Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sears is still on my grudge list

I saw an article in the Cape Cod Times today reporting that the Sears Auto Center in Hyannis was fined $2,445 by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection for failing to properly document the disposal of waste oil. I’m not concluding that there was any wrongdoing here, other than the paperwork violation, but it does remind me of the Sears scandal in the early 1990s.

To bolster sales at their automotive repair centers, Sears decided to pay their service advisers commissions on repair work. This was tantamount to putting the age-old practice of pushing unnecessary auto repairs on steroids. Come in with a broken windshield wiper; leave with a flushed radiator, four new tires, and a brake job.

I was the target of a fraud committed by the Sears Auto Center in El Paso, Texas. My Toyota pickup truck was closing in on 125,000 miles and the front suspension was making some interesting noises. The Sears guy put the truck on a lift and showed me how much lateral play there was in the wheels. He declared that the ball joints were worn out and needed to be replaced before my wheels decided to go one direction while I steered in the other.

His diagnosis turned out to be right on the mark, as I’ll explain in a minute. I was happy to hear that they could replace the ball joints by the end of the day. I didn’t assume that they had a set on the shelf for a 1975 Toyota pickup, but El Paso is a big city and all the car manufacturers have parts warehouses there.

I recall paying close to $400 for the repair. I drove away poorer but the disturbing racket in the suspension was gone and I felt safer knowing how serious a ball joint failure could be.

A week or so later I read that California’s attorney general was moving to revoke Sears’ auto repair license for fraud. Simultaneously, New Jersey officials cited a half-dozen Sears Auto Centers for recommending unnecessary repairs. I started watching the news accounts carefully.

On Monday, June 22, 1992, Edward Brennan, chairman of Sears, made the most ridiculous statement ever uttered by someone in charge: “When our integrity is on the line, we must do more than just react—we must overreact.”

What? No. We should never overreact, Mr. Brennan. That’s not how to solve a problem and salvage your integrity. (The definition of overreact is “to react to something with disproportionate action or excessive emotion.”)

Another couple of weeks later, those noises in my front suspension started making a comeback. Not wanting to return to Sears, I sought out a second opinion from an auto mechanic that a knowledgeable friend recommended. His diagnosis? The ball joints needed to be replaced.

I recounted the Sears Auto Center episode I went through not a month earlier. The mechanic told me that they had pumped the ball joints full with a heavy grease, a “repair” that would have taken about five minutes. I had the proper repair performed and went back to Sears to recoup my $400.

What probably would have been a knock-down-drag-out battle, before all of the publicity about Sears’ string o’ frauds, ended up being a short and sweet refund process with a contrite cashier.

I wasn’t forgiving, however, and to this day I refuse to shop at Sears. When I’m at the mall on a hot day, I go out of my way to walk through the Sears store and soak up as much of their air conditioning as possible, but never buy anything. Mary is careful to always pay cash and hide the receipt for anything she buys from Sears.

Also on my lifetime boycott list: Sprint and Chrysler. Stories for another day…

Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Revenue before everything

What would you do if you could unilaterally set your own salary? The only catch would be that your employer could fire you, but only in November of every other year. And… You happen to know that there’s a less than 5% chance your employer would take action against you.

So why wouldn’t you crank up your salary when you let your family budget get out of control? Wallet running low? Shoot a letter over to the payroll manager and bump up your wages by 25%.

Some people might think this scenario is unsustainable. But not our state legislators. They have to make the “tough” decisions. Like which tax to increase.

After sloganeering for a few months with the mantra “Reform Before Revenue,” all bets were off last week when, in a not so surprising reversal, the Massachusetts senate returned to business as usual by voting to raise our state sales tax by 25%. What significant reforms were passed and became law before taking the revenue road? I’m sure you can figure than one out.

State senate president Therese Murray sent out a press release noting that, even after the whopping 25% increase in our sales tax (from 5% to 6.25%), Massachusetts’ sales tax rate is still lower than 30 other states’ “aggregate” rates.

What’s an aggregate rate, you ask? In many states there are local, county and state sales taxes, which add up to a total sales tax rate higher than Massachusetts’ paltry 6.25%. Let’s take Texas as an example of one of the 30 states Murray is referencing:

The Texas state sales tax is 6.25%. It’s a tie. No, because most counties in Texas tack on 0.5% and most cities add an extra 1.5%. If you live in a city, you’re paying 8.25%. Live out in the sticks? 6.75%. So Massachusetts will be cheaper than Texas even after the 25% increase in our sales tax. Right? Wrong. Texas has no income tax. Yet Murray puts Texas on her list of 30 other states with higher aggregate sales tax rates. Factually speaking, she’s right, but she’s comparing apples and oranges—and knows it.

And it goes even further than that. The state senate also voted to allow towns and cities to throw in two percentage points on top of the 6.25% state sales tax on meals and rooms as a “local option.” Now, playing the “Massachusetts is Still Cheaper Than 30 Other States” game, if you buy a steak in Boston and pay 8.25% in meals tax, how exactly is that less than the 8.25% you’d pay in Dallas? Of course, your wallet would already have been lightened by the 5.3% Massachusetts income tax; whereas in Dallas, that wouldn’t be the case.

Remember the apocalyptic predictions last November of government collapse and how the state would have to raise the sales tax if the question to eliminate the Massachusetts income tax passed? Well, the electorate voted to keep our income tax and what did we get in return? They’re raising the sales tax anyway. Howie Carr wrote an excellent column about this last week.

The residents of Massachusetts, as a whole, do not believe that voters can effect change at the ballot box. After all, we voted to roll back the income tax rate to 5.0%. That didn’t happen. We voted for election reform. That didn’t happen. We voted to allow a tax deduction for charitable donations on our state income tax returns. That didn’t happen.

We didn’t vote, however, to raise the state sales tax rate. That did happen. And without any public hearings or a referendum.

Will anyone in this state recall this “Reform Before Revenue” B.S. when we go to the polls in November 2010? My prediction: Lemmings will carry the day.

Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt

Friday, May 22, 2009

Sandwich school system debate

I blogged before the town elections about two school committee candidates who, in my view, have significant conflicts of interest. Since that blog post, there have been more than 40 comments, most debating the merits of the direction that our superintendent and school committee are taking the school system. Click here to see them.

Additionally, there are several thoughtful comments being posted below to this blog entry, so look in both places to see the entire discussion. It's turned into a very informed discussion of what's good and not so good about Sandwich Public Schools.

Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Trash talking

The Town of Sandwich held its fourth annual Community Pride Spring Cleanup Day yesterday. Residents of all ages policed their neighborhood streets, beach areas and the two main thoroughfares through town.


John Killion and his dad, Jim, policing Route 6A near Green Briar Nature Center.


Judy Coppola and Randy Hunt cleaning up down by the marina.


Judy Coppola and Randy Hunt with their collection of discarded items.


Just a sample of the trash collected yesterday.


Cape Cod has a reputation for its beauty and charm. That doesn’t happen all by itself. The property owners on Route 6A spend a lot of time each spring cleaning up after the tough winter, trimming trees and bushes, planting annuals and tending to the perennials.

When someone comes tootling along sipping the last sip of an iced coffee and heaves the empty cup out the window, only one thing comes to my mind: Life imprisonment with no possibility of parole.

Some may say that that’s a little harsh, but I disagree. There’s nothing accidental about throwing trash out the window. The person that commits this capital crime is telling the world that he is the lowest living thing on earth and has no respect for his fellow man.

I grew up with Keep America Beautiful and Iron Eyes Cody (the Crying Indian). It was a great message, in spite of Iron Eyes Cody being Sicilian rather than Native American.

I created the following Top Ten Suggestions for Litterers just to put all of this into perspective:

10) No matter how old you are, think about what your mother would say if she saw you littering.


9) Whether or not you remember the commercial released in March 1971 on the second observance of Earth Day, watch the Crying Indian Commercial.



8) If you catch your kids littering, make them pick it up.

7) If your kids catch you littering, make them pick it up. They’ll quickly learn how the rest of us feel about other people littering.

6) Instead of throwing that losing scratch ticket out the window, save your two bucks and use it to buy gas to drive to the library and check out a book on environmentalism.

5) Take your habit home with you. Rather than ruin the town for the rest of us, throw your litter onto your living room rug.

4) Save your empty Dunkin Donuts and Mary Lou’s cups. They make great gifts for the personnel at the transfer station. Trust me. They love ‘em.

3) If you find yourself throwing beer cans, liquor flasks, and nip bottles out your car window, seek counseling. You’ve got worse problems than being a litterbug.

2) Rather than throw your empty cigarette pack out the window, eat it. It can’t be any worse for you than smoking the 20 cigarettes.

And the number one suggestion for people who feel compelled to litter is:

If your name is Ron and you feel compelled to litter out your car window, consider purchasing this hip hop vanity plate: M O dot R O N.


Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt

Sunday, May 10, 2009

From Hooked on Phonics to college graduate


Gayle was our second daughter and third kid. First kids always get a huge amount of attention, second kids a little less, and third and subsequent kids are essentially born into a commune with anyone who’s got an extra minute pitching in to deal with them. So it was with Gayle, whose dropped pacifier was dutifully picked up and returned by Emily, the family dog.

To say that Gayle was a picky eater would be an understatement. Her favorite foods were an eclectic bunch, including hot dogs (no bun, no condiments—just the “pure” ingredients of an All-American Frank), green beans (but only green beans made using my mom’s recipe: open can and heat in small sauce pan), and taquitos (which means small tacos in Spanish) dipped in honey.

When she was 3 or 4, I was watching an infomercial about Hooked On Phonics. It’s a reading program that claims phenomenal success teaching kindergarteners, pre-school and even younger children to read. It seemed so effortless on TV. Parents would open the Hooked On Phonics box, flash a few cards at their kid and, voila, the average, unremarkable pre-schooler would transform into a reading machine, digesting tomes from classical authors such as Daniel Defoe and Robert Louis Stevenson and reciting The Raven by rote.

It was an exciting day when the UPS guy brought the box. It included over 500 cards, games and other engaging activities, all for five easy payments of $39.95. I read through the program instructions and decided to start with some simple phonemes.

I showed her a “b” and pronounced it “buh.”

Can you say “buh?”

“buh”

Fantastic! She’s going to be reading by tomorrow morning.

Just to be sure, I asked: “What sound is this?”

“buh”

“Very good, Gayle. You’re already reading. Isn’t this great?”

I showed her the “at” card.

Can you say “at?”

“at”

“Great! One more time. What sound is this?”

“at”

Flipping back to the first card, “What sound is this?”

“buh”

Alright. This is going to be a piece of cake, I thought.

“Now let’s put these sounds together. I’ll show you the card and you make the sound.”

I flashed the “b” card.

“buh”

I flashed the “at” card.

“at”

b

“buh”

at

“at”

b

“buh”

at

“at”

“Now put the sounds together.”

I flashed the “b” card followed immediately by the “at” card.

“buh… at”

I showed her the “b” card and slid the “at” card over to it. “See. They go together. buh…at. buh..at. buh.at. Bat. Yes. Bat! See how easy? You try it.”

“buh....at. buh...at. buh..at. buh.at. buh.at. buh.at.”

“A little faster, Hon. Put ‘em together.”

“buh.at. buh.at. buh.at. buh.at. buh.at. buh.at.”

“The word is bat, Gayle. Let’s try this one.”

c

“cuh”

at

“at”

(Reread the last several lines, substituting “cuh” for “buh.”)

“Okay, Gayle. The word is cat. Get it? cuh…at. Cat. buh…at. Bat. Let’s try it one more time.”

No matter how impressive my prestidigitation, I could not get Gayle to actually put two sounds together. I was about to explode with frustration, at which time I was counseled to put Hooked On Phonics away for awhile. I put it away, all right. Right in the back of the closet, never to see the light of day again.

Gayle did learn to read. On her own time. In her own way. And with the patience of her mother. For all I know, they rescued the Hooked On Phonics box and used it successfully, but I was in no mood to hear about it.

I wouldn’t have bet, at that time, that Gayle would become the family scholar, but she excelled throughout grade school, middle and high school and decided on psychology as a college major well before finishing high school.

I took Psyche 101, as every college freshman did. I mastered Maslov’s Hierarchy and enjoyed Pavlov’s drooling dogs, but psychology never appealed to me as a potential lifelong pursuit. I didn’t know how serious Gayle could be about this field of study, but have since realized that she researched it thoroughly and was dead serious about it.

We attended Gayle’s graduation ceremony at New Mexico State University yesterday. She completed her undergraduate program with a 4.0 GPA and received high honors (top 1.5% of graduating class). I’m obviously very proud of her and, quite frankly, kind of blown away by her focus, dedication and perseverance in working through her degree plan without a single slip up.

She has been accepted to a four-year doctoral program in psychology and will receive a full scholarship and employment from the university. Quite an accomplishment for my little Gayle, who drove me to the brink by refusing to participate in my instant scholar gimmick.

This must have been rolling around in my head last night, because I dreamed that Gayle was quizzing me:

“Okay, Dad. Put these together.”

col

ehj

gr

ad

yoo

eht


Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Swine flu hysteria killed my grandmother

Looking back to 1976, the bicentennial of our nation’s birth, we all remember the celebrations, huge fireworks displays, and many once-in-a-lifetime sales brought to you by Uncle Sam-clad car dealers. Cal Worthington and his “dog” Spot were my favorites.



I also remember the swine flu debacle of 1976, something that Obama’s administration appears to have overlooked while boning up on their American history. Back then, an Army recruit at Fort Dix took ill with the swine flu and died. He was the only fatality on record as a direct result of acquiring swine flu, but it was enough for Gerald Ford to pull the panic alarm.

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control linked the 1976 version of swine flu to the 1918 Spanish flu, a plague that killed 500,000 in the United States and 20 million worldwide. Like the weathermen who predicted certain death for anyone choosing to stay on Galveston Island (population 58,000) during Hurricane Ike, these researchers speculated wildly about how many millions of people would be dead in a matter of months.

The difference? Six people died in Galveston County as a result of Hurricane Ike. In 1976, one person died from the swine flu.



Not to be deterred by the shortage of dead people in the winter of 1976, President Ford ordered enough swine flu vaccinations to inoculate the entire population of 220 million. Ford made his decision public on March 24th, the day after Ronald Reagan won a surprise victory in the North Carolina Republican primary. Call me cynical, but…

In the nick of time (that is, a month before the presidential election), the sera were ready for dispensing, but by mid-October reports were already coming in that elderly people were dying from the swine flu inoculations and some were showing signs of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare disorder where the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system.

Depending on where you find the information, between 20 and 40 people died from the inoculations. My grandmother, Ollie Vinette Shaw, was one of them. Knowing that Grandma Shaw faithfully got her flu shot every fall, one of my uncles got worried when seeing news reports about fatalities from the vaccinations. His call to my grandmother’s house in Nordheim, Texas, was too late. She had already gotten the shot.

Before this, Grandma Shaw was vibrant, mentally alert, and a regular attendee at the Saturday night dance in the next town over. A short time after trusting her life to a government that was overrun by bad science and the worst of political maneuvering, she was dead.

Now I feel like it’s déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra supposedly said. The news channels are in 24/7 swine flu (sorry, influenza A(H1N1)) mode and the parade of administration officials on the Sunday talk shows this morning was unbelievable. The video of chief panicker, Joe Biden, was played so many times I think I’ve got it memorized.



These administration officials spent a lot of time trying to convince the American people that the frenzy they’ve created is for real, but their Herculean efforts are starting to bear fruit. You can’t help but to think that a couple of them are praying for someone to die in order to sound their own vindication.

In the footsteps of the Swine Flu Fiasco of 1976, the SARS Epidemic of 2003, and the Bird Flu Scare of 2005, the H1N1 Panic of 2009 will go down as another Irwin Allen-esque disaster movie: Towering hype, a boat load of bad actors, and your hard-earned money (taxes, in this case) lost in space.

Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt