As human beings, we become acclimated to and accepting of anything and everything.
Take taxes, for example.
We all complain about them, but we keep paying them. I am in the 30 percent federal tax bracket. That means that 30 cents out of every single dollar I earn goes to a business partner that I don’t even like, and who I don’t think is pulling his fair share of the load. But I put up with it, and hardly ever think about it, because that particular business partner has been putting the squeeze on me since I was a teenager and got my first check for pumping gas.
I’m used to it, just like you are.
But suppose this Saturday morning your doorbell rings and you open the door to see a huge brute with a bent nose named Tony D., who says, “Show me how much money youse made dis week.”
You hold out all the cash you earned that week and Tony D. reaches over and takes 30 percent of it and says, “Thanks, see youse next Saturday.”
And sure enough he comes back next Saturday and every Saturday after that. Don’t you think eventually you would get a little pissed? Don’t you think you would have some questions about why you were having to pay Tony D. 30 percent of what you had earned that week? And don’t you think you would have some questions about exactly what he was doing with your money?
“Excuse me, Mr. Tony, no disrespect, but I’m a little miffed. I don’t want to pay you any more. Does that mean you are going to bust my knee caps?”
“No, don’t be silly. If you don’t keep paying, I’ll just take your car, then your house, then your stocks and bonds, then your savings account, and then, I may even put you in prison.”
“You can’t do that.”
“Uh, Mr. Tony, why do I have to pay you every week?”
“Because The Boys say so.”
“Who are The Boys?”
“Don’t be a smartass. You know who they are. They’re your Boys. You voted them in. Don’t you remember?”
“Not my problem.”
“Uh, Mr. Tony ...”
“Kid, you sure ask a lot of questions.”
“... I’ll keep paying, but can you tell me what exactly you are doing with my money?”
“Are you kidding me? We don’t have to account to you. The Boys spend it however they want to. And by the way, starting next Saturday they need an extra five percent?"
“We gots us a huge national deficit, kid.”
“Oh, round about $1.4 trillion dollars.”
“Okay, whatever I can do to help, Mr. Tony.”
If you think that sounds ridiculous, look at your next paycheck stub. And every one after that.
It gets better. When you die, by whatever means, your heirs will have to go through probate which is the court-supervised process of locating and determining the value of your assets, paying your final bills and taxes, and then distributing what’s left to your heirs. If that hassle is not enough of a nightmare during a period where everyone is in mourning, then the state and federal government leg-breakers come calling. They didn’t care much about you when you were alive and kicking, but once you die they will come swooping in quicker than vultures on fresh road kill. What they want from your grieving widow and children, or that mistress you had on the side if you included her in your will, is something called the federal estate tax, and possibly a state inheritance tax, which is a tax on all of the stuff you owned before you croaked.
See, despite that old adage, you should have taken it all with you.
The estate tax is affectionately known as the death tax since the government can’t go after those tax dollars until you’re good and dead. In Great Britain they call it death duties, as in, hey mate, it’s your duty to pay the Queen. If your heirs add up all the stuff you own, from property to cars to coffee cans full of silver dollars buried in your backyard, and the total is more than the $11.4 million, then Uncle Sam will take forty cents out of every single dollar over that figure. Granted, very few us will ever inherit that much, but still, why should the federal government start collecting 40 percent of every dollar over that? They weren't there at the nursing home playing Skippo with granddad.
You can avoid the estate tax vampires if your property, your business and your bank accounts are jointly owned with your spouse, and your spouse is a U.S. citizen. In that instance, no probate is necessary, and your spouse just needs to show your bank, your mortgage company and your investment companies a copy of your death certificate and they will remove your name from those accounts, leaving just your spouse’s name. But once your spouse kicks the bucket, then all of the assets that you both shared become eligible for the estate tax.
Currently 15 states and the District of Columbia have a state estate tax and six states hav an inheritance tax. Oh, and the federal government has lobbying to drop the applicable exclusion amount down to $1 million. Of course they are. Didn't we throw a bunch of tea overboard because to stuff like this?
We are idiots.
Speaking of people we don’t particularly like taking money out of our wallets, I think the guy who invented life insurance is pain in the ass and a genius. He’s a pain in the ass because I don’t like gambling my hard-earned money on whether I am going to live or die, and he’s a genius for getting me and millions and millions of other schmucks to do just that. He’s right up there with the guy who invented bottled water, the guys who started the Starbucks franchise, and the guy who came up with the concept of having us clean our own tables at fast food restaurants.
I am positive there was a sales meeting a few decades ago where a company was trying to come up with some revenue generating ideas and the new guy who never said anything at the meetings finally got up the courage to raise his hand, and the boss, with a sigh, said, “Yes Mortimer, what is it?”
And Mortimer said, “We could sell water.”
And the boss said, “Mortimer you’re an idiot. Water is free. No one is going to pay for it.”
And everyone at the meeting laughed and the boss moved on to other discussion topics until about ten minutes later when Mortimer raised his hand again. And the boss said, with another deep sigh, asked, “Yes Mortimer, what is it this time?”
And Mortimer said, “Well, we could put the water in plastic bottles, and come up with a cool nifty name for the water, and tell everyone it is special water and it is so much better than regular water, and then charge a fortune for it so everyone will think it is indeed special.”
And the boss said, “Mortimer, you’re a genius!”
Today we drink about forty billion gallons of bottled water a year, or, to put it more in perspective, 400,000,000,000 twelve-ounce bottles of water a year. It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry.
I always buy a bottle of water before I get on a plane because, for some reason, I get particularly parched when I am 35,000 feet up in the air and, God forbid, I have to buzz the stewardess to bring me an extra glass of water in one of those itsy-bitsy plastic glasses that hold three sips. My plane was delayed on one trip and when it came time to board I realized I had already drank my bottled water and there wasn’t time to go to the newsstand to buy another bottle. I looked over and saw the sign for the restrooms and the water fountain next to them. Hey, I thought, I have a great idea. I went to the water fountain and filled up the plastic bottle and then took a sip. Tasted exactly like the bottled water I had bought earlier for $5, and it was free. Imagine that. The funny thing is that I felt guilty doing it, and I actually worried that someone would see me and think I was a cheapskate. That’s how trained and conditioned they have made us.
We are idiots.
So these three guys named Jerry, Gordon and Zev opened a little coffee shop in Seattle, Washington in 1971 and called it Starbucks. Two of the partners were teachers and one was a writer which meant they probably knew very little about business, so my guess is they just wanted a little place where they could sip some java and talk about how one day they would each write the Great American novel. I’m pretty sure that they had a sales meeting and one of the partners, let’s say it was Zev because you have to admit that’s a pretty cool name, raised his hand and the conversation might have gone like this:
“Yes, Zev-Man what’s on your mind?” asked the other two partners.
And Zev said, “Let’s franchise and open thousands of coffee shops all around the world.”
And the partners probably said, “Zev you’re an idiot. People either drink coffee at home for a few pennies a cup or they drink it for free at the office. No one is going to pay us for it.”
And the two partners laughed and they moved on to other discussion topics until about ten minutes later when Zev, who was pumped up on a double espresso, raised his hand again.
And the partners sighed and said, “Yes Zev, what is it now?”
And Zev said, “Well, we could put the coffee in these groovy cups with lids, and tell everyone it is special coffee and it is so much better than regular coffee, and charge a fortune for it so everyone will think it is indeed special.”
And the partners said, “Zev, you’re a genius!”
Today there are more than 28,000 Starbucks coffee shops in 70 counries. There are over 40,000 coffee specialty shops in just the United States alone.
Starbucks sells a large cup of coffee for $2.45. You can buy a pound of coffee at the supermarket for as little as $9 which will make you about 50 cups of coffee. That’s 18 cents a cup.
We are idiots.
In the late 1970s there was a management meeting at one of the fast food franchise companies and the chairman of the board was bemoaning the fact that the bottom line at their outlets was being adversely affected by labor costs, specifically the time employees had to spend cleaning up food wrappers and napkins and trays after customers ate their meals. That’s when the new guy on the management team raised his hand and the chairman, with a sigh, said, “Yes Gaylord, what is it?”
And Gaylord said, “We could make the customers clean up their own mess.”
And the chairman said, “Gaylord you’re an idiot. People come to our restaurants because they don’t want to cook and clean. Besides they are paying us; we aren’t paying them.”
And everyone at the meeting laughed and the chairman moved on to other discussion topics until about ten minutes later when Gaylord, who was an astute student of human nature, raised his hand again.
And the chairman said, with another deep sigh, “Yes Gaylord, what is it this time?”
And Gaylord said, “All we need is for that first customer to clean up his mess and then walk over and toss it into the trashcan and then put his tray in the tray slot. After that, every other person will do it because they will be embarrassed not to do it. People are sheep. They’ll do whatever we tell them to do. Trust me on this one, Big Guy.”
And the boss said, “Gaylord, you’re a genius!”
Today you clean up your own mess at every fast food restaurant you go to, and you also pump your own gas and check your own oil and put air into your own tires at every gas station you go to, and now supermarkets are asking you to scan and ring up your own purchases and sack your own groceries. And, of course, you pay them for the privilege of doing so.
We are idiots.
Which brings me back to life insurance.
Let me get this straight. I’m going to bet my own money on whether I am going to die or not. If I don’t die, then I lost the bet because I spent money on insurance premiums and I got nothing in return. If I do die, I won the bet because my loved ones got more money back than I paid out in premiums, but on the flip side, I’m dead, which pretty much means I still lost.
Life insurance, extended warranties, and service plans are all a scam.
You’re telling me I just paid $3,000 for a 65-inch OLED TV and you want me to pay another $500 for a three-year extended warranty. If a TV that costs $3,000 is prone to break down in less than three years, then why the hell are you selling me this piece of crap in the first place? Don’t you stand behind what you sell? Didn’t you just tell me that this was the best TV on the market? You can’t have it both ways, Mr. Salesman. Make up your mind.
Oh, you say that everybody else is buying the extended warranty?
Well, in that case, I guess I need to buy one too.
We are idiots.