Two numerical ambiguities

Two recent cases of ambiguities in numerical expressions: one on monetary value, one on identification numbers.

Monetary value. Among the many delights of the writing on Mary Tyler Moore’s career (after her recent death) has been a rehearsing of some of her most extraordinary shows, among them S3 E1 (1972) of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in which Mary Richards takes on the gender pay gap. Along the way, we get references to various employees’ salaries at the time, which now sound ridiculously small (even for the better-paid men). As I’ve noted before, this is because the quoted salaries are nominal (face) values, rather than real values (adjusted for inflation).

That moved me to reflect on my salary at the Reading Eagle newspaper, starting in 1958. I was paid minimum wage at the time (75 cents an hour), for 40 hours a week. In minimum-wage jobs, then as now, there was no overtime time (though I often worked past the 6 am – 2 pm work hours) and no benefits (though I had to pay into Social Security, so there was a deduction from my paycheck). So (forgetting about SS) $30 a week. Using a handy CPI calculator, this turns into a real salary of $249.14 in 2016.

Now, in 2016, the Federal minimum wage was $7.25 an hour. For a 40-hour work week, that’s $290 a week, far from a living wage, far from a decent wage, but in real terms, significantly more than I got back in 1958.

Back then, when I complained that staff who were doing the same jobs that I was were paid a great deal more, the editors explained (as the character Lou Grant did to Mary Richards) that these were guys who had families to support. I was merely working my way through college (always on no fewer than three jobs, cause it was a tight squeeze). That made me a teenage exponent of equal pay for equal work.

Identification numbers. Late on Saturday — why do these things almost always come on Saturdays? — I got mail from my credit union (which I will refer to as SMCU) telling me that a freeze had been placed on my SMCU account, a fee of $50 had been charged to this account (for processing the claim), and my entire account was about to be seized to pay an overdue debt of $27,472.87. The debt was to a company I’d never heard of before — a perfectly legitimate company, just a complete mystery to me.

Yesterday, my daughter (who has power of attorney over my accounts of all sorts) and our friend Kim Darnell puzzled over the mailing — we were all fearful that my computer had been hacked and that I was the victim of identity theft — and eventually saw what had happened. To understand this, you need to know about the federal system of identification numbers in the United States (which, to my mind, is seriously fucked up).

From Wikipedia:

The Employer Identification Number (EIN), also known as the Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN) or the Federal Tax Identification Number, is a unique nine-digit number assigned by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to business entities operating in the United States for the purposes of identification.

… An EIN is usually written in the form 00-0000000 whereas a Social Security Number [also a unique 9-digit number] is usually written in the form 000-00-0000 in order to differentiate between the two.

The scheme is primed for error, and that’s what happened here: the debt was incurred by a company with an EIN of the form 12-3456789; my SSN is of the form 12-345-6789. Oops.

Elizabeth will do telephonic battle with SMCU today on my behalf. If we were dealing with the local SMCU office, just a block from my house on Ramona St., there would probably be no problem, but lots of things could go wrong in dealings with the SMCU upper management, who have no reason to give a shit about me. They could treat the $50 fee as unrefundable — my position is that, in a decent world, they would owe me a fee, of at least $100 — and they could say that adjustments take, say, at least 30 working days to process. In the worst case, the California agency that oversees such claims, finding that my SMCU account is grossly inadequate to satisfy the debt, could turn to my account at Merrill Lynch; the agency does, after all, have my SSN.

But this is all worst-case thinking. Let’s see how things go.

I note that although EINs are of the form 12-3456789, and SSNs are of the form 12-345-6789, in actual practice on-line, the hyphens must usually be suppressed, and there the identification number 123456789 is always ambiguous as between an EIN and SSN.

[Status update. Elizabeth said Kim and I should go up the street to the SMCU office there and beard them in their lair. We did a version of bad cop / good cop: I was the angry customer so deranged that you’d want to do almost anything to get them out of the office (I’m a nice guy most of the time, but I do take naturally to this role), and Kim was the pleasant but businesslike customer who also commented with interest on things in the manager’s office (lots of rainbow stuff — yes, yes, that’s old news). Basically, we sat there until the manager had fixed *everything*, and then I checked my account records to make sure that was so, and it was. Best of all possible outcomes.]

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