Friday, July 24, 2015

Miscellaneous musings on the $15 minimum

The new minimum wage for fast food workers is nothing but bad news for the New York economy.

The $15 mark will have to become the de facto minimum wage for all industries because an employer cannot tell a farmer, factory worker, EMT, social worker, reporter and any other skilled, hard-working individual that currently see wages in the $11 to $15 range that the work of someone who prepares a very simple lunch order of processed food (it’s a real stretch to say they are cooks) is worth more than theirs.

They aren’t. It’s simple economics.

Agriculture and manufacturing see people transform resources into finished goods (which adds real value to the overall economy) while the other aforementioned careers require advanced training or a college degree to provide much-needed services.

So, in order to keep those souls pleased and, to compete with what fast food offers in the job market, those employers will have to offer higher wages, not only at $15, but well above it so they aren’t pigeon-holed as offering minimum wage work.

That sudden rise in wages will result in job cuts at non-profits and social service organizations, all of which operate on shoestring budgets now. And, it will absolutely kill manufacturing in the Empire State. New York is already the highest-cost state in the union to do business (before you even add in labor). The new wage will make matters worse and jobs will be lost, in droves, to the Carolinas, Mexicos, and Chinas of the world.          


To put the insanity of the $15 wage into perspective consider this. College graduates throughout their twenties earn an average of $16.60, a buck-sixty more than what the fast food workers are allegedly worth. And that’s after investing heavily in their future: 40 percent of households headed by adults under 35 had student debt -- at an average of $26,842!


Union leaders, especially in New York City, were celebrating the new wage. I thought that doing so was dangerous to their message and their very existence: Governor Cuomo showed that you don’t need to pay dues to get the wage you want.


A few weeks back in this paper I wrote a column about how US Presidents have taken on too much power and have become unconstitutional forces akin to kings. Things are no different in Albany. Andrew Cuomo is the Governor, whose role is to execute the laws of the Legislature. It is not within his power to make laws, which is what he, through the wage board, has done. The precedent set here is worse than that of his SAFE Act because the Safe Act was passed by Senate and Assembly. This new minimum wage wasn’t. He savors this brazenness as made apparent in last week’s appearance on the “Capitol Pressroom” during which he said, “I run the government.”

Speaking of Cuomo, he tried to justify the new wage by saying that New York taxpayers had been footing the bill for the multi-billion fast food companies by paying for their workers’ healthcare and other needs. He compared this to corporate welfare.

The man talks out of both sides of his mouth. He’s the same fellow who championed $750 million in public money to build the Solar City factory for billionaire Elon Musk. He also put $135 million of our money into GE’s and IBM’s semiconductor plants. And, don’t forget 43North, the rest of the Buffalo Billion and the silly tax-free Start-Up NY program.


Governor Cuomo must have a low opinion of his constituents and their potential. He believes that entry-level fast food work is a career. It’s not; it’s a job. It’s not meant to be life-sustaining or your life’s work. You start there or use it as a stopgap and move on to other things. That’s the nice thing about America…you don’t have to settle for where you are. You can always move on to new and better experiences. People once improved their lot in life by pursuing trades, an education or jobs of economic need or skill -- you earned more by making yourself marketable. Now, courtesy of this mandate, they can rely on government to do for them what they couldn't.  

Not that I frequent fast food restaurants (I prefer local, family-owned diners), but I am officially and unequivocally boycotting fast food restaurants in New York State. I hope hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers join me. If Cuomo and the fast food zombies want to mess with the economy and labor markets, we'll give them a taste of their own medicine.

From the 27 July 2015 Lockport Union Sun and Journal

Thursday, July 23, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Cowbirds – the deadbeat parents of the animal kingdom

A lot of people think bad, immoral behavior is unique to Man; only the human race could do the evil things that it does. Animals, on the other hand, are believed to be cute and innocent and free of such flaws.

That’s not always the case. Animals do just as Man sometimes does – they kill for kicks, they cheat on their mates, they pick on the weak and they abandon their kids.

It’s that last trait that presents itself in the form of the brown headed cowbird, the ultimate deadbeat parent of the animal kingdom.

Identifying the cowbird

Cowbirds look like blackbirds with brown heads. (PHOTO COURTESY OF
Cowbirds are squat birds -- 6 to 8 inches long -- that look like short blackbirds. The male has a jet black body with a glossy brown head. The female is among the dullest of local birds, sporting mostly a plain, grayish hue with a lighter throat. They have short, fat bills that look like the seed cracking beaks of finches.

Their songs are rather intriguing for such a plain bird. The male can often be heard making a melodic gurgling sound as he spreads his wings and tailfeathers to show his physical and sexual dominance. Birds of both sexes will make a high-pitched sound, described as weee-tiiii, as a general call, variations of which will warn of danger or the lack thereof.

Where to find cowbirds

The cowbird is found throughout the Niagara Frontier.

They will frequent cities and villages (like Lockport and Middleport) in somewhat low numbers. If you maintain a bird feeder in the summer, you might have had them as guests dining on sunflower seeds.

You are likely to encounter them in our rural communities, especially those with dairy farms, like Gasport where they can be fairly common, sometimes even abundant.

They get the name of cowbird from their tendency to live near and with livestock. Rather than feeding on the feed of cows as starlings will, cowbirds choose instead to closely follow cows and eat the bugs kicked up by their hooves or frequenting their manure. They will even land on cows’ backs and pick bugs off of them.

Before cows became a part of the Eastern landscape, cowbirds were mostly confined to the central grasslands and associated with herds of bison.

Deadbeat parenting 

It’s that affinity for bison, which were incredibly nomadic, that led to the cowbird’s propensity for deadbeat parenting. Ornithologists believe that in order to keep pace with the herds, and not having time to incubate eggs -- let alone make a nest -- cowbirds used other birds to tend for their young, which is what they still do to this day.

The brown-headed cowbird and its cousin the bronzed cowbird are the only brood parasites on this continent. The female cowbird will find a nest being tended to by another bird and patiently wait for the mother bird to leave for a feeding. Once the bird has left the cowbird deposits up to 5 speckled eggs in the nest and then leaves the scene for good.

Cowbirds are known to do this to over 200 species of birds, with mostly disastrous effects. The unknowing caretaker treats the egg and the hatchlings as her own. Baby cowbirds grow quickly and are typically bigger than the host species. So, the baby cowbird will outcompete the other baby birds for attention and/or food, which will starve the smaller species or cause them to get pushed out of the nest by the larger cowbird.

I’m seeing that in my backyard right now. A song sparrow that should have been tending to at least 2 babies of her own has instead been feeding a cowbird that is now out of the nest. The sparrow still tends to the cowbird – the gig isn’t up even though the cowbird is twice the adult sparrow’s size.

Come fall, the newly fledged cowbirds will join up with flocks of other cowbirds and head south for the winter, only to return again the next year and do their thing all over again.

Over the years, it has been frustrating to witness their impact on songbirds (especially catbirds and cardinals) in the Gasport area as they have accounted for the deaths of thousands of birds.

But, there is some hope in sight. The most recent edition of the New York State breeding bird atlas found cowbird populations down 7% between 1985 and 2005, continuing a downward trend that began in the mid-1960s as more family farms (and their token small flocks of cattle) were replaced by grain fields or forests.

If the population trend continues, maybe someday soon some of our more attractive local songbirds will have a chance to raise their own young and reverse their own population declines.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he wishes there was an open season on cowbirds. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 23 July 2015 East Niagara Post

Monday, July 20, 2015

Support our economy. Buy American

You might be familiar with Sentry products. They are a world-renowned manufacturer of fireproof safes, be they the cabinet style or the smaller versions that you would hide under your bed or in your closet. Sentry has called Rochester its home since 1930. That will no longer be the case in 2016.

Last year the founding family of Sentry sold their company to Master Lock. They chose Master Lock because they were, of the six suitors, the company least likely to move production. Unfortunately, last month, their workforce learned that Master Lock was not being upfront during the purchase. Master Lock is closing the Rochester plant and sending the work to Mexico. 350 Sentry employees will be out of work, losing jobs that they reasonably believed they would hold till retirement.

It’s a sad development and, unfortunately, nothing new to upstate New York. Companies like Sentry have been and are disappearing.

We can sit here and blame Master Lock (which we should, because Sentry is healthy and profitable), but we should also look in the mirror. Americans – as citizens and consumers – are doing no favor for USA-based manufacturers. Low-cost overseas production and its associated inexpensive consumer goods comes from Americans’ demands for items at prices not possible within our borders due to the high cost of business and restrictive regulations that inhibit the free market. Only in China and Mexico could our insatiable materialism be satisfied at prices we are willing to pay.

While outsourcing allows people from all class levels to purchase consumer goods and durables that they were unable to purchase before, assuring that low-income people can appreciate consumer goods once only afforded by middle-and-upper income earners, it comes with an undesirable side effect: the private sector of the United States is transforming into a service economy, taking away the incredible economic benefit that comes with a powerful manufacturing sector.

Service economies have limited economic impact because they either take what is made elsewhere and sell it or they use humanity to appease humanity. Therefore, the value-added effect is relatively slim because there is minimal investment of resources, technology, and personnel to "create" what is produced or offered. Mathematically stated, the service sector generates an additional 71 cents of economic activity for every one dollar in sales.

By comparison, for every dollar of manufactured goods sold to a consumer, another $1.43 is created in sectors outside of manufacturing. Manufacturing creates true wealth for a nation because it creates or empowers a multitude of support functions. It needs people and equipment to extract resources and create and or commodities used in manufacturing processes. It needs the transportation sector to get goods from point A to point B. And, it needs the service sector to market and sell its products.

You may be wondering how we prevent further losses in manufacturing and keep the economy strong with American-made goods. Since the government has done little to rectify the impediments that affect American manufacturing, we cannot leave it to the powers-that-be to address the issue (bailouts and stimuli only make matters worse). It requires instead a grassroots effort by each and every one of us as consumers to act in a patriotic fashion and use our role in the free market to our nation’s advantage.

You will see grocery shoppers traversing the aisles investigating cartons and labels to see what a food item is made of and how much the product might yield. Yet rarely do you see that same sort of inquisitiveness in department stores. Those shoppers might buy only on the factors of impulse, name brand, and price, satisfied only with the visual presentation of the products and the brief product description plastered on the face of the carton. Rarely do they turn the carton over to see if the item was manufactured in America.

Such label shopping would not be in vain, for goods are still manufactured in the United States and, believe it or not, at growing levels in some sectors. While we may be losing what could be considered manufactured "commodities," the United States still produces durable goods ripe in volume. Buying American-made products does not make one a bad shopper either, for, despite global market trends, many American products remain very competitive in pricing and all are vastly superior in engineering, quality, usability, and durability.

We as nation of consumers need to buy smartly. We need to buy American. Doing so not only satisfies our buying urge but it also helps to keep real, honest-to-goodness Americans (our friends, families, and neighbors) employed and our economy strong. You don’t want a Sentry-like disaster to hit your neighborhood.

From the 20 July 2015 Lockport Union Sun & Journal

Thursday, July 16, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: What is that wet stuff on plants?

This time of year when you are out frolicking through pastures and forests with your kids, you’ll often find yourself with wet hands or legs on even the driest days of the summer. A cursory look back at the weeds you walked through will find bubbly froth on their stems.

 Not the bug juice you want. (BOB CONFER / CONTRIBUTOR)
Most people assume it’s sap.

It’s not.

Not to gross you out, but it’s bug secretions.

If you pushed aside those bubbles, you would find a rather non-descript little insect, a spittlebug nymph, thinking it’s cozy and safe. Spittlebugs secrete the substance to create a shelter that keeps them free of predation (and from drying out from the sun and the heat) while they suck the juices from plant stems and leaves.

Although it’s aptly called a spittlebug on appearance alone – after all, the froth looks like spittle – the spittlebug isn’t producing spit. The primary juice really comes from the bug’s anus. The runny solution then flows all over the bug’s body (spittlebugs eat upside down) and mixes with other liquids that come out of pits on the bug’s abdomen. Those substances mix with air, creating the long-lasting bubbles.

Spittlebugs can prove to be a real pest to alfalfa and clover, common crops and deer attractants, respectively, across the Niagara Frontier. Sometimes, spittlebugs can infest a whole field and make for bruised stems and unhealthy plants. The young bugs can also create other problems when their spittle wets down plants and jams older farm machinery (which shows you just how many can inhabit one field).

Spittlebugs are also a foe to gardeners as they consume a wide variety of ornamental plants. In a wild setting, I’ve found that they have an affinity for goldenrod and smartweed.

They are tough to control because one would have to physically collect through sweeping (which is usually the method suggested by agricultural agencies), rather than poison, the insects when they are crazy, bouncing adults in the late-summer. Adult spittlebugs are commonly called froghoppers. The 1/8” to ½” critters get that name because they hop from plant to plant like miniature frogs (unlike their young, they do not create the frothy cover).

Adding to their difficulty to control, they have been granted other special powers by Mother Nature: Their eggs are cold-resistant and remain entirely healthy all winter long.

Spittlebugs are really bothersome…and gross. When next you go walking outdoors please don’t ruin your hike and think about what that wet stuff is on your hands and legs. Don’t let a little bit of bug butt juices ruin your day.

Just be sure to wash yourself off when you are done hiking.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he thinks spittlebugs should use spittoons. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 16 July 2015 East Niagara Post

Monday, July 13, 2015

Reflecting on the first decade of this column

Time flies when you’re having fun. At least that’s the way that I look at it with this column. It’s hard to believe, but this week marks the tenth anniversary of my weekly rants and analyses being a part of the Greater Niagara Newspapers.

Here we are, 10 years and more than 500 columns later. What a ride it’s been.

Back in June of 2005 I asked then editor of the Lockport Union Sun and Journal Tim Marren if he’d be interested in me writing a weekly column. Back then, the paper was devoid of local columnists, an outcome of the passing of the irreplaceable Clip Smith. When I ran my idea by Tim, I threw in a major selling point by offering to do as Clip did with his columns and write them for free (which is still the case to this day).

Coming to the paper, all that I had to hang my hat on was three years of an opinion column called “Off the Deep End” that ran in the pages of the student newspaper of SUNY Brockport from 2002-2004 when I was a part-time continuing education student. But, Tim saw the promise and took the gamble, and I am forever indebted to him for that.

I also thank all the editors and publishers of the US&J, Niagara Gazette and the now defunct Medina Journal-Register and Tonawanda News for having stuck with me and allowing me to pursue my dream.

And, I thank you, the reader, for putting up with me – even though you don’t always agree with me – week in and week out. Over the years I’ve heard from hundreds, maybe thousands, of you. Some folks write me in agreement. Others have respectfully disagreed. And, a few have disrespectfully disagreed to the point of mailing me my column with expletives written all over it. Be it to the positive or negative, I love all your feedback.

This column has received feedback and exposure from all over the world, and it’s exciting to wonder whose attention I might attract next. Rebuttals from Charles Schumer and Louise Slaughter have appeared in this paper. Key staffers from the Reagan Administration spoke out about a column. I appeared on a NRA radio show to talk about the United Nations. Supermodel-turned-super-businesswoman Kathy Ireland and I shared some nice dialogue on social media after she read one of my articles. The largest newspapers in Germany and China have quoted me. And, what really makes me proud, schools and departments of education across the US and Canada have included my essays or quotes in their textbooks and curriculum.

That’s just a sampling of the adventures I’ve had. But, my most memorable experience – and my biggest victory – to come out of this paper came from a 2011 piece that educated the readers on a dangerous proposal by the Obama Administration. The Department of Labor would have excluded all minors (except the children of the farm’s owners) from most farm work and all animal husbandry, which would have absolutely killed the future of agriculture in this country and destroyed the 4-H and FFA. Thanks to the wonders of in the internet, the column went viral almost overnight and farmers, high school students, ag colleges, talk radio hosts, and politicians heartily voiced their opinions in the closing days of the public comment period. We beat back the regulations and it was a huge win for farming….all because of this little columnist writing for this little newspaper.

It’s pretty exciting to have that sort of power.

And, you know what? It’s not a power that I hold all to myself. You, too, have the ability to educate others, spur people to activism and bring about change.

This newspaper is yours. Use it.

If there’s something out there in politics, society, the economy or your neighborhood that gets your goat or needs further attention, take to pen and paper (or, more accurately nowadays, the keyboard), and write an essay or a letter to the editor. Somebody is always reading – be it here in Niagara County or half way around the world.

They may not agree with you. But, at least you got them to think about an issue from a different point of view or with a deeper understanding. That’s what I hope this column has done for the past decade – and what I hope it will do for many more. 

From the 13 July 2015 Lockport Union Sun and Journal

Monday, July 6, 2015


New York residents are excluded from paying state taxes on the first $20,000 of their retirement income from private pensions. If they happen to be former government workers, though, things are quite different: Local, state, federal and military retirees don’t pay any state tax at all on their publicly-provided pensions, no matter if it’s $20,000 or $80,000.

Government employees are quick to defend this preferential treatment with the reasoning that if they were to be taxed, they’d move to another state in retirement. If that’s the case, then why are their retirees already leaving New York in droves? Get this: Pensions mailed to out-of-state residents who used to work in our governments cost New Yorkers $20 billion per year! Over $700 million of that goes to Florida alone. So, if the tax exemption is a major selling point to stay in New York, why is it not working?

It’s not working because the system is broken – and utterly unfair - and it’s high time that this was rectified. Albany should either make all retirement income completely tax-exempt or cap the public pension exemption at $20,000 as well. A third option, ending all exemptions on retirement income and taxing them at their full value, is a non-starter although I would argue that it makes the most sense and grants the most equality: Income is income; it doesn’t matter if it occurs in your Golden Years or working years, so why should any of it be tax-free?

Looking at the first two possibilities and considering the dire fiscal straits that the Empire State is in (a combined $388 billion in state and public authority debt), it would be out of the question for the Legislature – who never met a tax they didn’t like - to fully eliminate this revenue source. So, by process of elimination, that means public sector retirees should see their exemption capped at $20,000.

This would bring in substantial revenues. There are nearly 800,000 pensioners from state and local governments and schools. Nearly all of the aforementioned workers – especially into the future - would fall in the $20,000-plus bracket. According to state documents, the most recent teacher retirees with full benefits receive $80,000 per year while recent non-teacher government retirees received an average annual package of $50,000.

Some will protest and say the average pensions for these job classifications are $45,000 and $21,000 respectively. But, those lower values include those who retired decades ago. Those outliers who bring down the average will either pass soon or have their numbers dwarfed by a gigantic population of Baby Boomers will take their place on or add to the pension rolls, all of who will fall into the much larger “recent” category.

The massive amount of taxes they should be paying would aid in containing some of the escalating costs associated with public pensions themselves. The unfunded obligation (for future retirement disbursements) now stands at whopping $308 billion and pensioners must be made whole by taxpayers whenever the economy/stock market underperforms. In New York City alone, non-teacher pensions will cost city taxpayers $8.8 billion this year, eight times what they paid in 2001.

Ignoring all of the numbers, let’s just focus solely on the premise of fairness. The tax exemption on government pensions is the ultimate slap in the face to anyone who has ever worked in - and retired from - the private sector. The State is implying that a certain class of individual (its class) is more important and should be rewarded for it. It sounds foolish, but Albany is telling us a retiree who was a parks employee, social services provider, legislator or teacher had a harder career -- and deserves a better retirement -- than a factory worker, sales clerk, businessman, or doctor. They didn’t. And, neither did those other folks. Work is work, some jobs are tougher than others, but each and every one of them comes with its own joys and stresses and, certainly, its own value. It’s time Albany realized that and put an end to the unfair advantage granted its workforce and taxed them as equally as their neighbors who worked just as hard to appreciate their retirement.

From the 06 July 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, July 2, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Blackcaps – the flavor of summer

A majority of people will count sweet corn as the ultimate summer food – not only is it harvested in the finest months of the year, it is also possessed of unbelievable flavor.

Blackcaps are now ripe and plentiful around East Niagara. (PHOTOS BY
Many nature lovers (this one included) might beg to differ. There is one summer bounty that matches, even rivals, sweet corn and it’s one that isn’t farmed, one that Mother Nature blesses us with in yards, hedgerows and woodlots across the Niagara Frontier.

That unbelievably-tasty morsel is the blackcap.

The blackcap is a member of the rubus genus, the same group of plants as blackberries, those longer berries that become ripe in August and, despite their popularity as a garden plant, have an inferior flavor.

Blackcaps are ripe now and will be for another week and a half, maybe two weeks at the most. Perhaps because of the copious amounts of rainfall we’ve had since late-May, this year’s crop is sporting the largest berries that I have ever seen. Plus, they are available in good numbers, too. It’s certainly a bumper crop.

You really can’t confuse the berries with those of any other plant – they are round, bulbous, bumpy and dark blue to black when ripe (unripe berries are whitish to red). Despite their easy identification, I always urge parents to watch their small children when picking berries; blackcaps grow on disturbed soils, often next to nightshades the oval, smooth red or black berries of which are poisonous.

You can identify a blackcap plant by its height (up to three feet), leaflets in groups of three or five depending on variety or subspecies, and light-green stems with thorns. It is because of those thorns that you must wear long pants (not shorts) if you are really serious about harvesting blackcaps.

Blackcap plants' thorns make long pants a necessity when "harvesting."
You can find blackcaps at edges of yards or in hedgerows, field edges, and younger woodlots. They are especially abundant in hedgerows in farm county because starlings, robins and other berry-loving birds will consume the fruits in huge numbers, take cover in hedges, relieve themselves there and then their seedy poops ultimately become blackcap plants. It’s fun, maybe even a little unnerving, to think about the food chain and the circle of life (just don’t think about it too intently when enjoying the berries).

If you have a couple of plants taking root in your yard, don’t mow them over. Let them be;  blackcaps can be pretty prolific. If allowed to flourish and grow on their own, you will find that you will have a nice dense patch of plants in a couple of years.

The blackcap goes by a few other names…bramble, black raspberry…but it seems that anyone who has ever eaten one calls it “mmm, mmm, mmm.” The flavor is unique among berries. It’s sweet, but not too sweet as some summer fruits tend to be, not the least bit sour and the texture is firm and you get the added textural experience of biting into countless, minute, crunchy seeds in each bite.

It’s the firmness of blackcaps that allows them to keep well in the fridge. If you pick them on a Monday and keep them cool, you can still enjoy them on Friday. Related to that firmness, they aren’t too juicy (read “messy”) when handled -- you won’t need to go crazy washing your hands after picking and eating them like you might have to with mulberries.

Many people make pies and purees out of blackcaps, but I find that to ruin the precious fruits. They are best savored on their own, fresh and unspoiled or lessened by cooking and processing. You will, though, find me breaking my own advice and using blackcaps as a topping on a bowl of vanilla ice cream most nights while the berries grace our landscape. You can’t beat that.

So, get outdoors now, enjoy blackcaps while you can; their appearance on the Niagara Frontier is like our summer --- fleeting and it must be savored.

+Bob Confer  lives in rural Gasport where he and starlings fight for blackcaps. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 02 July 2015 East Niagara Post