Sunday, February 13, 2011


Well, that was the most boring week of "work" in my life. In five days, I did exactly 4 returns, all of them on Saturday. The only break in the tedium was when the IRS finally fixed its computer system and unleashed several weeks of refunds all on the same day. When I came in on Friday, I had a two-foot stack of files to sort through, call clients, hand out checks, etc. But the rest of the week was phttttt. Next week is the so-called Fifth Week, allegedly the busiest week of the tax season. It wasn't last year and I don't expect it to be all that busy this year either. With more and more companies making W-2's available on the internet, people don't have to wait to the second week in February to do their taxes. And when you buy fake W-2's, make up imaginary Schedule C businesses and claim random strangers' children as dependents in order to maximize your EIC "refund" of taxes you never paid in, you can file in the second week of January. Why wait? (Someday, one of these little rambles will be my If-I-Were-Emperor-For-A-Day tax reform plan.)

Summer went away. Everyone is looking for it under bushes and behind trees, but so far, no luck. The ten-day forecast hasn't changed in a week; cold (for Florida, meaning high in the 60's) and cloudy today, then sunny and 70's or 80's as far as the eye can see. It looks like the clouds have finally gone away as of this morning, so maybe.....? I realize our more-northerly readers will laugh at the idea that high's in the 60's and lows in the 40's is cold, but when you live in a poorly insulated, drafty building with single-pane windows and electric heat, it ain't much fun.

We had some technical difficulties this week. When we were both off work on Tuesday for dentist appointments, we finally ventured out into the worst part of the ghetto to trade our regular cable box for a high-def cable box. We brought it home, plugged it into the HDMI port on our TV and BEHOLD. High def TV. It's pretty underwhelming, actually; if we had paid extra for it, I'd have been royally pissed. Not much programming is in high def, so even when you're watching a high def channel, it really ain't all that spectacular. But the box looks all high tech and cool instead of the original ghetto cable box that looked like it had literally fallen off a truck. And the actual high def programs on actual high def channels do look very pretty (mostly 24-hour local weather channels, which I've discussed before). Then a couple days ago, we turn on the TV and nothing. Wiggle the cables. Nothing. Call the cable company and suffer through the script reader from Jamaica-man that has never operated a TV manufactured in the current millennium. (The TV/Video button? Seriously? I have eleven inputs on my cheap-tastic four-year-old Best-Buy-special TV controlled by four separate buttons plus a fifth that pops up a menu of all eleven. Any TV old enough to only have a TV/Video button on the remote doesn't even have an HDMI port to hook a high def cable box to.) Still nothing. Earliest appointment is Sunday morning. We had plans, which we canceled so we could be here when the cable guy showed up.

So. I get home last night and a thought occurred to me when I turned on the TV and hopped on the internet; I was using the VGA port for the computer because I had lost audio over the HDMI connection. Port problem? Luckily the TV has three HDMI ports, so it was a ten-second job to switch to the second port. Voila! On a whim, I dug out the HDMI cable for the computer and plugged it into the third HDMI port. Voila! (OK, this is a Windows machine, so it was more like curse, reboot, niggle around in control panel, curse some more, reboot, reboot, curse, reboot, then Voila! Or more like, "Holy crap could that have been any more painful?") So all the problems starting months ago, were caused by a flaky port on the TV. I just wonder how long before the other two go south as well. With any luck, they will last long enough for 42" LED screens to become more reasonably priced. The super-thin ones they have right as you walk in the door at our Sam's Club cause some serious gadget-lust.

So anyway, the dentist. We both take a day off work to go in for our initial appointments and a cleaning. No big, right? Well, it is when you live in the ghetto. Every piece of furniture and equipment looked like it had been purchased in a rummage sale in 1978. Everything was clean, and the people working there seemed competent and were doing the best with what they had. Sort of like the doctors on the TV show Off the Map. But my x-rays were nearly unusable because the machine was long over-due for maintenance and adjustment. (Side note to any dental technicians out there; that is a very scary thing to say to a patient whom you just zapped two dozen times with hard x-rays with said machine. Just sayin'....) The tools on the dental tray had all seen better days; I'm not sure how a dental mirror that pitted and scratched is even usable. But the show-stopper was the constant chaos. We were there over three hours and both had to make follow-up appointments because all they managed to do in that time were the x-rays and our "probing". I've had root canals that have taken less time. We paid our part of the office visit, which I'm sure we will be paying again when we go back to finish what should have been done in one visit. And I'm equally sure they will bill the hell out of our dental insurance (the only kind we have at the moment) for both visits as well. I pray to the gods we never need serious medical attention while we live here.

There is a great deal of noise about the recent "plunge" in unemployment, but a bit of perspective is in order. In order to make things look a little brighter back in the 1970's the government created a new category for people who have stopped wasting their time looking for non-existent jobs. That means there are two ways for unemployment to go down; unemployed workers getting jobs, and unemployed workers giving up ever finding work. One of those is a good thing; the other is Detroit. So which was it in January?

Their conclusion–that a recovery in the US labor force is now underway–is not warranted, and not supported by the data. Why? Because not only did the US economy lose at least 8 million jobs in the crisis, but, in the three calendar years of 2008, 2009, and 2010 barely a million net jobs have been created. During that time the US economy instead needed 4.5 million new jobs just to maintain equilibrium. Last month’s payroll data is simply more noise, therefore, that takes place around a horrid, terrible bottom in the US job market.

The full article has more bad news along with some pretty pictures to hammer it home. The bottom line is that a larger and larger fraction of the US population is not working. This has been true for 40 years and no amount of cooking-the-books government statistics can hide that. The official labor force participation rate is 64.2%, a 26-year low, but even that understates the problem. Only around 60% of the population is considered part of the labor force (those between 16 and 64). What that all boils down to is out of every 100 people in the US, fewer than 40 are working. And there will be even fewer working as the population continues to age. At least until all the pension scams and Social Security finish their on-going implosion. What comes after that will be, um, interesting.

Speaking of imploding pension scams, the Post Office is in financial trouble. Again.

Excluding costs related to retiree benefits and adjustments to workers' compensation liability, the Postal Service said it had net income was $226 million in the first quarter, which ended Dec. 31.

...The agency said it will be forced to default on some of its financial obligations this year unless Congress changes a 2006 law requiring it to pay between $5.4 and $5.8 billion into its prepaid retiree health benefits each year.

"The Postal Service continues to seek changes in the law to enable a more flexible and sustainable business model," Patrick Donahoe, the Postmaster General, said in a statement. "We are eager to work with Congress and the administration to resolve these issues prior to the end of the fiscal year."

Whenever a bean-counter starts talking about changing the law to "enable a more flexible and sustainable business model", everyone needs to keep a close eye on their wallets; in this case, USPS retirees. And if the USPS does manage to get what it wants (the legal authority to screw over their retirees), expect every state to want the same "flexibility" when it comes to their trillion-dollar-in-the-hole pension plans.

More economic green shoots: Gas prices are up; food prices are up; foreclosures are up. And of course, the stock market is up, because that's a perfectly logical thing for it to do. Does anyone remember when we had a real economy? This is now 2011; even in the worse-case scenario, we were supposed to be back where we were in 2007. Other than the stock market, we haven't even managed to get the numbers going in the right direction. The hard question is, will they ever?

And related to that question (and our adventures at the dentist office; connecting the dots is left as an exercise for the reader), we have another serious natural gas explosion. Is it just me, or are these happening more and more frequently? Isn't this the sort of thing that only happens in screwed up African or South American countries?

The GOP is mercilessly wielding the budget ax, hacking away at the nation's $1.5 trillion budget deficit, reducing it by an unprecedented 5%. Well, really only 2%; the rest are reductions in increases, which only in the wacky world of federal budgets can be considered "cuts." For this courageous and history-making effort, in what will surprise exactly no one, they are labeled heartless pricks who want to starve old people, slap infants and kick puppies. We are so doomed.

Egypt continues to simmer. The military continues to tacitly support the protesters and have even protected them from the Mubarak counter-protesters in some cases. Mubarak has agreed to leave immediately rather than finish out his term, after some nasty words to the US on the side. He has learned the hard lesson that so many US allies have learned in the past; it is dangerous to be considered a friend of the United States. So now what? If we are lucky, the Egyptian military will follow the example of Turkey, allowing "democracy" only as long as the people choose their leaders wisely (meaning "not Islamic"). More likely, we will get the usual Middle East "democracy" we've seen in Gaza, Lebanon, Iran; one man, one vote, once, to elect a radical Islamic government that will establish Shariah. Personally, I'm glad we got to see the pyramids when we did; it may be a while before it is safe for Westerners to do so again.

Well, we need to get off our collective butt and get ready for some major shopping. We're down to nothing but Cap'n Crunch, Hamburger Helper, and ramen.

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