Monday, April 25, 2005

Avoidance and Perverse Results

Have you ever noticed that nobody takes responsibility for anything anymore? Barry Bonds says that he took steroids but that he just didn't know it at the time. Gary Sheffield says he used a salve known as "clear" and took some supplements but didn't know what they were. Ken Lay and Bernie Ebbers both deny they knew the extent of the chicanery going on at Enron and MCI Worldcom. This defense didn't work real well for Ebbers as the jury found him guilty. Which has got to make Lay and his lawyers reeeeeeeal nervous about their chances when their day in court rolls around.

A variation on this theme are those folks who utilize avoidance when they don't have the discipline to moderate their behavior. We all know folks who are in 12-step programs because the cannot drink responsibly. We know people on diets who have altered their daily route to work so they don't drive by the doughnut shop. These are perfectly useful and benign approaches to making lifestyle changes. However, there are also some corporate entities who cannot trust themselves to regulate or moderate their behavior. So they they fixed the system so that they don't have to deal with the underlying problems. Which created what the law refers to as "perverse results." A couple of recent examples of this more sinister version of avoidance therapy may be found in two diverse industries: The National Basketball Association and the credit card industry.

If there is anything the NBA hates it is players declaring their eligibility for pro hoops right out of high school. So, it has proposed a league rule making 20 the minimum age for eligibility for the NBA draft. The stated reason for this is that players need time in college or junior college to mature both mentally and physically before they subject themselves to the physical and emotional rigors of an 82 game season in addition to learning to live on their own.

A lawyer friend of ours is fond of saying, " There are reasons. And then there are the real reasons." The real reasons the NBA doesn't want teenagers in the league is because the general managers of the teams in the league live in complete mortal terror of giving a wad of money and a guaranteed contract to a player that is a bust. Another reason is that the colleges act like so many unpaid farm clubs for the NBA. It would vastly prefer that players develop and mature on good old State U's dime so it doesn't have to deal with them.

So why don't they just leave it up to the individual clubs? Impractical. No club is going to refuse to draft guys out of high school as a matter of policy and let a conference rival sign the next Kevin Garnett. Why not outlaw guaranteed contracts? No other professional sports league is insane enough to offer them to their players. Yeah, right. The NBA Players Union would go full-blown batshit crazy if that one ever got floated. So why not start a minor league system like the NFL has done in Europe? Too expensive. Why not increase the scouting staffs for each club? See the preceding sentence. What's the difference between paying money to an 18 year old bust and paying money to a bust with a bachelor's degree? They don't know. Maybe it just pisses them off worse.

So rather than deal with the problem the NBA is just trying to avoid it. The perverse result is that a young man who is eligible to vote and to die for his country is not eligible to make a living at a perfectly legal occupation. There are teenagers in abundance in professional baseball and tennis. Hell, Boris Becker was a yearling boy of 17 when he won Wimbledon the first time. What so different about hoops?

For years, the credit card industry has had the red ass about people using the bankruptcy laws to discharge credit card debt. And the disdain the NBA harbors for kids who declare early is nothing like the hatred the banking lobby has for Chapter 7 of Title 11 of the United States Code. Which is the liquidation section of the Bankruptcy Code wherein a Debtor can receive a Discharge of his debts in exchange for the surrender of his non-exempt assets for liquidation to pay the secured creditors. We are sorry. Bankruptcy lawyers talk like this. Bear with us. We are translating as best as we can.

The banking lobby has long clamored for a change to the Code in order to tighten the eligibility requirements for Debtors in Chapter 7. After years of their incessant bitching the interestingly named Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act got through Congress and was signed into law last week by President Bush. This new law will impose a "means test" based on a formula which takes into account the Debtor's debts and his income (based on his state's median income) to determine whether he will be eligible for a 7 or whether he will be forced to file a Chapter 13 Repayment Plan.

We are all for folks paying their just debts. But the majority of Chapter 7 filers do so on the heels of personal calamity such as divorce, illness or unemployment. Why come down hard on them?

Why not make sure that an applicant is creditworthy on the front end before giving them an unsecured line of credit? Too slow. A competitor might get someone signed up. (Does this sound familiar? We wonder how many NBA executives got their start in banking.) If this is such a big crisis that is costing the industry millions why don't they contest more discharges? You kidding? You know how much money that would cost? After all, we are talking unsecured debt here.

No, it is easier to lay all of it of on the consumer, all the while making a big deal about personal responsibility in order to make it more palatable to avoid corporate responsibility.

And if that is not a sufficiently perverse result to come out of the new legislation, here's another one: The new means test for eligibility might actually encourage the unbridled use of credit cards. Here's how.

Let's say your debt-to-asset ratio is a little too robust to qualify for Chapter 7. Which is nothing to particularly be bragging about by the way. And let's say you have the usual 4 or 5 credit cards that the average American household has. Hell, run those suckers up until your financial picture is sufficiently precarious to where they can't put you in a 13! As long as you don't go on this bonanza less than 90 days before you file your Petition the debts are not considered fraudulent.

Talk about the Mother of all perverse results. Only in America. Where the real reasons that things get done don't take account of the potential for the perverse result.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Wally Hall and the Sickness Unto Death

"[T]here is here a certainty,namely,that objectively it is absurd; and thus absurdity,held fast in the passion of inwardness, is faith."
Soren Kierkegaard, Danish Philosopher

"His ( Earl Woods, the father of Tiger Woods) expectations never exceeded his imagination."
C. Wallace Hall, Sports Editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

It is often said that "Sports is a metaphor for Life." And yet rarely has this ancient bromide posed such wide philosophical implications-at least not around here- as when Wally Hall explored the dynamics of the relationship of Tiger Woods and his father in yesterday's "Like It is" column.

It is well to ponder the quality and nature of a life in which one's expectations exceed one's imagination. Perhaps such a state would produce, at worst La Nausee spoken of by Sartre or at the minimum the condition of perpetual ennui as exhibited in French intellectuals and/or teenaged girls.

Kierkegaard employed language dense and abstruse in pondering these questions. Only a master craftsman of the language like Wally Hall could bring his penetrating insight and crystalline intellect to bear on these issues while reducing same to the common and friendly parlance of the sports page in order that we common people might more easily grasp them.

And so, it is mere quibbling to suggest that the man described in Wally's piece as being the soul of probity and proportion once predicted that his son would be as important to mankind as Jesus or somesuch. It is Jesuitical hair-splitting to question whether the "Jimmy Piersall Story" is a story primarily about preseverance in the home of a cruel father (which Wally assures us Earl Woods was not) and not a troubled man's triumph over mental illness. Perhaps we are not comprehending that Wally is simply putting his own slant on Kierkegaard's interpretation of the parable of Abraham and Issac from whence the famous notion of the "leap of faith" originates. A great writer's work is often susceptible to nuanced interpretations.

No matter. Like fellow existentialists Sartre or Camus, Wally comprehends that the only valid response in the face of the absurdity of an indifferent universe is to act. In the context of the average "Like It Is" column, this translates into speculation about relationships between people he does not know and whom he did not interview. It is to make unwarranted assumptions about the motivations of men. It is , upon occasion, to just make stuff up. It is to kiss, without surcease, the ass of Frank Broyles.

Kierkegaard also said, "People understand me so poorly that they don't even understand my complaint about them not understanding me."

It is probably wrong to impose out own construct on Wally Hall's body of work. Perhaps his ouvre is the absurdity held fast in the passion of inwardness. Perhaps somewhere in his deathless prose is buried the"leap of faith" that the stuff he writes has some remote and tenuous connection to journalism.

Or like the critics of Kierkegaard maybe we just don't understand.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Jesus of Hillcrest and The Hiker from Hell

There is a crazy person in our neighborhood. Actually there are several, some of them are known to us actually, but this one is conspicuous even by the high standards for eccentricity we have laid down here in the People's Republic of Hillcrest.

This man of whom we are referring can be seen about two or three times a week running up and down Van Buren St (which is a good 40 degree angle if you don't know) bearing a large nylon backpack on his shoulders. He is always dressed in the same uniform: one of those hideous gray sweatshirts issued by the United States Army, blue shorts, white socks and white court shoes. We don't know what is in the pack: bricks, books, concrete blocks or the E.R.A of the pitching staff of the Kansas City Royals. Whatever the hell he's got in there it is always filled to the brim with something heavy. And up and down Van Buren he goes, neck veins bulging, eyes popping, muttering and cursing under his heaving breath as he makes his grim way.

He is not the first itinerant nut we have had around here. Why, just last Spring our neighborhood was graced by the cameo appearance of one of the two Jesuses who have briefly walked amongst here in the 72205 zip code in the last 10 years or so. Last year's model looked like he was fresh from an open casting call for a Mel Gibson movie. If you can use the word "fresh" to describe a guy in robes, lugging a cross on his back while adorned with thorns on his head and stage blood on his face, chest and shoulders, that is. Alas, one sharp eyed witness noticed that his cross had casters at its foot, which undoubtedly contributed greatly to ease of operation insofar as taking up one's cross goes. And this adversely impacted upon what little rapport he had hoped to gain with the rabble here in the neighborhood as this discovery turned His rendition of the Via Dolorosa into mere shtick. Which is not the easiest thing to do if you think about it.

His predecessor Jesus I was first seen around here around about the summer of '98 or so. Jesus I was a stripped down (no cross or fake blood) version, and a slightly more malevolent one as well. His ministry consisted mainly of staring at people. One night the teenaged niece of a friend of ours suffered unto Jesus I as he stood staring at the passersby on Kavenaugh from in front of the convenience store.

" What's your name?" Gretchen asked.

" Jesus." he said.

" Where ya from Jesus?

" Fayetteville."

The Trial before Pilate it was not.

It is our understanding that the earthly ministry of Jesus I came to a close when He attempted to address the faithful gathered for noon mass at Our Lady of the Holy Souls. Unfortunately for Him, one of Little Rock's finest was in attendance during his lunch hour and swiftly put the cuffs on him and took him away. He has not been seen in these parts since.

Which brings us back to the Hiker from Hell who makes his Sisyphean journey on a thrice weekly basis past our little house here in the People's Republic. It occurs to us here at TMFW that we all have stuff that we carry with us. Some of us don't exercise as we should. Some of us spend money beyond our means. Some of us eat and drink to excess. Some of us choose our romantic partners badly. (A friend of ours says that you could put her in a room full of Mormons and she would be attracted to the one guy who was a drunk.) Some of us are just unlucky. And so on and so forth.

Do I mean to suggest that the Hiker serves as metaphor for human existence? Or human existence as it obtains in the People's Republic of Hillcrest at least?

Of course not. This cat is smooth running crazy. He serves a metaphor for the limits of psychiatry.

But it is nonetheless true that we all got to carry that weight every day that we are able to get out of our little beds.

Some people just don't make as big of a production of it as do others.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Human Dignity and the Law

Our Uncle Bill is dying. He sustained a stroke on New Year's Day in 2004. He did fairly well until just after last Christmas. Since then his decline has been precipitous. He is only intermittently lucid. He spends most of his time in the bed. When he is alert enough to converse often times he speaks of matters from the past such as the need to sell his Ford. As in the Model T. He still pines for Aunt Jean who didn't wake up one morning last summer. They had been married for almost sixty years. He hates his life and the loss of his former vigorous health.

He is receiving hospice care in his home. He is cared for by a private duty nurse. He is fed and kept clean. He receives medication in sufficient doses to help him stay reasonably comfortable. However, in the event he sustains another stroke or acquires an illness, he will not receive aggressive medical care. Further, should he lapse into unconsciousness, he will be allowed to pass away. This decision was made by the family. After all, he is 86. He will never get be restored to his old pickup driving, deer hunting, Baptist church attending self. He will never see Jean again from this side of the shore. We think that this is what he would want. Are we assuming facts? Of course we are. But we know Bill. He is an Uncle, a father and a grandfather. Everybody is in agreement that this is the best plan under the circumstances.

Please let's keep this to ourselves. We do not wish Uncle Bill to be disturbed by Rev. Randall Terry and his so-called "Right to Life" acolytes. Maple Street in Benton, Arkansas is not wide enough to accommodate a mob of protestors and the media that would surely be there to record every hotheaded speech, every hysterical act of someone falling out, and every time a child was arrested for attempting to "rescue" Uncle Bill. And we simply do not need the unbidden presence of Jesse Jackson. The family has enough to contend with, thank you very much.

Is there one among us who does not own a heart that was not moved to pity as Terri Schiavo perished last week in Florida? And yet, for some of us at least , that pity was tempered by the knowledge that the poor woman was incapable of comprehending that her last days had unleashed a firestorm of protest, legal machinations and inflammatory commentary from both media and politicians alike. She had no knowledge of the psychodrama outside the door.

Let us be clear on what the Schiavo case was and was not about. It was not about the fact that Terri Schiavo was "alive" when the state court judge ordered the feeding tube removed. It was not about whether her husband is a heartless cad who fathered two children out of wedlock while seeking to terminate his wife's life. It is not about whether it is ethical or whether it should be legal to deny food and nutrition to a living person although this is a worthy subject for discussion for another day. And it is not about whether a spouse gets to make these decisions when the family of the vegetative person disagrees although this too is a worthy subject for a later date.

It is about respect for the rule of law. The sad details of the Schiavo case were litigated for almost 10 years. The decision of the state court judge was upheld by Florida's appellate courts. Despite the extraordinary special statute conferring federal jurisdiction over this case, the federal courts declined to intervene for the reason that Terri Schiavo's right so to due process had been protected by the Florida state courts.

What otherwise would be considered an exercise in judicial restraint is now considered an act of "judicial tyranny." Veiled threats have been leveled at the federal judges involved by unscrupulous politicians. Not so veiled threats were made against the state court trial judge who ordered the tube removed. The judge, a Southern Baptist, and his family are now under 24 hour guard. Certain radio and cable pundits urged Governor Jeb Bush to send the State Police in to "rescue" poor Terri. Amazingly enough, he evidently considered it but thought better of it when told that the local cops would enforce the court's order and block the entrance. Bless their underpaid little hearts.

Go to any law library in this great land of ours and you will see walls full of books that report the decisions made by the state and federal courts. In each and every one of the cases reported, exactly 50 percent of the parties to those cases left the courthouse pissed off. Some were incarcerated, some were ordered to pay money, some lost their land. And so on.

So where do we go from here? Will the Schiavo case stand for the proposition that you can take the law into your own hands when the court renders a decision that you don't agree with? Will the Schiavo case henceforth mean that the "Right to Life" trumps a person's right to a dignified death on terms dictated earlier by him or her? Or will the short life and tragic death of Terri Schiavo set off a reasoned and dispassionate nationwide discussion about "end of life" care for the elderly and the disabled? What will be Terri's legacy concerning these issues that all of us will have to face eventually if we have not already done so?

On second thought, we think that it would be interesting if the Reverends Terry and Jackson were to show up to "rescue" Bill from his family. We think that Bill's huntin' and fishin' buddies from Haskell would find their unbidden presence in the community thought provoking and useful.

And they would deal with them accordingly.