Family finds gold in piano; government looks to muscle in

The recent discovery of a UK gold cache raises the specter of every-hungry leviathan ruthlessly employing the law to gobble up assets for its own benefit.

Late last year a hoard of gold coins, English sovereigns minted between 1847 and 1915, was found in old upright piano in Shropshire, in the United Kingdom, after the piano’s new owners had it retuned and repaired.

Under the UK’s Treasure Act of 1996, such discoveries are legally obligated to be reported to the local coroner within 14 days, which was done.

The piano was made by a London firm and initially sold in Essex, near London, in 1906. But its ownership from then until 1983 – when it was purchased by a family in the area who later moved to Shropshire – is unknown, according to the BBC. The new owners were recently given the instrument.

The Shrewsbury Coroner’s Court is currently seeking information about the piano’s whereabouts between 1906 and 1983.

There is a great deal at stake as the objects will qualify as “treasure” and be the property of the Crown if the coroner finds they have been hidden with the intent of future recovery, according to the BBC.

However, if the original owner or their heirs can establish their title to the find, the Crown’s claim will be void.

Under the Treasure Act of 1996, ‘Treasure’ is defined as:

  • All coins from the same hoard, with a hoard is defined as two or more coins, as long as they are at least 300 years old when found;
  • Two or more prehistoric base metal objects in association with one another;
  • Any individual (non-coin) find that is at least 300 years old and contains at least 10% gold or silver;
  • Associated finds: any object of any material found in the same place as (or which had previously been together with) another object which is deemed treasure; and
  • Objects substantially made from gold or silver but are less than 300 years old, that have been deliberately hidden with the intention of recovery and whose owners or heirs are unknown.

The government has not detailed just how many coins were uncovered in the piano or their value, but Peter Reavill, Finds Liaison Officer for the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme at Shropshire Museums said, “It is a lifetime of savings and it’s beyond most people.”

I’d be curious to hear what British citizens think about this law. I understand the government’s interest in unique treasures such as the Irish Crown Jewels, spectacular Viking hoards or Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork, when and if they are uncovered.

But what we have here are simple gold coins – even if in a very substantial quantity.

It would be nice to find the individuals or their heirs who secreted the money away inside the piano; the government, meanwhile is threatening, per usual, to overstep its original purpose and strong-arm the family who, through a bit of blind luck, managed to come into possession of the coins.

Government, which already pockets a considerable sum of the average individual’s wages, has no business confiscating a collection of gold coins simply because it’s forever on the lookout for additional ways to line its coffers.

(Top: Some of the gold coins found inside an old upright piano in the United Kingdom late last year.)

Protecting monopolies under the guise of reducing risk

tucson-homeless

To paraphrase English playwright William Congreve, hell hath no fury like an occupational licensing board catching wind of an “nonprofessional” practicing said profession.

In Arizona, for example, the state board of cosmetology is investigating Juan Carlos Montesdeoca after receiving a complaint that he gave free haircuts to the homeless.

Montesdeoca committed the deeds on Jan. 28 at a downtown Tucson library, after organizing the event through a Facebook group and soliciting help from volunteers. He did it “out of the kindness of my heart,” and in memory of his mother, who loved her hair, he told Tucson News Now.

That didn’t set well with the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology, which began an investigation after it received an anonymous complaint alleging that Montesdeoca was “requesting local businesses and local stylists to help out with free haircuts (unlicensed individuals) to the homeless.”

What one man views as charity another sees as unwanted competition, apparently.

The Arizona board is pulling out its big bag of disjoined logic in an effort to keep Montesdeoca and other “do-gooders” like him from helping those unable to afford haircuts.

Those getting their hair cut outside a licensed salon by an unlicensed person run a real risk, according to Donna Aune, the board’s executive director, adding that state law prohibits a person from practicing cosmetology without a license.

Remember, we’re talking about haircuts, not letting back-alley butchers remove gall bladders.

It wasn’t too long ago that those who wanted to braid hair legally in South Carolina had to demonstrate 300 hours of training. If one decided to use hair extensions as part of said braiding, regulations required a full cosmetologist curriculum, some 1,500 hours of class.

I’ve seen youngsters learn to braid hair in 15 minutes. What possible reason could there be to have required 300 hours of training, or to force someone who wants to apply extensions to take a 1,500-hour cosmetologist curriculum except to winnow out competition?

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the costs of occupational licenses outweigh the benefits. For hair braiding, as for many other occupations, licensing appears to do little more than prevent some people from earning an honest living in the occupation of their choice.

In 2012, Mississippi, which requires zero hours of training, had more than 1,200 registered braiders. Neighboring Louisiana, which requires 500 hours, had only 32 licensed braiders – despite its larger black population, according to the Institute for Justice.

Reason.com had some pithy comments regarding the potential risks involved with having an unlicensed individual cut the hair of the homeless in Tucson:

“The risk of getting a bad haircut is certainly chilling. But these were free haircuts. Free haircuts given to people who were in no position to pay for one. I’m sure they were aware of the risk they were taking by letting the unlicensed Montesdeoca cut their hair outside of a licensed salon environment, but they were probably okay with that level of risk considering they were homeless and were getting haircuts for free,” according to the magazine.

A problem many homeless have when it comes to job hunting is presenting well when it comes time for an interview. A decent haircut can go a long way toward boosting self-esteem and making a good first impression.

But the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology, whose members likely weren’t serving these individuals in the first place, is more interested in making sure absolutely no one infringes on their monopoly.

(Top: You could give this homeless man in Tucson food, money and a job, but not a free haircut – unless you’re a licensed cosmetologist – thanks to the heavy hand of the Arizona Board of Cosmetology.)

Does New Hampshire really smoke like a locomotive?

The interesting graphic above details cigarette sales state by state between 1970 and 2012. While there’s no question smoking has declined in the US over the past 40-plus years, the trend has nuances not indicated in the chart.

If one looks at the map for 2012, the last year shown, cigarette sales are greatest in West Virginia, Kentucky and New Hampshire, with the three states registering 105, 100 and 94 packs sold per resident, respectively.

New Hampshire would seem out of place with Kentucky and West Virginia, two states located firmly in the Appalachians, where smoking is more accepted culturally in a region noted for its blue-collar lifestyle.

On the other hand, a significant portion of New Hampshire now serves as a bedroom community for Massachusetts’ white collar labor force, with the commensurate rise in housing bringing an increasing number of young middle- and upper-middle class individuals into the state, hardly the sort known for consuming large amounts of smokes.

However, it almost certainly wasn’t nicotine-frenzied Granite State residents alone that drove New Hampshire cigarette sales in 2012, but individuals from all of New England.

In 2012, a pack of cigarettes cost $4.86 in New Hampshire, compared to $6.97 in neighboring Maine, $7.60 in Vermont and $8.49 in Massachusetts. Prices were almost as high or even higher in the other two New England states: $8.16 a pack in Rhode Island and $8.85 in Connecticut.

Cigarette sales per capita, 2012.

Cigarette sales per capita, 2012. Click on to understand.

Factor in that New Hampshire has no sales tax and you had a happy hunting ground for those wanting to stock up on cheap cigarettes. And the difference in price made a short drive worthwhile: someone from Massachusetts, for example, who drove over the border to New Hampshire could save nearly $75 on just two cartons (20 packs) of cigarettes.

West Virginia’s average price for cigarettes in 2012 was $4.84 a pack, the lowest in the country. Prices in all neighboring states were higher: Virginia, $5.43; Ohio, $5.67; Maryland, $6.53; Kentucky, $6.56; and Pennsylvania, $6.93. It’s easy to see that residents in border states would likely at least partly drive up sales in a bid to save money.

Kentucky, however, is an outlier. Its price per pack wasn’t cheap – it ranked in the top half of the nation in terms of cost per pack in 2012 – so why did it come in second in per capita cigarette sales?

Looking at the cost of cigarettes in surrounding states, Tennessee, $4.91 a pack; Virginia, $5.43; Indiana, $5.56; Missouri, $5.87; and Illinois, $10.25, all but the latter are cheaper than Kentucky.

However, Kentucky had just seen prices spike due to increases in state and federal cigarette taxes, raising the cost per pack from $4.97 to $6.56.

While some Kentuckians may have been able to cross the border to buy less-expensive smokes in bordering states, it was likely inconvenient for others to do so, due to distance and terrain. And, of course, some people are going to smoke, no matter what the expense. Over time, Kentucky’s per capita rate will drop, but not into the range of, say California or Utah.

And it doesn’t matter how high the government raises cigarette taxes; at some point, smokers will simply begin buying tax-free bootleg smokes.

So while smoking is certainly on the decline in the US, trying to gauge the impact of tax increases on smoking on a state-by-state basis is an iffy proposition. Pushing up the price of cigarettes in one state may simply be driving at least a portion of consumers to surrounding states, particularly if prices are significantly lower.

(HT: Carpe Diem)

Perception or not, corruption isn’t limited to Third World

corruption index

Transparency International, a German-based organization, recently released its world Corruption Perceptions Index for 2015.

Not surprisingly, North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan and Sudan ranked near the bottom of the index, which measures widespread corruption in the public sphere, and also factors in instances of abuses of power, secret dealings, bribery, child labor, human trafficking, environmental destruction and terrorism, among other things.

Transparency International found that corruption was rife in 68 percent of the world’s countries: It would be interesting to see a similar index for US states.

If the actual machinations that go on with misuse of tax dollars, corporate incentives and lawmaker ethics, among many other things, weren’t both so well cloaked by those in power and so often overlooked by US citizens, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a number of states ranked somewhere around the nations of Eastern Europe in terms of corruption.

The difference between the US and other parts of the world isn’t a lack of corruption, it’s that our elected officials are better at hiding it, aren’t quite so ostentatious in showing off their ill-gotten booty and generally don’t kill those who threaten to expose them.

I’d imagine the same is the case in other so-called “first-world” nations such as Canada, the UK and France. Even highly ranked countries such as Denmark (No. 1), Finland (No. 2) and Sweden (No. 3), have problems.

They just have fewer issues than lower-ranked countries and their corruption occurs in a more “white collar” manner – say spanking new roads and public buildings in friends’ areas in exchange for laundered kickbacks along with incredibly generous government pensions, as opposed to naked looting of the government coffers and outright execution of opponents.

Like most things in life, it’s all in how you play the game.

(Top: Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index. The darker the country the more corrupt the public sector; the lighter the less corrupt. Greenland, Antarctica and Western Sahara seem pretty safe.)

The mystery behind fledglings lighting up on the down low

birds smoking

While there’s no doubt that the US government has been known to squander money that would seem better used elsewhere – see the $856,000 National Science Foundation grant allotted to the University of California at Santa Cruz to, among other things, teach mountain lions how to use a treadmill, for example – there are some pie-in-the-sky projects that I would love to see funded.

Take the above image. If government officials needed money to create a device that could translate bird-speak so that it was intelligible to humans, then required additional cash to develop a way-back machine in order to go to the above point in the past, so that they could interpret what our two feathered juvenile delinquents were saying to one another, that is a project with which I would have absolutely no issue.

Are they discussing where to steal birdseed? What’s the best place to perch their rear ends and “roost?” Where the “easy” chickadees hang out? We just don’t know, and that, at least in my opinion, is one of modern science’s great failings.

Just think, if this pair were a little bigger and had opposable thumbs, they’d probably be ruling the planet by now.

And don’t tell me this image was photoshopped. I for one am prepared to hail our new avian overlords.

(Required disclaimer: I in no way condone underage smoking among fish, fowl or other beasts of the wild, and hope these two fledglings got a sound thrashing when they returned to their nest.)

SC man upset he can’t get health insurance after getting sick

Luis lang

When discussing cases such as those of Fort Mill, SC, resident Luis Lang it’s difficult to do so in a dispassionate manner without sounding at least somewhat heartless.

Consider:

The 49-year-old self-employed handyman, who works with banks and the federal government on maintaining foreclosed properties, has bleeding in his eyes and a partially detached retina caused by diabetes. An area ophthalmologist who examined Lang said he will go blind without care.

Lang, however, has no health insurance. He told the Charlotte Observer that he has prided himself on paying his own medical bills.

Apparently, he’s done well for himself, too. His wife hasn’t had to work and the pair live in a 3,300-square-foot home valued at more than $300,000.

Lang’s pay-as-you-go approach to medical care worked fine while he was healthy, but this past February he suffered through 10 days of nonstop headaches and ended up going to the emergency room.

He told the Observer he was informed that he’d suffered several ministrokes.

Lang ran up $9,000 in bills, exhausted his savings, saw his vision worsen and now he can’t work, he told the Observer.

After consuming his savings, Lang turned to the Affordable Care Act exchange, known colloquially in the US as “Obamacare,” after President Barack Obama, who promoted the concept of a health insurance exchange as a key component of his health care reform initiative.

However, Lang found himself out of luck because 2015 enrollment had closed earlier that month. Also, because Lang is unable to work and his income has dried up, he earns too little to get a federal subsidy to buy a private policy.

Lang isn’t exactly owning up to having played a role in his predicament.

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Cabbies throw weight around in bid to protect monopoly

taxi cab

If there’s one thing the taxi cartel doesn’t like it’s unregulated competition. Of course, when it can cost anywhere from $250,000 to $1 million per taxi to get a piece of the pie, one can understand why cab drivers are willing to take extreme measures to protect their turf.

Earlier this week, cabbies created chaos at San Francisco International Airport as hundreds of taxis honked their horns and flashed their headlights and tail lights while circling the airport between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m., with most refusing to pick up passengers.

For about a half hour, between approximate 9:15 p.m. and 9:45 p.m., the slowly circling cabs created gridlock, backing up traffic on to nearby highways.

The protest was in response to technology-driven ride-service startups like Uber and Lyft that use untrained drivers in personal cars, summoned by smartphone apps. Taxi operators complain that the newcomers are barely regulated, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

A coalition of San Francisco taxi drivers, pleased with the impact of the protest, have vowed to bring more disruption to San Francisco International unless the airport director agrees to discuss their concerns that the ride services are being given an unfair advantage in serving the airport.

“That’s just a sample that we showed them,” said Harbir Singh, a taxi driver and board member of the San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance, which organized the protest. “We will do it again and again, every now and then. They have to listen to us.”

The protest was the latest skirmish in the ongoing fight between San Francisco’s taxi industry and the technology-driven ride-service startups. Taxi operators complain that the newcomers are barely regulated while the ride-service operations argue that the cab industry is a monopoly in need of a shakeup.

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