In it for the Money: $150 Cash

My wife is a greedy, terrible, pregnant, unionized public servant

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.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

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 [1] (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.

[1] 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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  1. By Amy
    October 19, 2011 at 12:02 pm | permalink

    You have an uncanny knack for metaphors. I know that the “blockade” metaphor and “sheds risk like a duck sheds water” are going to become part of the OWS/99% movement. That’s how I found your essay — somebody was tweeting those brilliant lines.

    Bravo, well done. I’ll be looking for your next column.

    Best wishes to you, your wife & your kidlets.

  2. October 19, 2011 at 12:12 pm | permalink

    I feel her (your) pain. I teach in Detroit Public Schools and we got hit with a 10% pay cut, plus the increase in health care and no step increases. I am making $10,000 less (gross) than I should be. Over a 10 month pay period, that’s about $1000 (gross) less. I also make about 1/2 as the top grossing teacher in the suburbs (i.e. esp. Oakland County). I have no idea why they are targeting K-12 teachers, except that there seems to be a perception that we are just the girls, working for pin money. I’ve also heard that I’ve had the “Cadillac” of pay packages for “too long”…I certainly haven’t, but I’ve only been teaching 7 years.

    Nevertheless, I love my job (well, not today because I’m just proctoring MEAP and that is very boring and don’t want to leave it for “greener pastures”. I mean for God’s sake, two of my kids with learning disabilities just drew me pumpkin “valentine” cards…you don’t get that in an office :) :)

    So I guess what I’m saying is if the Chronicle needs another columnist…. ;)

  3. By Barbara
    October 19, 2011 at 2:53 pm | permalink

    Absolutely delighted to have another place to read Mr. Nelson’s work. It is a gain for us to which no dollar value can be attached.

  4. October 19, 2011 at 4:05 pm | permalink

    I really enjoyed this column and I’ll look forward to more!

  5. October 19, 2011 at 4:05 pm | permalink

    David: Somehow a diagnosis of red/green color blindness did not keep me from acing color class in art school, or getting a reputation as an expert color matcher among prepress & color separation specialists I’ve worked with.

    You say “Potato,” I say “Tomato.” It’s all a matter of perception versus experience versus conformity. Don’t pay money just so they can tell you you are screwed if you aren’t just like them.

    Meanwhile, I look forward to reading you every month.

  6. By Rod Johnson
    October 19, 2011 at 4:38 pm | permalink

    I detect a distinct whiff of sarcasm at various points in this column.

  7. October 19, 2011 at 10:24 pm | permalink

    Regarding color blindness, take a look at DanKam


    which is what you get when you set a programmer at the task of color blindness, not a doctor.

  8. October 19, 2011 at 10:42 pm | permalink

    I believe you would normally blockade a port or an entire country but besiege a city.

  9. By Scott Rosencrans
    October 20, 2011 at 6:45 pm | permalink

    You are in very good company, if that is any solace. It is important to know that teachers, though experiencing valid hardships, and their families are not the only ones suffering from this mess. I wonder how many parents know that the school system has elected to not turn on the heat until November. Temperatures in “E-Wing” classrooms at Pioneer hover around 50 degrees this week. That’s 18 degrees below what an energy conscious household would consider a level of comfort. Is this how we want our kids, and the people responsible for their care, to be treated? Is this even remotely acceptable?

  10. October 21, 2011 at 9:24 pm | permalink

    Great points from Scott and Patti (and Jim, wrt my usage of blockade). The condition of the facilities of many of our public schools is maybe the biggest bummer of all; sure, there’s some debate as to the degree to which architecture influences how we comport and evaluate ourselves, but it doesn’t take the most sensitive teen in the world to say “Folks refuse to spend a dime on maintaing the place I spend 8 hours per day, let alone making it beautiful or inspiring. Not hard to guess what they think I’m worth.”

    As for colorblindness, I appreciate the tips. Specifically to Cosmo, it isn’t the diagnosis I’m concerned about, but the *lack* of a diagnosis. The uncle in question (who is an engineer today, so it all came out OK in the end) went undiagnosed at an early age, which was what caused trouble for him in early elementary.

    Thanks for all the kind words, folks. FYI, I need to credit Bill Tozier (who I met through Workantile, and concisely self-summarizes here) first turning me on to using notions of risk to understand human economic interactions.

  11. By Chris R
    October 31, 2011 at 5:09 am | permalink

    Loved it!
    Regarding your greedy (albeit cute)wife’s condition–don’t let anyone rope you into taking or paying for needless tests.
    Your class’s valedictorian was born when I was 39. Unless you’re considering an abortion or have reason to think there might be a correctable problem decline the tests! The odds just don’t support the recommendations for healthy, well-cared for intelligent women.
    aside–Bill Tozier bought his house from Jim & I