Friday, November 17, 2017

You better W.A.T.C.H. out, I’m telling you why

You blog long enough – in my case, 11 years and counting – you have certain evergreens that you revisit again and again. For instance, I observe most holidays with a holiday-related post. And by the time the first Christmas tree has gone up outside Macy’s, I’ll have started doing a number of gift and/or toy-related posts. Thus, yesterday, I had a piece about this year’s inductees to the Toy Hall of Fame. Probably next week, I’ll be doing a piece on this year’s Neiman Marcus crazy-arse wishbook. And I typically watch out for the annual W.A.T.C.H. List, which each year calls out the most dangerous toys out there.

Like pretty much (but not quite) everyone in the world, I don’t want to hear about any kids getting killed by some spectacularly unsafe toy. A choking hazard. A mismarked age range.

Yet I always feel a bit nanny-state about some of the toys that end up on the annual list, especially when I compare and contrast them to the toys of my childhood. The toddler iron that plugged in and heated up. The stuffed poodle with the easily removable eye that corkscrewed in and out of the stuffed poodle’s eye socket. As for bicycle helmets. Huh?

I’m happy that I grew up in the era of free-range childhood. Folks (such as parents) didn’t spend a ton of time worrying themselves to death about whether their kids were playing themselves (and other kids) to death. Caveat, children, more of less.

I suspect that it’s thanks to organizations like W.A.T.C.H.  (World Against Toys Causing Harm) that those stuffed poodles no longer come equipped with beady little eyes attached to sharp-edge corkscrews. And that’s good…

But the net result is that it looks to me that dangerous toys ain’t what they used to be. Still, on general principles, it would be best to avoid these suckers (info taken from the W.A.T.C.H. list):

HALLMARK “ITTY BITTYS” BABY STACKING TOY:The knock on this toy is that it doesn’t come with any age warnings.Itty Bitty Of course, anyone who’s ever known a baby would know by taking just one look at this that it’s for a baby. Plus, it’s called a Baby Stacking Toy, so there’s that cue. But those little hats and bows can come loose, and, thus, become a choking hazard. So it’s really not the age warning so much as those chokables. That’s what caused the Consumer Product Safety Commission to recall this product as of August 31, 2017. It’s a pretty cute toy. Everyone loves Disney. They need to figure out a way to secure Donald’s cap, and maybe embroider a bow on Daisy.

PULL ALONG PONY has a pull cord that measures 19 inches. That happens “despite the industry’s standard requiring strings on playpen and crib toys to be less than 12 inches in length.” There’s apparently a loophole that let’s a pull toy have a longer cord, which presents a strangulation hazard. I know that there are occasional stories about little ones being strangled by the cord of blinds, but a pull toy? Could that really happen with a 19 inch piece of string? Me? i wouldn’t want to chance it. Cut the cord to a shorter length to keep on the safe side. How long a pull cord does a one-year-old need?

WONDER WOMAN BATTLE-ACTION SWORD Sure, we had cowgirls like Annie Oakley and Dale Evans, but when it came to the toy weaponry of my childhood, it was all boy. So the girls final get a weapon of their own – a light sword – and, don’t you know, it gets put on the no-no list because it can cause blunt force injury. “The rigid plastic sword blade has the potential to cause facial or other impact injuries.” Would this not be true of any battle-action sword? You don’t have to be Braveheart to understand that when you wield a sword, you’re using a weapon. If Wonder Woman uses a sword – and I don’t know: does she? – why shouldn’t a little wannabe Wonder Woman get to use one? As for impact injuries, anything in the hand of an excited kid – say, a Barbie doll – can do the same.

HAND FIDGETZ SPINNERS The warning on this fidget spinner is that it’s “a novelty gift item. It is not intended to be used as a toys.” But some spinners come with “potential small parts hazards”", which can choke you up. But I wouldn’t worry that much about them. Sure, keep them out of the hands of anyone too young to need a fidget spinner to work out their anxiety and/or boredom, but wait until next year. Fidget spinners will likely have gone the way of the Pet Rock.

SPIDER-MAN SPIDER-DRONE OFFICIAL MOVIE EDITION This pricey toy is for kids over the age of 12, and comes with  a number of warnings: “Drone has rotating blades that move at high speed, posing danger of… injury…Keep spinning rotors away from fingers, hair, eyes, and other body parts”… and other cautions/warnings on package/package insert.” From my point of view, drones in general should be kept out of the hands of pretty much everyone not qualified to use one, let alone kids (even if they are over the age of 12).

NERF ZOMBIE STRIKE DEADBOLT CROSSBOW This is marketed for kids as young as 8. Who are “encouraged to load ‘arrows’ into Crossbowthe ‘deadbolt’ crossbow, pull back the ‘primary pressurized lever’ and fire the projectiles in order to ‘strike back’ at ‘zombies.’ The force of the arrow launch presents the potential for eye and facial injuries.” Who in their right mind would give an 8 year old a crossbow, even if it’s firing Nerf projectiles?

SLACKERS SLACKLINE CLASSIC SERIES KIT “The manufacturer warns of the potential for ‘severe injury’, including ‘a strangulation hazard, especially with children.’” Strangulation? Not to mention fall-related injuries. Fun for all ages, alrighty.

OVAL XYLOPHONE I love the idea of a baby plonking away on a xylophone. But the drumstick used for plonking away “has the potential to be mouthed and occlude a child’s airway.” Guess this one could use a warning that this one requires adult supervision.

JETTS HEEL WHEELS This toy comes with these warnings: “USING HEEL WHEELS CAN BE A DANGEROUS ACTIVITY AND MAY RESULT IN INJURY OR DEATH. … USE AT YOUR OWN RISK….” Can you imagine picking up a toy for your kid, reading “may result in death” and casually tossing it in your shopping cart? And yet there are so many toys that can result in death. Maybe all of them. That’s a kind of a problem inherent in toys: they can be stupid and dangerous. And inherent in kids: they do stupid and dangerous things, with or without toys. Still, best not to encourage them. Especially when those Heel Wheels have the special feature that they throw off sparks. And “sparks can burn.”

BRIANNA BABYDOLL The final item on the non-shopping list for responsible toy buyers is this baby doll, that comes with removable ponytail holders, creating a choking hazard. Seriously? A manufacturer can’t figure out how to sew threads on to doll hair. Come on. Even I could figure that one out.

Anyway, this is the W.A.T.C.H. List for this year. With so many toys out there, why would you spend on ones that are known to be hazardous? Even if there probably isn’t any such thing as a non-hazardous toy, especially if they get into the wrong little hands.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Clue, Paper Airplane. And - ta-da– The Wiffle Ball

Each year, just about this time, the Strong Museum, which hosts the National Toy Hall of Fame, announces the toys that are being inducted.

This years winners are paper airplanes, the Wiffle Ball, and Clue. Not quite as excellent as the swing, which was inducted last year, but these are all excellent choices, at least in the humble opinion of this former child.

The paper airplane: I’m good with numbers. I’m good with words. But I have absolutely zero spatial reasoning. When I had my first office job – the summer after I graduated from high school – I was asked to type up some letters and put them in envelopes. I couldn’t figure out how to fold a standard 8 1/2” x 11” piece of letterhead so that it fit in a standard Number 10 business envelope. I folded the paper in half, then in quarters, and awkwardly wedged in into the envelope. Then someone showed me. Fold the paper in thirds. Eureka!

In a more recent incident, my cousin Ellen and I, in the midst of a summer downpour, got ourselves soaked while trying to figure out how to fit an exercise bike that a friend of my Aunt Mary’s was giving her into the back of Ellen’s SUV. Maybe it was the rain, but we couldn’t figure it out until Ellen came up with a brilliant solution: call her sister Laura and have Laura’s husband come over in his truck to pick it up. (Those of us without spatial reason develop compensating skills.)

So it took me quite a while to get even passably good at folding paper airplanes. Nevertheless, I persisted, and, while I wasn’t exactly the Orville Wright of paper airplanes, I could get one to do a bit of a swoop.paper airplane

A great plaything. All you need is a piece of paper, and you’ve got endless entertainment. Plus you get to fine tune your fine motor skills and your spatial reasoning. Not to mention rudimentary understanding of aerodynamics: a blunt-nosed paper airplane ain’t going nowhere but down. Anyway,Yay, Paper Airplane! Congratulations on your induction.

Wiffle Ball: What would summer be without Wiffle Ball? Sure, a Wiffle Ball is almost impossible to pitch and, even with a regulation Wiffle Bat, almost impossible to hit so that it soared off the bat – at least in my experience. Very easy to whiff. And getting hit on, say, your calf, with a Wiffle Ball – whipped by some big kid who had mastered the art of pitching a Wiffle Ball – really, really hurt. Every bit at much as getting hit by a hardball or a softball. A Wiffle Ball could really sting! And don’t get me going on getting clobbered with a Wiffle Bat. wiffle ball

It would have taken a really psychopathic kid to go after another kid with a Louisville Slugger. But was there ever a kid shown a Wiffle Bat who didn’t try to weaponize it? No, another kid couldn’t go full Al Capone on you and beat your brains out with one, but getting whacked with a Wiffle Bat hurt – a stingy hurt, just like the Wiffle Ball.

But you could play baseball with Wiffle Ball. Yay, Wiffle Ball! Congratulations on your induction.

Clue: I grew up in the Great Age of Board Games. Monopoly (or our cheese-ball version, Easy Money). Scrabble (or our cheese-ball version, Key Word). Sorry. Go To The Head of the Class. Professor PlumYou name it, I played it in someone’s backyard, on an old WWII Army or Navy blanket, on a summer’s afternoon, under a tree. And one of our favorites was Clue. Interesting characters. A fancy house – who had a Conservatory? Cool little weapons. The use of deductive reasoning. Taking some risk when you declared “Professor Plum did it in the Conservatory with the candlestick.” Yay, Clue! Congratulations on your induction.

Runners-up: What toys were nominated but didn’t make the cut: the Magic 8 Ball, Matchbox Cars, My Little Pony, PEZ Candy Dispenser, play food, Risk, sand, Transformers, and Uno.

Personally, I can’t stand My Little Pony. But these are all reasonably good choices. Even though, I will observe that, if you have sand, you can make mud pies, and if you have Play-Doh you can make anything, so you really don’t need play food. (And if you lived in an area where there were many trees and bushes around, you had acorns and pignuts, and poisonous red and green berries, and leaves and twigs, all of which made pretty fine play food.) Further, I think if you nominate sand, you really need to nominate the sandbox. Just sayin’

Here’s the full list of toys/playthings in the Hall of Fame. And here’s Pink Slip’s take on last year’s picks, Swing!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Now this gets my goat

According to the Chinese way of doing calendar business, 2015 was the Year of the Goat.

But I’m here to tell Xi Jinping that, in real life, 2017 has been quite the year, goat-wise.

Pink Slip, ever with the eye toward what’s trendy, picked up on this earlier this year, when I noted that there were goats galore. One of the sub-goatish topics of my post was goat yoga, which combines two things I know absolutely nothing about. Well, ignorance has never stopped me from developing an insta-opinion, and holding it for however long it takes me to concoct a piece. Here’s what I had to say about goat yoga in April:

The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of mixing goats and yoga.To me, yoga – despite pose names like Downward Dog - always seems kind of humorless. Having a bunch of goats scampering around might lighten things up quite a bit. (Source: Pink Slip)

But the District of Columbia apparently frowns on the combination of goats and yoga:

the Department of Health (DOH) is aiming to end this menacing mixture of fitness and farm animals. D.C. Brau, a Washington microbrewery, had to cancel two sold-out goat yoga classes—which were to be followed by beer tastings—after the DOH warned that the events would violate a ban on spectators touching animals at public events. (Source: Reason)

A ‘ban on spectators touching animals at public events’? Say wha? I mean, there’s bad touchy. I know that. But there’s also good touchy. Does this mean that, if I attend a public event in Washington – say a march to protest the pardoning of Donald Trump, père ou fils – and someone marches by with a really sweet Lab, I can’t pet the Lab?

DC DOH has shut down goat yoga before.

In June, the department also forbade the Congressional Cemetery from hosting a goat yoga fundraiser.

Organizers were told that they needed to “get a wildlife handling permit for exotic animals.”

Who even knew that goats are exotic?

Maybe in DC, where the plain old animals run more to snakes, rats, and weasels.

Exceptions can be made to the goat fatwa if the event is educational – which the Cemetery folks argued theirs was - but the city “could see no educational merit…Officials even expressed concern that participants might lose their balance and fall on the goats.” They also stressed the same “no touch” policy that ended the goat-yoga-beer tasting event.

But the National Zoo has a petting zoo, and Christian Britschgi, whose post on Reason is the source for this post, looked into Goat-gate:

It’s possible that the "no touch" policy makes some sort of exemption for these petting zoos, but I could find no text of the actual policy to verify this, let alone justify it.

Christian also looked into the city’s rules and came up with nothing that could justify banning goat yoga.

Chalk it up to arbitrary and capricious, I guess.

Now I am not anti-regulation. I thank having a relatively strong regulatory system for the fact that I’m sitting here without having to wear a gas mask, that the water that flows from my tap is potable, and for having been spared being a child laborer (anywhere other than in the home I grew up in). But for every excellent regulation, there’s likely a really stupid one. And sometimes that regulation doesn’t even appear to be written down anywhere. It’s just made up and enforced on an ad hoc basis. Like this one. Which really gets my goat.

A tip of the Pink Slip straw hat, with a bite of the brim nibbled out by a goat, to my brother-in-law Rick for sending this one my way.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The City of Cambridge takes flex pricing to a new level

I have a couple of gym buddies who live in Cambridge, and they were all abuzz yesterday about an article on liquor licenses and how they’ve been so patchily issued in their town over the last couple of years. How patchy? Well, the price for a license – depending on whether you were canny enough to find the right lawyer or knew the right question (or person) to ask – was anywhere from free to $450,000.

That’s quite a swing, especially for a low margin business like a restaurant.

Even after reading the article twice, I couldn’t quite follow the thread on how this all worked. (I was going to say that I couldn’t quite follow the “logic”, but that would be absolutely the wrong word to use with respect to how liquor licensing goes down in Cambridge.) Here’s how I think things work:

To get a liquor license, you either need to buy one from an existing owner for whatever the market could bear, or get one from the city for free.

Sometimes, the free licenses depended on what section of the city Cambridge wanted new restaurants to spring up in. Thus, for a while the licensing commission – a paid lead commissioner and the chiefs of the police and fire departments – were more open to new free licenses for up and coming, techie-ville Kendall Square than they were for old, beaten up Central Square. Guess the Cantab Lounge – a dive bar –  and a few other spots where you could get liquored up, or just have a drink with dinner, were good enough for Central.

But this preference for Kendall over Central didn’t work for everyone. Sumaio Chen wanted to open a place in Kendall and ended up paying $200K for one -  a license that other restaurants in Kendall were getting as a freebie

Chen would have loved the same deal, but it was as though she didn’t know the secret handshake. Nothing on the Cambridge License Commission’s website or at its offices explained how to get a free license, and Chen’s advisers told her she had to try to buy one from another restaurant first. (Source: Boston Globe)

That bit about having to “try to buy one from another restaurant first”? Apparently, the decision on whether or not you were trying hard enough was completely arbitrary. Or looked that way.

In all, 95 restaurants, bars, hotels, and clubs in Cambridge operate with free licenses, or 38 percent of the total, city records show. Another 157 hold licenses they bought from other owners, and now worry they overpaid, as free licenses become more available.

This is Massachusetts, and this is Cambridge, from whence Cambridge Favorite Son Tip O’Neil so famously said, “All politics is local”. So, needless to say, there were lawyers – home boyos – with connections who knew the ropes and could show folks around. Sometimes these intermediaries worked for the sellers. Sometimes for the buyers. Sometimes for both. (Oh,  boy…)

No one knew this patchwork of inequity better than the lawyers who made a living navigating the murky system. With so little guidance from the city, many restaurant owners turned to a small cadre of well-connected attorneys who often preached the advantages of buying a license. Other times, they schooled license applicants in how to convince commissioners that they had tried in vain to buy a license, and deserved a free one.

As for those who worry that the liquor license that they paid so dearly for may be worth nothing, given that a license can be had for free. I have just two words to say: taxi medallion.

The relatively new chairman of the commissioner, who was brought in in January 2016 to help clean up the licensing mess, doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for those who got stuck paying big bucks for a license.

[Nicole] Murati Ferrer made no apologies for past policies on issuing licenses, or the negative consequences for owners caught in the middle. She said the commission had no duty at hearings to inform owners of their options, and that people needed to seek information from the city earlier in the process.

Others think differently:

…some City Council members are sympathetic. In a statement in June, they said the city had been giving bad advice to restaurant owners about liquor licenses. They have even weighed possible reparations

Reparations! Wow! Sounds crazy, but I will note that one of the investigative reporters who worked on this story is Sacha Pfeiffer, who was one of the Spotlight Team members who exposed the Boston Archdiocese sex abuse scandal – a story that got made into the Academy Award-winning movie Spotlight. So I suspect there’s more to come on this story.

Again, Murati Ferrer isn’t shedding any tears, crocodile or otherwise, over the issue.

Commission chair Murati Ferrer, however, said the city bears no blame for failing to disclose all license options to restaurant owners. She suggested attorneys were at fault if their clients didn’t understand: “I think it’s shame on the lawyer.”

Caveat restaurateur and all that, but I think there’s plenty of blame to go around on this one. And I wouldn’t bet against more shoes dropping. (C.f., Sacha Pfeiffer)

Me? Why doesn’t Cambridge – or anyplace else: pick a city, any city – just rent the licenses? The cost of a lease might be flex-y, depending on what type of operation we’re talking about – white table-cloth foodie vs. watering hole. Moving forward, that would put everyone on pretty even footing. Except, of course, for those looking for reparations for the $450K they spent on a license when the joint next door got theirs for free.

Sounds like it’s time to lawyer up!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Tune out, turn on, drop in to a psychedelic retreat center

I was reading an article on WeLive, WeWork’s communal living business, and came across the name of one Tricia Eastman, whose profession was described as psychedelic retreat coordinator. Holy Timothy Leary! That’s a job?


When you google “psychedelic retreat coordinator,” you get 377,000 hits.

Ow wow, man.

It’s a thing.

There are all sorts of psychedelic retreat centers out there, each featuring a different variety of hallucinogenic. You can go on a mushroom retreat in Jamaica, which kind of blows my mind. Wouldn’t a retreat in Jamaica be a ganja retreat?

And if you’re interested in finding out what it’s like to achieve the Yaqui Way of Knowledge you read about 50 years ago in Carlos Castaneda’s book, there’s a peyote retreat in Arizona.

In the Netherlands, there’s a retreat center in a Dutch farmhouse where you can partake of:

…river toad, bufo alvarius [which] belongs to a species of toad containing the potent hallucinogen 5-MeO-DMT in its skin. The ‘venom’ is extracted by gently stroking the frog, then smoked, producing a brief but intense altered state of consciousness lasting around 15 minutes, followed by recurrent waves for several hours.)

Eye of newt, skin of toad? That’s the farm house of weird.

I am not a candidate for any of these retreats, as I lived through the psychedelic 1960’s without ever dropping acid.

I did have friends who did LSD, and had one memorable adventure when a friend who was coming down needed someone Don Orione shrinewith her for the duration. “A” had a car, and we drove – she drove, actually; what can I say? I was young and dumb, and I didn’t hesitate for moment to get in a car with someone who was tripping – and rev out to Revere, a ratty working class beach town north of Boston. There we walked on the freezing cold beach for a couple of hours. We then buzzed over to East Boston and visited the Don Orione Shrine to check out the giant statue of the Madonna Queen.

This was a trippy enough experience to be had while completely straight and sober. I can only imagine what it was like for “A.”

Seeing the statue was the second highest point of the day. The highest was tootling around with “A” in her car. Very few “girls” had cars on campus when I was in school. Most of us didn’t have any money and, even if we had,car ownership just wasn’t done. But “A” somehow had permission to keep a car on campus, and what a car it was: a 10 year old navy blue Jaguar convertible.

My other LSD-related experience – quite a bit removed from an actual LSD-related experience – occurred in high school, when Dr. Werner Koella, a scientist at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, spoke at my school. His topic: LSD. I have no recall what he said – way too science-y – but I do remember that he had a thickish German accent, and that he droned on and on. It was a Friday afternoon, last period, and he spoke at our monthly school assembly. As president of the student council, I got to introduce Dr. Koella and sit on stage with Sister Superior while he spoke. It was late in the day, the buses had already pulled up and were idling their engines just outside the auditorium. The students were getting restless. The speaker was boring, the day was getting late, the buses had arrived.

Every time Dr. Koella would pause, we assumed he had completed his talk. Sister Superior and I would stand, the student audience following suit, to give the standard Notre Dame Academy standing ovation. But Dr. Koella would start up again. We would all retake our seats. This happened a couple of times before he finally stopped, much to our collective relief. At that point, his standing ovation was more enthusiastic than it would normally have been for a boring Bob Dylanspeaker.

And for a while in college, I did have this Dylan poster on my wall for a while. The one that came free in the “Greatest Hits” album.

Other than that, I was not a psychedelic kind of gal.

Nonetheless, I am intrigued by the notion of the psychedelic retreat, and the profession of psychedelic retreat coordinator.

Here’s what Tricia Eastman’s LinkedIn profile, for her business Love Juju says:

Love Juju is a platform for alchemy, infusing ancient traditions with gamification along with modern psychology through retreats, workshops, discussions, & one-on-one coaching.

Love Juju is a meta-hacked program that mirrors the creative process, for inspired, passionate people are ready for breakthroughs in their path to self-mastery.

-Use Regenerative Productivity to catapult your energy and success levels
-Unlock new levels of abundance and creativity through Energetic Responsibility
-Access your full capacity for emotional intelligence
-Infuse new levels of self awareness into your life while discovering your sense of play and innocence (Source: LinkedIn)

I must confess that I’m way too unenlightened to actually understand much of this. A platform for alchemy infused with gamification? A meta-hacked program? Regenerative Productivity? Energetic Responsibility. I didn’t get much of anything until I hit the point about emotional intelligence.

Maybe I need to expand my mind. Maybe I need to tune in and turn one. Maybe I need to head to the Netherlands and smoke me some bufo alvarius.


Friday, November 10, 2017

The Billionaire Boys Club just lost a member

There was a joke during the inflationary years of the Carter Administration that went something like this:

A fellow with $10,000 to his name falls into some type of Rip Van Winkle sleep. When he awakes 20 years later, he learns that his $10,000 has turned into a cool million. He finds a pay phone and goes to call a friend to tell him the good news. He deposits his dime, and the operator comes on and tells him that it’ll be $35,000 to complete his call.

This joke is quaint for a couple of reasons. One, of course, is the existence of a pay phone that you could drop a dime into, and the voice of an operator who comes on to tell you what you owe. Do pay phones even exist anymore? Do operators?

The other, of course, is that, in modern memory, there was a time when having a million dollars made you rich.

That was then and this is now, and a million bucks just ain’t what it used to be. Even multi-millions – multi-hundreds-of-millions – is, in some circles, sneered at.

And even being a uni-billionaire isn’t enough to get you onto the Forbes list of the wealthiest 400 Americans. To make it onto that list, you have to have at least $2 billion. Last year, the cut off was $1.7 billion.

One of those who fell off the list was Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, Jr.

Actually,Ross didn’t so much fall off the list as get kicked off of it.

It seems that, for years, he has been BS-ing about his wealth, letting slide an initial error that attributed the money invested in funds he managed to personal assets. And, once on the billionaire glide based on that error, Ross just kept upping the ante and, each year, claimed to have mo’ better money than he had the year before.

Then Ross had something of a senior moment and decided to join the Trump Cabinet. Which meant disclosing his financials. Which revealed that he had less than $700 million.

Now most of us would be happy with $700 million. Or $70 million. Or even a relatively paltry $7 million.

But not, apparently, if you’re a wannabe play-ah.

Anyway, when Forbes let Ross know that he was falling off the list, he pushed back:

…citing trusts for his family that he said he did not have to disclose in federal filings. "You're apparently not counting those, which are more than $2 billion," he said. When asked for documentation, the 79-year-old demurred, citing "privacy issues." Told that Forbes nonetheless planned to remove him from the list for the first time in 13 years, he responded: "As long as you explain that the reason is that assets were put into trust, I'm fine with that." And when did he make the transfer that allowed him to not disclose over $2 billion? "Between the election and the nomination." (Source: Forbes)

Now, if Ross wants to gift his offspring and their offspring with $2 billion worth of largesse, that’s his business. But you do need to question how this would make sense, given that such a transfer would be taxable at that point in time, but untaxable in the longer run if Congress decides to do away with the inheritance tax. It seems dumb for any old anybody to fork over $800 million in taxes that might be going away, let alone the purported financial genius/fiscal shrewdy who heads up the Department of Commerce.

Despite the seeming stupidity of Ross taking this moment to play Big Daddy Bigbucks, nevertheless, he persisted in pushing back on Forbes.

So began the mystery of Wilbur Ross' missing $2 billion. And after one month of digging, Forbes is confident it has found the answer: That money never existed. It seems clear that Ross lied to us, the latest in an apparent sequence of fibs, exaggerations, omissions, fabrications and whoppers that have been going on with Forbes since 2004. In addition to just padding his ego, Ross' machinations helped bolster his standing in a way that translated into business opportunities. And based on our interviews with ten former employees at Ross' private equity firm, WL Ross & Co., who all confirmed parts of the same story line, his penchant for misleading extended to colleagues and investors, resulting in millions of dollars in fines, tens of millions refunded to backers and numerous lawsuits. Additionally, according to six U.S. senators, Ross failed to initially mention 19 suits in response to a questionnaire during his confirmation process.

Wilbur, Wilbur, Wilbur. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

And this from a graduate of my friend Sean’s alma mater, Xavier High School in Manhattan, a Jesuit high school heretofore best known for having the late Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia among its illustrious alumni ranks.

Not, apparently, a surprise to those who knew him best:

"Wilbur doesn't have an issue with bending the truth," says David Wax, who worked alongside Ross for 25 years and served as the No. 3 person in his firm. Another former colleague, who requested anonymity, was less circumspect: "He's lied to a lot of people."

It may be his that his undisclosed dealings with Putin cronies is what topples him from his post at Commerce, but the fall from the grace of a slot on the Forbes 400 list may prove the greater embarrassment. In addition to being an ego blow, there may be the matter of his third wife, who apparently set her cap for Ross because she wanted to be married to someone on the Forbes 400. (Ha, I say, ha ha.) Wouldn’t you like to be in on that pillow talk?


The Department of Commerce issued a statement saying the $2 billion gift never happened. "Contrary to the report in Forbes, there was no major asset transfer to a trust in the period between the election and Secretary Ross's confirmation."

All well and good but, as Forbes pointed out, they didn’t pull that “$2 billion gift” canard out of thin air. They heard it directly from Ross himself.

I sometimes debate with myself over just how bad schadenfreude is for the soul. But it sure is fun. And it would be even shadenfreud-ier if, come next year, another certain New York someone – his financials now fully disclosed – were also to fall, ignominiously, off the Forbes list.

Come on down!

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Privatized prisons? Bring on the public policy debatae!

I always have to laugh whenever someone touts how much better it would be if the private sector ran everything. Services would be cheaper (to the providers running them to provide, of course, not to the consumers who consume them or the taxpayers who pay for them), operate more efficiently (just look at the bang-up job Keolis does with the Boston metro train system), and altogether offer an undeniable, every day proof statement underscoring the private sector’s superiority to the public sector. (A corollary to this, of course, is that we should have businessmen hold high public office. Ahem.)

Maybe I’m just jaded because so much of my private sector career was spent in companies where the products and services always cost more than those of those offered by the competition, where we were not particularly efficient, and as for effective... Let’s just say most of the places I worked are no longer standing.

Ah, but you might well be thinking, these companies were drummed out of existence – as they should have been – by the ruthless efficiencies of The Market. And that is absolutely true.

But we were never providing necessary citizen services. And when it comes to necessary citizen services, there are plenty of then that should be run by the government, not by profiteers.

The most notable example of this is the prison system, which is increasingly owned and operated by private companies.

Their incentive is, of course, to increase the demand for prisons. Which means increasing the supply of prisoners. So it’s in their interest to collude with the prison guard unions, anti-immigrant groups, and communities where there’s no other viable employment opportunities, to promote “law and order”, three strikes you’re in for good, kick the brown folks out, and schemes to throw people in jail for a $50 unpaid traffic fine that over the course of time manages to balloon into 30 days or $3K.

Not to mention that, in keeping costs down, they feed prisoners even worse swill than they used to get, and have fewer opportunities for anything that might keep them out of trouble in the stir or prepare them for life outside of the stir.

Anyway, the last thing I read about private prisons was a story on a class action suit behalf of ICE detainees – 60,000 of them – who were held in Geo Group, Inc. facilities where they were allegedly forced to chose one of two options: work for free or get thrown into solitary confinement. The plaintiffs claim that Geo was violating the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

Their lawsuit argues that Geo violated the law’s prohibition on using threats to obtain labor.

“It would be forced labor for someone to say, ‘We’ll arrest you for not working for me,’ ” says David Seligman, who represents the plaintiffs. “It’s similarly forced labor to say, ‘We’re going to remove you from all contact with other people.’ ” The lawsuit also argues that Geo, through an optional work program that pays $1 a day, violated common law against “unjust enrichment,” since extensive use of low-paid detainee labor has saved the company money; it employs only one janitor in Aurora who isn’t in custody, the plaintiffs say. (Source: Bloomberg)

Geo is, of course, pushing back, maintaining that this is “really a public-policy dispute.”

And, yep, there’s some truth to that assertion.

They also claim that, if the suit goes in the plaintiffs’ favor, they’re ability to operate viable and profitably will be jeopardized.

And, yep, there may be some truth to that one, too. To which I say too bad.

I’m a big believer that those in prison should have the opportunity to work, to build their skills, and make a little money. And that money doesn’t have to be what they’d make on the outside. But their pay shouldn’t be anything that approaches zero or looks in any way, shape, or form like slave wages. And they sure shouldn’t be forced into an either-or decision between being a slave or being held in solitary confinement.

Privatized prisons?

Whether the plaintiffs win their case or not, I say bring on the public policy debate!