Friday, December 12, 2008

Pension Math for the Compleat Idiot

Let's say you have an outstanding pension obligation to your former, retired workers, of $100 million/year, incurred over the past 50 years. This is a debt, just like any other debt, and must be paid.

You have 50,000 currently employed averaging workers about 2000 hrs/year for a total of 10 million worker hours/year.

$100 million/ 10 million hours = $10/hour.

Now let's say you cut your workforce in half.

You have 25,000 currently employed averaging workers about 2000 hrs/year for a total of 10 million worker hours/year.

$100 million/ 5 million hours = $20/hour.

Now let's say you cut your workforce in half again.

You have 12,500 currently employed averaging workers about 2000 hrs/year for a total of 2.5 million worker hours/year.

$100 million/ 2.5 million hours = $40/hour.

See how it works?

The workers aren't getting any more money. You're just paying off a debt you already incurred, and putting the blame on fewer workers.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

An IKEA Moment

My mom needed her bedframe replaced and, being in her late 70s, needed help from her kids shopping and installing it. I'd really have preferred to Buy American, but there was really only one choice: IKEA.

Our family'd shopped around bargain furniture stores and hadn't found anything in our price range that was acceptable. It seems to me that the basic problem is that most stores pre-assemble their furniture, so the cost is very high and the selection limited. IKEA leaves final assembly to you so their warehouse & shipping costs are low. I don't mind saving a couple hundred dollars by doing the assembly myself; it's basically like working a puzzle only with a very clear cheat sheet, so another way of putting it is that I'm being paid to have fun. Why some domestic manufacturer doesn't copy this strategy, I don't know.

The other thing about IKEA is that they treat customer right when something goes wrong. Stuff happens. As I get older, I notice I make a lot more silly little mistakes. I don't know whether I'm just getting careless or, with the wisdom of age, am recognizing my errors more easily (rather than blaming them on ruthless fact or evil or callous opponents.) Perhaps, like an old cellphone, my mental speed-dial list is full so I don't hold on to new numbers. Anyway, I find it helpful to associate with entities that are fault-tolerant.

First, mom and I and my lovely wife Kris took a day trip to IKEA. Yes, it was the dread Shopping Trip, but a guy has to sacrifice once in a while.
After a leisurely survey of the available bedframes, mom picked out one that was comfortingly solid. We got the warehouse picklist, found the right stockkeeping location, and carefully loaded the 3 boxes onto our cart: headboard (queen size, correct color), footboard (correct color), side rails (correct color). It was on sale, and the savings paid for delivery (the headboard was way too big for our Saturn SL1; it's a great car but no moving van). All was cool; we had a nice lunch in IKEA's delightfully idiosyncratic cafe (lindenberry soda is actually quite tasty!) and it was a very pleasant day trip.

Thursday I drove up to mom's to assemble the bed. I'd allowed plenty of time since mom's apartment is, appropriately, rather compact and has a lot of stuff in it. After the first hour of chatting and re-arranging stuff to make room for assembly and so forth, mom mentioned it was time for her Tai Chi class
and would I like to try it? At first, I thought "I'm in a hurry!" but then I realized, "What for?". This was a chance to try something new and see what mom enjoyed about it. I did aikido for over a decade and now was trying yoga and pilates, so why not Tai Chi.

Did I mention this is a seated Tai Chi class? Most of the people at mom's home are a bit frail but there were nearly a dozen participants giving the moves a try. You'd recognize a lot of the moves either from your own martial arts practice or from the movies: "Tracing the Rainbow", "Golden Rooster Stands On One Leg", "Stroke the Wild Horse's Mane", and so on ... suitably modified for the individual's capability. It was really a nice workout and kinda inspiring!

Back to work. The directions were very clear, in IKEA's famous cartoon format (no words, just drawings) but unfortunately the VERY FIRST IMAGE indicated that this assembly was a two-person job. Oops! Luckily, my brother Dave had left some 2x4s at mom's place; I don't know why they were there, but they made very useful props. It REALLY is a two-person job joining the side rails to the head- and foot-board simultaneously but the 2x4s did their best. After an hour of jiggery, I almost had the thing put together.

"It's dinnertime, will you join us?" asked mom, and again I thought "No, I'm in a hurry" but again, "Why not?", so I put down the tools. The custom at mom's place is to eat in tables of four, with the same group of people (hopefully friends) eating together for years. Mom's table had a new addition last year, a 105-year-old lady named Geneva. This evening, the other two were out so it was just mom, Geneva and I. It was obvious from the start they were good friends; both had grown up on farms in the midwest (mom in the Canadian midwest) and took life pretty easy. We took our time over dinner telling stories.

Eventually it was time to finish the bedmaking job. I slide the boxspring onto the pedestal and: DISASTER! It was 3 inches too long!

I was completely stumped. The frame was a queen, the boxspring was a queen: are there different queen sizes? ?Had mom gotten an offbrand box spring or did IKEA use some strange Eurometric queen size?

I experimented with propping up the mattresses etc with the 2x4a. Alas, although they tried, it was beyond their capability to violate the basic laws of physics. We ended up with a mostly-stable assembly that was about a foot higher than the bed mom was used to; mom gamely insisted she could use it just fine and even struggled up to get on it. It took only about five minutes and she had to rest afterwards; clearly this wasn't going to work.

She noted that the IKEA comic directions included a drawing of a guy calling their help line. It was hard, but I finally admitted that was the only thing to do; unfortunately they comic didn't include a phone number. Fortunately my gPhone swiftly located customer service for the Renton IKEA. Unfortunately, the nice lady on the phone was as stumped as I was; how could a queen box spring not fit a queen frame? We puzzled over it for a while; the only thing she could think of was that maybe I'd been given a "single-double" by mistake but we agreed that didn't make sense.

Of course, no-one had given me the siderails for a single-double. I'd grabbed them by mistake on my own! Once I checked the packing box and noted the size discrepancy, I felt a huge sense of relief to discover it was just a screw-up, which we could now solve.

Mom was perfectly happy to sleep in her recliner just this one time. (In my bachelor days, I'd slept in a recliner many times and actually it's very comfortable.) The next days I drove back to mom's disassembled the bed, and took the rails back to IKEA. After work, Kris joined me going up to mom's and we put it all together pretty quickly. It really does work better to have a couple on the bed!

There was only one real hitch. There are some metal rails that attach to the solid wooden siderails with about 10 screws a side (Kris & made screwing jokes the whole time - Sotte voce so mom didn't hear - there are limits of course!) plus 4 diagonal metal braces. Once everything was together, we had an extra set of metal rails and struts. Of course! these should have gone back to IKEA when I made the swap!

The next day (Saturday) Kris went shopping & decorating with her mom; I was to join them that evening for her mother's birthday (my mom sent along a musical tree-and-snowglobe tschotcke that was kind of fun). On the way, I stopped at IKEA to drop off the extra metal parts.

Customer Service was, as usual, efficient but they seemed both surprised and happy to get the extra parts back; without any prompting, they gave me a coupon for an entree' and a coffee at the IKEA cafeteria. This really was not necessary, but I never turn down free coffee. I can't believe they were overwhelmingly happy to get the metal parts back, since the bother of restocking and all might seriously cut into the value of the returned item, but what the heck.

The point of all this: it was really extra nice customer service and prompted me to write down my experience. Also: don't be that guy!

Thanks IKEA. We'll be back - although hopefully not soon. There's only so much shopping a man can take!

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