Author Archive - Todd


My Favorite Three Price is Right Moments

It was recently announced that Bob Barker, the oleaginous host of The Price is Right, is retiring. In honor of this American institution, bizarrely beloved by the Québecois and other assorted French-Canadians, I have compiled three of my favorite clips.

The first focuses on a stupid contestant, a perennial favorite subject of mine. But this one has a twist. Watch for Bob's escalating annoyance and then his utter disbelief at the very end.


The second clip features one of those heartwarming populist moments, but it adds a bit of serendipity to the equation. I like how Bob seems to briefly be at a loss of words.

The final clip is my favorite of all time. The Price is Right is known for having a zealous fanbase that goes berserk when they hear "Come On Down!" This guy, clearly on drugs, has the most frantic stamina of any contestant I've ever seen. Bob handles the manic contestant pretty well. Watch for the extended outro where the man starts to go off set.

I hope the producers of The Price is Right put together a retrospective clips show at some point, as I am sure there are loads of buried treasures unavailable on YouTube or other video sites.

The Top Five Steve Coogan Shows

Steve Coogan is one of my favorite comedic actors. As an American, I only first became aware of him in the great modern music history of Manchester film 24 Hour Party People. Luckily, I have a British friend who introduced me to the unctuous Alan Partridge, Coogan's most famous character. To honor my great love of this British legend-in-the-making, I will list five of the best television shows he has appeared in. Subscribe to BBC America or install a gatling-proxy and fire up uTorrent because you will want to check out the following Britcoms. 5. Coogan's Run Coogan's Run was a six-episode series set in the fictional brackish, backwater English town of Ottle. Ottle was populated with a cast of eccentrics and each episode focused on a different town denizen played by Coogan. Sometimes this show felt like a vehicle for Coogan to display his virtuoso ability to inhabit deeply flawed characters, rather than a coherent show in its own right. But the third episode, entitled A Handyman for All Seasons is one of the best single episodes every committed to television, displaying a tight plot arrangement, a quiet economy of elements, and a slyly referential nod to the early days of sitcoms. Filmed in black and white and set in 1960, it followed repairman Ernest Moss as he attempted to stop a massive land grab by an out of town real estate mogul. Reminiscent of The Andy Griffith Show at times, the episode has a classical feel, both in television terms and Greek drama terms. At the very least, it is worth a viewing for the hilarious final line, which makes me laugh even thinking about it. 4. Saxondale The jury is still out on the newest Coogan television show (that means I have only seen two episodes), but it is shaping up to be very much in the vein of Coogan's great characters: deluded, sympathetic nobodies with a tragic glimmer of self-awareness. The titular Saxondale is a ex-roadie still holding on his days as travelmate of the 70's golden gods, despite his advancing years and anger management issues. The writers, as they have in other Coogan shows, hint at disturbing or embarrassing facets of the character's life without ever fully revealing the joke, which makes the humor even more effective. I am fairly confident that this new show will pan out to be as rich as his others. [youtube]tnV2MJBB64c[/youtube] 3. Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge The advent of Coogan's greatest character began here, a chat show parody that was more about the protagonist Alan Partridge than the parodic elements. I should mention here that the real advent of Partridge was in radio and then The Day Today where he was a sport's reporter, but the character reaches his grand fruition in this show. Partridge is a true original character, filled with nuance and hovering somewhere between smugly annoying and oddly sympathetic. Most episodes would proceed from a perceived slight which would trigger Partridge's self-satisfied musings and ultimately end in an ever-widening circle of chaos. Like The Office, Alan Partridge has helped reify "cringe" as a replacement for irony, but without completely erasing the later. KMKYWAP, as it is often abbreviated, also provided the history for what would become Coogan's greatest show. [youtube]29SslXv_Ja8[/youtube] 2. The Day Today This one is a bit of a cheat, as Coogan only appeared in an ensemble as Alan Partridge, a sport's reporter for the local news, but I included it so as to give some kudos to this absurdly brilliant parody of the nightly news. The Day Today was born out of a radio show called On the Hour, which featured two writers and actors who are beyond many of the best shows on British TV, namely Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci. The show combined acute parody, both of structure and substance, as well as the sort of wordplay nonsense that seems to crop up in British humor much more than American. Partridge here was but a seed out of which the fully fleshed character later germinated. A typical segment would involve the incompetent reporting of the rapid degeneration of a ludicrous event. [youtube]5gHorOt6KKw[/youtube] 1. I'm Alan Partridge This was Coogan's greatest show and it ran for two seasons (or series as they say in the UK). It follows the life of Alan Partridge a couple years after his chat show was taken off the air. His marriage has fallen apart and he is living in a Travel Tavern, eking out a miserable existence as a Z-list celebrity. Coogan's ability to mix pathos with comedy really reaches its apotheosis in the first season, as Partridge continually attempts to restart his career only to screw it up. He often takes his anger out on his long-suffering assistant Lynn, the perpetually giggling receptionist Sophie, and the Tavern's incomprehensible Geordie handyman Michael. Partridge is often abusive and boorish and almost always unbearably conceited, but the objective viewer gets to see his pathetic existence from the outside, humanizing his often appalling behavior. Coogan does a magnificent job of creating humor out of the inane and minor interactions of such a loathsome persona. it isn't very hard to derive humor out of an unlikeable character, but it is a much different task to make that character the centerpeice of the show. I get the feeling that British humor often revolves more around the obnoxious character than American humor, which usually needs an affable, yet put-upon protagonist. Curmudgeons and assholes are always minor characters in American comedy. [youtube]Os38o2K0QPo[/youtube] The second season jumps five years later, with Alan getting back on his feet a bit, building a new house for himself and starting a relationship with a Ukrainian woman, Sonja (although a terrible interim of binge eating is hinted at). Although the second season lacks the economy of the minimal setup of the first season, it is also a treasure, keeping Lynn and Michael as characters and jettisoning the rest. The basic format is still the same, the perambulations and meanderings of Alan as he goes about simple tasks, often resulting in offense and perturbation. [youtube]fiDo5E_J6lg[/youtube] I haven't really delved into the specifics of each of these television shows, as Wikipedia has a much better collective memory than I do. But I hope this at least gives some sense of Coogan's approach to characters. Coogan is magisterial when it comes to evoking a complex character with a modicum of gestures. At any rate, the humor, although often uproarious, is sometimes subtle and contextual, so one really needs to view these shows to understand their full impact. Many of these shows are not available by DVD in the US or on BBC America, although I'm Alan Partridge can be obtained either way and Saxondale is currently showing, so *wink wink* do whatever you need to to find these episodes.

RICO Is Not So Suave

While researching the RICO statutes, I was astonished to find two disturbing applications of these laws. First, when RICO intersects with mail and wire fraud statutes, it allows the federal government to turn underlying offenses outside the scope of RICO into actual RICO offenses. Second, the federal government can prosecute an offender both under RICO and on the underlying crimes that constitute a RICO violation, creating a scenario equivalent to double jeopardy. After the cut, I will explain what the RICO statute is, how these two applications work, and why this is injust.

RICO stands for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act codified in 18 U.S.C. 1961-68. RICO was created to deal with organized crime but Congress judiciously wrote it broadly enough to deal with a range of criminal and civil cases, enabling federal prosecutors to utilize RICO to go after everything from accounting firms to abortion clinic protestors to Don King. In the simplest terms, a RICO violation consists of two elements: (1) a person commits repeated "predicate acts" constituting a "pattern of racketeering activity" and (2) those acts involve an entity known as a RICO "enterprise" used in a manner specified by the statute. There are all sorts of rococo curlicues when it comes to the specific language and Supreme Court cases have delved into ornate statutory construction to determine what exactly "enterprise" or "pattern" means when dealing with edge cases, but good common sense is all that is needed to envision the normal application of RICO.

But common sense flies out the window when you combine RICO with federal wire and mail fraud statutes. The requisite violative acts of the enterprise consist of a slew of federal crimes and also a good number of state crimes that are substantive, if not literal, analogues of the laundry list of offenses listed in the statute. Although this greatly expands the scope of federal control over the traditional domain of the State police power by federalizing any state crimes that meet the RICO standard, this clearly stemmed from Congressional intent. While I lament the continued federalization of all crime, it is fully within the Constitution for Congress to enact such a statute. What I find particularly egregious is the use of mail and wire fraud statutes to expand the scope of RICO beyond its already extremely broad ambit.

Mail and wire fraud is easy to prove. It is the interstate use of the mail or wires to engage in a scheme to defraud. Almost every fraudulent activity can be shown to have an interstate mail component. If your credit card statement that records a fraud is sent from Visa's headquarters to your state, the interstate element is met. If you mail a fraudulent document to a government authority which in turn mails it somewhere else, the interstate element is met. The trouble arises when mail fraud is used as the criminal underpinning of a RICO prosecution. It doesn't matter whether the underlying fraud or crime is within the jurisdiction of RICO because mail and wire fraud explicitly is. For example, if repeated perjury resulted from fraudulent depositions mailed to a court from another state, then not only is there perjury, there is also mail fraud. Further, if this mail fraud activity meets the requirements for RICO, then in effect a RICO prosecution can be brought for the underlying crime of perjury cloaked in the guise of mail fraud. This happened in United States v. Eisen, 974 F.2d 246 (2d Cir. 1992). Tax fraud is another substantive area that can be abused in the same way. Tax fraud is not a predicate crime for RICO but it involves mail fraud in almost every case since the fraudulent tax return has to be sent to the IRS. Again, this is not a theoretical example and was the theory under which United States v. Regan, 937 F.2d 823 (2d Cir. 1991) was brought.

This is a concern for two reasons. First, it gives the government more latitude than it should have under the RICO statute. It is always a concern when the federal government's power is not expressly constrained in a criminal statute because it gives prosecutors the ability to over-apply a law. In this case, they have been able to get away with it because there has been no direct challenge of RICO under the void for vagueness doctrine. It is not fair to expect people to understand that RICO will be applied far beyond its expressly stated limitations. Consequently, it is not fair to punish people for committing "crimes" that only become crimes after judicial acrobatics. Second, this broad application of RICO raises federalism issues already alluded to above. The RICO statutes are so far-reaching that ordinary state criminal and civil cases get federalized for no good reason. From the inception of the Constitution, the police power has always been within the realm of the State. There were only three federal crimes in 1800. Now there is a veritable thicket of federal crimes, often needlessly duplicating state statutes or, as in this case, asserting power over the States for no discernable reason.

The second issue I have with RICO is quite simple: it enables prosecutors to violate the spirit of the double jeopardy rule. The Fifth Amendment states that no person "shall [be] subject for the same offense to be twice put into jeopardy of life and limb." In layman's terms, this says that you cannot be tried for the same crime twice. This is a cornerstone of the American criminal justice system and its jurisprudence. Yet, in the case of RICO, its animating spirit can be circumvented through an overweening technical reading. The government may prosecute a defendant under RICO based on the specified predicate acts necessary for a RICO conviction, such as arson or kidnapping, AND the government can later prosecute the same defendant for the predicate criminal act itself. The Supreme Court itself has upheld this interpretation in the depressing case of Garrett v. United States. To be fair, the Court in that case made certain to indicate that this was possible under the specific facts of this case, but while this leaves wriggle room for future cases, it still functions as persuasive precedent beyond obiter dicta. It is dishonest for the government to create a crime and then create a new crime based on the repetition of that crime in certain situations and then be able to prosecute an individual for both. While I appreciate the Kafkaesque/Borgesian quality to such an interpretation, I prefer my fabulist literature to stay fabulist and not creep into dreary social realism.

RICO is mostly a good and worthwhile statute, as it makes it easier to prosecute criminal organizations which do substantial economic and moral harm to the country. But the application of RICO needs to be constrained in a few very specific circumstances to ensure that it is used primarily to positive and fair ends and is not abused in ways that constrain or injure our liberty.

EDIT: I struck out the last paragraph because RICO is much worse than I thought. A former federal prosecutor mentioned that he didn't like the statute because it was so easily abused. I neglected to mention that RICO is used often in the civil context where treble damages and attorneys' fees are awards if a claim is successful. This gives impetus to plaintiff firms to try to turn every run of the mill state fraud case into a RICO charge, glutting our courts with vexatious litigation. RICO is poorly written, overapplied, and frequently misused: a complete legislative failure.

Reforming American Education: Further Thoughts

I recently wrote a glib, throwaway post on Five Quick Steps for reforming education. While the list was made partially in humor, it has sparked a substantive debate and I would like to wade in with more detailed thoughts. 1. We should not overly federalize education. The federal government, bastion of bloat and incompetence, cannot address education issues as well as the various States. The federal government is crucial for legislating on issues that are national or interstate, such as environmental regulations. That is where they are most useful. Education is primarily a local issue. Therefore, it is more appropriate for the States to control education, since they would be able to craft solutions that address the specific needs of failing schools. While one school district may have crumbling infrastructure that needs to be addressed, another may have a teacher shortage. The federal government does not have the time nor the energy to address such specific issues and their attempts at reform, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, have been deleterious rather than ameliorative. 2. The teacher's union has a stranglehold on the school system. In New York, it is so difficult and costly to remove a teacher, even when there is proof that they have sexually solicited a student, that the school system created something called Rubber Rooms. These are rooms where teachers that are clearly unfit to teach are placed during the day, away from children, while still receiving their salaries. This is a grotesque situation, but we cannot blame the administrators because they are behold to an overly powerful union. Teachers have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and suppressing any sort of educational innovation that may threaten their jobs. The countervailing interest of making sure children have good educations does not act as a counterweight, because the teacher's union is abnormally strong. As long as the union remains in its present form, any true educational experiment will be strangled in the cradle and go the way of GM. 3. Instituting a voucher system will give power and choice to parents and the resultant market pressures will force schools to adapt. In my earlier post, I implied that all government controlled schooling should be eradicated. While I still think this would be better than the current regime, I realize that it is politically infeasible. A compromise could be to incentivize the creation of nonprofits, for-profits, parochial, and other types of schools to exist along side public schools. This is already the case, as with the maligned charter schools, but there is no real competition available and voucher systems are hampered either legally or through delibertae misinformation spread by teachers' unions. I can imagine an educational landscape with a multitude of various types of schools, each competing for children. This would destroy the socializing function of public schooling, which inculcates a shared intellectual and social baseline across the union. I believe this to be a good thing, as independent thinkers are more important to me than uniform citizenry. A thousand schools booming, combined with a true voucher system, would enable parents to decide what type of schools are best for their children and the brutal market will weed out the institutions that are not performing. Here, the federal government could play a role by subsidizing the voucher system, either directly with grants or through the States with subsidies. This would be preferable over current federal attempt to control schooling, like the execrable No Child Left Behind Act. Jason expressed concern about information asymmetry in the educational market. I don't believe this is a real concern. Parent's that care about their child's education will do the research to utilize their voucher. Parent's that don't care, just don't care and wouldn't do anything anyway. But even in the latter case, a rising ride raises all ships, so the disinterested parent's child would still be benefited. Perhaps we can resurrect the Department of Education and turn it into something similar to the GAO. It can require, oversee, and audit extensive disclosure from every school, like the SEC does with public companies. This would create a database of reliable and current information about schools, enabling parent's to make educated choices. Either the government or nonprofits could then disseminate the information in easily digestible portions for parents who do not want to take the time to comb the raw data. 4. Start slow using limited geographic areas to make sure that reforms are working. I agree wholeheartedly with Jason that the key to any reform is start slow and utilize the scientific method. One benefit of devoving control over education to the States is that it creates 50 little laboratories in which we can observe how various changes affect schools. The corollary to this is that we need to buckle down for the long haul. Like with health care, there is not a simple or quick solutions. The fate of America rests with each new generation and their contributions to society. An educated and scientifically-literate population keeps America competitive with the rest of the world. An uneducated and superstitious population signals the waning of American and our quality of life. It is worth laborious, expensive, and time-consuming efforts to ensure that we create the former, rather than the latter. There are some curricula reforms I would like to see and some legislation I would like to see repealed as well, but we will save that for a future post. NOTE: I've edited this post for clarity and completeness.

Five Quick Steps for Reforming Education in America

1. Blow up the Department of Education. 2. Eradicate the teachers' unions by hiring Pinkertons. 3. Abolish government control over running schools and place most of the governance and day-to-day operations in private hands. 4. Create a comprehensive school choice voucher system funded by the States. 5. More pizza parties.