Signs of the Times

Today’s lunchtime news chum brings together a collection of articles, all exhibiting signs of our economic times:


When Secrecy is Appropriate

An article in today’s New York Times seemingly berates the “Super Committee” (Deficit Reduction Committee) for doing its work in secret. It appears those not on the committee want a window on the committee’s work, while the committee is still forumulating its proposal. Those on the outs say that they want visibility into the choices being made; those on the committee say they need their privacy so that they can honestly make budget decisions.

My opinion? There should be more secrecy. Let’s take the whole supercommittee and sequester them like a jury until they have a proposal. They can send out for food. They can request information. But they cannot interact with other congress critters or lobbyists until they are done.

The only reason I can see for those on the outs to want visibility is to try to influence the committee to be intransigent on a party line or for a special interest, not what it is the best interest of the country. This supercommittee should be like the BRAC: they make a recommendation, and it is either voted up or down, with congress knowing that the automatic cuts are a result of a down voice. That’s the only way that this congressional game of chicken can be resolved and the country can move forward.

(oh, you don’t believe me that it is a game of chicken? I suggest you listen to this Planet Money Podcast: When Congress Plays Chicken)


What It May Be Coming To

If you read the news at all, you are reading about budget crisises at all government levels, due to unexpected (or expected deficits). Alas, where this may be taking us is best illustrated by this article from the Denver Post about Colorado Springs:

More than a third of the streetlights in Colorado Springs will go dark Monday. The police helicopters are for sale on the Internet. The city is dumping firefighting jobs, a vice team, burglary investigators, beat cops — dozens of police and fire positions will go unfilled.

The parks department removed trash cans last week, replacing them with signs urging users to pack out their own litter.

Neighbors are encouraged to bring their own lawn mowers to local green spaces, because parks workers will mow them only once every two weeks. If that.

Water cutbacks mean most parks will be dead, brown turf by July; the flower and fertilizer budget is zero.

City recreation centers, indoor and outdoor pools, and a handful of museums will close for good March 31 unless they find private funding to stay open. Buses no longer run on evenings and weekends. The city won’t pay for any street paving, relying instead on a regional authority that can meet only about 10 percent of the need.

This is a city that is so broke they are doing a significant cutback in services. This isn’t just in Colorado Springs. Los Angeles is looking at large cutbacks; the state is facing an unprecedented budget crisis. Do I even need to mention the Federal budget problems.

Now, I’m not a teaparty type (unless one is serving a decent Darjeeling). I’m not a strong Liberatarian type. I do feel there is a role for government in providing various services. But reading articles like the ones I cited, I’m beginning to think that those wanting a smaller government may get it unintentionally due to the budget crisis. My fear is not that the size of government will be reduced (we truly can’t afford these deficits), but that the reduction will be done in a “slash and burn, take that!” manner, instead of something well thought out that makes those government services that are required more efficient.


Borders UK Closing

Thanks to underpope for this lead: Borders may be closing all stores on 12/22 ( I find this odd that they wouldn’t have a going out of business sale, so I’m guessing they are close on a buyer… but still… We’re regulars at the Borders at the Northridge Mall.

UPDATE: Looking closer, this appears to just be Borders UK. Still, it’s sad to see any bookseller close.


Tuesday News Chum: Livin’ in Lot B, Deleted Twitter Messages, Death and Burial in a Recession

Some interesting articles from the lunchtime reading to start your week off right:

  • From the “Leaving On A Jet Plane” Department: The LA Times has an interesting article about a colony of pilots and flight attendents who live in a motor home colony in Lot B, near the Proud Bird. Interesting approach: reduces commuting fatigue for the airline employees, and saves them quite a bit of money.
  • From the “You Just Think It’s Deleted” Department: Time Magazine has an interesting article about a new service that makes your deleted Twitter posts publically available. Moral: Think before you Twit!
  • From the “Another Harbinger of the Times” Department: Articles in two publications dovetail nicely to give another sign of the times. The LA Times has an interesting piece about how more bodies are unclaimed from their morgue because the families cannot afford the cremation fee of around $400. The article notes that just claiming a body from the L.A. County coroner costs $200. Once a body is claimed, private cremations usually run close to $1,000. Funeral homes charge an average of $7,300 to transport and bury a body in a simple grave. Want a cheaper alternative? The NY Times is reporting on a trend towards home burial: build the box yourself and plant ‘em in your yard. The article notes the average American funeral costs about $6,000 for the services of a funeral home, in addition to the costs of cremation or burial. A home funeral can be as inexpensive as the cost of pine for a coffin (for a backyard burial) or a few hundred dollars for cremation or several hundred dollars for cemetery costs. Of course, if you want to bury the body in Neverland, all bets are off.

Unrelated Items and Thoughts For The Day

  • From the “Now We Know Who To Blame” Department: The news today brought word of the death of Norman Brinker. Never heard of him? Let me jog your memory. Ever gone to a restaurant and been greeted with “Hi, my name is Babs, and I’ll be your waiteress tonight.” Blame Norman. Ever visited a salad bar? Blame Norman. Ever dined at Chili’s, Macaroni Grill, Steak & Ale, On the Border, Maggiano’s Little Italy, or Bennigans? Blame Norman. Of course, all these restaurant ideas are in trouble in this economy.
  • From the “Now What” Department: As we all know by now, GM has filed for bankruptcy, and its old shares are worthless. Well, not to some. And we all know who owns a lot of the newer shares: we (that is, the US Govt) does. Some think this is good, and some think it is bad. M’self, its done and I can’t change it, but I don’t think we should hold on to them for long. So I’ve got an idea: Next year, the IRS should offer these shares to taxpayers (as well as shares in other government owned things, like banks and insurance companies) in lieu of cash for their refunds. The shares could be valued as of the refund date, and would be distributed, commission free. This would allow the government to keep their cash, and would make everyone investors in the equity market (just like the Republican’s wanted with Social Security). Those with the shares would have a vested interest in the companies doing better, and might even earn a tidy nest egg (hell, for these special shares we could eliminate the capital gains on the first sale). It would also get the government out of the ownership game, which would likely be a good thing.
  • From the “California, Here I Come” Department: We’re all hearing about the draconian cuts California is making… or not making. Yesterday, in a friends-only post, I explained why, but wanted to say something publically as well. A few days ago, I received our property tax reassessment for 2009-2010. The value of our house dropped again, per the assessor, over $118,000. This means lower property taxes for us, but now multiply our lower property taxes by hundreds of thousands of residents of the County of Los Angeles. The county, and the city by extension, have significantly lower revenues. Consider all the workers in the state who have lost their jobs, and now think of the lower income tax revenues… and the lower sales taxes as they cut back on expenditures. Now think about the financial problems of California: not only is there too much legislatively-mandated spending, but there has been a dramatic cut in income, just as if the state had lost its primary job. Just as homeowners faced with a sudden drop in income quickly face foreclosure and credit problems when the bills subsequently come due, the state is facing major credit problems that are coming due thanks to a spending pattern established when times were good, and the income was growing. In the face of all this, you can see why the leaders in Sacramento are having to make such dramatic cuts. They’re trying to save the house (state) by slashing expenditures, no matter how much it hurts the inhabitants, because the occupants of the house were unwilling to take additional measures to bring in income. They’re living in the mini-mansion they built when times were good, paying the inflated mortgage and HELOC bills, and praying. It is true we can’t grow our income enough to keep going as we were going (something many homeowners are learning). However, also as these homeowners have learned, just cutting your bills won’t pay the mortgage if enough isn’t coming in. One LA Times columnist has gone so far as to suggest cutting in a way that hurts the folks in Bel Air/Brentwood more than the folks in the lower income areas.

Humpday Chum

A late lunch today, but I still have a few gleanings for you:

  • From the “A Dolls Life” Department: The economy appears to have claimed yet another victim. The Raggedy Ann & Andy Museum in Arcola IL is closing. Blame a downturn on tourism and member support… as well as the fact that fewer kids know from Raggedy Ann & Andy. After all, they have no electronics.
  • From the “Let’s Dine Out” Department: Yet another effect of the economy: fast-food restaurants are broadening their menus. McDonalds is aping Starbucks. KFC steals items from El Pollo Loco. Basically, each chain is trying to cannibalize what sells for other chains to become one stop shops.
  • From the “Find the Hidden Message” Department: Three articles of celebrity news find me sensing a hidden message. First is an article from USA Today about yo-yo dieting, and how you often bounce back to larger than before. The article cites Kirstie Alley, who gained 83 lbs after first losing 75 lbs on Jenny Craig, leaving her at 228 lbs. Also cited is Oprah, who has also been fighting a similar battle. The CNN page highlighted an article from People, reporting how Melissa Joan Hart has revealed her 113 lb body, after losing a fair amount of pregnancy weight. Will she keep it off? Google News highlighted an article Us Magazine about Brooke Shields wishing she had lost her virginity earlier than 22… but what I found interesting was the line: “If she had sex earlier, “I think I wouldn’t have had issues with weight — I carried this protective 20 pounds [in college],” she says. “It was all connected. And to me, that’s a health regret.”” So what is the message here, and what images are we conveying to our daughters (as there is less pressure on men) about body image and body acceptance? I don’t think we’re conveying a good one.
  • From the “Crossover Error Rate” Department: How do you deal with fingerprint scanners when a person has no fingerprints?

More Economic Chum

The economy is on everyone’s minds these days, and thus the lunchtime perusal of the news is finding mostly economic stuff: