Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Insanity is Stopping

Lean Cuisine is ending its Delicious Rewards loyalty program.  Thank God!

I had been an early adopter of this program.  The rewards program started just when I thought I'd try another diet, and if you ate 20 of these frozen meals in 3 months, you got a free lunch bag.  It was also at the same time that I was obsessed with free mail-in offers.  With 5 meals a week at work, I managed rater easily to collect two free lunch bags, and instead of going from brand to brand to brand, I stuck by lean cuisines, leading to some epic skills in microwaving cardboard pizzas and faux paninis.  In the darkest days, when the husband was out of country, I would seriously eat 3 per day, rationalizing this as being more efficient than cooking for myself.

But, sometime in grad school, I realized that this was probably not the healthiest way to feed myself.  Mainly, these are not full meals, and being starving immediately afterwards led to more snacking than if I just would have made myself a real lunch.  But, you know... points.

Being addicted to the points, I kept buying these meals.  Even after the price increase that made it impossible to find the actual tasty ones on sale for $2 each, I still bought the unsatisfyingly bland and meager "simple favorites" collection ones that were comprised of 4 bites of paste-y pasta.  And, it wasn't as if the rewards catalog had anything in it that was worth redeeming these points for.

So, I'm buying food I don't like to accumulate points that I didn't redeem for anything.  On occasion, they actually would have the Amazon gift card in stock (which did help buy some textbooks in grad school), but poor quality ugly kitchen ware should not be driving my behavior.  But, somehow it did.

Looking forward to the end of this program in order to restore some sanity to my lunch experience.  Now, to remember how to make a sandwich again.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Sadness of Lean Cuisine Mac & Cheese

I do love me the Lean Cuisines.  For $2.50, I can microwave a semi-satisfying hot lunch which is only slightly less good than the overpriced food court in the basement of the train station across the street that's teeming with 14-year-olds on class trips to Washington.  It's a function of convenience, and inability to afford (both economically and calorie-wise) to eat at Chipotle every day.

I find the Lean Cuisine meals to be manageable, much in the same way that arranged marriages are manageable.  Sure, you'd love to be in love with the meal/spouse, but you have no belief going into the event that this is the perfect meal/spouse, and life will be fulfilled afterwards with all of your cares swept away.  Contentment comes from lowered expectations.

I don't expect a Lean Cuisine Mac & Cheese to be amazing.  I expect it to be palatable food.  Yet, somehow I am disappointed.  The sauce is both watery and chalky, and manages to leave a film over your tongue.  The noodles are devoid of taste, and have some strange texture that makes me wonder if I'm really eating shredded kitchen sponges.  It's just not good, and it makes me sad.  When all you want is some approximation of comfort food, it should at least be comforting.  If the answer is that you can't make a low-calorie frozen mac & cheese that tastes good, then the answer is to not make these at all and give poor homesick office workers the hope that this is edible.

Excuse me... I think I need to run out for a burrito bowl now.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

We Can Pickle That Tote Bag

Quick and easy craft project that will make you the envy of your local farmers' market.  What you will need:

  • One "We Can Pickle That" cross stitch pattern from Subversive Cross Stitch  
  • Knowledge of the show Portlandia on IFC.
  • Embroidery floss: Dark Green, Light Green, Light Pink, Dark Pink, Black, Silver, Yellow
  • Epic sewing skills.  Nah... you just need a Charles Craft ready to stitch tote bag which is available at some craft stores nationwide (also available at Subversive Cross Stitch)
  • About 3-4 hours
  • Watch season 2, episode 1 of Portlandia
  • Learn how to cross-stitch if you don't already know how.
  • Find the center of the cross stitch panel of the tote.  Find the center of you pattern.  These should be the same spot.  Or... Try to put the center jar in the center of the panel.

  • Working color by color, stitch the center of the pattern.
  • For the border, figure out if you have enough floss in one color to finish the border area.
Whoops... no more of that color green left...
Finally, you want to take a look at the tote bag's care instructions.  You'll want to wash and dry this carefully before anyone wants to use this, mainly because it will minimize the shrinking that will happen later when someone inevitably decides to throw this through the washing machine and dryer.  

A quick pressing job, and here's the final product:

Perfect for taking to the farmers market, independent feminist bookstore, or just to have with you when you are waiting in line for brunch.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Bad Reality TV: The Engagement of Jessa Duggar

Damn, I'm hooked.  The 19 Kids and Counting fascination continues with Jessa's Engagement episode.  The whole thing is terrible, in that the way the family runs is based not so much on what I'd consider Christian values, but rather Male Dominance and the infantilization of teenagers and young adults.

So, I was surprised at the beginning of the episode when Ben, age 19, was getting ready to ask Jim Bob about asking Jessa to marry him.  I seriously thought there was a moment when Jim Bob might say no.  For good reason.  JB starts talking about God (like always... which as a Lutheran, always makes me uncomfortable), and ventures into practical matters (which as a German-American, is totes in my comfort zone).  Jessa and Ben talk about marriage as fun!  And they get to have sex!  And they seem to be physically attracted to each other, and the only approved outlet for this is sex within marriage, or at least hand holding in an engagement.  JB walks around the elephant in the room that the husband is supposed to provide financially for his wife and take care of her.  Which, as a glorified handyman who is bad with tools, it's a major concern about Ben marrying his daughter.  And, why you know that this guy is too immature for marriage... like most 19-year-olds.

Jim Bob is right.  In this lifestyle, men need to care for their womenfolk.  Since his daughters were all going to marry and have dozens of kids, they are not prepared to work for wages outside the house.  Jana and Jill did find work as midwives (external mothering, so preparing them for their future roles), but Jessa did not seem to have any job to speak of.  Derick, Jill's husband, is an accountant for my least favorite retail chain, so he can support a reasonably-sized family, as long as JB gave them a place to live.  Josh supports Anna as the executive director of a Hate Group's PAC... but at least the kids are fed and Anna doesn't have to venture outside the house.  Ben seems to be trained for nothing, has no work experience, and unless he has some kind of sweetheart deal with Jim Bob, I'm sure the going rate for the work he's doing is about $6/hour in rural Arkansas.  Can you raise a family on $12,000 per year even with housing in the Duggar Guest House? I'm thinking no.  Google search shows that he's taking online classes, so it's highly unlikely that he'll see the type of wage premium that comes with a college degree.  I'm sure he'll end up running some kind of small business eventually, but most likely it'll be because of the Duggar show that he'll have the opportunity.  Without the show and the spotlight, he'd probably end up as a truck driver.

So here's a guy, with no real education, job, skills, or any way to earn money to support himself, let alone a family.  So at 19, listening to this guy talk about what marriage is, and what a husband needs to do, it kind of makes me want to punch someone.  (Jessa during her scavenger hunt also appears to be a few crayons short of a box).  What the hell do you know about the real world, and why would you think yourself able to give advice to anyone living in the real world?

Seriously, Jim Bob should have said no to Ben when he asked to marry Jessa.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Finding the Veterans in your Family

I love and hate  I love that they have made genealogy research online so easy.  I hate that the information entered on the site is sometimes suspect.  It's not a bad place to start, but it's not the be-all, end-all source they pretend to be.

With Veterans Day here, they are offering free military records on their site as a way to induce more people to get into genealogy.  However, my favorite site for this type of curious searching is the WWII Memorial site.  I knew my grandfather had served in the Navy in WWII, and a quick search on the WWII Registry shows his rank, the ships he served on, and the medals he earned.  If you do a search on just last names and states (if your last name isn't too common), then you can easily find the records of his brother and cousins who also served.

And, it's free.

Monday, November 10, 2014

I Can Pickle That!

Year round farmers' markets have a distinct upside: year-round fresh produce.  Without a hard freeze yet, there's still late summer veggies available.  Sure, tomatoes seem to be limited to the grape and cherry kinds, but still... this is November.  The glut of the large peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers from August and September sometimes makes you overlook the steady production of the hot peppers, cherry tomatoes, and pickling cukes that seem to keep right on producing their tiny versions up until the first frost.

Kind of felt like a pickling day yesterday, so I made a batch of bread and butter pickles.  Seriously, though, how much longer will you find cucumbers in DC?

Just waiting for these bad boys to fully cure!

Sunday, November 9, 2014


Having a day when I plan on just hanging out at home by myself, doing things I want to do, and not be around other people.  It feels anti-social, but I like to think of it as introverting - taking a day to just be comfortable being by myself.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

When life hands you tomatoes...

Last month, the husband had decided to pick 20 pounds of tomatoes at a local u-pick-em farm.  When we got home, he asked me what I planned to do with them.

After getting over my offense at 1950s gender stereotypes, I made a batch of salsa... but what to do with the last 5 pounds?  And what to do with the other odds and ends of vegetables that he picked?  A giant batch of pasta sauce to stock the fridge appeared to fit the bill.

First - I decided not to can this.  While tomato products are some of the easiest things to can, you have to watch the acidity carefully to make sure that you can use the water bath canner (i.e. the big pot that you already own) instead of a pressure canner (extra equipment that I don't own).  Besides, at this point we were down to 5 pounds of tomatoes, so we'd only be canning 3 or 4 jars.  Timed this to use some sauce for dinner that day, made plans to make a lasagne for the freezer in a few days, and resigned myself to having pasta every other day for the next week, and the entire small batch could live in the fridge.

  • 5 pounds of tomatoes.
  • 2 onions in a small dice.  As small as you can while still cutting in onion in less than 60 seconds so that you can run out of the room crying and flushing out your eyes with water in the other room due to the pain, but not having to go back and resume cutting that onion.  Yes, you could cut the onion under water, but I have not figured out how to do that without cutting yourself as well.  Suck it up, cut the onion in half, and try to keep the cut sides facing the cutting board or another cut side of the onion, and you can get through it.
  • 3-4 sweet peppers.  I like colorful bell peppers, but whatever you have in the house works.  Don't splurge on the red ones... remember that the base of the sauce is red, so the color will be lost, and they taste the same as the cheaper green ones.
  • Garlic.  Double whatever you think is reasonable.
  • Herbs.  I have basil and oregano plants on my balcony, so I just grabbed a couple leaves from each, minced.
  • 1 bottle of Chianti.  Cheap Chianti.
End result
  • Pour yourself a glass of Chianti.
  • Prep your tomatoes.  You can peel them if you like, but I'm lazy.  Not optional, you need to wash them, core them, and remove the seeds and the plasma that encases the seeds.  You're controlling the water content of the final product.  Dice. I throw them through a mini-chopper food processor when I'm doing a bunch.
  • Core and seed the peppers.  You want these in a fine dice.
  • Sip some wine.  
  • Rummage through your fridge for anything else that you may want to add.  A couple mushrooms?  Quarter of a package of spinach?  Do baby carrots go with pasta sauce?  Contemplate the answers to these questions, and top off your glass of wine.
  • Mince the garlic and dice the onions.  Recompose yourself.  Sip wine.  
  • At the bottom of a stock pot, coat the bottom in a thin layer of olive oil.  Thin.  No one likes oily sauce, but no one likes burnt onions.  Put the heat on medium / medium-low, and add the onions and garlic.  These guys need to sweat for a while.
  • When these look translucent, add the peppers and the odds and ends from the fridge.  Give it a couple minutes.
  • Pour the pot a glass of wine.  4 to 8 oz. should do it... You want to cover the onions, but not drown them.  Let this come up to a boil.
  • Sip your own wine.
  • Add the tomatoes.  Bring this to a boil, then simmer on low for an hour.  Or two.  Whatever.  Take your wine to the other room and watch an episode of Scandal. 
  • When the sauce has reduced a bit, add the minced herbs (yeah, you can just sprinkle some dried crap into the sauce if you have no potted herb plants, but why would you do this to yourself?).  Stir, and let it simmer for 5 more minutes.
  • You're done!  Use some for dinner now, put the rest in the fridge after it has cooled down a bit.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

My Time Watching the Duggars

Since I'm now working 8 hours a day instead of 14 (and 5, not 7 days a week), I'm finding myself with a lot of downtime, and On-Demand cable.  For some reason, I developed a fascination with 19 Kids and Counting, the reality TV show about a family in Arkansas with 19 kids.  The innocuous way that it is described is behind the fascination, and also why I can't not watch this show.

The way that TLC packages the show, it's a family with strong Christian values, but other than that, they're just like you!  But more of them!  But as harmless as this sounds, the lives of these children, and increasingly, young adults, is absolutely nothing like the way that the average American family lives, including those who subscribe to a version of fundamentalist Christianity.  Granted, I married into a large family practicing a version of fundamentalism (kind of Mennonite-lite), where aunts with 9 or 10 children is not uncommon.  To make this work, there appears to be two options- either the dad has the type of job that allows for 6-figure income to pay for this size family, or there is poverty.  In the first case, the kids are told that they will have to be self-sufficient, leading to early preparation for careers.  In the second, God will provide, but not with an education that will allow these kids to escape the precarious position they had been in, and causing the cycle to continue.  The Duggars have the income of the first, but the mentality of the second.  It's a dangerous mix, and undermines the premise of the show.  There are no struggles, at least no economic struggles, because TLC is paying them money to be on the show, and the show allows the whole family to have the type of Reality TV Star jobs that somehow make money - speaking engagements, writing inane books, and selling more episodes to TLC.  Plus, Jim Bob was lucky to have real estate investments in place in NW Arkansas right when Wal-Mart expanded. 

But, that's not really the story.  I was actually pretty horrified to watch Jill's Wedding special the other day.  200 volunteers made the day possible.



TLC no doubt had paid money to the Duggars for the rights to film the wedding.  I'm sure there was a production meeting at some point where a discussion of how Jill and Derick would be compensated for their roles in this televised special.  The wedding was a TV production.  Profit was made.  So why wasn't that profit distributed to the 200 people who made the profit possible?  

My major problem with the Duggars is that they impose externalities on those around them.  The full cost of the wedding was not part of the amount that Jim Bob "paid", nor was it part of what he was paid by TLC. This seems to be a recurring theme in episode after episode.  The Duggars not only want to save money by not paying for anything, but they also expect to receive services in return for free.  Those services appear to be returned only because 1) they have as many children as they do, 2) because the have this reality TV show (and therefore are paid to live this volunteer-dependent lifestyle), and 3) they are related to these guys.  If the Duggars *only* had 10 kids, you probably wouldn't see this volunteering and TV money that allows them to have this type of lifestyle.  It's the TV money that makes this possible, and it's possible because of the TV money.

Which leads me to ask again... why weren't the volunteers at Jill's wedding paid for their work.  And with Jessa marrying yesterday under similar circumstances, was her wedding made possible as well by unpaid labor?  Sure, there's a lot to analyze and criticize... mainly that this is one set of Christian values, that other Christians may find abhorrent... but can we talk about why the Duggars devalue work performed by anyone who isn't a Duggar?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Truthiness Tote Bag

Given the state of my finances from living on student loans and graduate stipends for the past two years, I've decided that if I'm going to give out Christmas presents this year, I'm going to have to make them myself.  Or, use the credit on Amazon that I have from selling back my employment law casebook (woot!).

Since I spend all day in front of my computer, I'm trying to find ways to not be in front of my computer all night too.  As part of this, I've resurrected my old cross-stitching skills that were honed over many summers sitting quietly at my grandmother's house, where I could not go outside else I catch chiggers or polio.  But while these childhood projects were limited to making Christmas ornaments (in July, of course...), that doesn't seem to be exciting or interesting, and I totally did that for my husband's family last year.

My favorite site for patterns has to be Subversive Cross Stitch. A friend let me know about the book a few years ago, and it's been in the back of my mind that I should track down a copy for some time.  Which I did.  And you should too.  And while I want to stitch all of the patterns, there's only so much need I have in my life for samplers, which is why making gifts works with my new lifestyle.

My brother recently moved to his first apartment.  I figured he could use some of those reusable tote bags for going grocery shopping and what-not, so the first project was defined.
Pattern, Supplies, Blank Tote
 I decided my brother needed a Colbert-inspired message to cart his groceries to and from the store in his Red State.  Once the pattern was downloaded (although, these are sometimes hard to read if your color printer isn't the greatest and you can't tell the difference between similar shades), I got out the embroidery floss, and found a very basic tote bag from A.C. Moore that has an Aida cloth panel embedded that's ready to be stitched.  With a half-off coupon, I bought the tote for $6.50.  Sadly, I then found out that Joann's Fabrics carries the same for $8.99, so their Columbus Day 50% off any one item coupon dropped the price to $4.50.  Total project cost (assuming you have a decent supply of floss on hand) - about $10.

I'm pretty happy with the final result.  I'm trying to think of a good second theme for another tote (which I purchased for $3.60 by using a friend's employee discount at Joann's... in exchange for being on the tote bag recipient list).  Total time - one lazy Saturday afternoon of watching college football.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

South of the Mason-Dixon Line

I have been trying to come up with good things about living in the Washington, DC area, and so far, being in the most expensive city in America the same time that my student loans have entered repayment, it's been hard to see the good.  One thing, though - the growing season is much longer.

Behold, the October tomato.

After discovering that the apples in the nearby orchard were not yet ready (seriously?  Aren't apples a September crop?), we discovered that the pick your own tomatoes were still up and running.  Sure, this was two weeks ago, but we finally got around to using the 20 pounds that the DH insisted on collecting.

When life hands you tomatoes, can some salsa.  Made a quick batch of corn & black bean salsa, added lime juice to maintain acidity, and into the water canner for 20 minutes.  Then again, *someone* in the house has already eaten through a third of the batch, so perhaps the 20 pounds of tomatoes actually wasn't enough.

It's your basic salsa recipe from a reputable canning source (Ball Blue Book, your local Land Grant University Extension service) to ensure that you are not going to kill yourself, then adding a can of black beans and an ear of corn taken off the cob.  I do add an extra tablespoon of lime juice just to make sure I'm preserving the acidity of the original recipe.  It might be a good idea to actually test the acidity of your salsa before canning, but if someone plans on eating all of it in the next 2 weeks, this becomes less and less critical.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Welcome to your Adult Life!

It's been a while since I've posted anything.  Since January, I managed to finish graduate school (yeah!), find a job, move to a new city, and start to get the pieces in place for my real, adult life.  In addition to getting to call myself an Ivy League-educated economist (no, seriously, I am), I now have all the trappings of a middle class lifestyle - crushing debt loads and the postponement of major adult milestones because of it.  However, unlike most people in my generation, the debt load will be fine once the husband finds a job.  Actually, once that happens, it should only be about 2 years before we're completely free of student loans and credit cards, which is wonderful... once that happens.  After putting off real life for us both to attend grad school, I'm just a little impatient, but I know it's going to work out soon (but I kind of want to stop renting and buy a house).

We're now in Washington, but I'm not sure I've completely warmed up to DC yet.  Watching football today, I miss Saturdays in Champaign, and it's just not right to be in October and see the leaves on the trees still being green.  While the Mall area of DC is gorgeous, there's no giant lake nearby, and I miss the sound of waves.  Baltimore's harbor can make do in a pinch, but there's really nothing better than a stroll along Lake Michigan with a bit of a chill in the air.  Trying to figure out how much time I can spend back in Chicago during Christmas, and maybe whether I can sneak out of town for a long weekend soon.  The one downside to having more free time with the end of grad school is that I have more time to be homesick.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Bad HR on TV: Undercover Boss (Mohegan Sun)

Nothing like a little insomnia to make one watch some bad HR practices on TV.  My new favorite show for this is Undercover Boss.  Fortunately, reruns on the OWN network may let me review every single one here.  The premise seems to be the same on each show: Boss encounters employee who does everything that the job asks for, but because of the shitty way they are treated by the company, they either want to leave, or can't make ends meet.  Then, rather than thinking, "Hey!  We have institutionalized problems within our HR policies that may need to be changed for the betterment of all workers!", the boss assumes this employee is an exception, plays Santa Claus, and fixes the problem for just the one employee by throwing cash or a unique opportunity their way.

I'm watching the most recent Undercover Boss, where the Chairman of Mohegan Sun Casino, sorry, Entertainment, goes undercover.  Yes, the slot runner's job sucks (hire more?  Perhaps if the marginal productivity of the next worker is offset by an increase in revenue), and there's a lawsuit waiting to happen forcing the female servers to wear skimpy dresses and not the men, but the biggest problem is with the Valet Shift Lead.  At least she isn't designated a Shift Supervisor when she has no managerial authority, but there are still problems with her job.

Set aside the fact that the CEO of an organization just said that a job should not be performed by anyone over the age of 50, but the Valet Shift Lead mentioned that not only does she work part-time, but her hours are being cut.  She's currently on state welfare to provide health insurance, and she's not sure if she can make ends meet if the situation continues.  Bear in mind that this is the Pocono Casino.  Not on tribal land.  It's a commercial venture doing business in Pennsylvania, subject to Pennsylvania law, and using state subsidized healthcare to get workers for lower wages than they would otherwise be willing to work.  It's likely that in order for these workers to get state healthcare, food stamps, or other forms of welfare, they must prove that they are employed - which creates a need to take these low-paid, low-hour jobs, distorting the labor market.  It's also dickish on the part of the casino to hire someone for 20 hours per week, then only assign them for 10.

So, what's the solution?  Walk away from generous state funds that heavily subsidize the labor costs of the casino?  Unlikely.  Continue to hire part-time, but with a set shift schedule so that an employee can better juggle multiple jobs?  That would be nice, but, dagnabbit, the company loses flexibility!  Flexibility is so much more important than providing employees with the ability to be self-sufficient.  Undercover Boss' solution was to give this employee EVEN MORE TIME OFF to take her GED, and hire a babysitter.  Okay, and $10K for her wedding, $10K for health care (that's, like, a year for a family of three), and a $15K college fund for her daughter.  See - throwing $35K at one employee just totally solved the problem!  And, isn't the Mohegan Sun Casino Entertainment Basketball Hotel Conglomerate just awesome for doing this!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sunday Morning Talk: Chris Christie's Culture Problem

Since I don't have anything better to do than to watch TV all day, I managed to catch Chris Christie's entire press conference where he admitted that the slowdown of traffic in Fort Lee, New Jersey, was caused by people in his office as political retribution.  Then, he went through an hour-long wiggle where he stated that he is ultimately is responsible because the buck stops with him (not here?  No Truman?), but that he didn't really know, so how can you hold this against him?

The wiggle highlights a problem which I assume is larger than the New Jersey governor's office, and is probably common in politics.  How does one distance oneself from scandal, but still try to claim credit for the successes of the office isn't really what I'm thinking about.  It's the disconnect between what you say, and what is rewarded.  Sure, Christie says that he's responsible, but it's obvious that he doesn't believe that he has real responsibility for the scandal - it's someone else's fault who lied to him.  If you worked for the Christie administration, what would you take away from this?  How would this guide your actions?  It probably would lead you to believe that if you do something unethical, don't get caught.  It wasn't until the emails came to light that any punishment was meted out, as Christie wasn't really interested in what was being done. 

What this means is that there is institutional dissonance.  Christie says that people should act in one way, but punishments and rewards are not given out accordingly (I'm responsible, but don't punish me for it is a prime example of this).  I don't want to be too hard on Christie, as many organizations, political, social, and businesses alike, have these problems.  The problem stems from when people see what is truly valued in the organization, and tries to mimic these behaviors, even when they contradict the explicit wishes and statements of what one should do to get ahead.  It tends to drive these behaviors underground and into the shadows.  Is BridgeGate the first time that such unethical retaliatory behaviors have occurred in New Jersey?  I'd venture to say no.  Bridget (what a perfect name!) Kelly probably had done something similar in the past, or, someone else had been promoted for something similar.  The culture of the organization implied that such tactics would be rewarded, and while not an explicit okay was given, Christie's staffers assumed that he would approve of the outcomes and reward them.  The ends would justify the means, so long as Christie didn't find out exactly how things were accomplished.  Christie didn't probe his office too deeply, and the ease of hiding these tactics was easy... with the payoff of working as Senior staff on a Presidential campaign or administration making the decision pretty easy for the ambitious and morally ambiguous.

Christie is in a pickle now.  (Only 5 calories, and satisfies your cravings for salty food while dieting...)  He probably has a larger problem on his hands.  It's not about containment, which is what the political pundits focus on, but on culture shift.  Who has he promoted in the past for doing underhanded and unethical actions in the past?  What needs to be done to fix this?  How do you shift the culture so that people don't make the calculus of being caught vs. getting ahead in a toxic political climate?  It's not easy - he has a Machiavellian staff on his hands who assume that the results speak for themselves, regardless of the way that they were produced.  The answer may also rest with Machiavelli.  One reading of the "It is better to be feared than loved." is that instilling fear in those you rule is okay.  But in the larger context of the passage, a better path is proposed.  Rather than trying to manipulate the emotions of those you rule by trying to make them like you, why not try competence?  Machiavelli tries to convince The Prince that being an effective ruler is better than being a fool looking for emotional validation.  So for Christie, he just needs to focus on creating an environment where New Jersey just runs well, runs ethically, and runs efficiently.  People might not like him as a person, but they would respect him as a governor.  That might be enough to be elected President.  Or, it should be.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Frontline: To Catch a Trader

Trying something new... I'm watching PBS, writing as I watch, and hoping to have something publishable shortly afterwards.  I'll see what happens.

FRONTLINE is back with a look at insider trading with "To Catch a Trader."  This time, we're looking at hedge funds, specifically SAC Capital.  I'm personally skeptical of hedge funds in general - they appear to be fee structures that if they do make real money, there is so much trading involved that the actual assets one owns at any point is not entirely clear.  In general, I worry about anything that's a black box.  I like to know how my money is making more money. 

With Wall Street, the question is not just about transparency, but legality.  We'll put the ethics on the side for now.  If you want to move first, then you need information about what move to make, and you need to move before everyone else in order to make the most money.  If you make the most money, then you get the largest clients, as people want their money to make the most money possible.  All incentives are to get this information fast, and to act on it, even if doing so is illegal.  Insider trading is not just unethical, or bad manners, but is flat-out illegal.  But if your incentives are contrary to legal compliance, and you perceive that you chance of getting caught is low, then the choice that is most advantageous to a fund is to do that which is illegal.

This isn't about morals.  Companies are amoral.  Not immoral, but without morals.  If your firm's goal is to maximize profits, then the expected benefits should outweigh the expected costs (chance of getting caught * expected fine), and the firm does it.  Possible ways around it are to increase the fines that are collected (unpopular politically, as this gets rolled into your 401(k) management fees) or to increase the likelihood of getting caught (which increases payroll... increasing government expenditures... also unpopular politically).  The business isn't going to police this activity.

Instead, it may come down to the individual trader.  (S)He will be the one on the line for illegal behavior.  At this point, one's salary vs the fine may be more likely to spur legal behavior.  Actual jail time might also incentivize correct behavior in the individual.  But, this only works if you believe that you will get caught.  The last piece of the pie is whether illegal behavior is socially acceptable.  So, if you go to Wharton, do your classmates assume that you will be making money while keeping to the straight and narrow?  Probably not.  FRONTLINE mentioned that one hedge fund relied on their Wharton network to get the insider tips on which the hedge fund business model relied.

So, how does one fix this?  How do you design a system that incentivizes proper behavior?  Is it socialization in business school?  Stricter oversight?  More scrutiny of actual trades?  Or do you expect investors to somehow know that huge returns above market may indicate some funny business on the part of the person you've entrusted with your money?  Considering how pervasive the culture on Wall Street is to make money, it's hard to see how any one fix can overturn an entire system that appears to be corrupt.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Money Porn

Enjoying my winter break with a couple movies.  Saw "The Wolf of Wall Street" this afternoon.  While I was hoping to see a movie on the evils of Wall Street excesses, equating bad boy stockbrokers to the mafia thugs that Scorsese normally portrays, I think I may have wandered into a soft-core porn screening.  At no point did I find any of these characters compelling or likeable, but I feel that the treatment of the subjects was stilted... like they were holding back from showing these people as they deserved to be treated.  I can only think that the protagonist being the writer of the story clouded the way in which he was portrayed - as if that last knock-out punch was withheld.

There's a moment when you meet someone, and your spidey-sense starts tingling that this person is bringing trouble and misery into the world.  It makes you skeptical of what that person says, and puts you on guard for the future.  It's a very handy voice to have in your head when you sit through a time-share pitch in exchange for attraction tickets.  The movie spends three hours looking at those who would take advantage of those who do not have this voice guiding them through financial decisions.  In short, it's exploiting a market failure of two parties with equal information making a market transaction that is advantageous to both, and replacing it with a system that destroys American Capitalism.  It's abhorrent.  The glorification of sex, and drugs, and money (seriously, does anyone go around talking about how much their suits cost?  How gauche!) leaves one thinking that Wall Street may be a pretty nifty place - martinis with Matthew McConnaghey, hookers on the office expense account, fast cars and yachts - no talk about the people who are losing everything.  Instead, because postmen and garbage collectors want to make money in the stock market, they deserve to be taken advantage of.  Their greed gives Stratton Oakmount the ethical right to take all of their money.  Pushing penny stocks off pink sheets might be one issue, but the full-out stock price manipulation that undoes the firm is pushed to the side and not treated with the same amount of time as the "Look at these poor people who want to be rich, the shmucks!" story-line.  It trivializes their pain in order to tell the story of money laundering and Quaaludes.

But, this is something to consider - why DOESN'T Hollywood look at the way that the middle income household is impacted by such things?  Why do you only see the 1% on screen?  Or, if it is a "middle class" family, then the top 15%?  I'd love to see a serious turn towards showing families who earn ~ $52,000 per year in the U.S.  It would be a jar to see how the median household actually lives, and more pressing to see how such families are impacted by asshats like Jordan Balfort.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Bad HR on TV: Mystery Diners

This may be a well documented phenomenon, but with winter break and no internship or work for the first time in 9 years, I have nothing to do all day.  So, I'm watching a bunch of bad reality TV shows.  Food Network has a show called Mystery Diners.  Not only is it highly unlikely that this is a real show, but my fear is that people may watch these shows and assume that what is happening is legal, ethical, and more than a marketing ploy.

Case in point is the Cheeseburger Baby episode that aired at 3:30 this afternoon that has me a bit riled up.  Owners suspect that the ex-con that they hired has been stealing, try to entrap him, but while monitoring him, discovers that a waitress has been the one stealing from the till.  Ooh... what will Charles Stiles (whoever that is) and the owners do?  It almost makes for compelling TV, but not entirely.

First of all, the easiest way for the owners to stop theft is to lock the cash office (seriously?  It's in an open cabinet?), restricting access to the manager, and giving each cashier a till.  This state-of-the-art system has been standard practice since the mid-1990s, when I had the crappy retail job in high school that encourages all to never work retail again.  Maybe a security camera in the cash office, too, especially if you are located in a city like Miami.  Yeah, it might be problematic to have security cameras all over the place, but it's not illegal.  These are areas where employees do not have a reasonable expectation to privacy like a bathroom or locker room.  It is concerning that employees are under video monitoring without notification.  However, to fix the problem, a notice that the cash office is under surveillance (or a camera in plain sight with a red blinking light) gets around most privacy laws for most states.  That the sting relied on manufactured situations that boarder on entrapment leads one to question the ethics f the situation.  Sure, not illegal.  But, if Guillermo the Ex-Con had fallen for one of these ploys and this led the owners to state that he was probably behind the other thefts, then there would be a huge-ass defamation lawsuit in the works.  Fortunately, this didn't happen.  It would have made for bad TV.

At the end, there is a major violation of privacy when the owner rips the fanny pack off "Christia"'s body and examines the contents.  Here, the employee DOES have a reasonable expectation of privacy.  It's tantamount to looking through the employee's clothing.  THAT is not allowable.  If there was evidence, and this had been a real situation, then the police should have been called and an investigation ensued.  Otherwise, huge-ass lawsuit.  Oh, none was filed?  Yeah, there's a reason for that.  Worse, even if you think this is fake, you may believe that employees have the right to frisk employees and seize property.

So, no, the ex-con is not responsible.  Aren't the owners wonderful for giving this guy a second chance?  Aw.  What wonderful employers!  In fact, that's what this show is trying to do: it reinforces that small businessmen are tiny gods, whose failure at business could only be because of the bad, no good, evil low-wage employees who thwart their boss' God-given right to a profitable business.  It's BS.  But it's not the only show that reinforces these stereotypes.