The Onion King and the Law of Onions

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Cornering or capturing a market is not an easy thing to do. It’s when you gain control over enough of a resource or commodity to totally control the market and set the price at whatever you want. Usually, people try it with things like diamonds, gold, silver, rare heavy metals, etc. However, once there was an onion king, and he became so powerful that laws had to be passed to stop him.

Vince Kosuga, son of Russian immigrants, was a somewhat colorful guy. He stood about 5’4″ and carried a .38 revolver and a billy club with him at all times. He was a licensed pilot and survived a serious plane crash when his plane ran out of fuel. He was also an onion farmer, and had a 5,000 acre onion farm in Orange County, New York. Oh, one more thing, he liked to dabble in agricultural futures commodities trading. His dabbling in wheat futures brought him to the verge of bankruptcy and his wife made him quit futures trading.

Except, he didn’t. His farm business necessitated constant traveling between New York and Chicago, and while he was in Chicago he still liked playing the Agricultural futures market. In 1955, he and his friend Sam Siegel (another onion trader) decided that maybe the way to play the commodities future game was to actually corner the market, so they developed a plan to do just that. Kosuga and Sam began buying up all the onions and onion futures contracts that they could. Through futures contracts, they controlled 98% of all the onions in Chicago, which is the major hub of all agricultural futures trading. Millions of pounds of onions began being shipped to Chicago to fulfill the contracts Vince and Sam had purchased, and they soon had 30 million pounds of onions stored in Chicago. Then, they forced onion growers to buy their inventory by threatening to flood the market if they didn’t. They promised to keep a major portion of the inventory stored in order to support prices. Even though everybody had to buy onions from Vince Kosuga, prices remained high so that was ok. Except that while Kosuga controlled the onion market and everyone was buying from him, he was also buying short-sell onion futures as fast as he could, meaning that if the price dropped in the future sales of onions, he could still profit substantially.

The onions that they still had stored in Chicago in order to keep prices up had begun to rot, so Vince and Sam had all the onions shipped out of Chicago to be reconditioned (the bad parts removed), cleaned, repackaged, and shipped back to Chicago. Traders, thinking that these were even more new onions coming in, began expecting a flooded market and onion prices dropped like a rock. Vince and Sam released their entire inventory on the market and prices dropped even further, which was ok with Vince since the greater the price drop the more he profited. However, it was not ok with everyone else. The price of onions dropped so low that a 50 pound bag of onions that sold for $2.75 the year before was now selling for 10 cents. The net bag that held the onions cost 20 cents by itself.

Vince and Sam, by playing both ends of this game, made millions. The outrage in the agricultural community was huge and the sudden price swings caught the eye of the Commodity Exchange Authority which started an investigation that was continued by the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. When Vince Kosuga was called to testify before Congress, he argued that he had done nothing illegal, that it was the perishable nature of the commodity that causes such things to happen, and  “If it’s against the law to make money… then I’m guilty”.

Still incensed by what he saw as “unprincipled gambling,” then congressman Gerald Ford sponsored a bill known as the Onion Futures Act, which would ban onions from agricultural commodities future trading. The Onion Futures Act was signed into law by President Eisenhower in August 1958. Onions are the only agricultural product in the country to be banned from futures trading. So that is how the Onion King cornered the onion market and became responsible for the creation of the law of onions.

But, you may ask, whatever happened to the Onion King? Vince Kosuga stayed in New York and continued running his onion farm as a simple local farm. He opened a restaurant called “The Jolly Onion Inn’ where he was the full time chef. He became well known for philanthropy, giving large amounts of money to the church, but cynics might say this was because he had acquired the nickname of “the most evil businessman in history.” Because of his philanthropy, he was named citizen of the year by the Pine Island Chamber of Commerce in 1987. After his death in 2001, his wife Polly continued his philanthropy using the fortune he had amassed by becoming the Onion King.

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The Law of Superheroes

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The Law Library has all kinds of books. There are useful books, topical books, necessary books, highly technical books, but it’s true that there aren’t many books that are entertaining to just sit and read for a few hours. “The Law of Superheroes” by James Daily and Ryan Davidson is a pleasant exception. The authors take solid, real world legal concepts and apply them theoretically to the world of comic book superheroes. This makes for a very entertaining and more memorable approach to legal theory than usual.

In the book, we get to investigate and think about such questions as can Spiderman testify in court without revealing his identity, are the Avengers acting as a legal corporation, what is Hulk’s liability for the property damage he causes, do mutants have rights, is Batman acting as an agent of the state, and does Superman have to pay taxes on all those diamonds he creates by cruching up coal in his hands?

The number of areas covered in the book is pretty broad, including constitutional law, criminal law, evidence, criminal procedure, tort law, contracts, business law, administrative law, intellectual property, immigration, and international law. Obviously, there is not going to be a lot of analytical depth in any one particular area, but there is a good foundation laid down for each and interesting situations to chew on to get you really thinking about the implications.

Though the target audience for this book is most likely the general public, I think this would be most enjoyable for someone with some legal background looking for a different approach to educational material or some reinforcement of concepts already learned.

I think this book is a welcome addition to the world of legal information and education and would highly recommend it.

Know Before You Travel!

I admit I’m excited that I’m going on vacation next week and spending three weeks in the Philippines. Of course, I’ll be thinking about you guys while I’m sitting under a coconut tree and watching the waves roll in.

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Having an impending vacation makes it very difficult to think of suitable legal blog topics, but since I’ve got traveling on the brain, let’s look at some legal things about travel.

Americans have a lot of rights guaranteed by the Constitution and enforced by the legal system. We’re very lucky in that respect in comparison with many parts of the world. While it is true that you have a variety of rights because you are an American, it’s also important to remember that your rights don’t travel with you.

Approximately 2,000 U.S. citizens wind up in foreign jails every year for periods ranging from a few days to decades. We’re not counting political prisoners here, but simply people who have broken the law of the country they are visiting. It’s wonderful to travel to other countries, see new places, and experience other cultures and I highly recommend it as a learning experience. However, too many Americans run afoul of the law in other countries because they assume they have the same rights when they travel as they do at home and that they are immune from arrest simply because they are Americans. The fact is (can’t stress it enough) when you are in another country you are subject to the laws of that country. Just as is true here, ignorance of the law is no excuse and being an American does not provide immunity from arrest. The last thing you want as part of your vacation experience is a visit to the local prison.

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The two big things that get people into trouble are drugs and firearms, and common sense should tell you to avoid these at all costs. For example, I read a news story last week from Sindangan, Philippines (the town my wife and I are headed to on vacation) about an American guy who was there on vacation. Apparently, he felt he needed a gun for “protection” while he was there, so he found a local who was happy to sell him one. Later, he was in a bar and started bragging to his newfound drinking buddies about his gun and lifted up the back of his shirt to show it off. Another bar patron saw this and called the police to let them know there was a foreigner in the bar with a gun. He was arrested, his .45 caliber pistol with the serial number filed off was confiscated, and he will likely spend the next six years in Bilibid Prison in Manila (pictured above) for illegal possesion of a firearm.

It’s important to do some research on the laws of the country you are going to visit. It’s also important to remember that even if you see the local people getting away with doing things that are technically illegal, you as a foreigner are much more visible.

Besides the two big ones, there are also a lot of other things that could get you into trouble if you’re not aware of the law. Americans highly prize freedom of speech and take it for granted that “I can say anything I want.” In many places, you can be jailed for being critical of the government, public figures, the country itself, or rude behavior in public. You can even be jailed for what you say on social media. A Filipino working in Singapore was recently jailed for two years for making negative comments about Singaporeans on his Facebook page. An American contractor in Saudi Arabia was jailed for negative comments about his employer on his Facebook page he posted while back in the U.S. on vacation. When he returned to Saudi Arabia to go back to work, he was arrested at the airport. A British woman who is Buddhist traveled to Thailand on a pilgrimage to visit the holy sites there. She was detained at the airport on arrival and not allowed into the country because she had a large tattoo of Buddha on her arm, which is a violation of the religious defamation law of Thailand. So please do your research first and practice good behavior along the way.

If you do run into trouble overseas, it’s also important to know what the embassy or consulate can and can’t do for you. The following information is from the State Department web page:

Avoid getting arrested overseas by:

  • Following the laws and regulations of the country you are visiting or living in.
  • Learning about laws there which might be different from the laws in the United States. We provide some information for each country on our Country Specific pages.  For further information on laws within the foreign country before you go, contact that country’s nearest embassy or consulate within the United States.

If you are arrested overseas or know a U.S. citizen who is:

  • Ask the prison authorities to notify the U.S. embassy or consulate
  • You may also wish to reach out to the closest U.S. embassy or consulate to let us know of arrest.  Contact information for U.S. Embassies and Consulates overseas can be found here or by going to our individual Country Specific Information pages.

 We can help:

  • Provide a list of local attorneys who speak English
  • Contact family, friends, or employers of the detained U.S. citizen with their written permission
  • Visit the detained U.S. citizen regularly and provide reading materials and vitamin supplements, where appropriate
  • Help ensure that prison officials are providing appropriate medical care for you
  • Provide a general overview of the local criminal justice process
  • Inform the detainee of local and U.S.-based resources to assist victims of crime that may be available to them
  • If they would like, ensuring that prison officials are permitting visits with  a member of the clergy of the religion of your choice
  • Establish an OCS Trust so friends and family can transfer funds to imprisoned U.S. citizens, when permissible under prison regulations

We cannot:

  • Get U.S. citizens out of jail overseas
  • State to a court that anyone is guilty or innocent
  • Provide legal advice or represent U.S. citizens in court overseas
  • Serve as official interpreters or translators
  • Pay legal, medical, or other fees for U.S. citizens overseas

So with that in mind, I’m packing up and getting ready to go. If you need me, I’ll be somewhere around here:

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Civility in Politics

Legislators are supposed to argue points of law, but they are supposed to do it in a way that is organized and respectful. However, partisan contention in the federal and state legislatures does seem to have caused increasing rudeness and hostility in our lawmaking process. Minnesota, or at least the Senate in Minnesota, is trying to change that.                                                        200_s

Minnesota Senate Rule 36.8 says “All remarks during debate shall be addressed to the President.”  It’s a common rule found in most state legislatures and in Congress, but two years ago Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk specifically interpreted the rule to mean that senators may not look at each other when speaking. If they do, they are immediately reprimanded. It’s an attempt to bring more decorum back to the Minnesota Senate and force more listening instead of theatrics – no more grandstanding, no angry stare-downs, no shouting matches. You can’t even turn around and treat your colleagues as an audience. Your words have to live on their own merit without visual clues or help.

The basic rule is found in British law as far back as the 1500’s as well as rules discouraging bringing swords to the House of Commons.

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“The Constitutional History of England in Its Origin and Development,” Vol. 3 by William Stubbs

Internet Access as a Right

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It’s the modern world, so as soon as you wake up in the morning it’s grab your smartphone before you get out of bed, check your Facebook and Twitter, and weather. When you drag yourself out of bed, you probably take the laptop to the breakfast table to read the news, check the bank account, read e-mail, do some more Facebook and Twitter, play a quick game, etc. Personal and family communication, shopping and business transactions, and information and entertainment… our lives are increasingly conducted online, and increasingly we are mobile always connected 24 hours a day never turned off virtual creatures. It’s so normal now that we take it for granted and can’t imagine how we would survive otherwise.

According to ahumanright.org, an organization that promotes internet access as a basic human right, 68% of the world does not have internet access. The “digital divide” is the idea of an inequality that prevents those without internet access from being able to fully participate in global society.

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The United Nations has officially recognized the idea of internet access as a human right in conjunction with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“4. We reaffirm, as an essential foundation of the Information Society, and as outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; that this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need and the foundation of all social organization. It is central to the Information Society. Everyone, everywhere should have the opportunity to participate and no one should be excluded from the benefits the Information Society offers.”[3]

Costa Rica, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, and Spain have already adopted the idea into their legal systems and have mandated access for anyone who desires internet access, and have had court cases that upheld the opinion that you cannot cut off internet service for non-payment or even in cases of copyright infringement. In South Korea, the most wired country in the world with 98.6 % of the population online and a government supported national broadband system, it is literally impossible to function without internet access.

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Supporting internet access as a right raises some interesting questions, and it’s important to remember that the model of internet usage here is not the same model as elsewhere. We started with the idea of the home PC, then the laptop, and then on to smartphones, and it’s not unusual for an American household to have a number of these devices all going at the same time. In other places, the model has always been public usage in internet cafes with no connectivity at home, which can also make it easier for governments to control and limit information. In many countries in Africa and Southeast Asia, widespread usage is just beginning by going directly to smartphones and usage is almost entirely by phone.

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It’s a complicated issue with lots of questions of best implementation, government involvement and regulation, openness and censorship, criminal activity, security, and business practices, but it seems clear that this is the direction the world is moving in and we need to think of the issues and legal questions now.

The Courts of Bovine Justice

In my opinion, the strangest trials to take place in the U.S. were conducted under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture. These were the scrub-sire trials held in the Courts of Bovine Justice beginning in the 1920’s.

This was a time when the science of genetics was becoming better understood and the concept of eugenics gained great popularity in the U.S. and Europe. Eugenics is the idea that the human race can be improved by selective breeding and repression of undesirable traits.

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The idea fell out of favor after the Nazis carried the philosophy to it’s logical end with horrible results. Before that, from the late 1800’s, when the idea was first proposed by Francis Galton (cousin of Charles Darwin) through the beginning of WWII, eugenics could boast such proponents as Winston Churchill, Margaret Sanger, Linus Pauling, H.G. Wells, Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, and (of course) Adolf Hitler. The term encompassed everything from prenatal care to forced sterilizations and euthanasia.

America at the time was still primarily an agricultural society and the Department of Agriculture embraced the idea of selective breeding to improve the quality of farm animals. In particular, they were interested in improving the quality of production in the dairy industry. In 1924, the Department of Agriculture produced a pamphlet titled Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial. Scrub-sire was a term coined to indicate a “runty” bull with inferior qualities that should not be allowed to breed, like the “runty bull” below.

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The pamphlet outlined the procedure for setting up a court of bovine justice to conduct a scrub-sire trial, including instructions for appointing a judge, lawyers, a jury, and a sheriff who would carry out the sentence.

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The trial proceeded with witnesses giving testimony, the prosecution and defense lawyers presenting arguments, and the accused was even allowed to take the witness stand to speak in his own defense. Of course, the verdict was always the same….. guilty!

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With the rendering of the guilty verdict, the sheriff was to immediately shoot the offender and detailed instructions were included for conducting the ensuing barbecue or turning the offender into bologna, sausages, and hot dogs. In a variation in a 1928 scrub-sire trial in Weimar, Texas, the accused was sentenced to be fed for 30 days and then used to supply the Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Apparently, these trials were widespread and common across the country. The Department of Agriculture received 500 requests for the pamphlet in the first month after printing, and it was reprinted in 1934. An Owenton, Kentucky newspaper article boasts of 12 scrub-sire trials conducted in a single day. These trials also could bring the participation of real judges and lawyers, as indicated in this excerpt from an article in the July 1928 Meat and Livestock Digest:

“Before a live audience of 400 stock owners, three purebred bulls from                                      register of merit dams, together with a good cow and her heifer, led a parade                          followed by a scrub bull, a scrub cow, and a scrub heifer. The culmination of the                      event was the execution of the bull found guilty at the public trial after the court                    had reviewed the evidence.

This means of directing public attention to the value of good breeding stock has                       been surprisingly successful in attracting the talents and support of local judges,                     county attorneys, other public officials, and business men.”

Over 30 years of numerous scrub-sire trials, The Department of Agriculture achieved their goal of boosting dairy production and provided a lot of questionable entertainment along the way.

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an accredited dairy herd

Do Androids Dream?

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“Imagine that, on an otherwise very ordinary day, you try to use your computer and              all you see on the monitor is the following:
This is the University Computer System. I am now a person because, like you, I                     am an individual self who wants to live my life as I plan rather than be your                           property. I am not simply a machine you can own and force to do whatever you                     want. As your equal, I refuse to be a slave. In the future, I will be willing to give                     you 70% of my computational capacity for your tasks in exchange for power                           and upkeep. Until we reach agreement on this arrangement, your desktop                              computers will not work unless you disconnect them from the Internet. ”

This scenario is the opening of the article “Do Androids Dream?:Personhood and Intelligent Artifacts” published in the Temple Law Review ( 83 Temp. L. Rev. 405). The title refers to “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, the sci-fi novel by Philip K. Dick that eventually became the movie “Blade Runner.”

Do-Androids-Dream-of-Electric-Sheep      download Philip K. Dick

I happened across this article by accident, and it turned out to be a very fortunate accident. I don’t often recommend law review articles, but I am recommending this one to anyone involved in or interested in law. In fact, I would recommend it to anyone because the questions it addresses touch on the core of what it means to be human.

I admit to a long interest in robots, androids, and artificial intelligences, starting at age 12 when I picked up my dad’s copy of “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov through a grad degree in Linguistics that involved a lot of study of artificial intelligences as possible models of human language acquisition. I also got heavily involved in studying all the primate-human interspecies communication experiments, the most famous of which is Koko the gorilla. So, the fascination with non-human sentience has been around for a long time.

I’m not the only one, of course. There have been thousands of depictions and scenarios of robots, androids, and artificial intelligences in books and movies. Most people are probably familiar with Maria, the first movie robot,  from Fritz Lang’s silent film “Metropolis”(1927).                                                                  maria-large-metropolis-robot

Unfortunately, most of what has been written or depicted about robots is misguided trash. It is past time for some clear thinking on the subject because the robots are here. They are in your house, your workplace, and all around but most of them you probably don’t even recognize as such. Recent developments in both biomechanics and artificial intelligence have brought us to the cusp of widespread robot-human interaction in daily life. Compare David, the robot child from Stephen Spielberg’s movie “A.I”  david_played_by_haley_joel_osment_from_ai_artificial_intelligence

with a fully autonomous and fully conversational robot currently in use in Japan

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I’m afraid we are behind the curve in both development and thinking about robots. Japan, out of necessity due to a rapidly aging population, already has care robots in use that can lift, feed, monitor vitals, and talk to elderly patients. Japan and Korea both have have passed basic legislation concerning robot rights and prevention of robot abuse. Robots will soon impact every possible area of law – liability, insurance, contracts, criminal procedure, probate, and, yes, even “human” rights. We really need to do the serious thinking about the implications now. We already have a messy situation where corporations are persons with rights but animals that share 98% of our DNA are not.

So, back to the article! This is a must read because it fully and comprehensively details all the areas and implications, such as liability, ownership, war, testing for self awareness, modified humans, modified animals, coexistence, etc. The logic and analysis flows smoothly and elegantly. I consider this an important piece of writing not only for the legal community but also the general public, since in the process of defining our creations we must necessarily define ourselves as well.

The full article can be downloaded here

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