Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Since When is Our Dining Room Table a Nexus?

Nexus—a level of commercial activity within a legal jurisdiction that is sufficient to require a business to meet the jurisdiction’s tax regulations, including the collection and remittance of a sales tax.
The American Heritage Dictionary of Business Terms.

It’s all my wife’s fault. She created a website for heart shaped rings (www.heart-rings.net). That site provides photos and descriptions of heart-shaped rings from sellers such as Amazon and Kohls and Target and others.

Shoppers do web searches and come across her site. If they click on one of her listings they get taken to the site where the item is actually for sale. If they purchase the item Carolyn gets a “commission”. Not bad. She’s got hundreds of hours invested in creating the site. She makes a little bit from sales.

The State of California wants to declare our dining room table a “nexus” or a place of business. That’s where my wife’s laptop sits and where she does her work—except for when she moves her laptop over to the couch to work on the computer and get her daily “Criminal Minds” or “Lenny” fix. What California is trying to do is come up with a way to require online retailers like Amazon and Overstock to collect sales tax on its sales. And they’re using Carolyn to try to do it. Good luck.

Amazon says that if California does that then they will terminate their arrangement with all “affiliates” in California.

Oops, a tug of war between Amazon and California centered over the activities that go on at our dining room table.

Now I know that the state of California is just about broke and is doing everything and anything it can to scare up a few billion bucks. But this is ridiculous. Right now Carolyn is putzing around on her computer 5 feet away from me at the other end of the dining room table, hair pulled back, in a blue bath robe and pajamas, reading glasses halfway down her nose. Yep, she’s a retail dynamo. And by the way, the few hundred dollars she’ll make this year from her site will be duly reported on our income taxes.

That’s how ridiculous this is. Amazon has already terminated affiliates in a few states which have declared affiliates to constitute a “nexus” in order to require sales tax collection. California’s legislation will be moot about 5 minutes after Gov. Brown would sign the bill. That’s how long it’ll take Amazon to terminate affiliates and negate any tax benefit California would derive.

Now I can’t fault the state of California or any other state from wanting to see sales taxes collected and remitted. If a product is being purchased online and used at the point of delivery then sales taxes should be paid. If there’s any real greed or tax avoidance going on here it’s on the part of Amazon and Overstock and other online only retailers. My problem comes in the manner in which California and other states are attempting to define as a nexus.

The world of business has changed markedly in the last decade. There is now a tremendous volume of retail activity on the internet. There needs to be a different and better definition. The old definition of “nexus” is at best obsolete in online retail buying and selling. State government efforts which would define our dining room table as a nexus are legislative legerdemain and throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. It’s also harder to define what constitutes “interstate commerce” as subject to regulation by the federal government.

How about this then? Rather than the tenuous nexus of our dining room table that California would like to see, how about approaching it on a federal level. It doesn’t matter where a seller of goods on the internet has an actual location. Amazon has no retail locations (unlike WalMart or Target or thousands of other retailers who also engage in internet sales and collect sales taxes). Amazon by its very nature is an online enterprise.

What that means is that the “nexus” for Amazon starts with a buyer accessing Amazon.com through whatever portal, affiliate or search engine that person is using. That is the point of sale. It proceeds to the placing of an order and ends when the merchandise is received by the buyer. As far as I’m concerned, that is the nexus and the point of sale is essentially the address to which the product is going to be delivered. That is the presumed point of use. Amazon should collect the appropriate sales tax on that transaction and then remit it to the appropriate state.

The remedy is Federal not state. It concerns the interstate commerce provisions in Article I Sec. 8 of the U.S. Constitution. Let’s acknowledge that this is an issue never envisioned by the framers of the Constitution and regulate it properly.

Interestingly, Amazon claims that this is an onerous burden fraught with complexities between the various taxing bodies (i.e. states). Isn’t that amazing for a company which employs hundreds, if not thousands of programmers. In fact, an article on a website called “The New Rules Project” entitled “Internet Sales Tax Fairness” had the following comment:

“Today, software has largely eliminated the difficulty of calculating and remitting sales taxes for the country's many state and local jurisdictions. Indeed, Amazon.com, which opposes extending sales tax to online retailers on the grounds that it would be "horrendously complicated," collects sales taxes nationwide for Target as part of its management of the chain's online business.”

Come on Amazon, get real. Come on California, get real and stay out of my dining room. My wife isn’t a nexus and neither are the 10,000 other Amazon affiliates in California. We’re just going to be the losers in the state’s tug-of-war over sales taxes.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Cheap Bastid's What to Feed A Hungry Kid

Megan’s no kid though. She’s 21, as tall as I am at 5’8” and ain’t no anorexic stick girl. She works and works out and could probably whup my fanny. She also likes to eat. Fortunately she likes Cheap Bastid’s cooking. It’s hearty and there’s plenty of it.

Anyway, I was off this last weekend and that means it’s time to cook. There was a prediction of bad weather, which finally rolled in on Sunday but I made plans to cook up a batch of lasagna Saturday. Now lasagna’s not hard to make. It takes just a little bit of prep and assembly. It’s also not the cheapest dish around, but it makes a lot of food and when all is said and done it’s really reasonable at about 75¢ per serving.

So I made it a point to pick up the necessary cheeses at the grocery store Saturday morning and double checked to be sure that I had the other ingredients. OK, I didn’t photograph the entire process. In fact, I thought to take pictures only after dinner. We got hungry. Meggie really tore into it. Here’s what was left of a 9 x 13 pan after the 3 of us got done:

Everybody’s got a recipe for lasagna I would imagine. For years I just did the recipe on the back of the box. Now I pretty much do it out of my head. I don’t try to get fancy. And this isn’t a recipe that my Great Grandma used to cook in Sicily or Naples or anything like that. It’s just good old basic Lasagna with 3 cheeses and uses canned sauce.

Yes, canned sauce. Have I ever explained why I use canned sauce rather than making it from scratch? It’s simple. Making it from scratch is delicious. It takes the better part of a whole day, or longer, to simmer properly and get the full, rich flavor. But I quit making it from scratch (which I used to do all the time) about 25 years ago when I discovered one thing.

What was the one thing? My kids couldn’t have cared less that it was homemade sauce. Dinners with little kids needed to be cooked quickly and served just as quickly before the little ragamuffins starved to death right before my eyes. So I went to prepared sauce.

Then it took me about another 17 years to figure out that the canned stuff was not only 1/3 the price of the jarred stuff but that I liked the way it tastes a lot better—more like real tomato sauce with just a bit of acid still in it rather than the over-sweetened stuff in a jar. There are only so many glass jars that I can stuff in my cupboards for future use anyway. Besides, the canned stuff I buy was on special for 75¢ for a 26.5 oz. can this week anyway. I bought 6 cans.

So if that’s too plebian for your taste that’s all right with me. Because I’m the Cheap Bastid. If you want to foo-foo your lasagna with all sorts of stuff, that’s OK too. Have at it. Use more expensive and better quality cheeses. Do a gourmet sauce. All that’s fine. Mine tastes good and sticks to your ribs. Plus it’s cheap.

Cheap Bastid’s Lasagna
• 1 lb ground meat (I used ¾ ground beef and ¼ ground pork) or Italian sausage
• 1 package lasagna noodles
• 1 can/jar prepared pasta sauce
• 1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
• 8 oz shredded mozzarella
• 4 oz grated parmesan cheese
• 1 16 oz container cottage cheese (4% fat preferred)
• 1 egg
• Spices: I use crushed red chili, cumin, dried parsley, dried basil, garlic, thyme, fennel seeds and oregano

Get out a 9 x 13 pan and grease it. Take out a large mixing bowl. Take out a medium sauté pan and your pasta pot.

Fill your pasta pot with about a half gallon of water (more or less—you know your pot). Put it on the stove turned to medium high and put the sauté pan on the stove turned to medium. Put the ground meat into the sauté pan to brown. Season the meat with salt, pepper, crushed red chili, fennel seed, garlic and cumin. (I know cumin is more of a Mexican seasoning but I like it!) How much spices? Enough! Do it to taste. Remember though, go a bit light. You can always add more but once it’s in you can’t take it out.

Keep stirring the meat up to brown it evenly. When pasta water comes to a boil, put the lasagna noodles in it. You’re going to par-boil it—really “as dente”. And stir it a couple of times to make sure the noodles don’t stick together. When the meat is done, scoop it into your large mixing bowl—fat drippings and all. Open the sauce and pour it in the bowl. Add the 8 oz can of tomato sauce. Sample and season it to taste. Stir it up really good.

When the pasta is al dente—about 8-10 minutes remove from the stove and drain into a colander. Now take the cottage cheese and put it into a medium bowl. Then add the parmesan, egg and about 2 tablespoons of dried parsley. Mix it all up together really good.

Take out your shredded mozzarella. Reserve a good handful for the final layer on top.

Now you’re going to build your lasagna. If your oven’s not on, then pre-heat it to 375.

Start with about a cup and a half of sauce on the bottom of the dish. Then add your first layer of noodles—running lengthways down the dish. Next put a layer of the cottage cheese mix on top of the noodles (about 1/2 of it) and then put a layer of sauce on top of that followed by another layer of noodles. Next sprinkle a layer of mozzarella (half of it) and some more sauce with a another layer of noodles. Keep building it. There should 2 layers of the cottage cheese mix and 2 layers of the mozzarella with each layer having sauce. The final layer is the last of the sauce with the reserved mozzarella and a final shake of parmesan cheese. One thing I like to do also is to put a couple of the noodle layers cross ways—fold the noodle or snip it off to length.

Cover the dish in foil and put it into the oven for a total of about 45 minutes. At 30 minutes remove the foil to let the top brown a bit.

Make yourself up a really great salad and some garlic bread or garlic toast. This isn’t “true” Italian cooking but it’s a good American version of an Italian classic that will feed a whole family, stick to your ribs and have you wanting seconds—or even thirds. It’ll easily feed six.

So, Meggie got fed. She came home from work starving, smelled the lasagna baking and her eyes lit up. I think it hit just the right spot because she managed to down 3 big hunks of it. I love it when people gobble up something I’ve cooked. Makes me feel good all over.

The Cheap Bastid Test: As I just said this dish will feed 6. It costs about $8 to make in my “Cheap Bastid” version. If you want you can get the price up there all the way to $20 or more if you go pricey on cheeses and sauce and meat. And $8 for a dinner that easily feeds 4 adults with left-overs is price effective in this ever more expensive world of ours.

So, there it is Cheap Bastid’s Lasagna. Other people will have their own versions and some will have versions that are far better. But that’s OK because I’m the Cheap Bastid. I’m looking for the best bang for the buck. And this will do it.

That’s the Cheap Bastid Way: Eat Good. Eat Cheap. Be Grateful!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Opinions are Like A-Holes...Wisconsin, Unions & Politics

Well, the controversy sparked by the Governor of Wisconsin and by Republicans Senators in that state’s legislature has been going on now for the better part of 2 weeks. Is it over yet? Not by a long shot.

But this set of issues has galvanized millions. It has caused Americans to take to the streets (especially around the Wisconsin state capital) almost like in Cairo, Egypt. I’m confused because it’s not a good guys in the white hats and bad guys in the black hats kind of issue—with the exception of the actions of Wisconsin Senate Republicans . And efforts to make it that way only confuse things more.

I’ve tried to read up on what the elements of this conflict are and it’s tough to get a handle on it. There are those who have oversimplified it to be a battle between unions and politics. Others say that it’s simply about money. I think there’s a whole lot more to it than that.

This may have become the focal point of a couple of different important things in our nation and economy. For one it’s about public money. For another it’s about the widening schism between the far right of the political spectrum and, seemingly, everybody else.

A third aspect, which to me is every bit as important as the others, is the role that public employees play within the various governmental entities they serve. And, to me anyway, the key word in that sentence is “serve”.

I personally don’t think it unreasonable for public employees to have to pay 1/8th the cost of their health insurance (with pre-tax dollars) as was proposed in Wisconsin. Neither do I think it unreasonable for those same employees to pay nearly 6% of their salary (pre-tax) into their retirement fund. Those in the private sector are used to paying that much and more for both health insurance and retirement. To suggest that this is unreasonable or a burden borders on the ludicrous.

I start to depart with the proposals made in Wisconsin when it comes to bargaining units and union membership and certification. The Governor’s proposal is just taking it too far. However, I do have a lot of problems (especially living in California where this is rampant) with the overt political activities of public employee unions.

I’m getting up there in age. I come from a time when public employees served, did not make policy (developed, recommended and implemented it but didn’t make!) yet negotiated and bargained for remuneration.

Here in California municipalities, counties and the state are all teetering on the edge of insolvency. Much of it can be put at the feet of overly generous and woefully underfunded pension programs. That’s not all of it, but it’s a great big chunk especially here in the San Diego area. Public employees often make more money than their contemporaries in the private sector and almost universally enjoy better fringe benefits. (I have health insurance but it’s pricey and I’m petrified of actually getting sick). There are governments in California actively considering bankruptcy to be able to get out from underneath pension costs.

And every election at the local or state level, voters are inundated with money spent by public employee unions—teachers, police, fire fighters—on ads, endorsements and veiled blackmail in favor or opposed to this or that candidate. Typically the effort is to seat school board members, city councilors, county supervisors, legislators and a governor who are “friendly” to education or public safety and will assure that the payroll funding is ever more generous. And I get to the point where I really resent it.

Should we return to the “old days” when public employees were precluded from “organized” political activity? There’s a part of me that says yes. Public employee unions, like all unions, have a big job of protecting the employment interests of their members in terms of salary and benefits and working conditions. And they should be free to do that job on behalf of their members. But the members have to do their jobs on behalf of the public first and foremost. I don’t know the answer to that question.

There’s a big chunk of me that thinks public employees should be restricted from influencing public policy or elections which affect their employment. There’s another chunk that thinks that these unions ought to enjoy the same freedom the PACs and “corporate individuals” enjoy. If I were to be pressed into a “forced choice” I would have to opt for enjoying the same level of expression as any other labor group. But I don’t have to like it. In fact, if a public workers union wants me to vote against “their” candidate or position, all they have to do is try to influence me with slick flyers or media advertising. I’ll go the opposite way every single time.

I fully expect yesterday’s actions of the Wisconsin Senate to end up in court if the bill is ever passed and signed by the Governor. And if it does, I have a hard time thinking that any rational court would uphold either the law or the dastardly way in which it was rammed through.

But that doesn’t change my attitude that public servants must be precisely that. Anything less and they should be fired. More particularly there’s a message out there that teachers, cops, firefighters and other public employees need to listen to. “Start being part of the solution.” Saying that this conflict is not about the money is false. It may be more about the ability to be part of a bargaining unit than the money, but it’s about making sure that the money’s there too. And any honest introspection yields that conclusion.

Things aren’t going to get better anytime soon. It’s like after a flood crests and all kinds of effort have been expended on sandbags. What’s left is a stinking mess that takes a long time to clean up.

And, like the title of this piece says: Opinions are like a-holes. Everybody has one. This is mine.

Cheap Bastids "As the Cinnamon Roll Turns" redux

Sunday dawns. My day off. I always do laundry on Sunday starting at about 6 a.m., read the paper, watch CBS Sunday Morning and drink coffee. Carolyn sleeps late and I’ve got the world kind of to myself except for the squabbling of the early morning hummingbirds at our feeder.

So, this will be the morning of the great cinnamon roll experiment, part 2. What could be better than fresh laundry, Sunday morning and freshly baked cinnamon rolls. (Remember a couple of weeks ago when I baked some up using recipes for biscuit dough—well today I’m going to try again with slightly different technique and see how well I can do).

So I get out my ingredients—noticing that I need to add lard to the shopping list and start whipping up a batch of dough. I pay attention to how I roll out the dough, and rather than use brown sugar I use plain old cinnamon sugar.

What am I going to do different? Well, roll out the dough a bit thinner and then roll the “log” tighter. Also I’m going to bake these at 375 rather than the 425 I used last time and I’m going to do them for about 15 minutes using a cookie sheet rather than glass 13x13 pan. So let’s see how they come out.

Plus, I did an egg yolk wash on half of them to see what difference it would make.

The results? Well, they weren’t as photogenic. But they were definitely better tasting. I noticed that the bottoms were just about a perfect golden brown but starting to get a bit crisp (presumably from the melting margarine and sugar).

The upshot is that these were good. Better than last time. But, no matter what all the recipes say these aren’t as good as using yeast dough. They’re still biscuits rolled up with cinnamon sugar and margarine. They’re not the “real deal”—you know, gooey, soft goodness so sweet it’ll give you a sugar high for half the day.

OK, so I give. These aren’t worth the effort so my next Sunday off (or maybe this Thursday if I go and get some lard) I’m going to try a rising yeast dough and do it the old fashioned way. Who knows maybe Cheap Bastid will even go out and get a beat up old bundt pan at the thrift store for a buck and try Monkey Bread.

As the Cheap Bastid, I’ve already gritted my teeth and invested in yeast for my next experiment. They packets cost $.50 each which just about doubles the price of the rolls. I hope the “investment” is worth it. Stay tuned for the next installment of your favorite soap opera, “As the Cinnamon Roll Turns”.

But here’s the bottom line—there’s nothing better than sharing a cup of coffee and a couple of cinnamon rolls with your best girl on Sunday morning which is what Carolyn and I did when they came out of the oven. Even if they aren’t the world’s best cinnamon rolls. But I’m working on it.

That’s the Cheap Bastid Way: Eat Good. Eat Cheap. Be Grateful!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Is it Fresh Cut Fish or Freshly Cut Fish?

I guess it’s just my anal nature but lately a TV ad has been making me nuts. Have you ever had one of those times when a word or little bit of grammar trips a switch in your mind and you wonder about it. Incessantly. Maybe that’s good advertising.

OK, here’s what I’m getting at…Sizzler, a chain of steakhouse type of restaurants mostly in the West, has a new advertising campaign—Fresh Cut Fish.
No problem, right? “Fresh Cut Fish”. Here’s what’s going through my mind though—does anyone really believe that Sizzler is serving “fresh” fish? To me “fresh fish” is fish that was just caught and hasn’t been frozen. I doubt that they’ve got someone down at the local pond or river tossing in lures and bait for fresh salmon and trout. My assumption is that it’s frozen. And I doubt that there's some guy in the back merrily filleting trout that were flown in fresh from Montana or Alaska streams this morning.

Most restaurants, especially lower end restaurants, use predominately frozen ingredients. Or at minimum, from my days long, long ago cooking at the grill of a now defunct steak chain, it comes refrigerated and vacuum packed in individual portions.

So what is “fresh cut fish”? Is it fresh fish that’s been cut to portion size? Or is it fish that has been freshly cut--cut when it comes off the broiler or out of the oven hence earning the title of "fresh cut"?

(From Sizzler's website)

And it’s driving me nuts.

Why should I care? I’m not going to go there and try the “fresh cut fish”. But I’m curious as to what exactly it is. How much did Sizzler have to pay for some 21st century Don Draper clone to come up with this snazzy twist of phrase? They also advertise “fresh cut tri-tip” by the way. If I cook fish or tri-tip and then cut it, it’s now “fresh cut”, right?

But there are just some things that drive me nuts. And this is one of them.

Now this is about as nonsensical and trite of a blogpost that could conceivably be written (although I’ve come across far worse examples). It kind of lends the truth to this poster, doesn’t it?

(from Despair.com)