Monthly Archives: March 2012

Mini-Rumination: The Party of Fiscal Responsibility

In his last four years in office, Richard Nixon ran modest budget deficits totaling $64 billion.  (All budget deficit figures come from the very cool “Find the Data” web site, which you can find here.)

Every year Gerald Ford was president, he ran modest budget deficits – modest, but larger than Nixon’s:  three years, $133 billion.

Ronald Reagan, Mr. Conservative himself, pushed deficit-spending to new levels:  eight years in office, eight budget deficits, starting from $79 billion in his first year, 1981, and rising to a consistent $100 billion or $200 billion in his remaining years in office.  Reagan’s grand total:  about $1.2 trillion in deficit spending for eight years in office.

His successor, George H.W. Bush, increased the deficit, up to $300 billion in each of his last three years in office.  His total:  $1.3 trillion in deficit spending.  (Those Bush men are such achievers.)

Bill Clinton had five years of budget deficits, all smaller than his predecessor, totaling $300 billion.  In his last three years in office he ran budget surpluses totaling $430 billion.  The Clinton legacy:  eight years in office and a $130 billion surplus.

George W. Bush inherited a budget surplus, ran one his first year, and then had seven years of budget deficits.  His deficits were bigger than Reagan’s and bigger than his father’s – all the way up to $500 billion in his last year, 2008.  His grand total for seven years of deficits and a lone year of surplus:  deficit spending of more than $2 trillion.  (Who said junior was an under-achiever?)

So can someone please explain to The Curmudgeon why Republicans are viewed as the fiscally responsible party?

The Whole Foods Racket

Curmudgeon that he is, The Curmudgeon has long thought that the almost-supermarket chain Whole Foods was a bit of a racket, and the recent opening of a new Whole Foods outside Philadelphia reminded him of this.

According to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the opening of a new Whole Foods in the Philadelphia suburb of Glen Mills attracted the kind of attention that Glen Campbell might’ve drawn in the late 1960s, complete with “crowds that were jammed into the overflow parking lot and maneuvering around the available food.”  The store’s opening caused the editor of something called Progressive Grocer (by the way:  really?  A publication called Progressive Grocer?  Yeesh) to gush, “People feel really, really good about it when you get a flagship store…from one of the most respected retailers in the nation, and they pick your neighborhood…People take it very seriously because it’s, like, our store.”

Like wow.  Like did this person just leave the staff of her, like, high school newspaper?

Whole Foods reminds The Curmudgeon of the old saying that you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.  Whole Foods seems to have built a large, successful business by fooling some of the people all of the time.

Now The Curmudgeon understands that some food is better for you than other food.  He also understands that some food tastes better than other food and that some food is made with better ingredients than others or grown or raised under better conditions than others.  But the entire Whole Foods phenomenon seems to be based on a combination of playing to people’s fears that the food they’re eating isn’t good for them and then selling them on the notion that if they buy this allegedly “better” food, they’re somehow better than people who shop at regular supermarkets, will be happier and healthier than people who shop at regular supermarkets, and will enjoy some kind of moral superiority over people who shop at regular supermarkets.

Whole Foods appears to be at least as much about status as it is about food.  People talk about shopping at Whole Foods in much the same way that they talk about staying at a Four Seasons hotel; the way they mention the prestige car they drive; or the way, back in the early 1980s, they would turn around and show you their rear-end so you could see the word “Jordache” or “Sasson” tattooed over their blue jeans-covered buttocks.

The Whole Foods people really milk it for all it’s worth, too.  (Not that they shouldn’t, by the way.  Contrary to the hallowed tones in which many of their customers talk about it, Whole Foods is a profit-seeking business, not a co-op or a cause.)  They do it by charging outlandish prices for the same basic food you can buy elsewhere – in some cases, even the exact same product.  (Yahoo Finance pegs the average net margin for grocery stores at 1.5 percent; Whole Foods’ net operating margin, it touts in its own documents, is 5.6  percent.  Draw your own conclusions – but thank you for paying four dollars for a single box of whole wheat pasta, sucker.)

Whole Foods sells things that are implicitly better or better for you than what you can buy elsewhere.  Most of it is just a variation on what you buy at your neighborhood supermarket, but some of it is weird stuff – something along the lines of twelve-dollar bars of goat dung soap.  The implicit message, by virtue of its very presence in the store, is that it’s something you should have known is good for you and something you definitely should put in your cart before you head to the check out (where you risk a derisive look from the cashier if you fail to bring your own bags made of fair trade hemp picked at the edge of the rain forest by aboriginal people wearing grass skirts who were paid fair wages).  Yes, they’re environmentalists, too – although that didn’t stop the company from tearing down an existing supermarket in that Philadelphia suburb and then building a new one from the ground up on the same site.  The Curmudgeon suspects that profitability at least occasionally trumps environmentalism for the good folks at Whole Foods.

How do they do it?  They’ve very successfully created an aura about their company and the goods they sell.  “The food we sell is good for you.”  “The food we sell is better for you than the food you can buy at the supermarket down the road.”  “It’s only reasonable that food that’s better for you should cost more.”  “You should be grateful that we’re here to offer you this very expensive food.”

The worst part of it is that while Whole Foods customers appear to take this aura very seriously – and are more than willing to open their wallets extra wide to put their money where their mouth is – The Curmudgeon suspects that the Whole Foods people know better.  He imagines store managers sitting in their offices, and corporate officials with their feet up on their desks at their headquarters in Austin, laughing out loud at their customers, absolutely amazed that after so many years, they continue to fool so many of the people so much of the time.  It’s quite an achievement, when you think about it.

But it doesn’t fool The Curmudgeon.  He’s lived within walking distance of a Whole Foods for the past eight years and probably hasn’t been in that store ten times during that period.  He gave it a fair shot, but the fruit doesn’t taste any sweeter; the chicken doesn’t taste any chickenier; the fish doesn’t seem any fresher; the local brand of ice cream that costs fifty cents less at the supermarket a half-mile away isn’t any richer; and the hot table from which food is there for the taking for a quick meal seems no less likely to serve as an incubator for bacteria than the hot table at the supermarket down the road.  As for the baked goods, well, this is an area of special interest and expertise for The Curmudgeon, and let us just note that he is unimpressed.

The Curmudgeon always says “To each his own,” and maybe some people can feel or taste the difference and maybe those people will live longer, be happier, and win their office NCAA basketball tournament pool and don’t mind spending all that money for the feeling of moral superiority it gives them.  To The Curmudgeon, however, the exaltation of Whole Foods is a little half-baked.

Mini-Rumination: Unelite Elites

The Curmudgeon has never been much for all this talk about “elites.”  As far as he can tell, most of the people who complain about elites are just looking for an easy way to label people who don’t agree with them.  Instead of talking about such disagreements in a constructive way, they find it easier to try to stick a nasty label on the people with whom they disagree.  Besides, when people talk about elites they’re usually talking about east coast liberals who attended highly regarded colleges.  Well, that description fits The Curmudgeon to a T, but anyone who knows him knows there’s nothing about The Curmudgeon that’s even remotely elite.

This came to mind last week when The Curmudgeon was reading the latest edition of the magazine Washington Monthly.  He adores Washington Monthly.  It’s leftist, sure, but it also features a healthy dose of common sense.  He’s read it on and off since 1983, when he first found back issues sitting on a bookshelf at the non-profit for which he worked at the time.

The March/April edition of Washington Monthly includes what appeared to be a promising article about airline deregulation – “promising” because The Curmudgeon never finished it.  Fairly early in the article, authors Phillip Longman and Lina Khan wrote that

If you’re a member of the creative class who rarely does any business in the nation’s heartland or visits relatives there, you might not notice the magnitude of economic disruption being caused by lost airline service and skyrocketing fares.

The Curmudgeon will never know if “Terminal Sickness” fulfilled its promise because the sentence above was the last one he read:  he knows when he’s being talked down to by people who think they’re special – and better than their readers.  “Creative class”?  Please – someone get The Curmudgeon an airsick bag.

Washington Monthly is a terrific magazine:  interesting, insightful, thought-provoking, and generally well-written.  If The Curmudgeon could subscribe to only one magazine about public affairs it would be either Washington Monthly or Mother Jones.  On this particular occasion, however, Washington Monthly struck out:  struck out big time.  The Curmudgeon doesn’t know Phillip Longman and Lina Khan but he can recognize smug, superior-acting people a mile away and he’ll be damned if he’ll give them his attention when, despite their self-importance and self-aggrandizement (not to mention the sheer stupidity of the assertion in which the offending remark was made), they don’t even have the good sense to know how to repress their desire to look down on people for long enough to try to get their message across.  Was there a point to their article?  The Curmudgeon will never know, and he’ll never know because in the end, Longman and Khan – apparently elite wannabes – lacked the communication skills to hold at least one reader’s attention. That’s neither elite nor creative.

It’s just dumb.

Mini-Rumination: What Would Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. Think?

In a 2009 New York Times article, the director of the FBI estimated that about 40 percent of his agents work on the fight against terrorism.  A 2007 article in the Christian Science Monitor reported that the number of prosecutions directed to the U.S. Justice Department by the FBI had fallen more than 30 percent.

Meanwhile, crime is down nation-wide.

Kind of makes you wonder what the FBI was doing before 9/11 – and whether it was any good at it.

March News Quiz

  1. Republicans are so eager to compel women to have transvaginal ultrasounds before they have abortions because:  a) they believe that if women see the life growing inside them, they will be less likely to go through with an abortion; b) they’ve received large political contributions from people who manufacture ultrasound equipment; c) it’s been a while since they’ve reminded women who’s boss; or d) they want to keep government out of people’s private lives?
  2. Greece is:  a) pretty much bankrupt; b) dragging down the entire European Union; c) in deep denial about its economy and the steps that will be needed to restore it to good health; or d) the word that you heard, it has groove, it has meaning.
  3. Once Newt Gingrich’s campaign is officially over, he will:  a) write a book; b) do two shows a night at the Sands for the next twenty years to repay casino owner Sheldon Adelson for the more than $10 million Adelson has contributed to Gingrich’s campaign; c) join Dennis Kucinich, Herman Cain, and Ron Paul in pitching a reality show to Fox called “Snowball’s Chance in Hell;” or d) never, ever stop talking?
  4. Venezuela president Hugo Chavez:  a) is a great leader who has brought important change to his country; b) is a socialist bully; c) is apparently dying; or d) has come a long way since he asked us to boycott lettuce?
  5. When your local public television station goes into one of its fundraising and pledge periods, its programming:  a) is heavy on concerts featuring performers who had hits in the 60s and 70s and who pretty much haven’t been seen or heard from since then; b) is sure to include multiple showings of the guy who goes off into the woods to live by himself with no modern conveniences except a movie camera; c) will include someone who lectures you ad nauseum about how to live your life; or d) be much, much better than the boring stuff it broadcasts when it’s not asking you for money?
  6.  The right to bear arms is conferred by:  a) the constitution; b) the bible; c) Charlton Heston; or d) the business end of this here Smith and Wesson?
  7.  Rihanna’s renewed interest in Chris Brown can be attributed to:  a) he’s great in bed; b) no one else is showing any interest in such a plain girl; c) she’s jealous that other women are interested in him; or d) a girl likes to get smacked around every now and then.
  8. Esa-Pekka Salonen is:  a) a Finnish defensemen for the New York Rangers; b) the girl with the dragon tattoo; c) a new flavor of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream; or d) the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic?
  9. The Encyclopedia Britannica announced recently that it will stop publishing its product in book form and only sell access to it through the internet because of:  a) declining sales because so much of the information in it was available elsewhere on the internet; b) it finally dawned on them that maybe people weren’t buying the books because a set costs as much as a small car; c) market research found that no one ever actually opens the books; they’re just used for decoration; or d) Wikipedia is now considered a more authoritative source of information?
  10. Capital punishment is:  a) a deterrent to crime; b) not a deterrent to crime; c) endorsed by the bible’s call for “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth;” or d) to be featured in a new Bravo TV reality show next season?

Mini-Rumination: When It’s No Longer “Classic” Rock

It wasn’t always this way.  Once upon a time, when The Curmudgeon listened to a classic rock radio station, he viewed all the songs it played, even the ones he liked, as oldies – oldies as in “before his time.”

But regrettably, the day has finally come:  The Curmudgeon now recognizes the songs the local classic rock station plays because he remembers when they were new.

Last weekend, four straight songs:  Pink Floyd’s “Money,” Queen singing “You’re My Best Friend,” Eddie Money growling “Two Tickets to Paradise,” and Boston’s ever-present “More Than a Feeling.”

This is not a good thing.  The Curmudgeon remembers where he was and what he was doing in his life when all of these songs were the latest thing.

This is depressing.

Sensationalism Strikes Smart Money Magazine

It must be tough running a financial magazine these days.  Your readers question your credibility because they know you completely blew the meltdown of the U.S. economy – offered not a hint about a world about to go to hell in a hand basket; your readers don’t need you as much as they used to because what’s the point of reading about how to invest your money when you’re still afraid to invest any of your money; and of course, there are all those free places online to read pretty much the same stuff, including the magazines’ own web sites.

The Curmudgeon suspects that Smart Money magazine is experiencing these blues.  He generally likes Smart Money and has been a subscriber for at least ten years, maybe as many as fifteen.  The magazine’s thinner than it used to be; there’s not much point in those big mutual fund companies advertising for new customers when people are still stuffing their money in their mattresses.  The editor-in-chief launches each edition with a column better suited to follow the words “dear diary” than a national magazine.  Smart Money has been redesigned, but really, other than the people who work there, who really cares about such things?  It’s replaced a bunch of faceless columnists who didn’t see the meltdown coming with a new batch of faceless columnists who seem even more clueless than their predecessors.  Some of the magazine’s regular features are growing long in the tooth, too:  “ten things,” which used to be a really smart monthly article that gave readers fresh insight into how some aspect of their financial lives is managed by the businesses they patronize – “ten things your health insurer won’t tell you,” “ten things your banker won’t tell you,” “ten things your travel agent won’t tell you” – long ago ran out of interesting and worthwhile subjects.  The March 2012 issue features “ten things baristas won’t tell you” (“4:  not all beans pack the same punch”).  Wow:  talk about punchless.

It’s no wonder that when Smart Money sent The Curmudgeon a renewal notice and asked for $23.95 for a year’s subscription and he scribbled on the subscription card that he now felt the magazine was only worth $12 a year, they quickly sent him an invoice for $12 for a year’s worth of magazines.

Possibly worried about their future, the magazine’s brain trust resorted to an old but tried and true tactic:  when all else fails, try to instill fear in your readers.

How?  A cover emblazoned with “The High Cost of Living:  Making it to 100 With Money to Spare…” and a cover story titled “Outliving Expectations.”

The article’s thesis:  With people living longer than ever, it may be time for us to reconfigure our retirement savings with the assumption that we may live to 100.

The Curmudgeon would not make up such stuff.

Great timing, Smart Money.  People are scared, the declining economy has shot the hell out of our retirement savings, and now you put out some nonsense about how we may all be screwing up by not saving enough money to last until we’re 100 years old.

Well, if it helps you sell more magazines, that’s really all that matters to you folks, right?

 

Mini-Rumination: Corporate Welfare for Apple

Things are going pretty well for Apple these days.  The company’s products are wildly popular; its late leader is treated like he’s a god; and according to the latest tallies, it’s the biggest and richest company in the world, worth more than $500 billion.  Recent published reports indicate that the company is sitting atop a pile of nearly $100 billion in cash.  That’s not a typo:  that’s $100 billion, not $100 million.

But since – at least according to some people – there’s no such thing as “too rich,” Apple recently put out its hand in search of corporate welfare.

And the state of Texas was only too willing to grease that palm.

According to a news release from the office of Texas Governor Rick Perry – you remember Rick Perry, don’t you? – the state of Texas, which doesn’t believe in giving people handouts, apparently does believe in giving big businesses handouts and will hand out $21 million to Apple from the state’s Texas Enterprise Fund to help with the cost of Apple’s new $302 million campus in Austin.

It’s nice when taxpayers can give special gifts to the richest company in the world, isn’t it?

Mini-Rumination: George Washington and Mitt Romney

Just something to chew on for those who think that Mitt Romney, because he’s so wealthy, can’t possibly understand the concerns of ordinary Americans and isn’t suited to be president for that reason.  At the time of the revolutionary war, George Washington – you know, I-chopped-down-the-cherry-tree, I-cannot-tell-a-lie, first-in-war-first-in-peace-first-in-the-hearts-of-his-countrymen George Washington – was, if not the wealthiest man in the colonies, then certainly one of the wealthiest.

Something to think about.

“In This Economy”

“Excuse me, waiter, but I ordered my hamburger medium rare and this is well-done and I’m pretty sure this is regular Pepsi and not diet.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but what do you expect in this economy?”

No no no no no.

The Curmudgeon has grown weary of the phrase “in this economy.”  While at times it’s relevant, it’s being used more and more as an excuse for some people either to treat other people badly or to rationalize how badly they’re being treated – and even to rationalize things that have nothing to do with the economy.

Having trouble finding a job, or a new job?  “In this economy” is appropriate, as in “I’m having a tough time finding a job in this economy.”

Have an underwater mortgage?  “In this economy” is never appropriate.  You took out the mortgage, so presumably, the economy didn’t stop you from buying the house and you could afford what you paid.  You overpaid?  This economy isn’t responsible for that, either.  Man up and pay what you owe.    If, on the other hand, you can’t pay your mortgage because you’re unemployed, or because you were unemployed at one time but had to take a job paying much less money just to keep the lights on and the kids in Fruit Loops, then yes, “in this economy” is reasonable.

Unhappy about the price of gasoline?  That has nothing to do with “in this economy,” so put a sock in it.

Lousy programming on NBC?  It was lousy before the economy went south, it’s lousy now, and it’ll be lousy five years from now, in this or any other economy.

Employer making you pay more for your health insurance or telling you there won’t be raises this year because business is bad?  It depends.  Take a look at your company:  how’s it doing?  If it’s not doing well, “in this economy” may be appropriate.  If, on the other hand, your company is doing well – and many, many companies have continued to do well throughout the recession – then your employer is taking advantage of the times to make more money at your expense and “in this economy” is not a valid explanation.  “Getting screwed by the boss” is the valid explanation.

The most insidious use of “in this economy” comes from companies that tell their employees they shouldn’t ask for raises, shouldn’t ask for benefits, and shouldn’t complain when they’re asked to take on a lot more work, or the work of two people, because they should just be grateful they have jobs at all “in this economy.”  Attention, those of you who put in your time and more, do great work, and show continued loyalty to an employer who returns your loyalty by giving you more work and asking you to work more hours without more money and hear this from your employer:  you work for a creep.  No one – no one – has any business trying to make you feel that you should be grateful that you have a job at all.  If anything, they should be grateful to have you on their team.

While many companies – some of them legitimately – insist they are going through hard times, corporate profits in some sectors are at record highs; some businesses have never made more money than they have in the past few years.  Despite this, they continue to lay off employees, reduce benefits, withhold raises and bonuses, pay generous dividends to shareholders, and demand more work for no more money.  These are the same kind of parasites who quadruple the price of plywood and bottled water twenty-four hours before a hurricane is expected to strike; the same kind of people who put nicotine in cigarettes to get you hooked; the same kind of people who brag about how their nutritious new cookies have plenty of fiber and vitamins but never mention that they’re also incredibly high in calories, sugar, and fat and are made with palm kernel oil and hydrogenated cottonseed and coconut oil.  Come to think of it, they’re just like the Wall Street people whose greedy and irresponsible behavior led to the need to coin a term like “in this economy.”

In its March/April edition, one of The Curmudgeon’s leftist magazines, Mother Jones, has an interesting article about how one company is taking advantage of “this economy” to work its employees to the bone.  Many of your internet purchases are shipped by a company called Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide, and a Mother Jones reporter went semi-undercover to work there.  When she gets the job, someone she meets warns her that “They have to break you down so they can turn you into what they want you to be” and admonishes her never, if told she’s not meeting her productivity goal, to say she’s doing her best.  Why?  “Because if you say ‘This is the best I can do,’ they’ll let you go.  They hire and fire constantly, every day.  You’ll see people dropping around you.”

The author’s experience on the job matches the warnings.  On the first day of work, new employees are told to show up at five a.m. but are warned that they don’t go on the clock until six.  Most are hired as temps and never lose that status – some can be temps for years – saving the company money on benefits.  “Management” at Amalgamated (by the way – doesn’t the company’s name sound like something they chose because Wile E. Coyote made “Acme” unfeasible?) consists of constantly telling workers they’re doing a bad job; setting next-to-impossible productivity goals and then raising them if an employee manages to achieve them (one worker notes that those who consistently exceed their quotas are occasionally entered into drawings for a gift card – worth $15 or $20); and making overtime mandatory.  The company acts this way – like its workers are as disposable as paper towels – because it knows there are so many people looking for work.  Some people are willing to be treated like garbage, its philosophy seems to be, so if you’re not one of them, it’ll happily and without conscience toss you aside and look for someone a little more desperate and a little more amenable to a daily dose of humiliation.  (It’s a really eye-opening article; read it here.)

“In this economy” is real, it’s unfortunate, and it’s hurt a lot of people, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all explanation for everything bad that’s happened over the past four years.  It doesn’t explain why the Phillies haven’t won another World Series; it doesn’t explain why “The Artist” won all those Oscars; and it doesn’t explain why the people who hire “The Millionaire Matchmaker” don’t smack that piece of trash in the mouth because of how she talks to them.  It should be used guardedly and realistically, and not overused to the point where it loses all meaning.

It’s just the kind of adjustment we all need to make in this economy.