Gram Scam

Every grandkid knows that if they are in a pinch and really need money, they can always make a discreet withdrawal from the Bank of Grandma.  Unfortunately, fraudsters have learned that same lesson and are using that knowledge to prey on the elderly and bilk them out of their retirement savings.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has been warning of scams that follow this story line.  The unsuspecting senior citizen receives a frantic phone call from a young person purporting to be their grandchild or some other relation.  The terrified kid is in an awful jam — maybe he needs money to get out of jail, or to pay a spring break hotel bill because his friends skipped town on him — and he’s counting on Grandma or Grandpa to help him out by wiring some money right away.  He didn’t want to call Mom or Dad, because they’ll never forgive him, and he knows Grandma and Grandpa will keep his secret.  And he’ll pay the money back, of course.  The worried grandparent, secretly pleased to be of help, goes to the bank or Western Union to send the money, and they never see that money again.

It’s pathetic, of course, that crooks would consciously try to cheat older people, but they’ve been doing so since the dawn of time.  What’s really heartbreaking is that the defrauded grandparents are so trusting, and have such strong senses of familial obligation, that they are inclined to send thousands of dollars on the basis of a single phone call from a person whose voice they obviously don’t know and who claims to be a relative they haven’t talked to in months.  Perhaps each of us should call the elders of our families — not only to alert them to this scam, but also to re-acquaint them with the sounds of our voices.

Saturday “Night” At The Windward Passage

Yesterday various members of the Webner clan — Mom, Kish, Richard, UJ, Cath, Al, and I — had dinner at the Windward Passage restaurant in Upper Arlington.  At least, I think you would call it dinner.  We got there at 4:30 p.m. to beat the rush.  Maybe “linner” is a better word for a meal that we consumed about two hours before we normally have our evening repast.

The bar at the Windward Passage

The Windward Passage, located in a shopping center at the intersection of Henderson and Reed Roads, is one of those throwback places.  It has been around since 1973, and most of its patrons have been frequenting the restaurant for decades.  I would wager that 99 percent of the patrons proudly carry their “Golden Buckeye” cards, and the average age of the drinkers and diners looks to be about 75.  During our visit last night, the emergency squad paid a visit to tend to one of the diners who collapsed, which probably is not that rare an occurrence. I would not be surprised if every Windward waitress had to take CPR training to qualify for the job.

Given their age, it should not come as a surprise that the Windward’s patrons are early birds.  Even arriving at the ungodly hour of 4:30, we barely got a table in the bar.  The place quickly became packed.  Thirsty seniors filled every seat at the bar, guzzling highballs and creating a serious din.  In the meantime, crowds of elderly citizens lurked by the bar and hovered near the tables.  Nothing like a white-haired guy with a walker and his elaborately coiffed wife glaring at you expectantly to spur quick consumption of your meal!  At one point, when the people at the table next to us left, competing groups of hoverers scrambled for the seats — well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say they with as much determination and speed as their artificial hips would allow — and for a few minutes we thought we might have to break up a cane duel between two of the more boisterous seniors.

Last night's Lake Erie perch dinner

Columbus seniors love the Windward because the food is cheap, plentiful, and well-prepared.  I can’t speak to the quality of the menu, generally, because I always get the same entree whenever I go there — fried Lake Erie perch with french fries.  The perch are excellent — lightly battered, moist and flavorful, and not greasy, and the french fries are crisp.  And if you are a senior looking to fill your belly and stretch your budget, you appreciate the fact that the meal comes with broccoli, cottage cheese and a basket of bread.

When we left at around 6 the bar area was jammed and there was a crush of starving seniors hanging out in the Windward’s waiting area — no doubt regularly checking with the maitre d’ to see where they stood on the waiting list and looking in the dining room hoping to stare down a few diners and intimidate them into leaving early.  When Kish and I got home we decided to join AARP.

Rejecting Robot Caregivers

Japan has a problem.  It has a rapidly aging population of senior citizens and not enough younger people to care for them (or for that matter to contribute to the social welfare programs that support them, but that’s another story).

Ri-Man

Japan had hoped that robots would be the answer.  They envisioned robots that would care for the elderly and staff nursing homes and hospitals.  They have developed robots like Ri-Man, which can lift and carry hobbled senior citizens, and robots to serve as guides in hospitals.  Manufacturers have sunk millions of dollars into efforts to develop such robots.  Now they have concluded that robots are too expensive and impractical — and, even more important, are unwanted by patients and unwelcome, even in robot-friendly Japan.  As one person plaintively said:  “We want humans caring for us, not machines.”

No one should be surprised by this reaction.  It is not just because Ri-Man and the other caregiving robots look like full-scale toys or embarrassing caricatures of the robot from The Day The Earth Stood Still.  Instead, the breathless and triumphal tone of the video introducing Ri-Man, below, demonstrates the disconnect between the views of the entrepreneurs and engineers developing the robots and the seniors who are supposed to be buying them.  Elder care isn’t about technological advances or new frontiers in the science of robotics.  Instead, it is about helping human beings who are failing and who seek companionship and comfort as they decline.  Having to rely only on robots for help would be sterile and depressing. 

The elderly want to know that there is some person who cares enough about them to help them and spend time with them.  Can anyone blame them for concluding that metal and plastic robots are no substitute for a meaningful human connection?

States In The Red, Looking For A Way Out

As even a casual follower of the news knows, many states are struggling with huge budget problems.  Ohio is one of them.  Usually the problems are the result of declining tax revenues, increased government spending and support obligations, and the fact that bills are starting to come due on grossly underfunded state employee pension and retirement plans.

States are taking different approaches to their predicament.  Illinois recently enacted huge increases to its individual and corporate income taxesCalifornia has declared a state of fiscal emergency.  Some states have focused exclusively on cutting spending.  And, it now appears, other states have quietly gone to Congress to explore the possibility of either a federal bailout or changes in the law to allow states to declare bankruptcy.  In these Tea Party days, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for bailouts — especially for states that seem to have behaved irresponsibly with their budgeting decisions and can’t be trusted to behave responsibly in the future.  So, the “bankruptcy option” evidently is being seriously explored as a way to allow states to avoid their pension obligations.

I’m opposed to a federal bailout of the states.  I’m also opposed to any change in the law to facilitate states wiping out their debts through a bankruptcy-type process.  I think the bankruptcy option would be bad policy for two reasons.  First, I think such an approach is not fair to people who have agreements with the states that would be affected by a bankruptcy process.  State employees who have worked for years on the understanding that they will receive a pension should not be deprived of their pension payments.  For those workers, the pension was part of the deal, they have relied on the pension in their retirement planning, and it would be unfair for states to now renege on the deal.  Second, bankruptcy would affect not only state workers with pensions, but also all people who have contracts with the state, all people who purchases state bonds and debt instruments, and all others who do business with the states.  It would be a drastic step that would, I think, forever affect the state’s credit rating and investor confidence in government securities generally.  States that have been responsible in their budgeting and spending would be tarred, too, and would have to endure higher interest rates on their own borrowing as a result.  Obviously, neither of those results would be welcome.

The solution for states that are in a budget bind should lie in the state, itself, making the tough choices and difficult changes necessary to get their fiscal houses in order.  Cut spending.  Eliminate programs that aren’t essential.  Sell state property and assets.  Negotiate changes  to future pension obligations and eliminate pensions for newly hired employees.  Change laws that require automatic escalations in pension payments.  Explore users fees as additional revenue sources.  But don’t come to Uncle Sam for a bailout, and don’t take a bankruptcy option that could leave retirees high and dry and cripple state credit ratings for decades to come.

Now Comes Scooter Time

Kish and I are in our fifties, and in our daily mail we regularly receive grim reminders of our advancing age, our likely physical and mental infirmity, and our imminent demise.  First it was AARP mailers that came within days of our 50th birthdays, then it was brochures for retirement planning and funeral insurance.  This week, we received information from The SCOOTER Store.

That’s right — it is apparently time for us to consider retreating from the bipedal world and joining the ranks of scooter-bound seniors seen in the classic Seinfeld episode.  The mailing we received urges us to take a “FREE Personal Mobility Assessment” that includes eight questions like “Do you sometimes feel left out by not being able to get together with family and friends?” The cover letter promises to work with Medicare and health insurers and adds:  “What’s really amazing is that you may be able to get a power chair or scooter at little or no cost to you with Medicare and private insurance.”  Even better, if you send in the Personal Mobility Assessment you get a FREE Puzzles and Games booklet!

Does anyone below 50 even receive mail delivered by the U.S. Postal Service anymore?   Most of our daily mail delivery is this kind of ageist claptrap.  Don’t they realize 50-year-olds use email?  And do they really think we 50-year-olds are going to be left trembling with excitement by the offer of a free Puzzles and Games booklet that could jazz up our humdrum existences?  It’s insulting.  What the heck — why not really play to senior stereotypes and offer a free DVD of the first season of Matlock and a Viagra sample if we send in the Personal Mobility Assessment and take that first, tentative step toward scooterdom?

COLA Zero (Cont.)

I’ve previously criticized President Obama for proposed a $250 payment to Social Security recipients, and others, who will not be increasing a cost of living increase in their benefits this year due to the lack of measured inflation.  I’m disappointed, but frankly not surprised, to see that Republicans also appear to be going along with the proposal. They just want to pay for it from existing “stimulus” funds, rather than new borrowing.  In the interests of even-handedness, then, I make this post to criticize congressional Republicans, as well as President Obama and congressional Democrats, for their profligate ways.  Republican leaders may talk tough about fiscal responsibility and reining in spending, but when the time comes to stand up for that principle, in a way that might cost them some political capital, they are no more resolute than the most big-spending liberal — but are a heck of a lot more hypocritical.

American taxpayers should despair about the irresponsible individuals running our national government.  The bailout bills and stimulus bill were like the crack cocaine of spending legislation:  once members of Congress and the Administration saw how easy it was to enact massive, rushed, poorly vetted spending bills, their solution to every economic problem, and every political problem, is to enact legislation that shovels money that the federal government doesn’t have to individuals and entities who don’t really need it.  With all due respect to senior citizens, they are, as a group, no more in need as a result of this recession than any other demographic group.  There is simply no reason to spend $14 billion to give them an additional $250 — other than to curry political favor with a group that votes.

COLA Zero

This year Social Security recipients will not be receiving an cost of living increase in their benefits because inflation has been negative for the year due to the drop in energy prices.  It is the first year since 1975 — when Social Security benefits were pegged to inflation through COLAs — that Social Security benefits will not increase.

Senior citizens and their lobbying arm, the AARP, are a potent political force, and therefore it is not surprising that politicians, including President Obama, have immediately weighed in and argued that the federal government should make a $250 payment to more than 50 million senior citizens, as well as veterans, railroad workers, and people with disabilities.  You can do the math — such a proposal, if enacted, would add more than $12 billion, perhaps as much as $14 billion, to the federal deficit.

I have nothing against senior citizens, but I do object to what seems like blatant pandering.  The current weak economy has thrown millions out of work and affected the standard of living of countless millions more.  Why should senior citizens, who already receive significant sums in federal benefits, receive an additional cash payment from the government?  Social Security benefits have been pegged to inflation for more than 30 years, and seniors have done pretty well as a result.  Take a look at this chart published by the Social Security Administration.  The COLAs have worked to the significant advantage of seniors; in 2008, for example, seniors received a 5.8 percent increase in their Social Security benefits.  I know a lot of people who would have been happy to receive a 5.8 percent compensation increase at the end of last year.

If this is the year when prices don’t increase, and therefore no COLA increase is forthcoming, why should we change our approach?  Why should our already already overwhelming federal deficit be increased by billions more?  If we can’t resist shoveling out more money when a time-honored formula says we shouldn’t, is there really any hope that our politicians will be able to show the resolve necessary to bring our ridiculous deficit spending under control?