2009.10.21 Cookie-starved professors latest victims of slow economy

Written by David Green.


Yes, it’s true. Things have gotten so bad at Harvard University that the latest list of cost-cutting measures includes eliminating free cookies at faculty meetings. I guess someone will have to stop at 7-Eleven on the way and pick up a bag of Lorna Doones.

College professors are far from the only ones affected by economic conditions. I’m still more than a bit puzzled by the magazine I received recently from one of the country’s largest mutual funds.

I made the mistake of investing in their fund back in 2007 when the stock market was over 14,000. Ever since, I’ve had the thrill of receiving monthly statements reminding me of how much money I’ve lost. My broker (and what an appropriate job title that turned out to be) left the company soon after she pocketed her commission. I know I didn’t invest nearly enough for her to retire, but if someone made a profit off my investment, I still think it should have been me.

The magazine the fund sent me included a story about how other shareholders in the fund are adjusting to the economy. One couple in the article each owned their own business and their biggest problem revolved around paying senior year college expenses for their daughter, who was named, of all things, Sony.

You’d think the electronics giant might kick in a few bucks just because of her name, but no, the daughter helped to solve the family’s financial crisis by receiving a paid internship in environmental science at a NASA facility. That’s real helpful to the rest of us losers who have ordinary names and don’t live near any rocket plants.

The story of another couple was equally useless. This particular couple was already retired, but their budgeted-for-retirement income ended up being less than they planned because of the recession. They compensated by dipping into their cash reserves.

And then there were their cost-cutting measures. They loved to take their two grandchildren to amusement parks such as Disney World and to various national parks in the western United States. To save money, they began taking the trips in their Winnebago motor home. This allowed them to save on hotel and restaurant expenses.

I suppose this is useful information for the lucky people who happened to have cash reserves, not to mention a spare Winnebago in the event of an economic downturn. To most people, though, a “cash reserve” is an alien concept. And who keeps a Winnebago around, just in case you can’t afford to fly anymore? I know a few people who have vans, but their greatest fear is they may end up having to live in them.   

 For some people, the best they can hope for is some rich person sharing his wealth with the masses. After an incident in Columbus, Ohio, last week, I’d suggest asking to see the money first.

A woman pulled up in front of a Burlington Coat Factory store in a Hummer stretch limousine, went inside, and announced she had won $1.5 million in a lottery. She added she would pay for each customer’s purchases up to $500 each.

Police assume that customers in the store began calling friends and relatives because within a short time, there were about 500 people in the store and another 1,000 outside trying to gain admittance. Eventually, two dozen police were called in as the woman was making a trip to the bank. It turned out that many, and more, were actually needed.

The woman returned, empty-handed, then left before employees found out the lottery story was a hoax. Some customers began trashing the store while others decided to take their selections home anyway without paying. A police detective commented that “It looks like (Hurricane) Katrina went through the store.”

Police are studying store surveillance videos in an attempt to catch some of the shoplifters. The woman that started the trouble was turned in to police by the limo driver, who she stiffed for $900. She was arrested on three outstanding warrants and the possibility of more to come from causing the store riot.

There’s no excusing the behavior of the store customers, but it does show how desperate the economy has made some people. Hopefully, the Harvard professors will handle the loss of their cookies with a little more dignity.

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