Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Universal Basic Income

                I picked up Andy Stern’s Raising the Floor after reading a review of it. Mr. Stern, who is now age 66, spent five years exploring the new American economy. And what he found is not encouraging for workers.
                He started in Boston, where he witnessed how MIT’s Media Lab is taking on projects, funded by various corporations, to automate as much as possible. He concludes that, “As they go about inventing the future, the scientists and researchers at Media Lab aren’t thinking about the consequences of their work on the millions of Americans who are laboring in factories, building our homes, guarding our streets, investing our money, computing our taxes, teaching our children and teenagers, staffing our hospitals, driving our buses, and taking care of our elders and disabled veterans.”
                And that’s just the introduction.
                Mr. Stern, who left his position as president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to pursue this project, observes today’s global corporations have no permanent home, recognize no national borders, salute no flag but their own corporate logo, and take their money anywhere they can make the most—and pay the least. (Think our new Secretary of State nominee, Exxon’s Rex Tillerson.) He points out only 62.6% of the working age population is either working or looking for work, that college is not considered as good an investment, that eight million working Americans live below the poverty line, and there’s not much on the horizon that indicates these trends will reverse.
                Further, such things as medical diagnoses, journalism, bartending, and even sex are being done by or with robots. No one—not even those in the oldest profession--seems safe from having their job taken over by a robot.
                Even for those whose jobs are not being taken over by robots, the odds of getting a traditional job with benefits are diminishing. Many jobs are now being done by freelancers, and the globalization of jobs is having quite an impact here as well. Mr. Stern gives the example of his needing some interview notes transcribed. He goes to a website called Upwork, tells what he needs done, and gets bids as low as $3 per hour. (The North American bids range from $12.50 to $25 per hour.) Based on ratings, he chooses one in Kenya who charges $7.50 per hour and pays $4.67 for the job. (He does give the transcriber a tip for a job well done.) You can see, possibly, how difficult it will be for Donald Trump to bring jobs back to America if just about anyone can get bids from around the world for just about any kind of work.
                As I said, Mr. Stern spent five years researching the state of work in America today. There are many more examples of trouble ahead as well as those already here including corporate America’s tendency to eliminate people over the age of fifty. Dan, by the way, received a total of $6,400 in unemployment benefits after he was given the boot (and that is taxable at the federal level).
                And then we get to Mr. Stern’s solution. He proposes that every American between the ages of  eighteen and sixty-four gets a universal basic income (UBI) of $1,000 per month. (Seniors who do not get Social Security benefits of $1,000 a month would receive the difference as a UBI.) Two people living together would get $2,000 per month. The checks would be mailed (or, more likely the funds would be electronically disbursed). If someone chooses to waste their allowance, well, tough. There’s no oversight on how the money is spent, and best of all, there’s no bureaucracy to “administer” the program. People will have to face the fact that they will be responsible for their own decisions. People will get this money whether or not they work, so if they find a job, they won’t lose their benefit. He points out this will give people the option not to take crappy, low paying jobs, which would probably bump up the minimum wage without passing a law to do so. He points out that a young person barely getting by in New York would be able to move to Detroit, where the city is selling homes in run-down areas for $500. And the UBI would stimulate the economy because the money would be spent.
                While Swiss voters recently voted against a UBI by a margin of 77% to 23%, experiments are being readied in Finland, France, Canada, and the Netherlands as well as in Oakland, California. India is studying the UBI.
                At first glance, this sounds like a liberal, artsy-fartsy money-for-nothing scheme, but it’s appealing to conservatives, liberals, progressives, and libertarians. I suspect these people realize that cable TV and Netflix cannot keep people home watching “The Walking Dead” forever, and the risks of not giving people enough income to live on could lead to a revolution that involves a lot more than electing a populist blowhard as president. In Kansas City we have seen some rather brazen home invasions of late, and nationally an uptick of 13.1% in the murder rate is projected this year. Not all of this increase in crime can be attributed to the economy, of course, but I would suspect at least some of it can be.
                I’ve seen some objections to the UBI. For example, Robert H. Frank, in a New York Times editorial says that the UBI would enable large groups of people to pool their resources and—gasp!—live comfortably at taxpayer expense. For example, he points out that ten families could form a commune and have $250,000 a year to live on. First, I would point out that executives at this country’s defense contractors live rather comfortably at taxpayer expense. (Lockheed-Martin’s CEO, for example, took home more than $25 million in 2013.) Second, it would be $240,000 for ten families, and third, if Mr. Frank thinks living with nine other families would be comfortable, well he and I have different versions of the good life. Mr. Frank suggests there be a work requirement (possibly as supervised unskilled workers in President-elect Trump’s infrastructure programs) associated with the UBI, which would negate a lot of the benefits of Mr. Stern’s proposal, including the ability to say no to a crap job. 
                Mr. Stern estimates the cost of his proposal at between $1.75 and $2.5 trillion per year. He has some suggestions on how to help pay for the program. To his suggestions I would add: Consider ending the wasteful war on drugs.

                Up next: Stuff

© 2016 Larry Roth

Saturday, December 17, 2016

What Happened: The Election of 2016

                First, full disclosure. I was not thrilled with any of the candidates this year. I planned to vote for Gary Johnson, but I switched my vote to Clinton when James Comey announced, eleven days before the election, that Clinton’s emails were being reinvestigated. That very morning I had been to a talk on the election. The speaker said Comey had said the Clinton email question had been resolved, and, the speaker said, “Comey is a Republican; you know if there were any possible way the emails would hurt Clinton, he would have announced it.” And that afternoon he did.
                I live in a part of Missouri that is heavily Democratic. If you look at an electoral map of Missouri, you’ll see three blue spots in a sea of red. One is Kansas City; the other two are Columbia, where the University of Missouri is, and St. Louis. Add to that my circle of friends, none of whom supported Trump (at least openly), and you can see Trump supporters were simply outside my universe. I knew none, so none were available to tell me why they were voting the way they did. The evening of the election I expected it to be an early night. Confirm a Clinton victory, see how many electoral votes she got, and go to bed. What a surprise.
                What happened?
                I’ve been asked this a lot since the election, and the honest answer (from me as well as from just about anyone else who claims to have the answers, I suspect) is: I don’t know.
                But I’ll throw out a few possibilities.
                First, I think people are still really angry about the Great Recession. The recession supposedly ended in June 2009, but for many people the recession has not ended. Even for those doing better, I’d say most will never recover the earnings lost during the recession.
                New York Times business writer Gretchen Morgenson wrote shortly after the election that Main Street did not forget that everyone who precipitated the recession—from those who made “liar loans” to those who sliced and diced the loan packages for sale as mortgage securities to those who rated those toxic securities triple-A to those who engaged in “robo-signing” when it came time to foreclose—everyone—got away with it. With the exception of Bernie Madoff (who was truly exceptional), not one person went to jail. Not one person had to pay penalties out of their own pocket. Everyone got away with it. Even Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo. Ms. Morgenson points out more than 800 people served time after the Savings and Loan disaster in the 1980s. 
                Add to the lack of accountability the government’s quick action to bail out the banks that made the mess. Taxpayers were on the hook for $700 billion. Taxpayers bailed out the banks, but what did taxpayers get in return? Seven million homes were foreclosed during the recession; 8.7 million jobs were lost. High rollers gambled and lost. Taxpayers came to their rescue. But who came to the rescue of the people really hurt by the recession?
                No one.
                Oh, the Obama administration came up with the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), which provided financial incentives to modify loans, but it was completely voluntary. Not only did 90% of people whose homes were in danger of being foreclosed not get any help, banks seemed to consider it their job to make sure as few people got help as was possible. It seems they considered helping those in need a moral hazard that might set some sort of precedent. Never mind that the banks themselves had been rescued by taxpayers.
                I have a real estate license. In order to keep it active, I must take twelve hours of continuing education every two years. During the depths of the recession I heard tales of how difficult lenders were making closing short sales. Before the Recession I had New Century stock. New Century was a subprime lender that cratered. I had to recognize my losses and get on with my life. But most mortgage holders didn’t take that approach. They refused to recognize homes had fallen in value—often below the amount of the mortgage—and they refused to take their losses. As a result, people who might have been able to save their homes lost them, and those who might have been able to sell their homes for less than they owed on them were not able to, and many of them simply walked away from their homes and mailed the keys to their lenders, who were then stuck with maintenance costs, property taxes, and all the other expenses involved in owning a home. Some lenders, in Kansas City most notably Deutsche Bank, simply let properties deteriorate and did not pay property taxes, which resulted in local governments’ ultimately foreclosing for nonpayment of taxes and frequently tearing the houses down. Banks’ refusals to write down bad assets, in other words, wound up being expensive for taxpayers. And still no one’s been held accountable.    
                As the election was going on the tales of Wells Fargo’s opening fake accounts was ongoing. It turned out that 5,300 employees (including whistleblowers) had been fired. Many of those wound up with negative information on their employment records that prevented them from getting another job in the banking industry. Wells Fargo’s chief executive and its head of retail banking had to relinquish $60 million in stock but managed to walk away with more than $350 million between them. Wells Fargo has paid $185 million to settle claims—so far.
                Volkswagen was caught gaming emissions tests. 30,000 people worldwide will lose their jobs as a result of VW’s needing to cut costs. No one has gone to jail.
                In order to stimulate the economy interest rates have been near zero for eight years. Those of us who are savers and who rely on interest for a good portion of our income have had to sacrifice because of the recession as we see bonds we bought for the long term called, leaving us to reinvest at the Federal Reserve’s “accommodative” rates.
                These low interest rates have affected pensions—probably more than we know. Last year, for example, the Central States Pension Fund told its 270,000 retirees their pensions would have to be cut—some up to 50%. These are people who are retired and who can’t just go out and get a job to make up the difference. Watch for more shoes to drop.
                Social Security cost-of-living raises have been between zero and next to nothing since the recession began—supposedly because inflation has been low. And yet my water bill has quadrupled and my property taxes and health insurance go up every year.
                You can see why some people might have been moved by Trump’s assertion that the system is rigged. The rich get bailed out by the government, and the poor lose their homes and their jobs. Others have to swallow cuts in their income. Is there any real doubt the system IS rigged?
                And would Hillary Clinton’s cozy relationship with Goldman Sachs, for whom she made three speeches and was paid $675,000, possibly have made some who are still suffering from the effects of the Great Recession a little uneasy? Maybe her on-again, off-again position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership made people wonder if she had a consistent position on anything.
                Perhaps Bernie Sander’s primary campaign, which highlighted how primary voters’ wishes were easily outweighed by “super delegates,” convinced Bernie’s supporters the nominating system is rigged.
                And, Geez! Mrs. Clinton’s calling half of Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables?” Now, that ranks right up there with Mitt Romney’s calling 47% of Americans “takers.” Except Romney didn’t know he was being taped.   
                Next, some people have become offended by the actions of those of us who are LGBT. We are rapidly moving into the mainstream. Remember in 2004 when all eleven bans on gay marriage passed by wide margins? (Ours in Missouri—a constitutional amendment, no less, passed 71%-29%.) Last year, when the Supreme Court made gay marriage legal, a Gallup poll showed 60% support for that decision. We made a lot of progress in just eleven years. But we pushed our luck.
                In Political Frugality, I told about Jeannie, the former friend who could never be satisfied or happy. She’d want me to do something. Just when I thought I’d met her need and could get on with my life, there was always something else. I eventually had to recognize the friendship was toxic and end it. Well, I think the same is true with LGBT issues. We got gay marriage. That’s a biggie. It gives us access to the financial and legal benefits of marriage. Assuming, though, that we have 60% support for gay marriage, that means 40% still oppose it. In my opinion, in another generation, they’ll change their minds or be dying off. Eventually gay marriage will be the nonissue interracial marriage is today. We need to give people a breather and choose our battles wisely.
                If you’re discriminated against for employment or housing, feel free to cry bloody murder. But a wedding cake? Caterers? Florists? Photographers? C’mon. Grow up already.
                The wedding-industrial complex is large, highly profitable, and highly competitive. Good grief. If someone doesn’t want to bake you a cake, find someone who does. Would you want someone who opposes your lifestyle anywhere near your food? And do you really want your gay money supporting those who don’t like you for who you are?
                We need to recognize many people belong to churches that have taught them homosexuality is wrong and those who practice it are doomed to hell. We don’t share those beliefs, of course, but they’re as real to those folks as our beliefs are to us. Let them get to know us. Let them get to see we’re not the monsters they’ve been led to believe we are. And let them see our money going to their competitors. Money, after all, is this country’s true religion.
                Forcing our beliefs on trivial issues such as cakes, florists, caterers, photographers, etc. probably angered social conservatives enough that they overlooked Trump’s rather tenuous relationship with religion. (Three wives?) The courts that took these issues seriously (including awarding $135,000 to a couple denied a cake in Oregon) may well have made some Catholic and fundamentalist Christians believe the system is rigged against them, too.
                And then there’s the bathroom issue. I sympathize with transgendered people, and I believe the best solution would be a separate bathroom for them; however, that costs money, and sometimes the money is just not there. So, is it better for one person to be uncomfortable when using the bathroom or is it better for one person to make many people uncomfortable? As long as there is a door on the stall, is it really a big deal to go into a bathroom, close the door, and do your thing? By the way, if you’re uncomfortable sharing a bathroom with people of the opposite sex, don’t go to France, where, if the line for the women’s bathroom is long, they simply use the men’s facilities. You get used to it.
                Anyway, perhaps people have had a difficult time hearing so much about bathrooms lately.
                And then we have the issue of political correctness, especially on college campuses. I entered college in 1966. At freshman orientation we were told our beliefs would be challenged, and we may well graduate not only with different political views, but we may question our religions as well.
                Fast forward to the present day. No one wants to hear views they don’t already agree with. College is designated as a “safe space,” where no one is ever confronted with challenging views. Last year a couple of professors at Yale questioned whether the university should police Halloween costumes and advised, “If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.” This started a series of protests that included students’ shouting obscenities at the professors (so much for sensitivity) who stepped down from some of their duties at Yale. Too many speakers at colleges have been “disinvited,” or worse, shouted down for having views that challenge students’ preconceptions, which in some cases is called “invading their safe space.”
                To add to the coddling some colleges provide “trigger warnings” regarding literature assignments. For example, a student reading Huckleberry Finn, written in 1884, would be warned about the use of the n-word. Someone reading Peyton Place or even Gone with the Wind would be warned the books involve sexual assaults. It’s as if college students believe the world always adhered to twenty-first century ideals of morality and sensitivity. (Trigger warning: It didn’t.)
                This belief is leading to the defacing and removal of historical monuments—most notably those pertaining to the Civil War. (Trigger warning: The Civil War was fought between 1861 and 1865; it happened, and many southerners, some of whom who owned slaves, fought in the war, were considered heroes, and monuments were built to them.) The Harvard Law School shield was changed to omit any reference to the Royall family, who owned slaves in the Eighteenth Century. (Trigger warning: Slavery was legal in the Eighteenth Century, not only in the colonies but in the mother country, which outlawed it in 1833.) Princeton students want the name of Woodrow Wilson removed from a building named after him because the former president of the college was a racist. (Trigger warning: Wilson was indeed a racist and generally a nasty piece of work, but he did become President of the United States; I’d say keep the name and put up a plaque detailing how he suspended civil liberties during World War I and hope our President-elect doesn’t do the same.) A similar controversy at Yale involved the John C. Calhoun building. (Trigger warning: Google him yourself.)
                My point in bringing up all these instances of overreach and campus trivia is to focus on what some of us have been considering Important Issues. But take another look at them—wedding cakes for gays, which bathrooms transgendered people should be able to use, campus speakers, Halloween costumes, historic monuments, building names, etc. If you consider what these issues mean to most of America, you’ll find, frankly, my dear, most people just don’t give a damn. Most people are concerned with living day to day, making enough in a difficult economy to feed their families, nursing their old car along because they can’t afford a new one, dealing with aging parents and possibly boomerang kids. When they hear those privileged enough to attend college raging about these issues, they no doubt think, “WTF?”
                Shortly after the election a letter from Edward Warren of Cambridge, Massachusetts to the New York Times summed up what he thought happened succinctly. He’s building a cabin in northern New Hampshire. He’s gotten to know his neighbors in New Hampshire, and he writes, “While my Harvard Kennedy School classmates tend to talk about microaggressions and systemic bias, my rural neighbors deal with opioid addiction, unfulfilling jobs and PTSD from a war they fought for a country that seems to be moving on without them.” 
                In another era, these people would be coming after authority figures with pitchforks. We can thank cable TV and Netflix for keeping them home and occupied watching The Walking Dead. But we can’t really blame them for voting for change.
I am hoping for the best, but it’s difficult to be hopeful with nominees like Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, an organization he’s sued early and often (possibly on behalf of Devon Industry, whose 50-story building dominates the downtown Oklahoma City skyline), former Texas Governor Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy, an agency he campaigned to eliminate (Pruitt’s  and Perry’s nominations remind me of Ronald Reagan’s nominating James Watt for Secretary of Interior), and Exxon president Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State (who brings to mind Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, Charles E. Wilson, former president of General Motors, who when asked about potential conflicts of interest, simply said what’s good for General Motors is good for America—prompting “L’il Abner” cartoonist Al Capp to invent General Bullmoose who believed “What’s good for General Bullmoose is good for the USA”).  Betsy Prince DeVos, who is married to the Amway cult—er, MLM heir and whose brother, Eric, founded the military contractor Blackwater, will be Secretary of Education.
                It’s going to be an interesting four years.

                One last thing. This was the fifth election in which the winner of the popular vote did not win the electoral vote. With the exception of the election of 1824 (before there was a Republican party), every one of these elections has gone to Republicans. It’s high time something was done about the Electoral College. (I’m amazed it survived the election of 2000.)
                We may not be able to get the Electoral College eliminated, but we can change the system state-by-state. Nebraska and Maine split their electoral votes. Let’s start lobbying our state representatives to do the same in the other forty-eight states.

                Up next: The Universal Basic Income.

© 2016 Larry Roth

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The New 65

“I’ve been terminated.”
Dan was calling from his home. It was February 2016, and it wasn’t exactly a shock, but my stomach dropped a few feet nevertheless.
We’d seen it coming. Dan had just turned 56, and he’d been the subject of harassment for at least six months. His workload was increased. He was given new tasks, and when he asked how to do these new tasks, he was simply told, “At your pay grade, you should already know how to do them.”
I’d seen it all before. At Company L in 1993 the same thing happened. One manager told his underlings to “get rid of everyone over 50.” An age discrimination suit followed—and went nowhere. As readers of my 1995 book, Beating the System, will recall, I was not yet 50 when this layoff happened, so, even though I asked to be laid off, I wasn’t.
I never understood the logic of laying off people just because they are over age 50. Do the younger people laying these people off think they will not live to be 50? Before I wrote this article, I Googled the manager who wanted everyone over 50 gone. He’s still with Company L, and he’s now in his 60s.
While Company L could hardly be considered a class act or employee-friendly, Dan’s employer, Three Initial Company (TIC) was even worse. TIC had been making Dan work extra night shifts to debug programs. Dan, as an exempt employee, didn’t get any extra pay for these overnighters, and he was expected to be in the office in time to work his regular shift. It’s interesting that a company can decide an employee is “exempt” and has to work extra hours and then turn around and say, “You have to work your shift.” The night before his termination he’d done one of these overnighters. The debugging didn’t go well because a customer was doing some unscheduled maintenance at the same time. In retrospect, it’s possible Dan was set up. The next morning TIC had Dan’s termination papers and a box for him to use for his personal items. In a final act of tackiness, his last paycheck and unused vacation time were given to him on a debit card. The only thing I can say in TIC’s favor is they at least waited until after the holidays. Company L did not.
Dan had worked at TIC fifteen years. He got unemployment insurance for a few weeks.
Dan had a house with a mortgage and a 401(k). Clearly, we had to do something, and I really didn’t want him to cash in his 401(k). I told him I could probably support two people until he could find something, but I couldn’t support two houses. We’d have to merge into my house. He thought about it and put his house on the market. He could not have picked a better time. He had two full-price offers in two days. And thankfully he had enough equity to let him take his time to find something he will enjoy.
When Dan’s house was under contract, the fun began. Both of us had more stuff than we needed. My house is 1600 square feet; his was 2500. We had a few weeks to decide what to do with our excess stuff. We had a couple of garage sales. Craigslist came in handy. Some things we put on the curb for anyone who wanted them. We donated a lot of stuff. We gave some family memorabilia to—our families. In the end, it turned out that what I had left of my grandparents’ furniture was less important than making room for Dan. I got rid of stuff I never thought I’d part with. But I did.
It was an adjustment for both of us. Dan has never lived with pets. I’ve never been a fan of indoor plants. Now he lives with my dog, Knut, who has always been under the impression Dan is his real owner, anyway, and, well, I’m getting used to plants. I’m a bit oh, what’s the word?—cavalier, maybe?—about housework. Dan’s a neat freak. He has the house cleaner than it’s been since I bought it, and probably cleaner than it was when it was completed in 1927. He’s adapting to a warm house in the summer and a cool one in the winter.
As far as his old job goes, I don’t think he misses it. I miss one perk he used to get—TIC paid half the price of theater tickets, but I’m happy not to have to go to his group’s Christmas parties. We drove forty miles to the last one only to be seated in a basement watching a football game on a huge TV eating food with our fingers. I guess the host was afraid we’d steal the silverware.
Dan’s experience should be a lesson to everyone. You may plan to work until you qualify for Social Security, but your employer may have other plans. When you get older and earn more, you become a target for cost cutting. People in general are living longer, but employers seem to view those over 50 as liabilities who can be replaced by younger, cheaper employees. If you are one of those younger, cheaper employees, here’s a message for you: Start saving as if you will not be able to work past age 50. You have nothing to lose by doing so. If you wind up with an employer who’ll keep you on until normal retirement age, you’ll be that much further ahead. If you wind up losing your job at 50, you’ll be prepared.
Earlier this year I read Disrupted by Dan Lyons. I’d recommend it. It’s about a Newsweek writer who gets laid off at age 52 and winds up in a high-tech start-up and the age discrimination (as well as the amazing stupidity) he encounters in his new environment. I found the Orwellian euphemisms used at the startup interesting. Employees weren’t fired, for example; they simply “graduated” and were no longer there. As another dystopian author would say, it’s a brave new world out there.
And in that world it seems 50 is the new 65. Plan for this new reality.

Coming next: a look at what happened in the election of 2016.

© 2016 Larry Roth

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Salaried Employment: The New Plantation

                 In late November, a U.S. district judge blocked the Department of Labor’s overtime rule that would have mandated overtime pay for more than four million people beginning December 1.
                The rule would have meant any job paying less than $47,476 per year would require that overtime be paid for those working more than 40 hours a week. The court ruling keeps that amount at $23,660, where it’s been since 2004. Pretty much anyone who makes more than $11.38 an hour can be called a salaried employee and lose control of their life.

                If Dick Phelps wasn’t the best manager I ever had, he was certainly up there. He began working for Company L at age 19 forming sheet metal. He put himself through college at night while raising a family. He was opposed to his people working overtime, and you’d better never be caught working on a holiday. Dick believed people needed time away from the office. Toward the end of his career I saw upper management harassing him for being too old and too lenient. Eventually he threw in the towel and retired in 1992.
                One of the upper management guys had a cadre of young up-and-coming men. They were all men. They were all thin. And most of them were blond. Once, after a company picnic, a friend of mine remarked, “There’s not an ugly one in the group.”
                We got one of the cadre as a replacement for Dick. This guy had never worked in our field, and I don’t think he planned to be in that field for long, so why learn it? At any rate, he began making our lives miserable. He bullied my supervisor so frequently and viciously that my supervisor retired and was replaced with an incompetent doofus. He inserted himself into my relationships with subcontractors and was generally a nasty piece of work.
                About this same time, Company L adopted the no overtime pay policy. One upper management guy explained it this way: If I hire someone to do a job, and that job takes twelve hours to do, why should I pay overtime? I’ve hired the guy to do the job, no matter how long it takes.
                How many salaried employees were hired to do just one specific job? And we all know people who are excellent managers of their time and can do a job quickly. What if these folks do their job in four hours? Do they get to call it a day? Face time became a biggie at Company L. I had started Living Cheap Press and was doing my newsletter, Living Cheap News, so I didn’t have a bunch of time to spare, much less play the face time game. But what did amaze me was I saw people coming in when I did and leaving when I did, and these people claimed to be working twelve-hour days. I don’t know if they were counting their commute, but even if they were, there is no way they worked twelve hour days. To make matters worse, many of the people who claimed to be working these long hours could be seen spending a good deal of their time shooting the breeze with others who also claimed to be working long hours while they were at work. I very seriously doubt they were actually working eight hours a day, let alone twelve.
                The face time cult grew, not only at Company L but at our subcontractors. One told me their people were contributing free hours and the company should be paid for these hours because Company L was getting the benefit of the free hours. I considered their request for about thirty seconds and said, pay your people, and we’ll pay you. In fact, it would have been illegal to pay for costs they didn’t incur. I never heard back from them.

The face time cult soon became the dominant force at Company L. I heard one person say, “If you can get your job done in eight hours a day, you don’t have enough work.” I thought that was a bizarre attitude. But it got worse.
If we had business that required travel, we were expected to do that on our own time, since Company L was “not going to pay people to sit on a plane.” Once I caught an early flight home after finishing an assignment. One of our vice presidents was on the same flight—in first class. He asked why I was flying on company time. I told him I’d finished early and didn’t see any reason not to come home. He didn’t make a big deal about it—after all, he was on the same flight on company time, and he was in first class on the company dime.
                In 1993, the year after Dick retired, Company L had a massive layoff. I’ll discuss this more in the next post, but the result was a lot of talent was lost, no one was replaced, and a lot of work was spread around to a diminishing number of staff. I couldn’t talk Company L into laying me off, so I decided to lay them off. The final straw came when I got an “exceeds expectations” rating for my work but a below average raise “because I was already making so much.”
When I was preparing to leave Company L and move back to Kansas City all sorts of people were asking how I could leave the fabulous Bay Area for the Midwest. I simply pointed out that, as beautiful as Northern California is, I never had time to enjoy it.
I recently heard a comic say we work so we can pay for a car to drive to work, clothes to wear to work, and a place to leave empty while we’re at work. In short, he concluded, we work so we can afford to work. Maybe we should examine our lives if we’re stuck in a situation in which we live to work. If we keep putting our lives on hold, we may well wind up running out of time before we have a life.  
After I moved back here in 1995 I finished Beating the System, which remains my favorite of the books I’ve written, and I got a contract to do The Best of Living Cheap News. In 1997 I started a contract job with a local engineering firm that has since been swallowed up by a big firm. That lasted four years and was great. I was paid for every hour I worked—even those I spent on the highway. I was a contractor, and I didn’t have to deal with office politics. Once the company needed someone for a job in California. They asked me if I’d be interested in moving back there. I told them no. They told me to pack my bags and get out there. I said, “You do realize I’m not an employee, don’t you?” They’d forgotten.
That contract ended in 2001. After it ended I was interviewed by a company in Wichita that had underbid a contract and told me I’d be expected to work twelve hour days seven days a week and a company in Independence, Missouri that had ten-hour days and, even though their official workweek was four days, employees were “expected” to work five days. I was happy to say no to both of those generous offers.
I’d forgotten about the face time and free hours until Dan was affected. The last few years has reminded me what salaried employment is like and why I’m so glad it was possible for me to become financially able to decide how and where I’d live and what I’d do with my life.
I’m not shilling Beating the System. I finished it in 1995, and an awful lot has changed since then, but it does give you one blueprint to financial freedom, and financial freedom may be just become more possible with the higher interest rates that seem to be coming soon.
And coming soon, another reason you should plan on early retirement.

In memory of Dick Phelps (1931-2013)

© 2016 Larry Roth

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Magic Jack and Smart TV

                As promised, here are a couple of product reviews for things I have purchased and recommend. Please be assured that I do not get any payment, special treatment, or items in exchange for these reviews.
Magic Jack

                I don’t have a cell phone, and like Jeff Yaeger, author of several cheapskate books, I don’t plan to get one. Not only do I not see a benefit to having a cell phone, I see several ways in which a cell phone would quickly become a hassle, starting with the cost and continuing through being expected to be available to take calls at the caller’s convenience. I don’t feel obligated to provide 24/7 access. I have an answering machine. Leave a message. And how many people have been in a theater when a phone has gone off? I missed some key dialog in a play once because someone thought her incoming calls took precedence over everything. Full disclosure here: Dan has a smartphone, and one in the house is one more than we need.
                Well, now that I’ve got that out of my system, here’s what I do for a phone.
                When I first heard about Magic Jack I thought the name sounded awfully, well, hokey. But then a friend got it and swore by it, so I decided to give it a try.
                At the time, I had AT&T’s DSL Internet service and a landline. The best I can say for DSL is it was better than AOL’s dial-up service. Dealing with AT&T was usually a hassle, and this time was no different. No sooner did I have Magic Jack hooked up and my number ported than AT&T shut down both my landline and the DSL, so I had neither Internet nor phone service for several days. I won’t say it was retaliation, but… . Fortunately, I was able to use the library computer. Finally, AT&T sent someone to my house to get me back online. After that, though, AT&T could never get my bill right. I would spend at least an hour a month arguing with various AT&T customer service reps who would only tell me their first names and where they were located. Kansas City was one of the first markets where Google offered fiber Internet connections. They offered a “free” 5 Mbps Internet for the installation fee of $300 plus tax. I took that option (which is no longer offered), and have been thankful every day for Google Fiber.  
Anyway, with DSL I had to hook the Magic Jack up to the computer and then to the phone system. If the DSL glitched or the power went out, I would have to reboot the Magic Jack. I had that setup several years. When Google Fiber came in, I was able to run Magic Jack through the router. That works great. The best part is the price. The current price is about $60 for the device and a year of service. After that it’s $35 per year, although there are probably multi-year discounts. I think I paid about $100 for five years. You can port your number (for a fee), and you can sign up with 911. Magic Jack is a good replacement for a landline. One thing to be aware of is if your power goes out, so does your Magic Jack, but Magic Jack has voicemail, so, even when your power is out (or you’re on another line), callers can leave you a message. Magic Jack has caller ID (mine usually shows just the number calling).
I’ve used Magic Jack several years, and for the price, I’m thrilled with it.

Smart TV’s

I think I’ve established I’m not an early adopter. I’ve not had cable since about 1990. Until late 2015 I had a 20” CRT TV that at least was digital. (I bought it used.) I used “rabbit ear” antennas to get local channels and relied on the library for DVDs. Then I began hearing about “Smart” TVs. I did some research and bought a Samsung Smart TV at last year’s after-Christmas sales. I paid $280. I’ve seen the same TV for $250 this year.
To be able to use a Smart TV for streaming, you’ll need wifi. If you have an Internet connection, odds are you have wifi. You may need to contact your Internet provider for help getting the codes to access your wifi. My TV basically set itself up. (Gee! It IS smart). Once the TV is set up, you have a whole new world of TV viewing available. There’s lots that’s free—YouTube, for example. You’ll just want to go through the channels and the apps and see what’s available. If you don’t see what you want, you can do a search to see if it’s buried in one of the available offerings. I had a major disappointment with the Samsung. Even though Acorn TV was supposed to be available on the Samsung platform, it wasn’t. Initially I hooked up a “microprocessor” computer to the TV and pulled in Acorn that way. Dan had a Roku (more on that later) that we hooked up, and now I can get Acorn with no problems.
So, you’re probably asking what is Acorn and why is the cheap guy willing to pay for it? Over the years I noticed that a lot of DVDs I’d picked up at the library were distributed by Acorn. They say they offer “the best of British TV,” but in reality they offer programming from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries as well as the United Kingdom. Acorn is $4.95 per month or $50 per year. I allow myself 60-90 minutes of TV a day (in addition to the news—and certainly no daytime network TV; that stuff will rot your brain). Even with my limited viewing time, I think Acorn is a bargain—for me.
Dan subscribes to Netflix, which costs from $8 to $12 per month. Between the two of us we spend less than $20 per month for more TV than we can use.  Some of Acorn’s offerings are duplicated on Netflix, and Netflix has an amazing variety—including all of series such as “Murder She Wrote,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Keeping Up Appearances” (if you’re in a mood to overdose on Hyacinth), tons of movies old and new and much more. I guess for most people, Netflix would be the better deal, but I really like Acorn’s offerings. Both Acorn and Netflix allow more than one TV to have the service, so, if you’re a parent and your kids are away at school, they may be able to use your subscription.
One funny thing about Acorn. They keep sending me emails advertising sales on their DVDs. I don’t quite understand that. To me one of the advantages of subscribing to streaming services is not having to own DVDs. But perhaps not everyone feels that way.
I’m sold on Smart TV, but if I had my purchase to do over, I’d go for a regular TV and add Roku, which can make almost any TV “smart.” I like the Roku interface better than Samsung’s, and there’s so much I can do on Roku. Let’s say I want to watch part of the PBS NewsHour, but not all of it. (I especially like the Shields and Brooks segment on Fridays). I can wait until Saturday and just watch that on the PBS app on Roku. Same if I go out to dinner and miss the NBC Nightly News. I know you folks who have cable have DVRs and can watch at your leisure, but you’re paying more than $20 a month.
One thing to be aware of: we get our local stations with antennas. When it’s really rainy or windy our reception is not as good as it could be. Some people have roof antennas (everything old is new again) and say they work great, but we haven’t tried that yet.
For someone who can (just barely) remember when my folks got their first TV—in the days of programming only being available from NBC and CBS (and much of that an overnight test pattern), I’m simply amazed at how far TV has come. And who knows what’s coming next?

What’s coming next on this blog is a look at salaried employment as the new plantation.

©2016 Larry Roth

Sunday, December 4, 2016

I'm Back

                Several readers of my past masterpieces have asked my opinion on various topics, most recently the surprise election of Donald Trump. Inevitably they say, “I wish you’d write a new book.” Whenever I hear that, I think of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, sitting in her mansion thinking the world is on hold waiting for her “return.” Poor Norma. She left the pictures in 1927. Sunset Boulevard was produced in 1950. While Norma was writing her comeback--I mean return--vehicle, “Salome,” the world had gone through the Great Depression and World War II. Everyone but Norma had moved on.
                Nevertheless, I do occasionally feel that I have something to say that my former—and perhaps some new—readers might find interesting and maybe even helpful. I considered a book, but the thought of all that work and expense with the probable result being more unsold inventory in my basement collecting dust was a major deterrent. Then someone suggested a blog. I decided to give it a go, and here I am.
                A blog has many advantages over a book. For one thing, it’s free for me to write and for you to read. Perhaps more important I can get instant feedback. If I make an error, you can tell me about it, and I can correct it, which brings me to the back cover of Political Frugality. I apologize for not proofreading that back cover. I will tell you what happened. I’m not making excuses, but I do have a reason for not being as attentive as I should have been.
                I sent the manuscript to the printers in March 2005. Very shortly afterward my father became ill. He was 85 and had been in reasonably good health, but one evening his foot just didn’t work. The next day he went to the doctor, who put him in the hospital. Shortly afterwards he had a minor stroke. And then his body just seemed to shut down. He reminded my sister that our mother had died on April 11 two years earlier. He died April 10. Had 2004 not been a leap year our parents would have died the same calendar day.
                And that’s the reason I was distracted and didn’t proofread as thoroughly as I should have.
                So, to answer some questions readers of Political Frugality may have, yes, Dan and I are still together. Last July (2016) was our twelfth anniversary, which means Dan, who is nearly twelve years younger than I, is now as old as I was when we first got together. Until last April we had separate houses. As you’ll read in more detail in a later chapter, we merged households this year (2016).
                No, we’ve not married. This may surprise people who read Political Frugality. Until this year Dan was working and had a decent income, so it just didn’t make sense to get married and pay more taxes. But that may change. At any rate, it’s nice to have the option.
                And yes, I’ve kept my weight off. It hasn’t really been difficult, but I continue to eat two meals a day. And of course I’m still cheap, but things change, and I’ve changed my mind about some of the things I’ve written in the past. For example, I bought—gasp!—a new car in 2014. I still love to travel. Last year Grand Circle had a last-minute cruise deal to the Greek Islands off the Turkish coast. I not only got to see the islands and parts of Turkey (again), I got to see first-hand a small part of the mass exodus from Syria. The people I saw were middle class and many spoke English. I suspect leaving their formerly comfortable lives behind was the most difficult thing they’d ever done. I’m scheduled to travel to the ‘Stans next fall. Who knows what experiences await there?
                So, no, I’ve not been sitting in my hovel plotting my “return,” but then I’ve not been away as long as Norma was.

                Coming next, a couple of neat ways to save money—Magic Jack and Smart TVs.