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September, 2009:

European-style soda taxes make inroads

€7.50 for a coke?

Are 7 Euro cokes coming to America?

Maybe the reason they don’t have free refills in Europe is because of the punitive taxes many European governments levy on refreshing soft drinks. If that is the case, then we have reason to be worried.

A recent article on Slate.com argued that although proposals to tax coke seem to have stalled at the national level, they are catching on quickly in our nation’s state legislative chambers. The latest state to increase taxes on soda and candy is Illinois. Since the beginning of the month, consumers in the Prairie State have had to fork over an extra 5-6 percent in taxes on every delicious soda or candy bar they consume.

Fittingly, the state that brought us Rod Blagojevich did not impose these new lifestyle taxes through an open and public manner. Rather, the Illinois Department of Revenue simply issued new rules redefining soft drinks, certain juices and some candies as “General Merchandise,” boosting the tax rate on these items from one to 6.25 percent.

While the new tax rate is still well below the 14.9 percent tax surcharge that France slaps on sodas and candies or the 17.5 percent tax the UK levies on such goods, it is nevertheless a dramatic increase from the one percent tax consumers in the Land of Lincoln used to pay.

Is Illinois’ new soda tax high enough to make people thinner? New research from George Mason University suggests it isn’t. But since the new tax applies to fountain drinks as well as bottled beverages, it just might be high enough to end free refills as we know them.

Disposable umbrellas

IMG_0115

I count five, how many can you spot?

I’ve written about this before, but here is a picture to illustrate the point.

One of the great things about New York City is that you never need to worry about remembering to carry an umbrella. Why? Because whenever there is so much as a hint of rain, an army of enterprising street merchants appear out of nowhere to sell you shoddy umbrellas that are so cheap you can throw them away when the rain stops.

Previous topics mentioned in this post:

5 Things about New York City that make America Great (and 4 that remind me of Europe)

Is a “Coke Tax” a threat to Free Refills?

Georgia will never go thirsty.A story in this today’s New York Times confirms what we have all feared for a while now: efforts to tax coke are moving forward in Congress.

Apparently the self-righteous tofu-types who are behind this proposal are pushing for a one cent per ounce tax on soft drinks and some juices.

John Sicher from Beverage Digest told the Times what the tax would mean for consumers:

…a two-liter bottle of soda sells for about $1.35. At 67.6 ounces, if the full tax was passed on to consumers, that would add 50 percent to the price. A 12-can case, which sells today for about $3.20, could rise by $1.44, a 45 percent increase.

A lifestyle tax that increases pop prices by 45-50 percent is bad enough, but what the Times article did not explore is what impact such a tax would have on Free Refills.

Would a coke tax be levied on drinks served at restaurants and bars? If so, the cost to restaurants of providing a free refill of a 20oz soda would jump from around 12 cents to over 30. If this tax becomes law it could end free refills as we know them.

Fortunately, the American Beverage Association has set up an astroturf organization called Americans Against Food Taxes to fight the proposal. You can read more about their efforts at www.nofoodtaxes.com. In the meantime, contact your representative and tell them it is time to stand up for Free Refills.

Previous topics mentioned in this post:

MINUTEMEN UPDATE: Senate considering Coke Tax

What do you think? Should we ban cell phones while driving?

Last week’s post on the push to ban cell phone use in cars and the dangers of carpooling got a lot of attention. So what do you think?

The “Joe Wilson approach” to dealing with unscrupulous merchants

The Honorable Joe Wilson of South CarolinaSo, Congressman Joe Wilson (R-Confederacy SC) shouted “YOU LIE” in the middle of the President’s Healthcare speech last week, and his outburst has been pretty much the only political news story since then. Wilson, his Democratic challenger and the DCCC have all raised a boatload of money off the event, making “YOU LIE” the shortest, and most successful fundraising hook in years. And as of today, the House has passed a resolution condemning Wilson’s outburst, which will presumably provide fodder for one final fundraising pitch from the DCCC.

But despite the fact that Wilson seems like a total slime ball, I tend to think we need more raucous yelling in congress, not less. This is one area—dare I say it—where the British have it right. Tune in for an episode (it is so entertaining that episode seems like the word to use) of Prime Minister’s Questions on C-SPAN and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Members of Parliament jeer, holler and do everything short of telling “yo mama” jokes while the Prime Minster tries to field hostile questions. The whole undertaking makes Joe Willson’s “YOU LIE” look tame, but it nevertheless results in a much better—and more entertaining—public debate.

I can’t help but think if we had a little less decorum and a little more shouting we might have avoided few fiascos, like the war in Iraq. But I digress…

What I really wanted to do was follow-up on last week’s post about dealing with unscrupulous merchants.

It seems to me that I might have omitted one tactic from my list of what to do to when a merchant tries to impose a minimum purchase amount for credit card users. I call it the Joe Wilson strategy.

Scream “YOU LIE!”: Politicians may love scenes—they raise money after all—but shopkeepers hate them. In a crowded shop or restaurant, screaming “YOU LIE” when confronted with a minimum purchase amount will not only get the merchant’s attention, but it will also draw the gaze of everyone else in ear-shot. Now is your chance to quickly outline your case. The merchant will either quickly back down or throw you out on the street. Either way, everyone will remember what you said.

Previous topics mentioned in this post:

Fighting back against credit card minimums

#6. Chargebacks and Credit Cards

€5. Different sized banknotes

An open letter to VISA

What is more America, Big Gulps or Credit Cards?

ACTION ALERT: Senators aim to introduce European-style Credit Card fees

Should New York try running negative ads?

London UndergroundThe AP reports that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and London Mayor Boris Johnson have agreed to swap ad space on each city’s public transportation system in order to boost mutual tourism. London will be able to place a few dozen ads in MTA buses while New York will get poster locations in the Underground.

Of course, what matters here is not mutual cross-border cooperation, but who wins. Specifically, which city pulls in more tourists.

With that in mind, I have a suggestion for New York’s tourism officials: Go negative and tout air-conditioning.

The London Underground has no A/C and temperatures there routinely approach boiling. It is the perfect environment in which to tout some good old fashioned American comforts–like chilled air. Might I suggest also mentioning that the NY Subway has been air-conditioned for over four decades.

Previous topics mentioned in this post:

Being an American means you don’t have to sweat (as much)

€4. Inadequate air conditioning

Why Europe Sucks €. 7: Horrible mattresses

Hostel Life

The beds are no more comfortable than they look.

For the last month I’ve been sleeping on one of those foam IKEA mattresses. You know, the spring-free pads that look so alluring when placed on the sleek, low-profile bed frames in the showroom.   I’ll let you in on a little secret, though: after about five minutes, IKEA mattresses suck. Their hard, unyielding foam and lumpy texture thwart even the most exhausted, medication-aided attempt at sleep. I think it is because they are made from the same recycled material as IKEA’s $20 coffee tables.

But of course, crappy mattresses are not an IKEA phenomenon—they are a European institution.

Don’t believe me? Try traveling around Europe for a few weeks. You’ll spend sleepless nights sprawled across several different types of mattresses. The one thing they will all have in common is that none of them are remotely comfortable.

Here is a quick guide to the different types of mattresses found in Europe:

The IKEA-style mattress: When you see these mattresses in the store they look interesting. The coil-free design is reminiscent of those memory foam pillows they advertize on late-night TV.  But after you spend a night on one of these mattresses, you’ll immediately realize that the inspiration behind their design is not futuristic space foam but rather the hay-stuffed mats that peasants slept on.

The thin spring mattress: These mattresses really have nothing to recommend them. Their narrow and thin design does not even look comfortable for a second. What’s more, the padding on the top is so thin that you can see the outline of every metal coil. I’m not sure who manufactured these horrible mattresses (perhaps they were Soviet surplus), but whoever it was managed to get them into every budget hotel and hostel in Europe. Be careful not to move to fast at night else you get a nasty scrape from one of the barley-covered springs.

The deceptively normal mattress: If you check into a more middle-of-the-road hotel or a Bed and Breakfast you might find yourself welcomed by a deceptively normal looking bed. Normal, that is, until you lay down on it and find that the springs are so shot that you’re actually resting on the bed frame. These mattresses were normal once, but their owners haven’t bothered to replace them since the Second World War. Apparently Europeans think of mattresses as some kind of family heirloom, to be handed down from generation to generation.

Next time you’re traveling in Europe, splurge for the premium American-owned chain hotel. It is the best shot you’ll have at a decent night’s sleep. Otherwise just ask for a second or third blanket at check-in. You’ll need them for extra padding. Oh, and don’t forget to pack extra Aspirin to deal with the back pain.

(Hat tip: Robin R)


Is it time to ban carpooling?

Carpools Only

Is carpooling a threat to your family?

It took the police almost an hour to arrive at the scene of the accident. The dark red Saturn with its crumpled front end and my 2001 VW GTI with its smashed side panels and broken rear axle had already been cleared from the road. Shattered glass and the remnants of my passenger-side mirror still littered the street.

Fortunately, the only injuries where some bumps and bruises, but it could have been much worse.

Like most Americans, I knew I was a better-than-average driver. Up until that point in 2006, I had driven tens of thousands of miles in the five years since I got my license—eating, texting and talking on the phone much of the way. I thought nothing could distract me from the road. That is, until one night when a friend and I decided to carpool.

I was deep in conversation and did not see the Saturn pulling out of the parking lot on my right. By the time I glanced at the road it was too late. Though I swerved, I could not avoid the car and was T-boned in the left-hand turn lane. Was the accident my fault? Not entirely. Could I have avoided it had I not been distracted? Almost certainly.

It is not news to anyone that distractions are a leading cause of car accidents. It’s hardly been challenged that the recent New York Times-led hysteria about the need to ban the use of cell phones constitutes an urgent public issue, but there’s an even more menacing threat to the public good that you don’t know about—and it’s lurking in the carpool lane.

According to a 2006 study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, having a passenger in the car can be just as dangerous as talking on the phone. And the study found that drivers spend a lot more time talking to passengers than they do talking on their phones. The dangers presented by driving with passengers—or carpooling—are well known. According to Robert Wilson of the National Safety Council, limiting the number of passengers is critical to safety, particularly for young drivers. “One passenger…increases the risk. Two, you know, triples the risk. Three or more passengers is a party.”

In an effort to eliminate the added risk of carpooling, 41 states have restrictions on the number of passengers teen drivers can have in the car. But the risks of carpooling do not disappear with age.

However, our laws do not seem to recognize that. Despite the fact that risk of accidents increases with each additional passenger in the car, many states and municipalities not only fail to regulate carpooling but actively encourage it through separate high-occupancy vehicle lanes and other initiatives. What does this mean? Are we trading lives to ease congestion? Was Driving Miss Daisy really that dangerous? Should the paper of record crusade against giving your neighbor a lift to work?

These, of course, are pressing questions for us all.

The truth is, despite the proliferation of cell phones and rampant carpooling, driving in America has never been safer. But if banning the use of cell phones in cars is suddenly a top priority, surely we should take steps to curtail the equally, if not more, dangerous practice of carpooling as well.

After all, banning carpooling will not only eliminate the risk of distraction, but the increased congestion that would likely result would lower average vehicle speeds thus rendering any accidents that did occur less likely to be fatal.

I feel confident that the New York Times will soon call for a carpooling ban and that our legislative leaders will quickly respond. In the meantime, I am banishing all passengers from my car. If you need to reach me while I’m driving, you can get me on my cell phone.

(Hat tip: Kevin)


Fighting back against credit card minimums

Credit Card Minimum[Updated 9/15/09]

They often get a bad rap, but the prevalence of credit cards in America makes life simpler and better for consumers.

  • They free us from the hassle of carrying cash.
  • They protect us from defective products and dishonest merchants.
  • They relieve us from the stealth-tax of lost-change.
  • They help us earn rewards and easily track expenses.
  • They enable us to buy things we cannot really afford, and what is more American than that!

But our right to swipe is under attack.

More and more unscrupulous merchants are imposing European-style transaction fees and minimum purchase amounts on consumers who exercise their right to pay with plastic. Not only are such practices a violation of the merchants’ contract with VISA and MasterCard, but they are also an assault on us, the American consumers.

But you can fight back. Here is what to do when you encounter transaction fees or minimum purchase requirements.

Stand up for your rights: Merchants who impose such fees are in the wrong, and they know it. Simply tell the merchant that you will not be buying that extra candy bar to meet the minimum purchase requirement and that they cannot legally impose it. You might have to argue the point, but in my experience, the merchant always backs down. Non-Toxic Reviews has a handy wallet-ready summery of the VISA and MasterCard contracts that you can cite if needed.

Call your bank or VISA if needed: If a merchant is particularly intransigent, pull out your cell phone and threaten to call VISA or your bank. You can find the 1-800 numbers on the back of your credit card. Usually the threat is enough to make the merchant back down. If you need to file a report, do it. MasterCard and American Express will even let you do it online.

Write your credit card company and bank: VISA, MasterCard and the bank that issued your credit card should be enforcing the rules. But the fact that merchants brazenly ignore their contracts means that the credit card industry isn’t doing its job—and that hurts all of us. Write VISA, MasterCard and your bank and tell them it is time to step up enforcement  like I did. You can find the appropriate address on Consumerist.com.

[Updated 9/15/09]

Scream “YOU LIE!”: Politicians may love scenes—they raise money after all—but shopkeepers hate them. In a crowded shop or restaurant, screaming “YOU LIE” when confronted with a minimum purchase amount will not only get the merchant’s attention, but it will also draw the gaze of everyone else in ear-shot. Now is your chance to quickly outline your case. The merchant will either quickly back down or throw you out on the street. Either way, everyone will remember what you said. [end update]

Join the resistance (not recommended): A small resistance outfit called merchantfraud.org is distributing stickers that identify merchants who break the rules as fraudsters. They are encouraging people to sticker these businesses as an act of public awareness vandalism. While I don’t recommend this, I understand the frustration that is breeding it. [update] Merchantfraud seems to have taken its website down. Perhaps they’ve gone underground. You can see what the stickers look like here.

Standing up to merchants who break the rules might seem like a jack-ass thing to do, but when you do it you’re not only saving yourself money, you’re defending America.

The Founding Fathers stood up to a surcharge on tea, now its your turn.

Life, Liberty and the Right to Swipe!

Previous topics mentioned in this post:

#6. Chargebacks and Credit Cards

€5. Different sized banknotes

An open letter to VISA

What is more America, Big Gulps or Credit Cards?

ACTION ALERT: Senators aim to introduce European-style Credit Card fees

Programing note

Today I have a guest post up at the blog New New Yorkers. In it, I give my take on five cultural oddities about New York that make live here unique: like the fact that brunch here is not just for old ladies.

You don’t have to be old to do brunch. In the rest of America, brunch is something old ladies do after church. In New York, brunch is served Saturday and Sunday by scads of NYC restaurants. With some offering bottomless mimosas and breakfast for under $20, it’s not just a mid-day meal — it’s the new Thursday night.

Check out the post for the whole list.

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