Category Archives: prices

Learning to Share

Sand Upon the Waters

By Tom H. Cook

Writing this has been so difficult, I almost feel nostalgic for the paper era with typed crumpled drafts littering the floor and discarded ideas scrawled and flung in or near my office wastebasket.  Tangible evidence of futile yet honest effort.  (My mother’s voice ringing in my ears, “You have to at least try.”)  Proof, like a runner’s sweat, that I labored, albeit in vain, to reach even my modest standard of journalism. I cannot tell you how many times I have begun this (all right, 15).  Now a click exorcises hours of folly.

Why is this piece so hard?  In every draft I come off as preaching to my betters.  Shrill, sanctimonious, self righteous, and self serving.  Why bother?  Why not write about the mentally ill gaining easier access to weapons, or the “relaxation” of data privacy laws, or why reading the posts on Next Door in any neighborhood makes me want to move far away?  This is about a series of small gestures I have undertaken.  As a final disclaimer, I am not setting myself up as a paragon of generosity and I likely do less for my fellow man than you do, yet here is my very short tale.

I have always been lets call it frugal although those that know me have other names for it.  In the last few years I have begun to loosen up a bit.  This is not about writing checks to worthy organizations (see HLP/March 2004).  In non-tipping situations I have taken to rewarding people that have gone out of their way for me.  It seems like every minimum wage and a bit higher worker is being rated and evaluated by their supervisor who in turn must report up the ladder and ultimately to the head weasel.  This has produced a class of people subtly bullied into feeling grateful for the opportunity to do a difficult, monotonous, unpleasant, and/or dangerous job.  Then they must worry that I will turn them in for below average groveling and insufficient servility.

My eyes have become further opened to the squeeze on the working poor.  They are “independent contractors,” which translates to no healthcare, seniority, retirement or sick leave. When I have had positive dealing with workers and service people who I feel deserve a bit extra, I help.  They do not have to give me a story, but often it flows freely.  I assure them that we are off the record and they will get all “5s” from me.  Like Studs Terkel, I ask,  “What do you do all day, and how do you feel about it? How are you treated by the company?”  I am just an old man asking gentle questions.  If they have quotas to meet and need to rush off, I let them go.

Countless times I have received an extra coat of touch-up paint on a gate, a few extra feet of cable, or a tow to a slightly out of network repair shop.  We are enjoined in a conspiracy, if only for a few minutes.  We know I am being overcharged for the product or service and they are receiving a pitifully small percentage.  Their lives are far harder than mine (affordable housing may be 50 miles away from where their route begins) yet they see me as a fellow victim of the bureaucratic rules that bind us.  Since I don’t come off as an entitled homeowner, the service people I have met are astonishing.  This is not a tit for tat or a figurative back scratching.  These are good souls trapped in a piecework system with no safety net or union protection.  I could not even in my prime (May-August 1977) last a week in their lives.

Often the repair person has fixed problems like mine many times.  Just by my offering a cold drink on a hot day they will show me tricks to head off future repairs.  I am not polite because of what I may gain, but I am genuinely interested and sympathetic.  I never lead with the promise of a gift.  Generally it is a Columbo moment (“Just one more thing…”). Often the tip is refused until I mention the extra service they provided me.  I don’t give a huge amount, maybe enough to take their family to dinner, pay a bill, or put gas in their vehicle (sadly not all three).  Invariably they are flabbergasted   The gratitude I receive is more valuable and feels better than what I would have done with the money.

Tom H. Cook is now an occasional columnist.  He recommends The Despair of Learning That Experience No Longer Matters by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in the April 10, 2017 New Yorker.








Ethics Make My Head Hurt

You did what?  You’ll probably get someone fired or gum up a machine!!!               — JoAnne Cook

Ethics make my head hurt.  I read the horror stories about Foxconn, the Chinese conglomerate that manufactures and assembles Apple products.  Their management style would need to improve greatly to become merely draconian.  Corporate response to disenchanted workers subjected to mind-numbing routinized labor and claustrophobic dormitory living has been to thwart further suicides by installing more suicide nets!  (The flogging will continue until morale improves.)  Still I am writing this on my Apple computer, which I prize nearly as much as my iPad (see HLP 10/11) and my iPod, rationalizing that China is another culture, and very far away.

Ohio and Pennsylvania are not that far away.  Mac McClellan, writing in the March-April issue of Mother Jones, and Spencer Soper in The Morning Call, an Allentown (PA) newspaper, chronicle the working conditions at online retail facilities.   Before you stop reading, shake your head at the nonsense that passes itself off as community news, harrumph loudly, and turn to the real estate ads, give me just a few paragraphs.

Amazon began shipping books in 1994. Expanding to a limitless array of products and riding the wave of the Internet, the company has become the 21st century rebuttal to the quaint notion of shopping by driving, finding parking, dealing with surly, barely conscious, retail clerks in a too air-conditioned, insipid music-blasting, brick and mortar retail store that is out of what you need despite calling ahead to make sure they have it.  Amazon stock (which I neglected to buy) has grown eight fold, and the company made $34,000,000,000 in 2010.  With 33,700 employees and free shipping, what’s not to like?


As it turns out, quite a lot.  I never really questioned how a point and click brought anything I wanted to my front door so quickly and tax free.  Amazon is the biggest, but almost all online retailers ship from vast warehouses, with several companies often sharing space.  Located in rural areas on vast tracts of land with tax incentives, near rail lines and major highways, they are often the only game in town for employment.  Ma and Pa stores, Woolworth’s, and a recognizable downtown are long gone, driven out in part by low Internet prices.  This is the future going forward, fast, cheap, and barely in control.  I do not believe many of us connected the dots between a displaced, desperate workforce and an Internet industry that is not yet twenty years old.

Mac McClelland is a 31 year old journalist, who went “underground” like Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickle and Dimed in America. The Secret Hell of Online Shopping chronicles her employment at a vast online warehouse, probably in Ohio.  She describes the workplace as cavernous and silent despite the thousands of people filling orders or standing at conveyor belts.  Temperatures range seasonally from 60 to over 95 degrees. Ten hour days are standard, longer near the holidays.  Most employees are pickers or packers.  As a picker she walked 12-15 miles per day on  concrete.  Armed with a scanner and an impossibly high quota of orders to fill, she and thousands more were continually “counseled,” prodded, and demeaned by supervisors to work harder, faster and error-free to please the customer.  Failure is met with demerits which are also accrued by being even seconds late returning from one of the two 15 minute daily breaks, perhaps because the bathroom line was too long.

The pace is intense and workers are disposable, fired at will because there are 15 people in line for every job.  Conversation is not forbidden, but there is simply no time. It is a joyless Orwellian world with everyone being watched and every second needing to be accounted for.  McClelland writes poignantly about the “workampers,” people who drive RV’s around the country from temporary job to temporary job, docking in trailer camps.  Many are retired couples not able to make it on their savings.

What I did not realize is that Amazon, Netflix, Staples, Office Depot and the other giant companies do not commonly employ entry level warehouse workers directly.  They contract with a 3PL or third party logistics staffing agency.  One of the biggest is Integrity Staffing Solutions (ISS). A 3PL sounds benign, but the competition between “temp agencies” for multimillion dollar contracts is brutal.  This filters down to the employees.  Just enough workers are hired at the lowest wage allowable (between 8 and 11 dollars an hour).  Asked to perform at maximum efficiency like robots, human problems like sick kids and car trouble are not factored into the equation. Workers are barely able keep up with the ever-increasing demand.  This is how companies are able to slash prices and deliver products super fast and offer free shipping and still post profits in the billions.  It comes at the expense of employees pushed to their breaking point.  McClelland asks if the workplace has to be this bleak and stressful to make a profit.

The 3PLs play the bad cop, the heavy, the wicked stepmother, shielding Amazon and other household names from lawsuits and negative publicity about their labor practices.  The retailer retains plausible deniability, avoids paying benefits, and discourages unions, as the workers are only temps, no matter how many years they are employed.  A carrot held out to new hires is the promise of a full-time job with the parent company.  Most are either fired or quit before that happens.  There is no regulation or licensure of these contracted companies.  If the first step toward change is public awareness, then the second is accountability from the online retailer and their responsibility for the policies of their 3PL.

Would you pay more for a free range chicken, or grapes picked by a union-protected field worker?  Scrolling the various Internet sites for the lowest price is just modern shopping.  How about paying a little more to ensure the picker and shipper in charge of your order are treated in a humane manner, given occasional time off and healthcare benefits?  Perhaps you would say it is the responsibility of Jeffrey Bezos, founder of Amazon and #30 on the worlds wealthiest list at 18.1 billion.

A desperately unhappy person in China may have assembled my computer.  A seven year old in Malaysia likely stitched my sneakers, and a pregnant woman in Allentown, Pennsylvania who cannot afford to be on bed rest shipped them to me.  How am I supposed to feel?  Someday, the robots will take over.  For now many workers eek out a living in warehouses that bear little resemblance to the places you and I may have worked to get money for college decades ago.

I am hoping that someone younger and smarter will blog, tweet, or twitter about the conditions and hardships of warehouse workers today.  I’ ll provide the slogan, There is no such thing as free shipping!


Tom H. Cook lacks the energy to lead a boycott.  He is such a bleeding heart, he enclosed a dollar bill in his red Netflix envelope. That is why JoAnne was so alarmed.



Tips for the New Economy

Well, that’s a dilly of a pickle.              –Ned Flanders (The Simpsons)

The sky is falling!          –Chicken Little

Two proprietors of a pet shop are standing outside on what is clearly a slow day.  One man wears a forlorn expression as he leans against the front window.  In contrast his partner is clearly bubbly.  The caption, spoken by the happier soul, is “Cheer up. After all, people will always need exotic tropical fish!”

As a Californian I will try not to sound bitter or elitist when I say that we pioneered the concept of $4.00 per gallon gas.  Among the trend setters in L.A. there is hope for five or six dollar petrol to “de-clutter” the freeways and also make us appear more European.  I think the rationale is similar to Minnesotans embracing winter cold to keep the riffraff out.  Anyway, it is very chic and high status here to be observed by the neighbors loading up the behemoth for a “Sunday drive.”  Those of us who now cluster errands, drive sparingly, and go downhill whenever possible, are wondering when someone will take action.  We hide behind the green anthem of saving the planet and sticking it to the Saudis.  My protests feel like those of decades ago, when I really did have to work on prom night.

All right, silliness over, it’s me.  It seems we are rudderless, sinking fast, and in uncharted waters on all economic fronts.  That is all the nautical references I choose to make without calling up either a perfect storm or the big T (hint: it nearly rhymes with “gigantic”).  Gas prices are both a concrete and symbolic example of the way we cope with a world of ever-diminishing expectations.  I was momentarily overjoyed when I spotted a gas station offering 87 octane for $3.98.  Angry at myself when I “came to,” I began to ruminate over how tricked and manipulated I feel.  I have been programmed to believe that $4.00 a gallon is a deal.

Perhaps my world view is too limited, but on the food front, why did my favorite Trader Joe’s tomato soup jump in price from $1.99 to $2.29 overnight?  I know it has to be shipped and trucked, and everything is going up, but these particular cartons were already in the store and on the shelf.  I grudgingly understand the need for the new soups to reflect the increase, but these incumbent containers required nothing more than a light dusting between Thursday and “Black Friday.”  The same is true of gasoline already in the giant below-ground storage tanks; someone raised the price “because they can.”

What can be done?  I have become one of those crazy old people who routinely go to five food stores a week in search of loss leaders.  I am presently attempting to fill my freezer and cabinets in anticipation of what will go up in price next.  Since I do not understand Wall Street or the commodities market, the only way I can get a good return is to bet on food futures.  I could have saved the 11% markup on the soup debacle with a little inside information.  I mean, who is getting 11% on their money anymore?

I have taken to cultivating various store employees, but as they are generally a third of my age and heavily pierced.  The conversations have often resulted in their needing to attend to pressing issues in the back room, rather than solid tips.  In hindsight, buying vast quantities of a single item has probably nudged my profile from “colorful and eccentric” to “watch carefully but avoid eye contact” in a number of establishments.  My most recent futures foray is Trader Joe’s peanut butter, which is still trading at $1.69 a pint.  I made an aggressive buy and, to JoAnne’s dismay, I have filled the only remaining cupboard and have begun to place the reserves on the garage floor in nice neat stacks no more than five high.

Another tip for the new economy is filling little-utilized bed space with product.  Cans and jars fit comfortably under most mattress and box spring setups.  You can store foods by category and expiration date.  Best of all, it is safely away from those who are critical of your portfolio.

My last point is more controversial, and even I do not want to commit to it unless McCain keeps gaining in the polls.  How often have you heard “We go through (insert food name here) so fast in this house, I can’t keep up. We are always out of it!”?  Foods we like disappear and we are at the mercy of Kowalski’s, Rainbow, Lunds, and Byerly’s.   To really save money, buy not only what is on sale, but items no one in the family likes very much.  Beets are not only nutritious, but will cut down on costly midnight snacking.

So eat stuff you don’t mind too much and lose weight!  Put the car up on blocks, or maybe rent it out for extra cash.   Enjoy the fresher air.  Get more exercise.  Stymie terrorists by not flying.  Discover the wonders and dumpsters you can visit on foot.  Think of all you can recycle.  Loitering close to home helps you get to know your neighbors.  Remember the shelters/kiosks on Hennepin, Franklin, and Lake Street are not just for those with bus fare: they are airy, spacious, and free-of-charge environments that provide a welcome relief from the elements!

On a serious note, a wire service story recently stated that Spam (the near-food, not the computer annoyance) is setting sales records.  Perhaps there will be a run on torches and pitchforks at local hardware stores before the Republican National Imposition in St. Paul.  Better stock up.


Tom H. Cook is on his way home for a visit, so if you notice unusual dumpster activity in the neighborhood, it is probably him.   He will be hoping to corral Walter Mondale or another super delegate at Kowalski’s.   Finally, an entry in the Last Straw Department:  Hillary Clinton calling it quits after the death of Yves St. Laurent, creator of the pant suit.