Friday, April 18, 2014

A Case of Mistaken Identity

     My son has decided to get back to playing tennis this summer. He played in high school, and for a while in college, but then cut way back on tennis to focus on finishing his degree, getting a job, and starting his career.

     I had dinner with him last night, and he told me he'd bought a season pass for his local public tennis courts. He has one friend he can play with, but my son works late hours, and his friend works early hours, so they can only meet on weekends. He was looking for more partners, so he turned to Craig's List. He found a couple of players, and arranged to meet one of them at a nearby tennis court. They were scheduled to play yesterday at 9 a.m.

     So yesterday, at 8:15 a.m., he gets a text from his new friend:  Confirming 9 a.m. Got any tennis balls?

     My son looked around his apartment, in his closet, through his tennis bag. No balls. So he texts back: Nope. Do you?

     The other fellow said no, so my son volunteered to buy some tennis balls on his way over to the park. The problem: the only sports store anywhere near his apartment doesn't open until 9 a.m.

     He stopped at a drug store, thinking they might carry tennis balls. He didn't see any, so he asked the clerk. Apparently they do carry tennis balls, but it's a seasonal item. They only have them from May through September.

     He tried a local supermarket. No luck. He tried a convenience store. No way.

     Then he saw a dollar store. Well, maybe . . . he thought.

     He went in the dollar store. Walked up and down a couple of aisles. And then, on the end of one shelf, he saw them -- a package of bright yellow tennis balls!

     Only, the package had two balls. That's funny, he thought. They usually come in a can of three. He went over and hefted the package. Sure . . . they were tennis balls. He picked one out, just to test it. He dropped it on the floor. But instead of bouncing, it went thud.

     What?!?

     He eyed the package again. They were not tennis balls. They were the balls that look like tennis balls . . . the ones that older people snap onto the bottom of their walkers!

       P.S. He finally got tennis balls at the sports store, and arrived at the court 20 minutes late. His new partner had waited for him, and they got to play. And my son is planning a match over the weekend with his usual partner.
    

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Are You Losing Your . . .

     I just found out I passed my test for long-term care insurance, the one that includes the memory test to make sure I'm not on the verge of falling into the miasmic haze of Alzheimer's. That's a relief!

     (They also made sure that I wasn't HIV positive; and they gave me a drug test, too. These guys don't take anything for granted.)

     But I must admit, as I relayed on Are You Getting Alzheimer's? I was a little worried about the memory test. I never had a great memory to start with, and it hasn't gotten any better in recent years. How many times have I misplaced my wallet? How many times do I misremember the name of a store in town? How often have I pushed everything aside, looking for my glasses . . .  only to realize that they were propped up on top of my head?!? How much time have I lost wandering around the house looking for the remote control, or my coffee cup, or the book I'm reading?

     Anyway, I only got six out of ten questions right on the memory test. But apparently, that's enough to pass. So while my memory may not be the best, apparently it's not so bad as to disqualify me for insurance.

     I guess it's a good thing B signed up for her long-term-care insurance a few years ago. I honestly don't know if she'd pass the test today.

     Last week she called me from work. As soon as she'd walked in the door that morning, she told me, she'd gotten involved with some colleagues in an ongoing problem -- even before she'd had a chance to put down her purse and get settled into her desk. Then, at the end of the day, she got ready to go home. She reached into her purse, and her car keys were not there.

     Had she put them down somewhere when she arrived at work in the morning? She couldn't remember. She looked around her desk. She emptied her purse onto her desk and scoured through everything. She looked on the shelves in her room, and out in the lobby; at the copy machine and in the ladies room. She could not find her keys.

     So she'd had to call me to come and pick her up from work. Not a super big problem. She had an extra set of keys. We keep all our extra keys in a bowl by the front door. Only, when she got home, she went to look in the bowl . . . and her car keys were not there!

     We looked everyplace. The kitchen; the basement; the garage. She called her son, just in case he had the extra key. Nope. I drove her to work the next morning, and we both searched her car to see if either key was in the glove compartment or under a seat or in the trunk. No luck.

     Finally, B had her car towed up to the Ford dealer (fortunately, we have AAA so the tow was free), where they replaced her key. That was not at all free. There was the patch key, and the regular key, and an extra charge for the remote opener. I don't know how much she spent to replace her key -- she wouldn't tell me! -- but it was several hundred dollars.

     What could we do? We laughed about the whole ridiculous situation. We joked that her keys would no doubt surface the moment she got home with her new keys. But they didn't. We still haven't found those keys.

     But that's nothing. I play cards with a bunch of buddies once a month. Last Friday we all got together, and one of my friends told me how stupid he sometimes feels . . . sometimes, because this has happened more than once.

     He has an iPhone and a holder for it that attaches to his belt. So he's at work, walking down the hall, or coming out of the building, talking to his wife, or an associate on his iPhone. He looks down and suddenly realizes that his holder is empty. Oh crap, he says to himself. Where's my phone? Did I leave it behind on my desk? A few more swear words, kicking himself for losing his phone. When he suddenly realizes, the phone is in his hand! He's talking on the $#*#$*$ phone!

     Surely, you've never done anything as embarrassing as that, have you? But I still say, it's not because we're getting old. It's because life has become too complicated, and there's just too much stuff to keep track of!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Mustard and Ketchup Fight


      Some people have asked me about the mustard and ketchup fight I mentioned recently in Betting on the Minimum Wage. Here's the story.

     It was the summer of 1966. I was in high school and went looking for a summer job. I honestly don't remember how I found out that our local amusement park was hiring -- maybe I read it in the local paper; or my dad might have made the suggestion; just possibly I figured out for myself that an amusement park might need kids to work there in the summer.

     Anyway, I was hired for the minimum wage at the time of $1.25 an hour. I started working in a food stand in the park, selling fountain drinks, ice-cream bars, cotton candy. I was only working there for a few days when the manager -- did he recognize my innate talent, my executive potential, my high-class upbringing? -- asked me if I wanted to move into the main snack bar. It was considered a more favorable place to work (for one thing, no evening hours), and so I said yes, sir -- although there was no pay raise that went with the new job. I guess, these days, you'd call it a lateral move.

     The main snack bar was a big place out by the picnic tables. It opened early so park employees could stop off and get coffee and a bite to eat before the park opened. A lot of the employees came over to us for lunch as well, since we offered an expanded menu of hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese, and fries.

     Also, since we were near the picnic tables, groups like a busload of kids from the city or a school class trip, would come over for their main meal.

     I learned a lot that summer. I learned how to make coffee in a big urn -- and it was pretty good coffee, too -- and I learned how to make hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches (the hot dogs were okay, the grilled cheese sandwiches were pretty awful). I learned how to stack inventory, a skill I use to this day in our kitchen at home.

Ready for action!
     I learned a lot about making change. It wasn't long before I didn't even need to count the money. I just knew if the charge was 60 cents, and I got a dollar, I pulled out a quarter, a dime and a nickel for change. If the charge was $1.20, I automatically handed back three quarters and a nickel as change for two dollars. Nobody ever gave me a $5 bill. That was big money in those days.

     However, I also got my first introduction to the unintended consequences of government regulation. The snack bar was open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Employees worked 9 hours, with one hour for lunch. But I was under 18, and so according to State of New York child labor laws, I was not allowed to work more than 8 hours. But instead of being able to come in an hour late, or leave an hour early, I got two hours for lunch. It wasn't enough time to go do anything, to leave the park and come back (besides, I rarely had my own car). So all I did was sit around for two hours and not get paid.

     The amusement park was about ten miles from where I lived, about a 20 minute drive. My family had two cars. My dad took a train to work. My mother had one car, and I had to vie with my two older sisters for use of the second car. So I didn't get to take it for the day very often. Instead, I usually carpooled with a fellow named Billy who lived near me. He was older, maybe 22 or 23, and going to college part time.

     The summer of '66 was a hot one. I remember being happy working out by the picnic tables, under the trees, where it was cooler, instead of in the middle of the park. I got to know kids who ran the rides, and I rode the big roller coaster a couple of dozen times. Then I got bored, and when I wasn't working I sat around the picnic tables and read books or magazines.

     About halfway through the summer I was asked to help out with the ice-cream truck. That was a lot of fun. The truck delivered ice-cream pops to the stands around the park. I got to ride on the front bumper of the truck. It stopped at each stand, while I jumped off, ran around to the back, and pulled out the ice-cream order for the day.

     There were six or eight kids who worked at my stand. Joe was the boss. He was a distinguished-looking older man -- tall and thin with graying hair, and he took the job seriously and ran the stand by the book. His assistant, Walter, was even older, and he was a fellow we could pretty much ignore.

     One August afternoon, we were all looking forward to getting back to school, back to our real lives. Business was slow. Joe was off doing something else in the park, leaving Walter in charge. I was sitting at the cash register, when Billy tumbled out of the back of the stand. He was laughing. A second later I saw a shot of red go flying over his shoulder. Then another kid came through the door. He was armed with a ketchup squeeze bottle in one hand, and a mustard squeeze bottle in the other.

     The kid squirted the mustard bottle. One line hit Billy in the shoulder; another missed him and landed on my pants. Billy grabbed a mustard container from the counter, turned, and fired back at his assailant. Then he shouted to me. "Come on, Tom. I need reinforcements!"

     Just then, another kid came out of the back, shooting with both hands, ropes of ketchup and mustard flying through the air. I grabbed a mustard and a ketchup, and joined Billy, fighting off the other two kids.

     Within seconds, four or five kids were running through the stand splashing mustard and ketchup all over one another, and also getting it on the counter, the floor, and a couple of customers. Walter was yelling, "Stop it! Stop it!" But, like I said, nobody paid attention to Walter.

     I remember running through the back of the stand, over to the other side, when Billy came up behind me. He vaulted over the counter and started shooting at someone. Just then, Joe walked into the snack stand.

     He put a stop to everything, real quick. Billy was fired. He was gone in less than an hour. So were a couple of the other combatants.

     I was not fired, I got away with a reprimand. Maybe it was because I was the youngest kid there, or maybe because Joe knew I hadn't started it. But I was demoted. I was taken off the morning ice-cream route, and put to work cleaning and scouring shelves.

     The incident occurred toward the end of August. I worked through Labor Day, then the park closed. I do remember, at the time I'd been hired, there'd been some mention of an end-of-season bonus if I stayed for the entire summer. I didn't get the bonus. That's another lesson I learned -- if you want your bonus, behave yourself. But at least I can say, I was never fired.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Should I Buy a Suit?

     For over 30 years, I wore a suit and tie to work every day. Get up in the morning, button the top button of my shirt, cinch the tie, struggle into the jacket, lace up the tight shoes.

     One of the great joys of retiring was the freedom to wear what I want, when I want -- in my case, chinos and a polo shirt in the summer; chinos and a sweater in the winter. And then either sneakers, or my clunky brown Rockport shoes, or very often, for most of the day, my comfortable sheepskin slippers from LL Bean.

My entire tie collection, circa 2014
     Actually, for the last few years of my career, my company went "corporate casual" in the summertime, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. But even then, when September rolled around, it was back again to the suit and cinched-up tie.

     I bought my last suit in 1998. I was let go in 2002. I have not worn a suit since. A couple of years ago I gave that last suit to the Salvation Army, hoping someone else could put it to better use than I did by hanging in the closet to gather dust. Along the way, I pared down my tie collection to a total of three ties -- two Christmas ties and an elephant tie my daughter gave me when she got back from her internship in Africa.

     But now B wants me to go buy a new suit. Why? We have a wedding to go to in October. And B's son is getting married next spring. She thinks I would look much better in a suit -- or to put it more bluntly, she wants to be seen with a guy in a suit, not some schlumpy guy in chinos and a golf shirt.

     But I say, you might as well ask a federal prisoner, after he's paid his dues to society, to wear his striped uniform again, ten years after he got out of prison. And to add insult to injury, I'd have to shell out $300 or $400 of my own money to purchase this uniform.

     To be honest, I do still wear a tie occasionally. I have two Christmas ties. There are always a couple of holiday parties that seem to call for me wearing a tie. And once or twice a year I wear my elephant tie. But for the most part, I figure I'm retired and should have the freedom to dress the way I want.

     Now I know women like men in a suit, a lot better than they like men in jeans or a rumpled polo shirt, or even a jacket and tie. But I also know that women like to be comfortable as well. When B comes home from work, the first thing she does is head upstairs into the bedroom and slip on softer, more comfortable clothes.

     So what do you say? Do I have to buy a suit?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Betting on a New Minimum Wage

     I must admit, when I heard the proposal to raise the Federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour, my first thought was: Wow, that's a 40% raise! I never got a 40% raise! My second thought was: Hey, why don't they increase Social Security benefits by 40% next year!

     But then, I admit that I'm selfish. I think of myself first. And it's been a long time since I worked for minimum wage -- the summer of 1966, in fact, when I made $1.25 an hour slinging hamburgers at an amusement park. (According to BLS inflation figures that $1.25 is equivalent to $9.02 today.)

     I remember that summer during high school. We had a great time, me and my buddies, until a bunch of us got fired for having a mustard and ketchup fight. (You can see, we didn't take our jobs too seriously.)

     People advocating raising the minimum wage point out that you cannot support yourself, much less a family, on the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. They get no argument from me on that.

     Some people point out today's minimum wage, when you account for inflation, is less than it was in 1968. What they neglect to tell you is that 1968 marked the highest minimum wage in history. And in 1968 there was a booming economy, followed by the malaise of the 1970s when people felt lucky just to have a job.

     Supporters of raising the minimum wage also cite studies saying that it will have a negligible impact on employment. Very few people will get fired, they say, and it will raise everyone else out of poverty.

     But those studies come from liberals and are not to be trusted by objective measures (any more than studies coming from conservatives can be trusted). Basic economics says that if you make something more expensive, you will get less of it. If you make employing low-wage people 40% more expensive, you can bet there will be less demand for low-wage labor -- meaning some people will get fired; and a lot more people will simply not get hired (which is harder to measure).

     As you might have guessed by now, I'm skeptical of the idea of raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour (although President Obama hasn't exactly asked for my advice). It will help some people, for sure. But it will hurt many others -- the few who get fired, and the many who don't get hired. And it's entirely possible that those hurt the most will be uneducated workers washing dishes, and not the sons and daughters of the middle class who take on summer jobs.

     And yet, I share the sympathies of those who want to raise the minimum wage. I have a couple of acquaintances trying to supplement their Social Security with minimum wage jobs, and they don't get very far. And I certainly agree it's a miserable life for people working full-time at minimum wage, in menial jobs, trying to support themselves let alone a family.

     So do I have a better idea? Yes!

     Instead of raising the minimum wage, the Federal government should exempt the first $10,000 a person earns from the payroll tax. This would give everyone an immediate raise of some 14% on their first $10,000 of income. (The government would need to make sure employers give their portion of the payroll tax to employees, rather than keep it themselves.)

     How do we make up the lost taxes that go to Social Security and Medicare? We eliminate the salary cap on the payroll tax. So we treat everyone equally. Everyone gets the same exemption. The person making $1 million a year gets his first $10,000 of income exempt from the payroll tax. And so does the person making $10,000 a year. (This would also eliminate the silliness of a retired person receiving Social Security with one hand, while paying Social Security tax on their supplemental job.)

     Then, in addition, the  government can introduce a higher minimum wage on less drastic and more gradual basis, which would avoid any kind of shock to the economy -- and the unintended consequences such as higher unemployment, higher wage inflation, and the economic distortions that come with wage and price controls. So instead of ratcheting up the minimum wage by 40%, the Federal government could raise the minimum wage by, say, 5% this year, and another 5% next year, and another 5% a couple of years after that. And then we're back toward the levels of 1968 -- without killing any businesses and without hurting the very people we're trying to help.

     Meanwhile, it's entirely reasonable for certain jurisdictions, where the cost of living is high, to institute their own, higher minimum wage. In fact, most states already set their own minimum wage, and many have higher rates than the Federal government. After all, it makes little sense for Connecticut and California, with a high cost of living, to have the same minimum wage as Alabama and Arkansas, where the cost of living is much less.

     So you tell me. How does this not make sense? 

Bottom line shows actual minimum wage since 1938. Top line shows equivalent in inflation-adjusted dollars.