Oh Nelly

It’s common for dog-owners to note that they know other people’s dogs, but don’t remember the people themselves, just as parents often find themselves known as “Benjamin’s parents” rather than as … was it Melanie? It starts with an M, I think. With that cute low-maintenance bobbed haircut. And her husband, the one with the hat. Benjamin’s parents. You know.

Anyway, no, I don’t know the names of the people who walk the white-haired fluffball named Ziggy that I see almost every morning. He’s got a soul patch and a scally cap, and she’s got blonde curls, and they’re in their 40s. Ziggy’s about a year old, and a great dog, and the people are nice too. They recognize me with or without Lucy, but I doubt they remember my name. I don’t remember theirs. It’s nice to see them anyway. The same with Lottie, the French bulldog that stays within five feet of her owner, on-leash or not. I have no idea what her name is, although I’ve been introduced often enough that it would be embarrassing to ask again.

My favorite dog, though, the one that sticks with me, is Nelly. She’s 15 years old, and you can tell that she used to be mostly brown but is now mostly grey. I couldn’t tell you her breed, but she’s a little smaller than a Labrador, with oversized feet that look transplanted from a mastiff. With her is a guy I think of as Dave, who told me once that he still sometimes thinks she’ll grow into those feet. He looks like he could be anywhere from 50 to 70. He walks slowly, because Nelly walks slowly. She’s quite literally on her last legs: When she stops walking, they start to buckle and she sags toward the ground. If she sits, the man who might be named Dave has to lift her back up to her feet before they can turn around and walk back home. I’m always glad to see the two of them.

Greg Mankiw: STFU & GTFO

A few days ago, former Buch economic advisor Greg Mankiw wrote an editorial arguing that if tax rates returned to their 1990s-era levels, he’d work far less, perhaps writing fewer disingenuous editorials.

If only.

A Taxing Manner and Marginal Revolution and Brad DeLong have all debunked him on the facts, but that doesn’t really address how offensive his lies are.

Like Mankiw, I have several sources of income: I’ve got my day job, and I do some freelance editing, and I do some events work on evenings and weekends at my wife’s book store. Yesterday I worked the Boston Book Festival. Eight hours on my feet with a smile on my face and a twinge in my back lifting books and running a register. For that I earned $80 pre-tax, most of which I spent buying a round of drinks afterwards.

I’m not in it for the money, in other words. I do it because I enjoy it and because I believe in the book store and in sales. And because this weekend I got to meet Dennis Lehane, Chip Kidd, and Kristin Hersh.

Mankiw gets paid good money to advance a theories he doesn’t even believe. If he were serious about what he’s saying, he’d shut the fuck up and get the fuck out, and we’d all be better off.

I am an overweight American

I am 5’8″ tall and weigh 165 pounds, which puts my BMI at 25. Healthy normal BMI for men is supposed to be under 25, so my doctor tells me I need to lose weight. Or gain half an inch in height. Either way, really.

I reminded him that the body mass index is only a rough estimate of body composition, subject to a number of limitations and shortcomings, and that the estimate of body composition it provides is itself only a rough estimate of health. I told him I can run five miles at a stretch and that I lift weights regularly. He told me I probably ate too many fatty snacks.

Obviously I went to the gym and asked the fitness expert to measure my body-fat percentage. Her machine told me that it’s 18%. She told me 18% is fine. She also said I should fire my doctor because he doesn’t know the difference between BMI and body composition.

I don’t doubt that obesity is a serious problem. And I’m sure I could be in better shape – my body fat percentage was lower a few years ago, when I was in my 20s and single and exercising every day for an hour or more. But a blind adherence to inaccurate numbers is not going to help things.

Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe Misses A Few Key Issues on Student Loans

Yesterday the Globe published an article by Kevin Cullen titled Ungrateful Sallie Mae, about a Marine Corpsman who died and left behind $100,000 or so of student loan debt. The Globe’s reporter says: “[His father] wrote to the lenders, asking that the debts be forgiven. Two wrote back, saying they would forgive the loans. The third, Sallie Mae, the government-created college loan provider that privatized its operations in 2004, refused.” The article goes on to portray Sallie Mae in a pretty negative light.

Since I work in the industry (please don’t construe this post as anything official coming from my employer), I immediately had questions. Key questions that would explain how something like that could happen. Questions the author should have investigated and did not. Notably, Cullen’s report was missing any explanation of what kinds of student loans were taken out, whether they had co-signers, and whether the deceased had life insurance.

If the article were actually going to inform anyone about the tragedy and how it happened, it would need to explain that there are two major kinds of student loans: Federal and private. Federal student loans are guaranteed by the government and are automatically forgiven in the event of the death of the borrower. It sounds like the first two loans, the ones forgiven by the lenders, were federal.

The other loan sounds like a private loan. Private student loans are not guaranteed by the government, and do not have as many protections as federal loans do. For most borrowers, they also require a co-signer, usually a parent. The contracts typically state that if for any reason (and I mean any) the borrower cannot or does not pay, the co-signer is on the hook for the loan. That’s how co-signing works, and why many financial advisers suggest that you avoid co-signing a loan for anyone if at all possible.

Now, this is still a horrible story, and the young man’s death is undoubtedly a tragedy. But the article fails to explain any of the background of how the wreckage left behind by the tragedy came to be.

It also fails to explain the existence of a whole system set up to pay your bills if you die. It’s called life insurance. In general, life insurance is provided all military personnel. I do not know if there are any exceptions and I do not know if the Lieutenant was one, because Cullen doesn’t even bother to ask about that.

Now, I’m no journalist, but even I can tell that if you want to write an article that gets beyond “wow, college is expensive and loans are hard to pay back,” you need to do things like consult experts and look up regulations. At the very least, you could consult Finaid.org. Sallie Mae presumably has PR flacks, but it doesn’t sound like Cullen asked them for a comment. He does say that the grieving father was unable to navigate Sallie Mae’s phone tree to get to a real human, but does not mention whether he himself tried to do so, or whether he tried their email customer support offering.

Is it budget cutbacks that prevent Kevin Cullen from doing any actual leg-work on his articles? Because really, there’s nothing to this piece except that it sucks to die and it sucks to borrow money and not be able to repay it, and that’s not actually news.

Underestimating the Desperation of the American Consumer

Well, here’s a good sign for the economy: One man was trampled to death and a pregnant woman had a miscarriage as a result of a 5AM stampede at a Wal*Mart in Long Island. You can’t have a good Black Friday without a trampling death. If that’s not a sign of consumer confidence, I don’t know what is.

Yes, that’s a little callous. But don’t you know better than to stand right behind the door getting busted at a doorbuster sale, even (perhaps especially) in a recession? What’s the saying about underestimating the American consumer?

I guess I’m just trying to find the dark cloud in every silver lining. I guess I’m just annoyed by the ongoing community outrage about saving a dying and likely hazardous tree in Davis Square while there are rather more pressing issues to worry about. Things like the fuel assistance board in MA seeing so much demand this winter that people who are broke can’t even get an appointment to talk about heat assistance until February. Things like community pantries being bare. Things like Mumbai in flames.

But hey, discounted flat-screen TVs! 40% off at Banana!