Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry F-ing Christmas to you, too

As I found myself embracing my 9% Jewish heritage yesterday with a brunch of crepes and potato pancakes on the second day of Hanukkah, I was thinking of why the holiday has not caught on.  Eight days of eating fried food and gambling?  It's like a week in Vegas, only with the bonus of chocolate coins.  If there's a secular way to celebrate Christmas by having a strange man invade your home via chimney, I'm sure we can figure out a Hanukkah celebration that involves latkes and dreidels without the miracle of the oil aspect.

Then, I'm reminded of why not by a post on Facebook:

Just so everyone knows, I have a CHRISTMAS TREE in my living room (not a holiday tree), my family is getting CHRISTMAS PRESENTS (not holiday gifts) and we will eat CHRISTMAS DINNER(not a holiday meal), and I will attend a CHRISTMAS PARTY (not a holiday party). I will also very cheerfully wish you a MERRY CHRISTMAS! (not... happy holidays). By the way, if you want to have a Happy Hanukah , by all means do, I respect that. If you want to have a Blessed Kwanzaa, I also respect that. I want to have a Merry Christmas, so I ask YOU to respect that!
Bearing in mind that this person watches a lot of Fox News, I'm not surprised to see this.  The idea that any culture can have a monopoly on December celebrations is narrow at best, deliberately closed-minded perhaps, and flat-out racist at worst.  As Hanukkah predates Christmas by a couple hundred years, perhaps it is Christmas that is stealing Hanukkah's thunder? 

What really annoys me is the idea that the author will wish someone a Merry Christmas even when he knows that the person does not celebrate the holiday.  Let's talk about the purpose of the greeting, shall we?  When one wishes someone a Merry Christmas, it is a hope, wish, and aspiration for the other person.  You do not go up to someone and say, "I hope I have a Merry Christmas".  You want the recipient to have the Christmas that is merry.  So, if you know the person on the receiving end will look at December 25th as a day off work and little more, do you want them to have a Merry Christmas, or a Happy Holiday?  If the greeting is intended for the recipient, then the Happy Holidays works for the entire time between Thanksgiving and MLK Day.  If you still want to wish someone a Merry Christmas, then the greeting is for yourself, and you are a selfish little A-Hole who is using this as an opportunity to shove your beliefs down another's throat.  What's wrong with you?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Don't compliment a Lutheran

As I drive around the Midwest visiting friends and family for the holidays, I've been catching up on The News from Lake Wobegon podcasts for two reasons.  First, Garrison Keillor's voice is soothing to my cat and keeps her from screaming in the back seat of the car, and second, the humor comes from astute observations of the ridiculous nature of the culture in which I was raised.  One of the podcasts concerning Thanksgiving included the line (and forgive me for not writing it down - I was driving 70mph on the Tri-State Tollway afraid to be rear-ended while on my way to Wisconisn) that "You never compliment a Lutheran.  It unsettles them."

I'm currently trying to apply for graduate school.  I say "try" because each application requires me to spend hours complimenting myself about how awesome I am.  Lutherans do not do this.  As such, the number of completed applications I have done is zero.  I'm hoping for some down time to work on these over the next two weeks, but I'm afraid that the biggest hurdle to overcome will be the idea that I do have so speak well of myself to do these.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sunday Morning Papers: Census and Poverty

While it is tempting to write about the Presidential campaign right now, everything will probably revolve around the economic news that was announced on Thursday: 1 in 2 Americans is living in poverty or near poverty.

Now look at the Republican field that wants to cut or eliminate the safety-net, automatic-stabilizer programs that provide high-velocity money to those who have a marginal propensity to save of 0.  When unemployment benefits are given to someone living under the poverty line, the entirety of that check goes to rent, utilities, and food, and whatever it takes to keep from starving or becoming homeless.  Meanwhile, the landlords and grocery store owners can hire clerks and pay their own expenses, and the utility companies can pay for line maintenance and still return ginormous profits to their stockholders (Deregulation, HO!).  Newt Gingrich deciding that 99 weeks of unemployment is unnecessary means to me that he has no concept of the velocity of money, which is surprising as someone who should have a command of the social sciences.

The new poverty measures which classify a family of 4 as living in poverty if they make under $22,500 (above the average unemployment benefit), and low-income as below $45,000, illustrates a fundamental problem in the United States: what good is job creation if the jobs that are created are not worth having?  To make $45,000 per year, a wage earner would have to make $21.63 per hour.  That's three times minimum wage.  If this is a two-income household, then to rise to the middle class, parents would have to work 3 full-time jobs, or work 2 jobs that pay 1.5 times the minimum wage.  Minimum wage is so far away from a living wage in this country that it is hard to think that there is any corelation between the two. 

Which is why the attempts to institute the unfounded supply-side trickle-down economic theory in the Midwest should concern everyone.

Right now, Right To Work campaigns are underway in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana, where the speaker of the General Assembly has declared that undercutting the ability of unions to organize is the most pressing priority in the state.  Indiana already has a median household income below the national average by state, one of the poorest states in the Midwest, and just barely over the standards of the new Low Income Household by the Census at $45,679.  If the most pressing issue in the state is to drive the percentage of workers living in poverty and low income households above 50%, then by golly, this sounds like a swell idea.  However, if you want to create jobs that allow people to live and thrive without reliance of government assistance, then maybe you should look at incomes and the decrease in demand of a consumer economy that can only afford to buy housing and electricity as a problem to try to tackle.

Friday, December 16, 2011

50 DTSBYD: #25 Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room

Part of my 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die Challenge

Way before the mortgage meltdown, there was Enron.  Led by my favorite meteorologist's little brother, Enron imploded in spectacular fashion, following an absolutely improbable run of decades in which the company didn't seem to make any money or have any real plan that would ever make the company profitable.  And these smug little bastards didn't seem to find anything wrong with that because they were smart enough to figure out how to perpetuate the fraud.

Whether the cause of bad business sense, stupid accounting rules, or the logical result of the deregulation of rules designed to prevent abuse, it's a bad thing.  What's worse is that it does not appear that the business community learned anything from this situation.  Sometimes we have regulations for a reason.  Whether or not utilities should be a public good is the question, not whether utility regulations get in the way of corporate profits.  The Enron case is a cautionary tale about what happens when regulation is repealed without thinking about what the consequences are going to be.  We're living through the consequences of the repeal of Glass-Steagall Act, and the inability of the government to recognize that Credit Default Swaps should be regulated like insurance policies.  Maybe someday we'll recognize this.  Maybe?

50 DTSBYD: #46 Little Dieter Needs To Fly

Part of my 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die Challenge

Hey!  It's Rescue Dawn!  But without Gloria Steinem's step-son in the lead role (yes, strange, but true).

Little Dieter Needs to Fly is the story of Dieter Dengler, a pilot who was shot down over that country we were not bombing during the Vietnam War, held captive, then managed to escape to freedom.  What you learn from this documentary is not so much about Dengler's amazing story, but the lengths that Werner Herzog will go to in the production of a documentary.  He has Dengler running through the jungles of southeast Asia, recreating moments of his captivity, and pretty much making an old man relive the most traumatic moments of his life.  It's kind of fascinating.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday Morning Papers: $10,000 Bet

In last night's debate, Mitt Romney bet $10,000 that he was right and Rick Perry was wrong.  Bad idea if you want to connect with the average voter. 

With median household income at $50K per year, Mitt just bet 20% of that like it was nothing.  If it was a rhetorical bet, why not bet a million dollars?  If it was a real bet, why not $100?  It shows that he doesn't seem to appreciate that $10,000 is that grey area where it's hard for an AVERAGE person to figure out if he's serious or not about the cash. 

I know this is the time of year where car companies like to pretend that a husband will buy a car for his wife, but if you are making $50,000 per year, you do not consent to spend $10,000 of your household's money without consulting your wife first.  I'm not sure why Perry didn't mention that.  It had to be in the back of his mind when he mentioned that he wasn't in the betting business.  Here is the major problem with the Republican field:  It's way to masculine.  There's a sense of one-upmanship when it comes to being the most macho.  If Perry were a Democrat, then he could have said that $10K was real money in his house, and he'd be sleeping on the couch if he didn't run it past his wife first.  The Democrats would accept that - the Republicans would call that being pussy whipped.  Negotiating the price down to something that would have been realistic ($20, for example) would have been unmanly.  Unfortunately, the Republican base appears to want to elect the Marlboro Man, and it doesn't appear that anyone can set up to that ideal.  The only one who came close was an actor, after all.

Friday, December 9, 2011

50 DTSBYD: #38 March of the Penguins

Part of my 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die Challenge

I'm not sure what else to add to the reviews of March of the Penguins.  It's beautiful, tragic, sweeping, epic, and its nature.  Almost any type of political statement you would like to make concerning anything could find a route into this movie, from the imporance of a two parent household to global warming.  So how about this - the landscape is cold and barren, yet somehow this species survives and thrives.  Plus the chicks might be the cutest darn things in the world, and with the auroras overhead, the film is breathtaking.

50 DTSBYD: #41 The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Part of my 50 Documentaries to See before You Die Challenge

I like video games, but not that much I guess.  Growing up, we had a Commodore Vic-20 system, which played a number of Atari knock-off games.  Since it plugged into the house's one color TV, we could not play for long - namely, no time after 5:30pm, and not during afternoon Cubs games.  You don't get used to playing video games for long periods of time when you are going to be kicked off after 20 minutes.  It wasn't until my mom broke down and bought a Compaq (TabWorks operating system.  Yeah) that I was able to play Donkey Kong.  And I was pretty good.  I could get to the 4th or 5th level pretty consistantly.  Apparently that isn't very good.

Enter the Kong.

King of Kong looks at the kind of person who will spend four, five, six, twelve? hours a day playing the same video game.  In one corner is Steve Wiebe, an obsessed an mild mannered nerd who doesn't even have the self-confidence to correct people when they mispronounce his name.  In the other corner is Billy Mitchell, a hot sauce salesman who may have peaked in 1987, but speaks with such bravado you wonder if he knows that the best years are behind him.  Honestly, he seems to be peddling his old success and unwilling to perform the way we expect, like a professional sports player who hasn't laced up the cleats for a few years, but still acts like he'll be starting on Sunday.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, you see that absolutely anything can be controversial if three or more people are involved.  The political infighting and paranoia surrounding Twin Galaxies is rather humorous (seriously, they referee competative arcade game high scores) until you realize that these things REALLY matter to this group.  I don't have the time to try to best Donkey Kong, but it does make me happy to know that if I wanted to be the best in something, there is probably a group that can officially convey the title to me.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Yes, you will get out of Wyoming

Today marks the 70th Anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  I'd love to say that my grandfather marched to the local recruiting station the next day to enlist, but he was actually in Africa at the time fighting with the Brits.  However, once he returned, he marched right into his local recruiting office (found out that he never had a birth certificate issued...), and joined the logical branch of service for someone from the southern part of a landlocked Midwestern state, the Navy.

Strangely, this isn't too surprising.  When looking at the number of Navy Recruits per capita, it's not the states with the longest coastlines who enlist.  The top ten include Guam and Texas, who have higher military participation rates than the average state (or territory), and a couple states that make sense like Alaska and Washington.  Virginia, home of Norfolk?  Down at number 13.  Maryland, home of Annapoolis?  Number 17.  You are more likely to join the Navy if you are from the landlocked states of Wyoming, Montana, Oklahoma, Idaho, or Colorado than either of these states.  However, the bonus of joining the Navy over the Army or Air Force is that yes, you will not be stationed anywhere near the Black Thunder Coal Mine.  So perhaps there is something to the idea that kids run away from home to join the Navy.

Cut jobs to create jobs

The New York Times reported yesterday that threats of budget cuts are leading public sector employees to retire early.  Couple that with Republicans in Congress threatening to reduce the federal payroll, and you are seeing a massive destruction of the American economy based on bad economic policy.

Right now, consumer spending is responsible for 2/3rds of GDP, with private capital investment and government spending covering the other third.  If you cut back on government spending by reducing payroll, this will affect the amount of money in circulation to comprise the 2/3rds of GDP that is the result of employed people spending money.  If you reduce demand of consumer goods, then what capitalist is going to invest in a business if there are no customers?

This is why the idea of cutting government jobs to create jobs will lead to a contraction of GDP... or will make this recession into a bone fide depression.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

So long, Rod

Rod Blagojevich goes in for sentencing today.  He's expected to receive 10 years for doing something that would have been his duty before the 17th Amendment, to select a Senator based on the best political deal he could manage.  Something that was expected in 1915 will probably result in Rod going to Federal prison in Terre Haute for the next decade.  Democracy may not be perfect, but we're working on it.

The sad story of Rod is that in a town where graft, corruption, and payoffs are actually expected (dude, my garbage was picked up in the middle of a sanitation workers strike in Chicago.  Hizzah for the political machine that made that deal!), and he knew that he could get away with it... but had no idea how to actually do it.  Instead of trying to do some little things here and there for the good of the constituents, like get a sanitation workers union to come and pick up the garbage in one ward in exchange for supporting the union's strike city-wide, he really just tried to pad his own wallet and didn't have the good sense to hide it.  He was quite dumb as to how this all worked.  Meanwhile, he's married to the daughter of a seasoned politician, who obviously expected some kickbacks, but also wasn't fully aware of the masaging that needed to be done.

When it snows in Chicago, people don't care how the roads get cleared, just whether they are cleared or not.  People are willing to accept a little give-and-take if the services expected get delivered.  It might be more expensive than it needs to be done, but if that's the cost, then at least things get done.  People aren't too upset if a contract goes to a congressman's nephew - we assume the congressman is going to kick the nephew's ass if he doesn't deliver.  However, shopping a Senate seat to the highest bidder?  How can you even pretend to sell that one to the voters?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Stupid Biological Clock

It started Thursday morning... NPR featured a story on women in their 40s having to face the fact that they waited too long to try to have kids.  Your fertility plummets once you hit 25.  Thanks, just what a 32-year-old wants to hear.

Then, Thursday night, "Whitney" (or, that show that you watch because you are too lazy to try to change the channel after The Office... taking place in Chicago, my ass) had the plot line of Whitney coming to terms with her own ticking biological clock.

To make matters worse, it turns out that laptops are destroying sperm.  So just in case I am that 10% of women who can still have a kid in her late 30s, my husband's late nights researching may have screwed up our chances.  That is, if BPA that our parents consumed in the 1970s did not mess with our reproductive systems so that we never had a chance.

Here we are.  Torn.  Do we have a child before we are financially stable, or do we not have kids?  Are we supposed to be responsible parents or not parents?  Raising a child today can cost a quarter million dollars per child for 18 years, not including college.  The cost of child care alone would be 33% of our household income.  Any responsible person would not doom a child to poverty.  If we're going to have a continuing problem of Americans delaying childbirth until it is too late due to financial realities, then it is time to think about the economic costs that this entails.  Just child care alone is rapidly becoming a cost that middle income families cannot afford at $13K per year when the average household income is $48K pretax, and they cannot make ends meet on one income to have one parent provide care.  Add food, an extra bedroom to the house, a sedan or minivan, strollers, clothes, and a safe place to sleep, and really - who can afford to have kids on $48K per year?

Sunday, December 4, 2011


On occasion, I'll hear a woman of my age say something to the extent of "I'm not a feminist."  A 30-year-old single woman, with a college degree, a full-time job, living on her own, with her own assets and real estate, is not a feminist.  She's okay with this, and that right there means that she's some type of feminist.  Otherwise, she'd consent to an arranged marriage orchestrated by her aunt, or move into her brothers house to be the elderly spinster aunt for her nephews.  At least that's what would be expected in before 1955. 

Sometimes we don't think about how far we've come towards gender equality until we really reflect.  This week, a study came out on men and women and multi-tasking at home after the workday has concluded.  Yes, women do more work at home, but men are still involved in child-rearing tasks.  That's progress. 

Yesterday, Herman Cain suspended his campaign for president in light of multiple allegations of sexual harassment and a possible mistress.  Of course, there's no way you could have a national political career with these types of skeletons in the closet.  At least not these days.  Warren Harding had 4 mistresses (and probably an illegitimate daughter), and Grover Cleveland admitted to fathering a child out of wedlock.  That's just what powerful men do.  They are so powerful that their sexual prowess cannot be contained by the banns of holy matrimony.  No one well-bred woman would consent to THAT much sex.  Even 20 years ago at the Clarence Thomas hearings, it was implied that Anita Hill was asking for it, that she had put herself in a position where she would be taken advantage of, and men need a space to be manly man-like men.  There was an attempt to classify Herman Cain's accusers as being financial ne'er-do-wells, but few people were buying that logic.  Which is good.  Maybe we're making progress.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Well, we're fat.  The New York Post reported Monday that the average American weighs 20 pounds more today than they did in 1990, which makes sense because we've all gotten married... let ourselves go a bit... maybe lost that free time to go to the gym... oh, not individuals, just people in general.  Ok.

I did find out that my "Fat Weight" is the average weight for an American woman.  Makes me feel a bit better.

However, while we're fatter, we're also okay with it.  I'm not okay with this part.  Some of the issue is that we know a lot more about obesity now.  We're also more aware that different bodies have different ideal weights, and instead of a firm number calculated on 100 plus five pound for every inch over 5 feet tall to determine ideal weight, we have ranges.  However, outside of that range, we're more accepting.  That's where I have issues.  We shouldn't be okay with that.  Unless we are training for the Olympics or the Super Bowl, it probably means that the diet or exercise routine we're in is not working for us, and we should address that.  Being okay with being overweight is problematic - we don't have that trigger that says we should hit the gym again and have a salad.

That said, Monday was when I started my diet to shed the excess Fall / Thanksgiving weight, and I'm starving.  I'm a little pissed that the entire 2/3rds of Americans who are overweight are not as hungry as I am right now.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Leftover Turkey Ideas: The Turkey Burrito

Almost a week later, and I’m almost done eating the turkey.  All that remains is the turkey carcass in the freezer that will be made into broth this weekend.  I had a stroke of genius on Monday that resulted in the amazing Pilgrim-Mexican fusion dish that I like to call the Turkey Burrito. 

Take about 2 cups of the scrap turkey meat that is clinging to the bone, white meat and dark meat, and don't worry if the meat is a little tough.  Add to a saucepan with a can of tomatoes with the juice.  I like the ones with the jalapenos in them.  Add a dash of paprika or red pepper (powder, not flakes), cumin, and lime juice (1/2 teaspoon or so if you want to measure).  Set the saucepan to simmer on low for 30 minutes, stiring occasionally and adjusting the heat to make sure it is not boiling, but still staying hot enough to steam.  When the majority of the liquid has evaporated, add half a can (1 cup) of vegetarian refried beans and stir.  Voila!  Burrito filling!  Stuff a tortilla and add cheese, more veggies, and rice if you'd like.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Getting Life on Track

Since my husband left on a trip this week, I decided that this would be a good time to start to a new diet and exercise regime.  Why not.

The things that I have going for me:
  • Complete control of the cooking and food shopping. 
  • Fewer demands of my time to keep me from exercising
  • Full command of the DVD player for exercise videos
  • No one except the cat to see that I look ridiculous while doing sit-ups
  • After two runs to Trader Joe's, a fully stocked kitchen of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low calorie frozen entrees and premium organic snacks.  Good tea and good coffee so I won't be drinking my calories.
  • Close proximity to trails for running and biking, a weight set in the basement, exercise videos and on-demand workouts, and the Wii EA Sports Active, so the cat can mock me.
Things I don't have going for me:
  • I'm lazy.
  • I get bored easily
  • Chocolate is yummy.
  • I'm missing my partner - the one who senses when I'm stressed out and in over my head and swoops in to rescue me from myself, or doing the dishes, bringing me a cup of coffee to help me walk up, or just give me a hug while I'm preparing some type of bland fish and veggie dinner. 
That last one is going to be a hard one to get over.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sunday Morning Papers: Black Friday & Cyber Monday

Oh, fluff pieces on deal shopping!  People being maced at Wal-Mart to buy a $200 flat screen TV.  Debates over whtether it's fair for workers to give up their Thanksgiving dinners to sell toasters for $4.99.  Who will be having free shipping tomorrow on Cyber Monday?  And, the backlash of why people are stupid to wait in the cold for a $30 Blu Ray player.

Why should people care?  Because of the simple fact that consumer spending accounts for 2/3rds of GDP according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  With the remaining third coming from government spending and private investment, this is a critical portion of the American economy, especially with banks sitting on capital and talks of Draconian budget cuts to Federal spending.  So whether or not you bought some $10 sweaters on Friday morning may seal the fate of whether this is a recession or a depression. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Solution to a Midwestern Problem

Without a doubt, a strange moment occurred in thousands of households across the Midwest on Thursday.  Guests arrived for Thanksgiving Dinner, and were promptly asked by Aunt Sally to remove their shoes.  The moment of panic struck - are their holes in my socks?  Did I get that pedicure?  Do they smell?  I'm not sure why this always amazes me - I've been taking my shoes off at relatives houses since I was little.  Of course you always take your shoes off in winter - don't track the snow in.  It never occurred to me that people in other areas of the country would leave their shoes on until I lived with a pair of New Yorkers.  Then I had to vacuum more often.

A couple years ago, one of my husband's cousins brought slippers to Grandma's house for Christmas.  Genius!  Still... didn't think to do anything except pack extra socks.  I had thought about bringing extra shoes in a plastic Jewel bag like I would when I was 5, but then when you are lugging presents and a pair of pies, there's no way to carry them.  I've gone whole weekends at my InLaws with cold feet, annoyed that I forgot to bring slippers and startled that their shoe-free house policy with which I have been acquainted for a dozen years has not changed.  Then, Groupon delivered the perfect solution - foldable purse shoes!

You have no idea how excited I was about these. 

I guess Dr. Scholl's also has these shoes, but markets them as flats you can wear when your heels start hurting.  But can we go back to portable winter house shoes?  From Indy to St. Paul, our long regional nightmare is over!  We can leave our wet snowy shoes (and socks depending on the height of snow to height of boot) at the front door and still have cute things on our feet!  OMG - Patent Leather!  Sequins!  And you fit in the purse I'm already carrying!  Where have you been my whole life?  And why isn't this being marketed to Midwesterners as portable house shoes?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

On Puritans and Pilgrims

Today we celebrate the bounty of the harvest, and give thanks that a bunch of religious zealots left one theocracy to start their own theocracy, and then the number of theocracies in New England turned out to be ungovernable, so we started a country with no official religion.

Then the religious right took over the Republican Party in 1999...

Still, when the Puritans of Boston could not get along with the Pilgrims of Plymouth in one tiny geographic area, and neither liked the official Church of England or the Catholics or Roger Williams or uppity women, you have to wonder if religious factions might be a good thing for democracy.  If no one religion has a majority, then people are forced to talk to each other on non-religious terms.  At least I'd like to believe this.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Low-Cost, High-Utility Christmas Presents

When I got married, one of the more unexpected presents that we received was the church cookbook from my husband’s Great-Aunt.  At first, I did not think too much of it, and as an elderly woman in a small rural town who probably does not shop online, there’s probably not too many options.  However, as I leafed through the pages, I found that what I was given was really a family recipe book.  My husband’s father’s family has been attending that same church for over 100 years, and each recipe appeared to be authored by aunts, cousins, second cousins, grandparents, and even nods to women who would have been the DH’s great-grandmother or great-great-grandmother.  The gift cost $15, the profits went to Senior programming at the church, and I have what may have been the most thoughtful gift we received for our wedding. 

I share this to illustrate one point – low-cost Christmas presents (or, any presents) will just look cheap if they are not thoughtful.  Thoughtful presents are thoughtful, even if they did not cost a lot of money.  The best gifts are meaningful presents that will be valued by the recipient, a concept that relates to the Economics term of Utility.  It’s not usefulness, but that can be a component, but utility refers to the satisfaction received by the end user.  Applying this concept to gift-giving is apt: Maximizing the happiness of the recipient while minimizing the costs to the consumer (you) is the goal.

Yes, buying your nephew a Wii may fall into this category if you score a deal on an excellent bundle.  Mom probably just wants you to come home.  Maybe bring a pie.  Your brother will buy his own electronics.  So what DO you get them?  The answer is something thoughtful. 

One of the things I love to give are photos.  Ready to reduce your father to tears?  A picture of your trip to Cooperstown when you were 5 in a holder that incorporates a signed baseball by Stan Musial will do it, and your sister who bought him a home theater system is going to have to hear about the time Grandpa took Dad to the game in St. Louis and they came *this* close to catching a Stan the Man homerun ball throughout the rest of the evening.  If you have even the slightest twinge of sibling rivalry, you will understand the importance of such things. 

A good place to start is a nice list of frugal gifts.  Use these with caution, though.  I thoughtlessly chosen gift from a list like this will not be doing anyone any favors (little utility for Aunt Marge).  It may stir some creativity.  If you are reading this post today, then you have the ability to take an okay present and knock it out of the park.  Figure out the recipient (maybe someone newly married, or a college student living on their own for the first time), and start asking family members for recipes.  A good starting point is Thanksgiving Dinner.  Who makes the pies?  Who makes the green beans?  Is there a secret to the turkey?  Get these recipes together – print them out on cardstock (or Avery Index Cards with a preset recipe card template) with a story on the back about the recipe & how long it has been in the family – and put them in a nice box.  The best part is with other people in on the gift, those around you at Christmas will have a vested interest when your niece opens it up.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How to Win Black Friday

Yes, the day after Thanksgiving will have some great sales.  How do you find them?  And, is it really a good deal?  I'm awesome at shopping this day, and if you are looking at scoring some good deals that day, I hate to say it, but you are starting too late.

There are two main ideas that guide my shopping:
1.  It's not a deal if you are buying something you don't need.
2.  Your time and money are finite resources, so you may need to sacrifice one for the other in limited quantities.

The first step is to figure out what you need to buy.  Make a list of everyone for whom you will need to buy something in December.  The list should be exhaustive.  Include people at work, hostess gifts for parties, and neighbors in addition to the usual suspects.  I would start making this list in September for two reasons - first, if you have kids, syncing your holiday plans to the school year is natural, and second, setting aside money from each paycheck for 3 months will give you the cash you will need without having to resort to credit cards or layaway.  Otherwise, finish this list on November 1.  The date you should not start is Thanksgiving.  You will probably forget someone, or worse, you will start planning purchases for someone you have already bought a present for.

Already bought a present for?  This is step 2.  If you raided the Day After Christmas sales last year, drag out the box.  Did you really buy that candle set for your aunt, or did you want it for yourself?  Could that lotion basket really be given to your boss, or would it be a better hostess present for your old college roommate's ugly sweater party?  Did you buy knick-knacks on a business trip to Cincinnati for your brother?  Where did those go?  Or, were you going to treat someone to an experience - take them out to dinner, get sports tickets?  Help them move?  Step 2 is to pare down the list to just those people for whom you still need to purchase a gift.  Remember Rule 1: It's not a deal if you are buying something you don't need.

Step 3 - Figure out where you will be shopping.  Are you going to be at your aunt's house on Thanksgiving and will be swinging by the KMart on your way home?  Will you be staying within a 10 mile radius of your house, or will you be making a special trip to a regional shopping area?  The importance to deciding on where you will be shopping is to figure out which stores are in that area.  Perhaps you will change your plans based on the deals that you find, but 90% of the time, altering your plans within a few days of Thanksgiving will violate Rule 2 - sacrificing one deal for another, or adding more time to your day to save $5. 

Step 4 - Research.  Find the ads as soon as they are leaked, and go through them with a fine-toothed comb.  Sure, look at the big ticket items, but also keep track of the smaller things, like memory cards for cameras, warm winter accessories, wrapping paper, and ribbons.  Write down anything and everything that's going to tempt you, along with the times by which you will need to buy them.  Hint:  Anything on the first page will sell out in 5 minutes, and you may need to be there 6 hours before the store opens.  Then... are these really deals?  Can the items be found in the first week of November for the same or similar price (she says... writing on her netbook that she bought for $197 on Nov. 6 that has more memory and a larger screen than the one that will be at Target for $157 on the day after Thanksgiving).

Step 5 - Plan A and Plan B (and Plan C and Plan D).  After figuring out what the best deals are, start assigning deals to people.  This is where you need to keep Rule 2 in mind.  You cannot be at all stores at the same time.  Prioritize the big deals for the big recipients.  Come up with back up plans.  So, if you want to get a digital camera for your brother at one place at 4am, have another idea just in case you show up too late to cash in.  If you can get that camera elsewhere for $10 more, but also get a deal for your sister, then you need to sacrifice that $10 to get both deals... or...

Step 6 - Divide and conquer.  Get a buddy, divide the list, reconvene for coffee at 7am post-shopping.  I like to go shopping with Mom.  I'm at Sears, she's at JC Penney.  Make sure you have your exhaustive lists ready with extra gloves and wrapping paper and cheap socks.  It's less crazed if you check out once at each store, not once for the doorbusters and another time for the good deals, etc.

Step 7 - Sleep in.  Not finding deals?  Then stay home!  If you are planning on making gifts, you don't have to go out!  If there's nothing you can think of for your gift list, stay at home!  If the total savings on the list is $40, then stay home!  I personally enjoy finishing my list on the Day After Thanksgiving, mainly because there is a festive energy without the hurried sense of despiration that comes with weekends in December.  But, if you can't find what you are looking for, then you still have a month to make something happen.

Happy Shopping!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Long Term Economic Policy

There is no way that the Super Committee is going to reach an agreement by the deadline.  Fortunately, there is also no way that the automatic cuts are going to go through, at least not in an election year.  Phew.  Because if you live in a Medium-Sized Midwestern College Town, Department of Education spending pretty much supports your town's economy, and any cuts in that means that I may have to resort to poll dancing in my spare time instead of blogging.

The issue at hand is the concept of Long Term Economic Policy.  When the economy imploded in 2008, Henry Paulson and George W. Bush jettisoned their Neoliberalist Economic Policy that allowed Lehman Brothers to collapse, for Keynesian economic policies that did succeed in preventing the United States from embarking on an economy based on bartering for loaves of bread.  Guess what?  It worked.  Portions of the bailout even created a profit for the government, which is mitigating the failed financial investment in Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae.  It's a classic Keynesian maneuver, that when the private sector fails to invest or spend money, then government steps up to supply spending that will try to even out the dip in a recession, especially by keeping people employed longer than they would have been otherwise.  To me, the stimulus package was not large enough, and the government sold their interest in the banks way too soon without making permanent changes to the structure of these institutions.

The problem is that sound Keynesian economic policy triggered by telltale signs of underemployment equilibrium, was replaced in knee-jerk fashion by the idea that the government should be run like a corporation and debt is bad.  Policies that allowed deficit spending to grow the economy (and then, debt becomes a smaller portion of GDP due to the growing size of the pie), were addressed in crisis mode, when the crisis truly was that unemployment was creeping towards 10%.  If the Super Committee does cut spending, the economy will contract, and debt as a percentage of GDP might start to reach Italian levels.  (Okay... it's not THAT bad...)

Even more troubling is that a number of Tea Party politicians who pushed through the debt ceiling deal is that they truly believe that government doesn't play ANY role in the economy.  Or, that they heard that Hayek and the Austrian School said that the economy is too complicated to mess with, liked that, and can regurgitate this line on Sunday Morning Talk Shows.  (To counter with Ostrom, just because an institution is complicated, does not mean it is not efficient.)  There seems not to be any idea about real economic policy behind their actions.

We are not Europe.  We have one currency, one Federal Reserve Board, and one Treasury Department.  We could have one regulatory agency if we actually wanted to regulate anything.  The problem is that we can't pick and choose long term economic policy every year.  We have to stick with something for more than one election cycle.  Even Nixon and W. ended up going with Keynes, kicking and screaming, so why not give that a 4 year presidential term to see how it shakes out.  We did elect a President to lead... and... where is he?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Turkey-induced Inflation

The American Farm Bureau Federation is reporting that the cost of your Thanksgiving dinner is increasing 13% this year, with the largest cost increase of the meal being the turkey.  I see two possible ways to combat this cost.  First, find a wild turkey on the side of the road, hit it with your car, butcher it, and save a lot of money.  Otherwise, buy a smaller turkey and serve a ton of vegetables that are cheaper per pound than the turkey.

Personally, I'm just in charge of bringing a dessert for Thanksgiving, so a $6.99 pumpkin cheesecake has already been purchased at Trader Joe's, but I'll still make a traditional dinner sometime this upcoming weekend.  I may just make a small bird, my grandmother's stuffing recipe, mashed potatoes, the Apple-Orange Cranberry Sauce recipe from Williams-Sonoma, and my mom's cherry pie, for which she was named Cherry Pie Queen of Northern Illinois in 1962.  If money is an issue on Thanksgiving, then maybe it's only worth making those dishes that make you feel wrapped in the flavors of childhood instead of trying to make every harvest-inspired dish under the sun.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Against Climate Change Before He was For It

Shout out to my husband for remembering that this video existed:

Don't worry - Newt is not going to sabotage his campaign by doing something so stupid as to believe in scientific thingys when there's a perfectly good conspiracy theory to be had.  Conspiracy theories work much better when you are trying to connect with today's Republican base.  Today, Newt is worried about United Nations Agenda 21 and what that means for Americans.  If you already believe that the United Nations is a shadowy organization that is hell-bent on the destruction of the United States, then the fact that they weighed in on climate change in 1992 is especially troublesome (assuming your premise is true).

So, Newt was in favor of action on climate change, and now that type of action is part of a global conspiracy.  The Republican Primary just gets weirder and weirder every day.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

More on Low-Cost Christmas

This morning's post was on getting free gift cards to buy Christmas Presents, thus saving you money and still buying awesome things for people.

I can hear the screams in protest: But you have to BUY things to get free gift cards!

Ah ha!  Not so!

As I was having my morning coffee, I stumbled over to the My Coke Rewards website.  Today is the day that they restock their gift cards, and offer them at half price.  So, I cleared out the account, logged into my husband's account, and wiped the balances down to Zero.  Over $300 in cards are on their way to me, just in time for Christmas shopping.

Wait a minute... don't you have to buy a whole bunch of Coke products?  Isn't that wasteful to buy a bunch of bottled water or sweetened chemical drinks?

No, not really... nothing says that you have to BUY the Coke products.  All you have to do is remove any sense of shame you may feel and use the codes that other people throw away.  Even the first commercials for Coke Rewards featured a janitor removing codes from an office's trashcan and finding a bicycle.  So, all you have to do is find a legal stash of unentered codes and start entering them.  It's probably easier than you think - a recycling bin next to a Coke machine is a good start.  Plus, since the bottle cap is generally not recyclable (seriously, who knew?  I wondered why our recyclers required that we take them off), you may be doing the Earth a favor.  MCR limits points entered to 120 per week, so you need to find either 6 24 can cases (a church picnic), 12 12-can cases (a fraternity's front yard after a party), or 40 single-serve bottles (NCAA women's volleyball game at a "Coke School").  Even bottled water has points, so cases of water at charity 5Ks will work, and gives you an excuse to volunteer.  120 points over 52 weeks will equal 6,240 points, which on today's half-price gift card day could be redeemed for  $310 worth of gift cards with 40 points left over.  What annoys me is that with 2 people in our house, I could have gotten $620 in free gift cards, so I was really off my game last year.

Oh, and yeah... I delayed this post until after I had secured my own cards.  I guess I'm a little competative this way.

Low-Cost Christmas Presents

Well, with Thanksgiving next Thursday, I'm being innundated with posts on my Facebook page for both leaked Black Friday Ads, how to shop BF more effectively, invocations to shop local on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and not to buy anything at all that weekend.

Personally, why are you waiting so long to get into the game?  The best sales run the first 2 weeks of November, with the Kohl's 2-Day sales (combined with a 20% or 30% off coupon) actually meeting or beating Black Friday prices, but without the lovely 75 minute wait to check out that still has you yelling at line-jumpers in Vernon Hills, Ill at 7 o'clock in the morning.  There's no Kohl's cash right now, but if you enjoy yelling at people in suburban Chicago, by all means, wait.

This year, I'm trying to limit my Christmas purchases to $20 per person.  Truthfully, I kind of wish I had thought of this earlier, as it is forcing me to be more creative and thoughtful. 

I spent $0.69 on my Dad, and he's going to love it.

How?  Well, at CVS, when you buy certain combinations of items that total $30, you get a $10 gift card to a variety of stores including Barnes & Noble.  Stock up on cold and flu medication, use coupons, and submit a Procter & Gamble rebate, and you are getting an excellent price on NyQuil & shampoo with a bonus gift.  Watching the weekly Lifestyle section in your Sunday paper should tell you which authors are in your area.  Find an author who will be speaking (either at a bookstore, library, museum, college, film festival, or opening of a new Starbucks), and have the book signed.  Plus, you get to meet someone famous!

And, probably better than that boxed item in the men's accessory section of Target.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

College Debt - $25K in the Hole

The New York Times reported a couple weeks ago that the average student debt for someone graduating in 2010 was $25,250.  That's equal to the annual income of someone making $12.14 per hour, or someone making $5 an hour over minimum wage.  Throw in an unemployment rate of 10% and stagnant or receding wages, and we're about to have a major crisis on our hands.

That's just undergrad.  We're not even adding on the cost of a Masters in Education or a Law Degree or becoming a Neurobiology Researcher.

Which is why people have to seriously consider looking at President Obama's plan to reduce the impact of student loan debt.  Payments are capped at 10% of income to repay federal loans, and last for 20 years.  If you land one of those nice, cushy 1%-er jobs, you'll pay back your loans in full.  However, if you are a junior high school math teacher, you'll probably have a portion of your debt forgiven. 

But, it's only federal loans.  It does nothing to address the cost of college to begin with.  What keeps me from enrolling in graduate school is the price tag.  Really?  I'll spend $100,000 for a job that pays $10,000 more per year, and lose 2 years of earnings to do it?  Something needs to be done.  This may be a good first step.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Data Shows that Baby Boomers are Blood Sucking Leeches

I don't think it's a surprise that I think that the Baby Boomers as a generation are extracting far more value from the economy than they are willing to put in.  I know I've mentioned that they reaped the benefit of having reasonable, dirt-cheap college tuition that their parents provided, and then slashed state education budgets as a giant F.U. to their own children. 

Wouldn't it be great if there was a graph that displayed their dickishness?  Hey!  There is!  The Pew Research Center created a graph that displays the average household wealth contrasting age brackets from 1984 and 2009.  In 1984, the average young household's wealth was 1/10th of the value of those over age 65.  By 2009, households over the age of 65 were worth 47 times that of those under the age of 35.  FORTY-SEVEN TIMES.  Sure, those are not quite the baby boomers... the lead of that generation was 2 years away from that category. 

So, the next time that my parents wonder when we're going to have kids, I'll just show them this graph.  When they mention that they had been homeowners when they were our age, I'll show them this graph.  When they mention that they had completed multiple college degrees and were starting to establish professional careers when they were our age, I'll show them this graph.

Thanks a lot, guys.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Debate Recap: Ignorance of Federal Budget

Somewhere in America are people who spend a good Saturday night sitting on the couch in the basement watching the Republican debate.  One such household is in the Midwest, specifically mine.  Why would the Republican party hold the foreign relations debate on a Saturday night?  It makes little sense from a media deadline sense - too late to make the Sunday papers, irrelevent by Monday, fodder for Sunday Morning Talkshows, widely ignored by churchgoers.  The timing seemed designed to be off the radar of the average Republican Primary Voter.  Which might be a good thing, as some pretty dumb ideas came to light.

First, in an invocation of the patron saint of the Republican Party, Ronald Reagan, Rick Perry seemed to indicate that Russia would be on the ash heap of history.  Soviet Union, maybe, but Russia seems to be  just fine and dandy and spreading it's influence around the world.

Michele Bachmann came up with the idea that U.S. sanctions on Iran alone is enough to bring the Iranian economy crashing down.  I can think of at least two countries more influential on Iran's economy than the U.S... one of which is supposed to be on the ash heap of history.

A lot of the Republican candidates are in favor of torture.  I'll just let that sit for a moment.  Republicans are in favor of torture.

Finally, in another Rick Perry moment, he is in favor of setting all foreign aid budgets to zero, and then making the case for increasing funding on a country by country basis.  What this shows is not only is Perry unaware that foreign aid exists to fund American interests (not always those of the countries to whom we give it), but that this is kind of how the federal budget process is supposed to work.  Lately, we haven't managed to pass budgets on time, but what's supposed to happen is that each department gives a detailed budget to the President, indicating which areas need more funding, and which needs less - new projects end, new ones begin.  Every year, these funding levels are voted on by Congress, unless a deal can be reached, where you get a series of stop-gap budget votes to just continue the previous budget levels.  If it feels like all we do is vote to continue last year's budget without examining what's in there, there's some truth to that.

Then, there's the dumb assertion that you can just zero out the Foreign Aid line in the budget - It's not like there is one line in the budget that reads "Foreign Aid".  We give money to foreign countries in the form of State Department funding, Military spending, Energy Department programs (like, securing spent nuclear fuel), Education grants (bringing smart future leaders to the US for education so they'll love us later... like the current President of Ireland), and Commerce Department officials who negotiate trade treaties to increase the supply of cheap dollar store knick-knacks for Wal-Mart,  and a host of smaller programs that advance American interests.  We don't give out blank checks - unless you are Israel.  Most foreign aid is targeted programs, far too little is USAid giving food to starving people.  The idea of starting each budget at zero is not even new, it came from Jimmy Carter of all people.

Only one person stood up to this moronic idea, but Jon Huntsman has no shot at the nomination.  That makes me both angry and scared.

Sunday Morning Papers: Reporters can be stupid

Have you ever wondered about the people who majored in journalism?  I do.  At Illinois, each journalism major was required to take upper level political science classes, and those of us who were in classes with them liked to refer to them as the curve boosters.  Okay, not all of them.  However, it was seen as not having as much writing as English majors, and still without the rigorous science and math classes - just pick five, don't flunk, and you are done.

So, say you are a beat reporter in Missouri when an earthquake rattles Oklahoma.  You have a quick deadline, so why not interview the local geology professor to get a scientific perspective?  The results are not pretty.  From the story, you think that the professor is kind of a dick.  Reading the comments, it's kind of obvious what the problem is: the reporter did not understand that earthquakes happen at a particular point, and you can feel that earthquake even if the point is in another state.  Someone with no knowledge (or interest) in science doesn't go to the wikipedia page on earthquakes to brief himself before writing the questions, and then cannot understand the answers.  You can tell that the professor made that distinction - the fault system is not under our town, everytime you feel shaking doesn't mean it's an earthquake, people in Missouri are not as used to earthquakes as those in California.  The reporter can't figure out that none of these facts would indicate that you wouldn't have felt the earthquake in your town.  The professor even corrected the reporter, but the reporter still doesn't get it - he actually thinks that it's being perceived as an attack piece on those who felt the quake.  The truth is that it should be an attack on a dumb reporter.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Ethics and Penn State

If you want to make the average person's head explode, start talking to them about ethics.  There's no surprise that the end of Billy Madison involved the villian trying unsuccessfully to define business ethics - it's a nebulous concept that depends largely on the accepted social behaviors of society.  It's like the definition of porn - you know unethical behavior when you see it.

The problem is that not everything that is illegal is unethical, and not everything that is unethical is illegal.  Take the example of stealing bread to feed starving children.  Illegal?  Yes, property was stolen.  Unethical?  No - you saved a child's life and became the protagonist for Les Miserables.  But what about unethical situations that may still be legal?  That's what lawyers are for.

Take a look at the Grand Jury Report about Penn State and Jerry Sandusky.  If you want to have an opinion on the matter, you should probably educate yourself, but it's not something that you'll want to read.  What you will find is that a 28-year-old grad student walked in on the rape of a child, called dad to figure out what to do, and the next morning, showed up at Joe Paterno's house to discuss what to do.  Right now, not illegal.  What happens next is the question.  Joe Paterno, who is in a position of instructor in this relationship, calls the athletic director.  It takes a ten days before anyone else asks the grad assistant what he saw. Then, it was the VP in charge of Finance.  What?  If this doesn't indicate that a cover-up was in progress, I don't know what is.  At this point, manditory reporters of child abuse were involved, and not calling University Police at this point is illegal.

However, is Joe Paterno's behavior unethical?  At this point, it is hard to gauge.  However, the fact that there was another victim who was molested in his facilities after he was fully aware of Sandusky's alleged behavior.  He permitted a possible child molestor to have unfettered access to the Penn State Campus and even if there was a close relationship between JoePa and this guy, he did nothing to convince him to step down from a position where he worked with vulnerable children.

The manditory reporting laws worked in this case.  When a wrestling coach at a high school suspected inappropriate behavior, the high school reported it to authorities.  However, if Penn State had been as dilligent, then there would not have been a Victim 1.  That's why the behavior is unethical and Joe Paterno, as a teacher, should have upheld higher standards.  Yes, he deserves to be fired.  If you remember the last part of A Few Good Men, the two Marines discuss why they were court martialed.  Yes, they had followed orders, but the ethical decision would have been to disobey the order.  JoePa did the cowardly thing... and I'm glad he's gone.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Rick Perry and Education, Commerce, and...

Rick Perry's campaign imploded in spectacular fashion last night.  Fortunately, it was all caught on tape.

I can see one area where we may want to think about increased spending on education.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How to use the end of DST to your advantage

I wish I had written this earlier, but I only thought of this Saturday night, when I was trying to set my alarm to capture the awesome $200 laptop deal at Target on Sunday morning.  I figured I needed to be at Target 15 minutes before the store opened, give myself 15 minutes to drive there, 15 minutes to throw clothes on, and 15 minutes of snooze time.  Factor in the time change, and to get to Target for an 8am deal, I had to wake up at 8am. 

Hmm... there's an opportunity in there.

So, after waking up at my normal time, I was actually waking up an hour earlier, but without any side affects.  Monday morning, waking up at 6am instead of 6:45, I was actually getting 15 more minutes of sleep, but giving myself enough time for yoga and a hot breakfast.  Finally found a way to make it easy to wake up early in the morning.  :-)

Monday, November 7, 2011

So long, Andy

A couple months ago, I briefly wrote about Andy Rooney slowly disappearing from 60 Minutes, and his dislike of fruits.

Andy passed away on Friday, and I fear that 60 Minutes will not be the same without the weekly rant.  Please enjoy another favorite of mine, on the problem of kitchen gadgets:

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sunday Morning Papers: Poverty

Sunday seems to be the day for human interest stories about how difficult it is for families to make ends meet during the recession.  Coming on the heels of last week's Labor Department study that 15% of Americans now live below the poverty line, it's not surprising.   However, an article in the New York Times challenges this notion and challenges the methodology behind calculating the poverty line in the U.S. 

While the Times spends two pages splitting hairs about what constitutes poverty or not, the conservative estimate is that 4.6 million more people have slipped below the poverty line since 2006.   The new study highlights that another 44 million people live between 100 - 130%  of the poverty line, or another 15% of the population.  That's about 30% of the total population who are one bad break away from homelessnees or hunger, if they are not there already. 

Something's got to give.  I'm not a Marxist, but there is only so much poverty or near poverty that a consumer spending economy can take before there are no buyers left.  Fewer buyers... fewer manufacturers... fewer jobs... fewer buyers... downward spiral.

It's time for a good ol' Keynesian intervention right now.  I'm afraid I'm going to be telling my grandchildren about what it was like to live in the 2010's, but I can't afford to have kids anytime soon.  I'm only 3 of those buggers away from the line myself.

Friday, November 4, 2011

50 DTSBYD: #48 The Kid Stays in the Picture

Part of my 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die Challenge

Robert Evans must have been a bastard.  A fascinating bastard, but probably not the kind of person who would drive you to the airport.  A powerful Hollywood producer, you can see his hand all over the documentary of his life, "The Kid Stays in the Picture."  Even the title alludes to an early revelation - that he wanted to be the person in power on the set, the guy who decides who will make it and who won't in the movie business.

Robert Evans was lucky at the onset of his career.  He was noticed while half naked at a pool in Los Angeles, perpetuating the stereotype that being naked in Hollywood will get you into films.  Luckier still, he managed to marry Ali McGraw.  But, he was a coke addict, selfish, and a womanizer.  Somehow, these things are glossed over or dismissed, but he still manages not to address the fact that he married seven women.  Or that the problem was not that he was caught doing drugs, but that he did them in the first place.  I know a lot of sober people who get dragged into murder for hire investigations.  No?  Maybe that was not a witch hunt, but a possible outcome when you meet the wrong people when stoned out of your mind.

Where the documentary excels is in its ability to tell stories through pictures and film.  The colors are saturated and beautiful.  The pacing is wonderful.  Given the subject matter, it was a beautiful treatment of a narcissistic man.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: The Indefensible

While I may be in favor of some of the Occupy Movement's issues, there is a frightening trend within the Occupy Wall Street Movement that is completely indefensible: Adding spirit fingers to Roberts Rules of Order.

Can we just stop this?  Now? 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Free Markets and Health Care: A Failure

Let's assume you develop Deadman's Disease.  Deadman's Disease is a lethal disease that can only be cured in one method - a shot to the arm.  The shot was developed by a large multi-national pharmaceutical corporation, which currently holds the patent for the drug.  If you were the CEO what would you charge for this shot?

From a pure Adam Smith Supply-Demand standpoint, there should be a point where the supply meets the demand, and you charge the equilibrium price.  However, what is the demand for a given price?  If you have Deadman's Disease, and the shot costs $1, you purchase the shot.  If the shot costs $10, then you purchase the shot.  If the shot costs $100,000, you buy the shot.  There is no firm dollar amount where one says, "You know, for $350,000... my life isn't worth it, but for $340K I'd consider it."  Or, even if you are wavering, there's probably a parent, spouse, child, or Cub Scout Troop fundraiser which may purchase the shot on your behalf.  Therefore, instead of a curve, you have a demand line where the quantity demanded equals the number of people diagnosed with Deadman's Disease per year.

What does the CEO of LMN Pharma Corp do?  Well, he could tally up the amount spent on research and development, production, marketing, and general overhead for this particular shot, add 10% profit, and then divide this by the expected number of shots to be sold until the patent expires.  Stop laughing - that's not the way the free market works.  The way it really works is that with a monopoly on a live saving drug, you charge as much as you can.  Turns out, there's really no limit.  The only person who really has the power to limit this charge is (no, really) health insurance companies.  However, if health insurance adjusters are former pharmaceutical executives (which many of them are), then a $125,000 shot may not seem out of line if you know that there are far more expensive options out there to treat the disease.  LMN Pharma Corp may even provide this more expensive option at $768,000 for a whole series of shots and a nifty medical device.  Relatively, in this case, the $125,000 shot saves half a million dollars.  Yippee!

Add a layer of fog between the consumer and the price board, and no one really knows what health care costs in America until the bill is mailed.  This is why health care, without substantial reform, is too important to leave to the whim of an amoral free market.  That Invisible Hand might be wrapped around your neck.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

All Souls Day

There is a scene in "The Others" where Nicole Kidman finds a number of Funerary Photos in the house where the dead are staged for post-mortem photographs and placed into a keepsake album.  Creepy?  Maybe... except that I remember that my Great-Aunt had a book exactly like that.  While her book was comprised of relatives in their coffins surrounded by flowers, not staged in chairs that are still visible around the house, it's not exactly something that you'd want to place on the coffee table.

When she showed me the photo of her father in his coffin in 1932, she pointed at the flowers - "Look at how respected he was."  In the middle of the Depression, dozens of people found some extra cash to provide extravagant bouquets of flowers.  So, yes, maybe creepy... but if a little comfort is found in something that doesn't hurt anyone else, then why not?  I'm not sure who ended up with the photos when she died, but I hope they appreciate them.  Just don't give them to me - yeah, they're creepy.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Stupid Teenagers!

Leave it to one group of people to ruin it for everyone else.  No, I'm not talking about the poor who keep insisting on eating, requiring my tax money to go to buy them milk.  I'm talking about teenagers.  Teenagers who stole my bowl of candy from my porch while I selfishly decided to eat dinner undisturbed.

Seriously.  The entire bowl.  And the bowl itself.

I'm giving out granola bars and crackers next year.  Thanks for ruining it for everyone.

Happy Reformation Day!

Today marks the 494th anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg.  This also marks the 493rd anniversary of the first time a kid was told that they couldn't go trick or treating because they had to go to Reformation Day services at church tonight.  Okay, probably not, but I'm still a little bitter that this happened to me.

While everyone else at school could trick or treat from the moment the bus dropped them off until they couldn't walk anymore, I had an hour and a half (3:30 until 5:00), then had to bathe, eat, dress, and be in a pew at 7pm.  I'm pretty sure I could hear my non-Lutheran friends ringing the doorbell of the house next to the church while slogging through verse 9 of A Mighty Fortress.  When I hit high school, we stopped hosting Reformation Day services, along with a number of midweek services, because they just got harder and harder for people to attend.  It was about the time that the Saturday evening church service was added, mainly because more and more members were working Sunday.  Truthfully, I liked Saturday afternoons because I didn't have to wake up early on Sunday anymore, but as work schedules varied more and more from the traditional 9-5, Monday through Friday, workweek, the church had to adapt.  So long Wednesday Advent services - we're all working late hours in December.  Somewhere, some kid gets to trick or treat because the congregation doesn't have enough willing and able members to go to church at 7pm on a Monday.  They're probably working instead.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Back to the Big 11?

After watching Indiana lose in decisive fashion to Northwestern, I wonder if the athletics department has considered dropping the football program.  Or, see if there's a mercy rule for the rest of the season - just give up, and assign victories to the opposition, and start again next year.  It might not be the worst idea.

You may really want to consider dropping the football program if you were the Athletics director of Indiana. The facilities could be repurposed for soccer - which is one of the best programs in the country - and you would free up a lot of cash from not having 85 athletic scholars who are not producing on the field or in the classroom (really... Seniors majoring in General Studies?  This is really impossible at most schools).  Truthfully, the pain would not come from the loss of ticket sales, but rather the loss of selling parking spots for tailgaters when it comes to Indiana.  However, if there's no football team, there's no away games, so there is nothing preventing the department from just opening up the lots every Saturday from Labor Day to Thanksgiving for public drinking and still collecting money for every car that shows up.  And, bonus: no embarrassing loss to Ball State.

Friday, October 28, 2011

50 DTSBYD: #39 Biggie and Tupac

Part of my 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die Challenge

I'm not going to spend too much time on this film.  Mainly because it's horrible.  The documentary appears to be about a documentarian chasing down rumors, being rude to people on the street until a crime victim's mother decides to help him because she wants her son's murder solved and doesn't want a stranger bothering her friends.  Screen time is a British guy holding a mic and listening to unfounded conspiracy theories that don't seem to go anywhere.  

Thursday, October 27, 2011

We take Maple Products very seriously.

When McDonald's introduced its Fruit & Maple Oatmeal last winter, Vermont was not happy.  In order for something to be labeled as "Maple", it must include natural maple syrup.  Now it appears that Faux-Maple outrage is growing.  Vermont and Maine have teamed up to crack down on fake maple syrup by introducing the (what else) MAPLE Act in the Senate.

I'm okay with this, mainly because maple syrup is yummy, and I was forced to eat some type of chemically flavored corn syrup when I was a child.  If you want to incorporate more maple syrup into your diet, how about this for dinner:

1 Butternut Squash
1 Tbsp of butter
2 Tbsp of Maple Syrup

Preheat oven to 350.  Slice butternut squash in half the long way from the blossom end to the stem.  Remove seeds.  Melt butter, and stir in maple syrup.  Brush exposed surface of squash with liquid happiness, pouring excess into the seed well.  Place on baking sheet for 35-40 minutes, or until squishy.  Mash.  Enjoy.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Occupy: The Student-Loan Debt Problem

PBS' Need to Know has a short run-down on Student Loan Debt and the Occupy Wall Street movement.  While I have no doubt that starting out life with this kind of burden is possibly unbearable while starting out on a career, who's fault is that?  Well, mine.  I pointed out last week that tuition costs are out of control because of a lack of state funding for higher education, and I'm not paying state taxes at a level that they could provide a valuable public good.  We're all screwed.  We've hit a wall where we can't pay teachers at a level where they can pay back their student loans at Directional State Schools (i.e. Western Illinois, UW-LaCrosse, Central Michigan, etc) and then wonder why we can't find quality teachers.

Yet.... I don't have sympathy for someone who took out loans to attend 8 years of private schools and complains that they can't find a job.  Why is that?  Is it because I feel that the person with the public school loans considered the cost when they made the initial decision, and those with private school degrees did not?  I'm not sure.  I'm also not sure how to reconcile this and move on.  Because, it can't be good for anyone in society to owe over $100,000 in debt, but there needs to be a moral hazard to prevent someone else for doing it.  What I can't figure out is where the line is.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Zombie Preparedness and the Government Response

I'm sure somewhere, someone has wondered about the official government stance on zombie preparedness.  When the Undead rise and maraud the countryside in search of brains, there is no time to think - just act.

Fortunately, the CDC has you covered.  Unlike the Walking Dead, the Atlanta-based institution is prepared for the zombie apocalypse, and so can you.  Just download their graphic novella on The Zombie Pandemic, prepare your kit, and then sit tight knowing that you can survive in your bunker as long as you are not a teenage cheerleader or a token black man.

So, yeah, the CDC just spent some money on a zombie graphic novel.  But when the Swine Flu hit the US, did you visit the CDC website on Public Health Preparedness and Response?  Did you know that site existed?  You do now.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Sometimes Name Brands are Cheaper

One of the times I really throw myself into consumer culture is when it comes to shopping.  I love a good deal.  That's not totally true - what I don't like is spending more than I have to for a good.  When it comes to day-to-day purchases, I really just want to buy a quality product that I'm not allergic to, for the cheapest possible price.

This is when someone will tell me that buying generics are better than buying name brands as a way to accomplish this goal.  Not true, I counter.  While it is true that many generic items are actually produced by the name brand corporations for sale, they tend to lack in two major categories: coupons and rebates.

Sure, I could buy the grocery store or big box store brand for personal care products.  However, right now Procter & Gamble has a $10 rebate when you buy $50 worth of their products.  Shopping sales, I'm able to buy a new Venus razor and a packet of refills, body wash, deodorant, bar soap, conditioner, and make-up for $50.06 (yeah, I worked that one).  Now, combine those sale prices with the copious P&G coupons, and I'm down to $38.72.  Take off the $10 rebate, and we're at $28.72.  Add store gift cards with purchase, and it's $23.72.  And, where I'm kicking myself is that I could have gotten that down to $13.72 if I had made one of the purchases a week later to take advantage of a different gift card with purchase deal.  Shoot!

Oh... and I used a canvas bag each time, so that was really $23.67.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sunday Morning Papers: The End of the Iraq War

Sunday Morning Papers: The End of the Iraq War

Today's papers and talk shows are filled with two things: First, the liberation of Libya, and second, the end of the Iraq War.  While conservative media sources are discussing the end of the Iraq War in terms of domestic political calculations, I tend to believe that the end of the Iraq War is completely related to the Arab Spring, of which the Libyan Civil War was a major event.

American foreign policy has always been paternalistic in nature, and if we can't trust your government to do what is in America's best interest, then we shall smack you down - take that, Grenada!  Even going back to the Monroe Doctrine, we decided that European Colonies near our shores was not good because it brought European warships nearby, so we decided to back everyone and anyone who would declare independence. It's kind of our thing to do this.  So, with the Iraqi occupation, there was always a sense that Iraq may be unduly influenced by Iran, that they'd become some type of Afghan-style theocracy, or just basically descending into a world where foreign dictators influenced internal affairs instead of us.  

However, after the Arab Spring, this gives the US hope that maybe the Middle East can self-govern.  We don't have to prop up bad governments because we're afraid of worse theocratic dictatorships.  The people can take care of themselves.  We can step back, show a little support for popular movements, and garner more good will than we could by subsidizing oil production in that state.  I don't think it is any coincidence that we announced that we will be leaving Iraq in the same week that Libya declared liberation.  We're heroes.  They're good.  Maybe some funds to hold elections and a promise to buy their oil and repair their economy is all that's needed to create a pro-US democracy.  It does not have to be an invasion and occupation.  If you are looking for the difference between the Obama and Bush administration when it comes to foreign policy, there it is.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The SEC Sucks. This is why.

It's been a while since I've had a good rant about college football, so here we go.

The SEC sucks.  I don't know if this has totally sunk in, but if the schools comprising the Southeastern Conference were swept from existence, the higher education system in the United States would be just fine and dandy.  This post may be coming from a place of jealousy when it comes to football, but the fact that the SEC exists highlights everything that is wrong with college football in the United States.

College sports is supposed to be amateur sports.  1 in 50 NCAA football players will eventually play in the NFL, so the overwhelming majority of football players better have a backup plan.  That's what the free college education is supposed to be for.  Unfortunately, if you are a football player at Mississippi State, that free education is at the 158th best college in the nation.  You may need a back up to your back up.  However, unlike students at Pac 10 or Big 10 schools, you will attend classes for those of your level - where 2,262,005 students chose to pursue education at National Universities ranked higher than yours.  I'm not saying that all Big Ten football teams are stacked with Rhodes Scholars (Indiana's Senior General Studies majors are a little disconcerting), but we'll assume that everyone has to take Intro to Psych, and I'm sure it's tougher at Minnesota than it is at Ole Miss.  I may be beating up on the Mississippi public schools, but when you look at the average rank of teams in the SEC on the US News survey, even including Vanderbilt, it is 99.16.  The worst school in the Big Ten is Nebraska at 101 - or pretty close to the average of the SEC.  The Big Ten average is 56.25.  It's pretty safe to say that some SEC athletes would flunk out of the Big Ten if they had to take English and Math with the other kids.

That's okay, you say, because the purpose of college is to prepare students for careers.  Even if I did believe that the vocational aspect of a college education justified the existence of the entire University of Kentucky, you would expect that the SEC just funnels all of their students-athletes into professional football careers at a rate that far surpasses the Big Ten.  That's not true.  Looking at the NFL rosters, each SEC school has sent an average of 24 players into the league, compared to 20.75 for the Big Ten.  That's not a huge difference, or at least large enough to justify the excuse that this is a job training program.

What really is telling is the Forbes report that the SEC averages $50million in football revenues per school per season, the most in the country, and $10 million more than the Big Ten average.  Who cares about the athletes when you are bringing that kind of cash.  So, you get these movements to lavish players with gifts to come to Auburn instead of the quality education and training to get to the next level.  You have the money, so why not?  But, with making the SEC into a semi-pro league, you are also encouraging the asinine idea that after playing 12 games, you could actually pick 2 teams to compete for a national championship.  From a statistical perspective, 12 data points are not enough to rank over 100 teams.  A league championship?  Yeah.  A trip to a nice bowl game?  You betcha!  But, a national championship?  Why is this necessary, unless these are professional athletes competing for corporate interests.

Let's get back to thinking of football players as STUDENT-Athletes, have the goal be to win the conference championship and the Sugar Bowl, and stop the madness of justifying payouts to parents and exchanging gear for tattoos.

Friday, October 21, 2011

50 DTSBYD: #37 Inside Job

Part of my 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die Challenge. 

Ever wonder why the current economic climate sucks?  Watch "Inside Job".  It is a thorough, exhaustive, and meticulous look at run-up to the financial meltdown of 2008.  Or, watch the Frontline episode "Inside the Meltdown," which covers the same material in less time, but without Matt Damon.  

This doesn't make it a bad documentary.  If anything, this is a compliment to PBS, who turned their episode around faster.  With the longer deadline, the long-form documentary can excel in the ability to spend additional time researching and providing additional context.  The filmmakers were able to line up and amazing assortment of interviews from the first responders to the crisis, and to step back and analyze the situation from a global perspective.  

Anyone who wants to discuss financial deregulation as a campaign talking point needs to watch this film if they want to be taken seriously.  I'd like every Republican candidate to watch and understand this film, but I'm sure they'll keep pushing the deregulation agenda that got us into this mess.  Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain - I'm talking to you.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The One Trillion Dollar Question

During the 2010-2011 school year, students took out over $100 Billion dollars in education loans to pay for college.  That's Billion... with a B, and over twice what was taken out in 2000.  The total amount outstanding: Over 1 Trillion Dollars.

It's troubling: The proliferation of profiteering colleges, young people delaying marriage / children / homeownernship, pushing up wages to cover monthly loan payments (or, not?), and generally sinking people in a financial hole before they start.

Looking for someone to blame for the situation?  How about the Baby Boom?  The parasitic behavior of that generation has been eroding society since they all got full-time jobs and mortgages.  Flower power, my ass.

In 1964, when the first boomers attended college, including my mom, tuition at the University of Illinois was $165 per semester.  It took 200 hours of minimum wage work to come up with tuition for the year - or 5 weeks.  When I attended in the Fall of 1997, tuition/room/board was $5,265 for the semester - or 1,000 hours of minimum wage work.  That's 25 weeks - half a year - for half a year of school.  Now, in 2011, when the baby boom is retiring, tuition alone is $11,104 per year, with an extra $12K for room and board.  That's $33,000+ per year, or 4,551 hours of minimum wage work - over 2 years full time.

What happened?  Well, once the baby boomers were out of school - school heavily subsidized by state governments - they no longer wanted to pay the taxes to support access to public education.  The result is shrinking support of higher education, and a shifting of the burden to the individual student.  Remember, the Baby Boomers were in their late 30s and early 40s for the Greed is Good heyday of the 1980s.  If the 99% is looking for someone to demonize besides Wall Street, how about the guys who benefited from strong social investments, then dismantled these institutions after they were done with them.  No wonder the Greatest Generation clashed with their children so much - what a bunch of selfish A-Holes!

Now, the One Trillion Dollar Question:  With such an unsustainable model, when does this collapse, and what will this mean for society?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Negative Externalities of My Sophomore Year of College

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta recently calculated the cost of binge drinking in the United States.  The societal costs of excessive drinking in the United States comes to $226 billion per year, or $1.90 per drink.  You know what this means, 20-year-old social science major at Big Ten University, don't you?  That's right - we have a market failure.  (Note:  I did not say Southern Illinois)

The costs not borne by the market transaction involve the cost of lost productivity, property damage, alcohol-related disease, and increased policing.  Or, as they call it on State Street in Madison, the Saturday before Halloween.  So, what should we do?  Are alcoholic drinks to be taxed at a rate to raise revenue to cover the cost of these externalities, or do I figure that as an adult, my taxes and insurance premiums cover the costs of the behaviors I myself exhibited during Unofficial St. Patrick's Day in 1999?

Sorry, liver - I messed you up, but at least I calmed down later and just have a beer or two from time to time.  Moreover, I'm lucky that my bad decisions as a college undergrad did not negatively impact others... just my GPA the semester I turned 21.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Beautiful Weather for Camping

I share this photo for no other purpose than to make someone jealous:

The middle of October has some of the best weather.  Clear skies, sunny days, golden leaves.  Nights are freezing, but the days are gorgeous.  If I'm not in the stands of a college football stadium on an October Saturday, I'd rather be in a tent in the woods.

However... if that tent was near a bathhouse with a hot shower... that would be ideal.

Monday, October 17, 2011

My Coffee Is Destroying the World. Whoops. My Bad.

As I drink my fourth cup of coffee this morning, I'm reading some rather disturbing news:  I'm totally destroying the environment.  Whoops.

It's not like I thought coffee was an environmentally friendly product.  Even buying the organic, free-trade stuff, there's a lot of energy involved to get that cup of coffee to me.  It's not like coffee can be grown in Iowa - oohh... a potential use for Iowa if it could - but instead, it requires shipping, then roasting, then packaging, then shipping again.  Then, I have to use a nifty appliance to make it potable because research scientists have not found a faster way for the caffeine to enter my bloodstream.

Still... at work, we have the 2 gallon pot of nasty black stuff that requires creamer before I'd consider drinking it, and the free Keurig machine with its gourmet selections of exotic and fair trade coffee.  Newman's Own, organic coffees from Sumatra, life is excellent.  Hook me up.

What I never seem to notice before drinking my coffee (which is, pretty much, everything), is that those little single-serve coffee filter systems add up, and none of them get recycled.  CBS News is reporting that Clean Water Action is getting after Keurig for making a pretty environmentally awful product.  *Sigh*  They are right - you take a traditional coffee brewing process where an unbleached filter and coffee grounds can go directly into the compost pile, and you replace it with a plastic system made from too many components to be separated.  I guess I'll be buying a reusable filter and my own coffee now.  Thanks a lot, environmental lobbying organization.  How dare you make me want to do the right thing!  :-(