I’ll have the free lunch – as long as he’s paying for it


Here’s an unsurprising bit of news out of our nation’s capital:

An overwhelming majority of Washington, D.C., residents support a proposal before the District Council to give each worker in the city 16 weeks of paid time off to care for a newborn or for a dying family member, according to the Washington Post.

The predictable part is that more than half of those polled also say they don’t want workers themselves to have to pay for the largesse.

Sorry, guys (and gals), but as Milton Friedman stated ever so eloquently, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Someone somewhere is going to have to pick up the tab.

If you understand and accept that you’re going to pay one way or the other, that’s fine. But if you expect others to willingly pony up, or that benefits will flow like manna from heaven, you’ve got another thing coming.

The last time I looked the District of Columbia doesn’t have its own printing presses with which to churn out money, so D.C. would have to raise taxes and/or cut employees to pay for such a benefit.

Understand, that’s not a judgment on whether the benefit is worth the cost, but a simple matter of fact. If workers are going to be allowed 16 weeks of paid time off to care for newborns or dying family members, the district will need funds to oblige.

Those pushing for the minimum wage to be increased to $15 an hour need to recognize this reality, as well. Over the course of a year, a full-time worker making $15 an hour would earn a little more than $32,000. That’s all well and good but, again, that money has to come from somewhere.

As the alchemists of old discovered, you can’t get something for nothing. There is a cost to every benefit, even if that cost is hidden. To pretend otherwise is to be foolish, disingenuous or willingly naïve.

Romania: Trying to recover from bad luck, bad choices

antonescu and hitler

The 20th century was, to be blunt, pretty crappy for citizens of many countries. Those of the Soviet Union, who were forced to endure two world wars, civil war, the onset of communism and Stalin’s murderous regime, had it particularly bad, for example.

Other nations that had a rather rough go of it during the 20th century include:

  • Poland (the loss of 450,000 men in World War I even though it was not independent at that point, a war with the Soviets from 1918-1921, invaded and decimated by Nazi Germany with a huge loss of life – estimated at more than 6 million, including 3 million Jews – then placed under Soviet hegemony for 45 years);
  • Korea (annexed and brutally subjugated by Japan from 1910 to 1945, divided and then involved in a ruthless civil war from 1950-53, and both North Korea and South Korea still at daggers with one another); and
  • The former Yugoslav republics (cobbled together in part through Woodrow Wilson’s machinations after World War I, invaded by the Nazis – who set up a brutal puppet state – commandeered by Tito after the war, and finally rent asunder by brutal internecine conflict in the 1990s).

Another country that would probably like a do-over for the 20th century is Romania, which didn’t acquit itself very well in either world war and suffered under the whip of two particularly odious dictators during the Cold War.

Romania chose to remain neutral for the first two years of World War I before joining with the Entente Powers in the summer of 1916. Unfortunately,  Romania then quickly found itself overwhelmed by the Central Powers, which occupied two-thirds of the country.

When Russia capitulated to Germany following the Russian Revolution, Romania found itself surrounded and was forced to sign a harsh peace treaty. Although it was ultimately able to acquire territory under the Treaties of Saint Germain, Trianon and Paris, total Romanian military and civilian losses between 1916 and 1918 were estimated at nearly 750,000.

Things turned out even worse in the Second World War for Romania. Originally loosely affiliated with Great Britain and France, Romania opted to align itself with Nazi Germany after the start of World War II when the Nazis made quick work of most of Western Europe.

Seventy-five years ago this week, the Romanian government, under the control of fascist Ion Antonescu, officially threw its lot in with the Axis Powers, signing the Tripartite Pact.

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Social media provides needed kick in rump to insurers


Perhaps social media does have a bit more value than my curmudgeonly self would care to admit.

Last week I wrote about a friend who is battling leukemia. Beyond the difficulties associated with fighting a life-threatening condition, she had also been clashing with her insurers, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Florida (Florida Blue) and Prime Therapeutics, both of which had denied her coverage for needed cancer-treatment medication.

As a result, she’d gone more than a month without medicine.

It’s not as if my friend was attempting to secure reimbursement for experimental medicine or didn’t have sufficient coverage. Florida Blue was simply giving her the runaround, even though my friend’s prescription was on its list of approved medications.

Even with her medical team working to help her, the companies denied coverage, claiming, among other things, that they had not received the information.

Doctors, nurses and health care providers worked diligently to get the correct papers into the hands of my friend’s insurers for several weeks. Yet, a month later she was still without needed medicine and still without answers.

Taking a break from such earth-shattering revelations as smoking birds and personal issues with LinkedIn, I detailed the above in a Sept. 30 post.

Around the same time, another friend started a GoFundMe campaign to help raise money to buy a fax machine for Florida Blue. That was because the insurer had told my friend with leukemia that one of the reasons they hadn’t received her doctors’ requests for authorization because their “fax machine was busy.”

As was stated on the GoFundMe site: “I want to raise enough money to buy a cheap-ass fax machine for Florida Blue so they can help dying people get their treatments. I would also like to buy them a time machine so they could move boldly into the 1990s, but that’s another issue.”

Within a short while Twitter was aflutter with tweets about Florida Blue’s (and Prime Therapeutics’) shenanigans, as was Facebook, and before long a representative from Florida Blue, having noticed the publicity, decided to step in to handle the case.

Around the same time, an individual with Prime Therapeutics posted a comment on my blog expressing her desire to assist my friend.

By last Saturday, my friend had her medicine in hand.

This happened because people got the attention of Florida Blue and Prime Therapeutics through social media, and because there were individuals at both companies who were willing to make a special effort to help my friend cut through unnecessary red tape and get her medication.

My friend is not out of the woods, but she is fortunate to have many friends who are or were journalists. They understand how to use social media and publicity to get things done. However, it should never have required scores and scores of people, if not more, using social media to get Florida Blue to do the right thing.

All of which raises other questions:

  • What happens to the vast majority of the population that doesn’t have a slew of publicity savvy friends at their disposal?
  • Where do those who are older and may not have the strength to keep fighting turn when they’ve been denied needed medicine that they’re entitled to under the terms of their insurance?
  • How many have died because insurers essentially waited them out, understanding full well that some of the ailing wouldn’t have the strength, willpower or ability to fight for what they’re entitled to?

I’ll not get into the injustice of a young mother being stricken with leukemia. There are some situations in life that one simply cannot wrap one’s mind around.

But I will say that those who work in the health field, including health insurers, should do all within their power to make the lives of those they serve easier – rather than more difficult – when their customers find themselves facing life or death scenarios.

Connecticut determined to pluck every feather from golden goose


If one wanted to chart a course for steering a state onto the shoals, look no further than Connecticut.

Twenty-five years ago, the Nutmeg State had no state income tax and served as tax refuge for many New York City workers.

Those days are long gone; last week the Connecticut legislature again raised state income tax rates, with the top marginal rate set to rise to 6.99 percent.

Of course, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy promised during his re-election campaign last year that he wouldn’t raise taxes, but that’s the same thing he said in 2010, a year before he signed a $2.6 billion tax hike.

The thing is, it’s not like Connecticut is growing like gangbusters and can afford to bleed its citizens dry.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

…the state grew a scant 0.9% in 2013, the last year state data are available. That was tied for tenth worst in the U.S. The state’s average compounded annual growth for the last four years is 0.42%. Slow growth means less tax revenue but spending never slows down. Some “40% of the state budget goes to government employee compensation and benefits, including payroll, state pensions, teacher pensions and current and retiree health care,” says Carol Platt Liebau, president of the Hartford-based Yankee Institute. …The Tax Foundation ranks Connecticut as one of the 10 worst states to do business. The state finished last in Gallup’s Job Creation Index in 2014 and now ties with Rhode Island for the worst job creation in the index since 2008.

The Journal added that Connecticut was one of six states that lost population in fiscal 2013-2014, and a Gallup poll in the second half of 2013 found that about half of state residents would migrate if they could.

If all of the above weren’t bad enough, lawmakers also made permanent a 20 percent surtax on Connecticut-based companies’ annual tax liability – a tax on a tax – which would be figured on Connecticut companies’ world-wide income, rather than what they earn in the state, according to the Journal.

Consider some of the corporations headquartered in Connecticut: Aetna, Cigna, General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, Praxair and Xerox.

Why would any of the above stay in Connecticut when faced with this kind of competitive disadvantage?

No doubt economic development officials in low-tax states such as Texas and Florida are giddy with anticipation at getting a shot at landing the likes of a GE or Pratt & Whitney.

“The high marginal rates are bad enough, but it is an astonishing overreach to tax corporations headquartered in your state based on their worldwide income,” according to the Coyote Blog. “This leads to a huge double taxation problem for any company dumb enough to stay.”

(Top: Connecticut Statehouse, Hartford, Conn.)

Hard times hit South Carolina long before the Great Depression

black sharecroppers sc

The Great Depression is rightly regarded as the most tumultuous time, economically speaking, in US history.

But for South Carolinians, the downturn brought on by the 1929 stock market crash was simply a continuation of hard times that began shortly after the end of World War I nearly a decade earlier.

The state, hardly more economically diversified in 1920 than it had been in 1860, was still largely dependent on agriculture, and cotton was still the predominant crop.

Beginning in 1920, the state’s cotton industry was hit first by the loss of overseas markets and overproduction, then by the boll weevil and drought. Between 1920 and 1922, cotton production in the state dropped by more than two-thirds, according to Walter Edgar in South Carolina: A History.

Cotton prices plummeted from 38 cents a pound in 1919 to 17 cents a pound a year later and to less than 5 cents a pound by 1932, and by the early 1930s many South Carolinians found themselves destitute, both hungry and out of work.

No one was worse off during this period then the rural poor. Sharecroppers, forced to focus on the crop in the field, which held their only hope for any return on investment, had little time or money to raise food for themselves such as vegetables, cows, hogs or chickens.

“With such a meager diet, poor in nutrients and vitamins, malnutrition and disease ran rampant among the rural poor,” according to the book South Carolina and the New Deal.

“’New’ clothes were most often fashioned out of old clothes or flour or feed sacks,” wrote author Jack Irby Hayes Jr. “Children dropped out of school to look for work, because they did not have clothes to wear or were so malnourished or sick they were unable to attend.

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An unintended consequence of minimum-wage laws

Borderlands Exterior

Borderlands Books is a privately owned San Francisco bookstore that has been in operation for nearly 20 years.

Concentrating on science fiction, fantasy, mystery and horror works, Borderlands has overcome a number of challenges since opening in 1997: a 100 percent bump in rent in 2000; the trend toward online sales; the increasing popularity of ebooks; and the impact of the Great Recession.

Still, according to store officials, Borderlands managed to overcome each of the trials. In fact, last year was the best the store had enjoyed.

“At the beginning of 2014, the future of the business looked, if not rosy, at least stable and very positive,” Borderlands officials wrote on the store’s website. “We were not in debt, sales were meeting expenses and even allowing a small profit, and, perhaps most importantly, the staff and procedures at both the bookstore and the cafe were well established and working smoothly.”

Despite that, Borderlands recently announced it would be closing, by March 31 at the latest.

The reason? Last November San Francisco voters, out of touch with the realities of running a business, overwhelmingly passed a measure that will increase the minimum wage within the city to $15 an hour by 2018.

Borderlands Books as it exists cannot remain financially viable in light of increased minimum wages, according to the store website.

Unlike some businesses, bookstores are hindered in their ability to adjust for rising costs.

There’s a limit to how much a bookstore can increase book prices because publishers set prices. In addition, companies such as Amazon.com have siphoned off consumers from brick-and-mortar bookstores and made it more difficult to get them to pay retail.

In other words, adjusting prices upward to cover increased wage costs isn’t an option for Borderlands.

The change in the minimum wage will see Borderlands’ payroll jump nearly 40 percent. That will result in total operating expenses being bumped up by 18 percent. For Borderlands to offset that expense, it would need to increase sales by a minimum of 20 percent, which it doesn’t see as realistic.

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What it looks like when a society fails its vulnerable

leon jones

Count your blessings. Be grateful for what you have. Stop and smell the roses. It’s likely most of us have heard all of the above at various time throughout our lives.

Far too often, however, it’s easier to focus on that burr under the saddle, no matter how minute, and bellyache about our problems. That, despite the fact that many of us, in reality, have been dealt a pretty good hand overall.

Just how good is sometimes evident when one is shown how the “other half,” for lack of a better term, lives.

The New York Times earlier this month ran a story about Leon Jones, a 64-year-old poultry worker who lives and works just up the road from me in Newberry, SC.

If you’re looking for someone who has a good reason to be less than happy with his lot in life, Jones would seem to be a good candidate.

According to the Times’ story, Jones has “an intellectual disability and a swollen right hand that aches from 40 years of hanging live turkeys on shackles that swing them to their slaughter. His wallet contains no photos or identification, as if, officially, he does not exist.”

Born in Texas, Jones was recruited from the Abilene State School, an institution for people with developmental disabilities, “only to wind up living in virtual servitude, without many basic rights,” the publication added.

He is employed as a contract worker and hired out to the Kraft Foods plant in Newberry. He lives in a rundown bunkhouse, sharing space with itinerant workers, many of whom come and go with the seasons.

The Times described his “home” thus: “His small bed was in a corner, a few feet from a young man wearing a black-knit ‘Jesus’ cap and watching Spanish-language television at a loud volume, and not far from a bathroom with open stalls and a wet floor. Mr. Jones’s locker contained clothes, cowboy boots and a plastic envelope of old cards and letters, the last one from 1992.”

In short, Jones has few amenities and no connection to government services for people with disabilities. He does have a brother, Carl Wayne, but the two haven’t seen each other in at least 40 years because the people who hired them decades ago eventually decided to send Leon to South Carolina and Carl Wayne to the Midwest. The latter is currently in Iowa.

Leon Jones earns $8 an hour. His paychecks, which total about $800 a month, and his Social Security payments, are deposited directly into an “association” account, from which the costs of his room and board are deducted.

I found the story unsettling and heart-rending. Given that Newberry is just 30 minutes north of my own home, I decided to see if I could locate Leon Jones.

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