Categories
Politics

Is this some form of dementia?

A break from coronavirus and the failure of our governments for today. I’m going to start with an admission. I don’t listen when Donald Trump speaks. I find his voice so grating & so nauseating, his views so absurd and his demeanor so childish that I just automatically tune my good ear out. But yesterday, Dearest Chloe let this clip play a little too loudly and like some grotesquery, I couldn’t un-hear it or even tune it out. I went back and found at least part of the clip (take your pick, either will do):

Is he demented? Does he always ramble in such an incoherent fashion? I don’t understand. Why is he bragging about wasting water and electricity? Why is he even talking about gasoline like he’s EVER pumped a gallon in his life, or a dishwasher? Does he know in which room of the house it’s usually installed? And incandescent light bulbs? Yeah, I really want to go back to plain old incandescent light bulbs because I love climbing up on a ladder every couple of months to change them.

But I’m serious; as a physician, this has to be some organic brain syndrome, doesn’t it? As much as I’d hate to even voice the thought, should’t the Vice President be taking over as he’s clearly not competent? Or has he always been this ridiculous? And if he has always been this disjointed and incoherent, how, in God’s name, is he the President?

Categories
Nutrition

The worst President ever

How did we end up in this mess? It is increasingly difficult to sit by quietly and watch as Donald Trump makes a mockery of us all.  Not the latest incident, likely, but there’s Goya.

And I can already hear some people saying “what’s wrong with that?” And the answer is, it’s prohibited. Kind of like our discussion yesterday, there are things you cannot do because it does not serve the public, you know, the people who do the voting. And there is an office called The United States Office of Government Ethics. And they are very clear about what is not allowed. Federal employees, including the President are prhibited from:

  • Using public office for their own private gain for the private gain of friends, relatives, or persons with whom they are affiliated in a non-government capacity;
  • Endorsing any product, service, or company;
  • Engaging in financial transactions using nonpublic information, or allowing the improper use of nonpublic information to further private interests; and
  • Misusing government property or official time.

So, the question becomes, why do we continue to let this slide? What is it about this terrible man/child that we let him so boldly flaunt the rule of law without ever holding him accountable? Why are so silently complicit? It is only by holding our officals accountable that we’ll ever make any change. As long as we sit by idly, waiting for something good to happen, we’re going to be exploited for their gain over, and over, and over again. Speak up!

Oh, and wear a mask! 🙂

Categories
COVID-19 Politics

Are masks political?

What is going on here? I read recently that women, democrats and city dwellers are more likely to wear face masks than men, republicans and rural people. This is not something that I understand. I can imagine that there are many uninformed, petulant people (like our President) that don’t want to wear a mask in public because it “impinges on my freedom”, but that’s seriously one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. We do lots of things that impinge on our freedom for the public good. We make restaurants get health inspections, we don’t defecate on the street, and we don’t shoot guns into crowds of people because they all impact our personal safety, but we don’t complain that somehow make us less free. I would argue that they actually improve our freedom by allowing us to go about our daily business unencumbered by fear that we will get a foodborne illness, tyhpoid, cholera, or any number of illnesses, or randomly shot.

The Huffington post suggests that

Because this virus and pandemic feels so unfamiliar, we’re clinging hard to whatever makes us feel safe in the moment.

But we’re now in our 5th month of this riduculousness. Isn’t it time that we stop looking for excuses and start doing the right thing? I can see being uncomfortable about wearing a mask for like a minute, but come on people. Get over it.

  1. But politics and mask wearing is really beyond me. Am I to believe that Democrats, as a goup, care more about other people and Republicans? Maybe it’s true, I don’t know. But if Republicans really only care about themselves, wouldn’t they want to see every person around them masked up to minimize their chances of getting COVID? I mean, isn’t that the next step in the deductive reasoning process? And really, no matter whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, don’t you really just want to be able to go about your day without having to worry that every person you have any contact with will give you COVID?
  2. Wear a mask in public
  3. Wash your hands often
  4. Maintain social distancing (6 feet or more)

 

Categories
Politics

COVID-19: A total failure of government

COVID-19 may be the most glaring failure of the United States government I can ever recall. Probably the greatest failure of all time. And by government I’m speaking directly of Donald Trump, but I’m including the House of Representatives, the Senate, and state governments as well.

The mis-steps, failures, lies and neglect will be documented and discussed for the rest of my lifetime, I’m sure. But there really is no need to make this complicated, folks. The easiest, cheapest solution has been at hand for months, yet the failure to use it, to mandate it, speaks volumes to the ability of our government to ignore science and then flail about, spending vast sums of money to try to fix a problem that could have been prevented or, at the very least, mitigated months ago. And yet, here we are, mid-July with 60,000 new COVID-19 cases in the US yesterday and our world is less safe now than it was during lock-down.

One word, people. Masks. Back on May 13, 2020 Atul Gawande, MD had a Medical Dispatch column in the New Yorker where, among other things, he made a couple of statements that deserve far more attention than they’ve received.

A study in Nature last month (April, 2020) shows that, if worn properly and with the right fit, surgical masks are effected at blocking 99% of the respiratory droplets expelled by people with coronavirus ex’s or influenza viruses.

 

A recent, extensive review of the research from an international consortium of scientists suggests that if at least 60% of the population that wore masks that were just 60% effective at blocking viral transmission—which a well-fitting, two-layer cotton mask is—the epidemic could be stopped. The more effective the mask, the bigger the impact.

That’s a pretty amazing concept that has not, to the best of my knowledge, been talked about at all. So I read that article, posted April 12, 2020. The Discussion and Recommendations includes this passage:

The available evidence suggests that near-universal adoption of non-medical masks when out in public, in combination with complementary public health measures could successfully reduce effective R0 to below 1.0, thereby stopping community spread. Economic analysis suggests that the impact of mask wearing could be thousands of US dollars saved per person per mask.

What this article is telling us is that if everyone follow hand washing recommendations, practices social distancing, AND wears a well fitting two-layer cloth mask (or better) the COVID-19 pandemic would end. Not sometime next year, not after we spend untold billions on vaccines that haven’t been developed (and may not be safe), but within 4-6 weeks. So, as Denzel Washington said so often in “Philadelphia”, can someone explain this to me like I’m a 3rd grader? Why is there not a Federal law mandating mask use? Why does Minnesota not have a state law mandating face mask use? Why didn’t the government, instead of spending $1200 per person as some lame stimulus, use war time powers, mandate mask production and give us all 10 two-layer cloth masks. It would have saved about $1150 per person and would have fixed this whole debacle before June.

I call failure.

Categories
Politics

Embarrassed

I was out running yesterday and contemplating the state of affairs and I came to a stark realization: I am embarrassed to be an American. This is completely different than when I was in college, hosteling around Europe and occasionally pretending to be Swedish or Canadian to avoid the disapproving stares of the German, Swiss, or French hosts. That was fun and gave us a little separation from the loud, boorish American tourists. This, in contrast, is a deep and painful realization. As a country and a society, we have failed and failed badly. We’ve become the unruly children in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory; loud, demanding, rude, greedy, uncivilized, and selfish beyond measure. We elected a petulant, immoral, pathological lying toddler to the White House and have then failed completely to rein in his temper tantrums, foolishness, and now dangerous rants. We’re deep in the middle of a global pandemic and have demonstrated that tech and money are useless when we’ve lost basic human kindness. Our amazing and baffling rejection of fact and simple measures like wearing a mask in favor of “independence” have made us the wonder of the world in the very worst way. We embraced slavery in our early years, fought over it, then quietly and methodically built a society around the tenets of slavery and accepted it as normal. We have failed miserably in caring for our sick, with the most expensive and poorest performing health care system in the developed world. We have the greatest income disparity of any country in the world and, likely as a result, have a shameful number of people living in abject poverty, unable to access basic medical care, food, or shelter. As a society, I’d say we’ve failed miserably.

If there are any younger readers out there, it wasn’t always this way. I vividly remember watching the Apollo 11 moon landing in July, 1969 and the intense national pride that came with that accomplishment. It was a time when virtually anything seemed possible. Now, 50 years later, we’ve made amazing technological progress and seem to have regressed in every other way. I have no idea how or even if we can escape this quagmire. I do know that the first step must be to remove Donald Trump from the White House. As Abraham Lincoln said, in the Gettysburg Address, the United States is a government OF the people, BY the people, FOR the people. Under Trump we’ve become a government OF rich old white guys, BY rich old white guys FOR rich old white guys and everyone else be damned. But electing Joe Biden is not really going to fix our problems. As The Who pointed out so many years ago “meet the new boss, it’s the same as the old boss”. While Biden may not be as disgusting a human being as Trump, he will never be a catalyst for major change.

 

Note: I understand this is a pretty huge departure from what I have posted previously and if it’s not for you, well, so be it. I welcome honest dialog, but if you’re going to respond with “fake news” and conspiracy theories about coronavirus, I’m not going to respond and will mark those comments as spam and delete.

Categories
COVID-19

Follow up – Minneapolis issues guidelines for retailers

Late yesterday Minneapolis issued guidelines for retailers still open at this time like grocery stores. See here: Retailer Guidelines

It is gratifying to know that at least the City of Minneapolis is taking this seriously, but then again I see that Hennipen County leads all of MN in COVID-19 cases. I am saddened to say that neither the City of St. Paul nor the Governor have issued similar mandates, nor have I had any response from Representative Christensen, Senator Housley, or Governor Walz to my pleas for similar guidelines.

I did get template responses from Safeway and Costco assuring me that my message had been received, but no substantive replies.

And while I’m still irked over the half-assed response by business owners that haven’t been mandated to shut down, I have to ask a couple of more questions. I got a message from Inver Grove Honda telling me their showroom hours were being shortened. Really? Is this car buying season? And how about houses? Is this really the right time to have people wandering around strangers houses thinking of buying? What are you going to do if you actually buy one? Are virtual closures a thing?

Again, as we ponder getting the restaurant re-opened for take out, we’re pondering ways to do a complete no-touch pick up, which seems like the right thing to do. But until EVERYONE is thinking the same way we’re not going to flatten the curve of this pandemic.

Last but not least, I have to loop back to my favorite annoyance. Hey merchant processors, how about a break on your usury while we work our way through this crisis. No need for you to make your usual ridiculous profits while the rest of us suffer. How about a Federally mandate to stimulate on-line and touch free purchasing? Just saying.

Categories
COVID-19

COVID-19 in Washington County – Does anyone care?

Sorry if this is similar to yesterday, but SSDD as they say (Same Sh$#, Different Day). Today’s episode of “Let’s Spread Coronavirus” was at Cub Foods in Stillwater. A visit on a Friday at 1:00 pm found the parking lot full and the store full of people. No effort to limit entry, no effort at social distancing, they did have a spray bottle of (presumably) sanitizer by the entry, but poorly labeled. Again, like at Costco – Maplewood yesterday, it’s just hard to believe. Unlike at Costco, though, I did today what I should have done yesterday; I turned around and left.

What I’m really having trouble understanding is the complete lack of effort by the businesses. I get it that people are goofy and do what they do, but as a responsible business owner who is lucky enough to be able to be open in this time, you owe it to your community to do the right thing. You need to put someone out in front of the store and limit the number of people who can enter at once. Obviously this is going to be different for each business, but it’s a mandatory first step. For a place like Costco or Cub, it’s an excellent opportunity to check in with each customer, make sure they sanitize the frequently touched surfaces, understand the importance of social distancing and perhaps make sure that anyone with a cough is wearing a mask. Then maybe have a couple of people patrolling the store to make sure that people continue to distance. And someone managing the checkout lanes to keep people spread out. As a business owner, I understand that this is going to incur labor costs without adding revenue. In fact, revenue is going to suffer because you won’t be able to sell as much. And my response to that is, so what? Again, you’re fortunate to be open and be able to serve your community. Do it responsibly.

As with yesterday, I don’t want to pick on Cub exclusively. On our way home we cruised by the Kowalski’s in Stillwater and found the very same situation: packed parking lot and no one seemingly giving a damn about Coronavirus. For completeness sake, we also cruised Aldi in Stillwater and the very same again. It’s mind boggling and hard to understand. I guess it is up to all of us to start demanding better.

UPDATE: My irritation got the better of me. I emailed Safeway (parent company of Cub Foods) with my observations and perhaps a little opinion about unsafe and irresponsible business practices. Inspired, I went on to send a note to Ms. Shelly Christensen, my state representative and Ms. Karin Housley, my state senator as well as Governor Walz to express my concerns. Then Chloé and I walked down to the co-op to get some onions (as a home cook, what recipe doesn’t start with onions?). It was a more favorable experience, but not because the co-op was doing anything special, it’s just naturally much less crowded. On my way out the door I caught the Pioneer Press headline: 89 Cases and Counting the headline screams. Duh.

Categories
COVID-19

A COVID-19 Question – WTF?

As I assume most of you know, I own a restaurant in St. Paul, MN. We closed our doors on Tuesday, March 17 in response to the order by Minnesota Governor Walz to do so. The order was made to help control the spread of the COVID-19 corona virus in an effort to “flatten the curve”. If you’re not up on the terminology (though that seems unlikely) the idea is to extend the spread out over time so that the health care system is not overwhelmed with all of the cases in a short period of time. It does not (probably) change the number of cases (i.e. the area under the curve), but it may make it so that sick people can get the care they need.

In the process, I, like all other restaurants, bars, etc. in the state furloughed my employees. Fortunately, the shutdown mandate also came with an eliminated wait time for unemployment benefits, so hopefully everyone isn’t left high and dry. As the principal of a C corporation, I am not eligible for unemployment, but that’s a story for another day.

So, I had to go in to the restaurant today to give the delivery driver of our linen service access to the property to pick up the soiled linen and drop of fresh in anticipation of our eventual re-opening. On the way home, I stopped by Costco in Maplewood, MN to pick up a few things. Normally, I’d keep this kind of vague, but the particulars matter. The Costco experience was surreal and frightening. Costco – Maplewood parking lot was full. There was absolutely no attempt to limit the number of people in the store at once. Both customers and employees in the store behaved as though it was a normal day. No sanitizing of carts, no effort at social distancing, no covered coughs or sneezes, nothing. Zero effort. Crowded aisles, very full checkout, people cheek to jowl in checkout line; forget the 6 foot distancing, if you could find 2 feet you were lucky. If there were less than 500 people in the store, I’d be amazed. I’m guessing it was closer to 750 to 1000. And most disturbing, no one seemed to notice that this is a problem.

As I drove home I noted how heavy the traffic was for a Thursday late morning. Almost like a normal day. Which leads me to wonder, what’s this all for? Why are we all suffering privation and hardship in the service sector and education only to have the whole thing undone by retail? And, if the governments, both Federal and State, believe this quarantine is useful enough to mandate widespread closure, shouldn’t they be doing something to enforce large scale, unmonitored, gatherings like this? And Costco, I’m sorry to pick on you because I really like you as a company (yes, I’m even a stockholder (for full disclosure)), but you sent me a note the other day telling me you’d be a responsible partner in all of this. Where was the responsibility here? Is Maplewood, MN an outlier? It’s hard to believe that it’s anything but the tip of the iceberg and that something big, heavy, and dangerous lurks beneath. In the interest of fairness, my journey home took me past Sam’s Club and their parking lot was full too. So, apologize for the title, but WTF? Are we just stupid or arrogant? Either is unattractive, but combined may be deadly.

Categories
Nutrition

Pondering words

I offer you two words, slaughter and butcher. Two words where virtually every meaning is bad, except (presumably) the killing of animals for food. And in response to that, I offer you Melanie Joy. If you haven’t seen her TED talk, enjoy.

slaugh·ter | ˈslôdər |

verb [with object]

  • kill (animals) for food.
  • kill (people or animals) in a cruel or violent way, typically in large numbers: innocent civilians are being slaughtered.
  • informal defeat (an opponent) thoroughly: our team was slaughtered in the finals.

noun

  • the killing of animals for food: thousands of calves were exported to the continent for slaughter.
  • the killing of a large number of people or animals in a cruel or violent way; massacre: the slaughter of 20 peaceful demonstrators.
  • informal a thorough defeat: an absolute slaughter by the Red Sox.

 

butch·er | ˈbo͝oCHər |

noun 

  • a person whose trade is cutting up and selling meat in a shop.
  • a person who slaughters and cuts up animals for food: a porkbutcher.
  • a person who kills or has people killed indiscriminately or brutally: acallous butcher of men.
  • North American informal a person selling refreshments, newspapers, and other items on a train or in a stadium or theater.

verb [with object

  • slaughter or cut up (an animal) for food: the meat will be butchered for the local market.
  • kill (someone) brutally: they butchered 250 people.
  • ruin (something) deliberately or through incompetence: the film was butchered by the studio that released it.
Categories
A Piece of My Mind

Merchant Processing – A Piece of My Mind

I’m going to imagine that most of you are not intimately familiar with merchant processing and that’s OK. I wasn’t either before I owned a business and after two years of doing business I finally rolled up my sleeves and dug into this. It’s an eye opening topic.

You go out to eat. You most likely don’t pay with cash because 90% of all restaurant transactions are cashless. You use your card (swipe, dip, or tap) or your phone, watch, or other device to pay. You probably added a tip to the transaction and then you were done. A month or so later you get the bill and pay some or all of it. It’s the way things work.

From the restaurant perspective, things are a bit different. If someone pays cash, we are very happy. For that $50 tab we get to keep all $50. But, as noted, 90% of the transactions are not cash. If someone uses their card (shorthand for all of the ways people pay without cash) I, the restaurant owner, have to pay for letting people have the convenience of not carrying cash. When all is said and done, I have to pay about 3% of the bill. So for that $50 tab you rang up, I actually get $48.50. This doesn’t seem like a big deal at first glance, but we’re talking about restaurants here. A really well run restaurant has a 5% profit margin and we figure that on cash sales. So, if your math is a little rusty, 5% of $50 is $2.50 and the company (merchant processor) that processes the credit card transactions just took $1.50 of my $2.50 profit! Is it any wonder that restaurants go out of business?

So, what’s a business owner to do? There are options, of course.

  1. I can just take cash. Certainly attractive, but not feasible
  2. I can try to negotiate a better merchant processor rate (more on this later), but the bottom line is there isn’t much room for improvement
  3. I can pass the cost on to the customer by adding a surcharge for every transaction

So, why is this such a difficult problem? Isn’t the whole world going the way of China, with digital wallets and no cards at all? The Motley Fool (www.fool.com) certainly seems to think so. They have a whole report called “Leave Your Wallet At Home – 4 Stocks for the Digital Payment Revolution”. Copyright prevents me from sharing this article with you (or the stock recommendations they make), but the Motley Fool analysts seem to have missed a couple of critical details about China’s digital wallet system. First, it’s free for the merchants. Yes, in China, if a merchant accepts payment from your digital wallet, there is no fee associated with that transaction; it’s just like cash. Second, it’s a “digital wallet”, not a credit card. There is no credit in the system. If you don’t have enough money in your wallet, you can’t buy whatever it is you’re wanting. They’re really the digital equivalent of a debit card.

Back to the U.S. market. Taking a page from the tax code or health care billing playbook, if you want to make something as opaque as possible the first step is make it needlessly complicated. Let me introduce you to The Interchange Rate. Visa, for example, publishes a 22 page document that lists their current Interchange Rates. But merchants don’t deal with Visa directly, they have to go through intermediaries. As always, the middle man wants his cut. So merchant processors (the middle men) have two general ways to get that cut. The most common is “Interchange Plus” processing. So they figure out what the interchange rate is for a particular card and charge that fee, plus an additional percentage of the total plus an additional “swipe” fee (i.e. the cost to use the card for one transaction). Because this system is so complicated, trying to read a statement is on a par with trying to complete your taxes by yourself or trying to interpret a health care bill; basically if you don’t work in the system, you’re not going to figure it out. So another option that some companies use is “flat rate” or “flat rate +”. They figure out a rate that more or less encompasses all of the interchange fees and adds a bit of profit and present you with this rate. The most well known version of this is Square, which couples the flat rate with free software to make accepting cards easy, if you’re willing to give up 2.8% of each sale.

Like so many things we seem to love here in the United States, credit cards have all kinds of hidden costs. The Brookings Institute, perhaps the most influential “think tank” in the US has a nice December, 2019 report on How Credit Card Companies Reward the Rich and Punish the Rest of Us. The report notes

the Supreme Court upheld the card companies’ right to prohibit merchants from passing along the costs of high-reward cards to customers who chose to use them.

So if a wealthy patron comes to my place and charges a $100 meal for the family with their cash back/high miles credit card, the issuer (Visa or MasterCard) may charge me up to 5% to take that card, which completely nullifies any profit I may have made from that transaction. And I, as the merchant, cannot do anything about it. Even if I recognized that as an expensive card, I cannot adjust my fees to compensate for the extra it costs me to accept it. Thanks Supreme Court; good to know you’re on the side of the oligarchs.

The report also notes that merchants, those accepting cards for payment, bear the burden of the costs of the system.

The economics of modern credit cards are often misunderstood. The bulk of card-issuers’ profit, particularly from the luxury high-end cards, comes not from interest paid by those who carry a balance on their cards, but rather from the so-called swipe fees paid by merchants, which can range from 3% to 5% of everything you buy. American Express, for example, booked in excess of $24 billion in swipe fees in 2018, more than three times as much as their net interest income.

But surely, then, as the foundation of the vast economic engine that is credit, merchants must have some protection, right? Wrong. If you think that, you don’t know about chargebacks. Chargebacks were created as a consumer protection mechanism where a customer, if they received faulty goods, could ask the bank to reverse the charges. More recently, however, they have been the primary mechanism for merchant processors to recoup funds after identity theft. Finally there is the “friendly fraud” where a customer reverses the charges for no good reason other than they don’t want to pay for something they received.

According to consumer claims at the time of filing, nearly half of all chargebacks are supposedly in response to unauthorized transactions. A recent survey, however, found that over 80% of cardholders filed a chargeback simply because they didn’t have time to request a refund from the merchant.

Moreover, although most merchants fight chargebacks, very few win. The estimation is somewhere around 80% loss rate for chargebacks. As if that wasn’t painful enough, there is usually a fee associated with a chargeback.

A recent example: a customer placed an online order from our website for $20 worth of food. The credit card number was typed in by the customer, meaning I paid well over 3% in fees for that transaction. A month later, I got a notification that the customer had chargedback the transaction, meaning the processor took $20 from my account to cover the transaction (note I didn’t get the 3% back) AND a $15 fee for the chargeback. So, I sold $20 worth of food, then gave the $20 back to the customer plus $15 to the merchant processor (fee) and $0.60 for the original processing fee. And I have no real recourse. Why did the customer chargeback? Didn’t like the food, someone stole their card (and ordered one meal???), who knows?


About 8 months ago I realized that the fees I pay for credit card processing for 2019 are going to be about the same as the profit I make at my restaurant. So, in essence, I’ve given up 50% of my profit to give my customers the convenience of not using cash. I embarked on a journey to find better rates. I talked to everyone. Square, other flat rate processors, some flat rate + processors (lower flat rate + a monthly “subscription fee”), and a number of interchange plus processors. I had my favorites, to be sure, and a bit of a bidding war ensued. The bottom line; I saved about 0.2% on my merchant processing. That translates to about a $4,320 savings on my projected restaurant sales of $2,400,000. Good to save every penny, to be sure, but not worth 8 months of work.

I was given the option, by Elavon, one of the top ten merchant processors in the US, to add a 3.5% surcharge to each bill and keep the billed amount. This is what the State of Minnesota does when I went to get my new driver’s license. There’s a sign by the register that says you can pay by card, but they’ll add 3% to your bill. While I like the idea as it adds transparency to the process, it’s pretty clear that people don’t want to know that the system costs to use, they just want to use it. I, like most merchants, fear backlash from my customers.

Clearly the only way to win here is to just accept cash. If I was smart I’d add an ATM right next to the register and charge 3% for withdrawing funds and peck away at my customers the same way that merchant processors are getting me!