Wednesday, March 04, 2015

1454 The Forbes List and the Wealth Gap

“Round up the usual suspects” said the list maven at Forbes, the former magazine that has become a blog roll for every random financial seer and soothsayer who thinks John Maynard Keynes was the antichrist.

Thus, we have the 2015 list of “The World’s Billionaires.”  The list this year has 1741 slots.  Because of ties the number of people and the number of slots don’t match.  But the whole project adheres to “GAAP,” or Generally Accepted Accounting Principles… the very same standards that created the alternative universe that allows people to report income that doesn’t exist and may never… and render costs invisible.

Of course, the usual suspects rule the top of the list: Gates, Slim, Buffett, Ellison, the Walton family, the Koch Brothers, the Mars family, Soros, Icahn, the Facebook guy, one of the Google guys … same old bunch.

Microsoft’s Bill Gates is number one at $79.2 billion.  But there is a terrible wealth gap.  When you get to the bottom of the list -- the minimum figure for entry is one billion dollars -- there’s an 84-way tie for last place.Those bottom feeders have a combined net worth of $84 billion.  But most of them don’t even know one another, let alone stand any chance of combining wealth to knock the top guys down a few pegs. Maybe they could form a union.

Of the bottom 84, only 23 are Americans.  And those are the only people who concern us here today.  These people are practically on food stamps and welfare compared with the top of the list.

This is just plain unfair.  And we should be doing something about it.  And we should be doing it right now, today.

Tax the TOP 23 Americans to help level the playing field.  Else, how can you stop the top from keeping the bottom down?

Why, Gates alone is $56 billion richer than the combined worth of the 23 Americans in last place.  It’s just not right.

Seriously, it’s tough to bend your mind around these numbers.  If you have ten or 20 bucks in your pocket, you understand your wealth of the moment.  Buy a car for a few thousand, it’s still a realistic figure.  Buy a house for a few hundred thousand and you’re getting far enough away from understanding the dollar count. When you get to a billion, it’s beyond grasping. Like Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, the holocaust and the plague.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2015

Monday, March 02, 2015

1453 Justice for All

The following story is inspired by real events but is parody.

Guy’s in the bag. Seriously in the bag. At four o’clock in the afternoon. He’s in his 60s and staggers into the Dollar Shop in need of the kind of relief men of his demographic and alcohol consumption level tend to need often.

He’s weaving his way toward the bathroom at the back of the store but doesn’t quite make it and so stands his ground and thus damages some merchandise on a couple of lower shelves, not to mention his pants.

The clerk calls 911 and soon a state trooper arrives and writes an appearance ticket.  This sits poorly with the drunk and he berates the officer at top volume.

Then he kicks the cop.  More than once. And this sits poorly with the officer who then does what cops do in such cases, he cuffs the guy.

The appearance ticket then magically turns into real charges: destroying the merchandise, resisting arrest, assaulting an officer and public intox.
The “suspect,” as fairness dictates we call him even though everyone in the store saw this, is jailed when he can’t come up with the bail, ten grand, likely more money than he’s ever seen in one place at one time, ever. Or ever will. Ever.

So now, he’s “in the system,” which as we learn from television is what the criminal justice establishment call his paperwork.

And what a system it is.

The local Grand Wizard of Judges in this particular system has recently had a little career setback.  The governor had named him to the State’s highest court.  But Grand Wizard withdrew his name from consideration after it was learned that he’d forwarded a Christmas e-card to a bunch of courthouse “co-workers” over whose rooms he presides.  The card was described as insensitive at best and racist at worst.   Perhaps expected for a Grand Wizard of Judges in a backwater, but not for someone on the state Supreme Court.  

Oh, and if you believe he withdrew voluntarily to further serve the People of New Roses County, there’s this bridge for sale up in Brooklyn.

Ordinarily, the leaking “suspect’s” preliminaries would be heard by a particular lower ranking judge.  But the Grand Wizard demoted that sterling fellow because while court was in session, he allegedly (as fairness dictates we say)  was trading text messages with the District Attorney, a reasonably attractive though fast- fading blue- eyed blonde with whom he is said to have a “close personal relationship.”

Veteran court watchers say the DA may also have the same kind of relationship with an underling in her office.  Plus she’s been accused by a disgruntled former employee of forging a third judge’s signature on a court order.

That charge is under investigation by the State Attorney General who is also under investigation for possible wrongdoing and by the County Commission, comprised of an assortment of dodos, mean spirited cranks and a feeble and easily and always out- voted minority party.

This is the “justice system” into which our “suspect” has been thrown.

Don’t expect a speedy trial.  Everyone in the courthouse is far too busy texting, sending greeting cards and making motel reservations to bother with small matters of justice.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2015

Friday, February 27, 2015

1452 Run For Your Lives, It's Inflation!

First it was Wal-mart. Then came TJMaxx. Who will be next?

These retailers are going to raise wages. Nine dollars an hour for TJ’s and its Marshall’s and Home Goods brand stores.

Great news, right?  Maybe.

First, let’s do the math.  $9.00 an hour x 40 hours = $360. Times 52 weeks (assuming a two week paid vacation) = $18,720 before taxes.  Sounds decent, right? Well, not really. But better than now.

Now, let’s look at the poverty line:

If you’re single, it’s $11,670 according to federal figures for 2014, the latest available. For a couple, it’s $15,730.  Family of three: $19,790.  Getting iffy here.  And for a family of four: 23,850.

You still there after all that math?  Good. Here’s more.  Assuming a two income household, the gross would be $37,440.  No food stamps for you!

OK, so you have to buy your own groceries if two of you under one roof are making $9 an hour each.  Bought groceries lately?  It’s going to take a big chunk of that $18 an hour.

But wait, there’s still more: we’ve made two really iffy assumptions:
  1. Two weeks paid vacation.
  2. Full time 40 hour status.

Who gets hired full time these days?  How many workers at either of the two companies are full and how many are part time?  The figure changes from day to day.  Sometimes from hour to hour. But if you’re out of work now, chances are your next job won’t be full time.  Not right away, at any rate.

And even among full time hourly workers... there’s a management workaround. They’ll put some broom pusher in charge of another broom pusher or one stock worker over another and -- presto! -- he’s management.

No overtime for you!

Inflation hawks who have been dead wrong for the last ten years are already squawking that this is going to raise the price of … everything.  And they’re already lining up,  billy clubs in hand, to tell us how bad a move raising wages is.

Three percent here, two there, one and a half percent somewhere else?  Why it’ll be the ruin of us, the absolute ruin.

Combine all this generosity with raising minimum wages in many states, and we’ve got Jimmy Carter style inflation crawling out from under the rocks, they say. Substitute “Gerald Ford style” if you liked Carter.

And then, get your head examined.

Shrapnel (Centenarian Edition):

--We note with sadness the passing of Yutaka Katayama, long time head of American operations for Datsun/Nissan.  He was the “father of the ‘Z’,” the working man’s sports car. And while neither a company founder nor an engineer, he was credited with the company’s initial success here. Yutaka Katayama was 105.

--Then there was another guy you never heard of, Irving Kahn, one of America’s first professional investors and the oldest one still going to the office at least few days a week.  He passed away yesterday at the age of 109. Longevity is a hallmark of that family. His three siblings also lived past 100.

I’m Wes Richards.  My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2015

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

1451 How to End Bribery

Pity your congressional representative.  He or she will be forced to work 132 days this year, up 20 from 2014.  Why that’s almost 19 weeks.  Which leaves 33 weeks in which there is no session.

And for this, each will receive $174,000.  That’s a mere $9157.89 a week.  How can anyone get by on just nine grand a week?

Well, they are allowed to get jobs that supplement their meager income.  But considering all the good they do us, they should be entitled to more.

To keep things even, let’s get them a menu, so that we all know what we will have to contribute when we hire them as part timers.

Let’s start with the easy stuff.  Private bills. Say you want to honor your Uncle Henry with an Uncle Henry Day to mark his service to our country during the infamous secret war between the US and Surinam.  Today, the service is free, but you have to beg for it.

Put a price tag on “Uncle Henry” days to make things… um … transparent.  No more hoops to jump through… no more petitions.  Just fill at a form and send a check.  Probably a couple of thousand will do for something like that.

When you want something more lasting, the price will rise.  But knowing that prepares you.  Example: you want federal funds to build a footbridge over the Commack, NY water sump.  You figure out the cost of the bridge, build in a ten or 12 percent cost and corruption overrun and send a 20% “commission” for the legislation.

Of course a decently oiled congress member would do some smart marketing.  Something along the lines of Red Lobster-fest or the dollar menu at McDonald’s. Maybe a “Today’s Special” like the Diner down the block or the soup of the day at Denny’s.

Someone, please call Vista Print or Diner-menus-r-us to see about getting those things printed and Go Daddy to help with the website.

And someone could make a name for himself by publicly evaluating each member of congress.  Kind of like a food critic.  Award stars or chef hats and little dollar signs to indicate costs -- like Yelp.

Let’s put it all out in the open. Make honest men and women of these grafters, thieves and scoundrels.

Now, for your researching and dancing pleasure, here’s the complete compensation list.

I’m Wes Richards.  My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2015

Monday, February 23, 2015

1450 Drive, You Nuts

If road rage had a birthplace, it probably was in Tel Aviv or Rome or Boston. These cities used to be the homes of the world’s worst drivers and some of the world’s hottest tempers. But no more.

New York, you say? No way. New York gets a lot of bum raps and bad driving shouldn’t be one of them. In fact, anyone who can get across 125th street from river to river in under an hour should get a medal.
(Notwithstanding, the old joke has some validity: “Should we walk, or do we have time to take the bus?”)

You may see someone take a left turn from the right lane from time to time (usually a taxi,) but for the most part, people who drive in Manhattan know what they’re doing. Same is true for those who use the highways in and around the place. Things may move slowly, but they DO move on weekdays. But try the same roads on a weekend and you know where they got the term “Sunday driver.”

So where are the world’s worst drivers today? The suburbs. Ignored stop signs, failure to signal. Speeding. If they had enough cops and street cameras to catch these guys, they could pay the local debt.

Maybe the national debt.

They’re not generally rude, at least not on purpose. They’re just unconscious. And not just behind the wheel, either (but that’s a topic for another day.)

Blame some of this on the auto industry. Today’s cars – even the worst of them, maneuver so well, one gets the feeling that they drive themselves and that impression is partly right.

There are so many safety features – crumple zones, seat belts, air bags, that a driver can get an ill-conceived feeling of invulnerability. So, the natural tendency might be to drive carelessly. After all, you have “On-Star,” or a cell phone and all that tricky safety stuff built in.

But you can’t blame Detroit, Tokyo or Wolfsburg for that. It’s still the Nut Behind The Wheel.

We talk on those cell phones. We have satellite radio, and sometimes an actual in-person conversation to distract us.

Is the current generation of drivers less well coordinated than in the past? Probably not. This same bunch goes to the gym three times a week, plays weekend softball, bowls, plays tennis and goes hunting without Cheney-like complications.

But there is one thing that has improved: the notion that women are worse than men.
Old story: a woman sticks her hand out the driver’s side window. Is she signaling or drying her nails?
No more. That’s because (a) today’s nail polish dries almost instantly, (b) both men and women have their nails polished and (c) No one uses hand signals.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.™
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© WJR 2015

Friday, February 20, 2015

1449 The Year of the Ruminant Horned Animal

Happy New Year! In China and among members of the Chinese diaspora it is the Year of the Sheep.  Or the Year of the Goat. Or maybe the Year of the Ram. Or even the Year of the Gazelle.

Here is the Chinese word for Sheep: 羊. In transliteration it is “yang.” The “a” has a little accent mark above it.  It’s in most Chinese dictionaries.  Well, in most modern Chinese dictionaries.

Except, generally you don’t find 羊 on its own. It comes with a prefix. One modifier turns it into “mountain goat,” the other turns it into “cotton sheep.”

Okay, no big deal, right?  Horned animal with a particular kind of hoof.

Except once you leave China for somewhere they use the same year-naming system, you run into a problem. In other Far Eastern countries -- Vietnam, Korea, Japan, for examples -- they have separate words for sheep and goat.

It’s a small point, so don’t let it get in the way of your celebration.

But a bigger point is the way English speaking Chinese natives and Chinese semi- speaking American natives communicate.

Each side has noun deficiency.  Each knows what stuff is, what stuff does and how stuff works. But we don’t know what to call things.

In this, the Chinese first language-ers have an advantage.  They put words together to form a new expression.  Thus, a razor becomes a “shaving knife.” A light switch can become “lever to make light go on.”

Asian speakers have an advantage over English.  They have five thousand years of relatively insular history to develop language, simplify grammar and explain things.

On the other hand, American English has so many moving parts, so many changes in direction and so many rules of grammar it’s more than enough to understand each other without having to figure out a completely dissimilar bunch of 80 gazillion pictograms each of which is spoken in a minimum of four different tones (Mandarin) to six or more (Cantonese.) Say a syllable in the wrong tone can get you into trouble because the tone changes the meaning of the word.

All this can make family or communal living tough.  But don’t let it get your goat.  Or your sheep.

I’m Wes Richards.  My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2015 (or the year of the Sheep, Goat, Gazelle or Great Horned Owl.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

1448 A Warehouse for the Not Yet Dead

Many nursing homes are hell holes.  Be grateful if you die before you need one.

Filth, stink, abuse, careless inattention, secret records, avaricious owners, sky high prices, lousy meals.

The government rates these places. You want a reason -- or another reason -- to mistrust or even hate the government, tour some of these so- called homes… and limit your tours to those with five star ratings… the top level.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid keep watch. Here’s how: No one audits the care quality figures.  Inspections -- if they happen at all -- happen so rarely, they become meaningless.

Five grand a month is a pretty common figure for storing granny.  And she can kiss her assets goodbye … her life savings, her retirement income her house and her independence too.

Lies, and more lies: “Our staffing levels exceed recommendations…” “Our nutritionists all are graduates of culinary or other accredited schools.” “Our rehab ‘specialists’ love their patients.” “Medical attention is available 24/7/365.”  (The on-call doc will be from India, but don’t expect someone you can understand as well as Sanjay Gupta.) “Our floors, walls and common areas are sparkling clean, kept so by a large staff of full time housekeeping professionals.” “Hablamos Ingles.”

When they say they offer religious services of all major faiths, they mean Presbyterian, Baptist and Lutheran,” not “Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist.”

“Diverse population” means Jamal Johnson, 97, known as “JJ” and who is a favorite with the ladies because they all have the same hallucinations at the same time. And there’s Concetta Maria Yadira Valtina Diaz-Lopez who hasn’t said a word since 1983.  Two minorities out of a population of…  well, we don’t know how many because no one has counted and no one but the bookkeeper has access to accounts receivable.

People burn to death (Jacksonville area) or freeze to death (Brooklyn) or fall to death (Hamden CT) or are ignored to death (Minneapolis.)

If you want to die in a warehouse there are plenty of places to rent where you can be ignored, burned or frozen for much less than the cost of a month at Shady Acres.

I’m Wes Richards.  My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2015