Separated at Rebirth?

October 11, 2009

I happened to notice these books lying next to each other on the buy one, get one 50% off table at the local Borders today:

dalai lama













He may be a “big hitter the Lama,” but he’s no Dan Brown.

In any case, the two books side-by-side seems to me a perfect juxtaposition of the Buddhist concepts of prajna (wisdom, insight) and shunyata (emptiness). Seen from the outside they may look alike, but it just goes to prove that the world of appearance is an illusion.


The House That Greed Built

October 10, 2009

Wright Thompson of ESPN presents a fascinating look inside New Yankee Stadium’s Legends Suite:

Much has been said and written about The Moat and how it highlights the divide between the haves and the have-nots. But that’s not quite right. There are no have-nots here.

That’s not automatically a bad thing; a business should sell its product for as much as it can, as long as it’s not putting temporary profit over long-term growth. When a business makes that mistake, longtime pollster Rich Luker calls it harvesting. Starbucks is struggling, he says, because it harvested. Wal-Mart is not because it hasn’t.

“The American sports industry is in harvest mode,” Luker says. “The industry has lost its regard for human beings.”

A recent poll discovered an unsettling trend emerging for the first time. American families whose household income is $75,000 or less now have zero dollars of discretionary income. According to Luker, that means about 75 percent of the country can never responsibly afford to go to a live professional sporting event. Franchises want them to be fans, to buy the gear and pull for their teams and watch the telecasts the leagues are paid billions for. But they don’t need them to come to their stadiums. There are, right now, plenty of rich people who love games. The prices reflect that. The reason sporting events cost so much now, Luker’s research shows, is because they are designed to be affordable only to those making $150,000 or more a year.

This wasn’t always true. Ten years ago, it was cheaper to go to a baseball game than to a movie in half of the big league markets (take away parking at the game, and it was cheaper in every market). Today, there isn’t a single city in America where it costs less to go to a major league game than to a movie. Everywhere we turn, we see examples of the collapsing middle class. This is where that issue lives in the world of sports, and it has predictable consequences.

“The lower the income,” Luker says, “the less they’re enjoying sports.”

His August poll discovered a third of Americans are less interested in sports because of the declining economy. That’s bad news, made worse by a problem he first noticed in 2004 and which has continued since: For the first time, the largest number of sports fans aren’t 12- to 17-year-old boys. The baby boomers are the group that shows the greatest increase in a love of sports, and they’ll be dying soon.

Who will replace them?

By excluding 75 percent of the population from experiencing the best part of spectator sports — actually holding a ticket in your hand — franchises have created a potentially fatal problem for themselves. Luker predicts the future of sports by looking at the decline of soap operas. Once, there were 30. Now, because the audience changed, there are seven.

“We have the first true sustained evidence of less interest in sports than there was 10 years ago,” he says. “It won’t happen overnight. It will take a generation. But in general, sports will not be what it is today. We’re burning out the love of sports.”

Read the whole story here.

Last year, Major League Baseball celebrated the 100th anniversary of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the early 20th century Tin Pan Alley song that eventually became the unofficial anthem of modern baseball. The lyrics were written by Jack Norworth and set to music by Albert Von Tilzer. Norworth was inspired while riding a subway train by a “Baseball Today — Polo Grounds” sign, Ironically, neither of them had attended a major league baseball game when they composed their 1908 hit song.

The verses to the song are now largely forgotten, even as millions of baseball fans sing the chorus during the 7th inning stretch (another baseball tradition) of every game in every ballpark across America:

Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev’ry sou
Katie blew.
On a Saturday her young beau
Called to see if she’d like to go
To see a show, but Miss Kate said “No,
I’ll tell you what you can do:”

[Chorus] Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.

Katie Casey saw all the games,
Knew the players by their first names.
Told the umpire he was wrong,
All along,
Good and strong.
When the score was just two to two,
Katie Casey knew what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song:

[repeat Chorus]

Saul Steinberg wrote that “It is impossible to understand America without a thorough knowledge of baseball.” Within the next generation, the sublime experience of enjoying a hotdog and a beverage, keeping score, maybe catching a ball hit into the stands, while celebrating what was once America’s favorite pastime will be as unfamiliar to most Americans as the original lyrics to its 1908 anthem.

The New Yankee Stadium or as Thompson calls it “The House Next To The House That Ruth Built,” bears a superficial resemblance to the iconic ballpark where I grew up watching legends named Mantle, Maris, Ford, Guidry, Jackson, Munson, Gossage, Righetti, Williams, O’Neill, Rivera and Jeter. I went to hundreds of games over the years, watching most from unassigned General Admission seats, which let you sit anywhere you liked in the uppermost seats. I’d get to the ballpark two hours early, climb to the top of the park and seat myself directly behind and a couple hundred feet above home plate. At $3 per ticket (movie prices were higher), it was the best entertainment value in New York. Since then, movie prices have more than doubled, but the best seats in the Legends Suite were originally priced at $2,500 apiece, or an 82,333% increase from the cost of my General Admission seat. That’s not harvesting; that’s goughing the customer’s eyes out.

In a strange way, the new ballpark is as much of an anachronism as the 1908 verses of Take Me Out to the Ballgame. Not in the sense that Thompson’s decadent description of the Legends Suite reminds the reader of a scene from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Thorstein Veblen’s embittered critique of capitalist excesses in The Theory of the Leisure Class. But because the ballpark and its $2,500 seats (since reduced to $1,250 yet still empty) is a monument to a faraway time in 2007 when we all believed our incomes would eventually catch up with our spending and imagined that les bon temps would continue roulez-ing forever.

I don’t know if F. Scott Fitzgerald was a baseball fan, but I suspect he would have found himself equally at home amidst the opulence of the New Yankee Stadium Legends Suite and the financial straits in which we find ourselves. Fitzgerald once quipped that baseball was “a game played by idiots for morons.” When Fitzgerald died not unexpectedly from a massive heart attack after years of alcohol and drug abuse, on hearing the news, Dorothy Parker cried: “the poor son-of-a-bitch.” Fitzgerald may not have understood baseball, but having wrestled with demons through both the Jazz Age and the Great Depression, the poor SOB understood the American Dream, and he knew first-hand the heartache of waking from a dream of a better tomorrow inexorably fading into the past.

And as I sat there, brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out Daisy’s light at the end of his dock. He had come such a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. But what he did not know was that it was already behind him, somewhere in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning —

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Making Felons of Us All

October 9, 2009

The libertarian blogger The Hippo’s Ass has an interesting post from the “truth is stranger than fiction” department:

We are all becoming criminals. Here is yet another example of the Government overreaching its authority and criminalizing ordinary citizens who had no intention of breaking the law.

In 2006, Federal Agents burst through the door of the home Kathy and George Norris, 60 and 66 year old Grandparents of six grandchildren. They ransacked the house, overturned drawers, emptied bookshelves, threw the Norris’ belongings on the floor and searched their home.

Were these SWAT clothed agents from the FBI? The ATF? Homeland Security?

Nope. They were from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service….and their mission: Looking for illegal orchids.

That’s right. Orchids. Seems that Mr. Norris, who owned a home-based business cultivating, importing and selling legal orchids, did the unthinkable: he ordered perfectly legal orchids from a supplier overseas, but failed to fill out the necessary paperwork properly. The result? Mr. Norris spent two years in prison.

Read the whole thing here: When Orchids Are Made Illegal, only Criminals Will Own Orchids

Two years in prison for improperly filling out paperwork. About orchids. Think about that.

The Norrises aren’t criminals. The federal agents, prosecutors and judge, all subsidized by our tax dollars, who put two innocent American grandparents through a Kafkaesque nightmare reminiscent of the Soviet show trials are the real criminals here. But they will never be held to account for their role in this miscarriage of justice.

In a new book titled Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent, author Harvey Silverglate relates how federal laws have become so complex and confusing that ordinary law-abiding citizens commit on average three felonies a day.

Silverglate isn’t talking about hardened criminals or “greedy” businessmen purposely trying to skirt or evade known laws, but wholly innocent people inadvertently running afoul of laws that seem purposely intended to make felons of us all.

It began with the so-called War on Drugs, but first we need to review some Constitutional history, specifically the Fourth Amendment. Since the beginning of the 20th century, federal case law interpreted the 4th Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures to require the exclusion of any evidence obtained during an illegal search. This affected only a tiny percentage of criminal cases, since most criminal activities were governed by state, not federal law, and most states did not follow the federal exclusionary rule. They agreed with Justice Benjamin Cardozo, chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, who declining to adopt the federal exclusionary rule, famously asked “Must the criminal go free because the constable has blundered?” To ask the question is to answer it.

The biggest problem with the exclusionary rule is that it benefited only criminals, since if a law-abiding citizen was victim of an illegal search, presumably no criminal evidence would be found and he was left without redress for the infringement of his Constitutional rights. But if a criminal was the subject of an illegal search, then the exclusionary rule served as a Get Out of Jail Free card. The problem was compounded by a series of Warren Court decisions in the late 1950s and early 1960s. First, the Warren Court decreed that most of the Bill of Rights (even when they say “Congress shall not.”) apply to the states. This meant that the federal exclusionary rule now applied to the states. Next, the Warren Court expanded the “protections” of the Fourth Amendment to increasingly hamstring legitimate law enforcement activities. One particularly egregious example was their wholesale invention of the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine, which extended the exclusionary rule to throw out not only evidence obtained in, but as a result of, an illegal search. This meant that if the police received a tip during an event later ruled to constitute an illegal search, and then the police obtained a warrant based even in part on the tip and found evidence during a subsequent legal search, the evidence still had to be discarded under the fruit tree doctrine. Finally, the Warren Court turned the definition of an illegal search on its head. A police officer acting on clear probable cause obtains a warrant from a magistrate, conducts an appropriate search and finds evidence of a crime. However, it is later discovered that the warrant contains an error, such as misspelling the target’s name or transposing numbers on the address. The warrant is declared defective, the search deemed “unlawful” and the evidence thrown out.

Getting back to the War on Drugs, by the early 1980s, thanks in large part to Warren Court decisions, the drug lords seemed to be winning. The narco-terrorist drug cartel in Cartagena nearly brought down the Colombian government. In the U.S., we witnessed the spectacle of obviously guilty drug dealers acquitted on technicalities. When the drug cartels started executing Colombian judges and politicians and threatening our own law enforcement agents, it was time to fight back … with a vengeance.

By the mid-1980s, even liberal federal Circuit Court of Appeals clerks cynically joked about the “drug-dealer” exception to the Fourth Amendment. We went from one extreme to the other. From solid evidence obtained during good faith searches thrown out on technicalities to the opposite extreme of no-knock warrants and routine infringements of civil liberties. If you had the misfortune of living next door to a drug dealer or a suspected drug dealer … or a disliked neighbor that an anonymous tipster accused of drug dealing, the SWAT teams might break down your door in the middle of the night by mistake. If you assumed they were burglars or worse and grabbed a weapon to defend your family, it would be your funeral. Literally. But if you were lucky enough to survive the ordeal, the exclusionary rule would help you … if the weapon was illegal.

Something else happened over the last 25 years. In 1970, Congress enacted the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly referred to as RICO. While its intended use was to prosecute the Mafia and drug traffickers, its application was greatly expanded to potentially ensnare virtually any legitimate business and its management. RICO applies when there is “a pattern of racketeering activity.” However, “racketeering activity” is broadly defined to include not only gambling, murder, kidnapping, arson, robbery, extortion, and drug trafficking, but also fraud, including securities fraud. And “pattern” requires only two “predicate acts.” While Federal prosecutors appropriately used RICO to go after the Gambino crime family and assorted mobsters, in 1989, they also used RICO to threaten Michael Millken and Drexel Burnham Lambert with 98 felony counts based on allegations of market manipulation and technical violations of securities regulations that previously carried no criminal penalties. Millken and Drexel ended up pleading guilty and no contest to lesser charges, since Millken faced life imprisonment if convicted, and an indictment would have put Drexel out of business.

Since then, the federal criminal code has literally created thousands of new “crimes” ranging from fish and game and environmental regulations to HIPAA recordkeeping requirements for insurers and medical practitioners, as documented in a 2004 Cato Institute book, Go Directly to Jail: The Criminalization of Almost Everything, written by Gene Healy.

Under traditional common law, criminal liability required both a criminal act (actus reus) and criminal intent (mens rea), and the prosecutor had the burden of proving his case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” No longer. The new federal criminal statutes ignore the core principles of traditional common law, especially the criminal intent requirement. This makes it extremely easy for federal prosecutors to bring charges against people like the Norrises. Even if you are a law-abiding person, even if you have no intent to commit a crime, even if you act on the advice of an attorney or the government, you can go directly to jail, thanks to what the book describes “an unholy alliance of tough-on-crime conservatives and anti-big-business liberals has utterly transformed the criminal law” into dystopian nightmare that’s part Kafka, part Orwell, part Heller.

When they came for the orchids I did not speak up, etc.

But when I awoke the next morning from unsettling dreams, I found myself changed into a monstrous vermin.