Sandy, Day 2

I stand corrected.

When I heard about ‘Frankenstorm’ last week, I was derisive: here come the Exploding Meteorologists, again, gushing about an approaching storm that would turn out to be underwhelming, just like Irene last year, Floyd in the 1990s, and at least one overhyped snowstorm every winter.

But this time it was real.  To be sure, my little corner of the world was pretty much untouched: we lost cable TV and Internet overnight, but it was up and running again this morning.  The lights stayed on, and in my travels today, the worst victims were temporary construction fences and a couple of uprooted trees.  About half the restaurants in my neighborhood were open, doing a brisk business.

But much of the city was not so lucky.  A transformer blew out in Manhattan last night, plunging 300,000 into darkness.  Over 100 houses in the Rockaways burned down last night: the area had been evacuated, the fire whipped by the wind, and there was little the Fire Department could do about it.  Parts of the subway system are still underwater, and while the politicians suggest that service might be restored in 3-4 days, in reality, they’ve only started to pump out the water.  The evening news included an interview of New York Governor Cuomo on the World Trade Center PATH platform, with the water lapping in the tracks a few inches below the surface of the platforms.

Tomorrow I’ll go back to my office in Manhattan.  It’s about a two-hour walk from my home, but the buses should be running tomorrow, so maybe that will help.

Sandy, Day 1

As I write these words, the lights have flickered for a moment, but are staying on.  Cable TV went out about 15 minutes ago; I have a pocket Internet hot spot that enables me to write this post.  The wind is blowing hard outside, but there has been relatively little rain.  It’s close to high tide, and the maximum storm surge that it’s supposed to bring.  That’s more of a concern than the rain and the wind, and if that’s peaking now, it’s one less thing to worry about.

At about 8:00 this morning, I went out to the Gowanus Canal, my handy spot for measuring storm surge.  A couple of taxis passed me on the street: I could have gone to work today!  The water was about five feet over its normal high tide, about the same as when Irene hit last year.

For the last month or so, I’ve been dreaming of roast chicken, one of the few dishes I know how to make, but haven’t had the time for this fall.  Today was the day: I prepared the chicken, threw it in the oven, and realized: if I want to have a really nice lunch, we need a bottle of wine.

Going out at 11:00 a.m., the weather felt like an ordinary autumn storm.  The sky was grey and the wind was blowing the drizzle into my face, but it wasn’t really raining.  The liquor store in my neighborhood was doing a brisk business at what I’m sure is normally a relatively slow time.  Usually, we have festive lunches at Thanksgiving and Christmas, so now I’m prepared for the holidays.

We all enjoyed the roast chicken, and then I nodded off for a while.  Later in the day, I went for a brief walk with my wife.  The wind was stronger and it was now really raining, but still more wind than rain.  The liquor store was closed for the day, but a little grocery store was open.  My wife wanted some strawberries, which they had.  And as we passed the Chinese restaurant near our apartment, we saw a guy head off on his bike to make a delivery.  Indeed we saw more bicycles than cars out on the street.

The news was nonstop Sandy reports.  A crane atop a building at 57th Street had collapsed; coastal areas were very soggy; Governor Christie of New Jersey, looking like a plumber in a running suit embroidered with ‘Chris Christie, Governor,’ berated the people who had disregarded mandatory evacuation orders, and the mayor of Atlantic City, who had opened shelters in public buildings that were subject to flooding.  He looked ready to send people to bed without their supper.  There would be no rescues, he said, until daybreak tomorrow.

So now I think I’ll watch a movie….

Corruption in a small town

I live about an hour outside of Chicago and what a difference that hour makes. I grew up in Cook County and got into politics there and let’s just say everyone probably knows how crooked Chicago politics are. I’m sure everyone has heard about the machine and all the nepotism. In fact I lost my job due to this nepotism and it’s as dirty as you’d think.

However, when I moved out here and so did my parents we thought we were leaving the corruption and all the bad things like crime. In the case of crime we certainly did because this town can be accurately compared to Mayberry. I think there are maybe 4 cops and maybe one or two are full time but the rest are part time. Even so if you see them at your neighbor they are probably hanging out there. At one point the firefighter were all volunteer. Oddly, almost 20 years ago I dated a firefighter out here long before I moved here. Not sure if they are all volunteer still. When one has a party, often you will see many people you know in town. I became involved with the American Legion and recently welcomed home a soldier and almost the whole town showed up. The town is staunchly Republican if you find a Democrat it’s probably the conservative type. Almost everyone goes to church and there are many here.

However, there is one part that is exceptionally dirty and it is the park district. This has a history of extreme corruption. The former park district director went to prison because he stole $25,000 from the budget and other former board members have been accused of stealing money from the concession stand. About three years ago a friend of my dad’s offered him a job as his assistant and told him when he retired he wanted my dad to take over his job. He retired (though we later found out he got irritated with the current director, but more on her later)and my dad became maintenance supervisor, which means being in charge of the grounds and lawn and machinery. My dad LOVED his job because he loved everyone he worked with from the director to her son (me and my mom called them his work wife and work son). He hated though that every time something went wrong or someone needed help he was called out, including on Sundays. They even had the audacity to call my dad at my grandma’s funeral to help but he didn’t answer.

To explain more about this in detail I have to explain about the head of the park district board. He and his wife own a home remodeling business in town. They are very hated because they screw over people and just plain psycho. When he heard the park district decided to buy a new building and remodel it, guess who ran for the board? yep psycho man. He won because there just weren’t enough people running. My dad didn’t like him to begin with (he didn’t trust him)because he saw what was happening and how this idiot wanted power.

My dad didn’t give it much thought though until a few months ago when the board president brought in a new guy, who was supposedly going to fix some equipment. My dad didn’t think much of it until this guy starting doing more of my dad’s job. He eventually got my dad’s job and my dad was demoted. This guy would run his farm business from the park district and do no work. My dad was upset but blew it off because he was happy he still had a job. That is until last week when he got fired because this guy lied about my dad at the board meeting. However it gets better than this, that day the wife of the park district head put on their Facebook page for their home remodeling company “I am glad New Wave Princess’ dad (obviously they put my dad’s name)got fired because he is lazy. I defended my dad and called this woman an a##hole. Next thing you know psycho biotch called the cops and they came to my house claiming I threatened her. Yes, calling someone an a-hole is apparently a threat. The cops said they weren’t going to press charges and it was a waste of time.

The director, the one we called my dad’s work wife? she turned against my dad after he defended her. Yes, nice, isn’t it. All because she wants to keep her job.

Sandy, Day 0

Governor Cuomo directed the public transport to shut down, and as I write this, the last train has gone by my window.  For how long?  Nobody knows.

I’ve thought about disaster preparations, and always been stymied by the thought: what am I preparing for?  I’m worried that, in the longer term, the economy will become unglued, with shortages and widespread power failures and civil unrest and God knows what else.  How do I prepare for that?  If I arm myself to protect my property, isn’t that a lost cause to begin with?  (Besides the fact that getting a pistol permit for one’s house in NYC is genuinely difficult.)

But what I’m preparing for this time is much simpler.  I expect that my family and I will be stuck in the house until Wednesday. I don’t expect damage to my apartment: I live in a stout concrete building.  I don’t expect flooding to affect the building, although there probably will be street flooding nearby.  Cable TV is the most likely utility to fail, although it held up when Irene hit last year.  A power failure is possible, but unlikely.  Water or gas failure is implausible.   (New York City’s water is delivered by gravity, and restarting the gas after it had been shut off would be such a major production that it would take something catastrophic to get it shut off in the first place.)  The latest weather maps suggest a total of 4″ of rain in the city over two days: nothing the sewers haven’t handled before, so I don’t expect trouble there.

My wife and I went to the supermarket to pick up some final items.  The store was busy for a Sunday, but mostly normal.  The shelves were being restocked, and we were able to find what we were looking for.

I get ham sandwiches from a local deli for lunch.  They have about twice as much meat as usual.  Like me, they’re expecting not to do business for a few days.

“We need water,” my wife remarked.  We have a case and a half on hand, but I’ll let her exercise her paranoia.  The Lowe’s sells cases of water for $4. She also wanted some garden items for her house plants.

Heading back from the Lowe’s, I was buttonholed by Steve the barber.  He has a tiny shop on Ninth Street that doesn’t get much business because the subway station nearby has been closed since March.  I’ve been running around like a maniac these last few months, and haven’t had time to go for a haircut.

“Do you think it’s the end of the world?” he asked me while clipping.

“If it’s really the end of the world, do you think I’d bother with a haircut?”

No, the world is not a more dangerous place than it was 15 years ago.  We’ve just been led to believe that it is.   And if this turns out to be the end of the world, or the end of New York City, at least I’m looking sharp for the occasion.

I was going to write about how we’ve wimped out: can we expect now that every storm will come with a state of emergency and a subway shutdown?  But after dinner, I find a Web site with an ’emergency preparedness checklist for perfect storm Hurricane Sandy.’  By the standard of the list, I’ve failed miserably.  I have nowhere near enough food or water stored; I haven’t boosted my intake of superfoods, immune-boosting herbs and nutritional supplements; and I have no way to defend the house against the marauding hordes that will come if there is an extended power failure.

Well, we shall see….

Sandy

Here we go again.

Thursday and Friday, we were treated to Exploding Meteorologists on the tube as they talked about Sandy, the hurricane that’s supposed to turn into some kind of mutant monster before it gets here Sunday night.

OK, there’s going to be a lot of rain and wind.  And if you live near the beach, or in the suburbs, you need to batten down the hatches and prepare.  But for the city, it will be like a thousand other storms with no name and no press agent that have hit us before.

In 1985, Hurricane Gloria struck the city on what was supposed to be a normal workday.  I headed into work that day.  Later in the morning, my wife called me and asked me to come home.

“Is the power out?” I asked.

“No, the lights are on.”

“Are there any broken windows?”

“No.”

Then leave me alone, I thought, but being newly-married, I said something nicer.

I had had other issues that year, and I didn’t want to skip out from work unless something was terribly wrong, and Gloria did not qualify as ‘terrible,’ at least not to me.  Fortunately, most of my colleagues were out that day: I was tasked to run a couple of errands, and then I could go home.  But the subways were running normally, and when I got home a little after 1:00 pm, my wife and I went out for a walk under blue skies, looking at a couple of trees in the neighborhood that had been blown down.

As I write this on Saturday night, the city has not ordered an evacuation, but the MTA is talking about shutting down public transport starting at 7:00 pm tomorrow.  Not they’ll necessarily do it, but they’re thinking about it.

Before Irene hit in 2011, the city had never ordered an evacuation, and there was never a total shutdown of public transport.  Yes, some bus and train lines would get shut down in heavy snow or rain, but until 2011, the idea of an organized shutdown was unthinkable.  And now we’re thinking about these things again.

When did we get so wimpy about bad weather?

The world of the conservative Democrat

So tonight I get a call asking if I am going to vote for the Democratic woman running for the state rep position here. I said probably but would need to look at her recommendations. I saw she was endorsed by the current state rep woman who is a Democrat and I like a lot of her ideas. The interesting thing though is that she is pro life (endorsed by Right To Life), pro gun (endorsed by the NRA)and opposed to gay marriage and gay civil unions (endorsed by some pro marriage group).

What I don’t mention is the retiring state rep she would replace is also a pro-life, pro gun anti gay marriage Democrat. The woman in the neighboring district is also the same. In fact finding a pro choice, anti gun, pro gay marriage Democrat out here is very hard. We did have a pro choice Democrat (though pro guns)run in the district for the US Congress but was defeated by the corrupt politician who changed districts so he could control this area. This nut job is someone I despise so much and his group is partly why I lost my job. Sadly the woman Democrat lost the primary.

I guess why this surprises me is that when we think of Democrats we think of them as the more liberal ones and that isn’t always the case. What makes it even weirder is we have several well known Republican politicians who are pro choice and even cases where a pro life, pro gun Dem ran against a pro choice, pro gun control Rep. When this happens it feels so bizarre.

I have mentioned my views on these issues before but I believe in gun control to some extent (as in requiring background checks)but believe we should have the right to have guns. Gay marriage I don’t care if gay couples marry but also believe churches have the right to refuse. Abortion is probably the most conflicted I am as I do not want Roe Vs Wade to be overturned, nor do I want restrictions but at the same time I know myself I couldn’t have an abortion more than likely (though might in cases of health or rape).

The candidates these conservative Dems are running against are even more conservative Republicans so it really is case of two social conservatives. Interesting to note that these women are all union supporters, career women (most are business owners)and yet are opposed to abortion. However they support equal pay and things I like so they will get my vote regardless of the social issues.

What are the questions on the ballot in your state?

One can bemoan what a non-choice Obama versus Romney offers, but there are other issues on the ballot.  Here are the ballot issues for Colorado:

Amendment S: Increases the number and types of state employees exempt from Colorado’s civil service system; Change personnel and hirng procedures for filling vacancies in the state personnel system; expand hiring preferences for veterans;adjust the terms of service and duties for members of the State Personnel Board and the standard to remove certain members.

I plan to vote against this question.  I oppose veteran’s preferences.  We have had an all-volunteer military for close to 40 years.  As with affirmative action of other types, it is time to end this preference, not expand it.  If defeated, veterans will continue to be able to use veteran’s preference of five points on their initial hiring.  If passed, they will be able to continue to get the preference for all subsequent jobs. Once is enough if they are any good at what they do.

Another provision of the measure allows an additional 325 employees to be made exempt employees, which may point the way to a greater number of political appointments, because the exempt employees are usually the directors of a department.  It also allows two members of the 5-member personnel board to be removed by the governor.  Currently, three members of the panel are appointed by the goernor and two are elected by state employees. It is not clear whether the goernor can remove the members elected by the state employees.  If he can, he gets to “pack the board” with members who are receptive to his ideas.

Amendment 64: Regulates the growth, manufacture, and sale of marijuana in a system of licensed establishments overseen by state and local governments.  It allows anyone over 21 years of age to possess or transfer up to one ounce of marijuana to another person 21 years of age or older, keep up to six marijuana plants for personal use, and other provisions.  Supposely, tax will be charged for a permit, and the first $40 million raised ANNUALLY will go to build new schools.

I plan to vote for this measure. My feelings about allowing marijuana are not nearly as strong as my feelings against veteran’s preference.  Currently, one is fined about $300 for possession of marijuana as an administrative violation.

Amendment 65 is an attempt to overturn Citizens United and establish escampagn spending limits (unspecified) and disclosure of donations.  Essentially, if passed, the people are telling the legislature to propose, support, and ratify an amendment to the constitution that allows Congress and the states to limit campaign contributions and spending.  Sounds good to me. I’ll vote yes, but will be shocked if it takes less than 20 years to get the amendment passed.

In my former home state of Maryland, I watch Queston 4 with some interest.  It is a referendum on granting in-state tuition to illegal aliens.  The difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition for the Univeersity of Maryland is about $18,000.  The state estimated that granting in-state tuition to illegal aliens would cost about $3.5 million per year.  I suspect that is the first-year cost, because $3.5 million covers the difference in cost for only about 200 students, presuming that the students get no financial aid. 

Embarrassing phone etiquette? Do not attend the interview….

Because it is a sure fire guarantee that if there is an issue with how a phone call is handled by a company’s employee, then the company itself is a disaster.

On Tuesday, this message was left on my voicemail:

“Hello. I got a resume from you and I want you to come in for an interview. Call me at 555-555-5555” and that was all.

My goodness gracious. Who is “I” and what company do you represent, “I”? It would be nice if you left your name and company name and included the job title while you were at it.  I mean, I’ve got a thousand potential “I”s to who I forwarded my resume; you can be pretty much any one of them.

And to boot, he did not speak clearly. He fairly mumbled throughout the entire phone call.

I could not tell what company it was. The number that the call came from was the same as the one he left me on my machine; we all know that the resume could have been faxed to a boss at their home and not to just the company’s fax machine. So who knows who this was?

Poor telephone etiquette. An 8 year old kid has better phone manners than this guy.

I’ve never seen it fail: when a company has a phone issue, forget the company. I’d be wasting my time calling this guy back.

All the Hidden Taxes

As we head into the last laps of the Presidential election,  it seem appropriate to consider how our tax system is structured.  The people who argue that the tax system is too complex are correct, but not for the reason that they think.  The marginal tax on income is higher than we think because of the large number of other taxes that we pay.  Pigouvian taxes, like the taxes on cigarettes and liquor, raise a surprisingly small amount of revenue, yet they are the ones that people feel most strongly (and feel most strongly about ) because they are rapidly passed through to the customer.  I like to joke that the truest market basket that we can use for the cost of living is ten gallons of gas, a carton of Marlboros, and a case of Bud or bottle of Jack Daniels. 

One tax that I dislike is tax on unemployment compensation. I’ve never qualified for unemployment compensation, but taxing it seems to be mean-spirited at best, and it doesn’t raise that much money. If I buy insurance against nearly any loss, I am not taxed when the insurance company pays me for my car being totalled or my house being damaged.  At the same time, I also believe that the amount that is charged for unemployment insurance should be much higher, and that people should be able to opt out.  It should be self-funding, not something that is largely dependent on federal funding.  Unfortunately, this means that unemployment insurance rates would either have to go up or people would need to work longer to qualify for it, and the amount of time that they would receive benefits would be reduced.

Another hidden tax is the increasing reliance that towns have on various fees, like the $150 ticket for that red-light camera.  What most people don’t know is that the revenue is split between the camera operator and the town, and that’s a lot of the reason that the ticket is so expensive.  If you have a good volume of traffic, as Washington DC does, the ticket is fairly cheap because most people won’t fight it and a lot of people will run the light or speed.

Another interesting tax is the ability to buy a deferred verdict for your first misdemeanor or traffic violation conviction in some jurisdictions.  One pleads guilty, pays the fees and fine, and if you keep a clean record for six months, the guilty verdict is not entered and it is effectively suspended until then, unless you get picked up on another charge.  The people who would benefit most from this are the least able to pay the fines, and if you need a payment plan, it costs you $35 extra.  There are opportunities to work off one’s fines at $10 an hour, but that doesn’t do you any good unless you have a day or days off during the week.  Work crews do not go out on weekends.  If you are booked into the county jail, it costs you $30 to be booked, though that fee is refunded if you are found not guilty on the charge.  A lot of arrests in my town are actually just the issuance of a summons. The county jail has about three times the number of inmates that it was built to accommodate. 

I don’t expect the reduction in FICA taxes from 6.2% of income up to $106,500 to 4.2% will survive into 2013, and we’ve already seen a reduction in the maximum contribution to health savings accounts from $5000 to $2500 to health savings accounts effective in 2013.  I believe that 2010 saw the removal of over-the-counter drugs from the list of items that you could use the account to reimburse your costs.

I liked the “Making Work Pay” tax credit that was available in 2009 and 2010 more than the FICA tax holiday because it was a lot cheaper and the greatest amount of the tax cut went to people who made $60K or less if you were single.  It phased out above that level. You needed to make something like half-time minimum wage to get the maximum amount, which I think was $800, and everyone would get $800 ($1600 for married filing jointly) until they hit the phase-out amount for their filing status.  I had the pleasant surprise of the IRS telling me that I qualified for a couple of hundred dollars for the “Making Work Pay” tax credit with my 2009 return.  I had figured that I wouldn’t be eligible for it, so I didn’t bother to research it.

One thing that people often don’t understand is that tax deductions aren’t worth what they think that they are.  Suppose that I have $10K in itemized deductions. I’d get $5950 for the standard deduction in any case, so I save only about a thousand dollars on my federal taxes compared to not having the deductions.

The coming thing will be to broaden the tax base.  Rates won’t change, but taxes will increase.  

Not that I have to justify my unemployment

I keep reading some very vicious posts on another site attacking me because I am long term unemployed. Not that it’s any of your business those of you attacking me, but in fact I do work for myself now. All of these comments like “there’s McDonalds” great but did you know now it’s harder to get a job there than to be accepted at Harvard? Trust me I have applied at those jobs but they don’t hire people like me. Why would they hire someone smarter than them? My field is becoming obsolete and the few jobs in the field are going to visaed workers or being outsourced. This is a FACT. There are people unemployed longer than I have been. Not that this is also your business but I live off savings and money I make working for myself.