Monthly Archives: March 2018

Isn’t It Sad…

…that in a public dispute between the president of the United States and a porn actress, most people seem more inclined to believe the actress?

The Death of Toys R Us

Still standing after 22 years

The Curmudgeon remembers the first time he set foot in a Toys R Us store. It was in early December of 1995, nine months after his nephew was born, and it was a nice day so he walked to the store in search of Chanukah presents for a child he knew would certainly not appreciate them because nine-month-olds don’t appreciate very much. The store itself was pretty daunting: aisle after aisle of toys and games and gadgets, but The Curmudgeon, then 38 years old, forged ahead, found what he was looking for, and made a mental note to return after the first of the year to pick up two things he wanted for himself: an Etch A Sketch and a four foot tall crayon piggy bank that he still has.

Recently we learned that Toys R Us is going out of business. The experts cite a number of reasons for the company’s demise: competition from real stores like Walmart and Target and Costco and virtual stores like Amazon; outdated stores; a lousy web site; and more. Published reports also cite the company’s debt as one of the reasons it failed, but usually, they don’t mention the source of that debt – and they should. It’s not that Toys R Us wasn’t still selling an awful lot of toys and doing so profitably, because it was. No, the problem was with the companies that owned Toys R Us: they intentionally racked up debts so huge and spent so lavishly that the company never really had a chance.

In 2003, three large venture capital companies purchased Toys R Us through what’s known as a leveraged buy-out. On paper, they paid a lot of money for the company: $6.6 billion. Of that amount, however, they only came up with about 20 percent themselves. For the rest, they borrowed against the assets of the company – assets like real estate, buildings, and inventory – but only after they took possession of the company.

But while on the surface “they” borrowed the money against the company’s assets, the venture capital companies themselves didn’t borrow any money at all: they arranged it so that Toys R Us, not them, borrowed the money, leaving Toys R Us on the hook for more than $5 billion. This meant that before they ever sold even a single Etch-a-Sketch after hanging the “under new management” banner, the company owed creditors $5 billion.

There’s a reason some people refer to venture capitalists as “vulture capitalists”

That’s the “leverage” part of a leveraged buy-out: the buyers use the leverage of the company and its assets and don’t put their own money at risk. They know the business is at least viable enough to let them drain it of more money in the form of huge management and advisory fees they charge to help run the company into the ground, and after they’ve gotten a suitable return on their investment they don’t give a damn what happens to it.

Toy R Us never really had a chance, especially after the massive management fees the new owners extracted from the company – fees they took ahead of paying down the debt. The company they bought had $2.2 billion in cash and assets on hand, but by 2017 only $300 million of it was left – and it still owed $5.2 billion, which was roughly the amount of debt the venture capitalists forced on the company in the first place. In addition, the company was paying between $400 million and $500 million a year in interest alone on its debt, which was far, far more than Toys R Us was losing even in its worst years. In other words, the debt made the difference between the company making money and the company losing money. The new owners, though, weren’t losing money: they were raking it in hand over fist.

In the end, it didn’t really matter that the stores were outdated, the competition was tough, and the web site was weak. After saddling the company with a level of debt it could never repay, the new owners milked Toys R Us for all it was worth, and then, when the milk dried up, they announced that they would close the doors, stiff the people from whom they borrowed those billions of dollars, and fire 33,000 employees.

Isn’t the American way of doing business just swell?

Intrusive to the Point of Obnoxious

The Curmudgeon recently received a notice from his credit card company informing him that it was raising his rate. Now The Curmudgeon carries very little credit card debt – years go by without his credit card balance hitting four figures, mostly because his philosophy is that if you don’t have the cash to pay for something you should just wait until you do, with notable exceptions for things like appliances and major car and home repairs. Another exception is internet purchases, which The Curmudgeon makes only grudgingly: he loves the convenience and the selection and the prices but just hates having to use his credit card for something simple like books and music and arch supports and wrist braces and ginger capsules and liquid fiber and other such things that you can spend weeks driving from store to store without finding, but it still bugs him to no end that you have to charge such purchases. Despite this, despite carrying only small credit card balances for which the interest never amounts to much, the rate increase still bothered him. After all, interest rates have barely risen for years and the Federal Reserve makes money available to banks for practically nothing. It was the principle of the thing: he didn’t see any reason why he should pay even a single percentage point more in interest than he was already paying.

So he set off to find a better rate with one simple criterion: he wanted the lowest rate possible. He wasn’t interested in an offer that involved transferring a balance from another card because he doesn’t have a balance worth transferring and he didn’t want a super-duper twelve-month introductory rate that would just leave him needing to do this whole thing over again in a year. No, all he wanted was the lowest rate he could find, and it turned out that the lowest rate is offered by the Lake Michigan Credit Union of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The Curmudgeon quickly completed an online application and just as quickly, within seconds of hitting the “send” button, received a return email informing him that his application had been “pre-approved.” The Curmudgeon wasn’t surprised: twice in his life he has applied for mortgages and both lenders used the same term to describe him: un-American. By this they meant that he had no meaningful consumer debt and a very high credit score, and now, even better than that, he had paid off a home less than ten years into a thirty-year mortgage.

It should have been a done deal at that point but it wasn’t: they wanted a photocopy of his driver’s license and copies of his latest pay stub and 2017 W-2. He sent them promptly and received another email: a form authorizing the credit union to request a copy of his tax return from the IRS.

Say whaaaaaat?

Six times in his life The Curmudgeon has borrowed money to buy cars and twice to buy houses and he also has applied for numerous credit cards – this isn’t the first time he’s dumped a credit card because the rate became uncompetitive – and no one has ever asked to see his tax return.

He wrote back to the folks at the Lake Michigan Credit Union and told them that their request was unreasonable, that he withdraws his application, and that they can go take a flying leap into Lake Michigan.

 

 

Let’s Go Catalogue Shopping

Despite the growth of internet commerce, some companies still like to fill their customers’ mailboxes with catalogues. In most cases, those catalogues probably go directly from the mailbox to the recycle bin (or the trash can, and if so, shame on you!). Other companies are jealous of their competitors’ internet business and buy lists of more successful vendors’ internet customers and send those people catalogues hoping to get a piece of that action for themselves.

The Curmudgeon occasionally buys clothing online, especially shirts, since he’s a sucker for shirts – sport shirts, polo shirts, sweat shirts, anything except t-shirts, which to him, no matter how nice the color or how clever the message, are still underwear and should only be worn in the home or beneath more appropriate clothing. But if you buy clothes online you can expect catalogues in your mailbox, and that’s how the catalogue of a men’s clothing company called Bullock & Jones landed in The Curmudgeon’s mailbox recently. The Curmudgeon, always on the lookout for a nice shirt, took the catalogue to his reading room and in so doing was rewarded with three or four of the most entertaining minutes he’s enjoyed in recent memory.

Some of Bullock & Jones’s stuff is nice and some is not so nice, but even the ever-opinionated Curmudgeon understands that this is a subjective matter of taste and not fact. What cannot be disputed, however, is that Bullock & Jones’s stuff is expensive: seriously expensive, extravagantly expensive, stupidly expensive, and ultimately, laughably expensive.

Don’t believe him? See for yourself with this quick tour of some of the highlights from the Bullock & Jones catalogue.

But please, put down that beverage first because when you laugh you don’t want it coming out through your nose.

It’s still a bit chilly out, so warm yourself with this Derek Rose Loopback Sweatshirt, yours for only $215. It comes only in gray.

Under that sweatshirt you have a choice of t-shirt colors with the Melange Short-Sleeve Crew Neck Tee-Shirt, only $90 – apiece, not for the complete assortment.

On those easy like Sunday mornings you’ll look especially sharp in these Stretch Denim Slacks, which you can purchase for $225. Doesn’t Haggar sell the same thing for $30?

You don’t want those stretch jeans falling down on you, though, so keep them up with this Hornback Crocodile Belt, yours for $475.

 

And let’s not forget your feet, which you can cover stylishly with these $26 stripe (no “d” at the end) cotton socks.

And on top of those oh-so-stylish socks, how about these $500 Lizard Penny Loafers? Let’s see you find THAT at Payless!

This is the Mark Stripe (again, no “d.” What do these people have against the letter d?) Linen Sport Coat, beyond ugly, not to mention its ugly price tag of $995 (gulp)!

Ordinarily you wouldn’t wear a tie with such a casual ensemble, but if you want to, this Silk Knit Flag Tie is the perfect complement at only $110, which is more than five times more than what The Curmudgeon has ever spent on any tie other than the one he wore to his own wedding, which was still less than half this price.

Once the weather gets warmer, show off those legs in this $185 pair of American Khaki Shorts.

If it’s ugly you’re after you’ll have to look far and wide to top this Azzuro Sartoriale Shirt, which is as overpriced at $345 as it is hideous.

Or for a more low-key look, you might opt for this irish linen polo, modestly priced at $295.

Finally, if you’re just plain cheap, go for this Viareggio Italian Pique Polo, only $135, although you can probably find something very similar to Kohl’s for about twenty bucks.

Hey Facebook

Did you folks really just ask for The Curmudgeon’s phone number, ostensibly to make his page more secure, just days after we all learned that you folks absolutely, positively cannot be trusted with our data?

Why not just ask for our bank account and credit card numbers while you’re at it?

Perhaps a Little Hypocrisy?

When the Obamacare law was passed in 2010, Republican members of Congress complained bitterly about its length, at 2000 pages, and how they didn’t have an opportunity to read it – even though different iterations of the bill had been around for months.

But there was barely a peep from them this past week when their leaders sprung a 2000-page spending bill on them on Wednesday night and then the House approved it on Thursday and the Senate did the same a few hours later.

There are a lot of reasons for choosing to vote for or against a bill but not having an opportunity to read it shouldn’t be one of them. It’s their JOB, and if they do nothing else, they should read the bills on which they’re going to vote.

And at least some members of Congress understand that. Back in 2015, one of them told his colleagues that

We do not echo the people; we are supposed to represent the people. We are supposed to study up and do the homework that they cannot do. So when we do not follow regular order, when we rush to pass bills that a lot of us don’t understand, we are not doing our job.

“Practice what you preach? Wassat?”

Who said this? That would be Paul Ryan, and he said it in his first speech as Speaker of the House. He said that under his leadership things would change.

So who decided that the House should vote on a 2000-page bill just a few hours after the bill first landed on members’ desks?

That would be Paul Ryan, too.

For Your Viewing Pleasure

Forget HBO.

Cancel Netflix.

Say no no to Hulu.

Who needs Showtime.

Tell Amazon to take a hike.

Is Cinemax even still in business?

You won’t need any of them anymore because as of last Monday there’s a new viewing option:

Scientology TV.

Seriously: as the Curmudgeon Sister explained when she brought this to her brother’s attention, “Oh lord. Another sign of the apocalypse.”

Apparently, by self-declared popular demand, as the Scientology folks explain it on their web site:

The Church of Scientology has launched its own television channel—the Scientology Network. Its debut makes our programming instantly accessible to more than 20 million households across the United States and hundreds of millions more over the internet.

 Airing 24/7, the Scientology Network aims to satisfy the overwhelming curiosity about our religion as evidenced by the fact that someone searches online for “Scientology” every six seconds. The new network won’t just answer people’s questions, it will take them inside the religion itself.

To accomplish that, the network offers exclusive innovative content that moves religious broadcasting in an entirely new direction. Like Scientology itself, that approach is fresh, different and dynamic. It does not seek to preach, convince or convert, but simply inform.

This new genre of religious broadcasting includes original programs that take viewers into the everyday lives of Scientologists, the Church as an institution and its organizations. These programs show our religion in action, providing not just insights into the only major religion to emerge in the last century, but also offering a fresh take on compelling television entertainment demanded by today’s digital world.

And if you’re loyal viewers, Welcome Back Kotter reruns, too!

Scientology TV is offering six original series:

  • Inside Scientology—takes viewers behind the scenes of the religion—its international spiritual headquarters and cutting-edge publishing houses, what happens on a typical day at a Church of Scientology and the meticulous, painstaking efforts to preserve 75 million words of our Founder L. Ron Hubbard’s religious writings and recordings for future generations.
  • Meet a Scientologist—an in-depth look into the lives of individual Scientologists from the frontiers of modern art, science, sports, entertainment and more.
  • I am a Scientologist—features dozens of Scientologists from every corner of the world and every imaginable occupation, giving personal accounts of how their lives have been enriched.
  • Voices for Humanity—short documentaries introducing change-makers from all faiths, cultures and nations as they extend help to their communities through Scientology-sponsored humanitarian programs.
  • Destination: Scientology—each episode brings the viewer inside a new Church of Scientology, showcasing the diversity of our Churches and the cooperation that weaves every Church of Scientology into the local community fabric.
  • Ron Hubbard: In His Own Voice—presents the religion’s Founder to the world. Scientology remains the only major religion with the voice of its Founder intact, recorded in public lectures delivered over the course of a quarter-century. This series chronicles the life of L. Ron Hubbard through autobiographical vignettes in his own words and in his own voice.

“Weeeeeeeeee….”

In addition, Scientology TV is offering what it describes as films that explore beliefs and practices, a spotlight on a global humanitarian movement – that is, Scientology itself – and documentaries addressing the “truth about drugs,” human rights, and its own citizens commission on human rights, including an in-depth look at the fraud of psychiatry on which Tom Cruise revealed himself to be such an expert a few years back.

Scientology TV will start out on its own app as well as on Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Roku.

So cancel that cable subscription now, pull up a chair, and get ready to be entertained by Scientology TV!

An Interesting Twist on the Concept of Term Limits

People kinda sorta like the idea of term limits for elected officials. Oh, they want to keep their own elected officials in office but the other guys are all crumbs and they want them gone. For elected officials, for obvious reasons, there’s no kinda sorta: they hate the idea. Today, 15 states have term limits for members of their legislatures. Six more passed laws imposing term limits but in four of those states the courts overturned the laws and in two more, ballot referenda calling for term limits were approved by the voters but overturned by…the legislators themselves.

So much for democracy.

Pennsylvania has no term limits for members of its state legislature. Members can stay in these cushy jobs as long as they keep winning elections – and some of them stay a pretty long time. In recent years, three members of Pennsylvania’s legislature have retired, or had voters retire them, after 38 years in the legislature. One of them retired at the age of 88, and when he announced his intention to retire, many people were surprised: they thought he had died years earlier. Of the 203 members currently serving in Pennsylvania’s state House, nine have been in office since before 1990 and another 29 have been in office since before 2000. In the 50-member state Senate, eight members have been in office since before 1990 and another eight joined between 1990 and 2000.

So clearly there’s not much public interest in term limits among state legislators in Pennsylvania and that’s just fine and dandy with those folks.

But lately, members of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly have shown a keen interest in establishing a term limit for one state office: executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

Yes, for reasons that defy explanation, Pennsylvania has a Fish and Boat Commission. It’s funded entirely by fishing and boating licenses and federal funds and functions with no state money. At the heart of this bizarre term limit controversy is the current fishing license, which has been $21 a year since 2005. Costs have risen since then, leading the commission to cut its staff by 66 employees, to delay improvements and repairs, and to do a little less stocking of fish in the state’s waterways. Now, the commission has decided that enough’s enough and that Pennsylvanians need to bite the bullet and absorb an increase in the cost of fishing licenses – from the current $21 to $27.

And state legislators, who don’t provide any money for the commission but must approve its fees, have said nuts to that.

In response to being told he’s not going to get any more money to do his job, the head of the commission has proposed closing some hatcheries and stocking those that remain open with fewer fish in the coming year.

And state legislators, in a response of their own, have decided that they won’t even discuss this unless the executive director who made these proposals is shown the door.

But herein lies the rub: while the legislature has ultimate authority to approve or reject any proposal to change the price of a fishing license, it doesn’t have the authority to fire the person who recommends such changes. Only the commissioners who appoint the executive director have that authority and they show no inclination to fire a guy they hired and who they think is doing a good job.

Refusing to be deterred, legislators have come up with what they think is an appropriate solution to their problem: they’re proposing to establish term limits for the commission’s executive director position.

That limit? Eight years.

And how long has the current executive director been in his job?

Coincidentally, that happens to be…eight years.

Surprise!

Something’s fishy about this business

Among the leaders of the movement to establish term limits for this highly sensitive job is the president pro tempore of the state Senate. He’s been in the Senate for 17 years. Before becoming a state senator he served on his borough council and helped run his family’s restaurant, thereby bringing impeccable credentials to his work as a state legislator.

Joining him in this effort to bring qualified people to the commission is the chairman of the House Game and Fisheries Committee. He’s been in the state House for 16 years and brought to his job vast experience as a paramedic and the head of security and safety for a hospital. So he, too, is highly qualified for his job.

Contrast the background of these lawmakers with that of John Arway, executive director of the commission. Arway isn’t some political hack who got the job because he made political contributions to a guy elected governor. No, he’s worked for the commission for 36 years and has some serious academic qualifications for his job: a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s degree in aquatic biology from Tennessee Technological University.

In other words, Arway, unlike the people who want to fire him, is actually qualified for the job he holds.

As if that’s going to help him now. You know that in the end the legislators are going to win and that Arway will be tossed onto the street and people like the president pro tempore and the committee chairman, who know so little about so little, will continue leading Pennsylvania’s mediocre state legislature.

Pennsylvania, it’s only fair to point out, is far from alone when it comes to mediocre state legislatures. No matter where you turn these days it seems as if the kind of people who can barely find their ass with both hands are making important decisions about how state governments serve their constituents.

And mostly, they’re making bad decisions. In this case, a hypocritical decision, too, by seeking to introduce term limits for a job that requires real expertise while continuing to wreak havoc on their state government and Pennsylvania taxpayers year after year after year after year by holding elected offices for which they offer little in the way of qualifications themselves.

 

When in Doubt, Throw Them Out

We all know the scene: children playing ball, they argue over an interpretation of the rules or whether someone was safe or out or if it was a ball or a strike or fair or foul and the aggrieved party picks up his ball and bat and goes home.

Well, replace “children” with “Republican members of Pennsylvania’s state legislature” and you have what’s going on in the Keystone state this week.

There’s an old adage in life that to the victor goes the spoils, and in politics, one of those spoils is that the majority party gets to redraw political district lines every ten years: council district lines, state legislative district lines, and congressional district lines. In Pennsylvania, the victors at the state level were the Republicans, and they drew their lines with particular gusto – so much so that in a state with nearly a million more registered Democrats than Republicans, 12 of the state’s 18 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are Republicans, which just doesn’t add up.

It took slow-witted Democrats five years after the district maps were redrawn to wake up and realize there was something wrong with this and sue – which, by the way, probably goes a long way toward explaining why Republicans have a huge majority in both chambers of the state legislature despite a seven-figure disadvantage among registered voters – and lo and behold the Democrats won: the state’s Commonwealth Court ruled that the election districts violated the constitution, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that the election districts violated the constitution, and upon appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court found the suggestion that the districts didn’t violate the constitution to be so utterly ludicrous that it wouldn’t even entertain an appeal.

Off with their ‘eads!

So how have Republicans in Pennsylvania’s state legislature responded to this defeat and to not getting their way?

They’ve introduced legislation to initiate impeachment proceeds against four of the state Supreme Court justices who found the manner in which the districts were drawn to be unconstitutional.

Because some childhood habits die hard.

Three Formulas for Looking Like a Dick

Formula Number 1:

Put on a business suit. The better the suit, the stronger the effect.

A dick

Go to an area, like a central business district, where there are lots of people walking around.

Walk while talking with your phone up to your ear.

Congratulations: you look like a complete dick.

Formula Number 2:

Go into a store.

Go to the checkout to pay for something.

Talk on your phone while the cashier is ringing you up.

Congratulations, you look like a complete dick.

Formula Number 3:

Her too!

Walk around talking while you have one of those little bluetooth gizmos attached to your head.

Congratulations: you look like a complete dick.