Transcript

415:

Crybabies
Transcript

Originally aired 09.24.2010

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/415

Prologue.

Ira Glass

You may remember last fall President Obama decided to do something that lots of other presidents had done before. Him Give a short speech to the country's school kids at the start of the academic year. The head of the Republican Party in Florida, a man named Jim Grier, issued a statement saying that he was appalled that President Obama would be spreading his lies and socialist ideology to school children. Others chimed in. It kicked off a little fire storm in the media.

Chris Matthews

--he joins us right now. Mr. Grier, thanks for coming on. You had put out a pretty strong statement the other day. You said the President-- you referred to him as the Pied Piper Obama. Pied Piper is a guy who took children away and they were never seen again. Is that what you think? I mean, really.

Jim Grier

Well I don't want him to take children away, but I don't want to him to take their minds away either to push his agenda.

Ira Glass

When the President finally gave his speech, what was his socialist message for the nation's school children? Put down the video games, read books, come to class ready to work hard.

Barack Obama

--and along those lines, by the way, I hope all of you are washing your hands a lot, and that you stay home from school when you don't feel well so we can keep people from getting the flu this fall and winter.

Ira Glass

After the speech, the controversy pretty much vanished overnight, and for most of us, that's the last we heard of Jim Grier, the guy who led the complaining. During the last year, a lot has changed for Jim Grier.

Man

James A. Grier has been charged with six felony counts--

Ira Glass

He's no longer the Chairman of the Florida Republican Party. He's currently facing a half dozen felony counts for things like money laundering and theft. And two weeks ago, Grier did something kind of remarkable. With the school year starting again, all of a sudden he essentially came out of hiding to send a single message: a text message.

Dave Weigel

It was September 14, actually. Grier sent a text message to reporters in Florida.

Ira Glass

A couple of days ago, I sat down with one of the reporters who first wrote about the story, Dave Weigel, who's a political reporter for Slate.

Dave Weigel

And the text messages say that, well the President's going to be giving another speech. And just for the record, I apologize for making such a big deal about the last one. My take on that was, wow, he admitted it. This was somebody being honest about the fact that this was not really something he had been worried about at the time. It was a pander to get people panicked to basically support the Republican Party. He just wanted, for whatever reason, to have a mea culpa. And you never really get a mea culpa after people have started a frenzy about something they know was not really a problem.

Ira Glass

That's especially true today, Weigel says. When manufactured outrage has become such a big part of our politics.

Dave Weigel

Oh, this happens about once a week now. You can't quite set your watch to it, but you can expect on a Monday that by Friday, something that wasn't actually a huge problem for some politician or political figure is going to be blown up into a huge problem. They're going to benefit. We're going to have to analyze it.

Ira Glass

Both parties do this, but Weigel says it's a much bigger part of Republican political style right now. And frankly, the Republicans are just a lot better at it.

Dave Weigel

I mean, attack's really been part of Democrats' strategy this year that's been pretty unsuccessful-- is they continually think they're going to get sympathy from their base if Republicans are seen to be overly mean and blocking something in the Senate. That hasn't worked.

Ira Glass

So the Democrats try to rouse the troops without rage of the Republicans saying no, and it doesn't seem to change the political equation very much at all. The Republicans meanwhile are not only better at attacking. When they're attacked, they do a better job flipping the script and turning the story into outrage over the unfairness of how they were attacked, turning that into support and money. The example of this on our TVs this week, of course, is Delaware Senatorial candidate Christine O'Donnell. Even before the statements that she made about dabbling in witchcraft came to light, she was questioned about how she handled campaign finances, about people who didn't get paid, about a campaign worker who said that O'Donnell used contributions to cover rent and personal expenses.

Dave Weigel

We know, for example, in this campaign, her mother got a $3,000 check, and no one can really explain that. So if you look at this on paper and you analyze it, like you analyze any story of fiscal incompetence, you wouldn't think she could turn this to her advantage. She did turn it to her advantage. She won the primary, and she raised, in the first five days after it, about $2 million. And that, according to her in the campaign and people around her, is in large part a response to the way the media was covering her finances, the way the media was covering her career as a TV pundit.

Sean Hannity

What are we to make of the attacks against you?

Christine O'donnell

Well, watch this. Watch how this campaign unfolds. They started their ads this week, and they're attacking me personally. They're not attacking where I stand on stimulus, they're not attacking where I stand on extending, if not making permanent, the Bush tax cuts. They're not attacking me on my positions. They're trying to attack me.

Dave Weigel

She was able to turn this back into proof that the media was trying to tear her down. It was not an outrage that she said it, it was an outrage that this was being brought up, drudged up against her. The way O'Donnell put it was that, this is attack on me, but-- and she said this, her supporters also said this more explicitly-- it's an attack on people who believe the way I believe. This is an attack on Christianity. It's an attack on our values. And the money she raised off that, which-- $2 million is actually 10,000% of what she had in her campaign fund before the campaign heated up, at the end of August.

Ira Glass

Before the attacks.

Dave Weigel

Before the attacks, she had $20,000 roundabout, and then she got $2 million after this. The way she pivoted is just a great textbook example.

Ira Glass

Being outraged works. Playing the victim works, for that matter. And today on our radio show we see that not just in politics, but in sports, on Wall Street, on the streets of California. We also, by the way, have a brand new story by David Sedaris. We have victims, we have mock outrage, we have mark outrage that turns into real outrage, we have real outrage that's bigger than maybe it should be. We have crybabies of all sorts, but mostly very, very effective ones. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. Wall Street: Money Never Weeps.

Ira Glass

Act One. Wall Street: Money Never Weeps. You'd think if anybody would be out there thanking President Obama for helping them out these past few years, it would be Wall Street. Back when he was running for office, Barack Obama led the Democrats in supporting President Bush's original bailout of Wall Street. And as President, he kept that bailout going, and put into place all kinds of regulatory measures to make it easier for banks to recover and to turn a profit. And he's paid the price with some voters for that. But no, Wall Street is not happy with him. At the President's televised town hall meeting this week, hedge fund manager and CNBC commentator Anthony Scaramucci told them this, to his face.

Anthony Scaramucci

I represent the Wall Street community. We have felt like a pinata. Maybe you don't feel like you're whacking us with a stick, but we certainly feel like we've been whacked with a stick.

Ira Glass

Back during the summer-- kind of famously-- a billionaire named Stephen Schwarzman, who founded and runs a private equity firm called The Blackstone Group, went even further. At a meeting that he thought was private, Schwarzman declared that the President's proposal to raise the taxes on certain profits that his company makes from 15% to 35%-- 35% being the corporate income tax that most companies pay-- he said that tax change was just like Hitler invading Poland in 1939.

Adam Davidson

Well, I think we all obviously agree with that view, that shifting the tax structure of private equity firms is-- I don't really see any difference between that and Hitler invading Poland. Yeah, I mean obviously we can just laugh at it, but Stephen Schwarzman and The Blackstone Group have spent the last two years or three years, since the crisis began, finding so many different government incentives, government programs, that allows them to directly profit from the government's overall effort to pump up the financial sector.

Ira Glass

For example?

Adam Davidson

So one example is, he bought a bank from the FDIC, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, at x ridiculously discounted rates.

Ira Glass

Another?

Adam Davidson

Another is, he took advantage of a variety of government programs that allowed him to buy up these toxic assets you always hear about at really low prices with government guarantees, almost guaranteeing that he would make money. So yeah, he'll have to pay taxes. He's a billionaire, and he's made a lot of money, even during the crisis. But a good chunk of the money he's made is the direct result of what President Obama and his administration have done to help out Wall Street.

Ira Glass

And so how much whining and complaining are Wall Street guys doing about the federal government now? Like this guy, Stephen Schwarzman, is he an outlier?

Adam Davidson

My view is, he represents a much broader view, and he's one of a very few who have the guts and confidence to say that. It's something I have noticed. I cover Wall Street a lot. I talk to people who work on Wall Street-- high level people, lower level people-- a lot. And it's something that I have found sort of maddening. And if I can use an odious and ridiculous comparison, it reminds me a lot of Ba'athists in Iraq.

Ira Glass

Ba'athists being Saddam Hussein's party. These are the people who made money, and were in power, when Saddam Hussein was running the country.

Adam Davidson

Yes, and I'm talking about high level Ba'athists that, when I when in Iraq after the war, the group that I found had the most self-pity, the most, ugh, how horrible my life is, nobody understands me, the world has just turned against me, were those people who had made a fortune through the evil and illegal activities of the Ba'athist regime that they were a part of. And it feels very similar when I'm talking to people on Wall Street-- this self-pity combined with a total lack of self-reflection about how they had been such massive beneficiaries of a system that ended up being so bad for the country.

Ira Glass

And that continues to generate huge profits.

Adam Davidson

Yeah. Pretty much every big bank that you can name-- with the possible exception of maybe JPMorgan Chase-- would not exist today. It would have failed, if it wasn't for the government. They are growing quickly and making record profits, huge bonuses. By some counts, this year will be the biggest bonus year ever for Wall Street, and last year was bigger that any year before. So that bucket of activity-- let's just call it the bailout, although it covers more than the bailout-- most folks on Wall Street, who I know, feel that, well, that was just necessary. If we had gone down, the whole US economy, the whole world economy, would have gone down. We would have had a Great Depression. And I will say, I'm sympathetic to that argument. That being said, it still seems to me that it would be appropriate for folks on Wall Street to say publicly, and to really have inside of their souls, the fact that their businesses failed. And something that they have always said they're against, government intervention, rescued them, made them get the opposite of what you're supposed to get in a Capitalist economy-- rewarded, instead of punished, for bad risk management. And instead, I cannot think of a single thing I've heard in the media, or that I have directly heard, that expresses any gratitude and-- there's a few folks who I've heard-- self-reflection. But I'd say self-reflection is a very small, small percentage of what I hear from Wall Street.

Ira Glass

But wait. Isn't there some kind of pro forma, we're very grateful to the federal government for stepping in, sort of thing that big bankers have to say when they give speeches to the public?

Adam Davidson

I haven't heard that.

Ira Glass

What about when they go in front of Congress? Don't they'd say like, thanks, you saved us, we just want to acknowledge what's happened here in this partnership with the federal government, blah blah blah?

Adam Davidson

I haven't watched every hearing, but I've watched a lot of them, maybe most of them. I can't think of a time that someone said my bank, that I run, would not exist today. It failed because we took actions that led to our investors and our lenders having no faith in us. But the government stepped in, and because of that, we are making more money than we've ever made before.

Ira Glass

Yeah, what about if you go ahead and just talk to the work-a-day people who work on Wall Street? The analysts, the brokers, the traders, the middle level people who make a lot of money. Are they whining about the Obama administration? Are they grateful for the federal government, and all of us taxpayers, saving their asses?

Adam Davidson

See, this is a perfect example. Alex Blumberg, my partner in Planet Money, and I went out for a drink. And we were out, we went to a Wall Street bar. And there's this private dining room that had been rented by a group of young guys-- clearly Wall Street guys, suits and ties. And it was a group of furious Wall Street guys, getting together to figure out what to do about their anger at the President and the Democrats in Congress. And one of the guy said, I swear to God, they're trying to destroy business in America. And they were discussing, what should we do? How do we fight the President? How do we fight Congress? Should we get a march on Washington? Other people were saying, no, that's not going to work. And, I gotta say, it was a pretty emblematic moment. I'm willing to bet that you could go to just about any bar around Wall Street, any night of the week, and you will find someone complaining about the President, complaining about the government, and all the different ways they are hurting Wall Street.

Ira Glass

And in fact, to test this theory, just last week you went with one of our producers, Jane Feltes, to a bar down on Wall Street. And you talked to just random guys who you walked up to at the bar.

Adam Davidson

Yeah, exactly. The bar was called Pound & Pence. It's literally across the street from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York-- filled with guys talking about their options, hedging strategies, and their new software database for monitoring capital flows.

Ira Glass

And you found these guys, and you recorded conversations. And these guys very much felt like they are the victims. They are being scapegoated by the federal government.

Bar Patron 1

The government must, must, must have an enemy. Because if they don't have an enemy, they're the enemy. So Wall Street is the current enemy, OK?

Adam Davidson

So it was three guys, and it was actually kind of moving. It's right after September 11. They all worked together in, I think it was, the second tower of the World Trade Centers. On September 11, they're on the 58th floor, One guy was saying that he didn't want to leave the building. And the other guy told him he had to leave, so every year they have a drink. He buys his friend a drink for saving his life. They now all work for different companies, but they get together around September 11 every year.

Ira Glass

Now, I've listened to this tape before. We walked into the studio, and we're just going to play snippets here. But it was interesting. It's interesting hearing it, how at no point will they cop to the notion that they benefited from the government's actions. Even once.

Bar Patron 2

You think everybody that works on Wall Street has money from the bailout? Is that what you really think?

Jane Feltes

I think the reason Wall Street still exists, in this form today, where you're all sitting in a bar drinking beers--

Ira Glass

Now, I should say you guys are shouting not because you're angry, but because it's just really loud.

Adam Davidson

Yeah, it was a really loud bar. It was packed. And we've been arguing with these guys. We've been going back and forth for quite awhile at this point.

Adam Davidson

So you're an institutional investor, you work for a credit rating agency. What do you do?

Bar Patron 2

I work in a bank on Wall Street.

Adam Davidson

All right. I can guarantee your bank would've gone under. Your stock valuation would've collapsed. Your credit rating agencies--

Bar Patron 3

Are out of business.

Adam Davidson

--would've been out of business. All three of you directly benefited from the bailout.

Bar Patron 3

What?

Bar Patron 1

You're crazy!

Adam Davidson

How am I crazy?

Bar Patron 1

You're crazy, babe! So what do you do? Don't bail it out? That's the question. Do you not bail it out?

Jane Feltes

I don't know.

Bar Patron 1

OK. So you let it tank. It's up to you.

Jane Feltes

I would like to bail it out, and I would like to walk into a bar in lower Manhattan, and have one of you thank me. Thank you, I still have my job and I appreciate it.

Bar Patron 1

Why do you want that?

Jane Feltes

You guys still have your jobs.

Bar Patron 2

Because I'm a smart person.

Jane Feltes

And you think you got to keep your job because you're smart? You got to keep your job because you guys got bailed out. You guys got bailed--

Bar Patron 2

No, no, no, no, no. That's not what happened with my job. I mean, survival of the fittest.

Bar Patron 1

Because I'm smarter than the average person.

Adam Davidson

And even if the government bails out your industry that failed, you still say it's because you're smarter.

Bar Patron 1

No. The government bailing out an industry was out of necessity for whatever the situation was. The fact that I benefited from that is because I'm smart. I took advantage of a situation. 95% of the population doesn't have that common sense. The only reason I've been doing this for so long is because I must be smarter than the next guy.

Ira Glass

They basically saw it as their own individual initiative is what put them where they are today, government had nothing to do about it.

Adam Davidson

Yes. My thought is-- that for at least some folks on Wall Street-- you have to come up with a story that explains to you why you are making so much more than other people, even if you feel you are dramatically benefiting society. And I think the story they come up with is that they are battling in a true free market. That they are taking risky bets, and they are paying the cost when those bets don't pay off, and they're reaping the rewards when those bets do pay off. I don't think that can possibly be defended by a careful study of what has happened. I think it's quite the opposite. I think Wall Street firms took enormously risky bets, reaped whatever rewards there were to make, but did not have to pay the costs when those bets did not pay off. The rest of us did.

Ira Glass

And do the Wall days have a legitimate beef? Is there something that Obama has done to them that they're right to get mad about?

Adam Davidson

I think that there are two things that I see as, at least, somewhat legitimate. Yes. One thing that I'd say, sure, they have a right to be mad about-- in the sense that any of us would-- is they're going to make less money, probably. These regulatory reforms are going to come into place over the next two, three years. And we know that some of those were specifically designed to lessen profits for Wall Street banks. Capital reserve requirements-- the amount of money you have to hold on hand-- we know that capital reserve requirements are going to increase, and that directly means they'll make less money.

Ira Glass

Because, basically, they have to hold more money on hand. So they can't either use that money as their profits or go out and invest that and make more money with.

Adam Davidson

Right. There's a whole host of other things that the regulatory reform closes off that were avenues to profits. So yes, I think definitely-- it's almost indisputable-- that in the short term, regulatory reform will mean they will make less money than they would have otherwise. The second issue is vilification. I think if you work on Wall Street-- actually I can assert this 100%-- you feel vilified. And I think if you work within Wall Street, chances are you didn't work directly with subprime mortgages, and collateralized debt obligations, and derivatives, or any of the things that got the economy in trouble, or were central to the financial crisis.

Ira Glass

I'm just thinking about your comparison to the Ba'athists in Iraq. Is it just it that these people who are in a position of such privilege will just whine more, because they're just used to being on top and getting their way?

Adam Davidson

Yeah. I spent a lot of time in Haiti this year, and I spent a lot of time with wealthy Haitians and with poor Haitians. And I would say the wealthy Haitians definitely went out for being more crybabyish. People don't understand us. People are getting in our way. The poor Haitians are literally the poorest people on earth, and it's not that I never heard complaining, but it wasn't nearly as much. I'd say I had a very similar experience in Banda Aceh after the tsunami. That has been my experience-- that the rich and the powerful, when there is a shock, are much more vocal and much more self-pitying than the poor. Maybe the poor are more used to these shocks. Maybe they have lower expectations about the future. But this Wall Street stuff didn't surprise me, although it is disappointing.

Ira Glass

Adam Davidson of Planet Money, which is a co-production of our show and NPR News. You can find the Planet Money blog, or hear their great, twice-weekly podcast for absolutely free at npr.org/money. [MUSIC - "I GET MONEY" BY 50 CENT]

Act Two. Foul Play.

Ira Glass

Act Two. Foul Play. Sports, of course, is a place where there are some of the biggest crybabies, or people who get called crybabies, anyway. And in professional basketball, in the NBA, there's a kind of institutionalized crybabying called the flop, which has not always been part of the game. One of our producers, Alex Blumberg, has been watching basketball for a long time and started to wonder if the story that basketball fans tell themselves about the origins of flop is even true. But first, a quick explanation of the flop.

Alex Blumberg

What you do when you flop is that you try to sell to the referee the fact that you were fouled. So you basically pretend that somebody fouled you very hard. And you fall backwards, and you fall down perhaps, or you throw up your hands in the air, even if the contact was incidental, or in some cases, non-existent. It's acting.

Basketball Commentator 1

I think Raja Bell flopped his way into that call. Ginobili and Bell-- two of the best floppers in the league. A little push, but not enough to draw that kind of reaction.

Ira Glass

And the payoff for the flop is?

Alex Blumberg

Then I get the ball. You committed a foul, then there's a turnover. I get the ball. You have a foul against you. If you get six fouls, you're out of the game.

Mike Breen

And Boozer just throws Horry to the ground.

Jeff Van Gundy

He didn't throw him!

Basketball Commentator 2

And nice flop by Manu Ginobili. I thought they weren't going to call that flop anymore.

Ira Glass

Now, there's a story that people tell about the flop, about where it came from. And can I just have you tell us that story?

Alex Blumberg

Yes, I can. And this story is almost like hardened conventional wisdom among NBA fans. If you search on the Internet, you'll find all sorts of versions of this story. But it's best summed up by this guy Bill Simmons who wrote a post about flopping.

Ira Glass

Bill Simmons is?

Alex Blumberg

Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN. He's got a podcast. He's this world famous sports columnist. He's got a big book. And he wrote in this post, "the single most disgusting NBA development of the past few years: the flopping. Slowly, regretfully, inexplicably, the sport is morphing into soccer." And that's because, if you watched recently the World Cup, you would see regularly in game after game, every game had this-- where it would feature two guys, a guy dribbling the ball on somebody. And then all of a sudden, the guy dribbling the ball would crash to the ground, throw up his arms, roll around grabbing his ankle, writhing in pain. And then they'd show the replay, and you'd see that nobody touched the guy. He'd just fallen over. And that happened every single game.

Ira Glass

And in soccer, there are players who are known as being great floppers. The word flop really comes from there.

Alex Blumberg

It's clearly a part of the game in soccer. And so the story goes that as more and more Europeans started playing NBA basketball, Europeans have been raised in the culture of soccer, they all embrace the culture of the flop, and then when they started playing basketball, they brought it with them to the NBA. That's the story.

Ira Glass

So if this conventional wisdom were true, if this legend were true, that means that somewhere, there's a patient zero. There's a player who was carrying the virus from European soccer into American basketball. Do we know who that patient zero is? Who is that crossover athlete?

Alex Blumberg

Well, we do. I did some poking around on the Internet, and everybody points to one guy. The one guy who brought the flop to the NBA. And that guy is Vlade Divac.

Ira Glass

Who'd he play for?

Alex Blumberg

Well, he started playing in 1989. He started playing for the Lakers and then he played for the Sacramento Kings for a while. And then he went back to the Lakers. And Vlade Divac-- he's such the perfect patient zero, because he's this gigantic Serbian guy. He's 7'1, he's got the definition of a hangdog face. He's just got this long face with this permanent five o'clock shadow. And these sad, droopy eyes. And then his former coach Dell Harris, one time, was asked about it, and somebody asked Harris if he taught Vlade to flop, and Harris said and I quote, "are you kidding? He brought that over here and taught the whole NBA how to flop." And you would see these games, and he was always playing. And so during his heyday, he played for the Sacramento Kings. They were really good, and he was always matched up against the LA Lakers who had Shaquille O'Neal, who was the dominant, gigantic, center. He's immense, heavy, strong, super fast. He's superhuman. Impossible to guard, except Vlade Divac had to guard him all the time. And so the games were replete with scenes of Vlade Divac just sort of flopping in all sorts of manner. Shaq would turn around and Vlade would go flying back, and then the refs would call a foul on Shaq. But the problem with the flop is that it's a lie.

Ira Glass

Oh right, you weren't really fouled. And yet somebody has to serve the time for you being fouled.

Alex Blumberg

Exactly. And so you've penalized somebody else. And then it also becomes-- if it takes a hold, it sort of self-perpetuates. It's like corruption. Once one person gets away with flopping, then an incentive is raised for other people to start flopping. Because if they're going to do it, well then I have to do it back. And then it sort of spreads very quickly.

Ira Glass

So that's the generally accepted story.

Alex Blumberg

Yeah, there's only one problem. It might not be true. I talked to a guy named Tommy Craggs. And he's a sports writer at this fantastic website called Deadspin, which is a sports commentary blog, and he totally disagrees with this theory.

Tommy Craggs

I don't think Vlade Divac was the-- I don't think flopping was born with him. And I think what we see is the proliferation of flopping was really more a response to rule changes.

Ira Glass

So he's saying it's not the Europeans who brought this to us, it's our own rule changes. Government intervention, if you will.

Alex Blumberg

That's exactly what he's saying.

Ira Glass

Bad regulation with unintended effects.

Alex Blumberg

Yes, exactly. He's saying the temptation is always to blame the culture, but really it's the regulation that changed, and it created the culture that followed. And so the specific rule change that he's talking about is, there used to be this thing in basketball called the hand check, where-- let's say you're Michael Jordan.

Ira Glass

Yeah, let's say that.

Alex Blumberg

And I have the unenviable task of guarding you. Back when Michael Jordan played, I could put my hand on you a little bit, I could put my elbow on you. I had all these tools at my disposal to try to slow you down. Even though you were faster than I could ever hope to be, you were the most dominant offensive player ever to play the game, I had some tools that I could use to help even the score a little. But then-- partly because of Jordan, and other factors as well-- the NBA started tweaking the rules, and they made the hand check illegal.

Ira Glass

So you can't touch at all.

Alex Blumberg

You still do. But yes, it gets whistled a lot more. It's called as a foul a lot more. And so what that means is that as a defensive player-- say I'm a slow defensive player, and I'm playing a fast offense player, whereas before I could hold them, muscle them around a little bit, now I got nothing.

Tommy Craggs

A flop is the defensive player's last resort. And it's something that a defensive player can do to gain a tiny advantage back. And the incentive to do it is incredibly high. I mean, by drawing an offensive foul, it's a turnover and a foul on your opponent. And I think there have been studies that show that there's a small correlation between winning and teams that draw offensive fouls.

Alex Blumberg

Now, Tommy Craggs also takes issue with the convention wisdom in the second way as well. Most basketball fans, if you talk to them about flopping, they say it is a scourge upon the game. They hate it, and they think it's the sissifying and Europization of the game. Rasheed Wallace, he's a player in the NBA. He's also very outspoken. He's one of my favorite players. And Rasheed, he's somebody that people point to a lot as being a whiner and a crybaby, because he constantly complains to the refs about getting fouled himself. But he hates it when people flop. And he was playing this game, and his opponents had been flopping, and he said that's not basketball. That's entertainment. So that's this other conventional view. Tommy Craggs, though, he doesn't mind flopping.

Tommy Craggs

I think with flopping in particular, it's the tax we pay to have a more liberated game, to have a more offensive-oriented game. I think what you would call the flopping era. It's also the more beautiful era.

Alex Blumberg

It's also the dunking era, and the amazing drive to the basket era, and the behind the back pass era. And a lot of other really exciting things that people like about basketball has come hand-in-hand with the flopping era.

Tommy Craggs

Yeah. And if it means we have a more beautiful game, I can live with players occasionally doing the death scene from Little Women.

Ira Glass

You know, there was this incident recently where Derek Jeter was standing at the plate and pretended that he got hit with a ball and got a free base. This is a baseball game. And then looking back at the video, you see oh, the ball didn't even touch him. But he totally faked it. And there was a debate about well, was this right? Was this what baseball should be? And do you think that at this point, since the flop exists in soccer, since it exists in basketball, that now basically it's like a pan-sports movement? That basically it's just in the culture, and now anybody can grab at it in any sport and it's just out there?

Alex Blumberg

Yeah, I do. I don't think if we just had the World Cup, where you saw players flopping all over the place, I don't think that Derek Jeter would have necessarily had that idea. I mean, it's harder to flop in baseball, there aren't as many opportunities. But I don't think he would have done that if it wasn't for the expansion of flopping throughout professional sports. Like, Derek Jeter-- he's unquestionably one of the best players ever to play baseball, and so in a certain sense-- to be that good, you have to have this do whatever it takes to win mentality. There's just no way that you can achieve his level without having this incredibly competitive streak in you.

Ira Glass

But can you imagine Michael Jordan flopping?

Alex Blumberg

No.

Ira Glass

There would be just no dignity it it.

Alex Blumberg

No. But see, that's not fair. It's like, can you imagine God cheating on a test? God doesn't need to cheat on a test. You know what I mean?

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg is one of the producers of our show. Coming up: how to make a living by complaining. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. The Squeaky Wheelchair Gets the Grease.

Ira Glass

This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show: crybabies, stories of whiners, complainers, malcontents, and how being a crybaby can get you what you need and get results, and maybe even sometimes yes, justice. We have arrived at Act three of our show. Act Three. The Squeaky Wheelchair Gets the Grease. In California, a kind of a crybaby cottage industry has popped up around, of all things, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal law that requires all public places to meet a minimum level of accessibility-- parking spaces, ramps, grab bars in the bathroom. Some people have taken to suing hundreds of business owners for not being up to code. Alex MacInnis hung out with one of them.

Alex Macinnis

Behind a furniture store in West Los Angeles, I'm on a tour of handicap parking spaces with a guy named Tom Mundy. He drives a baby blue minivan. A handicap placard dangles from his rear-view mirror.

Tom Mundy

I'm backing into a handicap spot. I'm going to show you what this place is making me use.

Alex Macinnis

Tom flips one of several toggle switches on his dashboard.

Tom Mundy

All right. Stand clear.

Alex Macinnis

And the van's side door slides open. A ramp unfolds into the empty space next to the handicap spot, which is striped with diagonal lines to keep anyone from parking there. He is showing producer Brian Reed and me why this spot is, for him, completely useless. That striped space, the access aisle, is only five feet wide.

Tom Mundy

So, here is a typical handicap spot without an eight foot access aisle.

Brian Reed

So can you try to get out? Can you--

Tom Mundy

I can get out. I'm going to roll right into the bushes if you want me to get out.

Brian Reed

I'd love to see you try. It'd be dramatic. Unless you feel it's going to be painful.

Tom Mundy

I can't-- how am I going to-- I don't know if I can turn around and get out. And come back up. There's not enough room at the bottom of my ramp, and I would end up in the bushes.

Alex Macinnis

A while back, Tom came here to buy a dining room table. But when he couldn't get out of his van, he sued the owner of the parking lot under the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act. California is one of only a few states where, rather than just suing to get the problem fixed, you can actually sue for money that goes to you-- $4,000 per violation. And Tom, like a handful of other people in California, makes his living doing this over and over. He has no other job. It's his sole means of support.

Tom Mundy

All right, so you just want to follow me Alex?

Alex Macinnis

Yeah.

Brian Reed

Yeah.

Tom Mundy

OK.

Alex Macinnis

For the next hour, Tom leads us along eight blocks, pointing out a half dozen businesses he's sued. From the first parking lot, we cross the street to a cramped strip mall with a dry cleaners, a beauty salon and a store that sells breast feeding supplies.

Tom Mundy

We're in another parking lot, and once again, I'm trapped in my van. I can't get out.

Alex Macinnis

Next, down the road, a steakhouse with a giant medal cow hanging proudly over the entrance.

Tom Mundy

And we just drove through their gigantic parking lot and there's zero parking for disabled.

Alex Macinnis

Then there's this McDonald's around the corner, which actually fixed its parking lot because of Tom's lawsuit. I asked Tom, how many ADA violations are in this one neighborhood, if he had to guess. He says hundreds.

Alex Macinnis

Do you have any estimates as to how many lawsuits you brought within this one-mile radius? Like, more than 10?

Tom Mundy

I would say probably more than 10 where we're sitting right now.

Alex Macinnis

Would you say that you might have brought as many as 50 lawsuits in this area?

Tom Mundy

I would say in West LA, probably at least 50 right where I'm sitting now.

Alex Macinnis

That's 50 lawsuits in West LA alone. Tom's best guess for how many he's filed altogether since moving to California three years ago-- over 500. Tom won't say how much he makes doing this. Most cases settle out of court for a thousand or two. But one attorney, who regularly defends business owners in these cases, estimated Tom has pulled in upwards of half a million dollars in three years.

Tom Mundy

I don't want to talk about the money side of it. I think a lot of people focus on the money issue, and it's not always about the money. It's about compliance, and the stuff should have been done by the time I got there.

Alex Macinnis

Do you think people misunderstand what you're doing sometimes?

Tom Mundy

No, I think most of the time they're misinformed, and they just don't understand. And I've said several times, I have another wheelchair if you want to sit in it, I can take out, and take you around and show you just little things. Not big things like being carried up the steps to get upstairs into a restaurant, but just small things. And nobody's ever taken me up on that.

Alex Macinnis

After Tom broke his back in a Motocross accident in 1988 he had several jobs in the construction business reviewing blueprints for compliance with accessibility rules. One company was on a second floor walk up, so he worked all alone reviewing blueprints in a closet on the first floor. The bathroom was on the second floor, so if he had to go, he had to get in his van and drive to a gas station across the street. He tried to start his own consulting company to help businesses get up to code, but owners didn't seem interested. So with the ADA on the books for more than 15 years, and Tom still seeing infractions on a daily basis, he finally decided the gloves were coming off. And that's when he found his attorney, Morse Mehrban.

Morse Mehrban

Mr. Mundy, and others like him, have decided enough is enough and being treated as second class citizens is not something they want to live with anymore. And the law is on their side.

Alex Macinnis

Mehrban has become sort of like the Walmart of ADA lawsuits. He does a high volume of litigation, most cases for extremely low margins. He's handled so many lawsuits, he says he's lost track. But the number is definitely in the thousands. The law allows you to sue for lawyer's fees on top of what the disabled person gets, so Mehrban's pulling in at least six figures from these lawsuits too. His website asks, confined to a wheelchair in California? You may be entitled to $4,000. You stop by a hardware store and need to use the restroom, but find there are no grab bars next to the toilet, you may be entitled to $4,000. You're in a restaurant and want to use the restroom mirror to make yourself presentable. The mirror is mounted too high on the wall for you to use. You may be entitled to $4,000. Mehrban allows that some people may find suing for large sums of money over a bathroom mirror distasteful. But he insists that without the monetary incentives, the ADA would essentially be toothless.

Morse Mehrban

You know, even in the old wild west, they provided for monetary compensation if you were to catch an outlaw and bring him back to justice. So this goes back a long time. We're dealing with business people here. If a business person things he can save even a penny by doing or not doing something, they're going to do or not do that thing.

Alex Macinnis

This is how the ADA was designed, to have virtually no enforcement other than a disabled person angry enough to file a lawsuit. After a building's built, nobody checks up on it's ADA compliance. That's not in the jurisdiction of any health inspector, or OSHA, or the Tax Board, or the EPA, or the state troopers, nobody. So it's been to Mehrban, and a handful of other lawyers doing high volume ADA law, to help make California one of the most accessible ADA-complaint states in the nation, as well as one of the most lawsuit-prone. Attorneys say well over 14,000 ADA-related lawsuits have been filed in the state.

Morse Mehrban

When you do not do the absolute minimum to accommodate people who are in wheelchairs, that's tantamount to intentional discrimination. And this is what they deserve, frankly.

Maurice Golnirahi

Yeah. I got the papers here, if you ever want to look at them.

Alex Macinnis

At La Cienega Car Wash, not far from West Hollywood, Maurice Golnirahi has just been notified that his family business is being sued for $4,000.

Alex Macinnis

And so what does it say? What's going on?

Maurice Golnirahi

On or about September 21, 2009, while patronizing said place of public accommodation, plaintiff wanted, but was unable, to use facility's restroom mirror and coat hook because they were mounted too high above the floor.

Alex Macinnis

The person suing in this case is not Tom Mundy, but another prolific client of Morse Mehrban named Alfredo Garcia.

Maurice Golnirahi

Someone's using the bathroom.

Alex Macinnis

Maurice leads me to the wash room to look at the alleged violations.

Maurice Golnirahi

The mirror, here's the mirror--

Alex Macinnis

The bottom of the mirror hangs fairly low, almost down to the top of the sink handles, but apparently not low enough.

Maurice Golnirahi

The coat hanger is right here. So I mean, this thing's pretty tall but-- I don't know. I'll give him a free car wash if he wants. It doesn't make sense for me to pay $4,000 for someone that can't hang their coat up. I understand he's handicapped, but nothing to sue about. He could have at least told us or let us know. I just think it's really shady that someone that's using their disability to sue other people and-- it's ridiculous. I mean, all he has to do is unscrew it and bring it down. It's not a big deal, so--

Kim Blackseth

It's a long list. You're going to look at your parking. Is it leveled? Is it right amount of parking? is the striping correct?

Alex Macinnis

Kim Blackseth has been helping business owners comply with access regulations since even before the ADA. He runs a private consulting firm that specializes in this. He started using a wheelchair after his own Motocross accident in 1979.

Kim Blackseth

Are you going up to the entry door and finding the signage, the hardware, the effort, the landing, the kick plate? And we haven't got inside yet.

Alex Macinnis

The rules are complicated, partially because they take into account so many different disabilities, and partially because they're really detailed.

Kim Blackseth

There's not a facility or building in the state of California I can't find a technical barrier. I can find a technical barrier anywhere. That is no challenge to go down the street and find technical violations. And if that is your mission when you get up in the morning, you can do it. The question is, is that worthwhile? Is it important? If you can't park because there should have been two spaces, that's not a barrier. What happened if you pulled up and there's two disabled people there? Find somewhere else to park. You guys go to places all the time, the parking-- what do you do? You find somewhere else to park.

Alex Macinnis

Kim is quick to add that lawsuits are a huge part of why California is so accessible, and a lot of the suits are well-deserved. He's even sued a few businesses himself when push far enough. But because there have been so many lawsuits, he says business owners are increasingly suspicious of disabled people.

Kim Blackseth

I mean I can go into restaurants or try to rent a room, and you can feel the tension. When you go into a restaurant, you can feel as they come over it's like, is he going to sue me? You can feel it. I can feel it.

Alex Macinnis

Sometimes Kim sees the lawsuits, which are supposed to increase accessibility for disabled people, having the exact opposite effect.

Kim Blackseth

I travel a lot with this business. I called to get an accessible room, and generally speaking, those rooms are increasingly unavailable. And when I talk to clients who I represent with motels they say, if somebody calls for an accessible room, I won't rent it. It's not worth the $150. And then the risk that there's something wrong for a night's rental in that room isn't worth it to me-- hotel becomes full.

Margaret Jackson

I think people don't completely get access.

Alex Macinnis

Attorney Margaret Johnson is one of California's key advocates for disability rights. As it stands now, she says, the law leaves disabled people in a very awkward place sometimes, because there are so many situations where you don't want to have to sue.

Margaret Jackson

To get the hairdresser that you want, that does your hair how you want it done, you all are willing to go through heck for that person. I tell you, it's like-- and you guys are looking at me like, it's that important? With that hair?

Alex Macinnis

Now, just for the record, Margaret has a very classy bob, with almost Louise Brooks-y bangs. It was cut by a woman Margaret discovered when she first moved to Sacramento. Margaret loved her work, and to make things even better, the salon the hairdresser worked at had a van-accessible parking space. Needless to say, Margaret became a regular. Until one day last fall when Margaret showed up to find something weird. The striped blue access aisle, that made the spot van-accessible, was painted over and converted into an extra parking space. She could park her van, but she couldn't get out of it-- the same problem you heard Tom Mundy complain about earlier. The salon's in a busy part of town without much street parking, but she found a space on the street and navigated her way back.

Margaret Jackson

So I told my hair cutter. She said, oh yeah, that's a good point. I'll make sure the owners know. Next time I went, it was still like that. I mentioned it to her again. And she said, OK I'll let the owners know again. Next time I went it was still like that. She said, OK let me drag one of the owners out and show him what you're talking about. So actually I had him come out, I got in my van. And so I showed him how big the ramp was, and how much space I needed to get off the ramp and around, and why it needed to be there. And his response was, oh, the city came out and painted over it. So I'm like, pfft, no idea why the city would come out and paint over this, but whatever. So he said he would look into it.

So I just went last night and it was still that way. Now luckily, last night no one was parked in that space. So I kind of straddled it so that nobody could get next to me. But I mean, I don't know. I just feel like that's an example of-- here's a business that had access, even. And they took it away. They don't really know why they took it away. And they don't seem to have any interest in putting it back. Now, I love my hair cutter, so much that I keep putting up with it. And I haven't done a letter, I haven't filed a lawsuit. And part of it's just I don't want to be-- when you start doing that stuff, you start being the bad disabled person who is getting on a business's case because they're not doing the access stuff. And it puts me in a position to have to be the bitchy, crabby, pushy disabled person that nobody like or wants to deal with, because they want disabled people to be nice and smiling and friendly and get along and not make waves and just go along with the program. It's an emotional toll. I don't know how to explain that better. I mean, why can't I just say this is an issue, fix it, and it can be done? Why do I have to be pushed to the point of doing a lawsuit?

Alex Macinnis

Keep in mind that Margaret is a lawyer. She has sued people personally, and she's been involved in large class action suits over disability access. By choosing not to have an agency monitoring these laws, something like OSHA or a building inspector, we've invited individuals to seek their own justice, to decide for themselves what they're willing to put up with, what is worth fighting over, and when, if ever, it pays to ask nicely.

Ira Glass

Alex MacInnis in Los Angeles. [MUSIC - "WHEELS" BY FLYING BURRITO BOYS]

Act Four. Cry Me a Liver.

Ira Glass

Act Four. Cry Me a Liver. We close our show today with this fable about being a crybaby from David Sedaris.

David Sedaris

The white rat had been sick for as long as he could remember. If it wasn't a headache, it was an upset stomach, a sore throat an eye infection. Pus seeped from his gums. His ears rang, and what little he ate went right through him. Now came the news that he had pancreatic cancer, which was actually something of a relief. "Finally, I can die," he moaned to his new roommate. She was a female, also white and had arrived only that morning. The tank they shared was made of glass. It's walls soiled here and there with bloody paw prints and flecks or vomit.

"Well," she sighed, wincing at the state of her new home. "I'm sorry to say it, but if you have a terminal illness, it's nobody's fault but your own."

"I beg your pardon," said the white rat. This female approached the water bottle, stuck her paws into the spigot, and began to wash them.

"It's nice to believe that these sicknesses just befall us," she said. "We blame them on our environment and insist that they can happen to anyone, but in truth, we bring them on ourselves with hatefulness and negativity. You might not have realized how negative you were being. Maybe you were passive-aggressive. Maybe no one cared enough to point it out, but I have to call things like I see them, just as everyone does to me only in the opposite direction." 'How come you're always so sunny,' they ask, 'and doesn't your mouth hurt from all that smiling?' Some interpret it as over-exuberance but to me, it's a kind of vaccine. As long as I'm happy and I love everybody, I can't get sick."

"Never," asked the white rat.

"Oh, I had a flu once, but it was completely my own fault. Someone I mistook for a friend took to criticizing me behind my back, saying things regarding my weight and so forth. I got wind of it and for all of three minutes I wished her ill. I'm not talking death, just a little discomfort. Cramping, mainly. I was just starting to visualize it when I sneezed, which was my body's way of saying, whoa that's not cool. Then my nose stopped up and I came down with a fever."

"And what about your supposed friend, the one who said cruel things behind your back? If you got a flu, what happened to her," asked the white rat.

"Well, nothing yet," the female said, "but sometimes the body bides its time." Her pink eyes narrowed just slightly. "I can bet when something does happen, though, it will be a lot worse than a flu. Diabetes maybe."

"You sound pretty hopeful." the white rat observed.

The female scowled, then smiled so hard the corners of her mouth touched her eyes. "Not at all, I wish her the best."

The white rat slumped against the wall and put a hand to his forehead. "I can't think of anybody I dislike. Then too, I've been alone since my last roommate died."

"That's another cause of cancer." the female told him. "You need to get out, socialize. Storytelling is pivotal to our well-being, as are non-ethnic jokes and riddles." Food pellets dropped from a chute beside the water bottle, and she took a bite of one. "I heard somewhere that limericks can cure both heart disease and certain types of cancer, can you beat that?"

"Limericks," the white rat knitted his brow.

"They're poems." The female explained. "You know, like 'there once was a mouse da-da-da, who died at a da-da-da-da.'"

"Oh right," said the rat, and silently recalling one about a prostitute and a dead cat, he chuckled. "And what about haiku? Are those good for curing shorter diseases?"

"I know when I'm being mocked," the female said, "but that's OK. You're sick and are going to die. I, meanwhile, am perfectly healthy with good teeth and a positive attitude toward life, so joke away if it makes you feel any better." She just cracked open that smile of hers when the mesh ceiling parted, and a human hand appeared. At first it seemed to be made of wax, that's how rigid and opaque it was. But as it neared and pinned her to the floor, the female smelled rubber and understood that it was encased in a glove. Then came a second hand, this one bearing a hypodermic needle. And as the tip sank into her stomach, releasing its mad punch of viruses, the white rat settled against the wood chips and thought, most limericks, it seemed to him, involved a place. 'There was a young mole from Des Moines,' say. Or 'in Yorktown there once lived a ferret.' He didn't know where he was, though. It was a lab obviously, but the location was anyone's guess. With this in mind, he came up with the following.

A she-rat I had as a roomy said illness just strikes if you're gloomy. Since she was injected with AIDS, I've detected an outlook a lot less perfumy. Funny, he thought, but it actually did make him feel better.

Ira Glass

David Sedaris. A story from his brand new book of animal fables, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. There's also an audiobook version. They both go on sale next week. [MUSIC - "BULLET WITH BUTTERFLY WINGS" BY SMASHING PUMPKINS] Well, our program was produced today by me and Jonathan Menjivar, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Brian Reed, Robyn Semein, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon's our office manager. Music help from Jessica Hopper. Production help from Sean Wen.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website: thisamericanlife.org, where you can sign up for our free weekly podcast. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International's WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. And perhaps you have you wondered, exactly how did Torey get a job in the high-stakes high-drama world of public radio management oversight?

Bar Patron 1

Because I'm smarter than the average person. 95% of the population doesn't have that common sense.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Speaker 1

PRI, Public Radio International.