Friday, September 4, 2015

Yes, it's time to replace Social Security, not fix it

Yes, you read it correctly.  Here are the words politicians are unwilling to utter.  Democrats have made it clear they wish to preserve it while many Republicans have argued for partial privatization.  Bernie Sanders has launched a campaign attacking the Koch brothers and organizations who have questioned the viability of Social Security and suggested fixes, claiming they want to "destroy" it.  Sanders, meanwhile, has pledged to expand it.  Are concerns about the programs viability legitimate or is it all Koch-funded propaganda?

Signed into law in 1935, Social Security now encompasses a group of social insurance plans that help protect the elderly and disabled from dire straits - by most accounts, a noble endeavor.  Medicare and Medicaid were added in 1965.  Unfortunately, with a growing number of elderly and disabled, the financial stability of the program has been challenged.  Since 2010 SS has been in a severe negative cash flow position and estimates show the disability fund may run out of money as early as 2016 (that's next year for those of you not paying attention) and the retiree benefits by 2034.  After that, income will lag behind benefit liabilities. 

While Senator Sanders and others blame the Kochs for misinformation, the Social Security website says as much:
“The last 5 Trustees Reports have indicated that Social Security's Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) Trust Fund reserves would become depleted between 2033 and 2037 under the intermediate set of economic and demographic assumptions provided in each report. If no legislative change is enacted, scheduled tax revenues will be sufficient to pay only about three fourths of the scheduled benefits after trust fund depletion.”
MEANING, it will require 100% of the contributions of current workers to fund current retirees and that will only be enough to pay 75% of the benefits. If the ratio of retirees to workers grows, the problem will get even worse.    Further, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) that will be bankrupt by next year has got even bigger problems because the number of recipients has quadrupled since 1970 and as explains,
"the statistics show large increases in applications for disability benefits when the economy is struggling and unemployment is rising but fewer applications when the situation is reversed,  Given that people obviously don't become more or less disabled depending on how the economy is performing, it means that people are using the program as a form of unemployment insurance."

This is not a situation completely unique to the United States.  We are living longer and the demographics that existed in the  post WWII-boom with a larger number of younger workers and a smaller number of retirees has turned upside-down.  Countries that are heavy on entitlements and haven’t prepared for this change are facing economic disaster along the lines of Greece.

Is this something that can be fixed or is there a better way?  Of course there are ways to make the existing system last longer but that doesn’t address the more fundamental question of whether or not it’s the best way to provide social insurance for the elderly and disabled.

Most people do not understand how SS actually works.  In theory, and many presumably believe in practice, a worker’s contributions to SS would be kept in an individual account and put aside for retirement or other need.  Many Americans believe this is how it works, along the lines of Al Gore’s famous “lock box.”  That is not the case.  Social Security checks do not represent a return on invested capital and as Pew Research points out, “the taxes paid by today’s workers and their employers don’t go into dedicated individual accounts (although 32% of Americans think they do).”

According the the SS website, “tax income is deposited on a daily basis and is invested in "special-issue" securities. The cash exchanged for the securities goes into the general fund of the Treasury and is indistinguishable from other cash in the general fund.”  The SS trust fund therefore has no money in it long term as the cash is converted to debt notes and bonds.  The money itself then becomes available to Congress for spending as with all other tax revenue.

The government then depends on the sale of securities in order to fund retirees, along with the taxes of current workers.  A program that assists seniors in the needy is certainly a distinguishing factor of a civilized society but the problem is twofold:  one, in that the program is not fundamentally structured in a simple way that provides individual retirement benefits and as such, gives a very limited returns.  In addition, the program has run out of money in the past and is going to again unless changes are made.

Of greater concern and unknown to most Americans, legally no one is actually “entitled” to their benefits, meaning the government is not legally obligated to pay them.   As early as 1937 in Helvering v. Davis the Supreme Court ruled that Social Security was not a contributory insurance program, saying, “the proceeds of both the employee and employer taxes are to be paid into the Treasury like any other internal revenue generally, and are not earmarked in any way.”  Even more alarming, in 1960 regarding Fleming v. Nestor, the Supreme Court ruled that citizens don’t have a right to Social Security benefits even if they paid into the system and Congress can change the rules at any time.

In essence, as Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute accurately points out, “Social Security is not an insurance program at all. It is simply a payroll tax on one side and a welfare program on the other. Your Social Security benefits are always subject to the whim of 535 politicians in Washington.”

Yet when some Republicans mention even partial voluntary privatization, there is a backlash.  while the private market admittedly offers much greater upside, people have also experienced substantial losses and that isn’t ideal for a social insurance program.
What is the answer?  Many Republicans demonize Social Security without acknowledging its intent, dwelling on the cost rather than addressing the fundamental flaws.  Meanwhile Democrats exploit the public’s ignorance to use preserving SS as a talking point, never admitting that there are far better ways to craft such a program.

 If there was ever a doubt that Social Security in its current form has become a political tool, look no further than the ever-contradicting-himself Paul Krugman, who expressed great concern over the program in 1996 and agreed with Bill Clinton that "every single year we avoid resolving this, it will get harder and harder and harder," and continued his expression of worry for years, only to back peddle in 2007 and ostracize those expressing similar concerns.   Sadly, this has become routine for economist-turned-pundit Krugman who has made similar about faces on minimum wage and other issues.

This is the typical “us vs. them’ black and white thinking that permeates our political landscape.  It’s unfortunate because better options are usually right in front of us...or sometimes, to the north.

Canada, for example, is a real, multi-faceted social insurance and pension plan:  a hybrid of a pay-as-you-go and private pension plan.   Canada has its own taxpayer-supported social security-type system for senior citizens of modest means, the the Old Age Security pension (OAS), but also provides the Canadian Pension Plan.  The CPP Investment Board states as “a global investment organization, we invest in public equities, private equities, bonds, private debt, real estate, infrastructure and other areas. “

While the OAS and CPP provide benefits somewhat comparable to Social Security, the contributions are much lower. As of  2013, employees contributed 4.95% of gross income between $3,500 and $51,100, up to a maximum contribution of $2,356.20. The employer matches the employee contribution, which totals 9.9% of pensionable income.  In contrast, Americans are currently contributing a total of 12.4% with a cap of $7,254 as of 2015.    Canada as well as the UK are also offering tax-free universal savings accounts and not just for retirement.

So Americans really aren’t getting a good deal.  There is much criticism of Wall Street for making a lot of money and the benefits of investing are mostly relegated to the top half of earners.  Most people would like to ride on the same train but also don’t want to put everything at risk, even if they have the wherewithal to invest.   Others are worried about educating the public about diversification.  Suggestions at even an option for a voluntary, partial use of one’s own social security contributions to be put in private accounts by President George W. Bush and Paul Ryan were soundly rejected and while the idea has great merit, it certainly presented challenges for transitioning.

America’s seniors are already the new middle class and have become that with a combination of Social Security, pensions and investments they made during the Post WWII boom.   The New York Times reports that today’s seniors have greater resources than previous generations but the trend is not likely to continue.  While paychecks may be larger, SS benefits may be smaller when today’s workers reach retirement age and today’s 401(k) savings plans are not guaranteed nor as generous as employer-sponsored pensions of the past.  States and local municipalities are also being forced to look at unfunded liabilities and overly generous promises made as they try to avert bankruptcy or some cases (Detroit) come out of it.

The best solution?  Most reasonable people, if educated, would presumably want the benefit of the private market without the risk.  is that too good to be true?  In private investments alone, yes...but what if the government worked in partnership with the market?

The Rise Up Theory of Economics, also known as The USA plan,  advocates the best of both worlds:  It redirects the payroll contributions presently paid by individuals and employers into personally-owned investment accounts that can grow into millions over the citizen's working life. Instead of going to the government, the funds are invested in a unique USA (Universal Savings Account) in safe indexed stock funds that have historically been growing at over a 10% rate for the last 25 years and most importantly, the proposed enacting legislation would guarantee no reduction in benefits.  The accounts will be backed by the government and insured against loss; in other words, all of the upside with none of the risk.  In fact, if successful, the guaranteed minimum benefit could be increased in the future.

How much better would the economy be and how much less would seniors and others be reliant on govt benefits if they were able to retire at an average of 8x their current salary?  The potential is staggering:  even an minimum wage worker earning only $7.25 for a 40-year career (much less than anyone is likely to earn) is able to accumulate a nest egg of over $1.2 million and receive a $10,000 monthly benefit check.  Some of that would presumably need to be set aside to insure against loss but regardless, it is far more than Social Security provides now or ever will in the future.

Every responsible person who has the money to invest does so because of the returns.  There is no reason this opportunity should be relegated to only the top half of earners.
Real concerns, many of which are legitimate criticism of any type of privatization would have to be addressed. 
  • Many people can’t manage their own money so the contributions still have to be involuntary. 
  • A new plan shouldn’t cost the taxpayer more than it does now.
  • Taxpayer funds should be in trust and unreachable by politicians, Congress, taxes, courts, one’s creditors or spouses and by the taxpayer himself until retirement.
  • All present and future retirees without the time to accumulate substantial nest eggs must be guaranteed to receive the amounts presently paid under Social Security, Disability and Medicare.
  • Taxpayer’s funds cannot be managed by stockbrokers or investment houses; the trust will invest directly, bypassing commissions and other costs associated with brokers.
  • Taxpayers will have control over which bond or stock funds his or her money is invested in during their working life. These funds will track the steady upward movement of the market and grow with our economy.
  • No risky investments will be allowed.  Funds should be diverse and contain hundreds of quality stocks to avoid having a few crash the entire account.
Now the bottom half of earners won’t have to watch the top half reap the rewards of investing while hoping that someone such as a Bernie Sanders opening about income inequality will change things by raising taxes and minimum wage.   Ironically, it satisfies the supposed goals of those who will likely work hardest against it by turning the non-existent "trickle-down theory" into a windfall for everyone—something the actual supply-side economics advocated.

The USA plan, or one similarly crafted, creates and preserves wealth for anyone who works.  That is the first, most important and obvious benefit...but there would be many more.

The infusion of over $100 billion of new investment capital into the stock market every month would be a powerful force against economic stagnation and provide capital to accelerate job creation.  It should put the economy into overdrive.  By doing so, as well as creating much greater wealth in retirement, it could also be the impetus for paying off all debt and unfunded liabilities, followed by taxing Americans at much lower rates.  Long term, it could possibly reduce or eliminate the need for separate government pensions and Medicare,  end the need for businesses to independently fund retirement plans and potentially reduce the size of government dramatically by eliminating much of the bureaucracy dedicated to social service administration.  The creation of wealth could even dramatically reduce crime.

But the opportunity for such a system goes even further by providing a bipartisan, in fact non partisan, solution to the desires of both parties.   Dick McDonald, creator of the Rise Up Theory / USA Plan, elaborates:
“Faced with the competing interests of right and left - Republicans and Democrats – it was up to me if I was to construct a new economic theory to meet certain basic requirements of both philosophies. The right has always been focused on ways to increase the flow of capital into the equity markets to keep the economy growing.   On the other hand, Democrats and their many diverse special interest groups continue to look to the state for answers to their varied social and economic needs and to finance their myriad of programs by taxing the rich. “

Many assume that wealth is finite and we must take from the rich in order to give to the poor and hence, ostracized supply-side economics by falsely portraying it as “trickle down.”  The USA Plan actually does what true supply-side endeavors to provide:  greater access to capital and lower tax burdens for everyone.   It meets the demands of both parties by increasing the wealth of the “have-nots” without taking anything away from the wealthy.  The only ones who may be disappointed are those who truly believe that great wealth should not exist.

McDonald continues:   “Create an economic theory that does both... It is going to be an involuntary rain storm of mammoth proportions for all classes of Americans and substantially close the gap between the rich and the poor.”

This plan is actually relatively simple in concept and execution.  The only real complication is in transitioning over.  It is long past time for all Americans to understand that our leaders have a propensity, even when intentions are good, to create overly complex, mediocre and often poorly-performing solutions to society’s ills.  Our tax code is probably the best example but Social Security is another.  The creation of great wealth for all Americans is not an unattainable pipe dream and would go a long way in helping to alleviate a lot of other social welfare issues that divide us, as well as lessening the need for relying on government to solve them.    Government is here to provide support where the private sector isn’t sufficiently incentivized to do the right thing; it isn’t supposed to take its place.

The Democrats have championed—and guys like Bernie Sanders wish to expand—programs that are fundamentally flawed and don’t provide the kind of “relief” that the USA Plan could.  Meanwhile Republicans have offered half-baked solutions that offer upside but lack provisions ensuring that Americans without the wherewithal to invest wisely or cover their losses won’t be at risk of losing everything.

Of course, if we solve this problem, there might be far fewer special interests left to pander to.  In fact, if we truly eliminate poverty, we'll have to find someone else besides the wealthy to demonize.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Simple Tax Plan for Everyone

OK, I terribly neglect my blog in favor of short statements and discussions. This one needs to be finished and thankfully it doesn't have to be that long. We spend so much time arguing over raising or lowering taxes and the truth is, our tax code is way to complicated for anyone to make an educated assessment of how it could be "reformed" - which in and of itself is a joke. Here's my plan, which is still somewhat a work in progress but I think I've covered most everything.

Tax "reform" is a very complicated issue which really doesn't have to be. The left has created class warfare by vilifying the rich for a tax code which favors them in many ways but also completely exempts the poor. Of the two, I guess the latter is more palatable but it is not acceptable when you consider how many people who receive benefits do nothing in return and don't try to move beyond them. The rich definitely use the system as it is to keep more of what they have but so does everyone else - this is human nature. Even my uberliberal parents deduct every single thing they can and spend hours, days, WEEKS doing so.

I am a firm believer that we have a moral obligation to take care of those truly in need but we have a moral and practical obligation to not provide long-term handouts for those who don't; otherwise we won't be in a position to take care of anyone.

We can argue about what is "fair" - is it "fair" to take more of what a rich person earns? I don't know - but I do know it is the right thing to do. It is certainly more "fair" to the country that helped create their wealth and they can indeed afford it and it is income that is not entirely taken up by basic necessities. However, paying nothing is not an option. Even if you just pay a filing have the same protection of our military and the use of our roads. Perhaps if everyone has to pay even a nominal filing fee it will encourage more people to have a stake in their government and hold it accountable for wasteful spending and tolerating fraud and abuse.

The tax code is an abomination and it is so complicated we cannot make an educated decision on anything. My solution is simple and the tax code could be reduced to a flyer:

1) Graduated, semi-flat tax
2) Little to no deductions, no loopholes
3) Everyone pays a little; the more you earn the higher your percentage
4) All income treated the same whether earned, capital gains or other
5) Similar measures for corporate taxes
6) Small national sales tax to garner revenue from the underground economy
7) Eliminate cap of FICA tax (social security contribution)
8) Eliminate or drastically downsize the IRS, saving taxpayers billions
9) Reduction in the death tax except perhaps for the VERY wealthy - it's already been taxed and is a burden on those who aren't wealthy and inherit property

As a side note, I also advocate resurrecting the WPA. If we are going to spend money supporting people who aren't working, why not have them work if they can or train them for other jobs or to go back to school? It beats having them sit around. Even many disabled people are capable of some kind of work.

Unintended consequences: CPA's and tax attorneys may have to find more productive work than helping citizens forced to negotiate with an egregious and immoral tax code. Sorry guys - the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Live long and prosper.

Any questions?

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Attention Sports Fans: Avoid Cliches Like the Plague

It’s hard to argue too much with the success of the Dallas Mavericks over the last decade, although until 2011 we certainly saw a lot of goodness rather than greatness.   The championship seemed to turn on the light of hope that Dallas might be moving into the elite category of teams such as the Spurs.

Unfortunately things didn’t work out that way due to interest in the future free agent market and many are finding themselves realizing that hindsight is 20/20.  However for some of us, this old adage is not the cliché’ that stands out the most, as the course Mark Cuban and the team chose to take brings up at least two other time-tested truths that should have been followed:

#1:  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  

Since when does a championship team, albeit an aging one, merit rebuilding?  Doesn’t that usually happen after there is some sort of decline?   A championship team is not just personnel –  it is a team that has chemistry making it greater than the sum of its parts…which means, assembling another group of comparable talent is no guarantee of success.

Dirk is not young but he is still playing at an MVP level and even in 2011-2012 the only downside was due to injuries.  Arguably the second most important cog in the wheel, Tyson Chandler,  was only 28 last summer.  In fact, of the most important members of the team, only Jason Kidd has shown a significant decline in production.   One would assume a solid basketball operation could not only win another championship but continue to find good veterans and draft picks year after year to keep the franchise playing at a high level without having to dump half the team chasing the two biggest free agents everyone else wants too.

Which leads me to #2 :  A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.

Quality big men are a rare commodity in this day and age and along with the reasons listed above, Tyson Chandler in particular stands out as someone you don’t let walk, particularly from a team historically devoid of even passable centers.   Defensively he is on par with Dwight Howard and while he is not as strong offensively, he is certainly solid.  Perhaps more importantly, his enthusiasm and attitude are a huge plus for any team.  Contrast that with Dwight - often regarded as selfish and a drama queen.  

Deshawn Stevenson and JJ Barea similarly brought intangibles to the team that can’t be easily replaced and even Caron Butler, though not a part of the championship run, was the Mavs’ second leading scorer prior to his injury and proceeded to score even more this season with two primary scoring options ahead of him in L.A.

Overall when you have this type of team at the pinnacle of success and a strong possibility of a repeat, throwing it away on a pipe dream of obtaining the market’s two most coveted free agents doesn’t strike me as being necessary or even good planning for the future.  The competition for signing superstars in fierce and while the chances of nabbing Deron Williams are decent it is certainly not a lock.  Meanwhile,  Dwight Howard spent the season throwing his team into emotional turmoil and ended up injured with a herniated disc, which is no small problem in the long term.   Trust me --  I have 3 of them. 

While some of the stop-gaps worked out reasonably well (Delonte West, Vince Carter) we all know the big #FAIL that no one could have imagined; however the type of anomaly that is Lamar Odom is exactly why this adage applies.  The Mavs gambled and lost.

Even now the Mavericks would do well to what can bring success without bolstering one position at the expense of every other.  The CBA will come around to bite everyone in the league sooner or later and well…I suppose patience will have to be a virtue.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Thoughts From Far West Berlin: Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

Thoughts From Far West Berlin: Why Can't We All Just Get Along?: One description of Juan Williams book Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate reads: "Only those towing the party line—the screaming v...

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

One description of Juan Williams book Muzzled:  The Assault on Honest Debate reads:

"Only those towing the party line—the screaming voices of the extremist—get airtime and dominate the discussion in politics and the media. Each side, liberal and conservative, preaches to a choir that revels in expressions of anger, ideology, conspiracies, and demonized opponents. The result is an absence of truth-telling and honest debate about the facts."

Politicians are bad enough but is amazing how the general public drinks their preferred Kool-Aid.  As a lifelong centrist I am continually amazed by the refusal to acknowledge common-sense compromises.  Have we completely lost our ability to see that there is rarely ONE philosophy or ONE style that ALWAYS works ALL the time?  Apparently the insanity of the political arena is seeping – or pouring - into everyday life.

The partisan rancor surrounding the Bush-Gore campaign soured me on politics for years.  How could liberals uniformly support Gore and conservatives uniformly support Bush when the issues relating to counting the votes in Florida had NOTHING to do with ideology.  "Oh well if that's what THEY want then it has to be wrong."  It's as if we're stuck in a football game and we don't care if the referee makes a bad call so long as it's in favor of OUR team – and moreover, we can't objectively evaluate the call.  

This election season may be the most worst ever and with social media, everyone feels free to speak his/her mind.  I have the unfortunate tendency to chime in much of the time.  I get called a lot of names for disagreeing with people – thankfully, most are open to civil discussion, although I've been unfriended by more than one person who made it quite clear that if I didn't agree with them 100% then I can just go away.  Others prefer to let me hang around so they can make sure everyone else knows I'm a Nazi.

I'm not a big fan of the modern far-left and our current President has his share of shortcomings.  That being said, do we really need to attack every facet of his personality just because we don't agree with his politics?   I've heard him called everything from Socialist to idiot to America hater and the list goes on.  He's got no experience, no integrity, no leadership, blah blah bah.  The  #SOTU message was remarkably centrist and advocated, among other things, dramatically increasing offshore drilling and teacher accountability (rewarding good teachers and firing bad ones), two things alone that will surely infuriate his base.   Sure the proof is in the pudding but we ought to at least give him the benefit of the doubt.  Instead, Sean Hannity immediately comes on and makes it clear that there was nothing in the speech but more of Obama's Big Government agenda.  Seriously Sean?  Were you actually LISTENING or too busy writing your critique?

There are plenty of things to criticize this President about – what is it that keeps us from sticking to what's really wrong and acknowledging anything he does that has merit other than getting Bin Laden, which is rightfully deemed to be the result of years of intelligence and pursuit by multiple administrations.

With an election coming up and multiple members of the opposition vying for the right to face-off in November, the bile from the left is even more plentiful.   I'm not going to go on about all of them, so let's talk about Mitt Romney.

I'm not sure what to think about Romney – he's had at least two conversations that screamed "douchebag" at me…so I'm not here to defend him either.  That being said, he has had a successful career, made a lot of money honestly and donated a great deal to charity.  So why all of the sudden is it a PROBLEM that he's rich?   Barack Obama is no pauper and for that matter, neither are John kerry, Al Gore or other prominent Democrats.  

There is an article on the far-left website entitled "What Romney Money Could Do for the Average Family."  Seriously?  Well, the author says he made it without lifting his "beautifully manicured fingers" and paid only the capital gains tax.   Gee, that sounds like MOST investors, which is not a crime.  Even my uberliberal parents look for tax-smart investments and why would ANYONE take a salary when they can take a capital gain?  Saving money is human nature.

The author goes on at length to describe what the rest of us could do with that kind of income – as if that is somehow relevant in contrast to what we could do with the income of say, George Soros, Michael Moore, the Kennedys, Alec Baldwin, ad nauseum.    If you have a problem with conservative financial principles that's fine – but ostracizing Romney because he is a successful business man is just plain stupid, not to mention hypocritical unless you want to say the same thing about every liberal who's made money the same way.  Somehow THAT part of the "1%" doesn't count.  

Our incessant need to go beyond finding fault with only specific aspects of someone's policies and instead, throw a blanket criticism of every aspect of their being is disheartening and doesn't bode well for the elusive idea of working together.  People need to realize that solutions are largely a matter of blending of left and right, conservative and liberal, public and private and so forth.    Maybe if we dig deep we can think beyond what we're fed by "The Liberal Mainstream Media" and "Faux News" and remember that we don't prosper by applying absolutes to everything.  That just leaves a lot of people still asking "why can't we all just get along."

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Fast Food and Inconsiderate People

I only wish I wanted to discuss something as esoteric as Pete Townshend’s Iron Man Soundtrack and the tune crooned by the late Nina Simone “Fast Food" but alas, no such luck.  I am still just a caveman.

I don’t eat huge amounts of fast food but I admit I like some of it just fine, particularly Whataburger.  The thing about Whataburger is, aside from clogging my arteries like the rest of ‘em, you have to wait.  Good “fast” food; relatively long wait.  If I wanted to wait I could go to a place that deserves to send me to an early grave, such as Fuddruckers.  But once in a while, OK.

Yet tonight inconsiderate twits, not the evil fast food giants, commit the crime.  I was in a rush to get back home to get medicine to my girlfriend and had already been to Walgreen’s.  I ran by Jack-in-the-Box next door because I needed a fizzy drink for her and frankly, I was starving as we had skipped dinner for an early show and then never ate since she wasn’t feeling well and we left the show early.

So I arrive in the drive-through lane behind 3 other cars near midnight and figure, “oh well” and place my order within a couple of minutes.  Twenty minutes later, I am still the third car in line and wondering what the hell is going on.  Meanwhile, 5-6 more cars are now behind ME, probably wondering the same thing.  I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Hey, if you choose to go through a drive-through for your cuisine, you deserve whatever you get” but I disagree.  I recently wrote about deficiencies in customer service but I haven’t yet written my blog about how OTHER CUSTOMERS can ruin everything for you…and you KNOW they can.

When I finally got to the window I saw the lady had a cast on her arm and I immediately felt badly but I commented “well, I was going to ask for your manager because clearly you guys don’t have enough help to handle the workload and that isn’t fair to YOU or the customers.”

She apologized and informed me that there were only two people working but normally that is PLENTY, I just had the great fortune of getting behind…. not one…not two…. but THREE people who went through the drive through to get 5-6 meals.   SNAP!   Now I get it.   Pinheads or Patriots?

Here’s some advice for you inconsiderate folks – and this is Round 2 tonight because I already left a nasty note for someone taking up two spaces in a crowded parking lot.  IF YOU NEED A WHOLE BUNCH OF FOOD, DON’T USE THE DRIVE THROUGH.  All it does is make EVERYONE behind you wait with NO ESCAPE.  Of course, maybe you’re too stoned and hungry to think about anyone else.   Let’s hope not.

What more is there to say but to start playing the “Real Men of Genius” theme?  It’s simple:  if you’re catering a small party and ordering the provisions through the drive-through, it isn’t going to work out very well for anyone.  I realize the choices at midnight are limited but the dining room and the grocery are but a couple of options that don’t leave the rest of us trapped in claustrophobic inescapable “fast” food lines for an eternity.  And we might not have to nominate you again for Moron of the Week.

And as for the rest of you, from the guy holding up the returns line to bring back 1/10th of a bottle of white wine at Costco which was “too bitter” (of course it appears to have been alcoholic enough to drink it anyway) to the guy arguing about the surcharge at Quiznos for extra meat because the sign didn’t tell you how much extra meat would be (you know who you are), I can only say…please for the love of God, ease on down the road.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Is Customer Service - and Common Courtesy - Nearly Dead?

Have you noticed that getting someone on the phone with your cable provider, credit card company or other public or private bureaucracy is getting more fun all the time?    Dealing with big government is not our only problem – being stonewalled is everywhere, like a national pastime.

I recently went into Garden Ridge to buy a few things and found some lamps I was interested in.  The only one left had a broken frame and when I inquired as to whether there could be any sort of discount considering it was the last one and I would have to do some repairs, I was told it was corporate policy that everything is sold "as is".  Somewhat surprised, I left the store with nothing and promptly wrote the corporate office to which I received in return – you guessed it — nothing.

A little better was my experience at Pier One.  I moved a couple of years ago and had stashed away some expired coupons for Bed Bath and Beyond, Old Navy and Pier One.  Knowing that BB&B always allows these I made a purchase there, got my discount and proceeded over to Old Navy where they didn't even bring it up and honored my reward certificates.  But at Pier One, the lady at the counter couldn't even put theirs into the system.  So she asked her manager, who promptly told her "uh…NO" from the back and then went out of her way to come all the way back to the sales counter and inform me in a shockingly snide tone, "Yeah, next time you really ought to bring them in sooner than two years after they expire” followed by (yes, really)  "Oh, and by the way, your NEXT reward certificates expire 3 months after you get them so that should give you plenty of time to use them."
 < SMIRK >  REALLY?   That’s HER smirking and ME thinking “REALLY??” btw.

Well, needless to say I informed them that I really didn't NEED that fireplace grate and to please forgive my ignorance about the reward certificates but perhaps I would be back at another time.  Again, I promptly contacted customer service and to their credit, they expressed dismay at the behavior of their manager and said they routinely replace reward certificates through their underwriting bank.  It took me three additional phone calls to the bank, back to a Pier One supervisor and finally a bank supervisor to get the tickets reissued but they are supposed to be here around the first of March.  Yes, I had to work at it but the future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.  Too bad Pier One doesn’t carry them.

This is the kind of experience most people have on a day -to–day basis and often say this is a good illustration of why the big bloated government can't run anything.  But it's big business and small business too.  And it's individuals – maybe that is WHY.

My father had showrooms at the Apparel Mart in Dallas for many years.  When I was little, missing an appointment was considered very bad manners.  By the time he retired, we way overbooked his appointments know many people simply would not show up.

The other day I found a chair for sale online and contacted the owner to meet so I could look at it.  He was very friendly and agreed to call me back as soon as he dropped off his kids.  He never called me back.  So I texted him and called him and STILL he never called me back.  Finally I e-mailed him and left him a voice mail, "Listen, if you've changed your mind that's fine but I'd really appreciate the courtesy of a phone call or message from you so I know you're no longer interested in selling the chair."  NADA.  ZIP.  ZERO.  Is this the “trickle up economics” or attitude from the bottom up as opposed to the top down?  Or are we just one incredibly flawed species?

But all is not lost – yet.   I had someone come over to work on my fireplace.  They charged me very little and sent a guy who is a trained engineer but working for a friend while he tries to get back into his profession.  Courteous, helpful, thorough…everything you would wish for in every transaction you partake in.  Well – keep wishin’ – all we can do is demand more…from our own kids, from adults we deal with and from everyone we encounter.  Encourage those around you to be excellent and TELL THEM WHEN THEY ARE.  I gave those guys a five-star rating on both Yelp! and Citysearch, believe me.  And TIP generously -- especially when you are served well.  My last waitress at Bone Daddy’s (A Hooter’s-like BBQ joint) was a former microbiology major studying to be a psychotherapist.  She was cute, sure – but she was bright, delightful and I told her “You go girl!” and gave her a big fat tip – not because her navel was pierced but because she did an awesome job.

I'm not sure what has happened to most of the decorum, common courtesy, and customer service in our society.  Sometimes you're trying to get help from an agency or company who just doesn't have the resources to hire people who are knowledgeable enough (or even plentiful enough) to solve your problem.  Sometimes you're just dealing with one inconsiderate jerk who doesn't care.  Either way, it doesn't bode very well for us.  Fail.