originally published in the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, March 8, 2009
“Hey, you!” I said to my boss. “Yeah, I’m talking to you. You know
the money you’ve been paying me? It’s not enough. I want more.”
“Sorry, no can do,” my boss said apologetically. “We can’t afford more than we already pay. You know how dismal the economy’s been.”
“Whether you can afford it isn’t my problem,” I insisted. “My problem is, I want more money and if you don’t hand it over I’ll put a lien on your house or revoke your driver’s license or something.”
These are serious consequences. Most people, when told “Gimme more money or give up your house and driving privileges,” have no choice but to pay. Not my boss, though. He only laughed, and after a few confused moments I realized why.
“Oops,” I said meekly. “Never mind. For a moment there, I thought I was a government worker and you were ‘My Boss’ only in the sense of being ‘The taxpayers who fund my salary.’ But I forgot: unlike a taxpayer, you have the right to say ‘no’ when folks demand more than you can afford, don’t you? Dang.”
I blame my mistake on geography. I live in Connecticut, where towns and cities get most of their money from “property taxes,” which is the tax people pay if they want to own property. Unfortunately, owning “property” doesn’t always mean you have actual “money,” especially in today’s economy.
For the past umpteen years, Nutmeg municipalities had the habit of passing annual tax increases equal to or greater than the rate of inflation. When the economy was expanding and people’s wages rose each year, this was merely an annoyance. But nowadays, taxpayers facing pay cuts or wage freezes (if not complete loss-of-job) simply can’t afford higher tax bills. Yet their local councils are inflicting them anyway.
Even worse, tax bills are an all-or-nothing proposition. Most living expenses can be cut one way or other; turn down the heat to lower your utility bill, or buy cheaper cuts of meat to slash grocery costs. But if your city assessor says “You owe $7,000 tax on your house,” you can’t counter with, “How about I seal off the den, and you knock a thousand off my bill?”
Municipalities don’t write budgets the same way you do. When you plan a budget, you count how much money you have and then decide what you can afford to spend. Government does it backwards: count how much money they plan to spend and then set tax rates so they can afford it.
And if you say “Sorry, I can’t give you any more,” the government (unlike me with my boss) really can tell you, “Whether you can afford it isn’t my problem. I want more money and if you don’t hand it over I’ll put a lien on your house or revoke your driver’s license or something.”
I’ve lost count, these past few weeks, of how many stories this newspaper has printed about city-government workers getting wage increases while their private-sector counterparts do without. The rationale seems to be, “A basket-case economy is no problem when we can force taxpayers to fill the basket with money.”
Enjoy your pay raises, guys! I’ll be subsisting on oatmeal and memories so I can afford to fund them.
originally published in the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, March 1, 2009
Behold what a badass I used to be: One weekend, back in my wild and
tempestuous grad school days, I bought a bottle of bourbon at 9:17 p.m.
And Scotch, and mixers too.
“I don’t get it,” you might say if you live in most parts of the country. “What’s badass about an over-21 adult buying liquor so early in the evening, then taking it home to share with age-appropriate friends?”
But if you live in Connecticut, as I do, you’ll recognize the rebellious nature of my youthful actions. Bottled alcohol sales here are illegal after 9 p.m., and all day on Sundays. Even 9 o’clock is permissive by historical standards; in my school days, alcohol’s witching hour fell at 8 p.m.
Of course, you can still buy liquor until 1 or 2 in the morning, if you go to a bar and drink it there. You just can’t take the safer option of driving home before drinking what you bought.
That’s what made my student self such a badass party hostess by Nutmeg State standards: I bought those bottles an hour and 17 minutes too late.
But I’m not confessing to any crime here. I obeyed the letter of the liquor law even as I violated its spirit — I simply crossed the nearest state line to a still-open liquor store. That’s easy in a tiny state such as Connecticut, where the border is rarely more than an hour away and usually less than that.
Ah, nostalgia. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Good Old Days, when I was younger and the economy hadn’t started doing cliff-diver impersonations. Now with everything in freefall, some Connecticut lawmakers — even the governor herself — are suggesting we dismantle certain laws, such as the alcohol ones, written solely to make it harder for in-state consumers to spend money — and pay sales tax — close to home.
To that end, three state representatives from the border town of Enfield have proposed legislation allowing liquor stores open on Sundays, while Gov. M. Jodi Rell suggested allowing Indian casinos to serve alcohol far into the wee hours of the morning.
Naturally, there’s opposition to both proposals. Some argue the state has a moral duty to prevent alcohol purchases at certain dates and times. Others say the law should be changed only if it makes money for the state, and there’s no evidence expanded alcohol hours would do that. Sunday openings are even opposed by liquor-store owners far from the border towns, who enjoy taking time off with no fear their competitors might make sales in the meantime.
I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I rarely drink, never gamble, and wouldn’t dream of doing anything as bureaucracy-intensive as getting a liquor license. But I support these proposals all the same: Let the stores open Sundays, let the casinos serve drinks all night. Heck, let bars and restaurants do it too, if they wish.
Would this make money for the state? Maybe. Maybe not. But that’s not the question to ask, unless you like the implication “Citizens should only do things if the state makes money off it.”
Of course, I belong to the demographic old enough to engage in nostalgia. Maybe that’s why I get all crotchety at the suggestion I’m just a revenue source for the government, rather than the ostensibly free citizen of a democratic republic.
originally published in the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, February 22, 2009
You know those history-book photos of 1920s German housewives
shoveling banknotes into their stoves? The captions explain that
runaway inflation in the Weimar Republic made burning money cheaper
than buying coal.
This will never happen to the American dollar, because anyone who tries burning it will have 15 environmental agencies write him up for pollution violations. Financial writers might discuss how dollar bills make an economical substitute for toilet paper, but there won’t be iconic photos for the history books.
Interesting times ahead, now that President Barack Obama has signed the stimulus bill. I personally couldn’t feel more stimulated if I wore a wet bathing suit and threw myself against an electrified fence. But I’m not bashing Obama for this. The stimulus proposal predates his administration, and a President John McCain would’ve signed one too.
Here’s how it’s supposed to work: Humankind has known for centuries that the world is round. Therefore, if the economy tumbles down after falling into a deep debt hole, the solution is to dig even deeper until you tunnel completely through the Earth and climb out the hole again.
If a principle works in geography class, it applies to economics too. Right? The stimulus builds upon last autumn’s Wall Street/banker/big-company bailout, which said the way to fix a trashed economy is to hand your money over to the folks who trashed it.
I remember when then-President George W. Bush speechified the bailout. “It will help American consumers and businesses get credit to meet their daily needs,” he said.
“That’s how we got in trouble in the first place!” I shouted. “ ‘Get credit’ is a euphemism for ‘Go into debt,’ and consumers shouldn’t do that just to meet their daily needs!”
“Stop yelling at the television,” my roommate said. “The TV people aren’t listening to you.”
“I know,” I said. “If they did, we wouldn’t be in this mess.” Long before the terms “housing bubble” or “subprime mortgage” entered the zeitgeist, I smelled a problem when, as a recent college grad owing nearly a year’s salary in student-loan debt, I kept hearing from banks who wanted to lend me more money than I’d make in 10 years.
“Are you nuts?” I demanded. “I couldn’t pay down a mortgage that size unless I won Powerball.”
“Stop yelling at your junk mail,” said my roommate.
“Yelling at junk mail is healthier than taking its advice,” I pointed out. So I ignored those mortgage offers and stayed in my apartment while the bubble ballooned.
“Houses historically cost about three years’ salary for the buyer,” I thought. “I’ll buy when they drop back to that level.”
So I smiled when the bubble started deflating last summer. My debts are paid off, I thought. I’ve saved a big down payment. Soon I can buy a house of my own.
But I didn’t reckon on the stimulus bill. Its backers think affordable housing is bad for America, so they’re spending nearly a trillion dollars to prop up house prices, whereas I’ll get up to $13 in tax rebates per paycheck.
I’ll use the money to buy an enormous novelty lollipop. This symbolizes what a sucker I was, rejecting a mortgage just because I couldn’t afford it. Turns out the smart move would’ve been going over my head in debt, crying victim when the bills came due and waiting for that sweet stimulus money to bail me out.
originally published in the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, February 15, 2009
People of America, rejoice! I passed my Homeland Security check with
flying colors, which means you can safely read my articles without
worrying that you’re endangering the security of the homeland or
I’m serious. When I started working for this paper full-time, I expected the HR lady to hand me a thick pile of forms to fill out. And she did.
I did not expect one of the forms to feature the words “Department of Homeland Security” written prominently atop it. Yet it did.
Why, you might wonder, is the identity of the arts and entertainment reporter for a couple of central Connecticut dailies considered a homeland security matter? Good question. Turns out it’s not just my identity they’re worried about; that Homeland Security document is the standard citizenship form everyone in America must fill out to take a job.
It probably makes sense for Homeland Security to keep track of such folks as nuclear-plant operators and secret-weapon manufacturers. The wrong person in a job such as that could cause serious damage. But art reporters? Retail workers? Every single job in America? How does Homeland Security find time to root out actual terrorist threats when they’re keeping files on every teenage Taco Bell employee in the country?
I can’t answer that question; I’m still struggling to figure out why three ounces of shampoo in a flier’s carry-on luggage is fine, while four ounces is a terrorist threat worthy of confiscation. But I have a theory. Maybe “national security” is just a catch-all excuse to justify government involvement in even the most minute aspects of ordinary American lives.
Think I’m kidding? Then consider this: Ten years ago, I would’ve laughed at anyone paranoid enough to say the federal government would claim jurisdiction over the toiletries I take on vacation with me. Today they can laugh at me for doubting them instead.
But I’m drifting away from my original point, which is: My presence here at the newspaper in no way threatens the safety of our country. Though this has more to do with editorial vigilance than anything Homeland Security’s up to. Fact is, I’ve been trying to hide secret security-threat messages in most of the stories I write, but whenever I do this, the damned editor and his so-called “improvements” ruin it every time.
For example, I tried giving one recent story the headline:
AT The blACK
hisTOry MOnth aRRt shOW
The editor changed this to “Art exhibit reports high Saturday turnout,” then called me into his office and made tsk-tsk finger gestures while he lectured me about brevity, spelling, proper capitalization and other things I’m professionally obligated to care about. I responded with a finger gesture of my own, though I waited until after he’d turned his back.
In other news, unemployment rates have risen again, as the American economy shed another few dozen thousand jobs last month. Which is a terrible strain for the newly unemployed, but consider the silver lining framing those dark economic clouds: with less jobs for the government to keep track of, maybe they’ll have time to pay attention when the next “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside The U.S.” memo lands on some overworked security officer’s desk.
originally published in the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, February 8, 2009
Remember in “The Wizard of Oz” when Toto tugged at the curtain and
revealed the fraudulent, unsustainable nature of Emerald City’s whole
wizard-centric way of running things? For some reason that image occurs
to me whenever our fine elected officials give their latest “My fellow
Americans, regarding the economy, we’re screwed” speech.
Of course we are. Economies based on unpayable debts, rulers claiming fake magic powers — sooner or later, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” stops working, so you witness the “Come out and fess up” stage instead.
It happened in Connecticut last week. Things are so bad here, our governor went on TV to speechify the state’s economic woes. (Note to out-of-staters: This was a big deal because it’s the first televised speech she’s given in her four and a half years as governor. M. Jodi Rell usually prefers communicating with the masses via more traditional methods, like parade appearances.)
State tax revenues dropped sharply because people have less money to tax, which means they can’t afford another tax increase. Rell, to her credit, said she recognizes that. No tax hikes, she says, but budget cuts will be “painful” and require “sacrifice.”
She later noted, “We can do with fewer laws on the books.”
Amen. I personally favor a constitutional amendment mandating zero-growth legal codes: For every law enacted, an old one must be repealed.
Meanwhile, we’d save lots of money with the proposal of state lawmakers Martin Looney and Toni Harp of New Haven, who suggested following Massachusetts’ lead in decriminalizing marijuana on the grounds that we can’t afford to keep arresting and prosecuting people who use it.
The monetary cost is high enough. There’s also the question of whether an ostensibly free country should have the world’s highest prison population. One-fourth of the world’s prisoners are serving time in the United States, and half of all American prisoners are incarcerated on drug charges. That’s one-eighth of the planet’s prison population whose only crime was using or selling intoxicants no worse — and in many ways better — than alcohol.
If you think marijuana should remain illegal, then repeat after me: “America should take more than 40 percent of its adults, and 50 percent of its high school students by the time they reach graduation, and put them in prison. They all deserve criminal records.”
Seriously, that’s a conservative statistic of how many Americans have violated marijuana laws. Generally via smoking it. Often more than once. Most of us turned out fine.
If full enforcement of a law requires arresting and prosecuting nearly half of a country’s 300 million people, does this suggest something inherently wrong with the law? Or does it instead argue for the selective enforcement we have now, where poor and dark-skinned offenders become “drug felons” while their paler and wealthier cousins largely escape police notice?
Now a practical question. If a decriminalization bill passes the legislature, will Rell sign or veto it? In 2007 she vetoed medical marijuana, which is why Connecticut still prosecutes and imprisons sick people for treating themselves with the “wrong” medicine.
But these prosecutions happened before the economy entered meltdown mode. The threat of statewide financial collapse might change Jodi Rell’s mind where simple human compassion did not.
originally published February 1, 2009 in the Middletown Press, Bristol Press and New Britain Herald
The theory of Belligerent Design states that the universe was
created by an intelligent being with a chip on his shoulder, who takes
his aggression out on hapless humans such as you and me.
This theory isn’t taught in schools, due to opposition from the so-called scientific community over the lack of so-called evidence, but there’s no reason science and belligerent design can’t co-exist. Science concerns itself with “how” things happen. Belligerent design explains “why.”
For example, a scientist can tell you how natural forces such as evaporation, wind currents and temperature gradients combine to make winter storms like the one we had last week, which started off with snowfall before switching to ice that froze itself onto everything it touched.
But science can’t explain why — this is true — the snow-to-ice switch happened at the exact moment I started shoveling snow off my car to get to work. Science is also silent regarding why, when I left work that night, I spent 20 minutes chipping my car out from a block of solid ice, and the second I finished, the temperatures rose above freezing so the remaining ice melted off all by itself.
This was not coincidence. These were the actions of a belligerent designer.
Another reason I wholeheartedly embrace the theory of BD is that the alternative — at least for me — is admitting my problems are my own fault.
I swear, leaving the Southland and moving to Connecticut specifically for the weather sounded like a great idea when I first conceived it, on a hot August night after college when I drove home from a friend’s party at 2 a.m. and the bank-clock thermometers read 92 degrees.
“I’d rather have cold weather than hot,” my deluded young self explained to her friends as she boxed up her worldly possessions and moved north. “If you’re too cold you can always put on another sweater, but if it’s too hot you can only strip down so far before you start looking indecent.”
Of course, there’s a lot more to winter than dressing for the cold. I thought I understood that. “There’s nothing more picturesque than a New England landscape after a fresh snowfall!” I gushed. “Not like the gray, dreary rain we get down here. I’d rather have the snow.”
Idiot. I based this theory partially on fond memories of living here as a child. Sledding downhill on white blankets of snow before coming indoors to drink steaming hot cocoa … turns out the best way to appreciate the beauty of a Connecticut winter is to move away from it when you’re 6 and then, years later, when you’re all grown up and living in Virginia and it’s 92 degrees at 2 a.m., you can dream of northern climes and make a terrible decision ultimately leading to indignities such as the ones I suffered last week.
Not until too late did I realize my 6-year-old self had always been too young to drive and too short to scrape ice off the windshield. What did she know of winter? Nothing of relevance to adults.
The moral of the story is, don’t base important life decisions on your memories of first grade. But if you do anyway, Belligerent Design theory teaches that this is the Creator’s fault, not yours, for belligerently designing the human brain to make childhood memories so untrustworthy.
originally published January 18, 2009 in the New Britain Herald, Bristol Press and Middletown Press
You know those free online e-mail accounts where you’re guaranteed
no-cost access from every Internet connection in the world in exchange
for being constantly pummeled by annoying flash ads, fluffhead
celebrity news links and the occasional virus attack that crashes your
entire hard drive?
I have one, and in recent days it’s been impossible to check my messages without seeing headlines raving about the hot new fashion trend gaining popularity in today’s pre-Depression economy: Shop your closet.
In other words, ladies (and a few gentlemen, too): Instead of buying new clothes, just wear the ones you’ve already got. It’s easy if you’re a grown-up who’s worn the same size for several years now.
Fashion writers didn’t invent “Shop your closet”; they gave the name to a trend already in existence. More Americans every day are shopping their closets, attics and even local food banks, because the economy keeps creating more people whose only choices are “shop your closet” and “don’t shop at all.”
I’m all set for clothes these days, so these articles tell me nothing I don’t know already. What would really help my finances is a story explaining how, if you’d like to save gas money and the Earth by driving a hybrid, you don’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars because you can just “shop your garage.”
Except I don’t have one, since I live in an apartment. Even with a garage, I doubt I could reach in back and find some adorable little automotive ensemble I forgot I had. Neither can you, unless you belong to that tiny minority of Americans who own automotive junkyards.
But that’s good. If all car buyers could just shop their garage, the auto industry would demand more bailout money and when tax time came, you’d pay for it anyway. Since the garment industry hasn’t asked for a bailout yet, you can still safely shop your closet.
If too many people do this, however, our economy will sink even lower. Behold a paradox: You, personally, are better off if you have low spending, high savings and no debt. So is everyone else you know. But such habits provide none of the gasoline needed to keep our consumer-based economic engine running.
Picture two mirrors set up to reflect endless images into each other: one labeled “As more people lose jobs and investments, fewer can afford to buy things,” and the other “As fewer people can afford to buy things, more lose investments and jobs.”
It almost makes your conscience hurt, to think your economic survival runs counter to the common good. Is that an indictment of you or the system?
Things were easier after 9/11. Remember when Americans asked “What can we do as individuals to strike back against the terrorists who attacked our country” and the president said, “Go shopping?”
I bought socks the Saturday after the attack. I’d noticed, in the waning days of the pre-9/11 era, that my old socks were pretty stretched out, so when I replaced them it was very empowering to think “These socks won’t just keep my feet warm this winter, they strike a blow in defense of freedom and Western civilization. Take that, Osama!”
But there’s no way President Bush — or the President Obama we’ll have this Tuesday — can tell contemporary Americans “Buy more things and we’ll be fine.”
Meanwhile, I need warm socks because there’s a bone-numbing cold snap freezing my little corner of New England. I’ll shop my sock drawer to see if I have any old freedom socks left.
originally published in the New Britain Herald, Middletown Press and Bristol Press, January 11, 2009
With the economy careening toward Great Depression 2.0, socially
responsible writers like me produce helpful news-you-can-use articles
in the “How to save money for the tough times ahead” genre. So here
goes: Clip coupons, brown bag your lunches, turn down the heat and put
a sweater on.
And a bonus tip for parents whose children are in their “growing like a weed” phase (birth through college): Since your kids outgrow their outfits every three months anyway, you can save a bundle by shopping at consignment stores, thrift shops and other used-stuff emporiums.
Until Feb. 10. That’s the day a law called the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act is slated to come into force and effectively make it illegal to sell used clothing, toys or any other item for children below age 12. Goodbye, Goodwill. Sayonara, Salvation Army. Farewell, flea market.
What the law actually requires is that all such products for sale first be tested for lead and other harmful chemicals. If you’re a large, established company with an enormous operating budget, this’ll be inconvenient, but at least you can probably afford it. If you’re a little mom-and-pop business, a startup on a shoestring or a charity thrift store subsisting on donations, you probably cannot.
So if the law isn’t changed, on Feb. 10 all untested children’s clothes and toys for sale in new and secondhand shops across America will be legally deemed “hazardous waste” and dumped into landfills.
This is to protect The Children. Remember the thousand or so “poison Chinese consumer product” stories you saw last year? And all the outraged Americans who demanded government do something about them?
Government did. If you watch pharmaceutical commercials, you know that any prescription comes with nasty side effects, and it’s just too bad the prescription “Test every children’s item sold” has the side effect “Drive everyone out of business except the big chain stores and manufacturers.”
To lawmakers’ credit, they had the grace to act embarrassed when small at-home clothing and toy makers said these testing costs would drive them out of business. So there’s talk of exempting all-natural items, such as cotton or wool, from the test mandates. But no exemption for artificial materials such as synthetic dyes and polyester threads that are still found in every kid’s item in America. No exemption for hand-me-downs, either.
The Act passed unanimously in the House of Representatives (all five of Connecticut’s Congresscritters voted for it) and by an overwhelming majority in the Senate (both of Connecticut’s Senators voted for it) before President Bush signed it into law (at least he’s leaving).
So if you’re happy with the child-safety boost scheduled for February, make sure you call your elected officials and express your gratitude. “Thanks for driving up the cost of new items and making the sale of used ones impossible,” you can say. “And thanks for giving big retailers a boost, too. Obliterating the competition ought to help their bottom line.”
Perhaps the politicians — or their flunkies assigned to speak with constituents — will harrumph and tell you, “We’re looking into it. We didn’t realize how far-reaching this law actually was.” In which case you can reply, “Oh. Thanks for voting on a law without knowing what the hell you voted for, then.” And if you’re feeling double-extra-super grateful, you can add, “No wonder Congress voted itself a pay raise last year. You guys deserve it.”
The last presidential election was also the first one with voters
too young to personally remember the 1980s. But this newly voting
generation grew up hearing their elders speak of a decade dominated by
mullet haircuts, Reaganomics and gory slasher flicks featuring a maniac
who slices and diced his way through dozens of sexy (despite the
mullets) teenagers until one of them finally manages to kill the maniac
Of course, by the time this happens, the maniac’s already murdered most of the characters in the movie. There’s only one or two left at the end, but you get the idea that they’ll turn out all right: “Now that the Bad Man’s gone, our troubles are over.”
Too bad things don’t work that way in the nonmovie world. Imagine the real-life survivor of an ’80s slasher spree trying to explain this to the police: “I know I’m drenched in blood that isn’t mine, and there’s a lot of fresh corpses in that abandoned summer camp just behind me, but I swear: It was the serial killer you thought you gunned down umpty-squat years ago this very night. Or the evil school janitor who died in a fire and kills kids in their dreams.”
Cops almost never fall for stories like that. So if I were a character in an ’80s horror flick and managed to outlive the psycho killer and make it to the end credits, I’d turn to my surviving friends and say “The Bad Man is gone, but we’re still in a world of hurt.”
Which, coincidentally, is exactly how I feel when contemplating the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama. Granted, I expect he’ll do a much better job than his predecessor. Of course, I’d say the same thing if America elected a Magic 8 Ball with half its fluid leaked out.
“Look here, Mr. President, another wad of Congressional legislation just plopped onto your desk. Do you want to sign it into law?” [Shake clunk shake clunk shake clunk] “‘Ask again later.’ Ah, you want to give it some thought, do you? That’s an encouraging sign. Especially considering all the troubles our country faces.”
But they’re not the sort of troubles you can relate to in an ’80s slasher movie. Contemporary American problems hearken back to the 1970s, the decade in which our country had to admit failure in a foreign war while our domestic economy and international prestige levels went straight to hell, followed closely by horror-movie writers in search of inspiration.
That’s why ’70s characters had it worse than their ’80s counterparts. “All right, I made it to the end of the script, but I still live in a world where the devil regularly possesses little girls or takes over a suburban home or knocks up a housewife with the Antichrist. And there’s earthquakes and sharks and ships that tip over, too.”
Problems such as these won’t vanish just because you get rid of one man. Neither will the problems facing America today.
Then again, the first time Americans faced ’70s-style problems, we were also cursed with ’70s-style presidents. Maybe this time we’ll get lucky.