Thursday, December 28, 2017

When Cash is Joker

     Today, with Paypal and Square, even the smallest merchants are connected to digital payment. Bitcoins are totally cyber.  So discussing currency, especially denominations other than the greenback $20, might seem nostalgic. Numismatists, a.k.a. coin collectors, recognize long-obsolete denominations of money: Half-cent coins issued until 1857, large 2 cent coins during the Civil War, small antebellum silver 3 cent coins, and the short lived 20 cent coin of 1875-1876. The small print tells you that it isn’t a quarter. One-cent pieces (pre-1857) and dollars (pre-1979) used to be larger.
     To compare then-and-now circulation of money, I like to use “Jurgis Rudkus” or NYC Subway Fare metric. It does not account for real changes in the price of goods. For example, the real cost of a New York City subway ride ($2.75 today) has doubled since opening in 1904. So the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s CPI calculator is better, when the internet is readily available. Jurgis’ boss might’ve had gilded age gold coins in $2.50 and larger denominations, at a time when laborers made a dollar per day. We know Jurgis, a laborer in the Chicago Stockyards, through Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
     Some denominations have fallen out of favor. Take the one-cent piece, or colloquially- the penny. Due to the percent tax and the psychological deception of $.99 pricing, we have been stuck with the penny. Sure, stores could choose to round down the purchase. In overseas shops using US currency, pennies; even nickels and dimes, are dropped. In Dubai, I saw the 1 dinar coin used as ersatz American quarters.
     Half dollars are widely recognized at all classes of convenience stores, where cash is king. Exception is the shopettes on-base, which serve a straight-laced clientele. Elsewhere, the half dollar is not readily recognized, but most often accepted nonetheless. Their availability at banks is capricious, and the futility of using them in laundry, vending and other machines is frustrating.  
     Despite the US Mint’s best efforts, dollar coins are not the “hip new thing” millennials are clamoring for. If you use a silver-toned Susan B. Anthony dollar coin, make sure it’s not mistaken for a quarter. It was a short-lived series that immediately followed the Nixon-era large Eisenhower dollars. The Sacagawea gold-toned dollar coin fares better. They are the mainstay of mass transit machines, and circulate freely in downtown shops. To stir more interest in auto-centric areas, the US Mint concurrently introduced the Presidential Dollar Series. The Sacagawea series continued concurrently as her peoples’ sworn enemies Andrew Jackson, Zachary Tyler, and colleagues were commemorated in coin.
     $2 bills are a popular Christmas gift. They are accepted on Hampton Roads Transit’s GFI fareboxes, a type that is used around the country. But many younger cashiers do not recognize the bill, even in entertainment-focused locales like San Juan.
     $10 bills: Many stores do not stock these bills in cash registers at the start of shift. $5 bill became the workhorse of the economy. Where a seeming inefficiency is king, this orange hued bill is squeezed out by the $5 and $20 bills. I would also blame inflation, which makes $20 bills more easily broken by cashiers.
     $50 bills: Due to inflation, these are now convenient for grocery shopping, dinner out, and oil changes for the car. Also issued by Navy Federal ATMs in high-priced countries like Bahrain. For all purposes, though, the larger “C Note” remains more popular.
     $100 bills: A mainstay of the cash economy. In the cutthroat world of commercial shipping, if a sailor can’t deposit a paycheck immediately, he or she would prefer cold cash in hand. For those sailing on government ships backed by the full faith of Uncle Sam, the Benjamin is used for the seemingly contrary purposes of Western Union family remittances and entertainment. Overseas, it’s safer to carry cash than to trust an entertainment venue with a credit card. The Benjamin is also required when exchanging for local currencies in underdeveloped economies.
     $500 bills (and larger): Banks have not issued them since 1969, a time when $500 could buy a new car. Yet, unlike deflated or obsolete European currencies, these big bills have not been demonetized. Thus the Federal Reserve keeps track of these large bills remaining in circulation, presumably in collectors’ hands and senior citizens’ safes.
Now have a happy new year!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

What a single vote can do

Back in 2014, I got at least two votes in an uncontested ANC ( neighborhood committee) election in DC. Since I had not declared candidacy, no winner was proclaimed. As a studious college student, I went back to my studies in New York, and did not challenge the Board of Elections to be seated.

And three years later in Virginia, where I’m staying for work, a House of Delegates seat will flip to the Democrats by one vote in recount. Yes, one vote of 24,000 cast. And that one voter will end the 20-year Republican majority in the legislative body, resulting in a power-sharing tie. It takes a real “good old boy” to congratulate the presumed incoming delegate. And a “good old boy” network is therefore one of Virginia’s strengths: I have seen stats showing that Virginia is less partisan than other states. Even when a Democratic wave wipes away your Republican  supermajority. Apparently, through the House of Delegate’s elections committee, the governing party can toss a close election like tied candidates toss a coin in other states. In the post-1965 voting rights act environment, a legislative overturn of a recount would warrant federal scrutiny. Being a Virginia delegate is a part-time job, with 90 days of service over two years. The pay is approximately $18,000 per year plus hotel and meals while in session. Most delegates have full-time jobs, so engaging in a controversial, almost unprecedented, endeavor might not be appealing to outgoing Delegate Yancey, a Republican, especially during the Christmas season. Personal sensibilities might trump party loyalty, and how many citizens can say that they’ve been tossed out of office by a single ballot? The Republican Party of Virginia has yet to put out a statement.

With legislative experience that outgoing (carpet bagging) Governor McAuliffe lacks, incoming Democratic Governor Ralph Northam could lure a Republican delegate to a job in the executive branch, putting Democrats into the majority until a special election can take place. Republicans pulled a similar stunt on the Virginia Senate in 2014. despite the stunned silence, I doubt that Republican leadership is waiving a white flag.  You don’t just give away the keys to your house after 20 years of power. Democrats would know that feeling, having held the House of Delegates from the end of Reconstruction to 1998, about 120 years of Democrat control in the Solid South. So I’m betting that there are back room discussions with Democratic leadership and the incoming governor that will leave shell shocked Republicans with more power than they deserve after November’s electoral whipping. After all, it’s the art of the deal.

In other news, professional sports players play and perform for the fans, not for themselves. The NFL organization ‘s fumbling on the National Anthem protests was reported to cost about 10-12% viewership, which the media explained away as a natural occurrence of 2016 being an election year. But that margin was  enough to hit a tipping point that made stadiums empty out and tickets sell for cheap. Which is a surprise for me, since I thought new game-day fans would fill in for dejected regulars. Then again, I’m talking about the Washington Redskins, a team that will not be going to the playoffs this year. Given the economic harm that NFL has suffered from player protests, the organization could bring C.K. in to discuss a settlement of grievances, as an alternative to substantial civil suit against the controversial player.

Racial grievances in the NFL were a fringe issue until last year. Jesse Jackson’s and Spike Lee’s concerns now hold water. I applaud rapper P. Diddy for quipping about purchasing an NFL franchise. African Americans are underrepresented in sports leadership- from quarterbacks to managers to owners. It is analogous to the military of the 1970’s: you can be the best employer of racial minorities, yet there will be tension until one’s management represents diversity.

UPDATE (12/21/17): GOP reversed its course of resignation, successfully challenging one uncounted ballot. Result is a tie, coin flip to follow ( and likely second recount) per Virginia law.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Deconstructing the Department of Motor Vehicles

As I stand in line waiting for the DMV to open, I wonder how the experience could be improved. Online services have helped tremendously, reducing workload for "Patty and Selma" behind the desk.  Permits have to be renewed in person less frequently than in the past. But sometimes you still have to go to the DMV, MVA, or whatever it's called in your state.

How about privatizing? No, this is not a libertarian antigovernment screed; I'm referring to the customer-facing services. The government definitely has a role in ensuring safety of vehicles and their operators on public roads. But going to the DMV still stings.

The driver's license or ID card is an important document that allows people onto airplanes and into other secure facilities. How could you trust a private firm to issue IDs? On behalf of the federal government,  private Acceptance Agents check identity documents for the IRS, notaries give a seal of witness to legal documents, and contractors perform security screening in lieu of the TSA in places like San Francisco, and at a number of small airports. Ditto the rationale for registering car titles and license plates.

And would shady companies look the other way on tests? Computer based testing, typically arranged by the firms Prometric and Pearson Vue, is used for knowledge tests in issuing certificates and licenses to skilled tradesmen and professionals. No clerk can nudge you up to a passing grade. A simulator would objectively evaluate driving skills versus a subjectively-graded road test. However, a simulator seems to be a disservice to 16-year olds when this 20-minute test allows for a lifetime of driving. So, okay, you'd go to the DMV for that road test.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

San Juan Report

For the past two weeks, I've been on the ground in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Although I earlier reported the resumption of normal life after Hurricane Maria, what I saw from the bow of the hospital ship was superficial. Beyond the Marina street, electricity is not in service in the old city. A number of shops are open and running on diesel generators. Grocery stores are selling dry goods which do not require refrigeration. Essentials like eggs and milk can be procured at certain restaurants running on generators. It is impossible to find fresh meat in affected areas of the harbor, although stores near downtown have had electricity restored.For eligible patrons, the PX and Commissary at Fort Buchanan, both well-stocked, were doing brisk business. Gasoline is available, and rush hour traffic jams give a sense of normalcy. However, many traffic lights remain down, and major intersections are being marshaled by police. Light rail service is not available, but a cabbie was optimistic of an upcoming reopening. Much work remains in restoring public infrastructure, which will at long last allow more citizens to resume daily life and get the essential tourism industry back on track.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Hugh Hefner's Ghost

They say Hugh Hefner never dies. But it happened this month. His controversial magazine, Playboy, included nude women, beautiful bachelor pads, and social commentary. The Playboy bunny became an American icon. The controversy, of course, was whether Playboy glorified the body ( a la Renaissance ) or objectified women. "Liberated women" could take the former view, but pantsuit feminists took the latter opinion, and posters, calendarsa and magazines were removed from white and blue collar workplaces alike.

Context mattered, and Playboy sold itself as a classy publication. If Playboy was a high-minded ideal, 25-cent peep shows were the crude, ugly bastardization of the beautiful body. Times Square, New York, was the epoch of sleaze, and Mayor Giuliani's cleaning up the city meant shutting down those venues. The twinning of public sexuality and mid century urban physical decay must've made sense in the mind of the Moral Majority. In Hugh Hefner's final year, Playboy removed the nudity to appeal to a wider audience. It is a paradox how in some ways, America has become more sexually liberated, like greater acceptance of LGBTs;  but has become constrained, such as the undergrounding of nudity to the internet, and the rise of MGTOW online forums fomenting resentment for the other gender.

Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Farewell, USS Ponce

When the USS Ponce was commissioned in the early 1970's, you could guess some of the sailors had somewhere else to be. Given that it was the Vietnam era, there was a draft. No women on combat ships then, as this was an LPD amphibious ship. Skip forward to 2012, and the USS Ponce got a second life. Saved from decommissioning, she has spent the better of five years in the Persian Gulf, testing new theories of littoral action in a Navy once accustomed to deep sea operations. Of note is furing these past five years, she carried a civilian operating crew. As the last ship of that class, the Navy sailors who knew its engines were in bigger positions on other ships or shoreside. The civilian engineers put a bit of sweat equity to get the ship mission ready again. She has served a good five years with a hybrid crew, and is now being commissioned after 46 years of service. For this last tour of duty, all engineers were volunteers on one of the last steam vessels crewed by Navy civilians.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

City on Fire, 1977

While flipping through property records of Norfolk, Virginia’s most desirable neighborhood, I discovered that a Dubai investment firm had purchased, at full price, a fixer-upper in this small city at the eastern end of flyover country. 

When a Dubai investor puts money into the future of a fairly provincial shipbuilding town with few international flights, it makes me wonder if the globalists have used up all the potential of New York, San Francisco, Miami and Los Angeles. Not too far from their favorite depositories for wealth are cities down on their luck- Johnstown, PA; East Baltimore, MD.  Several million dollars, less than the cost of a New York apartment, would transform these places, but to no avail. 

Subway and streetcar neighborhoods of 1950’s urban white America, can be seen in the films “Brooklyn” (2016) and “Avalon” (1991). At the same time of parish-centric neighborhoods, there were suburban ambitions. Part of this was practical: urban neighborhoods were overcrowded at the end of WWII. Depopulation of white ethnic neighborhoods continued with the Civil Rights Movement.
Further hurting the cities were job creators following their employees to the suburbs. Government programs created in the 1960’s became politically impossible to defund. By 1975, New York City was bankrupt. President Gerald Ford, a favorite of suburbanites, told the city government to “drop dead”.  This brought 1980’s footage of abandoned houses and vacant lots which younger generations can watch on Youtube. Dating from this era, I came across a book in the aptly-named “Urban Literature” section of DC library, titled “Young Landlords”, and read stories of college- educated squatters on the Lower East Side.

Those dark days are two decades past, so nostalgia for wild days, individuality, and a “blank slate” takes hold. The South Bronx is not wrapped in hypergentrification seen in rezoned industrial districts of lower Manhattan, or of that in Harlem. Although many of the same underlying social problems remain, the physical environment is improved, with new affordable housing and parks. How did this happen, without the unstoppable displacing force of gentrification?
“During the past three decades, this extraordinary partnership between state and local governments, for-profit and nonprofit builders, and private investors and lenders has resulted in the construction and rehabilitation of more than 2.9 million rental homes for the most vulnerable members of our society”.

(Granger MacDonald, Chairman, National Association of Home Builders; letter in Wall Street Journal).