Thursday, January 16, 2014

Redistribution of wealth


CNN Money has an article about "Foreclosures hitting a six year low" emphasizing  "And it's coming at a good time as home prices rebound. 'There is unprecedented demand from institutional investors willing to pay with cash to buy at the foreclosure auction, helping to raise the value of properties with a foreclosure filing in 2013 by an average of 10% nationwide,' said Blomquist."

The winners are (no surprise) again the banks and the investors. Those who were foreclosed upon are screwed. This would be  almost 500,000 people in 2013, and the over a million in each of 2012 and 2011. And I wonder how many of the million or so long time unemployed have lost their  remaining life savings in this way.

What you have is an instance of a huge transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top. The foreclosures will sell at 10% or more than the foreclosure price. The banks will unload this "bad debt". Speculators will buy them at the beginning of a recovering market, and do well as they rehab a bit and resell. The folks who lost their homes will continue to plod along, having lost their most valuable possession with little hope of ever owning again.

Our millionaire congress people will continue to be on break, careless of the plight of their people. They passed a trillion dollar budget as they ignored the plight of the over a million and growing long term unempolyed.  Extending unemployment costs 27 billion. The amount of fraud in the process is minuscule in comparison to the cost. Pumping  27 billion into the economy so that some folks in dire straits can invest in their families, education, and a  life does not seem like too much to ask of our government.

As an offset, if that's necessary, why not raise the capital gains taxes on the 400 or so highest taxpayers who in 2007 and 2008 took a record share of capital gains during the meltdown years of the Great Recession, according to Forbes magazine. ( http://www.forbes.com/sites/janetnovack/2011/05/11/richest-400-took-record-share-of-capital-gains-during-market-meltdown-year/)

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel winning economist out of Columbia University, estimates the loss in revenue to our national treasury at $30 billion over these two years when the tax rate on capital gains was first reduced to 15%. (The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz, p. 72) Talk about redistribution of wealth, social programs are among the first to be cut or mitigated by our congress. That redistribution is from the poor to the rich, rather than vice versa as some would have us believe.

It is easy to say but the rich have earned it, and the poor haven't. If society is to work for all, all should contribute as they can. This asks more of the rich, who in turn profit from a great economy, and opens the door for others to move up the social ladder. Some of us near the middle of the ladder will dismiss this by saying "I did it myself." But I say, hold on there. It was  a different time, and the climate that lets you say that now is completely different. There are problems that need more attention than shifting blame to those who have lost much, if not all in the redistribution of wealth.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Illusions dashed-Consumer Reports

I have always liked Consumer Reports. I think I still do...but!!!

I received notice in snail mail that my subscription was up. Fair enough. I don't like to send money or checks by snail mail and echecking seems to get mixed up because I cannot send the return stub back. Somehow, just using the account number doesn't work.

I wanted to take care of the subscription as soon as possible...remove one thing from my plate, so I called the 1-800 number "for faster service". The consumer report customer service was slow, and I was placed on hold. They have terrific classical music to soothe the customers on hold, so I put the speaker phone on to enjoy the fine quality of the sound. About a minute into it, I was encouraged to take care of my business on www.consumerreports.org  and it would be easy.

I listened to more music, and another minute or so, the same message came on. This was getting to be a long hold, and the music was becoming less soothing. After about the third announcement of the www address, I keyed the address onto my browser. The home page came up, sleek, business like.

I was experienced in these things. I went to my account, knowing full well that I had never set up an account, but this was an opportunity of a lifetime. I had two choices: enter my user id and password or subscribe. I entered my email and pressed "I forgot my user id" and the message returned was no email on file. That to me was unbelievable because every organization in the world seems to be able to get to me by email, to the extent that the first five minute after I open my email in the morning is spent deleting messages from every organization under the sun, most of whom I had never contacted had my email. These are the ones who make it through my generous spam filter.

I waited on the phone, listening to more music, and finally, after a five minute wait overall, a person came on. I paid for my subscription, and then popped the how come question. "While I was waiting on hold, I was told I could take care of all my business at the .org address. How come there was no window to open an account? (get a user id, and password, and pay for my subscription)?"
My courteous rep told me I had to click on subscribe, "You have to open an online subscription for $30 to use that service."

Boy was I deflated. I would have to pay Consumer Reports $30 to manage my hard copy subscription of $26. There seems to be a disconnect here. Shouldn't an online version be cheaper than a hard copy sent via USPS? Wouldn't it make sense to encourage people to select online services with a lower price. What really boosts readership and cuts costs?
Whose side is Consumer Reports on?

Friday, September 27, 2013

Journey''s end

After two and a half weeks, I finally feel like my journey to the Mediterranean Sea area is complete. My daughter and grandson arrived home on Tuesday night, and I visited them the past couple of days.
She wanted to do the Tunisian leg of the journey on her own. She was meeting her relatives there and baby Khaled was being introduced to his grandparents on that side for the first time. It was a joyful occasion for everyone with welcome parties and birthday parties for the baby. Meg was treated to some of the beauty of this small North African country, and had much to say about the hospitality of the people. She walked around ruins that dated back over two millenia, and put her feet into the sea that was the center of the known universe for such a short time in history.
But the center of the visit was family. I can appreciate the grandfather holding the baby for the first time; singing the songs of Tunisia to his grandson. I enjoy thinking of the grandmother cradling the boy, telling him how beautiful and happy he is. I can picture the pride of his father as he spoke of his son to uncles, friends and neighbors. His aunt also loved this beautiful bundle of energy and fun.
Baby Khaled, speaking the universal language of smiles and cheer, squeals and infant sounds has proven to be a great ambassador to Turkey and Tunisia.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Travel observations

Upon reaching Taksim square after an afternoon in Kadikoy, we decided to relax, have  a nice dinner and get ready to leave. The airport “limo” was to pick us up at 10 a.m. the next day to get us to Ataturk airport so we could go through security before my plane departed at 1:15 p.m. Istanbul time.
We decided on an Indian restaurant that was a half block from the hotel. In America, when you go Indian, rice is served with almost all meals. Not in Turkey. Rice was a separate item. It was not a deal breaker, but little things like that often happen when traveling.
There were no wash cloths in our hotel room. We asked for them, and the maid said “No washcloths.” affirming and denying my request. I suppose it is important to bring a few with you while you travel, or one of those polyester puffs. Another thing that was different, but not unusual was the absence of a top sheet. A duvet over a comforter took its place.
Money is important. I worried about that part. I set out from here with 12 US dollars in my wallet. I returned with $2 and a few coins worth about 15 cents in Turkey. I suspect most of the things purchased there were rounded up to the nearest lira. Before I went, I visited my bank to make sure my debit card would work in the ATMs in Istanbul. I also called my Mastercard company to let them know I was traveling, including the dates so the card could be used abroad. These instruments both worked well. On a couple of occasions, the ATM said wrong pin, and I immediately withdrew my card, and went to another machine. The Mastercard was excellent for meals. No, I did not eat the card.
At ATMs, I would withdraw small amounts, like 80 lira ($40) so I would not be loaded up with foreign money at the end of the stay. This would not have been a problem since there are exchange kiosks at the airports.
The Metro pass was a mystery to me. Meg solved it. We had to put down a 7 lira deposit to acquire a plastic card at a store. Then, we had  to go to a machine near the Metro stop to get it charged for the amount that we estimated would be needed for the rides that we intended to take. Meg put 10 lira on the cards for each of us. The Metro plastic purchase was a bargain when compared to a taxi both in time and cost. We used the cards for ground travel and the ferry to Asia. It was really neat speeding along the streets by rail, missing the traffic tie ups and the vendors who seemed to know that the cabdrivers in the traffic jams  needed sunglasses and water, and if I rolled my window down, someone was bound to come up to the stopped vehicle with water or looking for a handout. The Metro was great, used mostly by working people who enjoyed the smile and flashing eyes of the baby.
We never figured out what to do with the cards to get our deposit back, so we left one with a friend who was staying another day, and the other in the room as a partial tip.
Security at airports always seems to be a hassle, but I suppose it is effective. At the Ataturk airport, it was necessary to pass security immediately on entering the facility. Bags had to be placed on conveyor belts, and everyone walked through a screening booth with hands held high. I had a laptop in my luggage that Meg wanted me to bring home. At first, the security person requested that I remove the laptop and send it through separately. I fumbled with several zippers on the suitcase, opened the wrong one, fumbled with the zippers on the second case, and the line was getting backed up. Finally, he said never mind, and I was through. I went to the line to get my boarding pass and check my bags.
Another screener asked if I had a laptop, and I answered yes. "Is it yours?" she inquired. I realized that I could claim ownership, but the next question in my mind would have proven me a liar, and then I might be sent to jail, so I said "No, it belonged to Yale University." The truth. She brought me back to the original luggage scanning area, and asked that I open the case and remove the laptop. Yale was written all over it, and threats about stealing it. She put it through the screening line, and then asked me to turn it on. Somehow, I found the button. She looked at the screen, pressed some more buttons, turned it off and returned it to me. She then ushered me to the head of the line for boarding passes. that was neat. I am not sure whether she put some stickers on the bag or not. Soon the bags were on their way to the plane.
When it came time to board, I went to the gate. Attendants looked at the boarding passes of the travelers, and showed them to the waiting area. As I walked through, I handed the attendant my passport and boarding pass, and she pointed me toward a ramp that led to a table. "Why are you traveling in Turkey? How long have you been here?"   "Why me?" I thought. "I'm just a gray haired old man!"  "One week, on a pleasure trip" I replied. They presented me with a sheet of paper that I had to sign twice in little boxes that were next to each other, as if to prove that I could sign the same way twice within 10 seconds. One of my signatures filled both boxes, but I wrote the second one over it. They put some stamps on my passport, and I was free to go.
Reentry at JFK...more to come.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Asia calling




Asia in the background. This was taken at a
reception at Bahceshir University
sponsored by Meg's group.
Wine and appetizers.
Meg thought it to be cool to set foot on four continents within a week, and we set out to accomplish this on Friday, our last full day in Istanbul. Across the Bosphorous River, a short Ferry ride from the Eminonu, lay the Asian side of Istanbul. The same Metro card used for land transportation is used for the ferry. Over  a quarter million people use the service daily to get to jobs in the European section, and return. The ferry from Eminonu runs every twenty minutes. All we wanted to do was cross over. The word "No" came in handy at the ferry station. There were people all over the place attempting to sell us a tour of the river for 35 Lira. "No, we just want to cross over" and someone directed us to the right wharf for that. Still we were dogged with tour offers. "No, no, no..."
We found the queue for the ferry to Kadikoy, and the tour book was correct; people push hard to get to the front. Fortunately, it was not rush hour. In about fifteen minutes, we were in Asia. 
I went into a tourist information kiosk, and was directed to the town shopping area, just up the street.

Street scenes in Kadikoy 






I took these pictures to give a flavor of this part of Istanbul. Istanbul is 99% Muslim, and probably 60% Western. The ads in the background of these photos definitely have a Western appeal. I found this to be an odd conflict, produced by Turkey's relentless pursuit to join the European community, and yet retain its ancient Muslim heritage.
Often on the street, there are shoe shine stands, a lost occupation here in the US. My father used to shine shoes in his father's barber shop in the 1920s. In Turkey, it is still a living.
The down town of Kadikoy reminds me of old down town Troy, NY except the buildings are taller and the streets a little narrower. There were no department stores as we know them, but plenty of shops where you could get what you wanted- clothing, jewelry, knickknacks, children's items. All in all, Asia was a pleasant experience going back in time only a few years. I know there is more to Asia than Istanbul, and it would be different. Some year, I hope to check out the rest of it.
We became very confident of our ability to navigate the waters and the land transportation that we took the ferry to a different location on return. We went to the Kabatas wharf, and then had only one Metro stop to Taksim square, where it continued to be sunny and cheerful.


European Istanbul from return ferry
more to come....



Friday, September 20, 2013

Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is in the old section of town, two stops from the Sultanhamet district where we were the day before.
 photo from Wikipedia

It is hard to capture this immense place in a photo, or in words. This is all indoors, packed with vendors and shoppers. The photo seems to be cleaned up. To me it was dimly lit and cavernous.There are a few main streets, and lots of connector streets. It is an old place that at one time was the center of commerce in this part of the world. I am guessing that you could take Crossgates mall, multiply the number of stores times 1000, and reduce the size of each store to maybe the size of your living room, you might get the picture. Then add a small front area about the width of the living room for displays, and racks of goods, and you have it. The Bazaar is divided into sections for gold, silver, copper, bronze, etc., jewelry,dry goods, spices, carpets, and more. there seem to be hundreds of shops in each category. No price tags on anything, forced an interaction between the shopper and the vendor.
So Meg, Khaled and I ventured into this huge building with a few things in mind: a shawls, some trinkets, and a handbag. Meg wanted to get a Longchamps bag. We looked over a number of bag displays, and what I thought looked good, she dismissed as cheap knockoffs. We then inquired in one shop about Longchamps bags. The vendor did not carry that line, and a young boy was assigned to us to usher us through the streets to a Longchamps supplied shop. His first attempt was incorrect, and that vendor had him lead us to another shop. We came to a display of bags, and he said something that made us believe we had arrived at bag almighty.
Soon, a young man approached us, and we told him what we were looking for. He opened a door next to the display and we were in handbag heaven. It was a bright, air conditioned room, way smaller than your living room. Handbags on the shelves. No Longchamps on display. Another man came in. Meg described what she wanted. He told us to have a seat, and he would be right back. He probably went to what we would call the basement or store room, and returned in 5 minutes with an armload of Longchamps in a variety of colors. He poured them out on the floor. Meg seemed to know that they were genuine, and she chose a color that the vendor agreed was very beautiful. "How much?" Meg inquired. "90 lira."  "Will you take 60?" she shot back. "No! Maybe 80." She offered 70 and the deal was struck at 75. " Would you like another?" he asked. But Meg declined.
Meg wanted to see the carpet section. The bag man had a friend who sold them, and another young man ushered us to the brother's carpet shop. We were ushered into a secret room, and the pitch was about to begin. Meg explained that we were not about to buy anything. The man was nice enough to back off, and let us admire the rugs. Upon leaving that shop, we noticed another that was more open. On the back wall there hung a huge carpet, worth $25,000. It was beautiful, way better than Huck Finn's Warehouse. But we could not carry it so we didn't buy it.
We were looking for some gifts for me to take back for friends and relatives. Vendors of shawls were all over. We came to a place that had wool, cotton, silk, pashmin, and blends. Honestly, they were all beautiful, and every one of them as priced seemed like a bargain. 40 lira was the highest priced. Nevertheless, Meg would not settle for their price. She manged to get the price down 5 lira on a mid-priced shawl, and then we chose one that was a traditional Ottoman pattern. The silk felt elegant to touch. We looked through some of the gold and silver shops on our way to find some memento type jewelry for gifts.
On the corner, a  bracelet display caught Meg's eye. When the vendor came up to us, he gave us some prices, and then found some that we less expensive, and oddly the price was not bad. Meg haggled a bit. We bought three bracelets. When the man found out that it was Khaled's first birthday, he pinned a traditional "evil eye" charm on him to ward off the evil eyes (poverty, disease, etc.) of life.
My honed math skills came in handy here, The three bracelets cost 30 lira. I had only 20 lira and one ten dollar bill in my wallet. I  offered the ten dollar bill as partial payment. The man said sure. So I  gave him just 10 lira and the ten dollars in payment. He was hoping for the 20  lira, plus the ten. He was obviously disappointed, but knew it was right.
We eventually left the Grand Bazaar, had a drink of bottled water, used the public WC where you had to pay a lira to urinate or squat in a trough. We made our way to the Metro.
After dinner, while relaxing, the phone rang in our room. It was for baby Khaled. The management had a complimentary birthday cake to deliver to him. It came with two candles...one for the first year and one for the upcoming second year. Two layers of chocolate sandwiched slices of banana. Delicious.
It was a great beginning for the second year of life. (More to come)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A day to tour

I spent breakfast the next morning trying to figure out what had happened the night before. No one was talking about it. Al Jazeera English had no news. The Wall Street Journal had nothing. Apparently a demonstration in Taksim Square is not news.
Meg did not have to be at her conference until 2:30, so on the anniversary of 9/11 Baby Khaled, Meg, and I headed out for sightseeing. We didn't get far before someone asked us where we were from. "New York!" we replied in unison, and then the person said, "I'm sorry." referring to the 9/11 attack twelve years ago.
We got into a taxi, and told the driver to take us to the Blue Mosque. He pointed out some of the sights along the way, other mosques that were important, and ruins dating back to Constantine.
We then came into a section of town where the streets were lined with merchandise, mostly hardware: tools, both hand and power, small tractors and mowers, carpets, tiles, lumber, shower, bath, toilet and kitchen fixtures. There were competing vendors and there were a stores with more stuff. In my mind, I saw Home Depot before there was such a place. "This street is deserted at night, the driver said, "no one comes down here." That answered a question of logistics that was gnawing at me, "Do they take this stuff in at night, and how do they do it?"  I guess it is all a permanent extension of the store, and no one dares to steal in Turkey.
We arrived at a place in the street near the Blue Mosque. It appeared to be a dead end, and we were greeted by a man who was very friendly. He would show us how to get to the mosque. We assumed he was some kind of tour guide there to help ease the traffic flow. He led us down a street past some beautiful shops. He was cheerful and seemed helpful. He offered to walk us to the mosque. "No." I said, "just point us in the right direction." And he did, through another block of restaurants and shops. We found our way without him.
In retrospect, this was a neat set up for the tourist industry, one of many to take advantage of the tourist. the cab driver could have easily dropped us off closer to where the mosque was. Instead, he left us where we were actually preyed upon by a man who wanted us either to buy his guided tour, and short of that, introduce us to the wonderful shops and dining facilities in that old section of Istanbul.
The guide books about Istanbul have a short section with word to use while getting around the city. Translations of hello, good morning, yes, no, and thank you. I think the most important one to actually learn is thank you. The others are for the most part understandable around the world. And we used the word "No" a lot. That is a big word when confronted with the many dealers on the streets in any big city.
Meg told me not to use hand gestures since they may be interpreted as rude or insulting. I probably insulted a half dozen people an hour during our stay. Thumbs up is okay.
We made it to the Blue Mosque, or the Sultan Ahmed mosque built by him in the early 1600s. It was beautiful outside and in. There was a long line, and many steps to climb with the stroller before we actually entered. A man came and offered to take us on a tour that would eliminate the lines and get us to see some extra parts of the mosque. "45 Euros". That is between 65 and 90 US dollars. "No!" We waited our turn. At the top of the steps, fifteen or so, we had to abandon the stroller... not allowed. We took off our shoes, and carried them in a furnished plastic bag. Meg donned her shawl. Other women were given a shawl, and even a robe if not attired properly.
We then strolled through the part of the mosque that was reserved for visitors. the prayer area was cordoned off. Both sections were huge, and the blue beauty of the mosque was astounding. It, as with many of the mosques and churches are remarkable in structure, vastness, and proportion. These were all built before the age of steel, and will probably not be duplicated too soon.
As we exited, we put on our shoes, found the stroller, and headed to Aya Sophia.               Hagia Sophia Info - Hagia Sophia
                   photo is from http://www.hagiasophia.com/listingview.php?listingID=18

From the same web site: 
"Hagia Sophia was choosen a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1985.

"Rebuilt by the orders of Emperor Justinian in 537, for 900 years Hagia Sophia had been the center of Orthodox Christianity until 1453 when the city was concurred by Ottomans. 500 years following the conquest of Muslims, it became a jewel for the Muslim world and as the grand mosque of the sultans.

"In 1935, Hagia Sophia had been converted into a museum of Turkish Republic by the orders of Ataturk, and became one of the most significant monuments not only in Turkey but on earth with its architecture and its historical richness."
It was neat walking around a building dating from before the fifth century. The only thing that old around here are rocks.
After touring this vast museum, we walked back to the street which we had been shown to by our first guide, and had lunch.
 It was a narrow street, the width of two cars. You could call it two lanes, but one of the lanes was used for parking, and it was a dead end for traffic. We sat an elbow from the traffic. Perhaps two cars came up the street to turn around during our lunch.
We were running out of time. Meg had to get back. We realized that it would take hours to travel by taxi, so we decided to use the Metro (they call it that). We figured it out. Meg carried the baby, and I had the stroller. Immediately, two people gave up their seats on the train: to Meg because she was  carrying the baby, and to me because I was a tired old man. Of course Khaled rewarded the other passengers with lots of wide eyes and smiles. We had to transfer to get to Taksim Square station, and then climb about 50 steps to the square where there was no evidence of the previous night's protest... just sun and fun. "No!" to the kid who was selling tiny packs of kleenex for 1TL (50  cents). And "No!" to the guy selling water, and "No!" to the woman who offered to baby sit (or was that a proposition?) ...more to come.