The Battered Bastards of Baseball

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                   The Battered Bastards of Baseball

                                  ****

 

          Tim Tebow is one of the most famous sports figures in America.

          He is best known for being Christian, but he actually plays sports from time to time as well. Tebow was a star quarterback for the University of Florida. Then he was a lousy quarterback in the NFL. 

          This year, he made headlines with his unusual decision to become a professional baseball player. The media scoffed. I scoffed. But, strangely enough, Mr. Tebow is doing all right. He is a productive starting Outfielder for the St. Lucie Mets, a single-A affiliate of the New York Mets.

          At work the other day, a guy who saw a Tebow story on ESPN stated that Tebow is living the good life, getting paid well, and is one step away from the Major Leagues. None of that is true.

And that’s when it hit me: most people – even most sports fans – don’t know anything about Minor League baseball.  

          The annual MLB Draft has 40 rounds. A kid who is drafted is, at best, a few years away from getting to the big leagues. More realistically, he will never come close. For every Major League team you have heard of, there are at least four minor league teams that you’ve never heard of (AAA is the highest level, single A is the lowest).

          The reason why even baseball fans don’t care about Minor League baseball is that affiliated minor league teams are little more than soulless corporate factories that help a few gifted kids become Major Leaguers and weed out the Tim Tebow-esque 90%.  

         

In 1972, every single minor league team in America was affiliated with a Major League ballclub. In 1973, every team was affiliated except one.

          “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is the joyous, upbeat story of the Portland Mavericks.

          In the 1960s, Bing Russell (Kurt Russell’s dad) was best known as the Deputy Sheriff on Bonanza. But though he liked acting, he loved baseball.

Bing Russell used his own money to fund astoundingly serious and nerdy baseball coaching videos meant to teach fundamentals to little leaguers. Multiple Major League managers showed Bing’s tapes to their own players.

          When Russell founded an unaffiliated club in Portland, Oregon, the baseball world assumed that it would fail. Every other minor league team in America consisted of players drafted and paid by Major League clubs. How would The Mavericks find players? And compete?

          Bing Russell put an advertisement in The Sporting News announcing open tryouts. Five hundred men showed up. Russell himself selected the twenty-five best. Not the youngest. Not the strongest. Not the most physically gifted. The best.

          They competed pretty darn well. In their very first game, the Mavericks pitcher threw a no-hitter. And that set the stage for years of consistent dominance by the upstart Portland team.

          Their philosophy was to run the bases hard, take chances, be ridiculous, and have fun. While every other club in their league lost their best players to AA, the Mavericks became a tight family – all working hard to impress their baseball-savant boss.

          Minor League baseball is so uninspiring that the only minor leaguer that you have even heard of is a washed-up Quarterback.

           It doesn’t have to be that way. Following a baseball team is one of the most wonderful things about being an American. You get to share a magical summer with guys that you care about, watching them play a sport that you love.

“The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is the feel-good baseball movie of the year. Watch it on Netflix tonight. (you know, after the game).

         Boom Bust Boom

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Boom Bust Boom

****

 

By now, anybody who can sit through an economics lesson knows how the 2008 financial meltdown happened.

Banks assumed that housing prices would continue to go up forever, so they lent money to new homeowners who couldn’t afford the loans. Then the banks sold the loans to other banks and to private investors. This insured that a drop in housing prices would affect every financial institution and take down the entire economy. Then housing prices dropped…

It’s easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback and blame who you want to blame for the meltdown. You can blame the naughty banks. You can blame the lax regulators. You can blame the materialists who wanted to live in McMansions that they couldn’t afford.

People on the Right can blame big bad government for forcing lenders to make loans in poor communities. People on the Left can blame big bad Reagan and/or Bush for trusting the private sector with so much power and money.

Monty Python’s Terry Jones has a completely different take.

Jones achieved the impossible. He made a documentary about economics that is apolitical, upbeat, and easy to follow. And full of singing puppets.

 

The film’s hero is 20th Century economist Hyman Minsky. (As a puppet), Minsky explains his ground-breaking theory about business cycles.

First, there is a painful panic. After a panic, people become cautious and responsible. They take fewer risks. They do not invest on margin or using credit. Governments pass and enforce sensible regulations.

This responsibility leads to stability. And this starts the downward cycle over again. Stability leads to optimism and rising prices. Rising prices leads to euphoria. In the euphoria of ever-rising prices, investors use credit again and ignore regulations. Finally, inflated prices suddenly drop and a painful panic ensues.

This explains the 2008 Mortgage Crisis. According to Terry Jones, it explains every financial crisis.

Jones’s solution isn’t Socialism. Or more regulation. It is acceptance.

Terry Jones doesn’t blame anyone for the 2008 meltdown. “Boom Bust Boom” claims that cycles of boom then bust aren’t flaws in the Capitalist system – they are flaws in our nature.

If there are villains in “Boom Bust Boom,” they aren’t the capitalists – they are the mainstream economists. Jones states that the study of economics rests on a fundamentally flawed theory: the notion that people in the open market are rational.

When it comes to money and trading, Terry Jones asserts, we are irrational to our very core and always will be.

Jones illustrates his theory of irrationality with an experiment using Rhesus Monkeys.

A colony of monkeys was given coins that could be exchanged with humans for food. Food dealer #1 showed a bowl containing one grape. When the monkey gave him a coin, the human gave the monkey two grapes. Food dealer #2 showed a bowl containing three grapes. When the monkey gave him a coin, the human gave the money two grapes.

If the monkeys made decisions based on rationality, they would shop with dealer #1 as often as dealer #2.

But monkeys, like us, are emotional idiots when it comes to money. The monkeys all wanted to buy from Food dealer #1 and avoided dealer #2 like the plague.

When it comes to investment decisions, we are all monkeys. When our investment goes up, we feel pride and joy and euphoria. When our investment goes down, we feel shame and disgust and panic. The smartest among us know that our feelings are irrational, but we feel them anyway.

“Boom Bust Boom” is the exact opposite of a muckraking documentary. It presents a serious problem that plagues humanity. But there is no blame and there are no solutions. Just monkeys and puppets.

Betting on Zero

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Betting on Zero

**1/2

“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

-Genesis 3:19

 

I am thankful for the wisdom of this bible verse.

Without it, life would be a lot harder and more complicated. There have been hundreds of Sunday nights during my adult life where I lost sleep. I was dreading the long, daunting work week ahead.

But no matter how much I’m dreading it, I always go to work on Monday. That’s because I don’t view it as a choice. Genesis makes it sparklingly clear: if I want to earn the right to live and eat, I must labor.

I will work until my boss gives me a gold watch or until I expire at my desk. Either way is cool. I never feel sorry for myself. I feel sorry for the unfortunate people who haven’t internalized Genesis 3:19.

Life will always be harder for the chumps who think that there is a realistic path to wealth that doesn’t involve a 9 to 5 job. There will always be a Scammer trying to lure them away from their money. It could be the lottery. It could be the casino. It could be Herbalife.

Herbalife, I learned from “Betting on Zero,” produces health products. The company sells shakes, pills, and stuff that supposedly helps you lose weight.

Documentarian Ted Braun doesn’t tell us whether he thinks the shakes actually make you healthier and thinner. It hardly matters. Herbalife doesn’t make money selling health products; Herbalife is a Pyramid Scheme.

“Betting on Zero” is a half hour too long, but it is totally convincing. Herbalife doesn’t market its shakes to consumers; it markets them to its independent distributors.

The heart and soul of Herbalife are its shameless salesmen who are able to convince dozens of patsies to invest their life savings into Herbalife products and convince other people to do the same. That top salesman gets a cash bonus and an Alpha Romeo. The middle distributors break even at best. All the dupes on the bottom of the Pyramid get are products they can’t sell and bills they can’t pay.

The hero of this story is Hedge Fund manager Bill Ackman (seriously). Ackman saw what Herbalife is doing to its workers and set out to destroy the company and make money in the process. In 2012, he shorted $1 billion in Herbalife stock. Shorting a stock means that you sell shares that you don’t have. When the stock drops as planned, you buy them back for less and make a profit.

The victims of this story are the undocumented immigrants who fell for the scam by the tens of thousands. Herbalife used Spanish-language advertisements to target illegals because they are less likely to go public with complaints about being ripped off.

I don’t feel quite as sorry for Herbalife salespeople as Ted Braun wants me to. If somebody says: “I have a job for you! Now give me some money,” you should know that it is a rip-off, not a job. If you give that guy your money, you are not a victim – you are a fool.

To be clear: I’m definitely not defending Herbalife. The company is awful and I hope that its stock price does go to zero. However, we don’t need government probes or Bill Ackman to make it happen.

Herbalife would shut its doors tomorrow if everyone just woke up and realized there are no shortcuts to success in this life. All you have to do is read Genesis 3:19, get up bright and early on Monday morning, and then go to your soul-sucking dead-end job like the rest of us.

 

Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press

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Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press

***

 

In 2012, the news gossip site Gawker posted part of a video that showed Hulk Hogan in bed with his best friend’s wife.

Hulk Hogan was so ticked off that he could have torn his shirt off in anger. So, what did he do about it?

He successfully sued Gawker and its publishers for $140 million that they definitely did not have. Hogan knocked Gawker out of business faster than he knocked out the Iron Sheik.

Brian Knappenberger – director of the passionate, thought-provoking, outrageously biased documentary “Nobody Speak” – considers the Hulk Hogan trial to be the beginning of the end of America’s free press.

Knappenberger argues that the verdict violated Gawker’s Constitutional Rights. That is pretty far-fetched. Again, Gawker shared a recording of an old tan dude who was cuckolding his pal. If you think that’s specifically covered by the First Amendment, then you have an interesting notion of the kinkiness level of our Founding Fathers.

Knappenberger argues that the annihilation of Gawker is a warning sign that power in America is shifting away from reporters and into the hands of billionaires.

Apparently, the brains and the money behind Hogan’s lawsuit was Silicon Valley tycoon Peter Thiel. The tech billionaire had a grudge against Gawker because the site outed him in 2007.

Using $10 million to hire a team of A-list lawyers, the billionaire used the legal system to destroy his enemies. This sets an ugly precedent.

 

And if you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em. “Nobody Speak” also explores another way that billionaires can threaten the free press.

Sheldon Adelson is a casino tycoon and influential Republican donor. Apparently, he didn’t care for the way the Las Vegas Review-Journal was portraying him. So he bought the paper, made obnoxious rules about how much the staff columnists could write about him, and solved his problem.

I am not going to defend Sheldon Adelson; that is some childish Citizen Kane-esque nonsense. However, I don’t see how it spells the end of the free press. Mostly, it emphasizes how painfully anti-Republican this movie is.

Knappenberger spends a half hour on Adelson but no more than 10 seconds on Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post.

If there is a man who has the motivation and the wherewithal to fundamentally alter truth and liberty in America, it is Amazon.com CEO and dictator Jeff Bezos.

Bezos is already the most powerful and influential person on planet earth. While most CEOs use their company’s profits to help investors get wealthy, Bezos continues to build a massive world-wide infrastructure that is slowly wiping out all competition.

Amazon.com is revolutionizing consumerism: making it easier, more mindless, more wasteful, more globalist, and more unaccountable.

Remember last year at this time when candidate Trump stated that Amazon corporation has “a huge anti-Trust problem”? Of course you don’t; the corporate media doesn’t even want us to debate that topic.

It is troubling that during the past few months, you and your family have spent more time discussing the substance-free Russia scandal than the urgent national need to break up Amazon.com. That is in large part because the most influential newspaper in Washington is now the propaganda arm of the Jeff Bezos empire.

In conclusion: Hulk Hogan is a crybaby who should be ashamed of himself. And we desperately need to break up Amazon.com.

Oh, and the death of the free press? That obviously isn’t happening. I proved it. I just published a column tearing down the world’s most powerful man and I’m not even going to get in trouble. The Press is fine.

Emmanuel Macron: Behind the Rise

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Emmanuel Macron: Behind the Rise

**

 

President Obama’s legacy has been hopelessly distorted by partisanship.

The American Right has spun Obama into something that he never was or tried to be: a Progressive.

Ask a Republican, and he will tell you that the President was an anti-American Socialist Peacenik.

Amusingly, the American Left has decided to defend this Funhouse Mirror version of Obama that never really existed. Ask a Democrat, and she will try to defend his foreign policy on humanitarian grounds and defend his health care plan on Progressive grounds.

The reality is that Barak Obama was as moderate as a leader can be. Every action existed to maintain continuity.

During the heart of the banking crisis, he let political donors at Citigroup choose his cabinet. Sorry, Obama fans, but you can read it for yourself in the leaked email from Citi to John Podesta on Oct 8, 2008. The Obama team was tightly allied with Wall Street from day one.

Obama’s foreign policy was a clever continuation of Bush’s War on Terror. Using drone strikes and covert actions, Obama kept his foot on the pedal of relentless Middle East murder and meddling while reducing the number of American body bags to a more tolerable level.

The Affordable Care Act is little more than a scheme to try to keep the current for-profit system going a few more years by extorting money from young, healthy people who need cash way more than health insurance.

In the end, Obama achieved minimal change. The only question is whether his campaign slogan “Change” was always intended as a cynical irony.

 

Now France has its own Barak Obama. His name is Emmanuel Macron. Macron is young, good-looking, smart, and charismatic. And he’s the living embodiment of the status quo.

“Behind the Rise” is a worshipful documentary that follows his successful candidacy for President. The documentary urges us to fall in love with the man. And urges us not to think too much about what he represents.

Emmanuel Macron is the insider’s insider. First he was an investment banker at Rothschild & Co. More recently, he was Deputy Secretary-General under President Francois Hollande.

Last year, Macron bolted from Hollande’s Party and formed his own Party: En Marche! (which means Onward!). See what he did there? Macron fights tooth and nail to defend the status quo, but he does it under the slick banner of Progressivism.

While Marine Le Pen relentlessly focused on France’s need to leave the EU and reclaim its borders, Macron felt no need to discuss issues at all. Throughout the movie, he mostly just smiles, tries to look dashing, and accuses his opponent of bigotry.

Apparently, Macron was right. He beat Ms. Le Pen in a landslide. Le Pen is the better person, but she was not a great candidate. She did a lousy job of reaching out to France’s growing minority population.

The winner of the France’s next election will be the one who communicates that the choice is not between Christianity and Islam; it’s between the Globalists and the people.

The problems plaguing France are unemployment, unchecked borders, and uncontrolled terrorism. The ultimate victims are poor, peaceful young French Muslims who just want to assimilate and work. They need change more than anyone.

The same bland agreeable nature that made Macron an appealing candidate will make him entirely incapable of leading France through the tough road ahead.

America has already been through this. Even though Barak Obama remained personally popular, his party and the American Establishment itself lost their credibility during his Presidency.

Change is no longer a cynical slogan. It’s a desperate need. The Establishment won with Obama and Macron. But we won’t be fooled anymore.
Après Macron, le déluge.

 

Get Me Roger Stone

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Get Me Roger Stone

****

 

“I am the most qualified. I have the most experience. I am the smartest and the most educated.”

-a foolish candidate for public office

 

I cringe every time I hear a politician say something like that. I loathe the guy saying it, but I still feel for him. That strategy never works.

At best, mentioning your brains and your experience makes you look like a boastful egghead.

At worst, people think you are telling the truth.

Being an experienced politician is not a qualification. It’s a huge strike against you.

It’s like saying: “hey, I’m an experienced thief. Let me guard your money.” Or “hey, I’m experienced at sending your sons to Asia to murder foreigners. Let me be your pastor!”

The American voter is willing to forgive almost anything – except the sin of being an intellectual insider. Roger Stone understands this better than anyone.

Roger Stone loves to show off the big tattoo of Richard Nixon that he has on his back. Stone’s worship of President Nixon makes total sense; Nixon was the master of anti-intellectual political success.

In terms of education, experience, and intellectual prowess, Richard Nixon was second to none. But he never would have told you that. He won a 49-State landslide victory in 1972 based on his personal appeal to the “Great Silent Majority” of working class Americans.

Conservative values only get a candidate so far. Republicans win elections by appealing to the anti-intellectual, anti-Washington, anti-establishment masses.

Roger Stone is the ultimate anti-insider insider. The colorful Netflix documentary “Get Me Roger Stone” presents him as the devious Forest Gump of Republican politics, conveniently popping up in the background at every major event.

The Watergate Hearings: 19-year old Roger Stone was there (he played a very minor dirty trick against Nixon’s GOP Primary competitor Pete McCloskey).

The Conservative triumph in 1980: Roger Stone was there (he was Reagan’s regional campaign director for the Northeast).

The 2000 Contested Election: Roger Stone was there (Stone claims that he organized a pro-Bush rally that intimidated Florida election workers from changing the results of the recount).

And if you don’t hate him enough already, Democrat readers, check this out: Roger Stone founded one of the original Super PACs in 1978 to run independently funded attack ads.

And he founded Black, Manafort, and Stone – a shamelessly greedy DC lobbying firm that represented the interests of anyone willing to pay them. Stone’s list of clients included Third World dictators like Ferdinand Marcos and Mobutu Sese Seko.

The neat thing about Roger Stone is that he doesn’t try to justify or explain away any of his villainy. If anything, he proudly over-emphasizes his evil achievements. It is better to be infamous, Stone proclaims, than not famous at all.

Though he works for Republicans, Roger Stone is far from a Conservative. He used to go to Swingers parties with his libertine wife. He enthusiastically supports Marijuana legalization.

He was pro-gay marriage long before any Republican (or any member of the Clinton family) supported it. There’s a surprising scene where Roger Stone proudly marches in a Pride Parade. He gets booed the entire time.

You can hate him all you want, but you must respect him. Roger Stone knows better than anyone how you win elections in the United States.

It definitely is not by claiming to be the smartest and the most experienced candidate. Just ask Roger Stone’s latest protégé: President Trump.

American Experience: The Big Burn

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American Experience: The Big Burn

***

 

We need to Save the Trees!

Deforestation has ravaged our once great forests. The dwindling tree population is choking the oxygen-starved atmosphere.

Sorry, environmentalists: I’m being sarcastic. Every word of that last paragraph is false.

First, a solid majority of new atmospheric oxygen is produced by water-dwelling pytoplankton. If you love trees and walks through the forest, that is perfect understandable. Scientifically speaking, however, we don’t need trees to survive.

Second, North America has way more trees than it had at the turn of the 20th Century. Right here in Central Vermont, deer sightings used to make the newspaper. Hubbard Park was a big, treeless field.

What happened? Did Conservationist save the day? Nope: the automobile was invented.

In the 19th Century, millions of acres of arable land were used for fields to feed horses. As horses were replaced by Model Ts, those fields became forests. Tree-Huggers should pause to hug a Ford Focus; it did more to save the trees than the US Forest Service.

Indeed, “The Big Burn” shows that the US Forest Service has been misguided from the very beginning.

In 1905, The US Forest Service was founded by patrician Progressives who valued idealism more than common sense, and trees more than people.

The fledgling Federal agency sent intrepid young men far and wide. US Forest Rangers even found their way to the remote Bitterroot region of Western Montana and Northern Idaho. When Rangers told the hearty locals that they were no longer allowed to use the vast forest for clearcutting and strip-mining, they were furious.

As the PBS documentary “The Big Burn” reluctantly admits, the Forest Service’s rules that chose trees over people ended up being a disaster for both trees and people.

 

The summer of 1910 was bone dry in the Bitterroot. When a heat-lightning storm ignited a dry patch of trees, the largest fire in the history of the Hemisphere began.

Despite its remote location, America quickly recognized the size and the seriousness of the blaze. Women and children were bustled out; Federal Troops rushed in.

Desperate men aboard the last train out of town were forced off their cars at gunpoint. Uncle Sam needed them to fight the fire, the soldiers said.

But those men were just being sent to their deaths. There was no fighting The Big Burn. By the time the blaze burned itself out, a layer of soot coated the ground as far away as Iceland. Ships in the Pacific Ocean couldn’t navigate because the air was so thick with smoke.

The only thing that could have stopped this fire in its tracks was a stretch of barren, treeless land. You know, the kind that you get when you allow people to clear cut a section of forest or build a strip mine.

In the end, the greatest boon to American forests was the invention of the internal combustion engine. And the greatest disaster was made worse by the myopic machinations of the US Forest Service.

We don’t need to Save the Trees. Take a drive down I89 and look around you. They are doing just fine without our help.

 

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

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Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

****

 

Alcoa makes money by producing aluminum and selling it.

Ford makes money by building automobiles with that aluminum and selling them.

Exxon-Mobil makes money by selling gasoline to the people driving those Fords.

How did Enron make money? To this day, nobody knows for sure. And that’s the problem.

In “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” documentarian Alex Gibney explores the historic rise and fall of one of America’s most dishonest companies.

Gibney does a terrific job of explaining a twisted financial tale. And he blames all of us for accepting the perverse Wall Street culture that allowed it to happen.

The fatal flaw of Wall Street is that the stock market expects every corporation to make more money than last year. In fact, every quarter is expected to be a record-breaking earnings bonanza. A CEO knows that his company needs to keep growing or the stock will tank.

The guys who ran Enron – Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay – came up with a brilliant plan to always beat earnings expectations: they made up the numbers.

While Ford can’t claim to have sold a million more F-150s than it actually did, a company like Enron could fudge its numbers with impunity because no one really understood how it made money.

Enron’s business was to take advantage of the recently deregulated energy markets by buying and selling natural gas and electricity. How much money can you make as gamblers in an energy casino? Common sense says you’d lose money as often as you’d make it. According to Enron’s accounting books, they were raking it in.

The system made it disturbingly easy for them.

Enron was legally reporting their earnings using the Mark to Market method. In Mark to Market, a company signs a business deal and can report the profit that they expect to make from that deal as immediate actual profit.

Enron signed a deal with Blockbuster Video to buy and sell excess broadband bandwidth. That very quarter, Enron reported $10 billion from the business. In reality, trading broadband as a commodity was desperately stupid and they lost $billions. But the huge reported profit was already part of the official Enron bottom line.

Meanwhile, Enron retained its reputation as a top company by rewarding Wall Street analysts who wrote positive stories and attacking anyone who dared to publish a “Sell” rating on the stock.

Therefore, it was a surprise to everyone when the stock price plummeted from 90 in 2000 to less than 1. Well, everyone except for Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay, who sneakily cashed out their Enron shares before the crash.

The documentary doesn’t demonize the guys who ran Enron into the ground. Alex Gibney argues that Enron is just a symptom of a broken system where naughty companies are allowed to run amok.

We should be grateful to the wonderful companies that produce real products that make our world a better place. And we should be suspicious of corporations that produce nothing but money.

“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” is a first-rate documentary. It makes a very complicated story understandable. And it warns us that it will absolutely happen again.