Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Schools on strike

I have to confess, I haven't paid much attention to the issues in Wisconsin regarding schools and government employees and the right to collective bargaining. Living my entire life in the south, in a right-to-work state, I'm not affected by unions and don't know a lot. It just doesn't affect my day-to-day living. I admit to being somewhat ignorant. As a kid, I remember wishing my teachers would go on strike and I could miss school (never happened).

That's not the point of this post, so don't comment on that please. The point is I read an article about universities in Wisconsin joining the union. As a parent of a young adult in a university, it made me think about what would happen if his university professors joined a union and then went on strike.

As a consumer, I can choose where to spend my money. I can buy groceries at numerous grocery stores. If one store goes on strike, I can honor their strike or go to another store. It gets more complicated with schools. And universities.

So my question is, if the university goes on strike, do I get a refund? When I send in my $$ at the beginning of the semester, I'm basically contracting with them for 3-4 months' worth of education (although it's somewhat questionable if he absorbs that much). Aren't they obliged to fulfill their end of the contract?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Is it time to rethink my economic ideas?

I'm not sure rethink is the right word, but I do believe I may change some of my ideas. I'm a supply-sider and always have been. Watching Micheal Moore's documentary on capitalism had no effect on me, I've been a capitalist since before 1973 (my first year with a W2).

But I recently did some research on the HIRE act of 2010 (Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act - details here). Most of the people I've talked to didn't know anything about this law, signed by President Obama a litle over a year ago. There were attempts to extend the act into 2011, but those failed.

Basically, the law gave a break to small businesses who hired an employee who had been unemployed for at least 60 days. Employers would not have to pay the 6.2% Social Security tax for those employees for the remainder of the year and would be eligible for an additional $100 tax credit if the employee stayed a year. One small businessman I talked to (who had never heard of the act) explained that if you hired two or three employees that way, you might be able to hire another worker.

Had I heard about this law early last year, I would have agreed that it was good. (Yes, I would have agreed that an Obama plan was good). I've heard of plans like this before and always thought they were good. It gets unemployed people back to work. That's good. They pay taxes. That's good. All good.

But I never heard about the act then. And neither did my small-business friend. And apparently, neither did a lot of other people. Was it a lack of publicity? Or a lack of enthusiasm? I suspect the latter. And I'm beginning to believe that acts like this have little or no impact on the economy. Unemployment went up most (all?) of last year, this act should have reduced unemployment.

So my question is, what CAN we do to increase employment?

Monday, March 21, 2011

What does Michael Moore have in Common with the Tea Party?

Over the weekend, I watched Michael Moore's documentary "Capitalism: A Love Affair". It was the first Moore film I've ever watched and you're probably saying "Why is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative like Randy even watching such a film?" Well it wasn't as bad (or as good) as I'd been told about his films and it was interesting to hear his opinions first hand, rather than through someone else's filter.

As expected, the film was very anti-Bush, but also took some shots at several Clinton and current presidential appointees. One had to listen carefully to catch them, but they were there. Senators Dodd and Frank (both with a "D" after their name) were shown in a bad light, so both parties were skewered. There were several anti-Obama ads played that talked about Socialism. To me, the tie-in was weak, but the attempt was to show that Obama is not a socialist.

There were some random, seemingly unconnected portions of the movie, it focused on GM shutdowns, foreclosures, a group called the Low Income Families Fighting Together (see here) and a sit-down strike at Republic Windows and Doors (see here). Moore also had a segment on the low pay for pilots. To me, the main (only?) tie in these stories was that unions were shown in a positive light in each case, standing up for the little man against the big-bad company.

There was a segment on dead-peasant policies. To be honest, this puzzled me. Dead-peasant policies exist when a company, (Wal-Mart was highlighted) takes out a life insurance policy on their workers with the company as a beneficiary. Then if the employee dies, the company makes money. I'm trying to figure out why I should care. Assuming of course, the company doesn't do something to hasten the final event. In my case, I'd like the challenge to show the company that they would lose money on the insurance, I'd outlive their interest.

This makes me wonder about the business model of the life insurance company. Surely they have the actuarial numbers to show that over a large number of people, Wal-Mart can't make money in this game. Otherwise, the insurance companies are charging too little for this policy.

There was praise for FDR and his attempt to pass a 2nd Bill of Rights. The film said that Germany, Italy and Japan have these in their constitution. Frankly for me, that doesn't speak well. I for one, am not interested in emulating any of those countries. (As a side note, the film ends with Moore making the dramatic statement that he's not leaving the US, I'm guessing he's heard the people suggest he move to whatever country he thinks is better).

The movie ended saying that Capitalism is evil and should be replaced by democracy. It showed some companies that are run purely democratically. One was a small engineering firm, the other a bakery. It would be interesting to read more about these companies (sorry, I didn't get their name), to see how they got started, how did they manage their funds. How do they pay their CEO and how do they recruit given their democratic approach. I don't recall the companies names, so that research won't get done by me.

One of the questions I kept asking was about protection of property. Suppose I own a house and decide to sell it to you. After you've been in it for a few years, you find you can't make the payment. Shouldn't I have the right to foreclose? If you can't pay me what you owe me, can't I at least get my property back? Moore's film kept showing reasons that the big banks shouldn't be allowed to foreclose (and some were legitimate), but what happens to the bank's property rights? Do we stomp all over those? That question was never answered.

Oh and lest I close without answering the title question - what DO Michael Moore and the Tea Party have in common? Both are solidly opposed to TARP and think the whole fiasco was created by the Treasury Secretary and Wall Street. I wonder, will Moore show up at the next Tea Party Rally?

Friday, March 18, 2011

It's an odd month - Have you checked your credit report?

I decided a few years ago that I was going to check my credit report regularly. Each person is allowed to check once per year with each of the three agencies, and rather than pull them all at once, I like to spread them out. Combined with my wife, we can pull a credit report every other month. So, if you pull reports in odd months (January, March, May, etc), you'll be following my plan.

While there is a commercial with a catchy tune and funny costumes, regardless what they say their credit report isn't free. You end up signing up for a service. Instead what you want to do is go to www.annualcreditreport.com. Once there, you'll fill in your state, then some basic information. One option I highly recommend specifies that on printed reports, only the last 4 digits of your social security number are printed. You may not print your reports (I do), but there's no sense printing on paper, on disk or even on the screen your full social any more than required.

Next you'll select one of the three agencies. This could cause some people some grief. "Which one do I pull first?" you might be saying. The answer is simple - any one you want. If you haven't pulled a report in the last year, my suggestion is to take the one at the top. If you've pulled that report, take the second on the list. The order may change, so don't count on it being the same next time, write down which report you pulled.

Once you've selected an agency, you'll be taken directly to that agency. Here you'll be asked some questions to verify that you really are you. You may be asked about old addresses, old accounts, details on your mortgage or recent credit changes. It might be best to have access to your records at this point, to know what your mortgage payment is, who your banker is and where you have accounts.

Once you get your credit report, you should review it carefully, If you find mistakes, you should call to find out details on the mistake. If you want the information corrected, don't settle for a call, write the owners of the account. My approach is to write to the owners first, then write to the credit agency if I don't get resolution. You could write to both at the same time.

I keep a copy of the credit report, at least until I pull another one from the same agency (a year later). You may decide not to keep a copy on paper, but I'd recommend keeping a copy on disk in that case.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How to un-elect your local politician

Seems that in Florida, voters have gotten wise and un-elected their Mayor. Seems the Mayor was "politically tone deaf during troubled economic times", easily shown by raising taxes and raising the pay and benefits for public employees.

Citizens of Miami-Dae have overwhelmingly voted to kick this Republican, soon-to-be former Mayor Carlos Alvarez, out of office. Over 700 of the 809 precincts have reported in and 88% of voters favored the recall vote.

We should all take note of this action and we should print a copy of the article and mail it to our politicians. They can be un-elected.

(Full article is here)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Happy Pi day

Ok, I know I can be a bit of a nerd, but when two of the people in my family don't even get it when I send a text that says "Happy Pi Day", something's wrong. They had even seen comments (likely on Facebook, likely from teachers) talking about celebrating Pi Day and still didn't get it.

For those who don't know, Pi is one of those "special" numbers in math. They seem to turn up over and over, so someone, somewhere named it. Pi is used to determine the area of a circle. Most have heard the joke, Pi are squared - no Pi are round.

Anyway, the value if Pi is 3.14. Today is 3/14. Notice the similarity? Today, I was reminded of Pi day by an entry on Wikihow explaining how to celebrate Pi day. What better way than with a pie? They show some pictures with the symbol for Pi on the pie. Or maybe the numbers for Pi on the pie. Either approach is acceptable. If you want to get technical about it, you should celebrate the exact minute, at 1:59 today.

While I've never celebrated Pi day before, I think it's a good idea. We've celebrated Ground Hog day at my house along with some other obscure holidays. Any holiday focused on a desert can't be a bad idea. So, maybe I'll go out and buy a Pi (or is that buy a pie?) today. Apple sounds really good right about now.

Happy Pi Day everyone!

(I should also wish my brother and his wife a happy birthday. I wonder how long it took them to find someone with the same birthday to marry?)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Western Sky

Today I saw an ad for Westernsky.com. This is a company owned and operated by Native Americans. The ad offered about $2500 in a loan. They will put the money in your checking account overnight. No collateral is required and there are no fees for early pay off.

I was curious, this sounded suspiciously like payday loans I talked about here or the Cashwell company I talked about here. When I found their website, I saw that they claim to have lower rates than payday loans. From looking at their rates, they are lower than Cashwell.

But they aren't cheap. For a loan of $2525, you'll pay a $75 fee right off the bat. Then you start paying almost 140% in interest. If you pay it off over the required 36 months, you'll pay over $10,000.

The website explains that Western Sky operates "within the boundaries of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, a sovereign nation located within the" USA. I don't know if  that means they operate under different rules. I wonder if they can pursue US citizens who don't pay them in the same way US companies. Or maybe they get to play under US rules in some cases and their own rules in other cases.

It would scare me to work with a company that might not operate under US laws. It would scare me even more to pay 140% interest. (I should note that this was their least offensive loan. If you only borrow $1000, you'll pay almost 195% interest)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bullying about road rage

Yesterday, I asked for statistics about the growth of road rage. So far, I haven't seen any (if you have some, please post here or on yesterday's post). But I have a theory and the theory is related to road rage. Let me explain.

Sometime in 1987 or 1988, some news reporters on TV coined the phrase "road rage" to describe the anger some drivers felt towards other drivers. AAA talked about how bad it was and called for investigations. Psychologists searched for reasons to explore the phenomenon. And police officers dutifully began reporting it when they saw it.

Road rage was real, but did these TV reporters create the wave that spread? Not just by encouraging copycats, (which they did) but also by reporting on something that had been there all along. The term didn't exist in 1986, so the statistical count was zero. The number of reported incidents incidents had no where to go but up. (for more on this media invention see here)

So, are we seeing the same thing with bullying? Certainly it is real and has been around a LONG time. But are we 1) creating copycats and 2) counting a problem we never counted before? Doesn't change the seriousness of it and I for one am glad parents are aware of it, but it doesn't make it a national problem.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Bullying statistics - Historical data

Has anyone seen any statistics on bullying that cover the growth? Specifically, if we look back 1, 2, 5, even 10 years ago, is bullying more prevalent today than it was then?

All of the numbers I've seen indicate how bad it is now, or stats from 2009 or some other year. The numbers are staggering and I don't mean to minimize them. I'm just looking for some historical perspective and haven't found it yet.

If you find a link, post it here.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

What a difference a bank makes

This morning I called my small "home-town" bank because my debit card is broken. This bank has a feature where they transfer an extra $1 into savings every time you use the card. But they charge me a monthly fee of $5. Each time I use the card, they deduct 50cents from that fee, so if I use it 10 times, there's no fee.

Another reason I signed up for this account is that in March of this year (which started today), they are going to give me a bonus and match all of the dollars they've transferred to savings. I think in my case that will exceed the service charges I've paid.

Anyway, back to replacing my debit card. Martha at the bank was very nice and was ready to send me a new card. Then she told me there was a $5 charge. I told her to hold off.

Then I called one of the big credit card companies and told them that the card I have for them is broken (I'm rough on cards in my wallet). Michele was very nice and offered to send one out right away. I talked to her about the rewards program and she offered to upgrade my card in two different ways. The first was no charge (I pay no annual fee now) and would give me trip cancellation benefits (not a big deal, but if it's free). The second would give me more rewards, but cost an annual fee of $59. I declined the second and accepted the first.

My point here is this: people like to bash the big credit card companies and praise the little guy, but my experience is the opposite. What's your experience?