Thursday, April 29, 2010

Foolish Figures

Some polls are useful to those interested in following changes in public opinion trends. They also can tell politicians what the public “thinks” on a specific issue if the gulf between the “fors” and the “againsts” is wide enough.

But, many poll questions are downright silly. One such was included in a survey last week. A Washington Post-ABC News Poll asked 1,000 randomly chosen Americans whether they approved or disapproved of federal regulation of derivatives trading by bankers. The results: 43 percent favored regulation, 41 percent opposed regulation, and 17 percent had no opinion.

I will wager any amount with anyone foolish enough to take me up on it that at least 99 percent of the respondents had no idea what a derivative is. I would set the ignorance bar at 100 percent, but there was a slight chance an investment banker wound up in the poll sample.

At least, the 17 percent who confessed to having no opinion were honest about their knowledge level. I’ve attended two lengthy seminars where experts carefully did their best to explain what the term “derivative” means in financial circles. After absorbing a lot of information on the subject, I must confess I am unable to write a concise definition of “derivative.” The concept is that complicated.

This ridiculous poll question, however, illustrates an important point about federal regulation of financial institutions, and the larger question of the proper role of government in our society.

We little guys are helpless without protection by our government institutions in complex matters beyond our control, and sometimes well beyond our comprehension. When we are not protected by sound regulations formulated by our representatives, bad things like the personal financial, property value, and job losses experienced by many in the “Great Recession” will be our lot as the predators in society feed upon us.

Expecting financiers to police financing mechanisms in the public interest is as ludicrous as expecting garden variety criminals to fine and jail themselves. And voting “for” or “against” regulation of something one does not understand is not a whole lot smarter.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

It Wasn’t Heavenly

The silver-haired gent looked up from his restaurant meal, spotted my faded Packers sweatshirt, and smiled.

“You from Wisconsin?”

“Sure am.”



“Oh, up north. I’m from Ironwood.” The elderly diner’s face took on a sheepish look. “We were right next door to Hurley.”

Some people claim Hurley is the town that put the “sin” in Wisconsin. Others quote a saying that goes back at least 60 years. “There’s Hurley, Haywood, and Hell, and Hurley’s the worst of the three.”

That’s the way I remember the saying. Others disagree. A few continue to argue about it. They quote a slightly different version: “The three worst places on earth are Hurley, Hayward, and Hell, and Hurley’s the toughest of the three.”

That, to me, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Obviously, Hell is not on earth. A few wordsmiths argue that the saying doesn’t refer to the biblical Hell at all, but to the Michigan city of that name. The trouble with that idea is that Hell, Michigan, is in the lower peninsula, nowhere near Hurley and Hayward, and it never was known as a center of bad behavior.

One blogger recently wrote a post arguing that the order of things in the saying really was “Hayward, Hurley, and Hell. . .” because in the old days Hayward came before Hurley on the passenger train run to the far north. That amateur historian claims the saying was based on a railroad conductor’s announcement of the next stops. That thought is interesting, but it’s a real stretch. Neither one of the Hells in question was on that railroad line.

No matter how the “real” saying goes, associating Hurley with Hell was a reasonable thing to do. The town was notorious for providing illegal gambling, booze, and prostitutes to loggers and miners. After the big trees were cut and the valuable ore dug out, enterprising Hurley business owners continued to furnish their primary products to anybody who wanted to buy.

Hurley is just 90 miles north of my hometown, straight up Highway 51. Stories of illicit activities in Hurley abounded. Silver Street, the main thoroughfare, was said to be lined by two-story wood-frame buildings. Each featured a saloon in the front, a gambling parlor in the rear, and a brothel operation upstairs. Some served food, but that was incidental. Acquaintances described all sorts of exotic activities they had seen in Hurley, summed up by “they get you anything you want.”

I assumed the stories were basically true. They aroused my curiosity about the place. I remained curious for a long time, because many years passed before I visited Hurley. During most of my youth, my family didn’t have a car, so we couldn’t do a lot of visiting anywhere. And if we could have traveled, Mom certainly would have vetoed any plan involving a trip to Hurley.

Frequent news stories about events in Hurley contributed to my curiosity. State agents regularly raided Silver Street establishments and made numerous arrests. A few days after we read detailed descriptions of the evil acts the state police discovered, smaller news articles reported the results. Typically, local magistrates found most of the accused not guilty, and the others only slightly guilty. The slightly guilty got small fines and went back to work.

For a while in the 1940s and 50s, the good citizens of Hurley made determined public relations efforts to clean up the city’s image. The most famous attempt was a program launched by the mayor; he encouraged residents to paint all the buildings in the city white. They really did that. The new puritanical color scheme had little effect on opinions about the place. City officials took to sending out news releases comparing the number of churches in Hurley to the number of saloons. The churches led by a slight margin. That tactic failed utterly to convince anyone that Hurley was heavenly.

Hurley still conjured up images of a little sin city in 1978 some 30 years after I first started hearing and reading about it. That’s when I finally made my one and only visit to Silver Street.

Ironwood, which is separated from Hurley only by the Wisconsin-Michigan border, was home to the headquarters of the Ottawa National Forest. We in the U.S. Forest Service wanted to consolidate ranger districts in the forest to trim administrative costs. We expected trouble because any Upper Peninsula proposal to cut jobs always ran into opposition. I was sent from the regional office in Milwaukee to work on the plan with our people in Ironwood. “Ah,” I thought, “finally I’ll get to see Hurley.”

I booked a motel room at the far end of Silver Street. It was nearly dinner time after I got checked in the day before my meetings in Ironwood, so I stopped for advice at the motel desk. The clerk recommended a fast food place. I said I wanted to eat in one of the old Silver Street establishments to see what it looked like.

“You’re a little late,” the clerk said. “The last one burned down two weeks ago.”

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Win, Win, Win

Lots of times, when mature adults come up with grandiose ideas about mundane matters, younger folks conclude “those old fuds have too much time on their hands.” True sometimes, but not always. Retiree freedom to ponder small problems can produce novel solutions. We think we did that the other day.

We’ve just gone through our first winter with a rural mailbox. The previous owner-builder of our house apparently valued living well back from the road and didn’t mind paying for a whole lot of concrete for the privilege. The mailbox at the end of our driveway is 150 feet from our front door. Fifty yards is just a nice little walk, eh? Not during a Michigan winter when the temperature is 11 and the most recent weather event was an eight-inch snowfall.

Our mail appears daily except Sunday, but regularity ends there. It can arrive any time over a four-hour span from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. Lately, we’ve been eagerly anticipating a fat tax refund check. We’ve wasted a fair amount of time trudging back and forth from the house to the mail box hoping the mail lady had visited. We started to grump about that. We thought there must be a better way. One idea didn’t fly. We really didn’t want to spend half days at an observation post trying to spy the postal car arriving at our place. What to do?

Our mailbox is equipped with one of those little red flags we can raise to tell the mail lady to stop for an outgoing letter. She faithfully puts the flag down before she leaves, so we can tell by the flag position that the day’s mail has arrived. On those days, we of course have no problem with wasted trips to the box. The trouble is we seldom have outgoing mail in this computer age.

As great minds are said to do, Sandy and I at almost the same time hit upon a foolproof way to confine daily trips to the mailbox to one.

Instead of automatically tossing all our junk mail unopened into the recycling bin, I now take a few minutes to slit the envelopes and extract any postage-paid return envelopes. Sometimes I spend another minute writing on the cover letter, “Take me off your mailing list,” and sticking the message in the return envelope. Either way, the sealed return envelopes go on a corner of an entryway table. We take a return envelope along every day when we retrieve our mail. The return goes into the box, and we raise the red flag. The next day, we know that our mail has been delivered just by noting the flag is down. We repeat the process.

This surely is not the most important plan ever devised, or the most brilliant, but consider the multiple benefits:

1. We will spend more time staying warm and cozy in winter, and less time feeling grumpy in all other seasons.

2. We have launched a relentless, and we hope effective, counter-attack on those nasty junk mailers. It hurts them right where they are coming from, in the pocketbook. They have to pay for return envelope deliveries. Past experience indicates that the little note asking to be taken off the mailing list sometimes does work. Just stuffing a lot of miscellaneous junk in the envelope and returning it as some people advocate has never gotten us off a mailing list.

3. We can be confident the junk advertising materials are being recycled. If we just returned all of them to senders, they might wind up in a landfill with the rest of the advertiser’s trash.

4. By forcing the junk mailers to pay for return deliveries, we are making a small contribution to keeping the U.S. Postal Service in business. We understand the post office financial picture is bleak and getting worse. We’re proud to now and then spend a couple of minutes helping that venerable institution stay afloat.

Now that I think about it, geezers who write blog posts on topics such as this probably do have too much time on their hands!

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Covered, Sorta

Shingles is nasty stuff. An affliction that usually torments older people, shingles acts on the surface and beneath the skin and generates intense pain. I had chicken pox as a kid, making me more susceptible to the disease than those who did not.

A vaccine prevents shingles in the majority of people. The vaccination costs $225 in our area. So, it was good news when our insurer announced it had decided to cover the cost of the vaccine.
Note the insurer promised to cover the cost of the vaccine.

I overlooked the nuances of the announcement language and signed on for the shot at the first area pharmacy I found that offered the service. They charged me $35 for the five minutes it took to do a little paper work and poke the needle in my arm. The nice older couple next in line had different insurance coverage; they had to pony up $74 for one shot.

I now know that if your insurance does not cover the entire cost of a vaccination, both the vaccine and administering it, you will be wise to shop around to find out what various providers will charge to give you the needle. That cost can vary considerably from one place to another.

The recently enacted reforms in health care insurance may eliminate the discrepancies. New regulations will be coming to require all insurers to cover vaccinations. But until the new procedures are established and debugged, it would be smart to read the fine print in your policy and if need be go shopping for a low-cost drug dispenser before signing up for shots.