Monthly Archives: July 2012

Timing Is Everything

In New Zealand we have something called the Goods and Services Tax.  It is like a sales tax but it covers everything—all goods, including food, and services, including professional services.

It’s a part of life and one thing that’s really good down here is that all prices are quoted as “GST inclusive,” which means that you know exactly what things are going to cost and don’t have to worry in the checkout line that you won’t have enough money when the tax is added to the bill.

They have the same thing in England and, as you can imagine, there are some industries where a tradesman might say, “Just give me cash and we’ll call it even.” This saves you, the buyer, some money and also saves the tradesman the hassle of collecting tax from you and then remitting it to the tax man.

Of course, this is illegal and no big company with proper accounting systems is going to do it.  But the local labourer who is simply providing services can see it as a way to undercut the competition and, let’s face it, everyone wants to save a buck.  In the trade these are known as “cash jobs.”

I saw on the news last night that the British finance minister looked up from the wreckage of the global economy, the LIBOR and related banking scandals and the money pit that the Olympics have become and announced, no doubt as only the British finance minister can announce, that “cash jobs” are “immoral.”

Not to be outdone, the New Zealand finance minister agreed and announced that the tax authorities down here are going to spend $84 million over the next four years cracking down on cash jobs.  They expect to reap $384 million in extra tax.  In England, where the economy is much larger, they are expecting to bring in $1 billion.

Admittedly, that’s not chump change and ensuring compliance with the tax laws is the sort of thing that the tax authorities should be doing.

And painters and handymen and gardeners who are lucky if they gross $100,000 a year will be now paying their fair share of tax.

But what is funny is that the announcement of the finance ministers squeezed out of the headlines another story.  An organization called The Tax Justice Network has issued a report called “The Price of Offshore Revisited.”  The report says that somewhere between $21 and $32 trillion of wealth has been moved into offshore tax havens by “the wealthy.”  Who are those people, you ask?  We’re not talking about the 1%.  We’re talking about the .001%.

What that means is that a very small number of people have a lot of money.

The article that disclosed that fact also had some other interesting tidbits.  For example, the amount that has flown out of countries into tax havens is greater than the deficits of some of those countries.  The very deficits that austerity programs are supposed to be reducing.

Not only that, using conservative assumptions, if the authorities were able to tax the earnings on those assets hidden away in tax havens, they would bring in more money than rich countries pay out to the developing world as aid each year.

Unlike the British and New Zealand governments plans to bring in a few hundred million by cracking down on cash jobs performed by people just over the poverty line, there was no mention of a plan to collect any tax on the money in the tax havens.

Over the past year I’ve been working on a book which is in the final stages of publication and should be available in a few months.  It is called Identities and it is a satire on business, materialism and the way we construct our identities for the outside world.  It is about a businessman who begins to have second thoughts about whether the identity he has constructed as a rich, powerful captain of industry is really who he is.

Once he comes to the conclusion that he wants his legacy to be more than maximizing shareholder returns, he tries to bring about change in his corner of the corporate world. One of his clients is the most highly paid executive in America and they have a number of entertaining confrontations where they debate things like offshore tax havens.

Like the article I read about tax havens, I don’t have any answers and neither does the book.  But I’m happy to see that it is turning out to be timely and topical and I hope that it generates a lot of interest and discussion.  I’ll let you know when the book is available!

What Ever Happened to Life Skills?

What do you get when you combine a dating service with a personal assistant?  Assuming you would want to do that, the result is something called a “Romance Secretary.”

A romance secretary is not someone who handles Cassanova’s little black book and keeps him from confusing his multiple relationships.  It is a person who sort of manages your relationship, singular.

I suppose that the idea of a Romance Secretary was inevitable.  We already have Lifestyle Managers, who walk your dog and visit your sick relatives for you.  We have Retail Curators who do your shopping for you.  We have Sweatworking, so that you can work out while doing your office work.  And who can forget “ShameBeGone,” the people who will send an email on your behalf to get you out of difficult social situations.  Or FakeGirlFriend, where you can subscribe to a service that will send you “cute” text messages from your [non-existent] girlfriend to make your friends think you actually have one.

Sadly, the Romance Secretary is not an idea in search of a buyer.  The position was created when a “busy” couple (ages 27 and 24) advertised on the Internet for someone to help them manage their relationship.  According to the couple, they were about to call the whole thing off because they had no time to plan dates. 

If you are wondering how they have time to go out on dates but not plan them, you aren’t the only one.

Anyway, this unemployed guy stepped up and charges them $12.50 per hour to come up with “interesting” date ideas, work through scheduling issues and find a time that both members of the relationship are available and “calendar” the date, he will also send them reminders to respond to each others’ text messages, and will even pass messages between them.  So far, they have paid him “a small fortune,” and he has started a company known as “Couples Consolidated,” hired staff and has plans to grow the business.

As the Romance Secretary says, “Not everyone is good at planning dates, keeping track of someone else’s schedule or even communicating clearly.  The administrative tasks in a relationship may be small ones, but they add up to one big stress.”

How has the human race survived without people to handle relationship admin?

Reminding the couple to communicate with each other is a big part of the job, but according to the Romance Secretary it’s time well spent.  “It’s easy for both of them because I can harass the other without the other feeling annoying.” 

What that basically tells me is that you can now stalk someone and outsource the work!

A major selling point apparently is that the Romance Secretary will come up with “quirky” date ideas.  The article I read listed some of the quirky things couples can do:  “going shopping for things they think the other one will hate, giving flowers to strangers and children in the park and watching a foreign film without subtitles and creating the dialogue themselves.” 

I come back to the question of how you find time to sit through a foreign film that you can’t understand when you don’t have time to make a date to do that in the first place. Also, just between us, I think that creating dialogue in a foreign film would get old really fast.  And irritate the other people in the theatre.  And giving flowers to strangers and children in the park might result in the date ending differently than what you might have in mind.

Over the years, there have been many times when I’ve said, “I wish they’d had that back then . . .” You know what I mean.  Things like Google, GPS, DVDs would have, if not enriched, at least made life a little easier.

Thinking back to my dating days, maybe “Couples Consolidated” could have helped. But I doubt it.  You see, the women I dated were very busy.  It seemed like they were always (a) washing their hair, (b) babysitting their little sister, or (c) going to their grandmother’s funeral. And I can’t believe that even the machinations of a Romance Secretary would have enabled them to find time in their busy schedules. 

And in retrospect I’m really glad.

Prom Wars

When you were in high school, did you go to the prom?

I didn’t, in case you were wondering, but my sister did.  The only angst I seem to recall was whether her date (and now husband) would be able to borrow his father’s car or if she would be charioted in his beater.

I don’t remember the outcome, but it seems as if the whole prom thing has gotten a lot more complicated over the years.

The other day I read an article in the paper about the problems that arise when two girls want to wear the same dress to the prom.  Apparently, distraught teens and parents are demanding that retailers create customer databases so that they can avoid selling the same gown to two girls in the same school.  According to the article, one of the greatest catastrophes that can occur is to show up wearing the same dress as someone else.  One girl called it a “dream shattering moment” and indicated that instead of enjoying the prom, you would be forced to wonder all night whether the other person “looked better in [the gown].”

I had to stop and think about that for a minute, too. 

Of course, the idea of women showing up for an event wearing the same dress is an old trope.  I remember it even being a gag in a Three Stooges episode.  Two women showed up wearing the same outfit and there was a moment of discomfort.  Until the pie fight settled things.  

But now it’s serious. 

As you may be aware, there is a highly structured social hierarchy in high school, and students at the top of the food chain are telling their lower status friends what they may and may not wear in order to prevent any fashion faux pas.  Facebook pages have even been created to warn people what not to wear because that color or style has already been claimed by the beautiful people.  A dress shop employee said “I’ve had girls come and say, ‘Oh, no, I’m not allowed to wear that color.’  Clearly the kingpin has dictated to her friends what color they can wear.”

Inexplicably, it is the dressmakers who are caught in the middle.  One retailer said that she had witnessed “tears and tantrums from both students and their mothers.”

It’s a jungle out there. The article also described a mother who was forced to return to the dress shop “in tears,” because her daughter had been informed that the dress she had bought was “too similar” to a higher status person’s and therefore it had to be returned.

I don’t know about you, but I find this both amusing and alarming.  Call me cynical but with everything going on in the world today, worrying about prom dresses seems to smack of furniture rearrangement on the Titanic.

But there are a couple of alarming aspects to the whole thing.

First, I’m no expert in fashion, but it seems as if there is an almost infinite variety of dress available to be worn to the prom.  So what are the odds that people are going to regularly end up with the same version?

The surprising answer to that question is “very high.” And the reason is that the range of available styles is seriously restricted because “everyone” wants to wear the same kind of strapless invitation to a wardrobe malfunction that Angela Jolie wore at the Academy Awards earlier this year. 

So as disturbing you might find it that young girls are bullying each other over prom dresses, isn’t it even worse that the subtextual message to “You can’t wear that dress because I’m wearing it” is really, “Go find something original.  I’m the alpha wolf, so I get to copy The Jolie.”

The Academy Award thing is a big part of the prom.  Gone are the days when you drove your prom date to the Holiday Inn in your father’s car.  Limos are the transport mode of choice for all but the most hopelessly uncool.  And they even set up a red carpet and photograph the girls getting out of their limos just like the Academy Awards.

A day or two after I read the article, we were socializing with some friends who have prom age girls.  I mentioned the article and expressed my disbelief that people really behaved that way.

Boy, did I get an education.

Based on what these parents said, the article understated things.  The whole thing is an elaborate ritual involving hair, clothes, nails and accessories. Negotiations take place about both spending and good taste that would make Greek politics look like a quilting bee.

I asked about the $1200 price tag for dresses that the article had talked about.  One parent nodded knowingly.  Yes, that is the norm.  But truly artful parenting and a lot of hard work can get you something much cheaper that will pass muster.  As I say, negotiation is critical.  A less expensive dress might be acceptable if it’s strapless.  Or a spa session might be thrown in to sweeten the pie.

Being child-free, I have no frame of reference for this sort of parental dilemma. I also boycotted the prom when I was in high school (i.e., I couldn’t get a date). But I did learn that parents of prom age daughters don’t like to hear the question, “If that’s what happened for the prom, what’s the wedding going to be like?”