then by suggesting a means to interpret our existence in the world.

Top: Taiwanese protestors outside Foxconn (Hon Hai Precision Industry Co.) headquarters in New Taipei, 2010. [Photo by Lennon Ying-Dah Wong]

Bottom: Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Apple store, Fifth Avenue, New York, 2006. [Photo by Mecki Mac]

4. The varieties of bourgeois experience I don’t want to muddy the waters of judgment as a caprice. My purpose is to draw attention to the way that art-historical judgment thinks in several registers, about design that works in several registers, in a world that operates in countless registers. To an art historian, the minimalism of the 2006 Manhattan Apple Store is evocative of European Rationalism and neo-Platonism, when to many other cultural critics it is simply an extravagant warehouse, a shop composed of nothing but shop windows.

But now watch how Jobs and Koolhaas complicate the relation between value and values (between exchange value and human value) in similar ways, by thinking like art historians. “Great products,” Jobs told The New York Times, are triumphs of “taste” derived from “study, observation and being steeped in the culture of the past and present.” OMA designs one of its best buildings for Prada, and Apple amasses $70 billion in cash. Both insist that we pay attention to the art of shopping but then shun the pursuit of business for its own sake.

Koolhaas’s studio at Harvard studied shopping, with delicious paradox, and Jobs saw himself as the nemesis of Michael Dell’s fixation with the bottom line. No part of Apple’s organization would ever be “junkspace.”
Their work invites a moral response, and Jobs and Koolhaas pass onto us, their consumers and interpreters, the responsibility to square their contradictions.

Jobs and Koolhaas alike chose the role of eyewitness to the student uprisings in Berkeley and Paris in 1968, and for each the activism of the Sixties would be formative; years later each would be content to observe the political responses to their work in the ’90s and ’00s with similar remove. These two modes of architectural ambition, interactive and abstract, Californian and European, are not categorically different modes — the one in a naïve or affirmative association with capitalism, say, the other in a critical relationship — but are two sides of the same coin.

Jobs and Koolhaas each project variants of postmodern modernism: one optimistic but quietly doomed, the other doomed but quietly optimistic.
The reason of course is that design (like art) is pretty much inevitably a dialectic between God and Wall Street. The Occupier’s iPhone. The Eichler House. The double bind, built simultaneously, of OMA’s two West Coast projects: the Seattle Public Library and the Prada Epicenter in Los Angeles (both 2004). Enlightenment and shopping.

Oscillating between Soviet constructivism, Manhattanite cosmopolitanism, and commercial midcentury modernism, Koolhaas reminds us that at the very moment that modern design triumphed, its utopian political project was doomed. Meaning that questions about Steve and Rem are ultimately questions about us. What more literal object lessons could we ask for, as art historians standing in front of our students, than OMA’s CCTV and Apple’s Campus 2?

One abstracts the agony of the European public sphere, its workers eking out a living in a Chinese capitalist dictatorship, while the other promises an interactive Californianism after the near-eclipse of the New Deal. The university design studios of the Great Recession, rather than transcending the dialectic, are rather merging abstraction and interactivity, producing student projects that routinely integrate buildings with transgressive spaces, sites, economies, nutrition, mapping.

Given the questionable origins of our own paychecks, it’s a devil’s bargain that few art historians can evade for long. Something of the Shenzhen “disgrace” of Jobs might reciprocally be carried over to art history, which is adept at using the abstractions of critical theory to describe the complicity of buildings and architects with economic regimes, but most often shies away from any explicit description of the deep connections that bind architecture to labor and poverty.

Left: Rem Koolhaas/OMA, Seattle Central Library, 2004. [Photo by Sean Munson]

Right: Rem Koolhaas/OMA, Prada Epicenter, Los Angeles, 2004. [Photo by Corbin Keech]

Architecture is a lifeworld within which none of us can parse absolute judgments, yet it still offers ethical and actionable bearings. This I hope I am illustrating precisely by comparing two of its most notorious architects: the fascination of design is exactly its hermeneutic potential for thinking and working from the inside, across several registers. We can study the varieties of advanced bourgeois thinking that constitute and shape architecture as it re-combines — and reconciles [?] — base economic determination with the factors of geography, language, desire, technology, materials. Much as we return to other moments in the history of capital accumulation — Florence in the 15th century, Holland in the 17th century, Manhattan in the 19th century — and detect something mortal about their arcades, portraiture and still lives, so we can imagine art historians of the future scrutinizing the ambitions of OMA and Apple.

One day the Bay Region will make for a particularly intriguing study in New Deal, systems-driven and neoliberal art history, the Golden Gate Bridge an analog of Brunelleschi’s Dome, a place awash with new money, fusing science, technology, engineering and learning, humans and gods, an outpost of godly and economic universalism at the center of a trade network. We can already see the next chapters getting written; Elon Musk is the latest guru.

It is pointless to try and demote Musk’s wild gamble on the Tesla electric car, his fantastic ambition to save the world one drive-train at a time, his thinking across scales (the roadside rest and recharge stations, his concomitant interest in internet commerce and space exploration), the “insanely great” quality of his early products, his commitment to the Bay Area (to the point of locating his factories there) as an instance of business as usual. His products imply a cultural program beyond the marketplace. Musk compels public discussion. He’s a sort of architect.

Looking at California in this way points back to older, iconological approaches, art historical analyses applied across objects and institutions, ecologies and economies of dissimilar scale, type, intention, moving beyond connoisseurship and critical readings to capture something of the intellectual ecology behind things — the epistemology, or ontology; more than just the study of ideology, the study of ideas and intellectual frameworks particular to design, to its active attempts to mold the immediate future, and to its presuppositions about the world and the way it works.

That things don’t just happen, that political economy and subjectivity aren’t givens; that the meeting of matter and consciousness can be altered is not a general understanding but one particular to a class educated in design.
At which point I might be able to take my students out of the lecture hall (where we study OMA’s staggering and faraway monuments) and attempt an architectural exegesis of the systems of the Central Valley, scouring it for meaning, agency, interruption, rather than celebrating it as a vernacular, or damning it as pure instrumentalism. Perhaps we can stand above Cupertino and regard it like the heroine in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), who observes a new town a little further south in California:

Like many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts — census tracts, special purpose bond-issue distracts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway … a plinth course of capital on which everything afterward had been built, however rickety or grotesque, toward the sky. … she thought of the first time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets … sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. … there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. … [A] revelation … trembled just beyond the threshold of her understanding … she and the Chevy seemed parked at the center of an odd, religious instant.

How I Became Fun And Thin Mom!

Well, this article turned out to be a tacit advertisement. What the heck: it is a story

08/12/2020healthyusepro

How I turned into an enjoyable and skinny mother!

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You realize the kind – younger, blonde, skinny and completely excellent.

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I did know.

I used to be fats. And these different mothers had been by no means going to let me overlook it.

Regardless of the uncomfortable and awkward environment, I might press on.

With my daughter cheerfully shouting, “C’mon Mother,” I might attempt to sustain along with her, though I struggled. Due to my weight, I had little power and I drained quickly.

It was embarrassing once I couldn’t match by way of a number of the plastic tunnels, or when the playground tools would bend underneath the burden of my physique.

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How I Became Fun And Thin Mom!

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A Private Tax System That Saves The wealthiest $Billions?

Posted on January 3, 2016

The very richest are able to quietly shape tax policy that will allow them to shield billions in income.

By NOAM SCHEIBER and PATRICIA COHEN. DEC. 29, 2015

WASHINGTON — The hedge fund magnates Daniel S. Loeb, Louis Moore Bacon and Steven A. Cohen have much in common. They have managed billions of dollars in capital, earning vast fortunes.

They have invested large sums in art — and millions more in political candidates.

Andrew Bossone shared a link.

For the Wealthiest, a Private Tax System That Saves Them Billions

The very richest are able to quietly shape tax policy that will allow them to shield billions in income.nytimes.com| By PATRICIA COHEN

Each has exploited an esoteric tax loophole that saved them millions in taxes. The trick? Route the money to Bermuda and back.

With inequality at its highest levels in nearly a century and public debate rising over whether the government should respond to it through higher taxes on the wealthy, the very richest Americans have financed a sophisticated and astonishingly effective apparatus for shielding their fortunes.

Some call it the “income defense industry,” consisting of a high-priced phalanx of lawyers, estate planners, lobbyists and anti-tax activists who exploit and defend a dizzying array of tax maneuvers, virtually none of them available to taxpayers of more modest means.

(All you need is an experienced and affordable tax lawyer?)

In recent years, this apparatus has become one of the most powerful avenues of influence for wealthy Americans of all political stripes, including Mr. Loeb and Mr. Cohen, who give heavily to Republicans, and the liberal billionaire George Soros, who has called for higher levies on the rich while at the same time using tax loopholes to bolster his own fortune.

All are among a small group providing much of the early cash for the 2016 presidential campaign.

Operating largely out of public view — in tax court, through arcane legislative provisions and in private negotiations with the Internal Revenue Service — the wealthy have used their influence to steadily whittle away at the government’s ability to tax them.

The effect has been to create a kind of private tax system, catering to only several thousand Americans (the old money and new billionaires? Read this bogus charity trust of Zukerberg).

The impact on their own fortunes has been stark.

Two decades ago, when Bill Clinton was elected president, the 400 highest-earning taxpayers in America paid nearly 27% of their income in federal taxes, according to I.R.S. data. (What that rate represents in Revenue?)

By 2012, when President Obama was re-elected, that figure had fallen to less than 17%, which is just slightly more than the typical family making $100,000 annually, when payroll taxes are included for both groups.

The ultra-wealthy “literally pay millions of dollars for these services,” said Jeffrey A. Winters, a political scientist at Northwestern University who studies economic elites, “and save in the tens or hundreds of millions in taxes.”

Some of the biggest current tax battles are being waged by some of the most generous supporters of 2016 candidates.

They include the families of the hedge fund investors Robert Mercer, who gives to Republicans, and James Simons, who gives to Democrats; as well as the options trader Jeffrey Yass, a libertarian-leaning donor to Republicans.

Mr. Yass’s firm is litigating what the agency deemed to be tens of millions of dollars in underpaid taxes.

Renaissance Technologies, the hedge fund Mr. Simons founded and which Mr. Mercer helps run, is currently under review by the I.R.S. over a loophole that saved their fund an estimated $6.8 billion in taxes over roughly a decade, according to a Senate investigation.

Some of these same families have also contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to conservative groups that have attacked virtually any effort to raises taxes on the wealthy.

In the heat of the presidential race, the influence of wealthy donors is being tested.

At stake is the Obama administration’s 2013 tax increase on high earners — the first substantial increase in two decades — and an I.R.S. initiative to ensure that, in effect, the higher rates stick by cracking down on tax avoidance by the wealthy.

While Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have pledged to raise taxes on these voters, virtually every Republican has advanced policies that would vastly reduce their tax bills, sometimes to as little as 10 percent of their income.

At the same time, most Republican candidates favor eliminating the inheritance tax, a move that would allow the new rich, and the old, to bequeath their fortunes intact, solidifying the wealth gap far into the future.

And several have proposed a substantial reduction — or even elimination — in the already deeply discounted tax rates on investment gains, a foundation of the most lucrative tax strategies.

“There’s this notion that the wealthy use their money to buy politicians; more accurately, it’s that they can buy policy, and specifically, tax policy,” said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities who served as chief economic adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “That’s why these egregious loopholes exist, and why it’s so hard to close them.”

The Family Office

Each of the top 400 earners took home, on average, about $336 million in 2012, the latest year for which data is available. If the bulk of that money had been paid out as salary or wages, as it is for the typical American, the tax obligations of those wealthy taxpayers could have more than doubled.

Instead, much of their income came from convoluted partnerships and high-end investment funds.

Other earnings accrued in opaque family trusts and foreign shell corporations, beyond the reach of the tax authorities.

The well-paid technicians who devise these arrangements toil away at white-shoe law firms and elite investment banks, as well as a variety of obscure boutiques.

But at the fulcrum of the strategizing over how to minimize taxes are so-called family offices, the customized wealth management departments of Americans with hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in assets.

Family offices have existed since the late 19th century, when the Rockefellers pioneered the institution, and gained popularity in the 1980s. But they have proliferated rapidly over the last decade, as the ranks of the super-rich, and the size of their fortunes, swelled to record proportions.

“We have so much wealth being created, significant wealth, that it creates a need for the family office structure now,” said Sree Arimilli, an industry recruiting consultant.

Family offices, many of which are dedicated to managing and protecting the wealth of a single family, oversee everything from investment strategy to philanthropy.

But tax planning is a core function.

While the specific techniques these advisers employ to minimize taxes can be mind-numbingly complex, they generally follow a few simple principles, like converting one type of income into another type that’s taxed at a lower rate.

Mr. Loeb, for example, has invested in a Bermuda-based reinsurer — an insurer to insurance companies — that turns around and invests the money in his hedge fund.

That maneuver transforms his profits from short-term bets in the market, which the government taxes at roughly 40 percent, into long-term profits, known as capital gains, which are taxed at roughly half that rate.

It has had the added advantage of letting Mr. Loeb defer taxes on this income indefinitely, allowing his wealth to compound and grow more quickly.

The Bermuda insurer Mr. Loeb helped set up went public in 2013 and is active in the insurance business, not merely a tax dodge. Mr. Cohen and Mr. Bacon abandoned similar insurance-based strategies in recent years.

“Our investment in Max Re was not a tax-driven scheme, but rather a sound investment response to investor interest in a more dynamically managed portfolio akin to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway,” said Mr. Bacon, who leads Moore Capital Management. “Hedge funds were a minority of the investment portfolio, and Moore Capital’s products a much smaller subset of this alternative portfolio.” Mr. Loeb and Mr. Cohen declined to comment.

Organizing one’s business as a partnership can be lucrative in its own right.

Some of the partnerships from which the wealthy derive their income are allowed to sell shares to the public, making it easy to cash out a chunk of the business while retaining control.

But unlike publicly traded corporations, they pay no corporate income tax; the partners pay taxes as individuals. And the income taxes are often reduced by large deductions, such as for depreciation.

For large private partnerships, meanwhile, the I.R.S. often struggles “to determine whether a tax shelter exists, an abusive tax transaction is being used,” according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

The agency is not allowed to collect underpaid taxes directly from these partnerships, even those with several hundred partners. Instead, it must collect from each individual partner, requiring the agency to commit significant time and manpower.

The wealthy can also avail themselves of a range of esoteric and customized tax deductions that go far beyond writing off a home office or dinner with a client. One aggressive strategy is to place income in a type of charitable trust, generating a deduction that offsets the income tax.

The trust then purchases what’s known as a private placement life insurance policy, which invests the money on a tax-free basis, frequently in a number of hedge funds. The person’s heirs can inherit, also tax-free, whatever money is left after the trust pays out a percentage each year to charity, often a considerable sum.

Many of these maneuvers are well established, and wealthy taxpayers say they are well within their rights to exploit them.

Others exist in a legal gray area, its boundaries defined by the willingness of taxpayers to defend their strategies against the I.R.S. Almost all are outside the price range of the average taxpayer.

Among tax lawyers and accountants, “the best and brightest get a high from figuring out how to do tricky little deals,” said Karen L. Hawkins, who until recently headed the I.R.S. office that oversees tax practitioners. “Frankly, it is almost beyond the intellectual and resource capacity of the Internal Revenue Service to catch.”

(This cliché that the public institutions cannot afford and lack the best minds and expertise)

The combination of cost and complexity has had a profound effect, tax experts said. Whatever tax rates Congress sets, the actual rates paid by the ultra-wealthy tend to fall over time as they exploit their numerous advantages.

From Mr. Obama’s inauguration through the end of 2012, federal income tax rates on individuals did not change (excluding payroll taxes). But the highest-earning one-thousandth of Americans went from paying an average of 20.9 percent to 17.6%.

By contrast, the top 1%, excluding the very wealthy, went from paying just under 24% on average to just over that level.

“We do have two different tax systems, one for normal wage-earners and another for those who can afford sophisticated tax advice,” said Victor Fleischer, a law professor at the University of San Diego who studies the intersection of tax policy and inequality. “

At the very top of the income distribution, the effective rate of tax goes down, contrary to the principles of a progressive income tax system.”

A Very Quiet Defense

Having helped foster an alternative tax system, wealthy Americans have been aggressive in defending it.

Trade groups representing the Bermuda-based insurance company Mr. Loeb helped set up, for example, have spent the last several months pleading with the I.R.S. that its proposed rules tightening the hedge fund insurance loophole are too onerous.

The major industry group representing private equity funds spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year lobbying on such issues as “carried interest,” the granddaddy of Wall Street tax loopholes, which makes it possible for fund managers to pay the capital gains rate rather than the higher standard tax rate on a substantial share of their income for running the fund.

The budget deal that Congress approved in October allows the I.R.S. to collect underpaid taxes from large partnerships at the firm level for the first time — which is far easier for the agency — thanks to a provision that lawmakers slipped into the deal at the last minute, before many lobbyists could mobilize.

But the new rules are relatively weak — firms can still choose to have partners pay the taxes — and don’t take effect until 2018, giving the wealthy plenty of time to weaken them further.

Shortly after the provision passed, the Managed Funds Association, an industry group that represents prominent hedge funds like D. E. Shaw, Renaissance Technologies, Tiger Management and Third Point, began meeting with members of Congress to discuss a wish list of adjustments.

The founders of these funds have all donated at least $500,000 to 2016 presidential candidates.

During the Obama presidency, the association itself has risen to become one of the most powerful trade groups in Washington, spending over $4 million a year on lobbying.

The buying power lobbying clout of the wealthy is most often deployed through industry trade associations and lawyers, some rich families have locked arms to advance their interests more directly.

The inheritance tax has been a primary target.

In the early 1990s, a California family office executive named Patricia Soldano began lobbying on behalf of wealthy families to repeal the tax, which would not only save them money, but also make it easier to preserve their business empires from one generation to the next.

The idea struck many hardened operatives as unrealistic at the time, given that the tax affected only the wealthiest Americans. But Ms. Soldano’s efforts — funded in part by the Mars and Koch families — laid the groundwork for a one-year elimination in 2010.

The tax has been restored, but currently applies only to couples leaving roughly $11 million or more to their heirs, up from those leaving more than $1.2 million when Ms. Soldano started her campaign. It affected fewer than 5,200 families last year.

“If anyone would have told me we’d be where we are today, I would never have guessed it,” Ms. Soldano said in an interview.

Some of the most profound victories are barely known outside the insular world of the wealthy and their financial managers.

In 2009, Congress set out to require that investment partnerships like hedge funds register with the Securities and Exchange Commission, partly so that regulators would have a better grasp on the risks they posed to the financial system.

The early legislative language would have required single-family offices to register as well, exposing the highly secretive institutions to scrutiny that their clients were eager to avoid. Some of the I.R.S.’s cases against the wealthy originate with tips from the S.E.C., which is often better positioned to spot tax evasion.

By the summer of 2009, several family office executives had formed a lobbying group called the Private Investor Coalition to push back against the proposal. The coalition won an exemption in the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, then spent much of the next year persuading the S.E.C. to largely adopt its preferred definition of “family office.”

So expansive was the resulting loophole that Mr. Soros’s $24.5 billion hedge fund took advantage of it, converting to a family office after returning capital to its remaining outside investors. The hedge fund manager Stanley Druckenmiller, a former business partner of Mr. Soros, took the same step.

The Soros family, which generally supports Democrats, has committed at least $1 million to the 2016 presidential campaign; Mr. Druckenmiller, who favors Republicans, has put slightly more than $300,000 behind three different G.O.P. presidential candidates.

A slide presentation from the Private Investor Coalition’s 2013 annual meeting credited the success to multiple meetings with members of the Senate Banking Committee, the House Financial Services Committee, congressional staff and S.E.C. staff.

“All with a low profile,” the document noted. “We got most of what we wanted AND a few extras we didn’t request.”

A Hobbled Monitor

After all the loopholes and all the lobbying, what remains of the government’s ability to collect taxes from the wealthy runs up against one final hurdle: the crisis facing the I.R.S.

President Obama has made fighting tax evasion by the rich a priority. In 2010, he signed legislation making it easier to identify Americans who squirreled away assets in Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Islands shelters

His I.R.S. convened a Global High Wealth Industry Group, known colloquially as “the wealth squad,” to scrutinize the returns of Americans with incomes of at least $10 million a year.

But while these measures have helped the government retrieve billions, the agency’s efforts have flagged in the face of scandal, political pressure and budget cuts.

Between 2010, the year before Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, and 2014, the I.R.S. budget dropped by almost $2 billion in real terms, or nearly 15%. That has forced it to shed about 5,000 high-level enforcement positions out of about 23,000, according to the agency.

Audit rates for the $10 million-plus club spiked in the first few years of the Global High Wealth program, but have plummeted since then.

The political challenge for the agency became especially acute in 2013, after the agency acknowledged singling out conservative nonprofits in a review of political activity by tax-exempt groups. (Senior officials left the agency as a result of the controversy.)

Several former I.R.S. officials, including Marcus Owens, who once headed the agency’s Exempt Organizations division, said the controversy badly damaged the agency’s willingness to investigate other taxpayers, even outside the exempt division.

“I.R.S. enforcement is either absent or diminished” in certain areas, he said. Mr. Owens added that his former department — which provides some oversight of money used by charities and nonprofits — has been decimated.

Groups like FreedomWorks and Americans for Tax Reform, which are financed partly by the foundations of wealthy families and large businesses, have called for impeaching the I.R.S. commissioner.

They are bolstered by deep-pocketed advocacy groups like the Club for Growth, which has aided primary challenges against Republicans who have voted in favor of higher taxes.

In 2014, the Club for Growth Action fund raised more than $9 million and spent much of it helping candidates critical of the I.R.S. Roughly 60 percent of the money raised by the fund came from just 12 donors, including Mr. Mercer, who has given the group $2 million in the last five years.

Mr. Mercer and his immediate family have also donated more than $11 million to several super PACs supporting Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, an outspoken I.R.S. critic and a presidential candidate.

Another prominent donor is Mr. Yass, who helps run a trading firm called the Susquehanna International Group. He donated $100,000 to the Club for Growth Action fund in September. Mr. Yass serves on the board of the libertarian Cato Institute and, like Mr. Mercer, appears to subscribe to limited-government views that partly motivate his political spending.

But he may also have more than a passing interest in creating a political environment that undermines the I.R.S. Susquehanna is currently challenging a proposed I.R.S. determination that an affiliate of the firm effectively repatriated more than $375 million in income from subsidiaries located in Ireland and the Cayman Islands in 2007, creating a large tax liability.

(The affiliate brought the money back to the United States in later years and paid dividend taxes on it; the I.R.S. asserts that it should have paid the ordinary income tax rate, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars more.)

In June, Mr. Yass donated more than $2 million to three super PACs aligned with Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has called for taxing all income at a flat rate of 14.5 percent. That change in itself would save wealthy supporters like Mr. Yass millions of dollars.

Mr. Paul, also a presidential candididate, has suggested going even further, calling the I.R.S. a “rogue agency” and circulating a petition in 2013 calling for the tax equivalent of regime change. “Be it now therefore resolved,” the petition reads, “that we, the undersigned, demand the immediate abolishment of the Internal Revenue Service.”

But even if that campaign is a long shot, the richest taxpayers will continue to enjoy advantages over everyone else.

For the ultra-wealthy, “our tax code is like a leaky barrel,” said J. Todd Metcalf, the Democrats’ chief tax counsel on the Senate Finance Committee. ”Unless you plug every hole or get a new barrel, it’s going to leak out.”

Nicholas Confessore contributed reporting and Kitty Bennett contributed research.

A version of this article appears in print on December 30, 2015, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: By Molding Tax System,Wealthiest Save Billions.


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