THE RICH GET RICHER

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[Nothing new in that. A cliche, actually. But nonetheless true.]

The parking pass machines at the Princeton Municipal Parking Garage are being replaced.  Parking passes are sold at the two entries, for either $20, $40 or $60; the incentive to invest in the larger amounts is that when you do, you get an extra $4 or more added to the card, over and above what you purchased. The incentive to keep a pass in your car at all (rather than take a ticket each time you enter) is the ease of getting out of the garage when you leave; you slide your card in a machine at either of the two exits, the cost of your parking is subtracted from the amount left on the card, the gate lifts, and out you go. You don’t even notice what you’re paying, especially if you can afford to load the card with $60 at a time (plus the additional dollar incentive); the amount left after each exit drops so slowly it seems quite a while before you have to reload the card.

Now for six weeks, while the replacement of the machines takes place, pass holders like me have to take a ticket when they enter anyway, and later pay in cash or by credit card at another machine near the entrance before getting back into their cars to exit.  For this reason the other day I found myself in a line at the machine where you pay the ticket before exiting. The line was short but the waiting time long.  The woman ahead of me was having difficulty figuring out which slot was which.  She complained loudly that the machine wasn’t giving her any change.  Then she shrugged and began to walk away, as if that’s what you might expect these days, when it seems every corporation and institution and merchant one deals with is trying to squeeze a bit more profit out of each transaction in which you engage with them.  In this instance she was wrong. Not giving change without prior notice would have been blatant fraud, and the subject of all kinds of indignant letters to the editors of Town Topics. Just as she was about the enter the elevator with her paid ticket, the machine made gurgling sounds and vomited out a handful of change.

I was next.  I used a credit card and the machine reported digitally that I had paid $6.50 for my three hours in the garage.  The woman behind me noticed.  “It’s gotten so expensive,” she complained. “It shouldn’t be so expensive.  It’s a town garage.”

“Of course, it’s expensive,” I said.  “What do you expect? We’re in Princeton.”  Then I rashly continued this line of discourse, channeling the economic observations of Richard D. Wolff. (You can find him on YouTube if you’re interested; he’s very funny while being dead serious. In my view, he’s also 95% right.)  “And why do you think your Princeton real estate taxes are so high?  Double what they are one county north of us!”

She was holding a box that from the look of it may have contained a small pizza.  She clutched it more tightly, as if I were about to suggest something subversive.  She was right.  I was.  But since she said nothing, I went on.

“It’s because of the university,” I said.  “Rich and famous Princeton University, a private educational institution that holds title to about a quarter of the real estate in the township and also owns millions and millions of invested dollars generating  more millions every year in unearned income — yet pays no real estate taxes at all, much less any state or federal tax on what its investments produce.  Who do you think is paying to run the town?” I went on. “Who is paying to send firemen to put out fires on campus and to deploy policemen for redirecting traffic while the university builds and builds? You are!  If Princeton University paid real estate taxes, our personal real estate taxes would drop way down, and yes  — the cost of tickets to park in this municipal garage would too.  If you think about it a slightly different way,” I concluded, “at least half the cost of your parking ticket is going into Princeton University’s pocket.

“But, but…” she sputtered as I turned towards the elevator.  “If there were no university, there wouldn’t be a need for the garage. And then where would we be?”

She hadn’t gotten it.  “Who said there wouldn’t be a university?” I exclaimed.  “Of course there would be.  It would just be paying its fair share like the rest of us, instead of getting richer and richer year after year. So it would grow a little more slowly. So what? Many of the rest of us wouldn’t be tsk-tsking in the garage, and pinching pennies to go on living in Princeton.

I didn’t know that woman.  I shall never see her again.  And I shouldn’t have said it. Imposing real estate taxes on private universities, colleges and posh secondary schools is not going to happen, at least in my lifetime, and what’s the point of talking about things that aren’t going to happen?  But as I rode up to the third floor where my eleven-year-old two-door Honda Civic was parked, I felt like a heroine. Perhaps the woman with the small pizza will remember what I said — if not the next time she parks, then the next time she gets hit with an installment of her annual real estate tax.  Great oaks from little acorns grow. Another cliche that’s true.

WHO OWNS THE FOX?

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Before I consign all those legal casebooks and hornbooks in my basement to the recycling bin, permit me to beguile you with another short visit to law school. In my last such post, “– And Wife,” we considered the concept of assault, an intentional tort.  Although that case — the earliest one recorded in Anglo-American law — made the intentional infliction of fear of bodily harm in another person an actionable offense, you may recall that despite the wife being the person who was put in fear of bodily harm, no one back there in 1205 questioned an underlying assumption in the case: that she was her husband’s property, which is why he had to bring the suit in his own name as the injured party.

Lest anyone harbor any lingering doubt that capitalist societies  have always rested on ownership — whether it be of land, livestock, means of production or intellectual property, although today perhaps no longer of wives — let me introduce the case of Pierson v. Post, otherwise affectionately known by its students as “Who Owns the Fox?”  [3 Cai. R. 175, 2 Am. Dec. 264 (N.Y. 1805), if you really need a citation so you can go look it up afterwards to prove to yourself I’m not fooling.]

Pierson is one of the first cases the first-year law student encounters in the Property Law casebook. Why that should be, I cannot tell you, except maybe because who owns what seems to remain of paramount importance to an awful lot of people — even if most of us don’t chase and shoot animals anymore.

These are the “facts” (otherwise known as the story):  Post was in pursuit of a fox while hunting with his hounds. (Here we learn at the outset that Post was a gentleman of property.) Pierson killed and captured the fox even though he knew Post had been pursuing it.  Neither party owned the land on which they had been hunting. Post brought suit in trespass, contending he had acquired title to the fox when he began to hunt it. Pierson asserted that Post did not yet have control over the fox and therefore had not acquired any property interest in it. The trial court entered judgment for Post (the guy with the hounds), and Pierson appealed.

The appeals court reversed the lower court. It stated the mere fact a person is pursuing a wild animal does not grant that person a right to the animal.  “First to kill and capture” is the superior rule of law.  Had Post mortally wounded the animal, that would have been sufficient to show possession, since it would have deprived the animal of its natural liberty.  But he was only able to show pursuit and therefore acquired no property interest in the animal. There was a dissent, seeking to reward the pursuer (Post) for his effort, but we don’t have to go there, as dissents don’t become law.

Notice the bit I italicized?  About neither party owning the land through which the poor fox ran?  If Post had been the owner, that would have changed the outcome for him. Conversely, if Pierson were the owner, there would have been no case. Alternatively, what if the person who really was the landowner had intervened as an interested party?  Suppose his counselor-at-law had whispered in his ear that he should get himself over to court and claim property damages from both those guys for running amok and killing an animal on his land?

[I seem to be getting carried away with the lucrative possibilities here. No wonder lawyers have prospered over the years.]

Okay, back to the point, if there is one. [Or if there isn’t, maybe that’s the point.]  Does Pierson v. Post  tell us anything we still need to know? Does it give a guy at a bar the right to slide over to a hottie two stools down as soon as another guy who’s been chatting her up needs a bathroom break?  Is “first to kill and capture” the superior rule of law here?  Suppose there’s a brawl over hanging-out rights (“I saw her first!”), the hottie bursts out laughing at both of them, “You guys kill me!” and walks off with someone else, thus entirely eluding capture, at least by either of the two fighting over her.

You think I’m putting you on about property law?  You’re lucky we’re not moving right along  to The Rule Against Perpetuities.  (Otherwise known as Let’s Hope It’s Not On the Exam.) Roughly (very roughly) speaking, that one prevents you from leaving property to any descendant who will not yet be alive — is “not yet in being” —  when you die and who doesn’t get born until more than twenty-one years after that. At least, I think that’s the usual construction of its meaning, and there may even be an arcane reason behind why twenty-one years, but most people leave such legal refinements to the Wills and Trusts lawyers, one of whom I never was, so we probably should too.

And now I will recklessly click “Publish.”   I have to roll the recycling barrels out to the curb before it gets dark.  They’re collecting tomorrow.