Editor’s note: This column will appear regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month.
I’m gonna level with you: I’m writing this because I need $150 this month.
Here’s the situation: My Lovely Wife is a dirty rotten greedy school teacher. In order to teach her (and her cohort) a valuable lesson, the state – on your behalf – is giving no cost-of-living wage increases for the foreseeable future, moving no one up in seniority for at least two years  (thus stalling everyone’s progress toward tenure, which the legislature is hot on killing anyway), and forcing teachers to cover an additional ten percent of their healthcare costs.
In our case, as a family of three (with one more on the way – more on that below), this means that her pay is going down $150 per month and her benefits being decreased, even as her workload increases.
That’s because staff has been cut to the bone – example: last week she worked a 14-hour day with one brief break. That’s not “8 hours, plus commute, plus grading while sitting on the sofa at home, rounded up.” She worked 14 hours in the school building in almost constant contact with students, staff, or parents.
Fortunately for us, while my Better Portion has a fixed wage (she being on an annual contract), I’m a freelancer; if her salary takes a hit or our expenses pop up, I hustle for more work to close the gap. Over the past four years, almost all increases in our expenses have been covered by expansions in my hustle, because, you know, she’s a dirty rotten lazy school teacher and needs to be put in her place.
When presented with this $150 gap, I contacted the publishers of This Fair Periodical of Note.
I made the following pitch to The Chronicle:
I want to write you a column because I need $150 per month. For the purposes of this project, I am an honest capitalist living in a consumer democracy. I will happily exchange a good (this column) and a service (whatever I pitch in to the ensuing discussion) for cash-money. In the spirit of full and complete disclosure, the first column must make perfectly clear that I am writing this column in order to make up the $150 we need so that my pregnant wife, our five-year-old, and I can continue to enjoy something akin to the healthcare benefits available to every ne’erdowell, miscreant, and convicted scamp in the rest of the industrialized world. That rate, again, is $150 – let there be no question as to my motivations.
But what would this column be about?
Money and Time
For 99% of the population, Money is the transferable literalization of our one real, finite, non-fungible asset: our Time. For individuals, Money is Time and Effort: We swap Time/Effort to get Money that we can then swap with others for their Time/Effort (or the fruits thereof).
Each of us gets a finite amount of Time in our lives. Money/Time/Effort spent on one thing cannot be used for another. It is, at rock bottom, the Human Resource.
But to corporations and governments – who, like Lovecraftian creatures, are deathless and eldritch beings not bound by time on the human scale – Money is different. Unbounded absurdities arise when a human is in an economic interaction with a Deathless Thing from a Dimension Beyond Time.
In future columns I’ll offer examples of where that Money-Time exchange becomes kind of crazy, and give you, Gentle Readers, a place to share your related examples or counter examples.
First Installment: Color of Risk
To kick us off, here is my inciting incident: At his annual school physical my five-year-old was confused by the colored stripes on the eye-chart. This could be nothing, except for that his maternal uncle and maternal great-grandfather (on his mother’s maternal side, no less!) are/were both red-green color blind, meaning that my wife (the boy’s mother) is likely a carrier of this gene that largely afflicts males (and, interestingly, often coincides with sharper visual pattern recognition: red-green colorblind men make excellent hunters, just like my boy’s maternal uncle and great-grandfather).
At the physical, his doctor began writing a referral to an eye specialist who could ascertain exactly how far skewed the boy’s color perception is, and whether or not this might have educational ramifications (I know that might sound kind of absurd to folks without first-hand color-blindness experience, so you’ll either have to take it on faith or do some Googling of your own in order to confirm that undiagnosed colorblindness in early elementary often maps to a whole cluster of developmental issues, especially regarding literacy and classroom behavior).
In abstract, this is how we expect the system to work: A fully qualified, licensed professional, knowing the limits of her training and equipment, decided to turn things over to a specialist. When I asked if my insurance would cover this visit to the eye guy, the doctor’s pen stopped moving mid-referral and she stared at the paper. I’d better call Blue Cross first, she said carefully, Just to be sure.
That afternoon I spent my own unbillable hour on the phone bouncing between Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) and the University of Michigan eye clinic in order to ultimately discover that no one could say for certain whether or not my insurance would cover our five-year-old’s impending visit to the ophthalmologist. This is because none of them could determine in advance if his possible color blindness was or was not “medical” (their term). “Medical” color blindness they’ll pay for. “Vision” color blindness they won’t. As you might guess, these divisions are not recognized by science or medicine. These are boxes on a form, and have to do with how much Money (if any) the insurance we’re paying for will offer the doctors we’d like to pay.
Did I mention that my lovely pregnant wife is pregnant? As someone over 35 she’s entering a slightly higher risk pool of potential mothers; this has already mandated an extra $1,800 in testing. Insurance? They might cover this. Who can really say, you know? I mean, can we prove that these were medical tests on her body and that of the potential human in her guts?
Maybe we’re on the hook for this additional expense, maybe not. But that possibility wracks hell on our financial planning, as I both need to budget for the extra Money to pay for the tests, and for the extra Time in unbillable hours spent on the phone with BCBS. If I get that second estimate off, then it will monkeywrench my ability to scratch together the actual cash-money to pay the bill if I lose the argument and end up having to ante up on the full amount. That hour on the phone is very dear to me, but costs BCBS next to nothing. This is why you are put on hold. It’s the same reason an army will blockade a city instead of attacking.
This is precisely what our column is about: Highlighting the places where the party with the stronger negotiating position (e.g., BCBS and, to a lesser degree, the entire UM medical system) forces the weaker to bear all of the risk in the transaction: They are enormous and evolved to shed risk like a duck sheds water. In the grand scheme, BCBS has infinite Time, a minuscule sliver of which they budget to deflecting weaker parties like me.
I was born and shall die; I cannot budget as much Time to this argument as they can, cannot scrap together as much Money as they can demand (SPOILER ALERT: More hospital billing in future columns!) At the base of it all is the core Free Market axiom: They have a scarce resource I need – Delivering Potentially High-Risk Babies – and the only resource I have that they want is Money, which is Time, which is ticking away as I type this very word.
Anyway, to recap: We are a highly educated married couple with no debt (apart from a very prudent mortgage on a right-sized home) living a nominally middle-class life in Middle America. My kid can’t see green and has a heart murmur and is damn lucky to have a bus to school, and a school to go to. My wife is a greedy, terrible, pregnant, unionized public servant; to punish her for these sins, her employers – all of us citizens, which is to say You and Me and Her and Our Squinty Kid and Everyone Not Reading This – cut her pay. Ironically, this means my family has less Time and Money to support the work of our Fellow Citizens (i.e., You).
But, in terms of our own self-interested personal finances, we needed an extra $150 per month.
And I just earned that.
 My First, Last, and Everything was concerned that I may have inadvertently misled you Dear Readers on this point, so to clarify: The seniority freeze was technically negotiated at the local level by the districts that have implemented such freezes; there is no across-the-board statewide freeze (in contrast to the healthcare contribution cut, which is statewide, and impacts many public servants). So, My Best Beloved argues that this is a local smackdown on teachers, not a state smackdown. But I’d like to point out that this concession was only necessary because of an artificial budget shortfall created at the state level. In other words, a strawman might seem to have great fashion sense, but he’s still only wearing what the farmer gives him.
About the author: David Erik Nelson has written columns previously for The Chronicle on topics like medical marijuana and glass-eating clowns. Nelson is the author of various books, including most recently, “Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred“.
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