‘Pay It Backward’ Is a Time-Honored Government Gambit

The federal clawback is back – this time for the California National Guard.

From Saturday’s Los Angeles Times:

Thousands of California soldiers forced to repay enlistment bonuses a decade after going to war


Short of troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago, the California National Guard enticed thousands of soldiers with bonuses of $15,000 or more to reenlist and go to war.

Now the Pentagon is demanding the money back.

Nearly 10,000 soldiers, many of whom served multiple combat tours, have been ordered to repay large enlistment bonuses — and slapped with interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens if they refuse — after audits revealed widespread overpayments by the California Guard at the height of the wars last decade.

That reminded me of a similar situation I encountered in the 1970s when I briefly toiled at the Social Security Administration (civil service tests being the last refuge of the liberal arts major back then).

I got hired to be a Claims Representative (Term), or CRT, in the Redetermination Unit, a swat team that was supposed to clean up – in two years – a big problem the federal government had created: Supplemental Security Income.

SSI was a program that took aged, disabled and blind people off the state welfare rolls and put them on the federal dole.

The big problem was that everyone got paid top dollar in the transition (“top dollar” being one of the great ironies of the time – the monthly payments when I arrived in 1975 were $167.80 for individuals and $251.80 for couples. Just as a point of reference, I took home $425 a month when I started at SSA, and I felt poor myself.)

Anyway, all of the SSI recipients had to be “redetermined” – that is, have their benefits cut. Which they were.

And then came this, as I chronicled in The Redemption Unit.


Pay It Backward

When the last claimant’s benefits had been redetermined and the government added up its losses, it immediately decided to recoup them by initiating the Overpayment Recovery Program. Letters went out – on green paper this time – telling claimants they had to come in to the DO [District Office]. And the whole kabuki dance started all over again.

Claimant plunks green letter down on desk. File comes out. Conversation begins.

“Mrs. Patterson, our records show that you were overpaid during the past two years by a total of $2162.”

“I never got no check for $2162.”

Conversation effectively ends.

In essence the Overpayment Recovery Program took people who’d just had their welfare checks cut, and cut them some more. One day my next-desk neighbor, Tricia McDermott, flipped a file across her desk and leaned back in her chair. Tricia was too compassionate for the job but too strait-laced not to do it by the book. She stared toward the windows and said to no one in particular, “What we need here is an overpayment recovery incentive. Do you think they’d ever consider giving us a cut of the take?”

“In this lifetime?”

“No, really – 10% off the top of any money we recover. We could limit it to refunds and exclude adjustments or returned checks.”


That there were three different ways to achieve a single result was pure SSA. Back then the Social Security system was virtually all exceptions and no rules (it may still be – I’ll find out in a few years). SSI wasn’t quite as bad, but it was still a contraption only Rube Goldberg could love. To make matters worse, the CRTs received a steady stream of what were called “claims transmittals” – memos that were supposed to clarify, but more often complicated, SSI’s crazy-quilt regulations.

Representative sample: “Transmit payment status code of WO4, WO5, or WO9. However, because of systems limitations do not input these PSCs. Use force pay to pay correct amount.” (SSIH, 13515-2)

So nobody read the transmittals. Except me. I figured I needed something on the plus side of the ledger to offset being chronically late and generally out of step. Consequently I read every transmittal, which probably was why I got the computer to do things no one else could.

In the course of my reading I also discovered that two obscure SSI regulations, when combined, essentially allowed a claims rep to waive any overpayment.

So that’s what I did.

A claimant would come in, sit down at my desk and wearily hand over his green letter.

“Yes. Mr. Randolph. Our records show – let’s see here – that during the past two years you were overpaid by $846.”

“I never got no check for $846.”

“That’s right, Mr. Randolph. This is really just a bookkeeping thing. I need you to sign a couple of forms and you’ll be all set.”

I had decided to hand-write the two forms each time; if I had a stack of copies around, they might accuse me of premeditated overpayment waiving. Better to have a sort of eureka element involved. I’d scribble out the forms, turn them toward the claimant, and spend a good five minutes convincing him to sign them. The claimant would walk away looking slightly puzzled. Then someone else would come to my desk with a green letter.

For a while my waive-‘em-all policy stayed under the radar. But I ran into problems when people began asking for me by name. Apparently word had gotten around the claimant community that I was the guy to see with your overpayment letter. So they would come into the DO and – completely disregarding SSI’s sophisticated system of assigning claimants alphabetically – say they wanted to be interviewed by me. Suddenly I was very much on the radar screen.

The Operations Supervisor came by one day and sat on the corner of my desk, an exercise always fraught with peril.

“You’re an asshole, but you know the system better than the bosses do. They hate that. What if everybody did what you’re doing?”

“Then I’d be a fool not to, like Yossarian said in Catch-22.”

“Sometimes it’s not so smart to be so smart. Too bad you won’t be around long enough to appreciate that.”

I started to think he was right, especially when management decided to walk me up the ladder – from OS to ADM to DM to AD. The drill was the same each time: I’d be summoned to the manager’s office, I’d sit down, and he’d say, “You can’t waive overpayments the way you’re doing. This is money that the claimants were not entitled to, and it’s your job to recover it from them.”

Each time my response was the same.

“I’m doing this by the book. It’s all there in the transmittals. You don’t like it, change the system.”

That, of course, was like saying make the Gabor sisters stop getting married.

“There’s nothing wrong with the system – there’s something wrong with you. What are you thinking, writing all these waivers?”

“I’m thinking that these people were overpaid through no fault of their own. They didn’t cheat the government; the government cheated the government. Why should they pay for that?”

“Because that’s what the regulations say.”

“The regulations also say overpayments can be waived under certain conditions, at the discretion of the claims rep. I’m just exercising my discretion.”

“Very poorly, I would say.”

“Yes, a CRT’s pay is nothing if not minimal.”

“Get out of here.”

And I did.

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NYT = Now You Travel (Instead of Reading)

Interesting piece by Suzanne Vranica and Jack Marshall in the Wall Street Journal the other day about newspapers chasing alternative revenue sources in the face of knee-buckling advertising losses.

Plummeting Newspaper Ad Revenue Sparks New Wave of Changes

With global newspaper print advertising on pace for worst decline since recession, publishers cut costs and restructure


Newspapers are suffering an accelerating drop in print advertising, a market that already was under stress, forcing some publishers to consider significant cost cuts and dramatic changes to their print and digital products.

Global spending on newspaper print ads is expected to decline 8.7% to $52.6 billion in 2016, according to estimates from GroupM, the ad-buying firm owned by WPP PLC. That would be the biggest drop since the recession, when world-wide spending plummeted 13.7% in 2009.

That decline is hitting every major publisher, increasing pressure on them to boost digital-revenue streams even faster to make up for lost revenue and, in some cases, even reconsider the format of their print products and the types of content they publish.

Or, in the case of the New York Times, consider becoming a travel agent.

A selection of Times house ads from the past week or so . . .

Two-page spread on October 16:




In case you’re interested (actually, TimesReaders are more likely to be intrigued):




Just FYI: Abercrombie & Kent “consistently goes above and beyond the call of duty — and no A&K journey is complete without that extra, unexpected ‘and’ that makes your experience unique and unforgettable.”

“And” $135,000, of course. Can’t forget that.

Then there was this full-page ad on October 20:




For the budget-minded:





And lastly, one for the kiddies this past Sunday:




That would be another $7000 for student journeyers, but why get technical about it.

(To be sure graf goes here)

To be sure, almost any way the Times can keep itself afloat is okay with us.

Even this:




Actually, we sort of like those Monaco Grand Prix Posters.

But not at those prix.

We’ll wait for the 50% off sale.

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Conservative Magazine Says ‘Bill Belichick for President!’

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, The Weekly Standard has been a standard-bearing Dump Trump hardliner.

But in the magazine’s October 17th issue, contributor Geoffrey Norman proposes an actual alternative.

A Real Winner

Come November, I’m writing in Bill Belichick

Variations on the same basic conversation are, no doubt, taking place all over the country: people asking, rhetorically, “How has it come to this?” Agonizing over what, if anything, can be done. Wondering, “Does it really have to be one of these two?” Sooner or later you come to the dead-end answer, which is .  .  . “Yes, it seems it does.”

So you begin to fantasize. Wouldn’t it be great if it could be—and here you fill in the blank. Someone, say, from history. (My first choice would be Calvin Coolidge.) Or someone from the à la carte menu of contemporary politicians. This would include all the usual suspects, according to one’s ideological tastes: Elizabeth Warren, Bobby Jindal, Mitt Romney, whoever.

Especially this whoever.

[As] someone said to me while we were exchanging texts on a 280x280-a795f4cf7a8c5f422ef552365d1e1634lazy football Sunday, “How about Bill Belichick for prez? You want a winner and someone who knows how to deal with the media .  .  . he’s your guy.” (For the uninitiated, Belichick is the most successful pro football coach of our generation.)

“Ur rite,” I texted back. “Brilliant. Guy has forgotten more about ‘winning’ than Trump ever knew.”

Norman also had this exchange with his texting pal:

“Belichick would never say he wouldn’t put boots on the ground. He wouldn’t give away anything about what he might—or might not—do. He’d keep em guessing .  .  . and very, very worried.”

“Absolutely,” I texted back. “Gives the enemy no help. He won’t even say who he is starting at quarterback until the rules say he has to. Always keeps them guessing.”

“Right,” my correspondent texted back, fast and furious. “But if he did put boots on the ground, they would stomp the bad guys into a puddle and then stomp the puddle dry. Belichick isn’t about sending signals. He is about stealing yours and using them to beat you.”

From there the piece wanders into a discussion about America’s fetish for charisma and what a welcome change an anti-charismatic leader would be. It is, as always with Norman’s work, an interesting read.

Back to Belichick for President, though, the hardchuckling staff guesses that The Big Hoodie’s response would be, “we’re on to Pittsburgh.

But we’re just guessing.

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A Conversation Between Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln

DONALD TRUMP (at a rally in Anytown, USA): Believe me, we’re going to build a beautiful Republican Party after this election – and , believe me, the Democrats will pay for it – and it will be a tremendous new party of Lincoln.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN (walking on stage out of the shadows): Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether –

DT: Disloyal [Republicans] are far more difficult than Crooked Hillary. They come at you from all sides. They don’t know how to win – I will teach them!

AL: There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.

DT: Our very weak and ineffective leader, Paul Ryan, had a bad conference call where his members went wild at his disloyalty.

AL: The proportions of this rebellion were not for a long time understood. I saw that it involved the greatest difficulties, and would call forth all the powers of the whole country.

DT: Crooked Hillary Clinton likes to talk about the things she will do but she has been there for 30 years – why didn’t she do them?

AL: Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government . . .

DT: I hope people are looking at the disgraceful behavior of Hillary Clinton as exposed by WikiLeaks. She is unfit to run. 

AL: In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and eternity.

DT: The very foul mouthed Sen. John McCain begged for my support during his primary (I gave, he won), then dropped me over locker room remarks!

AL: I believe it is an established maxim in morals that he who makes an assertion without knowing whether it is true or false, is guilty of falsehood; and the accidental truth of the assertion, does not justify or excuse him.

DT: The phony story in the failing ‪@nytimes is a TOTAL FABRICATION. Written by same people as last discredited story on women. WATCH!

AL: Thoughtful men must feel that the fate of civilization upon this continent is involved in the issue of [this] contest.

DT: Why didn’t the writer of the twelve year old article in People Magazine mention the “incident” in her story. Because it did not happen!

AL: At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.


AL: With malice toward none; with charity for all –

DT: It is so nice that the shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to.

(Abraham Lincoln quotes via Abraham Lincoln Online. Donald Trump quotes – except first – via Twitter.)

Originally published at tovima.gr (Athens, Greece).

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Positively 231st Street: Bob Dylan, the Bronx, and Me

In the summer of 1966, the Jack & Agnes Carrolls misguidedly moved from 89th and Third in Manhattan to Brookview Road in Windsor, CT – a town that lacked virtually everything, including sidewalks.

I did not go with them.

Hell, I had just clawed my way into senior year at Fordham Prep, where the Jesuit headmaster had dubbed me “one of the five most cynical boys at this school” – a personal and parochial triumph.

No way I was abandoning that to start over in some outback of Nutmeg State High.

So I finagled a room at a family friend’s house on Carpenter Ave. in the Bronx, right across the street from Misericordia Hospital.

And every evening when I arrived back there, I hied me to the sunroom where the phonograph lived to play all four sides of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde (not only rock ‘n’ roll’s first double album, but a “literary leap” according to this Vanity Fair piece by Mike Hogan, who calls it “a plea, a curse, and a benediction all wrapped in one”).

Let’s start with “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” one of the great rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time.




Then there’s “Fourth Time Around,” which I always considered Dylan’s response to John Lennon’s Norwegian Wood.



And, of course, “Visions of Johanna,” which is “a song that may be the pinnacle of [Dylan’s] art” according to the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr. The redoubtable Dan Kennedy of Media Nation says that “[Dylan] could have won [the Nobel] 50 years ago just for ‘Visions of Johanna.’”

Best version we could find:



Back in the Bronx, it was probably Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands that tore it for me at my temporary living quarters.

But there was also this: I was staying in a two-family house occupied by six adults (Evie, Buster, Olympia, Ria, Artie, Juliette) who resolutely refused to appoint a Designated Tsker to lecture me during my spectacularly boneheaded senior year.

So every time I did something incredibly stupid (which was often), the Tsk Six would pass me from one to another to another to another to . . .

It was, quite frankly, untenable.

Luckily, I found alternative lodgings at my great friend Rob’s place in Parkchester (thanks to his sainted mom, Jo) for most of the remaining school year.

But that’s another story, as Dylan might say:

Then time will tell who has fell
And who’s been left behind
When you go your way and I go mine.

Whichever way I went that year, Blonde on Blonde was the soundtrack.

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Civilians Who Run Full-Page Ads in the New York Times (Umpteenth Plus Two Yoko Ono Edition)

From our Late to the Peace Party edition

Over the years, the hardworking staff has dutifully chronicled the must-by-now-be-a-million-dollars Yoko Ono has spent on full-page ads in the New York Times.

(Umpteenth here, Umpteenth Plus One here.)

Now comes yet another, in Sunday’s Times.




October 9th, of course, would have been John Lennon’s 76th birthday.

So for once, we won’t say the Rift Beatle should have just set her money on fire.


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Xavier University Hits #1 in Higher Education Rankings!

But first . . .

The hardwatching staff knows it should join the rest of the chinstrokerati in commenting on last night’s presidential debate, so we’ll venture these few observations.

1. We really need a shower.

2. Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz will costar in the upcoming Unstoppable II.

3. Hillary Clinton did not bring her A game to this debate.

4. Donald Trump definitely brought his D (for degrading) game.

5. Trump says he never sexually assaulted (as in, unwanted kissing or groping) any woman. The New York Times has already documented at least one.  (No, wait – two.) Many more, presumably, to come.

6. Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway has begun her slow-motion exit from the Trumptanic.

7. Alt-right takeaway: Trump is Randle McMurphy, Clinton is Nurse Ratched, White House is the Cuckoo’s Nest.

So . . . we good on the debate?

Now to the really important news, via Time magazine.

America’s First Pizza ATM Has Officially Arrived

“One small step for pepperoni, one giant leap for pizza kind”

Students at Ohio’s Xavier University are in for one tasty, cheesy treat when they return to campus this fall: their school is the proud owner of the nation’s first official “Pizza ATM.”

The vending machine will serve up hot pies 24 hours a day, seven days a week at just the touch of a button, Cincinnati.com reports. At $9 a pop for a full 12-inch pizza, you can choose yourscreen-shot-2016-10-10-at-12-10-21-am toppings on the touchscreen, hit a button, and within three minutes receive a fresh-baked pizza in a box, dispensed via a special pizza slot. (The machine works its magic via internal convection oven). About 70 pizzas are stored in the ATM at a go, but they may be restocking fast — especially because, according to Cincinnati.com, the only other pizza options available to students is a Domino’s.

As a proud XU alum, we’ll pass over in silence Xavier’s unfortunate ranking of 492 on CNN MONEY’s list of colleges delivering value (that’s a rhetorical device called preterition, something we learned in one of our endless Classical Languages courses there – and something Donald Trump employs on a daily basis).

Regardless . . .

Pie are round, you madcap Musketeers.

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Regal Cinemas Is Screening Clinton v. Trump II – Free For All!

So the hardworking staff opened up the old emailbag yesterday and here’s what poured out.


That More Details link lists over 200 Regal Cinemas nationwide and says this:

Regal Cinemas is excited to offer voters, debate teams, political science classes, or regular Joes the chance to watch Clinton vs. Trump on the big screen at the following Regal Cinemas locations. This free showing will air live on Sunday, October 9 at 9pm EST. Tickets available at box office only.

Special offer: Free small drink w/purchase of a popcorn for debate attendees.

Well that’s probably better than offering free Milk Duds.

But think about it: A couple hundred  Regal theatres across this great land of ours will be packed with Trump Toughs and Clinton Crazies tomorrow night.

We’re guessing there’ll be more action in the seats than on the screen.

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Civilians Who Run Full-Page Ads in the New York Times (WellsFargoGreed Edition)

The latest in our long-running series featuring people with all those dollars and no sense

Apparently it wasn’t enough that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Woodshed) blowtorched Wells Fargo (in the person of CEO John Stumpf) for its fiscal unfitness last month.

Now comes this full-page ad from Texas entrepreneur Lacy Harber in Thursday’s New York Times (as well as the Dallas Morning News, San Francisco Chronicle, and Charlotte Observer at a total cost of more $250,000, according to Harber’s attorney).


Close-up for the body-copy impaired:


So Harber’s got a beef with Wells Fargo, which you can read in gory detail in this Dallas Morning News piece.

Drives-him-nuts graf:

Harber is angry about dealings with the Wells Fargo subsidiary that he says caused him to lose nearly $6 million.


The hardsaving staff takes no position on this dustup (except to say we’re glad our money’s not riding on Wells Fargo).

But if you splendid readers want to weigh in, by all means contact Lacy Harber at wellsfargogreed@gmail.com.

And give him our condolences.

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Aramark’s the Spot: Humane League Targets BU Dining Service

So we received this email yesterday from an outfit called Agony at Aramark.

(Full disclosure: The hardworking staff has moonlighted at Boston University for a number of years.)

Dear Boston University,

I represent The Humane League, a leading international animal protection NGO. I am writing to inform you that your foodservice provider, Aramark, has failed to adopt a single meaningful animal welfare measure to protect the millions of screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-12-38-17-amchickens it purchases each year. Unlike its competitors Sodexo and Compass Group, Aramark’s leadership has continually ignored our requests to open a dialogue. Aramark now stands out as a foodservice company falling behind on basic animal welfare issues.

The Humane League means business, according to this Huffington Post piece.

There’s A Major New Effort To Help The Billions Of Chickens We Eat Every Year

The animal welfare movement is pivoting to its biggest challenge yet.


The Humane League, a prominent animal welfare group, launched a landmark campaign this week to improve the lives (and deaths) of broiler chickens, the land animal that is consumed more than any other in the United States.

The campaign targets Aramark, a behemoth of the U.S. food services industry that runs dining operations at thousands of large institutions and last year reported over $14 billion in sales.

And etc.

Locally, the group promises an all-out BU blitz in its email:

We’re writing to make you aware of this because your affiliation with such a socially irresponsible company may harm your university’s reputation. We will be working with students and groups on your campus to distribute literature, gather petition signatures, display flyers and information, and organize demonstrations. We will also be running Facebook advertisements targeting both current students and alumni. The ads ask viewers to end their support for the university and cease all donations until this issue is addressed and will direct viewers to this website and video.

(To be fair graf goes here)

To be fair, the HuffPost piece also includes this: “In a statement, Aramark said it was ‘committed to animal welfare and sustainable sourcing practices’ but announced no policy changes. ‘It is unfortunate that an activist organization has launched an attack campaign when we are engaged in productive dialogue with likeminded NGOs, academia and suppliers to actually resolve the problem,’ the company said.”

Unfortunate, indeed.

Meanwhile, the hardeating staff will unfortunately consider dining elsewhere.

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