Hungry – Plese Help

When I was driving down the main road that goes past Reader Copies this morning, an elderly person was holding up a cardboard sign that had a big bold misspelling:

Hungry – Plese Help

I lived in Wheaton and worked in downtown Chicago for a little over a year, and very quickly got used to seeing panhandlers on street corners.  It became clear that they weren’t necessarily just down on their luck since the same people were on the same corners every day as long as I walked the downtown streets.

This was different.  It was cold this Christmas Eve morning, and the person with the sign was bundled up.  They had on gloves, boots, and a coat with a hood that was pulled so tightly around their face that it was difficult to tell if it was a man or a woman.  What was clear was the wrinkles on their face that evidenced their age.  There was a large coffee on the ground behind them as they moved back and forth to keep warm and attract attention.

It’s not like I don’t have sympathy for those struggling with food insecurity; we routinely send money to Second Harvest when we have more than we need and last month the store even ran a food drive and collected over 400 cans of food for one of the local food banks.  At times I’ve even handed some people five dollar bills and told them to go get a meal, even when I didn’t have a steady income myself.  It’s probably not enough, but it’s likely more than most people do to help.  There should be help readily available to them, but I’m pretty sure they needed money because their resources had run dry, and I can’t really help with that very much anymore.

Like all the cars ahead of me and behind me I simply drove on without stopping to help.  But I couldn’t help but worry about the future we all face in this country.

The Social Security trust fund was not intended to be the way funds were accumulated to pay benefits – Social Security is a pay-as-you-go plan where taxes paid now are immediately paid out to those people receiving benefits.  The trust fund was intended to hold about one month’s benefits, not a huge sum.  In the early seventies, actuaries (the math wizards who worry about such things) projected that as the Baby Boomers started to retire the taxes collected would not cover the cost of the benefits that had to be paid, and as a result, laws were passed to increase the level of taxes.  The extra taxes for the next few decades were to be invested and used to pay the extra benefits required starting well, starting now when taxes are not enough to cover benefits.  Of course, the federal government managed to “borrow” those funds to use to add to general revenues, and the money didn’t really accumulate as much as they should have, so now income taxes have to repay the money that was borrowed to cover benefits.  In fact, the shortage is so bad that it is estimated that by 2034 (at the latest) the trust fund will be depleted and (at best) benefits will have to be reduced by 20%.  And that’s what I was worried about this morning.

Not so much for myself (I do have a small pension and an annuity as well as Social Security) but for the typical Baby Boomer.  The average Boomer has less than $100,000 saved up for retirement, and most of them probably are not debt free.  When Social Security is their only source of income, what will happen if their monthly checks are reduced by 20%?  How many people living paycheck to paycheck could survive a 20% pay cut?

How many of the elderly will be in the situation where standing in the cold with a cardboard sign seems like a good idea?

There are three simple ways we can fix Social Security so no reductions in benefits are required:

    • Raise the retirement age.  Right now the age is slowly moving upwards from 65 to 67, and the age should probably be moved even higher – people are living longer, and Social Security cannot easily cover all those extra years of benefits.  Phasing in a higher full retirement age of 68 or 69 or even 70 would solve our problem.  This is the solution offered by the Republicans and despised by Democrats.
    • Raise the amount of income that gets taxed by Social Security.  Right now you pay 12.4% of income up to $132,900 to Social Security (your employer probably pays half of that), but nothing beyond that is taxed.  If we raise or eliminate the limit (without adjusting retirement benefits) Social Security is solvent for a long, long time.  This is the solution offered by Democrats and despised by Republicans.
    • Increase the tax rate.  Instead of paying 12.4%, require people to pay 13% or 14% or whatever it takes.  This is the solution proposed by nobody who wants to run for office ever again and is despised by everybody.
    • Decrease future benefit calculations.  This is a non-starter, so there’s no need to even suggest it.
    • Finally, we can increase payrolls by increasing population and productivity, but AI and computerization and robots are making that look less and less likely.

Perhaps the only possible solution is one that uses little pieces of all these possible solutions, but it still generates pain and lower benefits to people so politicians will continue to kick the can down the road.

Since our divided Congress is unlikely to grapple with this problem any time soon (What, Me Compromise?), the date we face disaster and the amount of the reduction in benefits will continue to creep in our direction – you cannot affect reality by wishing it away.

But we really do need to do something before there are lines of people with cardboard signs seeking more help than we can provide.


Really? Christmas Edition

Once upon a time, Billboard listed the Hot 100 records based on something simple – sales of single records. Then came airplay, and then streaming, and now the results are in: oops!

Thanks to the full court press of Christmas music on radio stations desperate for listeners and streaming by people who should really know better, lots of Christmas singles are finally hitting the Hot 100 rather than the special Christmas chart. The only problem? It’s old, older, and older than me records rather than new recordings. Here’s a list of the records in this week’s list (all of which I usually punch out immediately if I’m listening in my car or on my portable radio):

#7 All I Want For Christmas Is You – Mariah Carey *
#16 It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year – Andy Williams **
#21 Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree – Brenda Lee
#22 A Holly Jolly Christmas – Burl Ives ***
#26 Jingle Bell Rock – Bobby Helms
#29 The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You) – Nat King Cole
#34 Last Christmas – Wham
#36 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – Gene Autry
#41 Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow – Dean Martin

No sign of Baby It’s Cold Outside thanks to all the recent bannings of the formerly popular song.

* Extra Credit: guess how much Mariah has made off writing and recording her Christmas record. Give up? Over 60 million dollars. Merry Christmas to Mariah!

** The next week Andy’s Christmas tune moved up to number 10, giving him a new record: it was over 41 years between the last time Andy Williams hit the top ten (the Theme to Love Story) and this record — crushing the 30 year span for Dobie Gray that previously held the record.

*** And one week after Andy’s trip to the top ten, Burl Ives crushed his record by getting into the top ten 56 years after his last trip there.  He also eclipsed Paul McCartney’s record for longest stretch in the top ten and in the top 40 (Paul grabbed the record when FourFiveSeconds briefly got into the top ten a few years ago).  Louie Armstrong probably still holds a few longevity records.

Christmas Records Buried in the Snows of Time

A very long time ago, radio stations put occasional Christmas records into the rotation in December, but that’s a thing of the past.  A few stations began playing Christmas music full time on some of the weekends, and their ratings soared (this is long before streaming made it easy to hear what every you wanted to).  It wasn’t too long before we started getting wall to wall Christmas music on some stations as soon as Thanksgiving, and SiriusXM radio now has year-round Christmas music on at least one channel.

While the expansion of Christmas music may sound like a good idea, that isn’t quite what we got.  Instead of stations playing hundreds of different Christmas records we get what seems to be the same ten or so songs by various artists over and over and over.

Sure, it’s nice to hear George Michael sing Last Christmas again (okay, the label says “Wham”), but a half hour later we hear the song “performed” by the Glee crowd or  Ariana Grande or even Taylor Swift.  Then here comes Little Drummer Boy by Joan Jett or Justin Bieber or the Temptations or somebody else at least once per hour.  Lots of cover versions of the Christmas Song (“Chestnuts Roasting”), White Christmas, Blue Christmas, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, and maybe even a few now politically-incorrect versions of Baby It’s Cold Outside (and, sadly, a few newer versions that are adapted to be politically correct — sigh).  I can barely stand to listen for even an hour thanks to the endless repetition.

It didn’t take long to make up a list of songs that have been “misplaced” and no longer seem to be on the air.  The hard part was winnowing down the list to a manageable number.  In no particular order, here are a few songs that might help you remember a Christmas past:

Whatever Happened To Christmas by Frank Sinatra. This 1969 song was on the Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas album; the real surprise is that Jimmy Webb wrote the song.

Christmas Mem’ries by Rosemary Clooney.  Rosemary sang and danced her way through the movie White Christmas in 1954 (which was a remake of 1942’s Holiday Inn, renamed due to the popularity of Bing Crosby’s biggest record). This version of memories of the past was written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and put to music by Don Costa by 1975.

This Time of the Year by Brook Benton.  A 1959 television performance of Brook lip-syncing the song, one of the 67 records that Brook got onto the Hot 100 pop charts.

Old  Toy Trains by Roger Miller. While he may have continued climbing the Country charts for a few more decades, this record came near the end of Roger’s success on the pop charts.

Christmas Night In Harlem by Louis Armstrong.  At about the midpoint of his career, Louis recorded this Christmas song in 1955.  The original hit version of the song was by Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra in 1934, but that version contains some lyrics that aren’t quite acceptable in these modern times.

Snowy White Snow and Jingle Bells by Vaughn Monroe.  From 1945 to 1952 Vaughn usually had 4 or 5 hit records each year; the only exception was 1950, the year he released this Christmas song.  Perhaps three top ten records in the next five months was the present Santa left under his tree!

It’s Gonna Be a Lonely Christmas by The Orioles.  This 1948 release by one of the first doo-wop groups shows much of the promise that bloomed later in their career (you are most likely familiar with their biggest hit, Crying in the Chapel, which was later covered by Elvis).

The Marvelous Toy by the Chad Mitchell Trio.  The song was written (and later recorded) by Tom Paxton, who was briefly accepted as a member of the group but forced to move on when his voice apparently didn’t blend in well enough.  Other members of the group at one time or another included Harry Belafonte and John Denver, but the hit record was recorded in 1963 by Chad Mitchell, Mike Kobluk, and Joe Frazier.  Numerous versions have been recorded since then, but the radio pretty much ignores them.

Merry Christmas, Baby by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers.  This is the original 1947 version of the song, featuring vocals by Charles Brown.  The 1962 version that Charles recorded as a solo record didn’t get much traction, but the next two years the two different versions of the record (as well as a third version) went into heavy rotation at Christmas and all the modern covers followed after that.

The River by Joni Mitchell.  Not many Christmas songs get released in June, but this entry was on the album Blue, which was released that month in 1971.  That album is widely considered to be her best.  The River appears to have been written about her breakup with Graham Nash (of the Hollies and Crosby, Stills, and Nash) and is one of the saddest of the Christmas songs.

A 5 Pound Box of Money by Pearl Bailey.  I really don’t need to hear Santa Baby once an hour by Ertha Kitt and Madonna and Glee and Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift and… hmm, isn’t this list starting to sound familiar?  Here’s a similar plea from Peal Bailey from 1959 that concentrates on one simple gift request.

A Howdy Doody Christmas by The Fontane Sisters and Howdy Doody.  Okay, I got to sit in the Peanut Gallery once upon a time, so how can I ignore Howdy Doody’s 1957 entry into the Christmas Hall of Fame?

May Every Day Be Christmas by Louis Jordan.  If the radio isn’t going to play Baby It’s Cold Outside by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan, perhaps the record he cut two years later can gain some traction.

Santa’s Beard by the Beach Boys.  The Beach Boys Christmas Album in 1964 contained their most played Christmas song, the Little Saint Nick, as well as a stack of covers of classic hits, but this song about searching for the real Santa Claus seems all but forgotten.

There are, of course, many, many more – Merry Christmas, Everybody, Everywhere!