Museums made affordable

October 10, 2019

The northeast is awash with interesting and educational museums of all kinds. Unfortunately, many, especially in major cities, have become unaffordable.

Realizing this, many museums offer free admissions at certain times, which may or may not be convenient for prospective visitors.  But I’ve used two other ways to get free museum admissions:

Bank of America’s Museums on US program offers its credit or debit card holders free admission to museums throughout the country on the first full weekend of each month. I have used this program at the Cloisters and the Intrepid Air/Space Museum in New York, the Hartford Atheneum, the Albany Institute and Mass MoCa.  Participating museums change regularly, so consult the web page before you plan your trip.

More recently, I used free passes borrowed from local Upper Hudson Libraries to visit the Clark Art Museum. The passes, available for many museums, may be borrowed for up to to a week. The down side is that, at least for the Clark passes, each branch has only one – if you and a companion want to go together, you each will have to borrow a pass from a different branch, but that’s a minor inconvenience for a savings of $20 each.  To find out what branches have passes available, search for the museum in which you are interested in the UHLS catalog search page.

As a taxpayer who uses few other government services, I can’t say enough about the superb value UHLS libraries provide.  Engines of social mobility, these institutions provide services to those who can’t afford private alternatives, and to those who can.  All who benefit from them – in other words, all of us – should support our local libraries.  In addition to the books, other media and programs and services available at local branches, UHLS libraries offer an extensive collection of on-line resources for borrowing and downloading.  Even if you can’t travel to a branch, you can benefit form library services.

S*#!-hole country

August 7, 2019

I recently returned from a trip that took me by air to three Latin American countries – Panama, Argentina and Costa Rica (I also visited Uruguay, but by boat). At one airport on my trip, after 12 wearying hours of traveling, including seven straight hours in a coach seat, I was directed to a huge, dingy arrivals hall without air conditioning (and it was hot), where I waited over 40 minutes with hundreds of other tired, hot travelers to have a disinterested bureaucrat stamp my passport without asking me a single question. After another wait of 40 minutes (in a room also without air conditioning) for my luggage, I finally was able to go outside to look for a cab. One nowhere near the front of a long line of licensed cabs called out to me, so I got in. When I told him where I was going (a hotel near the airport, not the urban center) he cursed me and tried to hold me up for an exorbitant fixed fare, though local law requires cabs to use meters. When I threatened to report him if he didn’t turn on the meter, he acquiesced, muttering “it’ll be the same.” Of course, it wasn’t – it was just over half what he initially had asked for.

Can you guess the airport at which this scene took place?  If you guessed JFK in New York upon my return, you’d be right.  The three international airports in Latin America that I experienced were all modern, air conditioned, and the entry procedures were efficient and quick.

Smart governments know that good airports are huge economic drivers, and can shape visitors’ attitudes toward a place by the initial impressions they instill.  The local leaders who pushed through the renovation of the Albany International Airport a few decades ago knew this, and I believe their good work has paid off.  The Port Authority of NY and NJ, which runs the JFK airport, has promised a new JFK.  It can’t come soon enough.



Another Long Island Railroad scandal

July 10, 2019

I was shocked when the New York Times exposed the abuses by Long Island Railroad employees of their disability benefits, as well as provisions of its labor contracts that no sane company would accept .  Now, perhaps less surprisingly, the New York Post reveals egregious time and leave abuse, allowing some individual employees to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime for hours they didn’t work.  While some of the workers were able to retire before facing disciplinary action and recoupment of the stolen funds, the taxpayers who subsidize the railroad — already victimized by the railroad’s paying the crooked employees for hours not worked — will continue to pay their crookedly inflated pensions.  If the abuse can’t be stopped (I give Governor Cuomo credit for trying to stop it, albeit belatedly), a big step toward curbing it would be to disallow overtime hours to be part of pension calculations.

O, Canada

June 5, 2019

I just returned from a visit to Vancouver, BC, in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, one of my favorite parts of the world.  The city, which is known for its great Asian food, its waterfront and the beauty of its surroundings, among many other things, did not disappoint.

But I want to talk about two very little things I was reminded of that are done in Canada, but not in the US, that make life there easier for everyone, and in particular for gamblers.

The first is that pennies no longer are used.  All cash sales are rounded to the nearest nickel, which is the smallest unit of currency generally in circulation.  Given that the penny costs more to produce than it is worth, and that storing and accounting for pennies also is costly, this common-sense approach, with roundings up and roundings down canceling each other out, makes a lot of cents (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

I was reminded of the second when, in the local casino, I hit a jackpot that required a hand pay.  In the States, along with the hand pay would come a W-2G form reporting the gross proceeds of the jackpot to the IRS.  To avoid liability for the tax, it would be up to the player to record his or her offsetting losses, which almost always exist.  In Canada, they realize that fact, and even apply it to lottery winnings, whose large jackpots are the exceptions, presumably treating lottery losses and wins by the aggregate of all players as a wash or a net loss.  After I signed a form for the casino, I was paid in cash and not given any other paper work (US citizens should be aware that, as in the US, net gambling wins, like any income earned anywhere, even if not accompanied by a reporting form, are taxable income, no matter where in the world they are won).


Planning for the inevitable

April 8, 2019

As a result of the problems I encountered administering the estates of my parents, I learned a few things that might be helpful in planning for the end of your life, especially if you have dependents.

Many people designate trusted relatives or friends as attorneys in fact (through a document called a power of attorney) to act in case they become disabled and cannot handle their own financial and business affairs.  The important thing to remember about such a designation is that it only exists during the lifetime of the grantor — as soon as the person designating another as attorney dies, the attorney’s authority to act on behalf of the grantor stops.

If you have a spouse, and you were the bigger earner, it is true that your surviving spouse will, in many cases, be able to receive your higher monthly social security payments after your death; however, your spouse’s own existing payments will cease, thus resulting in an immediate loss of income.  What’s worse, after Social Security finds out about your death (usually from your funeral provider), if you have received any excess payments via direct deposit, it will claw them back from the account in which they were deposited.

If you were lucky enough to have a pension, you more than likely opted for benefits to your spouse to continue after your death, but at a reduced rate.  The survivor in such situation may likely suffer a large, immediate loss in monthly income (from social security and the pension) that may not be offset by the reduced expenses of living alone.

The issue is not just whether there will be enough money for the survivor to live on long-term.  The issue also is providing for the immediate needs of the survivor when income may be reduced and accounts frozen. Life insurance pays quickly, and can be a lifesaver if the policy beneficiary is the surviving spouse. Don’t make the mistake of using a life insurance policy to provide for those who don’t need the proceeds immediately; provide for them elsewhere in your estate plan.





The cost of playing “short pay” video poker

April 8, 2019

Traditional “full pay”  or “9/6” (based on their payouts for the full house and flush on a single-coin bet) video poker pays back 45 coins for a full house and 30 coins for a flush  including the return of an original five-coin wager (as explained in earlier posts, a wager of five coins is necessary to be eligible for the enhanced royal flush payout).  Combined with the returns for other winning combinations (which usually but not always remain the same on all machines), the overall average return for full pay jacks or better is 99.5% of all moneys wagered when played using optimum strategy at full coin.  This overall return takes a long time to achieve, since part of it is based on hitting a royal flush, which on average occurs only once in some 40,000 hands, but it’s a useful measure nonetheless.

While full pay jacks or better machines do still exist, they are becoming rare, especially outside competitive gaming markets such as Las Vegas.  Particularly at lower denominations, most jacks or better machines in our area pay 8 coins for a full house and 5 for a flush.  The overall return (again, based on optimum play at full coin, over a long period of time) is 97.3%, or some 2.2% less than full pay.

While 2.2% doesn’t sound like much, it can add up fast.  Let’s assume play on a dollar machine (a level at which full pay machines are available at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods; the best dollar machines at Turning Stone are somewhere in the middle, some returning 9 for a full house and 5 for a flush and others 8 for a full house and 6 for a flush).  At max coin, that’s $5.00 a spin.  While experienced video poker players can achieve speeds of up to 1,000 hands per hour, and average 600-800 hands per hour, let’s assume a leisurely pace (which I recommend) of 400 hands per hour. That means the player is pushing $2,000 an hour through the machine, which amount is exposed to a house edge of 2.7%.  On average, the house therefore will retain $44 of that amount.  On a full pay machine, with a 0.5% house edge, the house will retain, on average, only $10 — more than three times less.  The average hourly cost of playing a $1.00 short pay jacks or better video poker machine is $34 more than a full pay machine.  As we used to say in Brooklyn, “that ain’t nuttin'”.  And if you’re playing a $5.00 machine ($25.00 per spin), the extra cost per hour is quintupled, to $240 per hour.

Whether to accept the extra cost is, of course, up to you.  If you have a very limited budget, and must play at the $.25 level, you really have no choice —  8/5 machines likely are the best available to you in the northeast (and beware of those paying even less).  At the dollar level, if you live in Albany, the nearest full pay machines are two hours farther away than the nearest 8/5 machines.  At the $5.00 level and above, Turning Stone offers full pay jacks or better, as do the casinos in Connecticut.  Be aware that, regardless of short term results, the more you play, the more your results will skew toward the average return.

Ironically, one of the major responses of the gaming industry to increased competition has been to lower the return to players on its games.  The reasons for this are many, including increased taxation and other items of overhead (New York’s taxes on its non-native American casinos is, not surprisingly, among the nation’s highest, and that money has to come from somewhere).  However, a major reason for for the payout reduction is that it works.  Consumers who normally would boycott a store charging four times more than its competition for a given item accept the gouging, usually out of ignorance.  If you know the cost, you — and only you — can decide whether the convenience, amenities and other factors justify playing the short pay machine.



The business of death

March 18, 2019

My extended absence from this blog has been due primarily to the loss of both my parents last year. I was designated executor of their estates, which were somewhat complicated. It was my first time discharging this type of responsibility, and I had a lot to learn.

Fortunately, I had good professional help, which eased the burden a great deal.

That burden was made far more onerous than it had to be, however, by the abysmal customer service I received from almost every business I dealt with in administering the estates and related matters. I realize that customer service usually is not a revenue producing department for most businesses, and thus is a prime target for bean-counting cost cutters. However, those economies can backfire — I have vowed never to do business with several of the companies at whose hands I received unacceptable service.

It’s hard for me to say which company I dealt with gave me the worst service — was it the insurance agent who, after promising me for weeks that the homeowners policy on my parents’ house would timely be renewed, waited until several days after it expired to tell me he had failed to renew it, and would not be able to get me new coverage for a month?

Or was it the brokerage house, with whom my parents had several fairly large accounts, that lost paperwork I sent in, only finding it after I resubmitted it at their request.

Perhaps the worst service I received was from another firm, at which held a 401(k) account for my father by virtue of a contract with his former employer. I was asked to send three documents to begin the process of transferring the account to his heirs. Two, I had and sent, with an explanation as to why I was not sending the third and a request for further instructions. The third was a paper from the court administering the estate, but how the estate would be administered depended on the value of the account, which the firm would not disclose to me. After the receiving the third letter from the firm requesting the three items requested in the original letter, I called, not believing my two prior submissions of the two documents requested and letter explaining the absence of the third could have been lost in the mail. I was told that the company received my submissions, but could not proceed in the absence of the court paper. When I asked why I wasn’t told that, but was instead repeated sent letters suggesting I had never been heard from, I was told that was the only letter they had.

While not strictly a customer service issue, the worst problem I had was procuring a medallion signature guarantee, a sort of super-notary stamp (that not only vouches for the identity of the signer, but apparently also indicates the guarantor is assuming financial responsibility for the transaction), which some firms require for the transfer of stock, bonds and mutual fund shares. Although the firm holding the shares and requiring the medallion advised that it could be procured for free from many banks and brokerages, none of the four I asked for it (I was a customer of each) would give me one. The scam was exposed when the holding company offered a medallion “waiver” in exchange for a $50 payment, on top of its exorbitant commission and fees for selling the shares.

In my next post, I will offer some advice to spare your heirs some aggravation after your passing.