Saturday, September 22, 2012

No Soup For You

It's not just Mitt Romney who imagines that poor people are the same people that mooch off of the hard-working millionaires that provide all the jobs, and would be working if they weren't lazy. Here's a local example of what I mean.

In North Carolina, as elsewhere in the country and probably the world, people stealing copper and items containing copper have become a real problem. One part of this developing problem is that copper, qua commodity, has risen a great deal in value in the past few years. A pound of the best grade copper is about 3/4s the value of a gallon of gas at the moment. Plenty of people have been willing to go to construction sites and rip out freshly installed wiring and plumbing. Some have even gone to occupied houses and commercial buildings. Since copper is a component in air conditioners, stories abound of whole shopping centers missing their H&A when the place opens up of a Monday morning. Sometimes businesses are shut down, sometimes for days. There are stories of police departments having their roof-top central airs go missing. People even drive around the country-side with boom-trucks snipping the wires off the poles. They'll chop up the wire so it's not easily recognized, take it to scrap recyclers in buckets, make a bundle. Or the wire and pipe and air conditioner radiator coils might in some cases get traded for other more usable commodities in the black market. Copper is basically just like silver and gold. When something is just like silver and gold, it draws to it the same economic attributes. You can trade copper futures. You can give someone copper and get something else for it. Most likely you could have a man come and paint your metal roof for a few buckets of copper. For example.

Of course all the folks who are having their copper stolen are pissed off about it. This would include big players in the American economy: power companies, home builders associations, insurance companies who are in some cases paying for these damages. And the loss of value in some cases is surely staggering--a brand new central air unit might cost upwards of $10,000 installed. The unit, scrapped, might be worth $500, or less. The rest of that value is not "retrieved" you might say. It's just gone.

This situation is, as you probably know, not new. There has been copper theft going on in large quantity for a number of years. It was going on at the turn of this century. When they made the HBO series "The Wire," copper thievery is depicted therein. The Wire first aired in 2002. No doubt the thievery was happening a number of years before the series started--otherwise the series writers wouldn't have noticed. A few years back, North Carolina, like many other states, passed more stringent laws dealing with copper theft. For example, it is now required by law that any amount of copper sold for a value over $100 be paid for by check. Other requirements include the buyer obtaining photos of the driver's license of the seller, the license plate of the seller's vehicle, and the seller must tell where he obtained the copper. Law enforcement can at any time ask that these records be produced, and in some NC counties law enforcement requires buyers of copper to fax them every purchase receipt (which includes all this required information) at the end of each business day. Copper thieves have been apprehended with this information. Crooked buyers, not so much. Enforcement is also expensive, and people don't like taxes. Thus doth the rubber meet the macadam.

Last election North Carolina fell into the Tea Party camp, and our current Republican Legislature decided, at the behest of fierce lobbying efforts by the power companies and the building associations, to "do something" about copper theft. They passed a new law, which goes into effect on October 1st, 2012. There are various provisions in the law, but the primary one can be stated as a dictum: NO CASH FOR COPPER. Our little newspaper just ran the press release announcing the advent of this new law. A power company spokesman, who wrote the "story," says in the release that it is believed that NO CASH FOR COPPER will reduce theft, because "thieves want quick cash." This logic was apparently behind the legislature's action earlier this summer.

Well, but if paying by check stops theft, how come paying by check didn't stop theft back when the original law requiring payment by check for copper in amounts valued at $100 and up was enacted? Because as far as we can tell, it didn't. Copper theft continued. My guess, which I'd say is 99% a certainty, is that copper theft will continue after October 1. This is because a valuable commodity remains fairly easily obtainable by "the public." Imagine if the electric wires and plumbing pipes were made of gold. It's really not any different, from an economic standpoint. Like gold, copper has a significant intrinsic value. If all legal buying and selling of copper were outlawed, that value would not vanish, because copper is essential to our way of life. Probably, if all legal buying and selling of copper were outlawed, the value of copper would rise, and theft would likely increase. It's an experiment we might get to witness if Republicans gain more governmental power in the US.

Here's what will happen come October 1. The very poor people who struggle to survive with almost no income will now be given checks for tiny amounts of copper they decide to sell. There are folks who spend their days driving around the county, or walking around their neighborhoods picking up small amounts of various scrap metals discarded by people. If you want to spend a day driving around looking for every scrap of metal you can find, and picking it up, you can go to a scrap dealer and make a few dollars. If you're lucky you might make a bit more than you spent on gasoline. It'll depend on luck, and the kind of metal you happen to score. After Christmas, you might luck out and find a string of Christmas tree lights. The value of Christmas tree lights is, at the moment, $.25 a pound. If you got a few pounds of lights, and you picked up a few pounds of beer cans off the roadside, and maybe you found a rusty bicycle and a piece of metal that fell off a car, you might walk away with $15.35, say. After October 1 that payment will be in the form of a check. NO CASH FOR COPPER. If you go to a bank these days, you'll have to pay a fee of about $10 to cash that check. Third-party checks are becoming unacceptable at banks. So maybe it's possible that for the most destitute, selling their Christmas lights will no longer have any point to it. The Christmas lights will then go into the garbage with the rotten bananas, and from thence to the landfill.

From the lofty heights from which Mr. Romney and his friends view the passing cavalcade, it's all pretty much a bunch of ants down there. Mr. Romney and his friends in the power and building industries can't imagine how a person could end up 70 years old with an income of $540 a month. Must be because they were lazy. And the Social Security System, which was designed to mitigate abject poverty in the elderly, was deemed by Mr. Romney and his cohort (including Ronald Reagan, President) to be a ponzi scheme, so contributions, e.g., the payroll tax, was capped at $96,000 per year, where it still remains. If you thought Social Security was there for you, you deserve what you get. You can still sell aluminum cans (for the moment), but NO CASH FOR COPPER.

Here in North Carolina there is a political example to be taken or ignored. Our legislature made an authoritarian decision last summer. NO CASH FOR COPPER. It's just like the '50s daddy in action. NO CAR KEYS. LOWER THAT HEM, MISSY. WASH THOSE DISHES NOW, MISTER. The fact that there was already no cash for copper in any significant amount, and that such a policy did not seem to have much effect, in toto, was lost on the legislature. They pounded the gavel and went home to campaign, and it was DONE. That we will now have the absurdity of a $.25 check for a pound of Christmas tree lights in the hands of a starving elderly person with no bank account is of no interest to our authoritarian overlords. As Mr. Romney has told us, "some of my best friends are NASCAR team owners."

In related news, our local trucking company has a big sign that just sprouted in front of his parking lot of trailers and road tractors. It says "I Built This." It's pretty hilarious for a business that depends on...wait for it...


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