Archive for Common Cents

Wisdom of the ages

A memory from Irving Kahn, chairman of Kahn Brothers Group on Wall Street (well, actually, they’re on Madison Avenue north of 55th, but they’re in a proper Wall Street business):

“One of my clearest memories is of my first trade, a short sale in a mining company, Magma Copper. I borrowed money from an in-law who was certain I would lose it but was still kind enough to lend it. He said only a fool would bet against the bull market.”

Magma survived long enough to be bought out by an Australian firm in 1995 — 66 years after Kahn sold them short in the summer of 1929, just before the Biggest Stock Market Crash Ever.

And Kahn remains a player in the investment market today, at the age of 109.

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Canned hate

There’s a lot of yammering these days about the need for people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, much of which overlooks the obvious point that first there have to be boots.

Hence:

I once knew someone who expressed opposition to the local food bank, claiming it allowed people to “continue to be dependent.” I don’t know. I volunteered at that food bank and I think most of the people I interacted with would have much preferred to have their OWN money from their OWN job to go to the grocery and buy food. And I, myself, would almost rather starve than have to go and accept food from a food bank. And even beyond how you think about the adults, most of those people had kids … and even if a person might think it’s OK for an adult, who, presumably in this person’s mindset, “could work,” kids can’t … so if their parents don’t, how are they to be fed? And yes, I know the government is supposed to do a lot of this, there’s SNAP and all that … but if it took care of everything, would there be a need for food banks? I don’t know, to me it seems very Scrooge to say, essentially, “But isn’t there SNAP? Isn’t there welfare? Let them use that…” I object to wastage of and fraud involving my tax money as much as anybody, but I still bring canned goods to food bank drives or give to various charities because I see them helping people, and even if there are some areas of government agencies where corruption looms, that doesn’t mean the grassroots groups are no better.

It’s not impossible for there to be shenanigans at a food bank, but since the folks running them tend to want to be there — as distinguished from the bureaucrat who doesn’t much care where he is so long as the retirement credits pile up — I generally accord them a whole lot more credibility than the Professional Poverty Warriors, constantly agitating for more, more, more.

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Nobody likes price hikes

Especially if there’s a good reason for one, and in this case there was:

Uber is reportedly charging its users in downtown Sydney a minimum $100, a result of surge pricing introduced in the midst of an armed hostage crisis, Mashable has learned.

An executive in the city’s Central Business District (CBD) sent Mashable screenshots of the Uber app that show the company is charging up to four-times the normal rate because “demand is off the charts.”

A hundred Australian dollars is about $82 USD.

“I have never, ever seen it at four-times [the normal rate] and I’m a 1% top Uber user,” said Matthew Leung, the user in contact with Mashable. “I understand the way the business works — higher the demand, higher the charge — but four-times at $100 minimum is ridiculous. Almost price gouging at its worst.”

Rather a lot of Twitter users chose to ignore that word “almost”; reaction was swift and almost entirely negative. Uber’s Sydney office issued a statement:

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m not driving my way into that sort of catastrophe for a lousy 82 bucks.

Later, in an effort at damage control, Uber began waiving fees for riders leaving the CBD, and offered refunds to the truly distraught.

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Defending the rush

There are two types of people who object to Black Friday, says Bark M., and he has a refutation for both:

First, you have the “don’t ever spend a dime because you’re going to be old someday” people. Let me think … would I rather die with $5M in the bank, or would I rather enjoy my youth? Has anybody ever been sad that they bought their dream car? Has anybody ever regretted a trip to Europe? There’s a difference between charging yourself into oblivion and simply enjoying your money while you can. I’ve been guilty of overspending a bit at times, but I have priceless memories that made it worth it. Yes, I put my kids’ Disney trip on a credit card (SHOCK). No, I didn’t pay it off immediately (DOUBLE SHOCK). Do I regret it? Not one bit.

I’m already old. And while I didn’t go shopping that day, I am allergic to crowds, and I’m still working on getting myself out of the hole. Still, I can’t dispute this premise: the only person who regrets buying his dream car is the one who overspent to get it. See next paragraph.

Second, you have the “I don’t need or desire material things” crowd. Sorry, but for ninety-nine percent of people, that’s nonsense. The people who say that are mostly the people who can’t afford the material things. Yes, I know you have an uncle who looks dirt poor but could pay cash for a Maybach anytime he wanted. Yes, I know what you think of people who make $40K a year and lease 320is. But you can’t tell me that there isn’t something that you could buy RIGHT NOW that would make you happier, even if only short term. Other than non-emotional things like toilet paper, everything I buy, I buy it because I enjoy it.

If you ever run out of toilet paper, it suddenly becomes emotional. Trust me on this.

I wrote this three years ago:

Now admittedly there are a few gadgets I covet now and then, and I still buy the occasional book or “record” album. But, to rework a phrase of Barack Obama’s, I’m starting to believe there’s a point where you’ve accumulated enough stuff. I have a whole room full of stuff that I haven’t been able to get organized in eight years, and I am loath to add to it if I can help it. (Is it really necessary for me to have every issue of Entertainment Weekly? It didn’t matter so much for the first few years, but with issue #1200 imminent — well, you get the idea. I blame Jeff Jarvis.)

Note: EW is now well into the 1400s.

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You’ll buy it anyway, suckers

When Matt Rutledge founded Woot back in the early 21st century, he chose to refrain from the usual fawning product descriptions: often, in fact, the merchandise was described with references to small flaws or implications of unsuitability for the intended purpose.

But Bags O’ Crap aside, I don’t remember anything as ferocious as this paragraph at Rutledge’s meh.com today:

The only headphones in the world where you can drop the price by $60-$80 and they’re still overpriced. Unlike most Beats deals on Black Friday, these are the current model, the Solo2, not the old Solo or Solo HD models. We’re told they get the bass balance better than the notoriously bottom-heavy original Beats headphones. But you can get better headphones for the same price or less. We still wouldn’t pay this much for Beats even if Dre himself threw in a quarter of chronic from his personal stash. Let some other chump pay for those relentless Beats ad campaigns. They’re just headphones. Not good enough? We’d say we hate to disappoint you on such a special day … but the truth is we actually sort of enjoy it.

For the record, they were selling these nominally $200 headsets for $120, and as of this writing, had moved 572 of them, meaning there were about 50,000 site visitors who weren’t interested.

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Pray for snow, maybe

BC Clark Jewelers, founded (as every Oklahoman already knows) in 1892, instituted a program in 1998 called Pray for Rain:

When you buy your engagement ring from BC Clark Jewelers and it rains (or snows) an inch or more on your wedding day, BC Clark will refund you the price of your engagement ring up to $5,000. Just ask one of our 140+ Pray for Rain winning couples!

Five grand is a lot to have to cough up, but it’s nothing compared to this:

In what one Chicago-area Buick dealership is calling a “White Friday” sale, customers who buy any brand new Buick or GMC vehicle on Nov. 28 and 29 will have the chance to get all that money back come Christmas, reports the Chicago Tribune.

The catch is, it has to snow six inches or more on Christmas Day, a measurement that must be recorded at the O’Hare International Airport weather station.

Snow? In Chicago? Is that even possible?

The chances of getting any amount of snowfall in Chicago on that day are between 40% to 50%, according to the Illinois Climatologist office, much less an entire six inches.

Still, if the dealership had to fork over $32,000 — the average vehicle transaction price these days — for, say, 30 buyers, we’re up towards a million dollars. (Dr. Evil recommends taking out some insurance.)

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It’s a floor wax and a credit card

Top Ten reasons to choose the NBC Saturday Night Live MasterCard:

  1. It’s usable at thousands of locations, and you’re not
  2. Endorsed by Morgan Fairchild, your wife, whom you’ve slept with
  3. Terms and Conditions require you to party on, Garth
  4. It’s cheap enough, it’s pretty enough, and doggone, people like it
  5. Provides standard services at enclosed retail compounds
  6. Samurai payments!
  7. Who’s in your wallet? Could it be … SATAN?
  8. Honored by Da Bears
  9. Double rewards for ignorant sluts
  10. If you ever want to cancel, Sinead O’Connor will come to your house and rip it in half

(Prompted by Costa Tsiokos.)

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More mettle in your plastic

I, of course, carry a Plywood Card:

I remember my father telling me about the Amex Gold Card when I was a kid. “It has no limit,” he said, in the tones that an earlier generation used to describe the bomb at Hiroshima, “you could charge a Rolls-Royce on it.” When he eventually got one, I was deeply disappointed that he didn’t immediately charge a Rolls-Royce. Given that our local dealer had precisely one Rolls-Royce in stock, however, and it was a fucking Camargue, I no longer resent him for not doing so.

I get the sense that the Platinum Card is now what the Gold Card used to be. My Platinum Amex doesn’t seem to have any limit, although to be fair I’ve never tried to charge a Rolls-Royce. I have had a couple of days where I made five figures’ worth of charges to it in a single day, an action that prompts panicked phone calls from my Visa Signature card issuer, and I had no trouble doing so. Lately I’ve been thinking about downgrading to the Gold or even the Green card, however. I’m not really living much of an upscale life.

Only once did I ever get a phone call on even a Green Amex, presumably because I’d gone beyond my high-side-of-normal thousand-a-month usage.

And once upon a time, some Middle East arms dealer, visiting Boeing, is supposed to have bought a plane on impulse and paid for it with Amex.

Not that this sort of thing matters, of course:

Which brings us to the point of high-end credit cards: impressing retail personnel. But if you’ve ever worked retail, you know that you don’t care about what stupid credit card the customer has. So maybe the point of a high-end credit card is to imply that you don’t know how little the retail people care about it, because you’ve never worked a retail or foodservice job and therefore wouldn’t know that kind of prole-ass detail. Very meta-impressive. I think.

So maybe it’s to impress the person behind you in line at the counter.

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You can’t get much more inauspicious

A few days back, I quoted both Bill Quick and @SwiftOnSecurity on the future of CurrentC, billed as a rival to ApplePay. Neither was what you’d call favorably impressed. But CurrentC has now taken the first step towards becoming a Real Payments Company. They’ve been hacked:

CurrentC, which is a mobile payment system backed by the Mercantile Exchange (MCX), sent out an email to its pilot users stating that an unauthorized third party had obtained email addresses of some of its users, the MCX confirmed to CNBC in an email statement.

“Within the last 36 hours, we learned that unauthorized third parties obtained the e-mail addresses of some of our CurrentC pilot program participants and individuals who had expressed interest in the app. Many of these email addresses are dummy accounts used for testing purposes only. The CurrentC app itself was not affected.”

This does not mean, of course, that no one will ever break into ApplePay; but when you’re trying to sign up clients, this is not the sort of wording you want on your prospectus.

(Via Matthew Green.)

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This will end in tears and/or bankruptcy

I mean, just look at it:

Long before Apple Pay, big brick-and-mortar retail chains were conspiring to sidestep the typical 2% to 3% fees they’re charged by credit card companies when consumers pay with credit. A company called MCX (Merchant Customer Exchange), spearheaded by Walmart, was started to build a mobile payment solution that would become an app called CurrentC that’s preparing to launch, but is already in the app stores.

Rather than NFC, CurrentC uses QR codes displayed on a cashier’s screen and scanned by the consumer’s phone or vice versa to initiate and verify the transaction. The system is also designed to automatically apply discounts, use loyalty programs, and charge purchases to a variety of payment methods without passing sensitive financial data to the merchant.

“Dead on arrival,” says Bill Quick:

It was designed not to benefit the consumer, but enrich the merchant. The result of that calculation is usually an awful failure.

Especially if the consumer is paying attention:

Legal protections for debit transactions being decidedly limited compared to legal protections for credit transactions, Swift’s nailed it.

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The keys to the executive washroom

Embedded in a largish Bookworm omnibus post is this item:

While it’s quite possible that the CEO of a big American company gets paid 331 times as much as the part-time janitor working weekends (especially the part-time janitor working weekends in the company’s Delhi office), it’s not true that, on average, American CEOs make 331 times more than ordinary employees.

Selective sampling, of course. From WSJ:

The AFL-CIO calculated a pay gap based on a very small sample — 350 CEOs from the S&P 500. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 248,760 chief executives in the U.S. in 2013.

The BLS reports that the average annual salary for these chief executives is $178,400, which we can compare to the $35,239-per-year salary the AFL-CIO uses for the average American worker. That shrinks the executive pay gap from 331-to-1 down to a far less newsworthy number of roughly five-to-one.

I have no idea how much the CEO for whom I work is paid, but I’m pretty sure it’s less than five times what I get, and he puts in at least as many hours as I do, if not more.

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It’s not like he was broke or anything

Another day, another example of Presidential malingering? In this case, I don’t think so:

A September date night in New York nearly ended on a sour note when the president’s credit card got rejected at trendy Estela on East Houston Street.

Obama was trying to get some respite from the madness of the UN General Assembly, but suffered a common embarrassment when he tried to settle up and plunk down his credit card — only to have it rejected.

“It turned out I guess I don’t use it enough, so they thought there was some fraud going on,” Obama revealed at the new Consumer Financial Protection Board in DC.

Oddly, they’d think the same if he’d used it too much.

I spend entirely too much of my time at the workplace reviewing questionable plastic purchases, and I’m inclined to think that most banks these days will err on the side of safety, or what they think is safety, if they sniff out even the slightest possibility of fraud.

And I have one example from my own life, having had a Visa card declined at distinctly non-trendy Lowe’s. I swiped the Amex in its place; when I got home, I called up the offending bank, and they explained that their last bill had been returned to them, so they assumed the worst. As it happens, this was a few days after I’d come back from a World Tour and picked up an absurdly large bundle of mail, which did not contain said bill, so I’m guessing the Postal Service messed up that one item. Circumstances beyond my control, as it were. If it can happen to me, well, it apparently can happen to the man in the White House.

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The flamingos seem less pink lately

Apparently there is a formal index, derived from Washington’s Consumer Expenditure Survey, with an informal but nonetheless precise name:

The Tchotchke Index, it turns out, is an excellent gauge of the economic wellbeing of American households. Spending on tchotchkes — a.k.a. trinkets, junk, yard sale detritus, and the raison d’être of the self-storage industry — rises when Americans are feeling flush and falls when they are feeling pinched. Spending on tchotchkes tracks the economy’s ups and downs with the precision of other, better-known measures such as the the Consumer Confidence Index, the unemployment rate, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

According to this index, the economy continues to spiral down the bowl:

Sadly, the Tchotchke Index has plummeted to the lowest level on record. In 2013, the average household spent just $103 on decorative items for the home — less than half of the $240 it spent on this category in 2000, after adjusting for inflation. The 2013 Index is even lower than the $108 spent in 2010, in the aftermath of the Great Recession. An ominous sign, for sure.

Come to think of it, I don’t think I spent anything in this category last year.

(Via Roger Green.)

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Land of the almost-free

Governments being overly fond of hiring people from other sections of government, rather than deal with those difficult individuals from the private sector, the fees charged by governments, almost always purely arbitrary, have a tendency to raise eyebrows. Sometimes they’re absurdly high, but sometimes they’re absurdly low:

On Tuesday we went into Yellowstone and met with the Superintendent there, who had also run the whole agency for about a year. A lot of the discussion was about sustainability — financially. The [National Park Service] raises less than 10% of its revenue from visitors, and so must constantly fight with Congress for cash. One problem is that Yellowstone (perhaps their premier park) charges just $25 per vehicle for a one week admission. This is insane. We have tiny state parks in Arizona with one millionth of the appeal that fill the park despite a $20 a day entrance fee. And the NPS (or really Congress) takes every opportunity to discount this already absurdly low rate even further. You can get into all the parks for the rest of your life for a single $10 payment with the Senior pass. This essentially gives free entry to their largest visitor demographic.

Then again, I also tend to think that postage stamps ought to be closer to a buck. (Canada Post is ahead of us there, though they’re also ahead of us in cutting services.)

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Catheters to the sky

Few organizations can build, build, build like big hospitals, especially big “non-profit” hospitals. Jack Baruth has damned near financed one himself:

The hospital in Upper Arlington that handled my trauma case in 1988 handled my trauma case in 2014. It’s quintupled in size, the original tower where I entertained my visitors now an embarrassing old relic surrounded by monstrous, architecturally-complex structures with the sheen and swagger of Las Vegas casino hotels. The population it serves has remained more or less static since ’88, so why have the buildings multiplied? The same thing hasn’t happened to my local fast-food restaurants or auto-parts stores.

Part of it’s the aging and sickening of the Boomers, but most of it is simply the fact that healthcare costs and profits are soaring in this country at a rate typically reserved for college tuition, and for the same reason: there’s a disconnect between the people who receive the service and the people who pay for it. Healthcare is the new oil boom or gold rush, but the resource we’re mining is a resource called ourselves. There’s no limit to the amount of money you can make.

Unless, of course, you’re a doctor. Doctors and nurses aren’t clocking all this crazy cash. It’s going to massive billion-dollar corporations that provide medical supplies, devices, tests, and all the junk that surrounds you when you enter a hospital. Cotton swabs made in a Mexican factory for fractions of a cent and sold to you like they were solid gold. Drugs that cost pennies to produce and thousands of dollars to buy. Patented tests and procedures that you’ll demand because they offer you a one-percent chance of living longer at the cost of your entire retirement savings. Because what’s the balance sheet of your employer or your insurance provider or even your own family against the prospect of life or death?

Just don’t tell Zeke Emanuel how old you are.

(Semi-amusingly, someone edited Emanuel’s Wikipedia page yesterday to show him as having died yesterday. I’m pretty sure he’s not dead.)

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States fairish

WalletHub, borrowing data from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, has attempted to determine the most fair — and the least fair — state tax systems. Admittedly, mine eyes glazeth over at the presence of “fair” and “tax system” in the same sentence, but I figured I wouldn’t come down with glaucoma from reading their pitch, and if I did, well, I have friends in Colorado.

Oklahoma shows up at #29, about where I expected; the state, says the report, is not overly dependent on property or income taxes, but makes up the difference in sales tax and some of our state-specific Wacky Fees. By this reckoning, the fairest of them all is Montana; bottom of the list is Washington state, which lacks an income tax altogether but which will kill you, or at least maim you, with sales tax. Looking at quintiles, Washington is 7th in undertaxation of the top 20 percent, and first in overtaxation of the bottom 20. (How they rank for glaucoma, I have no idea.)

I was at least somewhat alarmed when I noticed that WalletHub also ran an opinion poll, mostly because I, like most Americans, tend to think other people’s opinions of taxes aren’t worth diddly. I was not surprised, though, to see fairly universal support for a progressive (in the numerical sense) income tax:

Although conservatives appear to support higher taxes on the poor and lower taxes on the rich, the general trend is the same: all Americans believe a fair state and local tax system taxes wealthy households at a higher rate than lower- and middle-income households.

The bottom of the “poor” scale, for this purpose, is an annual income of $5,000; “rich” tops out at $2.5 million. But even the economic liberals quail at more than a 20% impost on the wealthiest, and are willing to accept a percentage point or two at the low end. Somewhere between $30k and $50k, the curves cross.

And this is where it gets interesting. Presented with the hard ITEP data, both sides awarded Montana the top slot, both picked Washington for the bottom, and both left Oklahoma at #29. I conclude that my opinion of taxes is likely worth as little diddly as anyone else’s.

(Roger Green found this.)

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You may work with someone like this

Or one very much like him, because there are a heck of a lot of guys like this:

30 years ago, I was in my boss’ office talking shop with him. The door was open, and it was the day annual reviews were implemented and raises first showed up on paychecks.

One young lower-level manager, upset with the size of his increase, stormed into the office, ignoring me, slapped his paycheck down on the boss’ desk, and exclaimed, “This is an insult! When are you going to pay me what I’m worth?”

Without batting an eye, the boss slid his check back over towards the young chap and said, “I’d love to, son, but there is the minimum wage law to consider.”

In fact, I’ve seen some people who should have been billed for the work they did.

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Why we hate buying cars

A field report from Bayou Renaissance Man:

As part of my search for solutions to my truck’s electrical problems, I visited a few used car dealers (and used car departments of new car dealers) to price alternative transport. I went well armed with information, having researched possible cars and trucks on Edmunds.com and made lists of what Edmunds terms the “true market value” of relevant ones for several model years. I always found that the cars’ sticker prices were several thousand dollars above those listed by Edmunds, and I always asked the salesmen to justify that. They uniformly tried to persuade me that Edmunds.com didn’t know what it was talking about. When I produced corroborating values from NADA and the Kelley Blue Book, they’d fall back on the old “Well, we use a different book” excuse. When I refused to buckle, and insisted on answers, about half of them hemmed and hawed and waffled; the other half simply refused to talk any further.

It was always thus. When I retired Deirdre, my ’84 Mercury Cougar, I was offered something like $1400 above KBB for her in trade. This made no sense to me, but I was ready to deal. The new(ish) car was a ’93 Mazda 626, for which they were asking $9995. In plum condition, and this one was close to it, it was worth a KBB-estimated $8600. By any definition of the term, this was a wash.

(The next Mazda was bought new. Sticker was just over $20,000. But that’s another story.)

There is, however, a silver lining:

Only one dealer was honest enough to tell me that they charged the price they believed the market would bear. If their price was higher than Edmunds’ recommendation, it was because that make and model were in demand in this area, or they’d had to invest extra money in getting the vehicle ready for sale (which they backed up with invoices showing the work that had been done). They made no excuses and didn’t try to waffle.

That sort of forthright statement deserves some sort of signal boost.

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Underbanks of the Ohio

“Unbanked” now has its own entry in Wikipedia, with the following unfuzzed definition:

The unbanked are adults who do not have their own bank accounts. Along with the underbanked, they may rely on alternative financial services for their financial needs, where these are available.

I have had a tendency to conflate “unbanked” and “underbanked,” which I suppose I should quit doing. If you’re underbanked, this is what your life is like:

The underbanked are people or businesses that have poor access to mainstream financial services normally offered by retail banks. The underbanked can be characterized by a strong reliance on non-traditional forms of finance and micro-finance often associated with disadvantaged and the poor, such as cheque cashers, loan sharks and pawnbrokers.

I demur on one count: loan sharks are hardly “non-traditional.” (Neither are pawnbrokers, come to think of it.)

And one possible reason to remain unbanked, underbanked, debanked, or whatever, is the continuing increase in retail bank fees. Since the end of 2013:

  • The average monthly maintenance fee has risen by 15 cents, to $12.69. This means that it costs the average customer more than $150 a year just to keep a checking account.
  • There are fewer free checking accounts, defined as those with no monthly maintenance fees. The percentage of checking accounts with no such fees dropped by about 1.5 percentage points, to 28 percent. This is the lowest percentage of free checking accounts measured by the survey since it began in 2009.
  • The average minimum balance required to qualify for a waiver of the monthly maintenance fee rose by $724.69, to $5,440.

And then we wonder why people are dealing with the likes of Green Dot. Of course, we also look down our noses at these folks, mostly because their demand for services means that, holy Hannah, they’ve opened up a check-cashing place where the florist used to be.

My monthly maintenance fee, I am told — I had to look it up — is $15. (It’s waived for the foreseeable future.) If I had to deal with that kind of fee, I’d be sorely tempted to move everything to an unbank (underbank?) like American Express Serve. Then again, I do a little more (but not much more) research than J. Random Consumer; if I’d done much more, you’d probably have seen the words “credit union” in here somewhere.

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Meanwhile in Montgomery

A change in legislative compensation is coming for the Alabama legislature:

Starting after this year’s elections, Alabama lawmakers will be paid the median household income for the state.

The state has hired a law firm to help determine that amount.

In 2012, Alabamians approved a constitutional amendment making the change in lawmaker pay.

Well, okay. Did it take a law firm to determine this amount?

In 2012, the median household income in Alabama was about $42,000.

Not mentioned in the article: how much they’re getting now. Reid Wilson of WaPo ferreted that out last year:

Alabama legislators only make $10 a day in actual salary, but they get $4,308 a month in expense budgets and $50 a day when the legislature meets.

Says Wikipedia: “The length of the regular session is limited to 30 meeting days within a period of 105 calendar days. Session weeks consist of meetings of the full chamber and committee meetings.”

So this is, then, a raise? And state voters approved it? Then again, these hardy souls must deal with the Alabama Constitution of 1901, which runs over 340,000 words, or about half the size of Atlas Shrugged.

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It’s cheap to be the King

From 1989 to 2002, Burger King was owned by the British conglomerate Grand Metropolitan (now Diageo). In 2010, it was acquired by the equity firm 3G Capital, with offices in New York and roots in Brazil. Now it’s about to become Canadian:

The Wall Street Journal‘s Liz Hoffman and Dana Mattioli report Burger King is in talks to buy Tim Horton’s to pull off a “tax inversion” that would allow it to avoid U.S. taxes.

The new holding company would be based in Canada, the pair report.

Whether one will be able to pick up Timbits with a Whopper is not yet known.

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It’s all about the fractional Benjamins

The Tax Foundation, seemingly never without a map, has issued this one, which illustrates “value of goods that $100 can buy” in each state, compared to the national average, which is presumably $100. The closest match to average seems to be Illinois, where your C-note will buy $99.40 worth of stuff.

Tax Foundation cost-of-living map

Worse than any state, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the District of Columbia, where $84.60 worth of stuff will cost you $100. That same $100 in Mississippi will fill your basket to the tune of $115.74.

Curiosities:

  • Oklahoma and Kansas: identical ($111.23).
  • South Carolina and Tennessee: identical ($110.25).
  • Pennsylvania and Rhode Island: identical ($101.32).
  • Oregon and Florida: identical ($101.21).
  • 680 x 680 PNG version of the map: 164,900 bytes. 480 x 480 PNG version to fit this theme: 165,950 bytes.

The Tax Foundation dates to 1937, at which time $100 worth of 2014 stuff, according to the BLS inflation calculator, would have cost $6.04.

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Itemized

Price increase, you say? Well, maybe, if you tell me where it’s going.

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County of Kings

A Facebook friend in Brooklyn, looking for new digs, posted this image, perhaps to show us out here in the provinces what he’s up against:

Affordable Housing in NYC

For some of us, this is a definition of “affordable” with which we are not familiar. I’m sure it’s worse in Manhattan, assuming there are units like this to be had in Manhattan.

If you’re a sophisticated urbanite, by the definition used by sophisticated urbanites to separate themselves from those rubes out in the ‘burbs, this is what you get for that kind of money in the 405. (My little house on the edge of the Loop runs, um, rather a lot less.)

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The second best that you can do

Nobody knows protectionism like the French, and they’re not afraid of wielding it:

This past October, French lawmakers decided it was time to show Amazon who’s boss. Frustrated by Amazon’s fast and cheap book-selling model, which poses a threat to France’s healthy ecosystem of indie bookstores, politicians banded together to approve a bill that prohibited Jeff Bezos’ company and other online retailers from shipping discounted books for free. The measure is designed to protect traditional booksellers who have complained that Amazon is hurting their businesses.

The new minimum shipping charge from Amazon.fr: €0.01.

“We are unfortunately not allowed to offer you free shipping for ordering books,” Amazon writes in the FAQ section of its website. “We have therefore set delivery fees at one euro-cent for each order that contains books and that is sent by Amazon in order to systematically guarantee you the lowest price for your book orders.”

The other part of the protectionist scheme will not so easily be eluded: France has rewritten its law allowing 5 percent off list price to include brick-and-mortar retailers only. Still, one does not bet against Amazon — not for long, anyway.

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Whatever the market will bear

Behold: 160 trillion Zimbabwean dollars, in a set of three bills:

10, 50 and 100 trillion dollar Zimbabwean notes

This is being promoted as an Educational Product: a merchant is selling sets of three bills, exactly like this, through Amazon for $22.99 with (why not?) free shipping. This is actually a great deal more than face value at their 2008 issuance. In mid-November, the Zimbabwean inflation rate was calculated at 79,600,000,000 percent — per month.

On the reasonable basis that yes, it could happen here, a brief summary of how it happened there:

In 2007, the government declared inflation illegal. Anyone who raised the prices for goods and services was subject to arrest.

This is well within the mental capacity of the US Congress.

In January 2009, acting Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa lifted the restriction to use only Zimbabwean dollars. This too acknowledged what many were already doing. Citizens were allowed to use the US dollar, the euro, and the South African rand. However, teachers and civil servants were still being paid in Zimbabwean dollars. Even though their salaries were in the trillions per month, this amounted to around US$1, or half the daily bus fare. The government also used a restriction on bank withdrawals to try to limit the amount of money that was in circulation. It limited cash withdrawals to $Z500,000, which was around US$0.25.

And finally:

In 2009, the government abandoned printing Zimbabwean dollars at all. This implicitly solved the chronic problem of lack of confidence in the Zimbabwean dollar, and compelled people to use the foreign currency of their choice. As of 2014, Zimbabwe still uses a combination of foreign currencies, mostly US dollars, and the economy is still in a slump.

This was, I must point out, only the second worst hyperinflation in history; the Hungarians replaced the pengő on 1 August 1946 with the forint, which was deemed to be worth 4 x 1029 pengő, and you could get an actual US buck for 11.44 forints. (After 68 years, said actual US buck is now worth about 225 forints.)

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Buy here, pay forever

About six months ago, I said something about the “opening” of the Cuban new-car market, which at the time seemed less like an actual market opening and more like the introduction of new sources of graft for the regime. Halfway through Year One, it’s been, let us say, less than a roaring success:

Reuters reports that because of the markup, only 50 cars and four motorcycles left the 11 nationalized lots in Cuba during the first six months of 2014, netting a total of $1.28 million USD in new car sales.

You remember the markup, don’t you?

In one example cited by the news organization, a Havana Peugeot dealership wanted $91,000 for a 2013 206, and $262,000 for a 506 of similar vintage, which makes the government’s goal of investing 75 percent of all new-car sales into public transportation easier said than done; most state workers make the equivalent of $20 USD per month.

“But Cuba has free health care!” I hear you cry. Enjoy your walk to the emergency room.

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Fiddy bits

Rapper 50 Cent’s new album Animal Ambition, released this month, can be paid for with cash, plastic, PayPal — or bitcoin, which his online store accepts and processes through service provider Bitpay.

This is the part I like:

According to the new media director for G-Unit Records, Corentin Villemeur, accepting bitcoin fits with [Curtis] Jackson’s narrative and history of being open to make money in as many ways as possible.

Which, of course, 50 acknowledges.

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Price competition, sort of

The covers of yesterday’s Daily News and New York Post (courtesy of newseum.org, which is in Washington and therefore presumably out of firing range):

New York tabloids, 23 June 2014

The Post would rather you didn’t remember they went up from 75 cents to $1 two years ago, though the price is clearly stated — in the far corner.

The Times, you ask? Two-fifty. Then again, it’s a broadsheet.

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Leader of the laundromat

A little bit of turn-of-the-century history:

It was a pretty efficient kick, given the size of the deadbolt; the jamb was nicely splintered. The perp’s efficiency, however, stopped there; not only did he overlook the camera hanging right beside the door, he didn’t get much of anything other than frustration. I calculate my losses at $3.25, from a dish of quarters I was saving up for laundry, and about five minutes’ time to tidy up.

Thirteen quarters out the damaged door. This is precisely why I am not going to mock this startup outfit that will ship you (in a mere two days) a $10 roll of quarters for $15:

Laundry pickup services are expensive and often have long turnaround times. For many folks, the biggest pain point is simply finding enough quarters. Banks have long lines and close early. Grocery and convenience stores aren’t always willing to give out more than a few dollars worth of quarters at a time. We put getting quarters on autopilot so you never have to worry about it again.

I need hardly point out that someone who is routinely visiting the local laundromat (which term used to be a trademark of Westinghouse) probably doesn’t have time to visit all those other places on a regular basis, and also probably doesn’t have three weeks’ worth of clothes on hand. And considering what a roll of quarters weighs — half a pound, unless you have the old silver coins on hand, in which case you’re probably not shoving half a dozen of them at a time into the nearest Speed Queen — a lot of that $5 markup is going just for shipping costs.

A decade ago, I spent $800 on laundry equipment so I wouldn’t have to do that again, plus God knows how much in subsequent years to keep the machines powered up and running. I don’t regret it for a moment. But if I hadn’t, I’d probably be sending off for a roll of quarters every two weeks.

(Who’s that banging on the piano? I don’t know.)

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