Found Money

On Thursday, drivers on U.S. Route 31 in Grand Haven, Michigan confronted one of those moral dilemmas that ethicists love to discuss.  A fellow driver somehow forgot that he left a cash box containing $30,000 on the bumper of his car.  As he drove on the highway, the box fell off the bumper and opened on impact with the pavement, and the thousands of dollars in cash spilled onto the road and into the air.

image-photo-money-thrown-in-the-air-april-2016And thus, the ethical thought experiment met reality:  if you were driving one of the following cars and saw the money on the road — where you were out in the open, surrounded by total strangers, where no cameras would see your conduct and no criminal consequences were likely to attach to what you did next — what would you do?

In this instance, other drivers immediately started stopping, scooping up the money, and driving off — conduct that, incidentally, caused a traffic tie-up on Route 31.  Of the $30,000 in the cash box, only $2,500 was immediately recovered and returned to the owner.  Since Thursday, police have appealed for drivers who pocketed the loot to probe their consciences and turn in the money.  Only some have done so.  Two teenagers turned in $630, which would sure seem like a lot of money to a kid, and one woman turned in nearly $3,900.  The police commended them for their honesty.  However, most of the money remains unrecovered.

Over the years, I’ve found wallets and car keys and credit cards and other valuable items, and I’ve always returned them immediately because I’d like to think other people would do the same with an item I misplaced.  But before I hurt my shoulder patting myself on the back, I also recognize that I haven’t been in desperate need of money on those occasions, either.  If you were at the end of your financial rope and suddenly saw hundred dollar bills on the Route 31 asphalt, would you do the honest thing — or would you think that your prayers had been answered and drive off with fistfuls of money without a second thought?

Hang On To Your Wallets

Here’s some news that should cause all taxpaying Americans to feel a cold, hard lump in the pit of their stomachs:  Congress has decided to focus on “tax reform.”

ap17306662049220Congress’ decision to pivot to tax reform has produced all kinds of news stories, most of which have headlines that can only stoke the angst.  What does the proposed tax reform bill means for the value of your home?  What kind of hidden tax brackets might be found deep in the dense language of the proposed bill?  How will small business owners be affected?  What company’s stock price took a dive because the bill proposes repealing a crucial tax break?  All of these stories, and more, can be found simply by running a google search on “republican tax bill.”

The stories are indirectly reflective of the key problem with the federal tax code, because the many different areas of potential concern they address shows just how wide and deep is the reach and impact of our federal tax structure.  Virtually every company, industry, form of property, job, trade, college, technology, and concept is affected by some form of federal tax or federal tax break.  At the founding of the republic, Alexander Hamilton may have devised a simple approach to raising revenue to fund the federal government, but those days are long gone.  Now, the tax code is a complicated morass far beyond the ken of the average citizen, with special rates and breaks and benefits and exclusions and surcharges that only experts and lobbyists understand.

So, given that reality, why should the average citizen be concerned that Congress has decided it’s time to mess around with the tax code?  Because our political class, Republicans and Democrats alike, have shown they are primarily interested in raising lots of money so they can be reelected . . . which means the risk that some special provision written specifically to help a large donor will be inserted in the dead of night simply can’t be ignored.  And with the Dealmaker-In-Chief in the White House, who’s going to really dive into the details of whatever gets passed, trying to make sure that the average citizen doesn’t get gored while the special interests get their perks and sweetheart deals?

Maybe it all will work out, and the tax code will be made more fair and equitable and easy to understand, and we’ll be able to file our tax returns on postcards like the photo op pictures are indicating.  Maybe — but I’ll believe it when I see it.  Until then, I’m hanging on to my wallet.

A Year Without Spending

Some people celebrate “Buy Nothing Day” — which aptly falls on Black Friday — as a protest against the rampant consumerism in modern culture.  The idea is to avoid buying unnecessary items and, instead, to spend more time with family and friends, and, literally, “live freely.”

Rolls of Dollar BillsA British woman took the concept more than a few steps farther, and decided to go for a year without buying anything beyond the basics.  That meant that she paid her mortgage and utilities and not much else, bought food in bulk and cooked her own meals, and rode her bike to work rather than taking the subway.  No dining out or drinks at the pub, no trips to the movies, no new clothes, no travel or vacations, and no luxury items like fancy foods.  She also turned down friends and family who wanted to buy her gifts.

To her surprise, she made it through the year, with the winter months being the toughest.  She saved a lot of money — about $27,000, all told — and found that she had come to enjoy simple things, like a picnic in the park or a walk through a museum that didn’t charge admission.  She also feels that she became closer to her family and friends.  In short, she says she learned that money didn’t buy happiness.

The most instructive part of the woman’s story of consumerist self-deprivation is this admission:  “I’d set myself budgets and spending plans in the past and they’d always fallen by the wayside on my next night out.”  People spend themselves into oblivion because they don’t have the self-discipline to control their behavior, whether it’s sticking to a budget or simply exercising good judgment on spending and refraining from making impulse purchases.  And then, at some point, they look around at a place cluttered with stuff they don’t use and clothes they don’t wear, and wonder where all the money went.

I wouldn’t want to go for a year without traveling, or enjoying a drink out with friends, or savoring a good meal on a special occasion.  Those are some of the things that make like special.  But avoiding unnecessary spending, living a more minimalist, possession-free life, and feeling a certain sense of pride that you’ve got your finances under control affords its own satisfaction, too.

Cranking Up The Old Money Machine

President Obama’s State of the Union speech this week drew the lowest ratings in 15 years.  Why?  Because this is America, and we get bored with anything that’s been around for six years.  The President is old news, and nothing he says or does in a wooden speech to politely attentive members of Congress is going to change that reality.

And let’s not forget, too, that we’ve turned the calendar to 2015 — which is the year before the next presidential election, which means we’re due to be bombarded with an increasing barrage of news stories about the would-be candidates who want to take the President’s place at the podium.  As if on cue, supporters of Hillary Clinton have made it known that she will be receiving financial commitments for her anticipated campaign that will be “astounding.”  Their goal in lining up an immediate avalanche of cash is intimidate potential opponents and cause them to refrain from challenging Clinton in the first place.  It’s like a “shock and awe” military campaign applied to American politics.

The article about the Clinton effort doesn’t say what would constitute money commitments that are “astounding” and “like nothing you’ve ever seen,” and it’s hard to imagine that sheer numbers are going to boggle the mind given the amounts being spent on political campaigns already.  The Federal Election Commission estimates, for example, that about $7 billion was spent on the 2012 election.  We’ve come to expect big spending on politics, and many of us get email fundraising appeals every day — even now, with no election on the horizon.  So where is the shock level?  $20 billion?  $50 billion?  $100 billion?

Money is important in politics, obviously, but ultimately money is just money.  Americans spend lots of money on lots of things, such as $7.4 billion on Halloween, $20.5 billion on video games, and $73.9 billion on soda.  You can buy commercial time and produce slick ad campaigns, but if your message isn’t resonating with voters you’re not going to win.

Perhaps the Clinton money machine will scare away some contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, but those fraidy-cats probably weren’t serious challengers, anyway.  If there are politicians out there who truly believe in their positions and want to use a presidential bid to forcefully advocate them, they aren’t going to be cowed by mere money, no matter how much it is.  And don’t forget that America loves an underdog.  A spunky candidate who is seen as bravely challenging the establishment and the aura of inevitability might make that “astounding” amount of money seem like chump change.

Ohio’s Pathetic Non-Race For Governor

Every four years, the presidential campaigns come to Ohio and fight like crazy for the Buckeye State’s Electoral College votes.  They know that Ohio is the prototypical evenly divided swing state, with Democrats in the cities, Republicans in the rural areas, and a gaggle of independent voters who tend to vote for the candidate, not the party.

So why has Ohio’s gubernatorial race this year turned into a pathetic rout?

According to the most recent poll, incumbent Republican Governor John Kasich leads Democratic challenger Ed FitzGerald by a whopping 22 points, and FitzGerald is even losing 1 in 4 Democratic voters to Kasich.  Even more damning — because we  know that modern politics is all about money — in September Kasich raised $1.6 million, whereas FitzGerald could only scrape together a measly $54,000.  The race is so uncompetitive that Kasich and Fitzgerald aren’t even going to debate, which is the first time that has happened in an Ohio gubernatorial race since 1978.

FitzGerald’s candidacy teaches a good lesson about the judgment, loyalty, and cover-your-ass mentality of our political classes.  FitzGerald was the chosen candidate of the Ohio Democratic Party, which engineered the process so that he did not face primary opposition.  It’s not entirely clear why they picked FitzGerald, a Cleveland politician who is largely unknown outside northern Ohio, but it is undisputed that they did a poor job of looking into his background.  When news surfaced that FitzGerald had been found in a car with a woman not his wife in the early morning hours, which in turn led to revelations that he had weirdly gone for years without a driver’s license, voters began to strongly question his ability to run the state and the flow of contributions turned into a tiny trickle.

FitzGerald’s campaign staffers — showing the commitment and dedication we have come to expect from our steadfast political classes — promptly jumped from the sinking ship, and the Ohio Democratic Party began pointing fingers in every direction in an effort to avoid the blame for a likely disaster.  Party Chairman Chris Redfern says there is no way he could have known that FitzGerald didn’t have a driver’s license and blamed the company that vetted the candidate, saying he wouldn’t hire them “to clean out my bird cage.”  Left unexplained is why the Ohio Democratic Party doesn’t do its own investigation and why they settled on FitzGerald in the first place, rather than allowing a primary that might have unearthed some of these issues before FitzGerald became the anointed candidate.

It’s sad that Ohio has ended up with an uncompetitive gubernatorial race, but at least it means we won’t be seeing as many political TV ads this fall.  And the rest of us would do well to remember this debacle the next time party leaders assure us that they know better than voters do and try to rig the process to avoid an honest test for a chosen candidate.

Trying To Find The Game

One other thing about today’s Ohio State-Navy game that is nettlesome:  it’s symptomatic of another unfortunate, entirely money-driven aspect of big-time sports, because it’s being shown only on a cable channel that many systems don’t carry.

When I first looked up the venue for the game, I saw that it was on the CBS Sports Network — which I equate with CBS and channel 10 on my cable network.  Wrong!  The CBS Sports Network is a separate channel.  If you live in the Columbus area and have Time-Warner cable, the CBS Sports Network is part of the sports station package and can be found at channel 531.  If you don’t have that package, you’re out of luck and can watch U.S. Open Tennis on the CBS network instead. 

Fortunately, I’ve got the package and will be able to watch the game.  But the movement of games to remote television venues is here to stay and probably will get worse.  It’s a way for networks to multiply their revenue streams, it’s a way for channels to put pressure on cable providers, and it’s a way for cable providers to get more money from subscribers who desperately want to watch their favorite teams play.  If having Ohio State on the CBS Sports Network, or having the Cleveland Browns on the NFL Network, once a year causes fans to subscribe to broader channel packages beyond the “basic cable” offerings, that’s great news for everyone in the chain but the poor fan. 

But when it comes to sports these days, it’s all about the money.

Things Have Changed, And Not For The Better

Peggy Noonan has a nice — and thought-provoking — piece in today’s on-line Wall Street Journal about Harry Truman after his presidency ended entitled “Politics in the Modest Age.”  I urge you to read it, but the basic thrust is this:  Truman didn’t cash in.

He had been president for almost eight years, had brought World War II to a close, and had presided over the Marshall Plan; he had issued executive orders, launched into the Korean War, and guided the federal government during the first crises of the Cold War.  He was an ordinary man who had been a fine President, and after his term ended he tried to go back to an ordinary life.  He returned to Missouri and lived with his beloved wife, Bess, highly conscious of not being perceived as trading on his office or his service to the nation.

Contrast Truman’s humble approach 60 years ago to the prevailing approach today, where ex-President and ex-Senators and ex-Cabinet members make millions by giving hour-long speeches, serving on boards, and writing biographies that receive huge advances.  The culture of cash goes deep: just yesterday Politico reported that Jay Carney, President Obama’s former press secretary, received a “signing bonus” to join a speakers bureau where he could earn up to $100,000 per speech; he’s entertaining job offers and has hired a Washington, D.C. “super lawyer” to negotiate any deals.  What does it tell you when even the President’s flack can leave office and be showered with money?

We could use more Harry Trumans and less money-grubbers in Washington, D.C.

Lifestyles Of The Kids Of The Rich And Famous

Some stories are reporting on how much Chelsea Clinton has been paid for her gig with NBC News.  Politico reported that she was paid $600,000 annually when she accepted a special correspondent role in November 2011, and her contract was later changed to a month-to-month term to allow her and the network to cut ties quickly if Hillary Clinton runs for President.  Another website calculated how much she had been paid for each minute she’s been on the air, and it’s a big number.  For its part, NBC isn’t commenting.

If you were Chelsea Clinton, would you take such a deal?  Of course you would!  If the reported numbers are even close to accurate, it’s just too much money to turn down.  You’d rationalize it as a chance to make your voice heard and offer your unique perspective, and maybe you’d feel you were even owed it because you’ve had to endure the spotlight.  Why not make your family more comfortable?  And if you’re even remotely considering a political career at some point in your future, why not add to your potential campaign nest egg, and try to increase your public visibility and Q rating at the same time?

Did NBC News get the raw end of the deal?  I doubt it.  I’m guessing they weren’t hiring Chelsea Clinton because she was likely to become the most hard-charging journalist in the NBC News stable or even the most deft reporter of feel-good features.  Instead, they likely thought that hiring her would be seen by the vast network of Clinton supporters as doing a favor for a valued friend — and that perception could pay huge dividends in countless ways, whether it’s obtaining access to political or cultural figures or helping to get an important legislative initiative across the finish line on Capitol Hill.

It’s the way the game is played these days in Washington, D.C., where current and former politicians routinely become millionaires and members of their families benefit, too.  Whether they are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for speeches, or are offered sweetheart investment opportunities by admiring allies, or become expensive talking heads on the news networks, the class of former politicians often seem to be awash in cash.  Is it any wonder that so many hard-working Americans, who cannot imagine what it would be like to make $600,000 a year for an occasional TV appearance, consider Washington, D.C. to be such a despicable and fundamentally corrupt place?

A Primary Lesson

The House Majority Leader, Republican Eric Cantor of Virginia, lost in a primary election yesterday.  He was soundly defeated by David Brat, a conservative economics professor who was supported by elements of the “tea party.”

The result astonished the inside-the-beltway world of Washington, D.C., where Cantor was a fixture on the Sunday morning talk shows and was seen as a rising figure, a strategist and power broker, and potentially a future Speaker of the House.  Analysts are scrambling to explain how Cantor, who was expected to win handily, could be defeated by a political unknown.  The issue of illegal Immigration apparently played a large role in the campaign, and some have suggested that Cantor had lost touch with his district and, with his growing national profile, may have been perceived as too big for his britches.

I’ll leave the analysis to the punditry, and will make only two observations.  First, Brat was grossly outspent by Cantor’s campaign.  The first New York Times article linked above says Brat spent a little more than $200,000, whereas Cantor raised $5.4 million.  In short, all of the horror stories we’ve been hearing about the overwhelming power of national money in politics were disproved in this instance, where Brat’s low-money campaign, based on local and state supporters, nevertheless energized the voters.  The next time you get a money appeal from a candidate of the right or left who says he needs to keep up in the fundraising race with his opponent, you might remind them of the Cantor-Brat campaign — and then ask them where they stand on issues of interest to you.

Second, I think it is a good thing when established politicians are challenged and made to defend their positions.  We would all be better off if our elected representatives were thinking more about staying connected with the people in their district or state and less about hobnobbing with the D.C. political and media elite.  I’d love to see more Senators and Representatives who have served for years without serious contest have to return home, face a spunky challenger who isn’t intimidated by a lopsided fundraising advantage, and explain their records.  That’s exactly how our political system is supposed to work.

Is Everything For Sale, And If So, Why?

Is everything for sale in America?  Have we reached the point where the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar has become too all-consuming?

An article in MarketWatch, published by The Wall Street Journal, discusses the teaching of Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, author of the recent book What Money Can’t Buy:  The Moral Limits of Markets.  Sandel posits that at some point over the past 30 years America crossed the line from a market economy to a “market society” in which virtually everything, such as naming rights to public buildings, ad space in school cafeterias, and carbon offsets, is for sale to the highest bidder.  A market economy is a tool for organizing activity in the most productive way, but a market society is one in which market values — rather than morals, ethics, religion, or other non-money-oriented concepts or belief systems — intrudes upon and governs our relationships and our behavior generally.

I’m a big fan of capitalism as an economic system.  Human history has proven that it is the most fair and effective way of allowing people to control their own destinies and create wealth, and no other system even comes close.  But Sandel has a point — there are some lines that shouldn’t be crossed.  When capitalism crosses those lines, the effect is corrupting and defeating of any selfless impulses that motivated the activity in the first place.  When public money is used to erect a public building and the structure is named after whichever large corporation or wealthy individual ponies up the most money for the naming rights, it detracts from the important public, communal element of the endeavor.  When a couple decides to have a child but pays a hefty price to a clinic to try to genetically engineer the perfect offspring, what are they really trying to accomplish?

I disagree with Sandel on one fundamental point.  He is quoted in the article as saying:  “We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us.”  I don’t buy that — no pun intended.  I think part of the witches’ brew of developments that is leading us down the road to perdition is the notion that the public is never to blame for anything, that we are trapped and buffeted by forces beyond our control.  I think people can make a difference and can act morally and ethically; the thousands of acts of kindness and human decency that occurred after the Boston Marathon bombing, where strangers acted purely out of concern for their fellow man rather than concern for the bottom line, prove it.  Our challenge is to bring more, much more, of that same sense of ethical behavior to the public arena and to our everyday lives.

Pondering The Penny Pick-Up

If I see a penny on a sidewalk, or on the asphalt of a rainy street, or on the grimy floor of my parking garage, I will stop and pick it up.  Always.

I’m not sure why this is so.  I probably am just extraordinarily cheap. I may also believe, deep down inside, that picking up a penny will bring me good luck.  Or maybe I was a panhandler in a past life and old habits die hard.

I guess I always thought that everyone would pick up a penny if they noticed it, because it just seems wrong to me to walk past money without picking it up.  I now know that isn’t true.  Many people apparently would not pick up a random penny on the street.  In fact, not long ago I did so and one of my friends said something like “Ewww, you picked up a penny.  That’s gross.”

After I recently stopped to pick up a penny I found on my path from the parking garage to my office building, I was thinking a professional killer could use a habit like picking up a penny to complete their hit without much risk.  If you knew your target’s habits and were aware that they were a penny-picker-upper, just coat a few pennies with some fatal poison that’s absorbed through the skin, sprinkle them on the path that you know the person will take during the day, and let their inner cheapskate bring about their demise.

Could someone have done that with me?  I considered it for an instant, then picked up the penny anyway.

Canada Loses Its Cents

On Friday, Canada minted its last penny.

The rationale for this move is that it costs more to mint the penny ($.016 each) than the penny is worth.  In addition, Canada’s Finance Minister concluded that people weren’t using the penny for business.  Instead, they were just putting them in jars at home.  So, no more Canadian pennies will be minted.  Those that have been minted thus far will remain in circulation — at least until they get tossed into the penny jar on someone’s bedroom dresser or kitchen counter.

It will be interesting to see exactly how this works.  According to the linked article, retailers will charge credit cards to the penny, but the price for people paying cash will be rounded to the nearest five-cent interval.  Odd to think that people paying with declared legal tender might end up paying a few cents more for that privilege than people swiping a plastic card, isn’t it?  I imagine that retailers will just establish uniform prices in five-cent intervals to avoid the issue.  Canadians won’t see any more of those beckoning $9.99 prices that retailers are so fond of; instead, Canadians will be seeing a lot of $9.95.

People have urged the U.S. to do what Canada has done, which is probably the first step toward an entirely electronic economy.  All money is an abstraction, of course, but at least there was a satisfying physical dimension to dollars in your wallet and coins in your pocket, and its cumbersomeness provided some security.  Now, the accounts holding your life savings can be emptied in the blink of an eye by a savvy hacker a world away with a few well-chosen keystrokes.

This is called progress.  Of course, if that unfortunate incident happens, we can all fall back on the pennies we’ve carefully hoarded.

I Really Don’t Care About The Money

We’ve got a hot U.S. Senate race in Ohio this year:  incumbent Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, is looking to fend off the challenge of Republican Josh Mandel.

I’ll write more about the race as we get closer to the election.  For now, I’ll just say that I’m mystified by the tactics of the Brown campaign.  I get their e-mails constantly, and they all are about money.  How much money Mandel is raising, how much money “special interests” are contributing to support Mandel’s candidacy, how many TV ads have been purchased as a result of the money contributed to the Mandel campaign, and how much money the Brown campaign needs to make up for the cash landslide that is tumbling into Ohio.

Money, money, money!  Obviously, the Brown campaign believes that the constant drumbeat of news about what donors have contributed to Mandel’s campaign will spur me to open my checkbook, again and again, to give money to Sherrod Brown.  My question is:  why do they think that is what will happen?  Isn’t it equally plausible that I’ll just get sick to death of being hit up for money and immediately delete their e-mails, unread?  (After all, we’re still six months away from the election — how many more money-grubbing e-mails do they think I can bear?)  Or that I’ll just give up because the money lead for the Mandel campaign apparently is insurmountable?  Or that I’ll conclude that the Brown campaign doesn’t care about anything except cold, hard cash?

Political campaigns used to be about candidates, issues, speeches and rallies, now they are about money, money, and more money.  We are all the poorer for this.

Retirement Riches Untold

I didn’t win the Mega Millions lottery payout, which means that a key assumption in my retirement planning will need to be changed.  Why not simply presume that, at some point, you are going to get a huge windfall?  It makes retirement planning a heck of a lot easier.  (And it’s about as realistic as assuming that Social Security will be able to make monthly payments at current levels indefinitely to millions of long-lived Baby Boomer soon-to-be retirees.  But I digress.)

With the removal of the Mega Millions payout assumption, I need to look elsewhere for the wealth that will fund the fabulous, active retirement that is every American’s true birthright.  Recently, in doing some spring cleaning, I think I found my answer — in our travels, we’ve accumulated an impressive collection of foreign money.  Why, I have one piece of paper currency alone, with a picture of Ho Chi Minh on the front, with a face value of 20,000 dong.  20,000 dong!  If the exchange rate is even remotely favorable, that one bill alone should fund a year’s worth of Early Bird Specials at whatever restaurant caters to senior citizens at our ultimate retirement destination.

That’s not all, either.  I’ve got a 1 yuan bill with Mao’s picture on it, as well as Chinese coins.  Another bill reads 5 Wu Jiao and has a nice picture of two women wearing some traditional tribal costumes on it.  It’s probably Chinese currency, too.  China’s economy is doing great, so that hoard will be like an investment that will keep on growing.  I’ve got Euros, and Canadian change, and coins with holes through the middle and Asian writing on them.  Surely, all of those will be worth something, and will help to avoid times of want in my golden years.

As I go through the money, I found one game token that has “no cash value” stamped on it.  Oddly, it looks just like the other coins — made of metal, about the same weight and heft, minted with a picture on one side and numbers on the other.  I suppose you could conceivably confuse American currency with such worthless bits of metal or paper.  Fortunately, our money has the full faith and credit of the U.S. government behind it.  Thank goodness!

Funny Money

Today I had to park in a parking garage, and when I paid the parking fee I got two dollar coins for change.  When I looked at the coins, I did a double-take and wondered if I had been scammed, because these dollar coins did not look like bona fide American currency.

Seriously, has anybody else seen these?  My coin featured a perplexed-looking Andrew Johnson — arguably the worst President in American history — on one side and the Statue of Liberty on the other.  It is a garish copper color, it feels like it is made of reclaimed metal, and the art on the coin is pretty cheesy.  Is this real American currency?  It looks like one of those cheap metal tokens you’d get if you got change for a dollar at a video arcade.

I’m assuming it is an actual American coin, in which case I fear for the future of the Republic.  Shouldn’t our currency be a bit more carefully considered and aspirational?   Why in the world would we put one of our worst Presidents on any form of legal tender?  For that matter, why do we have to put Presidents on everything?  Can’t we get back to the point where our coins are more symbolic, like the classic walking Liberty half dollar, or more focused on American history and culture, like the Buffalo nickel?  And if we can’t manage that, can’t we at least create a coin that looks like it is worth its face value?