December 31, 2013

A Year of Tuesdays: 2013's Final Number

I've checked it several times, just to be sure I had counted things right. This year there were five months with five Tuesdays and seven months with four, giving us a total of 53 Tuesdays. I think this can only happen when the year begins and ends on the third day of the week, but I'm really not all that good with science, astronomy, or time.

So now that we've landed on the final Tuesday of the year, it's time to recap the totals for Tuesday's Number, my weekly post on financial fallout - judgments, satisfied judgments, and bankruptcies - where the person owes the money to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider.

Each week this year, I've presented the numbers without bias. I have no idea what the circumstances are for the folks who end up in these pages of The Post-Standard, whether they're insured, under-insured, or uninsured; or whether they 'self-inflicted' to end up here, by keeping money that should have been paid to their medical provider, for example, or by refusing health insurance when they could have had coverage.

Call me nostalgic or sentimental or silly, but generally I believe in the better nature of most folks and that they'd rather pay their bills than not, that they'd rather take responsibility for themselves than not and that they'd rather avoid making this list if they could. And regardless of the individual dollar amount of the judgment or bankruptcy, I can only imagine the impact on the families. $5000 is a ridiculous amount of money when you don't have much, just as $25,000 is a ridiculous amount of money even if you have some -- it's all relative.  For those handful or so of people who had six-figure filings, regardless of how much money you have, that's a huge ax to have hanging over your head.

That being said, here are the horrible - and I do mean horrible - numbers for the Syracuse area for 2013:
  • 1,279: the combined number of people listed. Some could be duplicates - meaning they could have started out in the judgments section and moved to the satisfied judgment and/or bankruptcy columns. That's an average of about 24 each week.
  • $25,679,738: the total of all judgments filed. These are the ones that are over $5000, which are the only ones that make the paper (except for one week early in the year when it was an all-encompassing list). 
  • $2,447,163: the total of all satisfied judgments. That's less than 10% of all judgments filed.  
  • $1,375,358: the total of all bankruptcies filed where the primary creditor is a medical provider of one kind or another. 
That's a total of $29,466,259, an average of $555,967 each week this year.  Per listing, it's an average of just over $23,000. One more week, and we would have crossed the $30 million mark -- a benchmark I hope we never see.

How does 2013 compare to 2012, when I captured only 24 weeks of data?

  • Average number of listings per week is up by 1 this year
  • Average weekly total is up $70,161 higher this year
  • Average per listing is up $1,763 this year.

Folks, we're going in the wrong direction, aren't we? Until we start seeing the percentage of judgments satisfied go up, we're hurting. Until we see the judgments filed go down, we're hurting. And until we see the health care related bankruptcies disappear, we're hurting.

I see this number in my own backyard and I wonder what it must be for the rest of New York, for the rest of the country. For those families who didn't self-inflict, I have a hard time imagining what it must feel like having that hanging over their heads. And knowing that all of the local hospitals offer some sort of financial assistance programs, and knowing how many government safety net programs there are, I wonder how much worse this really could be.

And I continue to wonder what it will take for us to get out of the kind of mess that causes or allows this to happen. What's broken here, the actual cost of health care? How people make health care choices? Our overall economy? Will the Affordable Care Act, with millions more having some kind of insurance (through private carriers or government programs), make a difference? One can only hope.

We'll see what next year brings -- I've got my spreadsheets ready.

Tuesday's Number: $520,007

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings.

As I did for much of last year, I will be tracking health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance.

This week, there were 30 people listed with new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $475,761.

This week, there were two satisfied judgments to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider listed, totaling $20,016.

And, this week, there was one health care related bankruptcy, totaling $24,230.  

The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.

December 30, 2013

A Great Business Model?

I've been thinking about whether we should upgrade our current basic cable (yes, I said basic cable - that's all we have) to something more substantial, such as Dish, DirecTV, or something less basic from our local cable monopoly. I've asked friends for help on Facebook, and am getting some pretty good feedback, mostly from people who are happy with what they have, even if where there are now is not where they started out. 

The more I think I'm going to do some research on it, the more I think I really don't want to. Because I hate the whole concept of how the whole getting-TV-into-my-house business works. Regardless of delivery method, it seems I'm gong to be stuck with a boatload of channels that I will NEVER watch, and don't want to pay for. 

For example, it seems like the retail therapy I do now from my laptop is simply not good enough. Apparently, I need five or ten home shopping networks, 24-hour infomercial channels, 'all jewelry all the time' broadcasts, and a corresponding number of auction networks so that I can do even more than my fair share to help our struggling economy.

And I guess we don't need our Bose sound system anymore - or my bookshelf stereo, or my HD radio either. Might as well just throw those out the window, because no matter how hard I try, it seems I'm going to be stuck with scads of radio channels on my television. Why? Because, clearly, I must want to have my TV on so I can listen to tinny twangers from the 40's, or virgin Viennese violin virtuosos, or terror-inducing tenors, or a bunch of rapacious rappers. Well, hold on a second -- I don't want to have my TV on so I can listen to the radio. I can already do that any of the above-mentioned radio-type devices. 

And, strangely enough, I've never felt the urge to start watching a show on my PC in the basement rec room, pause it and then start it up again when I'm in the second floor bathroom, only to pause it and start it again downstairs in the kitchen where I watch for a moment trying to determine whether I want a glass of chocolate milk, a cold beer, or something else. Then, I stop it one more time, grab my wine and ice cream and head for the home theater room where I can finally sit down, relax, and watch the weather forecast. 

Have you?

What I would really like is to call up some television service deliverer and say to them "I want my local channels, and I want these other 15 channels. And I don't want anything else. How much will that cost?" And if I were to ask that question, after they stopped laughing at me, I'd be told it's not possible.  You need to get these other channels, you need to have at least one hockey channel for every team, and at least four soccer channels, and six watching-waves-crash-against-the-shore channels, and 27 religious and inspirational channels, and movie channels, my poor girl, you simply must have 50 movie channels, you poor pitiful behind the times girl - and the choir of sobbing, hand-wringing customer service reps in the background can only be appeased if I spend my $39.99 or $49.99 or $79.99 or $89.99 or $199.99 per month for the two-year introductory period and get my dishes and boxes and cards and hoppers and DVRs and HGTV....oh wait that's a channel I want, not a delivery method, sorry. 

Oh - and bundle up, sister, because it's cold outside. Heaven forbid you have more than one supplier of TV, phone, and Internet service. Because that's plain un-American. Just ask them. 

Yep -- for some reason, these companies have come up with a business model that says we have to take what they want us to take, and we have to take all of it, even if we have no intention of using most of it - and we have bought into it hook, line, and sinker. 

Can you imagine, just for a moment, if any other company or business did the same thing? 
  • Picture walking into a shoe store and being told that, in order to get the pair of boots you really want, you also need to get three handbags, eight pairs of those nylon shoe-trying-on things, ten pairs of flip-flops and a dozen pairs of stilettos, in sizes that don't fit and colors that are beyond horrid -- a bunch of junk plus twenty-two pairs of shoes you will never wear -- just to get the one pair you want. You gonna buy those boots? 
  • Or going into a grocery store to get milk and bread, because we've got a Nor'easter or an Alberta clipper or lake effect snow heading our way, and being told that you also have to pay for and take home both adult and baby diapers, some weird-looking sushi, gluten-free cookies, blue dye for your hair, anchovies, week-old bagels, unsalted nuts, and off-brand tuna fish packed in oil, because that's what the store wants to sell you. How badly do you want that bread and milk? 
  • Or taking your car to the speedy oil change place, and have to get new tires, a pollution control valve, seat covers, a windshield, a side-view mirror, and cargo-area carpeting, because after all, if you want that speedy oil change, well, you know the drill. 
It's crazy that we fall for this, isn't it?

December 24, 2013

Tuesday's Number: $242,561

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings.

As I did for much of last year, I will be tracking health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance.

This week, there were 14 people listed with new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $242,561.

This week, there were no satisfied judgments to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider listed.

And, this week, there were no health care related bankruptcies.  

The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.

December 22, 2013

Case Studies: A&F, JCP, and A&E

Abercrombie & Fitch, the allegedly hip store for young people who want to wear lots of layers of clothes in a stylish way and carry around arty-farty shopping bags with pictures of topless or almost topless chiseled pretty people on them, once offered to pay a customer to stop wearing their brand. Yep - don't wear our clothes, said their 'brand senses department': 
We are deeply concerned that Mr Sorrentino's association with our brand could cause significant damage to our image. We understand that the show is for entertainment purposes, but believe this association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand, and may be distressing to many of our fans. We have therefore offered a substantial payment to Michael 'The Situation' Sorrentino and the producers of MTV's The Jersey Shore to have the character wear an alternative brand. We have also extended this offer to other members of the cast, and are urgently awaiting a response.
Famously, A&F also ran into trouble with their 'exclusionary practices' which were detailed in a 2006 interview with CEO Mike Jeffries (the comments resurfaced more recently).  When asked about the emotional experience he offers his customers, and how sex plays into that, here's what he said:
It's almost everything. That's why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don't market to anyone other than that. 
Jeffries went on to say this about some potential customers:
In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the no-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids.  We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends.  A lot of people don't belong (in our clothes) and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don't alienate anybody, but you don't excite anybody, either. 
A&F, which offers women's clothes in sizes XS (00-0), S (2-4), M (6-8), and L (10),  and men's pants  ranging in size from 28x30 to 36x34, didn't want to market to fat people, or falling-down-drunk Jersey Shore folks, because they weren't cool.  They couldn't 'vanilla' the brand and become indistinguishable from everyone else.

JCPenney, on the other hand, got into trouble when Ron Johnson, their former CEO, noted in an interview that they had no 'growth platform' and so made a huge marketing change, which included making JCP look very different.  Here are his comments:
We had a business model that didn't have any growth in the future. Every business needs to build off a growth platform...We had a promotional model which had merit but it played its course. We need a new growth platform....The key was we had to have the courage to transform the business. 
He went on to get in trouble with this comment, in a response to getting customers back after the significant drop in sales that resulted from the business transformation:
Come to our stores right now. Our stores are busy. We're gaining that customer back. We know who she is, we talk to her in a variety of ways and it's important to get her back in store. It's even more important to attract new customers. That's the key to this long term, new customers. We had one of the oldest and poorest customers in the industry. We have to over time get a little younger and affluent. What will bring them in is everyday value on products they can't find elsewhere and not losing the older customer as well. We'd love to keep her. 
JCP's CEO knew who his customers were, and the numbers did not compare favorably with competitors like Target, Macy's and Kohl's.  Nearly half were over 55, and only 20% were younger than 35. Looking at income, only 13% earned more than $100,000, and 29% earned less than $35,000.  As a 'growth platform', that doesn't look sustainable, does it?

So what happened for these two retailers, when their CEOs did and said things that ticked off the customer base?  For A&F, people bought their clothes and gave them to homeless people.  Ellen DeGeneres (coincidentally, a JCP spokesperson) mocked them for selling 'doll clothes'.  Sales crumbled, with losses over multiple quarters.  The store is going to start offering clothes in larger sizes and more colors, among other things.

JCP suffered significant losses, as those older, poorer customers boycotted the store; they ditched Johnson as CEO and rehired a former CEO to right the ship.

So, what do these have to do with A&E and the Duck Dynasty drama? On the one hand, the two retail cases may look different; after all, in the case of A&F the representative was defending the brand, and in the JCP case the representative was turning the brand on its head. And, of course the brand representatives were the CEOs.

But what got then in trouble, more than anything, was their words, and the impact those words had on actual or potential customers. Those customers, real or wished-for, got up in arms, and in all sorts of ways complained about the exercise of free speech by the CEOs; they organized, they stormed social media, and yes they denied the brand their hard-earned cash. Heck, I have friends who stopped shopping at JCP for the duration of Johnson's tenure, and I know folks who were very upset with A&F and their short-sighted, narrow-wasted view of 'Authentic American' kids.

In the case of A&E, the 'brand representative' was not the CEO, he was just the star of  A&E's biggest sub-brand. A&E heard from actual or potential customers (the LGBT advocates and yes, the NAACP regarding those happy, non-blues-singing, cotton-picking, pre-welfare black folks) who will organize, who did flood social media with strongly worded messages, who would boycott the brand -- all of the same things that happened to A&F and JCP, as well as yoga-clothing retailer Lululemon; their founder/CEO is now out.

Listen, I'm not a fan of reality shows, that's not a secret. I watch a few of the competition shows, less now that many of them are growing old and tired. But there were American Idol contestants being booted for bad behavior -- not for being bad singers, but because their bad behavior off the show could damage the brand. And frankly, we don't have to look a whole lot further than folks like Mel Gibson or Charlie Sheen to see that, yes, even actors and TV stars suffer consequences from their behaviors, including their exercise of free speech.

A&E, which surprisingly does air shows other than Duck Dynasty, suspended a guy from a show that's currently on hiatus, to think about how or whether to protect its brand, not necessarily the sub-brand of the Robertson family. (Not for nothing, that's kind of like Major League Baseball suspending a pitcher for a certain number of games, and the suspension includes days the pitcher doesn't even play, isn't it?)

The biggest thing that will come of this? An even stronger DD brand, according to at least one crisis manager, which is apparently just fine with the Robertson family; after all, they're already a hundreds-of-million-dollar company what with their marketing of anything and everything Duck. They'll profit either way, frankly. We  may never know whether that conflicts with the Duck Dude's comments about 'the greedy' and their chances on judgment day.

Here's a nice summation of the whole thing, from the LA Times:
In the end, it comes down to freedom.  A&E has the freedom to reckon lost revenue against lost good will and make whatever decision works best for it. (It will be a practical decision more than a moral one.) The Robertsons have every right to do likewise, within the bounds of whatever the lawyers work out. If the show continues, sponsors will make similar calculations.  And, should the show return, you will be free to watch or never to watch, and to protest its ongoing existence or not.
Yep -- it's all about freedom. The Robertsons and other actors (and even politicians like Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal) and corporate CEOs can say what they want; advocacy groups (regardless of their specific positions) can respond. Customers can stick with or walk away from a company, and companies can stick with or walk away from people who actually or potentially damage the brand and/or the bottom line.

I'm fascinated that we don't express the same outrage over all of the situations where similar actions and reactions occur, and I wonder, maybe that's our real, 'authentic American' brand.

December 21, 2013

If I Said What the Duck Dude Said

...I would at the very least be suspended, and probably terminated, from my job.

Why? Because in my 'reality show', I work at the pleasure of my employer, and if I'm casting them in a negative light, they have every right to not keep me around. We have an employee handbook, we have a Code of Ethics, we have a social media policy, the whole nine. And all employees are expected to not only abide by what's in the guidelines, but report situations that we see as potential violations of the Code by other employees.

I have friends and coworkers who think that's unreasonable, that an employer shouldn't have the option of terminating someone 'without cause'. One particular case locally that got us on this discussion was Syracuse University's termination of Bernie Fine, in the midst of as yet unproven allegations of child sex abuse. As the pressure heated up -- with multiple accusers (two of them presumed to be liars, the other two a little more convincing at least in the eyes of our DA for Life Bill Fitzpatrick) the topic of conversation moved away from SU basketball and started to focus on Fine, his case, what head coach Jim Boeheim may have known about the situation, and so on.

The fact that the university had previously investigated the situation and had already decided to stick with Bernie as Boeheim's chief assistant likely contributed to their decision initially to suspend him, and ultimately terminate him. You know the old adage, 'once bitten, twice shy' and I think that was SU's situation.

It's been the same situation for other employers, over the years; after all, political correctness has been around for a long time. Sometimes the issues change, but the outcomes are similar.  Here's a refresher:
  • Juan Williams, who spoke about being scared of Muslims in their garb while on Fox, and was let go by NPR as a result of that and previous line-crossing in violation of his contract. 
  • Helen Thomas, who lost her job as a White House reporter because of anti-Semitic comments 
  • Gilbert Gottfried, for joking a little too soon about the tsunami which cost him the spokes-duck job for Aflac; Shirley Sherrod, former government worker who was dropped for allegedly being biased against white people; and CNN's Rick Sanchez, who went overboard talking about Jews in the television business (you can link to their stories here and here)
  • Howard Cosell, who killed his career with his 'look at that little monkey run' comment years ago
  • Paula "I is what I is" Deen, for using the N-word on one or more occasions
  • Martin Bashir, who resigned from MSNBC after slamming Sarah Palin for ridiculous remarks she had made when exercising her right to free speech. Palin immediately took up the Duck call, no surprise there, appearing on Fox wearing her Duck Dynasty cutie camo.
  • Just yesterday, there was a report that an Air Force general was fired for, among other things, 'rude and brash behavior' and showing up late for a meeting. 
Importantly, these folks were let go for a variety of comments bashing a whole host of populations, and except for the general, they didn't get in trouble while they were working for the company that fired them, suspended them, or 'let them resign'.  And that's the point here.

The Duck Dude is entitled to his opinions, and those opinions apparently should not be surprising to anyone who watches the show, or to A&E, the network that airs it. After all, you can take the boy out of the Louisiana backwoods, but you can't take the Louisiana backwoods out of the boy. The network accepted the risk, obviously, and as with most employers, there are limits, even when cash is pouring into the coffers. When you jeopardize the brand, the business, and the bottom line, employers will act, and they should.

One other thing that's important to note here, on the sponsor thing: WalMart, particularly in their rural stores, is a huge seller of all of the Duck Dynasty spin-off merchandise. I haven't heard yet that they were dropping those items, but I think they have to.

After all, that's what they did to Paula Deen; and isn't what's good for the goose good for the, er, Duck?

December 18, 2013

Oops, I Said it Again

"Happy Holidays".

Twice, today, I think I said it.

Want to know why?  I can assure you, it's not because I'm fighting some 'war on Christmas' or because I'm cooking up some nefarious plot. It's not because I have an agenda.  It's not even because I'm a Democrat.

It's because there are multiple holidays in a very short period of time; not for nothing, Christmas music starts now on the radio in October or early November, so pretty easily we can string together Thanksgiving and Hanukkah and Christmas and Festivus and Kwanzaa and New Years and 'Little Christmas' into one season (called the Shopping Season), and do a 'cover-all' greeting, can't we, without starting World War III?

Honestly, I don't even give it much thought, whether to say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays". Sometimes I even dare to say "have a nice holiday" without specifying which one, leaving it up to the recipient of the greeting to figure it out. But I don't understand why people think I must wish someone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year separately, each a week apart, or crammed together:
GoodtoseeyouhaveaMerryChristmasandaHappyNewYear.  
Seems kind of silly, doesn't it? 

Now, let's be clear, I may say "Happy Holidays" but
  • I put up Christmas decorations, and Christmas trees, not holiday decorations and trees 
  • I go Christmas shopping for gifts, and 'holiday shopping' if I'm getting a bunch of extra groceries
  • I mail Christmas cards not holiday cards
  • I give and receive Christmas presents, not holiday presents 
  • And on Christmas Eve, not holiday Eve, I leave a plate of cookies for Santa and something for the reindeer.
All of those things are fun and seasonal and pretty and traditional and it's wonderful to share them with friends and family, to celebrate memories from days past, and to create new ones going forward.  But to me, none of them are religions activities, even though they are thoroughly 'Christmas' activities. Because I'm not religious, and because there's something particularly unreligious about extreme retail therapy outcomes all wrapped up and shoved under a tree.

And yet, even though I do all of those Christmas-y things, if I see you walking down the street, or at the office, or out at a party, I might offer an all-inclusive "Happy Holidays", instead of "Merry Christmas", and I hope you take it as it's intended.

Because it is not offensive, unless you want to perpetuate an artificial war on Christmas. It's not offensive, unless you have an agenda. It's not offensive, unless you want it to be. It's not offensive, unless you're one of the people who believes that only your beliefs matter, that regardless of what anyone else actually believes, they need to believe and act as you believe and act. 

That's the kind of thinking that gets a Salvation bell-ringer punched by a righteously indignant WalMart bargain hunter, folks. 

Everyone take a deep breath on this, OK?  And oh -- Happy Holidays!

December 17, 2013

Tuesday's Number: $462,977

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings.

As I did for much of last year, I will be tracking health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance.

This week, there were 15 people listed with new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $462,977.

This week, there were no satisfied judgments to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider listed.

And, this week, there were no health care related bankruptcies.  

The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.

December 14, 2013

The Sandy Hook Anniversary

Take time today to remember the names of those who were
so senselessly and tragically lost in the
Sandy Hook tragedy:

Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Rachel Davino, 29
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7
Ana M Marquez-Green, 6
Dylan Hockey, 6
Dawn Hochsprung, 47
Madeline F Hsu, 6
Catherine V Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Jesse Lewis, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Anne Marie Murphy, 52
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Lauren Rousseau, 30
Mary Sherlach, 56
Victoria Soto, 27
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison N Wyatt, 6

If you're interested in learning more about many of the folks whose names you see above, you can visit a new memorial website, mysandyhookfamily.org.

To learn more about initiatives aimed at preventing the causes of gun violence, please visit www2.sandyhookpromise.org

If you're so inclined, some of the families have asked for random acts of kindness today, as a way to honor the memories of their loved ones. 

And don't forget Nancy Lanza, 52, who also lost her life that day.

Thanks.

December 13, 2013

Blame the parents? Punish the parents

When you're 16, steal some beer, get absurdly drunk with your friends, then get behind the wheel and kill four people and seriously injure the aforementioned friends, do you blame your parents?  And if you manage to convince someone that it WAS your parents and your wealthy, no-consequences-apply upbringing that caused you to behave with reckless abandon, do you thank your parents, or do you just ignore them with abandon, as you do everything else?

News feeds are blowing up with this tale out of Texas, where everything is bigger, apparently including the balls of kids and parents and lawyers and judges.  Here's Ethan Crouch, the innocent looking
Photo captured from Raw Story
beer-stealing, heavy drinking, Valium popping, drunken driving   killer who, according to his attorney, grew up with mean, manipulative, buy-your-way-out-of-trouble parents and so never learned how to say "I'm sorry" or how to behave in polite society.

Poor Ethan. Three hours after the accident, his blood alcohol level was still three times the legal limit. According to reports,
Couch was going 70 miles per hour in his father's Ford F-350 pickup in a 40-mph zone when he lost control and started a deadly chain of collisions that claimed the lives of 24 year old Breanna Mitchell, whose car had broken down on the side of the road; Hollie Boyles and her 21 year old daughter Shelby, who lived nearby and come outside to help Mitchell; and Brian Jennings, a youth pastor who was also playing the role of good Samaritan.
According to the psychologist who's known Poor Ethan since this past June (having begun treating him shortly after the accident), he didn't have any friends, he didn't know what high school he went to, or where he went to church.  He had essentially raised himself, his mother showering him with presents, his father a man who didn't "have relationships, he takes hostages" and there was a nasty divorce.  Intellectually, the psychologist said, Poor Ethan was 18; emotionally though, he was only twelve.

Poor Ethan. The kinder, gentler judge he had, the woman who decided not to send him to jail for 20 years as requested by the prosecution but instead to probation for ten years, believed what she was told by the defense and the psychologist, and thinks that intensive inpatient therapy is the answer. And 'Take Hostages' Daddy is willing to fork over $450K a year for the privilege of sending Poor Ethan across the country to California for treatment.

I guess it's only fair, since for a long time folks have been blaming bad behavior of poor people on their upbringing and lack of economic 'benefits' like the kind Poor Ethan had to deal with, and we've blamed the bad behavior of young men on them being raised by single moms, with no strong father figure in the picture, that we come full circle and now blame rich parents for the horrendous behavior of their kids.

But if we're going to blame Mommy and Daddy for Poor Ethan's behavior, why don't we punish them?  If they're responsible, make them pay for their ruined child's actions. Not the $450K to send Poor Ethan to camp in Cali. Let's make them pay in a way that is less pleasant for them. Clearly, throwing the kid away doesn't seem to be a big deal -- that's what they've already done if we believe the psychologist, defense attorney, and the judge.

First, let's find a place for Poor Ethan and his pathetic parents somewhere in Texas, preferably affiliated with the criminal justice system, where the survivors, the families of the victims, can keep an eye on them, and can visit them any time they want, day or night, and ask them what the hell they were thinking. Shout at them, or scream at them, or just sit and stare at them.  What the families do is up to them; that the parents and Poor Ethan are available for the activity is what's important.

Have all three of them attend this intensive, inpatient therapy that is supposedly going to be the answer to making the 'spoiled brat' a productive member of society.

Let's take away a boatload or ten of Daddy's money, and set up long term, ridiculously well funded accounts for the families of the four who were murdered; for the victim now left blinking incredulously at his sad fate; for all the other passengers in the truck; for the church left without its pastor; and for the school system that apparently so miserably failed Poor Ethan that he doesn't even know its name, so that they can figure out how never to let a child like this fall through the cracks again..

Let's make Mommy and Daddy perform 2000 hours of community service, together, during each of the ten years of Poor Ethan's probation. Yes, they must do the service together, so they can learn what they should have been doing as parents all those years when they were messing with Poor Ethan.

And, since if Poor Ethan fails to abide by the letter of the probation, he will end up in jail; to be fair, and just, so should Mommy and Daddy.

Oh, and Poor Ethan, who never learned how to say I'm Sorry, maybe this'll help:
I'm sorry, so sorry, that I was such a fool I didn't know love could be so cruel oh, oh, oh, oh, uh-oh, oh yes. You tell me mistakes are part of being young, but that don't right the wrong that's been done. 
 Poor Ethan.

December 11, 2013

Wage Wars

By a show of hands, how many of you are conflicted about the latest wage wars?  I'm not talking about CEO pay compared to employee pay, I'm talking about the minimum wage protests that are occurring at Walmarts and fast food restaurants across the country. Bueller? Anyone?

I readily raise my hand on this one.

In case you missed it, protests were organized last week by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other labor groups. Much of the effort has been pushed towards this magical $15 hourly federal minimum wage, the thinking being that at that level, a person is making a living wage - over $31,000 annually for a full time job, compared to about half that at today's minimum.

Am I the only one that doesn't agree with the assumption (presumption?) that minimum wage earners are predominantly full time workers who need to make a 'living wage' in order to support themselves and their families?

Well, no. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2012, here are your minimum wage employees:

  • workers under age 25 make up about half of all minimum-wage workers
  • about 21% of teenagers and about 5% of whites, blacks, and Hispanics who are paid hourly earn the federal minimum wage or less (which is legal in certain situations). 
  • part-time workers are much more likely to earn minimum wages than are full-timers, and 
  • so are never married people, and those without high school diplomas.

But, again according to the BLS data, the percentage of all hourly-paid workers who earn minimum wage in 2012 was 4.7%, down from 5.2% in 2011; these are nowhere near the high percentages that were seen back in the 1970's. (And, not for nothing, at least at one of the events in my neck of the woods, the protesters were not current minimum wage workers, but looked rather more like aging liberals who conceivably could have worked for minimum wage back in the day when that percentage was way up there.)

Another reason I'm conflicted is I don't understand how we can double the minimum wage without making corresponding changes in the wages paid to everyone else.  Here's an example from the local job listings; many of them don't include salary info, but I did find this ad which did:
Location: Syracuse NY Hourly $11 - $15 
Always seeking candidates with experience in Accounts Payable, Accounts Receivable, Bookkeeping, Reconciliation and Payroll. Qualified candidates must have 2+ years of experience. Strong attention to detail, great organizational skills, computer proficiency including strong data entry skills and MS Word and Excel. Knowledge of specific accounting software a plus (QuickBooks, etc.). Pay DOE and level of skills. 
So, pretend you're working at the high end of the range in that ad, making $15 per hour with a corresponding set of skills/education/training, and suddenly you're on equal footing with a minimum wage worker.  If the work you were doing yesterday was worth about twice minimum wage, wouldn't it be worth about twice minimum wage today and tomorrow and the next day, even if some unions protested and politicians listened and randomly decided to double the minimum wage? Wouldn't you expect your employer to double your wage?

And wouldn't the same be true for the wages of the person earning $18 per hour? $20 per hour? $45 per hour? I don't think it really matters what the non-minimum wage salary is, it's hard not to think it should be doubled if the minimum wage is doubled. It's also hard not to think what it would do to our economy if suddenly wages doubled and prices went up accordingly to support them.

Another concern  -- call me crazy -- is that I don't trust politicians to make a change and do it logically. Why?  Well, let's look at New York, my home state. The minimum wage here will increase to $8 for 2014, and then move to $8.75 for 2015, and finally to $9 for 2016.  Sounds good, right?

Not so fast, my friends, not so fast. This is New York, after all.

To make the wage requirement more palatable to businesses, there's a 'minimum wage reimbursement credit' that we taxpayers will have to pay, in order to allow businesses to offer the higher base wages. From the Bloomberg Businessweek article:
Employers would be compensated at a rate of 75 cents an hour per employee when the minimum wage rises to $8 beginning next year, an election year.  Employers would get $1.31 an hour for workers paid minimum wage when it rises to $8.75 in 2015. When the minimum wage raises to $9 in 2016, employers would be subsidized $1.35 an hour for three years. 
So, to recap:  the NY State legislature, with the support of our Sonofa Governor Andrew Cuomo, increased the minimum wage but are making regular Janes and Joes pay for it, not just in the reimbursement credit, as they so delicately call it, but almost certainly in the higher prices that goods and services will cost once the minimum wage goes up. Do you wonder why I'm cynical? And conflicted?

Do I believe the minimum wage should be increased? Sure. The benefits, including the potential for folks to get out of safety net programs and instead be more economically productive members of society, are probably worth it.  And after all, if we are wiling increase other programs on a fairly regular basis (Social Security, for example, has an inflation multiplier), we should be willing to have regular, reasonable increases in the minimum wage.

Oh -- one more thing: there is no requirement for businesses to pay only the minimum wage. They are free to pay hourly employees what they like as long as it's at least the applicable federal minimum or state minimum, whichever is higher. Some businesses do, some don't, but ultimately they have the choice - and they'll likely base that choice on a combination of their business needs, their social compass, and our buying habits.

Maybe we should think about that the next time we the pull into a drive-through to grab something off the dollar menu.

December 10, 2013

Tuesday's Number: $426,319

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings.

As I did for much of last year, I will be tracking health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance.

This week, there were 25 people listed with new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $395,641.

This week, there were no satisfied judgments to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider listed.

And, this week, there were two health care related bankruptcies, totaling $30,678.  

The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.

December 3, 2013

Tuesday's Number: $431,726

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings.

As I did for much of last year, I will be tracking health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance.

This week, there were 24 people listed with new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $431,726.

This week, there were no satisfied judgments to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider listed.

And, this week, there were no health care related bankruptcies.  

The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.

December 1, 2013

Knock Knock. Who's There? The Joker

No, not that Joker, these three jokers. (Hey - I think I just made a Trifecta post here).

First, there's this joker, the birther Rev. James David Manning, who thinks that Barack Obama had his love child's baby mama killed.

That's right: POTUS has a love child, apparently conceived when he made an emergency visit to a dental clinic in Connecticut in 2011 when a pistachio had lodged in his tooth. Clearly that was a ruse; the real purpose was to have sex with dental assistant Miriam Carey, the woman who was tragically killed in October after a chase through the streets of DC. At least some of  that information is according to the Russians.  

Importantly, Carey's family is not engaged with Reverend Birther on this. According to attorney Eric Sanders,
There is no suggestion, nor has there ever been any suggestion by the Carey family that President Obama is the child's father.
Now there's probably not much we can do about the Russians and their intelligence, and there's probably not much we can do about Rev. Manning's intelligence or commitment to his cause, which is ostensibly to have the people of Harlem turn to Jesus and change their lives. And there's nothing wrong with that.

We can wonder, (and I certainly do) if his ATLAH World Ministries is receiving tax breaks as a church for their highly political evangelical missions, such as these:
You can preach the gospel, and you can preach it with passion and confusion and righteousness, but you can't preach politics and get a tax break for doing it. And that's true for both sides of the pulpit. 

Then there's this joker, a former governor of Florida who stepped up to his computer and tossed out a tweet about the US embassy to The Vatican. Here's what he said:




Now, we all know when politicians tweet, sometimes things can get messy.  As with this tweet of Jeb's, when there are facts out there that contradict what you're saying. 

See, the Obama administration is not closing our embassy to the Vatican; it's being moved to our embassy compound, into a building purchased by the State Department under Jeb's brother's administration, where it will not only be more secure, but in a 'very distinguished' building instead of a nondescript house, and where the government will save $1.4M a year.  No staff are being cut. No prestige is being cut -- there will be complete separation between the embassies, including separate entrances. It's all good, right? 

Well, no. Of course not.

Jeb was not the only one complaining about this, there were others -- in fact there was so much noise about it that the State Department had an open conference call with the press to discuss it. Here's the intro to the call (emphasis added):
Hi. Good evening, everyone and thanks for joining us on such relatively short notice. As many of you have seen or participated in, there's been a number of stories, blog postings over the last few days about the State Department relocating the US Embassy to the Holy See.  So we thought it would be worthwhile to invite all of you to talk to a senior State Department Official...a little bit about the move and then answer some of your questions.
I don't know how many news outlets attended the call; only the Catholic News Service and the Religious News Service are on record as having asked questions.  Everyone else either was satisfied with the information provided, or else they were only concerned with stirring the pot and didn't attend or chose not to report the facts. Jeb Bush has not yet tweeted a correction. 

And speaking of corrections, I wonder if we'll hear from Dubya on this?  Friday morning his daughter Jenna Bush Hager was co-hosting part of the Today Show; in a segment about her dad's Christmas ornament, Jenna misspoke when she noted Dubya's inspiration for painting. She got a text from her father with the correction - it was Winston Churchill, not Woodrow Wilson, as Jenna had said. 

Maybe he'll step in and set his brother straight.

And lastthis joker on Fox, Jenna Lee, who continued to put forth the message about the non-existent death panels in the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  Lee took a filibuster story and turned it into an ACA 'death panel' story -- even as another Fox reporter correctly explained what the alleged death panel, the Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB. is charged with: slowing the growth in Medicare spending.

Here's some info:
Beginning with fiscal 2015, if Medicare is projected to grow too quickly, IPAB will make binding recommendations to reduce spending.  Those recommendations will be sent to Capitol Hill at the beginning of the year, and if Congress doesn't like them, it must pass alternative cuts -- of the same size - by August. A super majority of the Senate (at least two-thirds of those present) can also vote to amend the IPAB recommendations. If Congress fails to act, the secretary of health and human services is required to implement the cuts.
Wow.  A group of folks are to make recommendations to reduce spending and send them to Congress; if Congress does nothing, the recommendations will go into effect?  Seems like the only bad thing here is the 'if Congress fails to act' part, right? Kinda puts the burden on the do-nothings to do something, and we know how well that's working for us, right? Seems like the death knell rings for them, not us.

We want government spending to be reduced. We want to slow the growth in health care spending. We want to reduce entitlements.  I mean, that's what the Republicans tell us all the time. So why the heck are they so up in arms about the IPAB?  And why does Fox insist on making this a bad thing?

I do get confused on this stuff sometimes, but one thing I'm sure of -- there's no shortage of jokers in the deck.