Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sunday Morning Rumination: On Finding Money, and Music, and Owls

There have been several kinds of stories of a similar type this week, I guess you could call them "something for nothing" stories. These have always caught my attention -- well in some ways I think the "American dream" is to get out of the rat race, to make enough money to stop working. And the fact is, you won't make that much money working. You might become an NBA player or a rock star or win the lottery, I guess, there are ways to break out of the cycle. Your chances are slim but people don't give up hope.

I saw a news story once years ago where an armored car's door swung open and big bags of money fell into the street. People on the scene reported seeing a rusty old car stop, a couple of scraggly-looking guys got out and threw the bags into their back seat, and they drove away "laughing wildly."

Basically that story brought a smile to my face. I'm sorry the bank lost that money, I'm sorry if an armored-car driver lost his job for not closing the door, I'm sort of half-sorry the guys who found the money didn't do "the right thing" and turn it in. On the other hand, I thought it was kind of neat that some guys who might have needed the dough ended up with it. It's a kind of moral dilemma, I guess, you're glad to see the little guy get lucky but you know they shouldn't keep that money.

But what if there were bags of money thrown out of the window by some drug dealers?

Check out this story from Fox News this week:
ROSEMOUNT, Minn. — A 16-year-old Minnesota boy has given away thousands of dollars to fellow students and a school aide. The bag full of money he found was apparently tossed by a drug dealer.

When asked how he got the $100 bills, the student first said it was his allowance. He later said he found it in a ditch — and led police to a spot by a highway where they also found marijuana and scales.

The boy, described as learning disabled, gave away about $11,000 of the nearly $18,000 in the bag. Law officers collected the money from students and from the school bus aide, who had reported that someone slipped $1,200 into her bag.

The boy is not expected to face charges. A sheriff's deputy says he's "a good kid" who was trying to help people in need. Minnesota Teen Finds Drug Money, Gives Away Thousands

Man, wouldn't it be cool to go to that school?

Do you understand why the police took the money from the students? What do you think is going to happen to it? Let me guess: the police department is going to keep it.

It kind of reminds me of another story this week, about Tenaha, Texas, a little town on the highway where the local cops stop people passing through and ... take their money.
... the police here allegedly have found a way to strip motorists, many of them black, of their property without ever charging them with a crime. Instead they offer out-of-towners a grim choice: Sign over your belongings to the town, or face felony charges of money laundering or other serious crimes.

More than 140 people reluctantly accepted that deal from June 2006 to June 2008, according to court records. Among them were a black grandmother from Akron, Ohio, who surrendered $4,000 in cash after Tenaha police pulled her over, and an interracial couple from Houston, who gave up more than $6,000 after police threatened to seize their children and put them into foster care, the court documents show. Neither the grandmother nor the couple were charged with or convicted of any crime.

Officials in Tenaha, along a heavily traveled state highway connecting Houston with several popular gambling destinations in Louisiana, say they are engaged in a battle against drug trafficking, and they call the search-and-seizure practice a legitimate use of the state's asset-forfeiture law. That law permits local police agencies to keep drug money and other property used in the commission of a crime and add the proceeds to their budgets. Driving through Tenaha, Texas, doesn't pay for some

You hear stories about the federales in Mexico doing that sort of thing, like we're better than that. Want to take bets on whether any of these badge-wearing pirates get jail time?

There is a funny kind of tacit protocol about finding money. Say you're walking down the sidewalk and there is a hundred dollar bill on the ground. Guess what: it's yours. What are you going to do, turn it in to the cops, so somebody can come in and say, hey, I lost a hundred dollars, did you guys find it?

It's different if you see somebody drop the money. It's not yours. In that case, the proper thing to do, and the thing any of us would do, is to pick up the money and give it back to the person, or if they're younger than you, point it out to them and let them pick it up their own damn self.

This guy in Amsterdam, New York, had something funny happen.
Amsterdam resident John Garcia went to a local grocery store to deposit a check and walked away with quite a surprise; a $7,800,000,000 surprise, to be exact.

Garcia recalled the moment for NEWS10.

"She said ‘You're John Garcia?' I said, ‘Yeah,' When she handed me the receipt for my deposit, I could understand why she didn't think I was who I was. I was a billionaire. The richest man in Amsterdam," he joked.

Garcia was a billionaire for exactly one hour and 22 minutes after a clerk at the First Niagara bank inside the Price Chopper on Route 30 in Amsterdam made an error, entering Garcia's account number in the spot where the amount should have gone. Amsterdam man receives $7 billion surprise

The opposite of this happened to my father once. The bank accidentally put an extra couple of zeroes on a number, and all of a sudden he was millions of dollars in debt. Really, you want it to go the other way, right?

The best line in this story came from this lucky guy's wife.
Garcia ran home to tell his wife.

"She said, you're not a billionaire, you're a custodian, you clean toilets," he said.

You married people reading this will recognize that kind of constructive comment.

You have probably seen the video of Jon Stewart taking down that "financial expert." There was something in there that I thought was central to his point, though he never really elaborated it:
... Selling this idea that you don’t have to do anything. Any time you sell people the idea that, sit back and you’ll get 10 to 20 percent on your money, don’t you always know that that’s going to be a lie? When are we going to realize in this country that our wealth is work. That we’re workers and by selling this idea that of, “Hey man, I’ll teach you how to be rich.”... Transcript here

Money is a clever invention. It allows members of a society to specialize, by converting their time and energy into a universal medium that can be exchanged for the equivalent amount of someone else's time and energy. The butcher doesn't make bread, the baker doesn't cut meat, but by converting their skilled time into a common medium they can both have bread and meat at dinnertime. It's brilliant, really.

But there's that American dream, money for nothing, busting out of the rat race. The Great Gatsby did it. Elvis did it. You don't want to drag your aching body to work every morning to do some boring thing that some guy who's stupider than you tells you to do. You want to make a big amount of money right now and go play. Ah, there's the rub. What do you do when you've got enough money? Perchance the American dream has not been thought all the way through. Seems like people who have enough money spend all their energy and time trying to get even more money.

I see this morning's Washington Post has one of these "something for nothing" stories at the top of the first page today:
Insurance giant American International Group will award hundreds of millions of dollars in employee bonuses and retention pay despite a confrontation Wednesday between the chief executive and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner.

But the company agreed to revise some executive payments after what AIG's leader, Edward M. Liddy, called a "difficult" conversation.

The bonuses and other payments have been exasperating government officials, who have committed $170 billion to keep the company afloat -- far more than has been offered to any other financial firm. Bailout King AIG Still to Pay Millions In Bonuses

This one, it seems to me, falls under the rule for when you see somebody drop their money. The taxpayers are giving this country a hundred seventy billion dollars -- man, I'd like to have just one little billion dollars, that would be cool! The company could limp by with a hundred sixty nine billion, couldn't they? And the company is turning around and giving that money to the very guys who drove it into the ground in the first place, as a kind of prize.

This is news because it breaks the rule. They know who dropped that money but they're going to put it in their pocket anyway. They didn't work for it, it's a "bonus." It is my impression that these managers already have pretty good salaries to start with, for driving their company into the ground.

The sad thing is that, as Jon Stewart pointed out, money is built on the value of work. Real people create products and provide services that have value, and then companies organize to support the workers in their tasks, and then the organization becomes absorbed in maintaining itself, and all the cost of the product or service goes toward "administration," activities that provide no explicit value to the consumer but help the organization sustain itself. Pretty soon you've got a house of cards, people paying each other to pay each other money, and it is not that surprising that the whole thing collapses. And guess who the house of cards falls on - the working stiff. These companies are laying off the working people who make their products and provide their services, and giving free money to the guys at the top whose bad decisions caused the failure in the first place.

There is a kind of political model that has worked in the past, and it will be interesting to see if it works this time. There is a kind of alliance between the big-money capitalists at the top of the food chain and the blue-collar worker at the bottom of it. Somehow the big-bucks guys have persuaded the little guys that what the country needs is more money in the hands of the wealthy, and less for the worker.

Here's an example. I don't know how you measure this, but a lot of writers have noted that Obama's stimulus bill includes the biggest tax cuts in history. But it's the working-person's taxes who are being cut, the big-bucks executives are going to have to pay more of their share. You would think, in a rational world, that the working class folks who benefit from this would appreciate it, but no, they're complaining like crazy, they're calling it "socialism" and every other thing. This is why it is in the interest of the very wealthy to keep the working class uneducated and ignorant, this is why you have groups such as we have seen in our county working tirelessly to undermine public education. Hate to say it, emperor, no clothes.

Little thing at The Examiner blog that supports this idea.
Today's losers losing their homes are Republican districts. At least according to the Center for Responsible Lending, who has just issued a new report that shows nine of the top ten districts with the most foreclures are Republican and most likely to receive the bulk of any homeowner bailout, and thus, at least according to one On Air editor of a major cable network, fit the definition of "losers". Those districts are ...Santelli's losers: republicans

and he lists off the districts. Follow the link to see it, the people who voted for the party that wants the wealthy to get wealthier are losing their homes.

He goes on...
In other words, "Since the Rick Santelli's of the world have been complaining about how the people who would be helped by this bill are so 'irresponsible' and are really just a bunch of 'losers.' .... Rick Santelli's 'losers' may turn out to be the people who are supposedly his ideological fellow travelers."

Another media, multi-conglomerate inspired populist uprising to get the populace to rise up against their own interests.

Isn't that what I just said?

I just took the dog for a walk. It's chilly and drizzly out there, but you can hear spring in the air. We walked alongside the woods around Rock Creek, and the thickets and trees and full of little singing birds, sparrows and cardinals and woodpeckers. Speaking of which, this week The Post had a story about a great horned owl up in Maine that was attacking skiers. I don't see it online, but in the print version they showed a picture of a barn owl. I mean, duh, no horns! Somebody wrote in to correct them, but I can't find that online and it's not exactly important anyway, is it. It is maybe interesting to you that a snowy owl has been spotted in Washington DC this week. The Post, which shows the right owl this time, says no one has seen one of these here since 1994. In fact. this is cool, Joe at Americablog got his neighbor to take a picture of it. We have heard owls hooting in the woods here in Rockville, and sometimes you see them flying at night. There are a lot of little ones, but those big ones, which I assume are great horned owls, come out of the night without a sound, you see it and it's gone before you're actually aware of it. Gigantic wings, perfectly silent.

Well I've gone through most of a pot of coffee. The house smells like bacon, I hear the eggs sizzling. It's chilly outside but nice and warm here in the house. WPFW has been playing some acoustic blues by John Cephas, who played in the Piedmont style and died this month, it's nice to hear. I jammed with a guy recently who plays in a style similar to this, an older guy who finger-picks the blues, it was a pleasure to hear him. I played bass and he picked my guitar. You hope this kind of traditional music lives forever.

I'm going to shop for some new boots today. These are about shot, I've had them re-soled and heeled a lot of times, and I've stepped in a lot of puddles with them, walked in a lot of mud and snow, and the leather is cracking, I don't think they'll last much longer. So I've got my day cut out for me, shop for boots, change strings on the Stratocaster, maybe look over the bills. After the coffee's completely gone.


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