Worried about the economy? Keep an eye on the taco index.

We weren’t paying attention…and “taco” took over.

In the past month I’ve had vegan Southwest tacos, fresh-ahi tacos, and Thai basil-quinoa tacos. Just for the hell of it, I made taco-tacos the other night. You know, the ones with ground beef, tomatoes, olives, cheese, salsa all gathered quietly under the friendly roof of an actual corn tortilla.

I decided to look into this trend. First, etymology: The word supposedly comes down from a Spanish reference to a wadded-up cloth used for patches when firing musket balls. I’m guessing the cruelty free raw bar around the corner where I had the Thai taco with organic-soynut sauce does not know the origins of this word.

The idea of an entrée wrapped in an edible container isn’t new or unique to Mexican culture. Every cuisine has some version of it, from dim sum on down.

I’ve discovered something useful. Tacos, it turns out, are reliable tools for gauging the state of the economy. Here’s why: In tough times we like to touch our food. In boom times, we don’t.

Think about it. Remember those silly towers of fusion food marooned on big white plates during the dot-com years? Those cilantro truffle lamb aperitifs rising above reductions of pear that went for $19? No one dared touch that stuff with a hand…a chopstick, maybe. Mostly folks just left them on the plate and ordered more imported vodka.

Now, as our home equity vaporizes, we’re all about “finger foods.” Did you not notice that even Starbucks is selling its coffee as instant in itty-bitty bags? You can’t handle their prepared coffee because it’s heated to something like 700 degrees, but you can dip a finger into that jumped-up Sanka-esque stuff and breathe a sigh of relief: It’s all going to hell, but I’ve still got java.

There’s really no need to listen to those economic “experts” or try to keep up with the rapidly accumulating issues of the Economist that get pushed to the bottom of the magazine stack. Just keep your eye on the menus around town.

When you need a knife and fork  for all the daily specials, you’ll know that the long, dark night is ending.

Portland: Low-tech and high priced.

If you want an excellent blueprint for wasting resources, look at this report from Portland’s city auditor. You don’t need to read very far to get the idea.

The city that prides itself on its green approach to life is hugely wasteful when it comes to that paper stuff called “money.”

392 Business System Software Implementation Audit FULL(2)

If a private business operated this way, its creditors would be holding a fire sale right now.

Land of (limited) milk and honey.

We Americans have a hard time deciding if we’re a Land of Opportunity or Opportunism.

We’ve got a thriving “income defense industry,” which New York Times writer Paul Sullivan defines as “accountants, lawyers and financial advisers employed by the wealthy — and the merely affluent — to manage their financial affairs.”  (See the entire article, here.)

Now, there’s nothing wrong with holding on to your hard-earned gains, but much of what these defenders do amounts to standing on the necks of those living way down the food chain. The money-guarders’ machinations mean more tax dollars are growing interest off in distant accounts, not here at home paying for schools and roads.

Yet some of the tax dollars that are collected end up funding programs that do help the little gal. Case in point (and written about in the same issue of the NYT) is the feds’ 203(k) mortgage program. This little-touted method of borrowing allows us to buy ailing properties with small down payments and then renovate them under what seem like some wisely strict regulations. (Lynnley Browning’s article, here.)

Even when we have a good idea that benefits the worker bee in our society, we seem to make sure it doesn’t fully succeed. (For a start, can’t someone give better names to these tax-status things? Let’s branch out to punctuation marks at least: the 203(!) program would look a lot more upbeat, wouldn’t it?)

What we need is a better income defense industry for the regular folks. That used to be the job of elected officials, but, well, they’re busy elsewhere.

Give Mom a check, and she’ll spend it on rent.

This post by Paula Span on The New Old Age blog in The New York Times is intriguing. It makes sense, but who knew Social Security had this effect so quickly?

(I’ve excerpted, then edited it down. See the whole piece here.)

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, almost 70 percent of elderly widows lived with an adult child; by 1990, that proportion had plummeted to 20 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

Economists Robert F. Schoeni of the University of Michigan and Kathleen McGarry, now at Dartmouth College, investigated this phenomenon, using more than a century of Census data showing where elderly widows resided…they pinpointed the year the big change began: 1940. After that, the graph depicting the percentage of widows living with children resembles a ski slope: down, down and down some more, until by 1990 more than 60 percent of widows lived ALONE.

So what happened in 1940? The economists, testing various hypotheses, found a far simpler explanation.

In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act. In 1940, the monthly checks began to flow. And even those tiny checks — Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vt., got the first one, for $22.54 — were enough to allow widows, who had historically high poverty rates, to remain in their homes. As Social Security benefits rose and reached a larger proportion of the elderly, the trend toward remaining at home accelerated.

The single greatest factor driving this immense cultural shift, in other words, was economic. Once elders no longer had to move in with their children to survive, most opted not to.

“When they have more income and they have a choice of how to live, they choose to live alone,” Ms. McGarry said. “They buy their independence.”

Taxes are not the enemy.

We Portlanders used to go online or pick up the phone to get the city’s help on anything from graffiti to a wily garbage-tipping raccoon to a pothole. Now the handy online forms seem to be disappearing and the corps of neighborhood helpers has been whittled down.  I picture a stadium-sized empty office with a lot of phones tethered to one answering machine.

This isn’t unique to Portland, and in fact the Rose City is better off than most. But everywhere I turn, I hear or read people grumbling about taxes and bloated government. (What is it with old high school boyfriends on Facebook who turn into such right-wing whackjobs?)

Let’s not simplify this to the point of idiocy. Taxes are not evil. We should reserve our ire for politicians who make entire platforms out of promises to cut taxes. Cutting waste and shifting priorities is vital, but that doesn’t mean putting on a blindfold and heading out to the weedy garden with a machete.

This New York Times column, “America Goes Dark,” by Paul Krugman hits it on the head:

How did we get to this point? It’s the logical consequence of three decades of antigovernment rhetoric, rhetoric that has convinced many voters that a dollar collected in taxes is always a dollar wasted, that the public sector can’t do anything right.

The antigovernment campaign has always been phrased in terms of opposition to waste and fraud — to checks sent to welfare queens driving Cadillacs, to vast armies of bureaucrats uselessly pushing paper around. But those were myths, of course; there was never remotely as much waste and fraud as the right claimed. And now that the campaign has reached fruition, we’re seeing what was actually in the firing line: services that everyone except the very rich need, services that government must provide or nobody will, like lighted streets, drivable roads and decent schooling for the public as a whole.

(PS: If you need to rail at someone or something about huge waste and routine gouging of the little people…Big Banks present plenty of opportunities. Check this out. Wells Fargo is not the only bank defending its practice of charging customers big fees for small services.)

Uh oh, the rich are bailing on mortgages too.

Proof that this foreclosure tsunami is real:

“The housing bust that began among the working class in remote subdivisions and quickly progressed to the suburban middle class is striking the upper class in privileged enclaves…” writes David Streitfeld in The New York Times. (The other quotes are from the same piece.)

A hint that that Congress may figure this out soon:

“Whether it is their residence, a second home or a house bought as an investment, the rich have stopped paying the mortgage at a rate that greatly exceeds the rest of the population.”

Indication that this is beyond the reach of Congressional fixing:

“In a recent column on Freddie Mac’s Web site, the company’s executive vice president, Don Bisenius, acknowledged that walking away “might well be a good decision for certain borrowers” but argues that those who do it are trashing their communities.”

First thing to worry about as soon as you find a new place to live and unpack your sleeping bag:

A whole lot of people are going to grow up with the belief that “trashing their communities” is okay.

Additional gloomy whining:

I live in a city with a citizens committee for just about everything. Maybe we need to suspend those for a time and form the All-City Housing Cooperative that works on ways to hold back this wave. (That way we’d be sure to have an actual neighborhood in which to debate the merits of roses versus rhodies on the intersection traffic circles.)

And as long as we’re moving closer to real panic, let’s start substituting the words “and condominiums” every time we read aloud a sentence describing an increase in the number of houses foreclosed.

That shiny new high-rise downtown is going to have a whole new feel when the penthouse owners decamp.

All the news that fits. And solves.

I’ve only read some of the stories and ads in three sections in Sunday’s New York Times (Book Review, Business and Week in Review) and here’s what I’ve already learned:

Most new fiction is deeply flawed. A five-line letter from Ronald Reagan to his old actress friend Kitty Carlisle Hart is worth $6,100. Whales and dolphins are as smart as we are, and probably nicer. Congo is still the rape capital on earth. Congress still has absolutely no balls when it comes to regulating Wall Street. Our cellphones are built with materials that are obtained at human cost. Author Danielle Steele and legal pot growers in Colorado work harder than the rest of us. Camile Paglia says “female Viagra” pharmaceuticals will not cure the sexual malaise blanketing America.

It seems so clear:

Send sexually disappointed whiners to witness real problems in Congo.  Sell collections of witless Presidential missives as e-books in order to fund the increased cost of cruelty-free cellphone manufacturing. Deploy the hyper-prolific Ms. Steele to the pot-growing operations for one week. Swear in Ms. Paglia, stand her up in front of Congress, and let her spell it out for them: No balls, no glory.

If that last thing doesn’t work, vote for a whale or a dolphin next time.

Task-based wages…or how I’m learning to value myself.

Used to be that an independent contractor set rates by one or two measures: What will the market bear? What is my time worth?

That first yardstick has pretty much disintegrated. Anyone who knows what the market will bear should not be wasting her time reading this blog. Get out and make money, genius.

So, what is one’s time worth? Ah, there’s the thing to ponder. In my world, that of freelance writing, it’s a buyer’s market. Awash with former journalists, the field of wordsmiths-for-hire is very, very crowded.

Most of us started out valuing our time based on what we were paid in (usually) union newsrooms. Which is sort of like Pluto asking for the same treatment it got back when it was considered an actual planet.

I’ve tried a few approaches, including the name-your-price model that lets a client set the rate. This is workable right up until one is hired by a friend (who feels guilty, overpays, then never hires you again) or a true cheapskate. You know where that one goes.

So, here’s a new idea. In this time of economic murkiness, I notice that everyone is more forthcoming about costs:

–”My student loan is $250 a month!!”
–”The dentist said it’ll cost $1,400!”
–”I paid $4.80 to park downtown!”

There’s a weary sense of I-share-your-pain out there. Everyone is quoting numbers and no one is happy.

So, here’s my idea. I call it “task-based wages.” In this model a contract worker (freelancer, babysitter, yard worker, whatever) quotes a price that is directly linked to a real need.

So instead of $25 an hour, I tell my client that the job cost is “gym membership” or $40. I feel the budget pressure lighten and the client sees the reasonableness of the charge. Even if $40 is more than they wanted to spend, they can take comfort in the fact that there will be one less out-of-shape, overweight person in America. (This assumes a lot of things; just roll with me here.)

Instead of my old system of quoting an hourly and a flat rate for a large editing gig, I can now offer the “two cups of coffee every day for a week” or the “new tires” rate.

We’re all in this together, right?

Delta’s new Visa card sure makes me want to fly their airline. You?

Obviously Delta Airlines honchos read my blog and are ready for the sort of bold changes I endorse.

I saw a commercial this morning pushing their new Visa card that carries a terrific premium….one whole piece of luggage travels for free if you use the card to book a flight!

(I know what you’re thinking, but this isn’t one of those rich-people perks for frequent flyers. Anyone with a pulse and a willingness to charge stuff can get this card.)

More good news: I hear through my excellent network of sources that many other savvy businesses are following suit. Watch your email for new quick-approval charge and debit cards offers that include fabulous premiums.

Use those new cards for…

–a meal in your fave bistro… and get free toilet paper in the restroom! (Platinum cardholders get 2 free paper towels.)

–a trip to the emergency room…and get five squirts of hand-sanitizer!

–a trendy haircut…and they’ll rinse that shampoo out!

–your cellphone bill…and you can use the # key around the clock!

I haven’t confirmed it yet, but I’ve heard rumors that there’s a House/Senate Visa. You get a point for each dollar spent. When you get to 30,000 you can send email directly to your elected officials’ offices and ask tough questions. (One question per household. Some restrictions apply.)

Delta should be proud. Look what they’ve started.

Staying one step ahead of the moneychangers.

Last week Congress quit listening to the bleating of big banks long enough to vote for limiting the fees businesses pay whenever you use your debit card.

That’s good (and overdue) news. Debit-card charges are just one form of double-dipping that hurts consumers and the businesses who accept them.

Think about it, here’s how it used to work:

1. Get paycheck.

2. Walk or drive to bank, deposit check with the help of a teller who makes a modest but livable wage.

3. Write paper checks to buy stuff and pay bills. Pay small fee for the account, or no fee if the balance is sufficiently large.

4. Merchants who accept those checks then go to their banks and make deposits, again with a real, live teller who gets paid an hourly wage.

Now, it works like this:

1. Get a paycheck.

2. Deposit it through an ATM or by direct-deposit. (Goodbye tellers ; bank saves money. )

3. Pay bills online. (Notice that there are larger lags when your money has gone from you through the bank to a creditor, Can you say “float period?” Bank makes money.)

4. Buy stuff with credit or debit cards. (You pay a fee; merchant pays a fee and bank makes money. Let’s not even try to untangle the ways the timing of a bank’s processing of deposits can cost you a small fortune in overdraft fees.)

And, a crucial final step:

5. Fall for marketing campaigns that claim online bill-pay and ATMs are huge timesavers.

What’s a consumer to do?

One thought: Consider paying cash for one or two purchases a week that you normally do by debit card. Multiply that by a zillion and we’ll have sent a message to the moneychangers. They’ll circle back and find another trick, but for a week or two we’ll have ‘em running scared.

Want your cubicle back? Too bad.

A blog entry in The New York Times traces job losses for both wage-workers and self-employed types in 2008 and 2009. The pace of job loss has slowed for self-employed workers, and writer Scott A. Shane, a professor at Case Western, asks readers to theorize on why this might be.

Any minute now some government economist is going to declare this to be a good indicator that things are starting to turn around. I won’t buy it. and here’s why.

Before the Neo-Depression hit, we were a country increasingly in love with the idea of self-employment. Along with that Bill Gates/Nirvana model of a lonely genius or two and their potentially lucrative start-up, a lot of people just love the idea of escaping the confines of an office where a boss always looms, where time clocks and dress codes exist. (As a bonus, self-employed people rarely get charged with harassment or creating a hostile work environment by making an off-color remark.)

But self-employment comes with the downside of financial insecurity. When I worked for a newspaper, an unproductive week might have earned me a few glares from my editor, but I still got paid. These days, a slow week means no money and glares from my creditors.

In flush times, this no-money glitch drives a lot of us back to selling our souls to the company store. But in the current rotten job market, there are no easy ways for we PJ-wearing homeworkers to slink back into the 9-to-5.

Hence, we stay put, and that’s why that graf in the NYT blog item shows the job-loss rate for self-employed folks flattening out.

Cash for culottes, not Chevys

Apparently the “Cash for Clunkers” idea has not quite rescued our reeling retail economy. I hate to be the one pointing out the emperor’s state of undress, but please, did anyone besides some very isolated economists think this was going to work?

What we really need is Cash for Fashion Disasters. If every woman in America turned in those too-small (They’ll stretch!) and too-pointy shoes bought on sale, the Wonderbra that turns her homicidal in 20 minutes, the velour sweatpants and matching jacket that make her look like a living room set…we’d dig out of this fiscal black hole in no time.

I could probably lift the drooping economics of an entire mall all by myself, if I could include bad make-up purchases, like that Wild Berry lip gloss that stays on the rim of coffee cups through two dishwasher cycles.

Mr. President, members of House and Senate, top economists, listen up:

If you won’t let the women of this country band together to solve our problems in Iraq and Afghanistan — something we could get done over a long weekend — at least call on us to clean up the mess you’re making with this old-car nonsense. We’re here to help.

Taking it on the chin

I keep hearing and reading that tough economic times mean much lower profits for luxury and cosmetic services. This is good news for the little people: On the off chance that one of us gets called for a job interview, we can get a chic new haircut at the last minute, in time to sit down with the 12-year-old manager and enthuse about teamwork.

Evidence of frightened exfoliators surfaced here last week, when every house on the block got a discount-coupon from a posh new massage-skincare-haircut place a few zip codes away.

I’d say the 30-percent savings on chemical-facial peels isn’t going to spark much interest in this neck of the woods, but I could be wrong. For all I know, everyone will look fresher and younger the next time we meet for a day-long graffiti paint-out.

This morning I read that cosmetic surgeons aren’t letting any grass grow under their Guccis either. An article in The New York Times describes growing popularity of a kind of plastic surgery that should go a long way to make up for the decline in nose-job work.

The story is about Marcus Davis, a 35-year-old boxer and martial-arts ninja whose face has been stitched up 77 times. Bleeding profusely is not good in the ring; it stops the fight. Not only was Davis an easy bleeder–apparently just the sight of his waffle-textured mug made judges jump to the conclusion that he was the lesser man.

A Las Vegas plastic surgeon “burred down the bones around Davis’s eye sockets. He also removed scar tissue around his eyes and replaced it with collagen made from the skin of cadavers,” according to R.M. Schneiderman’s article.

We’re all making adjustments these days: cheaper grades of beef, fewer movies, stalling on car payments. We’re all a little scared. Even as I type this, somewhere in a medical-office building close by, there is a board-certified plastic surgeon poring over Boxing Monthly magazine and hoping for the best.

The Hose Indices

I start most days pecking away at my keyboard while my husband watches 3 different news shows, toggling back and forth between them. Did I mention that the TV is about six feet away from my desk?

Weirdly, it works for both of us. I make surprised-sounding noises when he comments on the latest news disaster; he lowers the volume even before I finish the sentence, “Honey, can I read this to you?”

This morning, again, the news was all about economic indicators. The ones that prove what we already know: We’re hosed. Stimulus money is getting flushed while unemployment rises and costs for goods, services, health care and housing chew away at everyone’s puny savings and last nerve.

I guess some folks, somewhere, are surprised by the proof offered by these economic measuring sticks. I’m not. My trusty indicators have been spot-on for months.

The Classified Index: I’m an inveterate reader of classified ads. (I’ve had to move that habit online as newspaper print ads have dwindled, alas.) When the usual Christmas-season temporary-help ads didn’t spring up last fall, I knew we were screwed.

Ditto when more ads started appearing for collections work. You know it’s bad when companies that repossess cars from delinquent owners have so much work that they need “spotters” who drive around to find the cars in question, then radio the findings to the exhausted repo guy.

The Thrift-Store Index: When women wearing $190 shoes are pushing through the sweater rack at Goodwill, it’s time to accept that 24-month CDs paying 0.4% is neither misprint nor fluke.

The Panicked Landlord Index: I have young friends in that multi-roommate stage of life who report that in the last three months, the usually interminable lease-application process is moving at warp speed. When we came to Portland a few years ago, getting an apartment was tougher than making it into an edition of Burke’s Peerage & Gentry. Now, if you show up without a visible weapon and your check clears, you’re in.

The Crowded Sample-Table Index: You can’t tell me that the growing number of people lining up three-deep for a free sample of jalapeno turkey jerky at Costco doesn’t mean something.

Simple math

California’s decision to use IOUs as a way to keep the budget wheels turning is understandable, but faulty.

Based on my own experience on the receiving end, I can say this: IOUs are a great concept unless you are the U part.

A better strategy would be my Keep Moving Plan. KMP was inspired by that old urban joke that there’s just one Blauplunkt car stereo in the city of Boston: It just gets stolen and re-stolen.

Here’s how it works:

Invest heavily in goods using credit, then keep inventory idle. Right before credit-line grace period is up and interest commences, return all goods to vendor. Then re-purchase goods at much cheaper price and adjust for operating costs. Result: Invigorated marketplace, improved bottom line and heightened consumer morale.

An example:

Purchase four polished-cotton, three-quarter-sleeve shirts from Nordstrom for $288.

Start the next four days by viewing the newly bloated Visa statement online.

Return all goods.

Purchase four polished-cotton, three-quarter-sleeve shirts from Goodwill for $27.96.

Net savings (adjusting for cost of detergent and electricity needed to boil goods, twice): $258.04

Along with the measurable market benefits, there’s the enormous satisfaction at having cut costs without an embarrassing public proffering of IOUs.