Paycheck to paycheck

Some random thoughts on cable television and my downwardly spiraling lifestyle

Race to the Bottom endorses <i>Fareed Zakaria Global Public Square</i> on CNN, Sundays, 10 a.m. PST.

Race to the Bottom endorses Fareed Zakaria Global Public Square on CNN, Sundays, 10 a.m. PST.

PHOTO courtesy of CNN

Contrary to what most readers probably think, I make a pretty good living here at the Sacramento News & Review. I don’t have kids or a mortgage or any debt, and after the rent and all the bills are paid, I have a fairly sizeable chunk of change left over. At least, I used to.

Prices, as the economists say, can be “sticky.” Whether we’re talking about the amount I charge SN&R for my labor or the cost of bell peppers at Safeway, prices don’t always respond to the fluctuations of supply and demand in their respective markets as predicted by economic models.

For example, when the price of petroleum shot past $100 per barrel last year, driving up the cost of numerous other consumer goods, including bell peppers, my wages didn’t go up to compensate for the increase. When the cost per barrel dropped below $100, the prices for bell peppers and other goods didn’t necessarily follow—especially at businesses struggling to stay afloat in a contracting economy. Unfortunately, charging prices higher than consumers can afford only hastens the downward spiral.

The short of it: Prices went up, my wages stayed the same, and now I’m living paycheck to paycheck, like countless other Sacramentans.

When you start living paycheck to paycheck, you’re always looking for an angle. For example, I know my landlord reads this column. On paper, the house I rent from him has lost perhaps 30 percent of its value, which isn’t too big of a deal, because he bought it in the early 1990s. Theoretically, he could charge me considerably less than I’m now paying for rent. I could then use the savings to stimulate the local economy by, say, buying a nice Hawaiian shirt at Swanberg’s on J Street. (Full disclosure: My landlord owns Swanberg’s. Go buy a shirt. Maybe he’ll cut me a deal.)

You’ve got to move quickly in this environment. In January, anticipating the economy’s 6 percent contraction in the first quarter, I upgraded my Comcast cable service to include both broadband Internet and cable TV. The plan was to cut down on eating out and other expensive entertainment, and for a while, it worked. Two Sundays ago, for instance, I watched nine hours in a row of the finest motor-sports programming I’ve ever seen on the Speed Channel. Also on Sundays, on CNN, I’ve discovered Fareed Zakaria Global Public Square, the first television journalist I’ve seen with both intelligence and courage in years.

Alas, sometimes even the best laid schemes go awry. I’d upgraded my Comcast account with one of those two-for-one deals in which I was supposed to receive free cable TV for the first three months of the contract. The installation wasn’t free as advertised, and as it turned out, I had to pay extra to get all the channels I wanted. To top it off, Comcast charged me for two months in advance. I can’t even figure out how much I’m paying, but I know it’s a lot more than “free.”

The clincher came last Sunday, when I was watching the MotoGP from Jerez, Spain, on Speed. As Valentino Rossi took the checkered flag to win his first race of the season, my cell phone rang. It was Comcast, threatening to shut me down if I didn’t pay my bill forthwith! The service representative informed me the call was being recorded, and I figured this was it, my big chance to give Comcast a piece of my mind.

First of all, I informed her that I’d already spoken with an online representative the previous week who, after two hours, was finally able to explain why I owed Comcast so much money. We’d even scheduled the payment for early May. It had all been taken care of online. So, if you’re listening, I said to the Comcast henchmen monitoring the call, why don’t you get your act together before I take my business elsewhere?

It felt good, but the truth is, I’m much more likely to cancel the cable television as soon as my three months are up than take my business somewhere else. I’m not accusing Comcast of ripping me off. They’ve got a business to run, and apparently, cable rates are very, very sticky. Unfortunately, when you’re living paycheck to paycheck, that’s a luxury you just can’t afford.