I heard on the radio earlier today a report (one of the almost weekly reports) on the latest unemployment figures. The thing that struck me the most was the statement that for unemployment rates to go down there needs to be a decrease in new claims. That seems a little like saying to someone “To cure your pneumonia we need to stop your cough.” It is looking at a symptom not the actual problem.

Of course it is always easier to look at symptoms and not problems. We do it all the time. It feels like the quick fix. We don’t feel well and go to the doctor so they can prescribe a pill. We get overwhelmed by debt and take out a loan to “consolidate”. Instead of solving the actual problem, we try to just cover things up. We fix what feels the worst right now and ignore the rest.

As far as unemployment goes, the problem isn’t how many people are filing unemployment claims. It doesn’t matter how many people are collecting unemployment. The unemployment rate is a number created to try to make a complicated issue easy to understand. But by doing that we are completely breaking the actual understanding of the issue. It only figures out the number of people who are filing unemployment claims against the calculated total “eligible workforce”.

As has been mentioned many times in many places, it doesn’t take into account the person who has gone past the end of eligibility for unemployment benefits. It doesn’t take into account the people who have given up looking for work. It doesn’t take into account the person working a part time job because it is the only thing they could find and they figure part-time is better than no-time. It doesn’t account for the person who sees collecting unemployment as accepting charity or admitting they failed. It doesn’t account for the person who was self-employed but is now looking for work because their business failed. It doesn’t account for the person who doesn’t file simply because they assume they won’t qualify. It doesn’t account for the person who was unemployed and got a job but at a huge cut in pay from their previous job. It doesn’t account for the person working two or even three full-time jobs because one just doesn’t bring in enough money to support their household. It doesn’t take into account the people outside of the “eligible workforce” who either have or need jobs.

Should a 17 year old looking for a job count as unemployed? If they are still living at home it is not likely that they really need the job to survive, but there are 17 year olds that for one reason or another have moved out from home. Or if they are still at home their parents aren’t making enough money so them having a job is a matter of survival. Then you have the 25 year old that has moved back in with their parents or never has left. When do you count them as “unemployed”?

Some might argue that looking at the “employment rate” is a better measure. It might be better but not by much. It has many of the same issues. Do you count the 17 year old living at home student with a 20 hour per week, minimum wage job as a full employed person, half because of the hours, three-quarters because of the pay compared to the poverty level, one-sixth compared to US median income, or zero because they don’t really need the job? Similarly does a CEO job count as just one, two because they are actually working 80 hour weeks, 100 because they make that much more than the median income or 440 compared to poverty guidelines. Counting the number of jobs by “full-time equivalents” would put a minimum wage job (that few could survive on) on a par with the CEO of a major corporation. Do you count by salary? You can’t really break the CEO’s job into 440 (or even 100) pieces. And if you say the 17 year old should not count because they do not need the job, but the CEO probably has a 401(k) and other investments worth millions of dollars so does he really need the job either? Do you count the 75 year old who wants to work to feel useful as “unemployed”? Is he part of the “eligible workforce”? Does it make a difference if he needs the money because Social Security is not enough? What if his child is that CEO that could afford to take care of him? What if they had a fight 25 years ago and haven’t even spoken since then?

Our continued attempts to put a simple number on unemployment just cheapens the issue and pushes us further from finding a real solution. Or to be more precise solutions. I am not an economic expert, but I am sure that there will not be one solution that will fix everything.


Election time is rapidly approaching again and I occasionally hear an idea that makes me cringe.  It’s the idea that you have to vote for the Democrat or the Republican in elections, otherwise you are wasting your vote.  I hate that concept.  It makes me want to scream every time.  It’s a little like saying you have to have either Brussels sprouts or asparagus with dinner every night.  Presented with that, many will choose one because they hate the other.  But that is an unrealistic choice.  You could have carrots, or broccoli, or a potato.  There are a plethora of options, not just two that many people dislike.  And if you have 12 people all trying to pick one side dish there will very likely be at least some of the group that are disappointed.  Would you really say to yourself “I’d really like to have broccoli, but since no one else will want it, I might as well vote for asparagus because I really want to make sure Brussels sprouts doesn’t win.”  That is what we say every time we limit ourselves to the two biggest political parties.  Yes, sometimes those are the only choices.  But more often than not there are other choices.  You can vote for the Independence Party.  Or the Green Party.  Or the Libertarian Party.  In the last presidential election there were a total of 23 parties that were listed on ballots in various states.  Voting for a particular candidate is seen as exactly that: voting FOR them, not voting against ONE of the other guys.  When so many people automatically limit their choices to only the two candidates who “have a shot at winning” we give those candidates a false sense of support.  Consider: if the Green Party had gotten 15% of the vote in the last election, don’t you think both the Democrats and Republicans would be looking at why and at what they could adopt to be more attractive?

I used to say that the only wasted vote is the one not cast.  I don’t know that I completely agree with that anymore.  If no candidate is appealing in any way, the best way to show that is to not vote for any of them, although to make it obvious it might be necessary to cast a blank ballot (unless you live in Nevada where every election is required to have the choice “None of these”).  I heard someone say recently that they were going to vote for Candidate A in November even though they didn’t really like them, because they want to make sure Candidate B doesn’t win even though they would most like to see Candidate C win.  To me THAT is truly a wasted vote–one not used to express true preferences.

Remember to vote November 2.  And cast your vote for the candidates you feel you can truly support, not just who you think can win.

Having not gone to the Minnesota State Fair for the second year running, I had to bring one of the food staples of any local festival home:  Corn Dogs.  Yes, I know I can go to the grocery store and buy corn dogs–even State Fair brand corn dogs.  But corn dogs are so much better when they are freshly dipped and not partially cooked and frozen.  Drying off the hot dogs is very important or else the batter will not stick very well.  I actually used some cheaper end hot dogs and put some sugar in the batter for sweetness so they are more like carnival food and it goes perfectly with mustard.  For a more savory version, scratch the sugar and use a teaspoon or two each of garlic powder and black pepper.  For the sticks I had to get a little creative: I used a chopstick stuck in the end of each hot dog and slid them off into my deep fryer.  If you are frying them on the stove top be careful and make sure you turn them early and often until the batter starts to crust over.

  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup corn meal
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 8 pack of hot dogs
  • sturdy sticks or skewers
  • oil for frying

Beat the egg and milk together.  Add corn meal, flour and sugar and mix until completely combined.  Dry off hot dogs.  Spear each hot dog on a stick.  Coat well in batter.  Deep fry.

A while back I started playing with sauces.  I came up with a rather tasty Honey Pear Sauce good for chicken.  A couple days later I was staring into the fridge again trying to make something to go with the beef roast I had sitting around that wasn’t the usual brown gravy.  I always like roasted red pepper and think it stands up to beef quite well.  This recipe involves roasting the pepper over an open flame.  I’ve done this on my charcoal grill (I’ll cut the pepper into sections to cook it faster) or I’ve just set the whole pepper on the spider grate over my gas stove.  I have not used jarred peppers for it although I imagine it would still work, as well as roasting the peppers in the oven.  Although both would be missing some of the char flavor you get from fresh roasting them which goes so well with beef.

  • 2 whole red bell peppers
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  • 1-1/2 tsp arrowroot
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Roast the red bell pepper over a flame.  When outer skin is blackened put in Tupperware-like container and cover tightly.  Shake to remove skin.  Puree red pepper until smooth.  Sautee garlic in butter.  Add beef stock.  Add black pepper and arrowroot.  Whisk together over medium heat until sauce thickens.  Add pureed red pepper and Parmesan cheese.  Simmer over low heat until heated through.

Yesterday was the last day of the Minnesota State Fair.  I didn’t make it there for the second year in a row which for someone who has lived in Minnesota his entire life is a little unusual.  It’s a little like someone who lives in Los Angeles telling you they have never seen the ocean.  There are people who plan vacations around going to the State Fair.  There are people who have gone at least once every year for over 50 years.  Many transplants to the area just don’t quite get it.  They appreciate it, and some embrace it, but it doesn’t quite completely resonate with a lot of trasplants.  It’s a habitual thing–marking the end of summer and the beginning of the new school year.  It’s a nostalgic thing–we went to the fair with our parents and bring our own children back to give ourselves the fond recollections of quality family time spent together in the past.  It’s an emotional thing–connecting us to each other, a shared experience we can all talk about.

Ever since it started in 1859, there has been a focus on agricultural competitions and exhibitions.  I remember going there with my father and being amazed at the inordinate amount of time he could spend wandering through “Machinery Hill.”  I never could understand it considering he was never going to be able to fit one of those big combine harvesters in his little one bedroom apartment in Roseville.  But it may have been a holdover from going to the fair with his father.  Machinery Hill is still there but its character has changed.  There is still a good dose of farm equipment, but some of the space has been given over to car and RV dealers.  There are many more food vendors out there than I remember.  As an accompaniment to the barns with all the livestock, there is now a “Pet Center” with information and exhibits aimed towards pet owners (including live surgeries!).  There is also a stage area given over to “sportsman” exhibitions and demonstrations.

When you talk to someone about the fair one of the topics that always comes up is food.  Two questions dominate: Did you try (insert name of new weird food)? and How many Pronto Pups did you eat?  If you aren’t familiar with Pronto Pups they are similar to corn dogs, but the batter is completely wheat flour based instead of corn meal/flour.  There is a lot of the standard fair/carnival food: corn dogs, snow cones, hot dogs, etc., and one of the local jokes is that everything is on a stick.  And we do try to put everything on a stick.  (Macaroni and cheese? Yup, it’s been done.)  And if it’s not on a stick there’s a good chance it’s deep-fried.  (A more recent biggie to show up: Deep fried candy bars.)  Every year something new and/or strange comes up.  Several years ago it was alligator.  Another year “Fudge Puppies”: Belgian waffles completely submerged in chocolate and topped with whipped cream.  One of this year’s notables was camel.  Yes, it was on a stick.

The rest of the fair seems to have gotten more crowded over the years.  As vendors come back year after year they are always looking to get a little extra space and new vendors are always trying to squeeze in.  Local media gets into the act, too.  Every local TV station has a booth and/or broadcast studio and the early evening newscasts are done “Live from the Fair” with most of the stories being Fair related.  Almost every local radio station has a broadcast booth in daily use also giving us the opportunity to put faces to the voices we drive to work with.

As I said, I ended up not making it to the State Fair this year.  There is a logical side of me that knows it really isn’t a big deal.  From year to year there is not a lot of change.  The Grandstand which hosts concerts every night during the fair, is a big series of infomercials during the day, packed full of booth selling the same “As Seen on TV” type stuff year after year.  (We had Sham-wows! before they were famous.)  There’s the Home Improvement building, the Education building with the student art projects, the Fine Arts building with the adult art projects.  The political parties each have their buildings.  The nostalgic side of me wishes I had gone just to get back a little taste of my childhood.  And the emotional side of me feels like I might be just a little less connected to my neighbors.

The social life of a restaurant manager can be a very unusual beast.  Mine is very much like a pink unicorn–mythical.  It does have something to do with my nature of being an introvert.  But there are other things that come into play.

First off, think about the sort of activities you often will do with your friends.  You go out to restaurants and bars.  The most popular times for socializing are also the busiest times in my business, so guess what?  I’m working instead of socializing with friends.  During the times I am not working, most of the people I know that are also not working are other restaurant managers.

While this doesn’t sound bad on the surface, you run into the subject of what to talk about.  A lot of people will talk about their jobs.  Well, in my case, if I’m hanging around with other restaurant managers, all I’m going to hear are happenings that sound remarkably similar to what happened to me.  How many people after working 50-60 hours want to spend another several hours listening to stories about your own job?  I want to hear about different things.  I also have enough of an ego to want reaction to my stories to be “Really?  You’re kidding me!” instead of “Yeah, that happened to me last week, too.”  I want to hang out with people who are different from the people I already spend a third of my week with.

My work schedule also causes problems with trying to have a social life.  We do have a schedule for the managers that is written a month ahead of time.  Unfortunately it includes some hourly supervisors who also regularly work general staff positions.  The staff can request time off with as little as a week’s notice.  If enough people request off on one day it can sometimes require the entire week’s schedule (including managers) to be completely re-written so unless there are firm plans in place to do something, I can’t really justify keeping the rare Friday or Saturday night open.  And it also happens that sometimes the need is great enough that even with plans in place we’ll get told “Well, you’ll just have to change those plans.”

Once the final schedule is posted for a given week, it’s usually pretty safe to count on specific days staying free.  I even have scheduled hours for my working days.  But the hours I’m scheduled for don’t always match up with what I actually end up working.  The restaurant business is different from many office jobs–if I just leave at my scheduled time the work isn’t just sitting there waiting for me to do it tomorrow.  Most of the work is the guests.  It doesn’t matter if I’m scheduled to leave at 5:30 if there is a line of people at the door, I’m expected to stay until they are taken care of whether that be 5:45 or 7:00.  So that leaves me reluctant to make any plans for evenings that I work (5:30 would be the earliest I would ever be scheduled out–other days would be even later).  If I have a later shift, I’m disinclined to schedule something beforehand because then I find myself repeatedly looking at my watch to make sure I still have enough time to get home and get ready for work.  I can’t relax and enjoy spending time with my friend.

I’m not sure how to improve the situation with my social life.  How to find new friends?  How to find usable time?  Or with being a 40 year old introvert, is it pretty much too late and I need to be content with Twitter and Facebook?

We keep hearing pundits lamenting how the economy is hurting the “middle class”.  But how often do we stop and think what exactly does “middle class” mean?  Do you define it by type of job?  Lifestyle?  Income?  Or maybe the Supreme Court’s obscenity test (I know it when I see it)?

Maybe we look at lifestyle.  The traditional middle class lifestyle involves a house in the suburbs, two cars in the garage, a nice vacation every year, etc.  One problem, though: the mortgage crisis that we’re still recovering from was was in part because people were defaulting on mortgages they couldn’t afford; i.e. trying to live the middle class lifestyle on too little money.

What if we look at jobs people have?  I don’t think I even want to start going there.  I’m not going to speculate on what should be considered a “middle-“, “upper-” or “lower-class” job.  There are jobs involving a lot of muscle and sweat that pay well and others that don’t.  Same with the “white-collar” jobs.  Dividing jobs into “upper” and “lower” only implies that some are more important than others.

What about income levels?  Is there any clear indication there?  In 2008 the Pew Research Center published a study where 53% of all American adults surveyed said they were “middle class”.  Of the people surveyed 4 in 10 with incomes under $20,000 said they were middle class along with one-third of those making over $150,000.  Does either group really think the other is also middle class?

Since politicians are always talking about “middle class tax cuts” and “middle class values” they must have an idea.  John Edwards in the 2004 presidential primary campaign talked about “two Americas” which he called “middle-class America” and “narrow-interest America”.  But doesn’t “middle” imply something on both sides?  A “middle class tax cut” in 2003 benefited everyone making over $28000.  In the 2008 primaries Hillary Clinton promised not to save Social Security on the backs of the “middle class”.  This was in response to a proposal to remove the limit on earnings subject to the Social Security tax that now stands at $106,800 (that is somewhere around the 75th percentile for household incomes).  Rudy Giuliani’s proposal to help the “middle class” was to get rid of the “Death Tax”.  The estate tax currently affects estates valued at over $3.5 million–according to the IRS website this will exempt 98% of Americans from it.  In 1988 the top tax bracket was for incomes over $29,750.  Where was the middle class then?  Doesn’t look like the politicians have any clue what “middle class” really is–the target just moves depending on whose votes they are courting.

What are “middle class values” anyway?  I really have trouble figuring it out.  I thought I was middle class, but then again I never received any handbook for what I am supposed to value.  I value some different things than a lot of other people who also appear to me to possibly be middle class.  I have had spirited discussions with various people on economics, politics, religion.  Which of us holds the middle class “values”?  I have some traditional middle class characteristics (I own a home, my wife holds a “professional” job) but not others (I do not have a college degree).  Do I have to have a certain percentage to be considered middle class?  And if I don’t, does that make me lower class?  What does it take to be upper class?

Of course the biggest questions I have to ask are: Should I really care? and Does it really matter?  I have decided not to care.  “Middle Class” is just another label to separate us and pit us against each other.