Archive for Common Cents

Brand X to soar

Good enough, says Bill Quick, is, well, good enough:

The computer industry (and I include in this makers of smartphones, tablets, and traditional computers in whatever form factor) is currently agonizing over the commodification of the personal computer. By this I mean that while geeks and fanbois drool over esoteric pixel counts and multi-core processors, normal buyers (which means 95%-plus of them) just want something that works for them at the lowest price they can find consistent with a reasonable level of quality.

How many of those normal buyers, I wonder, swore by [brand name] right up until the moment when their [brand name] machine turned into a paperweight?

Disclosure: The last time I owned a computer with a brand name on it was 1991, when I retired my Commodore 128. My current machine, slightly ahead of the curve when I bought it in 2006 — dual-core! — is now slightly behind.

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Leaving the junkyard behind

They’re not out of the woods yet by any means, but one of the Big 3 ratings firms — Moody’s — has upgraded General Motors’ corporate debt from junk status to investment grade.

It’s the bottom rung of investment grade — Baa3, in Moody’s parlance — but it’s above the psychological barrier, and that’s almost certainly going to matter the next time GM needs to borrow a few bucks.

The other two ratings firms, S&P and Fitch, still rate GM as junk, but fairly high junk.

As for the rest of Detroit, Ford made it out of Moody’s junkyard in the spring of 2012; Chrysler is not traded on public exchanges, but has filed for an initial public offering, mostly at the behest of the Voluntary Employees Benefit Association of the United Auto Workers, which would like to turn some of its 41.5-percent ownership of Chrysler into actual cash. (Fiat owns the other 58.5 percent.)

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The short version

Does this meet the disclosure requirements of the Securities and Exchange Commission?

Then again, do disclosure requirements even mean anything anymore?

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And watch where you walk

This is just about wide enough for a spite fence:

Two Wall Street financiers locked horns and bid each other up in a face-to-face auction for an overgrown 1,885-foot-long strip of land, just 1 foot wide, running through the dunes to the sea, a local official on Long Island said Thursday.

The winning bid was $120,000.

Which is a bit over $2.7 million per acre, a ton of money even in the Hamptons. This is the part that gets me, though:

[T]he strip of land in Napeague, in East Hampton, had been acquired ten years ago by the county for non-payment of taxes by the owner.

The county decided to sell it off for just $10 and offered it to the owners of six adjoining properties. Four did not respond.

And the other two got into a bidding war. Sheesh.

I am forced to conclude that the winner, an investment banker, owns the distribution rights to pre-sliced, rustproof, easy to handle, low calorie Simpson’s Individual Emperor Stringettes, free from artificial coloring, as used in hospitals.

(Via Bayou Renaissance Man.)

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Because you’re worth it

Know what’s really great about being wealthy? Being able to buy brand names:

Know what I would do if I won the lottery? I’d buy genuine Windex and honest-to-God Pledge. Not WinDowEx or “Lemon Polish” from the dollar store. And God help me I’d never buy pine oil again. It would be Mr Clean Summer Citrus all the way. Spic and Span all the way. America’s greatness rests on dependable brand names. Maybe if the jackpot was really sizable, I’d indulge in the purchase of Comet Cleanser — the gritty kind that makes a mess in your drain pipes but leaves your stainless steel so squeaky clean.

I have only recently discovered that the store brand Pam-a-like imposes a soapy mouthfeel that the genuine article never has.

There are two brand names which I will likely never abandon, no matter what absurdities may be taking place in their back yards: Heinz ketchup and Fritos corn chips. (No substitutes are accepted, at least at the checkout counter; I may not have the option at a lunch counter.)

And I’m not emotionally wedded to Shell V-Power gasoline, but it’s never let me down, except when I look at the receipt to see how much I paid.

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At some point before closing

How many of you have gone through this?

ME: I like this house. I think I will buy it.

MORTGAGE LENDER: The house needs work before we’ll give you money.

ME, to sellers: The house needs work so that I can get money and not burn up in an electrical fire and stuff.

SELLERS: We know. We’ll fix some stuff.

ME: Great! I will make a list of the scariest stuff for you to fix.

SELLERS, post list: We changed our mind. We’re not fixing that stuff, so suck it.

ME: Dang.

“Dang,” perhaps, may be a placeholder for another word of comparable length.

Oh, when I bought the palatial estate at Surlywood, the princely sum of $500 was set aside for Necessary Work. About half of it was spent.

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The fuller portfolio man

Stockbrokers are now peddling their wares door to door. Or at least one of them is: Edward Jones, the St. Louis-based investment firm that maintains strip-mall offices, each with a single counselor, dropped by the palatial estate at Surlywood this morning, while normal people are at work. Upon receiving no answer at the door, the chap left a booklet whose middle pages incorporated a table containing about 180 widely held stocks and their one-word advice (BUY, HOLD, SELL) on each.

I did like the disclaimer:

The Edward Jones Research department typically recommends industry-leading companies that appear reasonably valued. A well-diversified approach is typically used without significant over- or under-weighting (in comparison to the S&P 500) in any one sector. An index is not managed and is unavailable for direct investment. Performance results do not represent actual trading and may not reflect the impact that material economic and market factors might have on our decision making if we were actually managing clients’ money.

For an investment firm, this seems unusually forthright.

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For everything else, there’s FatterCard

Plastic is not good for your health, even if you don’t eat it, says a study:

Consumers are more likely to gain weight when paying with credit cards, because they are more likely to buy junk food as a result, according to a new study.

A Journal of Consumer Research report written by economists Manoj Thomas, Kalpesh Kaushik Desai and Satheeshkumar Seenivasan concluded that shoppers paying with credit cards find it harder to resist indulgent purchases such as fast food or unhealthy treats.

And how does that work, exactly?

Credit cards weaken the impulse control of consumers, making it more difficult for them to rationalize that something is not a necessary purchase, according to the study.

As usual, George Carlin was a bit more direct about it: “No one should be paying the bank eighteen percent interest on Tic-Tacs.”

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Live deadbeats

You know those “buy-here-pay-here” used-car lots? They’re hoping you don’t pay, here or anywhere else:

If the downpayment-plus-interest is high enough, every buyer who defaults is a source of profit: you have what he’s paid to date plus you have the car back to resell. Since most of the cars are older and already past their point of steepest depreciation, your biggest expense is the fees for the repo man and the detailer.

I’ve actually had the experience of trying to buy a car from one of these guys for straight cash, 100% of the price on the barrelhead… and being turned down because I wasn’t going to be paying 12%+ interest for half a year and then defaulting on the note.

Similarly, at least once a week on Yahoo! Answers some poor shlub will ask some variation of “If I’m paying cash for my car, how much discount can I expect?” He is always surprised to hear that the answer is none: the dealer is hoping to make some money off the financing, and if you take that revenue source away, he’s going to make it up somewhere else.

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What are we dealing 4?

And the other shoe drops:

Tribune Co. agreed to buy Local TV Holdings LLC’s 19 television stations for $2.73 billion in cash, the biggest U.S. broadcasting deal in six years, to get better negotiating leverage with advertisers and cable companies.

The acquisition of Local TV, principally owned [by] Oak Hill Capital Partners, will almost double the number of Tribune’s stations to 42, according to a statement today. The Local TV assets include 16 markets, with top-rated stations in Denver, Cleveland and St. Louis, the companies said.

In that portfolio: KFOR (channel 4) and KAUT (channel 43) in Oklahoma City, which were last sold in 2007.

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Ziplessly

The ZIP code in which I live covers an area of 7.7 square miles; more than 20,000 people live here. The Shell station where I usually go requests the five-digit code as a security measure, presumably on the off-chance that I might be carrying a stolen credit card.

Or maybe there’s something else motivating them:

In one of their brochures, direct marketing services company Harte-Hanks describes the GeoCapture service they offer retail businesses as follows: “Users simply capture name from the credit card swipe and request a customer’s ZIP code during the transaction. GeoCapture matches the collected information to a comprehensive consumer database to return an address.” In a promotional brochure [pdf], they claim accuracy rates as high as 100%.

Harte-Hanks used to be in, um, other businesses: they owned several newspapers, the biggest of which was the San Antonio Express-News, which they eventually sold to Rupert Murdoch. (Hearst, which owned the rival Light, subsequently executed the same maneuver they did in San Francisco; they bought the bigger paper and disposed of the old one.) H-H also owned a handful of broadcast stations. No more: about two decades ago, they decided that marketing was the future, and sold off all that Old Media stuff.

There are at least half a dozen guys in town with the same name. How many of them live in this same ZIP code? Right. Maybe I should start buying my gas somewhere else. (Think of it as speaking truth to V-Power.)

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For which I claim full credit

Last week, I bought a set of shiny new Cooper CS4 tires for Gwendolyn, and industrialists in India were evidently watching:

India’s Apollo Tyres [will] acquire Cooper, of Findlay, Ohio, for about $2.5 billion, or $35 a share. That would be a 43% premium to Cooper’s Tuesday close at $24.56.

Apollo is reported to be the 15th largest tire manufacturer worldwide, and Cooper the 11th; the combined company will rank seventh.

The sensible part of this deal, if you ask me — and why should you? — is that the existing Apollo and Cooper markets have hardly any overlap: Apollo does most of its business in India, and Cooper is almost entirely American-based, though it does own the British firm Avon Tyres.

Note: Not intended as an attempt to sell securities.

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In defense of education spending

Miss Cellania says she spotted this on Buzzfeed:

Sign about school levies

I’m just going to assume the poster of the original sign wasn’t Jewish.

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Returning to that foreign-transaction business

Mr. Peabody says we have to turn the clock back to 2007 for this one:

Subject to final Court approval, a settlement has been reached in In re Foreign Currency Conversion Fee Antitrust Litigation (MDL 1409).

I filed an original claim, with the expectation of scoring a refund, or at least a card credit, of $25 or so. In late 2011, this happened:

[A] check for $18.04 arrived. Says the fine print: “All refund amounts are reduced because the full amount of all the claims exceeds the amount in the settlement fund.”

Okay, fine. I’m not going to sneeze at eighteen bucks. Then this past Monday a check for $8.23 showed up, per this instruction:

On April 16, 2013, the Court approved a second distribution of checks for monies remaining in the Currency Conversion Fee settlement fund. This second, “residual” distribution will be coordinated with the distribution of funds in connection with the settlement in the related matter, Ross, et al. v. American Express Co., et al.

Apparently no actual Amex cardmembers were charged dubious fees; however, the plaintiffs in this matter argued that Amex had nonetheless conspired with all the other defendants. And despite the original statement that the settlement fund was insufficient to pay all the claims in full, evidently they had something left. I attribute this to the fold-over post-card format in which the checks were issued; how many recipients looked at it, deemed it junk mail, and tossed it into the can with the potato peelings?

Needless to say, I’m not going to sneeze at eight bucks. (Which now gives me $26.27, actually in excess of the $25 projected. Go figure.)

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Rebate and switch

Last year, CFI Care (not its real initials) sent out a form letter to the effect that this wasn’t going to be an issue for them:

The Affordable Care Act requires health insurers in the individual and small group market to spend at least 80 percent of the premiums they receive on health care services and activities to improve health care quality (in the large group market, this amount is 85 percent). This is referred to at the Medical Loss Ratio (MLR) rule or the 80/20 rule. If a health insurer does not spend at least 80 percent of the premiums it receives on health care services and activities to improve health care quality, the insurer must rebate the difference.

This year? It’s an issue. Upon doing the actual calculations, they discovered that they had in fact forked out a hair under 78 percent, and therefore would have to issue rebate checks — or, alternatively, would have to credit the appropriate sum against this year’s premiums. I assume they did the latter, since I have received no such check and since there was relatively little wailing and/or gnashing of teeth in the front office this past January at renewal time.

Possible downside: should the carrier meet the 80-percent spec next time around, the expected premium increase might look even bigger than it really is.

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Today’s numbers racket

Everything you ever hated about the Financial Industry in one brief anecdote:

The check was for $6,000, an amount this sow never saw in her life. She was always overdrawn on her accounts, had well over $1,000 in fees, and was just a miserable, pathetic, excuse for a human being. But what made this great was just how obvious it was she had printed this check off of a cheap ink-jet printer.

My solution was simple — call the cops and get this vermin arrested for passing fake checks.

But oh, no. Not for the staff nor my boss. How did we know it was fake? How did we know she purposely printed this off? Besides (and pay attention to this) we needed her late and overdraft fees because those (despite never being paid) made this a profitable account.

Yep. Meets the technical definition of an asset, even if for all intents and purposes it is clearly anything but. Somewhere in the ether are a couple of quadrillions worth of complicated derivatives with all the tangible value of unicorn farts — believe me, I know from unicorn farts — that are, for the moment, being carried as assets. How long can this go on? So long as everyone agrees that these are actually assets and doesn’t try anything foolish like, oh, trying to cash them out.

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The easy consumer choice

Well, this was difficult. I got both an email and a proper letter from the fulfillment house for The Week, the only newsmagazine worth my time, offering me a 54-issue (about 14 months) subscription renewal. I decided I would write them a check, but before taking pen in hand, I took a quick look at the email link. And that deal was $5 pricier.

What’s more, they picked up the postage on the return envelope. So I save five bucks, minus whatever pittance it costs me for that one single check (whatever it is per box divided by 120), and I don’t have to fork over my Visa number. Win/win all around.

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And that revenue is lost forever

This letter to the editor of the Oklahoman — well, its heart is in the right place, but its brain seems to be on backorder from Amazon:

“U.S. Senate passes bill to let states tax online sales” (Business, May 7) quotes the Oklahoma Tax Commission in saying the state loses $185 million to $225 million in tax revenue from Internet sales each year. If the state loses that much, then some citizens gained an equal amount in savings. And where would these citizens most likely spend that savings? Right here at home! The state would get its pound of flesh when those savings were spent.

So does the state really lose on Internet sales? Time and effort would be better spent in figuring ways to cut government spending to reduce taxes, including eliminating the sales tax on food and clothing.

Which would result in savings to some citizens, which would be spent — where, exactly, and on what?

The real problem here, though, is not so much with the letter as with that gratuitous term “loses”: why, we’d have that $185-225 million if it weren’t for, um, the fact that no law currently allows us to take it. Obviously we should have more laws to allow the state to not “lose” money, right?

But hey, this spate of pooch-screwing was aggravated by having these alleged “sales tax holidays” in which tax is charged, no matter what you heard: the prices are simply adjusted downward by the amount of the tax. Sales tax, we learn from these things, is purely arbitrary, and subject to the whim of the government. And of late, fewer of us are inclined to indulge their whims.

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A load of sheet

Another one of those remarkable Karl Denninger comparisons:

The so-called “increase” in your wages are an intentional chimera which is thrown to you to make you “feel good” about your earnings “going up.” But in point of fact they’re not going up at all, they are going down because the divisor, the total number of dollars in the system that are available to buy the goods and services are rising much faster than your earnings are.

The fraud you’re being sold is exactly identical to going into a bakery and ordering a sheet cake. The baker asks you how many pieces you would like the cake cut into; your options are 2, 4, 8, 16 or 32. He then tells you that if you’re really hungry you should choose 32, because that way you can eat more pieces.

You’d either laugh at the baker or string him up by his necktie were he to pull that crap, yet this is exactly what Ben Bernanke along with all the politicians have been selling you for the last 30 years.

When I was in fourth grade, I read Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which makes similar economic points. It’s stuck with me for half a century. No wonder students don’t read it anymore.

(Via Bayou Renaissance Man.)

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Shop accordingly

There are times I don’t want to be caught dead in a grocery store: when there’s a tornado watch, right before an OU football game, or right after the first of the month. To explain the latter:

It’s not just food stamps. It’s social security and disability checks as well. I see it when I shop at Costco. I’ve learned to avoid the place like the plague right after the first of the month, when a huge percentage of government checks get rolled out, and the place is jammed.

I admittedly haven’t always had the option of going the day before, or the day after, but now that I do, I take advantage of it whenever necessary.

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All for a gigabuck

Oh, how the times have changed. From this week in 2009:

The operative word is “No,” as in “no raises, no new services and no new positions” in the proposed $839.6 million city budget for next year.

With the local economy sucking less these days, OKC will be getting a few more cops on the beat, a few improvements in services, and a few more pounds of asphalt pressed into the lumpy edges of May Avenue. And, of course, it will cost more: the FY 2014 city budget comes to $1.027 billion. Who’d have thought this little burg could spend a billion in a year? Then again, this little burg now has 600,000 people, up twenty thousand from the 2010 Census, and we are a demanding lot. Sometimes.

(The entire 600-plus-page Budget Book, as a PDF.)

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Further Upsetsy

Thursday’s item on that proposed “Internet sales tax” drew a sharp response from Mark Alger, who declared it wholly unconstitutional based on a passage from Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution: “No tax or duty shall be laid on articles exported from any state.”

He expands on this reasoning thusly:

Congress does not have the authority to permit the states to collect sales taxes on goods traveling between states. Note that the actual text of the Constitution refers solely to the goods themselves and make no mention of the location of the businesses or individuals shipping or receiving. Only that the goods be carried out (that’s what “export” means — to carry out) of one state.

And furthermore:

It might be argued that states may collect taxes on goods imported to the several states, except that only Congress has that power, and may not delegate it, and, at least for commerce within the United States, any good imported to one state must first be exported from another, and the taxation of that transaction is forbidden by the above provision.

Bottom line: You can’t enact this scheme without actually amending the Constitution. Then again, relatively few members of Congress pay anything more than lip service to the Constitution, and then only when they need it to support their own positions.

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Instant panic

Earlier this week, persons unknown hacked their way into an Associated Press Twitter account and issued one bogus tweet, which promptly caused a 140-point drop in the Dow Jones industrials. Corrections were hurriedly issued, and the DJIA returned to its previous level.

This incident, says Lynn, ranks among “the top ten idiotic news events of all time,” and she prescribes a solution for those market woes:

I know how to fix the stock market. It needs to run like an older version of Windows. Every time someone buys or sells, after a 30 second delay they are asked, “Are you sure?” Then, if they choose “Yes”, there’s another 30 second delay before anything happens. And any time the stock market drops more than 100 points it blue screens.

I’d make only one change to that: delete “an older version of” and replace it with, um, well, nothing, actually.

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Upsetsy

Brian J. on the proposed “Internet sales tax”:

Maybe an Internet sales tax might have been workable fifteen years ago, but the profusion of special local sales taxing gimmicks has rendered it completely unworkable now. Online retailers or their newly more expensive payment processing vendors would have to somehow keep abreast of these developments, new taxing authorities, and siloed taxes across counties like the new Arch tax in the St. Louis metropolitan area, and they would need to constantly, daily update their tax levying to reflect new uses and abuses in every county, city, and town in the country.

Or, unexpectedly, go out of business. Which will mean the Internet sales tax revenues will be strangely less than hoped, and the well-positioned Internet and brick-and-mortar giants will reap the rewards.

When has a new tax ever brought in more than expected?

You’d think the GOP-controlled House would strangle this thing in its crib. Don’t count on it.

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Take a guess

This feeling I know too well:

Somebody was complaining the other day about getting E-mail from utilities saying their bill was due, but they did not tell them him the amount. I thought it was Dustbury, but I couldn’t find the post, so maybe it was someone else. I get notices from Blue Cross all the time telling me that there is a new message for me on their website. That’s all the notice says, and if I go to the website, all that message says is that they paid some medical bill, or didn’t, and I have to go to another page to see how much they paid or didn’t. At least I recall that’s how it works. I don’t even bother any more since if I owe one of these guys some money, they can be counted on to send me a bill on paper. Likewise American Express sends me a note every month telling me that I have a new bill, but I have to go to some other site and download the PDF file to see what’s on it. If this is what the paperless solution looks like, it sucks. I am going to stick to paper as much as I can.

Actually, I think this is what he remembered:

In other news, someone is actually reading my tweets.

AT&T, of all corporate pseudo-people, actually includes the amount in their email notices, for which I thank them.

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Just try to get a buggy whip these days

“The disruption economy,” Dave Schuler calls it, and he has plenty of examples to cite:

[I]magine a world in which not just individual businesses or even industries and trades vanish but in which complete business models, groups of industries, are failing and being replaced by new ones practically on a daily basis.

He cites Aereo, a multi-antenna television service that delivers over-the-air channels to subscribers for about one-fifth what cable companies charge, which has a couple of networks threatening to drop their local signals in response. But that’s hardly the only one:

[H]igher education’s business model is not long for this world. The big law firms’ business model has already changed and there are hundreds or thousands of young lawyers standing dazed in the wreckage. One of the insufficiently remarked-on aspects of the PPACA is how much it changes physicians’ business model.

Retail has been in ferment for decades. Soon there will only be online sales as exemplified by Amazon.com, boutiques (which are mainly a hobby business), and Walmart. J. C. Penney’s problems, still being covered in the business pages, are that there is no room for yet another commodity retailer.

And why do you think your favorite magazines, or for that matter the ones you can’t stand, are so assiduously courting tablet owners?

Thirty years from now, the business landscape will be unrecognizable. (And so will I, but that’s another matter entirely.)

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Introducing Schedule FB

The IRS routinely looks at your W-2 and that fistful of 1099s. And now they’re reading your social-media accounts:

New reports brought to light by one privacy and data security expert suggest that this tax filing season the Internal Revenue Service may be monitoring social media for any clues of tax cheats.

According to Kristen Mathews, a partner attorney at law firm Proskauer Rose LLP who specializes in privacy and data security, there are reports that the IRS will be checking into individual Facebook and Twitter accounts for improprieties.

Though the agency says that it will only conduct such monitoring if a tax form raises a red flag, it is somewhat unclear to what extent it will be capable of delving into social media accounts.

You think maybe that drunken debauch in Dayton you plastered (while plastered) all over Facebook might get your expenses disallowed?

(Via this Jules Shapiro tweet.)

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Defective rate

I did the tax returns last night, and 20 percent of what I made last year went straight into federal or state coffers, there to be used or misused, and I’m betting more of the latter than the former. (This does not include the 8.375-percent sales tax around here, 4.5 of which goes to the state, or the property tax on the palatial estate at Surlywood, or various and sundry imposts on things like utility franchises and fuel. Add somewhere around 5 percent for those.)

Last year I talked with a candidate for the state House, and let it be known that I was less interested in seeing the income-tax rate cut than I was in seeing the brackets broadened: I’m not so damnably wealthy, yet I’m always at the top marginal rate. (That rate, for 2012, was 5.25 percent; it kicks in at — get this — $8700.)

I will, of course, postpone writing the checks for a day or two, just because.

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Looky-loot

A store in Brisbane, Australia is sick of people coming in to look at stuff and then go buy it from Amazon or wherever, and is doing something about it:

As of the first of February, this store will be charging people a $5 fee per person for “just looking.”

The $5 fee will be deducted when goods are purchased.

Why has this come about?

There has been high volume of people who use this store as a reference and then purchase goods elsewhere. These people are unaware our prices are almost the same as the other stores plus we have products simply not available anywhere else.

This policy is line with many other clothing, shoe and electronic stores who are also facing the same issue.

Exactly when is this fee collected? Do you have to peel off a fiver the moment you cross the threshold? Or do they wait until you show up at the exit with no purchases?

I can’t see how this model can generate any additional revenue, unless they’re counting on this, um, gesture to bring them a whole lot more publicity. Viral whining! You gotta love it.

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Visit our new Alta Vista branch

Will Truman’s looking for a bank, but probably not this one:

I ran across Presidential Bank. Its website bills itself as an “Online Bank” even though they have physical locations as well. But its website looks like something right out of Geocities. I know not to judge a book by its cover, but its website gives me serious pause about their legitimacy. Which is totally bizarre, because if I were starting a fake bank with a website, I would totally make the website look as real as possible.

This is reminiscent of Steve Martin’s routine about why banks are always called something like “Security National Trust and Federal Reserve” — because no one’s going to put their money in “Fred’s Bank.” On the upside, no one’s going to believe that Fred’s is Too Big To Fail.

May we suggest Redneck Bank?

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