Friday, November 28, 2014

Gouging is good business

New York State General Business Law section 396-R outlines the state’s interest in price gouging – the process by which businesses charge “excessive prices” to consumers “during periods of abnormal disruption of the market caused by…extraordinary adverse circumstances”. It is believed that the offending merchants “take unfair advantage of consumers” at such times.

Gouging and the State’s interpretation of it are entirely subjective matters. It is up to the courts to determine that “the amount of the excess in price is unconscionably extreme”.  

Under such a definition, the determination of gouging is neither quantifiable or qualifiable. Even so, bureaucrats are quick to point an accusatory finger at businesses during market disruptions. We saw
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman do this during Hurricane Sandy and we saw him do it again to gas stations, grocery stores, and hardware stores a few weeks back when the “Snovember” storm struck parts of Western New York.   

The law’s nebulousness is to be expected. It’s poor in execution because it’s poor in foundation: Price gouging is not evil; it’s actually good business --- for all parties involved.

Gouging is no different than your everyday economic transaction. ­­Prices and the supply of goods and services are based on two drivers: One, the paucity or abundance of resources and, two, the level of consumer demand.  

In times when there are not crises, sellers can offer products at whatever price they want, as long as buyers are willing to pay. That’s why every Christmas you see fad toys sell in the $50 to $100 range, even though they cost a pittance to produce as made evident by the much-lower shelf prices in subsequent years. Consumers will use their dollars to fight other consumers for goods if they want them bad enough. A smart businessman will adjust his prices and profits accordingly.

It only makes sense that the same practices take place when there is a natural disaster. If the infrastructure leading into the affected region is damaged, that means that there is or will be a scarcity of what once may have been abundant resources.  Any profiteer worth his weight in gold would increase prices accordingly as the demand either remains exactly the same or has measurably increased for the item of need. He’s only logically managing the economics of supply and demand.

As for the purchaser under this scenario, if you truly find that you are in need of gasoline under a state of emergency, are you better off paying $5/gallon for 20 gallons and getting your 20 gallons (as you were willing to pay the premium that other consumers weren’t) or paying the standard market rate that existed pre-crisis and hoping that you can beat the other customers to the pump (which could lead to zero gallons in your possession) and/or not suffer the woes of rationing (by which you might receive 5 gallons)? If you value the resource and the certainty of having it, you don’t mind getting gouged.

The seller in this equation is also obligated to the best interest of his business and its stockholders to sell highly-needed resources at a premium in order to keep his business afloat at a time when Mother Nature is not in his favor. He has to cover his overhead (power, rent, etc) and pay his staff. He would normally do that by selling gasoline and all of the ancillary goods you find at a gas station. But, in a disaster, he finds his clients wanting only gasoline – it’s not as if they are making a dangerous jaunt to his shop to get Slim Jims, Hubba Bubba, the National Enquirer, or cigarettes.

Gouging laws can hurt the consumer even more by actually inhibiting the entry of necessary goods into the affected region.  Let’s go back to the October Surprise that smacked Buffalo and the North Towns in 2006. With power out for days on end, residents dearly wanted generators and were willing to pay a premium. But they couldn’t get them because hardware stores would have been accused and likely found guilty of gouging even though they weren’t.

Here’s why: It’s not as if hundreds of generators were just sitting in a Lowe’s or Home Depot distribution center. They would have had to pull them from stores across the US. That costs money – staffing and shipping individual units. A $500 generator would have had to sell for $700 just to come out even. That would be “gouging” under state law. Stores were not willing to bring them in for fear of getting into a legal battle or paying the state’s $25,000 fine which would have sucked all the profits they would have gleaned.

So, before denouncing gouging, consider the consequences. Businesses need to survive and so do you.

From the 01 December 2014 Lockport Union Sun and Journal

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

State legislators don’t deserve raises

When working in the private sector, pay raises are contingent on one or a combination of 3 things: The merit and successes of the individual, the current and projected health of the organization, and the health of the overall economy. Because of the final factor (and its contributions to the second), annual raises of any measurable size have become something of a rarity since the start of the Great Recession. Nationally, wages will have risen 2.9% this year.

Despite the working class facing such tumultuous times, the political class thinks they are free of such encumbrances. It has been the buzz in Albany, yet again, that state legislators are looking for a raise this year. They currently make a base salary of $79,500 and want to take it up to $100,000, an increase of more than 25% -- never mind that their real wage is already well above that mark after taking into consideration committee bonuses and the $172 per diem benefit for when they are in Albany.

When you consider the 3 factors behind raises, our senators and assemblyman aren’t deserving of a $20,500 raise, let alone one of $2,306 (which is what it would be were they to see just 1.7% like their constituents).

Let’s first consider the merits of in the individual. $79,500 is a rather exorbitant sum to be paying a part-timer. These positions were devised to offer regular people a chance to contribute to the development of the Empire State by having sessions for 6 calendar months per year and during those sessions mandating 0 to 4 days per week in the state capital (the legislative calendar showed only 55 in-session/budget days for the period of January through June). When the 6 months were up or when the legislature wasn’t in session during the week, the legislators could go back to their “real jobs” on the farm, in their offices and plants, or at home raising their families.

Sadly, the system been mutilated so much that people are led to believe that being a legislator is a full-time, year-round job equipped with regional offices and full-time staffs. Realistically, under such circumstances, one could look at the second half of the year as being nothing more than politics, rather than policy, a means to perpetuate incumbency through alleged necessity and importance (really, what does attendance at parades and dinners contribute to the overall welfare of our state?).

So, we need to look at the seats for what they are and what they should be – part-time, supplementary gigs - and realize that we cannot permit their income growth.

Now, let’s look at the organization through which they are employed. The state government had a budget gap of $2 billion last year, which followed deficits of $10.4 billion in 2012, $8.5 billion in 2011, and $21 billion in 2010. If the fiscal health of the state is directly attributable to their budgets, the laws that they introduce, and the tough-but-necessary cuts they are afraid to make, then how, just by looking at those 4 years alone, do the legislators deem themselves worthy of reward? If anyone ran a company like they run a state, that individual would be among the ranks of the unemployed, either through termination or the total collapse of their firm.

And, it’s that factor that leads to the last: the overall health of the economy. Every bill among the hundreds passed every year by the legislature (658 this year) either steals rights and freedoms or adds to the cost of living and doing business in New York State. Because of that, existing businesses (not the new ones which are granted special favor and public charity) face incomprehensible government-created financial burdens when compared against their competitors from other states. That has forced businesses to stagnate/downsize/close/leave, which in turn has caused the same to happen to our residents, young and old alike: In the period from 2000 to 2010, 3.4 million people left New York State (2.1 million more arrived, but it still contributed to a net loss of 1.3 million people).

It’s that final factor of assessing job performance that is the most damning to our legislators. They are complicit in the destruction of the once accurately-named “Empire State”. They’ve driven our government to ruin, which has done the same to our economy and each and every one of us in it.

Only a politician would think they deserve a bigger paycheck for that.

From the 24 November 2014 Lockport Union Sun and Journal

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Bobcats: Rare visitors to Niagara's woods

In recent years, Niagara County residents have had the chance to witness some interesting animals within our borders. Among those that generated the most press and most talk were the black bears. The beasts elicited either fear or appreciation, depending on one’s perception of bruins. More often than not, the former emotion ruled the day.

There’s an animal that’s as equally misunderstood making equally infrequent visits to our county: The elusive bobcat.


With their size and beautiful coats, bobcats can't be confused with 
domestic or feral cats. (PHOTO COURTESY OF FOREST WANDER 
I’ve been lucky enough to see bobcats in Eastern Niagara on two occasions over the past decade. I saw the first one on a late winter night in the town of Lockport back in 2005. As I crossed the Canal Road bridge onto Groff Road, he ran across the street into the woods. That one hung around for a few weeks, having left its tracks throughout our nearby farm before it moved on to another area.

Then, two years ago, one ran across the road in front of me during my morning commute on Slayton Settlement road in the town of Lockport, pretty close to the Town’s nature trail. It was a magnificent feline.

These bobcats were exciting sights, as wildcats are not often seen in these parts of Western New York.

While uncommon in our Southern Tier, they are downright rare in the Niagara Frontier as they probably don’t breed in this area (although the vast Alabama Swamps should never be ruled out). Like the bears of recent years, they are probably just passing through.

There is nothing to fear 

As is the case with black bears, fear is a common denominator in people’s beliefs about bobcats.

When many people hear “bobcat” they think “mountain lion,” hence the hesitation.

Other than being felines, they are not alike.

Bobcats are not gigantic pet-eating, man-attacking beasts that are 7 feet long and more than 100 pounds in weight. Instead, they’re small, just a little bit bigger than a red fox. They weigh between 15 and 20 pounds and are around 30 inches in length and 20 inches tall.

They don’t attack people (they are extremely skittish) and, in this region where their prey is plentiful, they won’t eat your small dogs and cats. Their diet consists mostly of smaller rodents (like voles and mice), rabbits, squirrels, road kill and birds ... a smorgasbord no different than that taken by feral and free-roaming domesticated cats. You aren’t afraid of them are you?

If you see one

Bobcats really can’t be confused with any other animal in the area. Beyond their impressive size for a local cat — they are much taller than a house cat and 2 to 3 times their weight — their stunted bobbed tail (hence the name) and spectacular coats are dead giveaways.

So, if you do see a bobcat (or what you believe to be a bobcat) in Niagara County, do what you can to snap a picture of it.

Even if you can’t, still report your sightings to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. The DEC is interested in learning everything they can about the distribution and abundance of the cats out of their population epicenters of the Adirondacks and Catskills, areas where they are common enough, by the way, to be hunted or trapped.

You can upload your photos and observations at the DEC’s “Upstate New York Furbearer Sighting Survey” website. As a side note, you will notice on the survey that they are also interested in sightings of fishers and otters, two animals with expanding ranges that I hope make it to Niagara County — and this column — in the next few years.

Winter is the best time to look for bobcats, as you can be stealthy and noiseless in the woods and their telltale tracks are evident in the snow. Good luck in seeing one of these beautiful creatures. And, if you do, consider yourself fortunate, not imperiled (bobcats are more afraid of you than you of them), and savor that rare and fleeting moment.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport. And no, he does not have a bob tail. You can follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 20 November 2014 East Niagara Post

Friday, November 14, 2014


Regular readers of this column know that the education and career-readiness of our youth are important issues to me, hence their recurrence in dozens of my columns over the past decade.

That’s why I was delighted when Royalton-Hartland’s superintendent Roger Klatt asked if I’d like to have a conversation with him and the district’s technology expert Jim Luckman about their strategies and goals.

It was especially meaningful to me because I have a vested interest in Roy-Hart. I’m a product of the school (class of 1993), a resident (I see my school taxes as an investment in my community), and a parent of a three-year old who’s less than a year away from pre-K. 

In the years prior to her birth and still until just last week, I debated with myself on an almost daily basis about what to do with my children’s education? Would I put them in private school or send them to Roy-Hart which was consistently low on Business First’s rankings (75 out of 98 districts in WNY) and has a low graduation rate (a smidge over 77%)?

I left my meeting with Roger and Jim finally having an answer. My kid(s) will be going to Roy-Hart. They made me feel that good about the direction and future of the school district that any reservations I had were gone.

When Roger was brought on as superintendent, it appeared superficially to a lot of residents that it was only a cost-cutting move, since we were sharing him with Barker. That’s not the full story. His goals were to find synergies between the two districts, share the best practices of one with the other, and capitalize and piggyback on the strengths of individuals and programs within each district. Those are tasks that he visibly savors and has a passion for. 

Among his first endeavors was strengthening intervention for students who have troublesome grades, those kids who might have otherwise become the 23% who never graduated. For that, they added a teaching assistant who could focus on the courses where help was needed and they developed a more robust afterschool program while adding a similar one to the mornings, which previously was not available.

As for the majority of students -- those who aren’t at risk of failing or dropping out -- they are also being given the tools to succeed.

In the coming weeks, all buildings on the 3 Roy-Hart campuses will be wireless with a 10 gig broadband system. This strengthens recent investments in the technology infrastructure which has led to a PC in every classroom, laptop carts, rovers (which are mobile smartboards) and the implementation of Ipads (even the pre-k classrooms will be outfitted with those). Similar investments are coming, especially on the heels of the Smart Schools funding approved by New York’s voters in November which will bring well over a million dollars to the district.

All of this brings kids into the age of digital learning, an absolute necessity if they hope to achieve in college (and therefore the workplace).

Online courses were once the refuge of older non-traditional and working college students. But, now, as quickly as technology changes, so are the practices of higher education. Online courses are starting to take over and replace the standard offerings of classrooms and lecture halls. Many college freshmen have as much as a third of their course loads being conducted in an online environment. That can be shocking to an 18-year-old who just spent 14 years in a typical classroom environment with an instructor front and center.

Roy-Hart has begun the first of many endeavors into preparing students for this. Some students in both of Roger’s districts are taking an “introduction to sociology” course through Niagara University while being stationed at their respective high schools. Jim has coordinated the technology as such that the 3 entities can have synchronized and shared conversations facilitated by the home base teacher. It creates a blended learning environment which includes virtual facetime, personal interaction, online learning, and occasional visits to NU so the students can get a feel for research. It’s exactly what students will experience at college, but in their own public schools. They will be ready for what the future brings.

Roger and Jim also shared numerous other goals and aspirations with me that will be presented to the board and the school community in the coming months, all of which focus on improved student performance and career readiness. Based upon the buy-in and efforts they’ve had from parents, teachers, and students there’s no reason to think these other exciting ideas won’t work.

It’s obvious to me that Roy-Hart is on the right path. So are its students. So is my daughter.

From the 17 November 2014 Lockport Union Sun and Journal

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Honey bees on the decline in Niagara County — and around the world

We have a bee hive in our orchard that for over 30 years had supported a healthy colony of honey bees. Now, that wooden structure is empty and stands there like a tombstone in memory of the insects.

It’s not just that colony alone that has suffered. For the past few years, our fields and forests have been mostly devoid of honey bees. Where once they were abundant, I now savor their infrequent sightings.

This sort of decline isn’t unique to Eastern Niagara County. Since 2006, most apiaries across the United States have seen their bee colonies decrease by 30 to 90 percent per year. Some hives — like ours — have been totally wiped out.

Twenty-five percent had once been the maximum rate of mortality in northern states that had significant cold-weather die-offs. But, the recent deaths have been occurring everywhere and during the spring and summer when temperatures are perfect and food is plentiful.

For some time, the reasons for this frightening extirpation remained unknown, and the moniker of “colony collapse disorder” was placed upon it as a catch-all for what could be either natural or man-made causes. Those days of uncertainty are gone: It was determined over the past couple of years, by independent studies released in prominent journals like Science and Nature, that the root cause of honey bee deaths was the family of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. Last year, those findings were affirmed just across the border by Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs which discovered that 70 percent of the dead bees across the province showed exposure to neonicotinoids.

These insect nerve agents have been used in increasing abundance on corn since 2005 after entering the market in the 1990s (it is now used on most all commercial corn in the United States). That timeline of pervasiveness aligns perfectly with the sudden decline in bee populations.

Produced by Bayer, neonicotinoids are applied directly to the seed and thus become a part of the adult plant, including the nectar and pollen upon which the bees feed. The chemical doesn’t kill bees outright, but it seriously impairs their development and behavior, which accounts for the inability of the bees to feed properly (they waste away), maintain their colonies and replenish them through adequate reproduction.

Other countries are taking steps to combat this scourge. In Canada, Ontario officials have encouraged farmers to inform beekeepers when they are planting, because the dust associated with planting can carry neonicotinoids to wildflowers in adjoining hedgerows as well as lawns and pastures even a few miles away. This would allow the beekeepers to move their stock to another area when planting is underway. But, it does nothing to address the longer-termed problems associated with pollination once the plants grow.

A more powerful means of suppression is taking place in the European Union. Through 2014 and 2015, the use of three specific types of neonicotinoids will be totally banned in the EU. This 2-year moratorium will see a return to 20th century insecticides and a likely resurgence in honey bee populations.

Germany and the United Kingdom passed on the ban and will allow for the continued use of the offending compounds. That’s not any different than what is happing here in the US. Even though federal studies link neonicotinoids to colony collapse, including a report released by the USDA and EPA earlier this month, the government has no immediate plans to limit or ban the use of neonicotinoids -- a major study on the impact of neonicotinoids won’t be made available from the EPA until 2018.

2018 could likely be too late, especially if a ban is determined to be necessary; that in itself could take a few more years. American farmers (especially fruit growers whose trees need more help from bees than field crops do) — and those who consume their produce — need answers and actions now. If bees were wiped out, or something close to it, fruits and vegetables wouldn’t get the pollination they need. Estimates show that the total loss of crops would approach $15 billion per year.

Neonicotinoids are certainly proving to be a bane to the health of the environment, the economy, and the people.

Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller said it best: "All the science is not done, but everything that I have before me ... suggests to me that this is the biggest threat to the structure and ecological integrity of the ecosystem that I have ever encountered in my life, bigger than DDT.”


Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he puts honey on his Cheerios every morning. He wonders if it will be worth its weight in gold in a few years. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 13 November 2014 East Niagara Post

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Racial profiling is alive and well

There used to be a joke in Green Bay that if you saw a black man in town you knew he played for the Packers. I adopted that and changed it around a little bit: If you saw a black man in North Tonawanda you knew he worked for Confer Plastics.

That’s pretty much still the case. In a city of 31,000 people, African-Americans represent 0.8% of the population. That diversity rate is similar to neighboring communities like Tonawanda (0.9%) and Wheatfield (0.4%) and a far cry from the numbers in Niagara Falls (21.6%), Lockport (7.2%) or the entire state of New York (15.9%).

A minority is a minority. But when the statistics define you as being unique (less than 1% of the general population) the odds aren’t in your favor --- nor is the general sentiment.

When you don’t look like everyone else in town, you look like you don’t belong and an accusing eye is cast upon you instantly and without question from the public and those who serve the public. Young black men in white communities are marked men.   

My coworkers know that too well. Two recent situations, two of many over the years, show that racial profiling is an integral component of local policing.

One of my black coworkers was driving through Wheatfield when he was pulled over for an expired inspection. During the course of their conversation, the officer asked him this (despite having a clean record): “Do you have something in that car I need to be aware of? Do I have to get the dog?” Would that questioning or attitude have been posed to a white man?

More recently and more significantly, one of my coworkers ventured over the Canal into Tonawanda to grab a sandwich for lunch. A policeman obviously didn’t like the way he looked, because within a minute of getting into his car he was pulled over. The cop told him he looked like a drug dealer, so searched him and his car. There were no drugs. The kid isn’t a drug dealer. Never was. Never will be.     

He was humiliated, scared, and visibly shaken by the experience. You can’t blame him for any of those emotions (or for harboring other ones) because it was patently obvious that he was checked out only because of his skin color.
Despite the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, blacks across America, not just here in Western New York, are still being treated like second class citizens.

Among the most damning examples of this was the conduct of the Los Angeles police department as determined in a federal study issued less than 10 years ago. It’s a city where blacks represent just under 10% of the population.  Per 10,000 residents, the black stop rate was 3,400 stops higher than the white stop rate. Relative to stopped whites, stopped blacks were 127% more likely to be frisked and 76% more likely to be searched. Frisked blacks were 42% less likely to be found with a weapon than frisked whites and consensual searches of blacks were 37% less likely to uncover weapons, 24% less likely to uncover drugs, and 25% less likely to uncover any other type of contraband than consensual searches of whites.

That’s LA. What about a place that considers itself more compassionate and progressive? How about Connecticut? Even there, racial profiling runs rampant.

In a study released in September that analyzed the statewide traffic stops in the period of October through May, it was found that Connecticut police made 370,000 traffic stops. Blacks made up 14% of the stops, even though they comprise less than 8% of the population. Hispanics, which are 9.7% of that state's population, made up 11.8% of all traffic stops.

Racial profiling is a national epidemic. It doesn’t matter if it’s gritty Los Angeles, squeaky-clean Connecticut or blue collar New York – it’s everywhere. But sadly, beyond the usual people like the ACLU or the NAACP, very few discuss the matter with earnestness and demand the same of their law enforcement agencies.

It’s especially frustrating because Christians will routinely post to Facebook and take to radio and TV to rail against the profiling and mistreatment of their religion’s believers in Middle Eastern countries, counting it as one of the greatest sins on Earth. Yet, their darker-skinned neighbors, friends, and coworkers are treated the same way here in America (the land of the free) -- in their own communities -- just for their complexion alone and no one is raising a stink.

We’re all one people and the majority needs to realize that of the minority.  

From the 10 November 2014 Greater Niagara Newspapers    

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Boxelder bugs — coming to a home near you

With the first snowflakes of the season flying last weekend, Mother Nature is really ramping up her preparedness for the coming 5 months of winter weather. Gray squirrels are building their caches, woodchucks are putting on fat, and boxelder bugs are trying to get into people’s homes.

Boxelder bugs are very common insects in Eastern Niagara County. Like their name indicates, they eat boxelders, which are a type of maple tree. Boxelders are unusual in that they don’t have the large single leaves like the maple of the Canadian flag. Instead, boxelders have numerous leaflets which cause them to look almost like an ash tree. The giveaway that it’s a maple is the seed; It’s carried and spread in the same way that other maples are – with fruits that are affectionately known as “helicopters” or “whirlybirds”.

Boxelder bugs use their tubelike mouth to pierce the seeds of boxelders and other maples. They do little
damage to the plants or their populations as made evident by how quickly boxelder trees can take over
disturbed soils and pastures as they grow back into forests.

Boxelder bugs are approximately a half-inch long with a black or dark brown body. The edges of their wings are red as are their wing veins.

The boxelder bug’s favorite food is the seeds found in 
boxelder “whirlybirds.”
Like stink bugs and assassin bugs, they are one of the true bugs. Too often the word “bug” is used on insects that really aren’t bugs (like beetles). They come from a family of bugs called rhopalidae, which is the scentless plant bug family. Unlike the stink bugs which they resemble, they lack scent glands, so they won’t stink up the place when squashed, although they still have a slightly disturbing smell when stepped on. It’s just nothing on the scale of a stink bug, which can be nauseating.

On sunny, warmer days (50 degrees plus) in late-October and November you will notice groups of these insects, ranging from a few to a few dozen, collecting on the outside of your garage or house. They are doing that to keep warm in the short-term (by huddling and soaking in the rays) and the long-term (they are really trying to get into your house to survive the winter). They have a special affinity for white houses and will hide under the siding or find the smallest holes possible to enter the home.

These insects are not pests in the exact sense of the word – they don’t damage plants, they don’t bite people or pets, and they don’t spread disease. But, they are pests in every sense of the word – there is nothing so bothersome in the fall as these bugs collecting on your window sills and even making it into your homes. A bug is a bug and are unwelcome guests in any home.

Various insect control agencies suggest that you eliminate them manually from your home (picking them up or vacuuming them). To prevent them from getting in, they suggest caulking or sealing or putting on weather strips. Some folks even go so far as to suggest removing boxelder trees from your yard (which is overkill). Likewise, insecticides are a little over-the-top for this insect and a waste of money.

One natural treatment that is suggested by some is spreading diatomaceous earth outside, and even inside, your home (use food-grade so it’s safe for family and pets). It’s not a pretty death for insects when you think about it, though. The diatoms get into an insect’s joints and give it so many cuts it dies over time. Diatomaceous earth also eats away at exoskeletons and causes insects to dry up.

My advice? Do what you can to keep them outdoors and vacuum any of the (hopefully) very few stragglers that get into your home. Do not cut down your boxelder trees — they are attractive shade trees when they mature and the enjoyment you get from them far outweighs the couple of weeks of annoyance you get from boxelder bugs.

Bob Confer live in rural Gasport, in a yard full of boxelder trees. Luckily, the bugs prefer his shed over his house. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 06 November 2014 East Niagara Post