Friday, February 27, 2015

Cell Phone Etiquette

Cell phones are wonderful things.  Sadly, they have caused a lot of difficulty in personal relations.


I got my first cellular telephone back in 1989.   The cost of a "car phone" including installation, had dropped from $1200 to about $600 and Bell South (as I recall) had a plan for "only" $29.95 per month which gave me 100 minutes per month, but unlimited minutes after 7:00 PM and on weekends.   This was the old analog system, and the phone was installed in the car and had a 4.5 Watt transceiver.

Being a young 20-something and wanting all the toys, I didn't think about the long-term cost to my net worth, or the logic of putting a $600 phone in a $10,000 car - or adding $29.95 to my monthly expenses.  I was young and wanted all the new toys, and the perceived status that came with them.  I had a shiny used Camry with a car phone - I was a young law student going places!

Of course, where I was going was in circles.  But it would take another 25 years to figure that out.

Almost immediately, once these "Car phones" became popular, the issue of driving and talking came to the forefront.  I realized quite quickly that talking on the phone and driving was something entirely different than carrying on a conversation and driving, or listening to the radio and driving.   Why this is, I do not know, but for some reason, you really have to concentrate when talking on a phone, and it does distract you.

I remember calling my Dad from my car phone, as I was so proud that I had "made it."  Of course, like any older generation, he said, "What the hell do you need a car phone for, that's the dumbest thing I ever heard of!"

A few years later, he got his first "cell phone" (handheld) and he did the same thing - called everyone he knew, impressed by the modern miracle of portable telephony.   And he did this from a crowded restaurant, shouting into the phone (cell phone holler - there is a technical explanation for it) and annoying the snot out of everyone within earshot.

Since then, phones have become more sophisticated, and human behavior has deteriorated further, with each new innovation.

With the hand-held cell phone (remember the old "flip phones?") you could take a call anywhere - and people did, often hollering into their phones while people sat or stood around them.  It was annoying as snot.

Compulsive cell-phoning was next.  People who never hung up their phones from dawn to dusk.  With "unlimited" minutes plans, you could do this.  I still remember back in the early 2000's, the cashiers at Wal-Mart, with a phone cradled in their ear, never making eye contact or talking to their customers, carrying on a conversation with someone else for hours at a time.  It was freaky.  What the heck were they talking about?

Bluetooth headsets came first.  People started walking around with these Star Trek appendages attached to their ears, acting like schizophrenic folks, apparently talking to themselves.  They would walk right up to you, yakking away and when you responded to them, they would get angry and say, "Can't you see I'm on the phone?"

Texting was next.  It was originally a free service, as it just used unused side-channel bandwidth to send data - and texts use little data.  But people went nuts with it and they started charging more to send texts than to talk.  Some plans were like a dollar a text!  But it quickly became a fad, with those tiny little keyboards - or worse yet, trying to type using the numerical keypad.  People started obsessively texting, even while driving and while they were talking to you in person.

The smart phone sealed the deal.   It had all the most offensive features of cell phones, and then more.  Not only could you yack, bluetooth, and text - all obsessively, of course - but you could also surf the web, look for sex, or balance your bank account.   Compulsive use of cell phones skyrocketed.

All of these inventions, taken by themselves, seemed like neat things at the time.   Everyone would be in touch!  You'd never miss a call!   And we could access a world of data, literally from our fingertips!

What the heck went wrong?   Well, part of it is human nature, the other part is marketing.   The cell phone turned out to be an electronic drug - as addictive and compulsive as crack or heroin.   I am sure that if you ask someone who was addicted to heroin and also had a smart phone, which was harder to quit, I suspect they would say the cell phone.  They stopped using heroin - they are still on their cell phone.

So why is this wonderful invention such an evil thing?  Or more precisely, how did it become such an evil thing?

To understand this, you have to understand the history of mass-media.   When Gutenberg created the printing press, he thought it was to make the Bible available for all.   Instead, the newspaper was created.   And we all know about the history of newspapers - yellow journalism, sensationalism, the National Enquirer, William Randolph Hearst, and the lot.   The printing press was a miracle, but mankind quickly found ways to use this great invention for evil - by distorting the truth and manipulating people to buy things, start wars, and elect odious candidates.  

What was it Hearst said?  "Give me the pictures, I'll give you the war!"

Radio took this all to the next level, and fascism wouldn't have been possible, I think, without this new breed of radio dictators.  Radio was everywhere - even in your car.  You could not escape it.  And unlike the printed word, it did not allow for reflection, contemplation, or response.   If you called "bullshit!" to a radio story, you would be hushed, just as if you shout at the TV today.

Germany had Hitler.  Italy had Mussolini.  Great Britain had Churchill.   We had Roosevelt.   All dynamic leaders who knew how to use the radio to their advantage.  Roosevelt used the radio to talk right into people's homes with his "fireside chats" - and was elected four times as a result.  Without Radio, I doubt he would have been re-elected once.    Radio created the great (and infamous) leaders of the 1930's.

Our generation, of course, was weaned on television, which took radio to a new level of mass-marketing, combining sound with compelling images (The "talking lamp" as some have dubbed it).   Presidents not only had to sound good, they had to look good, as Nixon found out the hard way, when he lost a debate (on Television) to a good-looking young Kennedy.   Radio listeners, on the other hand, felt Nixon carried the day.

Of course, television went on steroids in the 1970's when the "wired cities" cable movement took over, and suddenly, everyone had cable television.  Ad time went up, viewership went up (to about five hours a day, on average!) and more and more odious views found their way on the air.  With 500 channels, television could cater to every viewpoint, and often did and does.

The Internet, of course, was the next iteration of mass-media - and looks to supplant television in short order.  I don't watch five hours a day of television!  No sir!   I won't say how much time I waste on the Internet - or how much "television" (ad-free, for the time being) I download online.   The Internet was television plus much, much more.   Not only could they tell who was watching but what they were saying and what they were buying.   The marketing and media conglomerates have us in their pockets now, for good.

But even the Internet is now passe.   Kids today don't use computers for much - they text and tweet and Facebook from their smart phones or pad devices.   And these devices do all the things the Internet did and more.   They can now track where we go, what we buy (with smart phone payment systems) and, well, just about everything we do.   And most of this data, we provide willingly, in the form of tweets and updates and photos that we upload.

Like every other raw deal we face in life, it is one that we signed up for willingly even though we want to blame others for it.   And now most of us are chronically addicted to these devices, and can't put them down for even a moment.   Like a prepubescent boy who has just discovered his penis, they can't stop touching that thing - even for a minute.

And like that movie Invasion of the body snatchers I feel like the last person who doesn't have pods in his basement (iPods, of course).   All my friends have these devices, which is fine, but it is annoying as hell to deal with them as human beings.

They take phone calls while in the middle of a sentence, talking to you.   They take texts and text back, all while nodding while you talk, and when done, say, "what were you saying, again?"   They shout into their bluetooth devices during the middle of a conversation in a group, and then talk progressively louder and louder, as they try to drown out the room.   And of course, they text while driving - even "professional" drivers like truckers.

It goes without saying that if you have a smart phone, or even an old-fashioned cell phone, you should do the following:
1.  Let it go to voicemail:  If you are at a party or having a conversation, or driving, there is no need to take every single call in the world.  You won't "miss" anything, trust me.   If you really need to take an emergency call (and it had better be an emergency!) excuse yourself, leave the room, and take the call in private.  If you are in a car, pull over.  Talking on the phone in front of other people is just plain rude.

2.  Texting:  The same is true with texting.   Receiving and sending texts while talking to someone in person is rude and distracting.  What you are saying, when you do this, is that they are not as important as the person texting you.   Again, if you really need to send or receive a text, go to another room (or pull over the car) and answer the text.   Tell the person you are with company and can't respond to future texts.   Going back and forth with texts while in front of other people is just distracting and rude.

3.  Diddling with your Phone:   A lot of people just "play" with their phones all the time, surfing the net, looking at sex sites, or whatever.  Some folks just have to pick up their phones and look at them from time to time, so convinced they are going to "miss something" in the great online world, if they don't look at it constantly.   You might miss that text from Jesus!
It really is common sense - but no one does it and they never will.  The cell-phone addicted have no manners.  They are alcoholics without booze.  They are junkies with their electronic drug.   There literally is no hope for them, because I am not aware of any re-hab for cell phone addiction, and I think the recovery rate at this point in time is nil.

All of this, of course, convinces me more and more not to get a smart phone.   I see this behavior in other people and it appalls me.   They are so worried about missing something from their "online friends" that they spit in the face of real people.

I used to yak on the phone quite a bit - we had a 1600 minute per month plan, and we used it a lot - particularly when Mark was selling Real Estate.  Today, we have 1000 minutes a year and barely use all of those (last year, we went over for the first time in four years).   Yakking on the cell phone is probably the marijuana of electronic drugs, and it wasn't hard to quit.  Today, I don't even carry a cell phone with me when I leave the house, which some folks think is insane.   Trust me, you can survive without a cell phone, although it is annoying as there are no pay phones anymore.

Texting is probably the cocaine of electronic drugs, and since I never tried it, I never got hooked.   But most of my friends are - compulsively looking at their phones to see if someone is texting them, reading a text, or answering a text.   And like drunk drivers, texters cause deadly car accidents.   It ain't hard to spot a texter, either - they drift out of their lane while driving.   Easier to spot than a drunk driver!

________________________

It goes without saying that the more I unplug from media, the happier and more productive I am.   The least productive and most unhappy people I meet are the ones who have all the cable channels and the latest cell phone.
_______________________

Smart phones, are of course the heroin of electronic drugs, as not only can you yak and text, but you can use a plethora of "apps" to annoy the snot out of everyone around you.   You can play music on Pandora, through your headphones, while texting, and walk right out into traffic and get run over - just like a junky.

Are these great technological innovations?  To be sure, yes.  And yes, I write Patents on these stupid things.   The problem I see, is that the marketers know full well what they are doing, and that these devices - and the apps - are addictive.   I am sure if you did a brain scan on someone while they were texting, the same parts of the brain that are triggered by drugs or alcohol, would light up like a neon sign.

Compulsively doing anything (even Blogging) is probably not good for you.  And if you think about it, there really is no valid reason to compulsively text, tweet, facebook, talk, or whatever on your cell phone.   There was a time, not very long ago, when none of this technology existed and back then, somehow, we struggled without being in "constant contact" with everyone.   Even before answering machines and pagers (which presaged our current phone mania - and had social problems of their own!)  People left messages, or told folks where they could be reached.   

But for the most part, we realized that not much of what we had to say was really all that urgent.   People wrote letters if they had a problem with the utility company, and they waited a week or so for an answer.  Mark's Grandmother would send a postcard to their relatives, telling them they would be arriving on the train tomorrow.   Since we didn't have all this instant communication available, we made our existing communication systems effective and efficient.   Letters were delivered within days, or even within a day - with regular postage.  And if you wanted to call someone while traveling there were banks of phone booths on nearly every corner.

Those days, of course, are gone for good, and no, I don't pine for the "good old days" of Ma Bell.

However, I have found that it is indeed possible to live in our modern era, and not have to text or tweet or facebook constantly and obsessively.   It is indeed possible to not have to answer every phone call on the first ring.   People can leave messages.  You can call them back.   What is odd to me, is that many people who call me, never bother to leave a message.   Thanks to caller ID, I can tell they called.   But what they called about wasn't important enough to leave a message.

In other words, about 90% or more of our communications today are totally unimportant communications.   So why do people constantly chat, yak, text, and tweet?

The short answer is:  Social Grooming.   It is that behavior that some of us feel is so annoying and trivial, but is essential to the proper functioning of any group.   People need to be "stroked" and acknowledged in order to feel valid or validated.   The text or tweet or stupid pointless gossipy phone call doesn't communicate any important data per se, but what it says is, "I acknowledge your existence and your importance in my life, and vice-versa".   And most of use spend a lot of time doing this.

It is one reason people get so pissed off that I disabled comments in this blog.  They don't want to read, but to interact, as if to say, "I exist!" even if they have nothing to say.   And yes, I do this behavior, too.

None of us (or few, anyway) are content to be anonymous or unknown.  We all want to be noticed and our existence known.   And that, in part, I think, is what drives this obsessive cell phone use.

Breaking free of this type of behavior is hard to do.  Damn hard!

It goes without saying that the more I unplug from media, the happier and more productive I am.   The least productive and most unhappy people I meet are the ones who have all the cable channels and the latest cell phone.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Who You Hang With

Who you hang out with is important.  Hanging out with crazy people is going to bring you down.


In a previous posting, I was going on about conspiracy theories and what a waste of time they are.  A reader wrote to relate their experience with co-workers, who expounded on conspiracy theories or blamed Obama for all their personal woes - classic weak thinking and classic externalizing.

But it struck me that one positive aspect of conspiracy theories is that they are a complete and accurate asshole detector.

I am not sure it would be legal to ask this during a job interview, but as an Employer today (God forbid!) I would try to sound out a potential candidate about their views on 9/11 truthers, aliens in Area 51, the Kennedy assassination, faking the moon landing, chemtrails, the 100-mpg carburator, or whatever.  If the candidate bit on any of these, it would be a pretty good indication to me that the candidate is a sad sack of complaining, whining, shit, who would never do any real work, and then blame everything on illegal immigrants.

According to this site, if you are not asking about "religious beliefs" (are conspiracy theories a religion?) then you are set.   Hmm..... it would make a good questionnaire for a potential job applicant!

And it would work well, too, as conspiracy theory nuts can't help themselves - they'd blather on for hours about their theories and how the whole system is "rigged" against them.   Pretty good indication, like I said, of not to hire.  And probably one reason why conspiracy theorists are largely unemployed - or become unemployed with regularity.

If you are a conspiracy theorist and looking for a job, think about this carefully.  Maybe it is time to put away time-wasting theories that help no one and just mark you as a whining loser.

On a personal level, it is also a good way of quickly eliminating bothersome and problematic people from your life.   It is great to have friends, of course.  But the wrong kind of friends can be a detriment to your life.   Do you want to hang out with friends who smoke crack?  Do you want friends who borrow money all the time and never pay it back?  Do you want friends who just sit around and whine about perpetual problems that are easily solved?

It is possible to find yourself in a world of woe with friends, and think that it is difficult or impossible to extricate yourself from them.

David Sedaris, in one of his essays, recounts how when he was using drugs, he ended up with a lot of odd friends - friends he would not ordinarily have, if it were not for the drugs.   He went to one dealer's house, and sat around with a group of unsavory characters watching television.   The dealer's wife asked him to pass the nigger - which was her word for the remote control.  "It's black and it does what you tell it to!"

It started to dawn on Sedaris that maybe he needed to find new friends and that maybe doing drugs wasn't such a great idea.

A similar thing happened to me on the road to Damascus.   I realized I was "hanging out" with a lot of unsavory people.   Men who cheated on their wives, or simply abandoned their families.   People who liked to steal, vandalize, or otherwise cause trouble.   Paranoids who thought the police were "out to get them" - and of course believed in conspiracy theories.  I tried to educate a few, until I quickly realized it was pointless - and just a sure way to start a drug-fueled violent argument.

It started to dawn on my that maybe I needed to find new friends

You are who you hang out with.   And if you hang out with a lot of negative people, you will be negative too.   If you hang out with a lot of delusional people, you will be delusional, too.

Who you hang with determines, in large part, who you are.  
 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Challenge Your Tax Assessment? Part II

When every unit in a condo development is assessed the same, should you challenge the assessment?

In an earlier posting, I discussed challenging your tax assessment.   In some jurisdictions, such challenges can be easier to make than in others.   For example, at our lake house, they raised everyone's assessment in our development, and some of the owners went nuts and hired lawyers to challenge their assessments.  In a scenario like that, where everyone's home is different than one another and the lots sizes and locations (lake frontage, view, access) are all different from one another, it may be possible to argue that your house was over-assessed.

Assessing such unique properties is a difficult task at best.  The assessor might use one valuation based on amount of lake frontage, amount of acreage, and the like.   But if some of that lake frontage is unusable (on a right-of-way, for example) or the acreage is mostly a vertical cliff, such valuations may be flawed.

And if properties haven't sold in a long while, it is hard to use "comparable prices" as the sales price of one property may be radically different from another.   It is difficult to assess such properties, and the system is thus flawed, and often assessments are unfair - and the fellow who barks the loudest and hires the most expensive attorney, ends up getting a lower assessment.   Not much lower, perhaps, but lower.

We chose a different tactic and just sold out and left.    If the locals want to chase away vacationers by socking them with high property taxes, then you might as well give 'em what they want.  Never live somewhere where you are not wanted or appreciated.   It is a null-sum game.

By the way, it is worthwhile to take a moment to understand the difference between an assessment, an appraisal, an asking price and sales prices.   They are all different numbers and mean different things, and often we use the terms interchangeably, and often people fail to understand what they mean.

An Assessment is a number generated by the taxing authorities.   It may have nothing to do with the value of your property, but instead is just a number generated as a placeholder of value.   The assessed value, times the "millage rate" is your tax bill amount.   Assessed values, historically, have been lower than actual sales prices or appraised values, for various reasons.  In some jurisdictions, assessed values may be only a fraction of actual sales prices.   Some jurisdictions talk about assessing at full sales price values, and while they get close to sales prices, they still often fall short.

I have seen, in online forums, clueless homeowners who look at their tax assessment documents and say, "OMG!  My house has gone down in value!  Look how low the appraisal is!"  But it is not an appraisal but an assessment for tax purposes.  It has nothing to do with market values for homes.  And yes, the types of people who say shit like this are clueless condo owners, which illustrates why a lot of people should not buy condos - or any real estate for that matter - if they are that dumb.   And they are.

An Appraisal is just a number generated by a paid appraiser as to what he thinks the house is worth. There are different ways of generating appraisals, and all of them can be somewhat specious.  Appraisals are usually done for banks, so they can show they did "due diligence" in preparing a loan document.   Once in a while, a homeowner may request an appraisal, in order to determine a selling price, or when selling a home that is part of an estate (any smart Executor of an Estate would do this, to avoid being sued by the heirs).  But for the most part, it is a number generated for the bank, and not a real indication of the property value.

Asking Prices are just that - what people are asking.   If you go on Trulia or Realtor.com and look at asking prices, you will get a lot of bad data.  Most houses don't sell for asking price, but for a lesser amount (except during the bubble, when people paid more than asking price, which is a sure sign of a bubble!).  For the most part, this is bad data, although you might be able to infer actual sales prices by taking asking price and dropping it 10% or so.

Sales Prices are the real deal - what stuff is actually changing hands for, and what people are actually willing to pay.  Sometimes this data is available online (from the Assessor's office) sometimes not.  Sometimes the data is misleading (when a sale takes place within a family) and thus is inaccurate.   But for the most part, if you really want to know what a property is worth, it is the actual comparable SALES that tell the tale.

But getting back to assessments, in other situations, it is not hard to assess a property if there are multiple units that are nearly identical, and a multitude of recent sales to show actual values.   Such is the case for our Condo in Virginia, which God willing, we won't own too much longer.

During the recession, the assessed valued dropped to about $85,000 and stayed there for nearly four years.  This year, they have raised the assessment to about $125,000, which is a 29% increase over last year.  Ouch.  We should appeal this, right?

The County has an online appeal petition form you can fill out.  Unfortunately, just having your assessment raised more than you would like is not grounds for appeal:

Provide the Reason(s) for Your Appeal

Under state law, financial impact and/or the rate of value change is not sufficient grounds for appeal. As required, the county’s assessment is an estimate of fair market value as of Jan. 1, 2015. Appeals should be based on at least one of the three categories noted below.
Place a check in the box next to each applicable reason for appeal.

Fair Market Value: This property is assessed greater or less than its Fair Market Value as indicated by a review of comparable properties.
Lack of Uniformity: This property assessment is out of line generally with similar properties.
Errors in Property Description: Assessment is based upon inaccurate information concerning this property such as lot size, square footage, condition of property, flood plain, topography, zoning, etc.

In this instance, the "Fair Market Value" of the property is still higher than the assessment.   By searching online, I cannot find another condo in the area that is even selling for as little as the assessed value.  Units like this are selling for $150,000, so claiming that the Fair Market Value is lower than the assessed value is a non-starter.

Similarly, since you can search the assessments of all the properties in the County online (fun to snoop on your neighbors!  You can also tell if they are delinquent in their payments, in some Counties!), I was able to search quickly, all the other condos in the building.  They all went up 29% this year, and all are assessed at the same amount as mine, if not higher.   So it would be hard to argue that "similar" properties are assessed differently, when my neighbor's condo has the exact same assessed value as mine.

The last one is really the only area of hope.  As I noted at the beginning of this piece, up at the lake house, you might have been able to argue that things like "condition of property", topography, zoning, etc. would affect value.   Yes, you might have 500 feet of lake frontage - but maybe 300 feet of it is a public right-of-way and unusable.   That might lower your assessment.

Here, however, we are talking about a one-bedroom condo.  Not a lot to distinguish it from other one-bedroom condos.  Maybe we could argue that its ground floor location makes it less desirable.  Perhaps.  I would not expect that to alter the assessment much.   Maybe I'll try it.

But for fungible, interchangeable housing units, challenging an assessment is a lot harder to do - if the assessment is equal to or lower than sales prices, and if the assessment is in line with similar properties.  Sometimes there is not a lot you can do, other than grin and bear it.   Taxes always go up, over time.  It is a fact of life.

UPDATE:  I filed an Appeal based on the third option, arguing that as a ground floor unit, it should be assessed lower than upper floor units.  We'll see.   The resale value for a ground-floor unit is lower than upper floor units!

Why America-Bashing is a Dead End

Being a mindless uber-patriot is an emotional dead-end.  So is being a mindless America-hater.  There is a happy medium.

If you go online or meet a lot of people, you tend to see they fall into one of two groups these days.  On the one side (Right) you have people who think America is the best country in the world (which it is) but not only that, never does anything wrong or has any faults - or needs any improvement.  These are the sort of doofuses who like to chant, "USA! USA! USA!" and believe that mindless "love of country" is what being a patriot is all about.

But what is your country?  A pile of dirt and a few rocks?  Or is the government that we devised to run things?  Or is it the diverse group of people that we have?   It is a funny thing, but the uber-patriots love the pile of dirt and rocks aspect, but despise the government and of course, their fellow citizens, particularly if they are diverse.

What sets our country apart and what makes us a "county" is the political system and our people.  When we fight wars, it is not for the dirt and rocks, but for this ideology.  Uber-patriots simply don't understand this.

On the flip side of the coin (on the Left) are the America-bashers.   No matter what the debate is about, they immediately assume that America is at fault, is a horrific place to live, and that our government is vile, corrupt, and should just be overthrown.

And the funny thing is, their opinions are not that much different that the folks on the Right.   Both want the government abolished or overthrown, both hate huge segments of the population of their own country.   Both are insane.

Why are both Uber-Patriotism and American-Bashing dead-ends?   Well, like with conspiracy theories, they don't take you anywhere but down.   If you go through life thinking your country is vile and corrupt, that everything is awful and bad, and that secret conspirators are responsible for your lot in life, you will be depressed all the time.

Worse yet, you will become passive and take on a condition known as Learned Helplessness.   Rather than take charge of your life and do something with your life, you'll just hunker down in your survival bunker or your bong-water stained futon in your Mother's basement, and commiserate about what a rotten deal you got out of life.

Externalizing your problems never solves your problems.  It is the tactic of losers everywhere, though.   You say that all your troubles were created by these great unseen forces or faceless organizations with names like "Wall Street" or "the GOP" or whatever.   And since the probability of you changing the government or Wall Street or the GOP is nil, then by definition you will never solve your problems.

So it is a convenient way to just give up on life - classic weak thinking - and use that as an excuse not to accomplish anything.   Indeed, why even make the bed when the Illuminati have stolen all your hard-earned dough?  Or maybe it was those welfare queens.

This sort of thinking also will make you mentally ill.   It will cause you to be depressed, and eventually, you will start to lose friends and end up alone.  And as you descend into the madness of the conspiracy theorist, the cognitive dissonance between reality and your fantasy world will grow greater and greater.

The reality of the USA is far from either of these extremist views.   We are hardly a perfect country, but then again, we are hardly the spawn of Satan, either.  The US has always been wary of "foreign entanglements" since its founding, and we had to be dragged into both World War I and World War II.   And when the latter war ended, well, we were the last man standing - not bombed or bankrupted by the war.   We became a world power by default.

And we quickly discovered that isolationism wouldn't work in the post-war Cold War era.   The Soviets were spreading world communism, and like it or not, we had to respond.   And both the US and the Soviet Union found out the hard way that proxy wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan) could be devastating and crippling, even to a "superpower".

Now granted, we still meddle in world affairs - to strengthen our positions and defend our strategic interests.   Funny thing but every other country in the world does this as well.   The Chinese are trying to steal islands from the Vietnamese.  They meddle in Africa and Asia.   The Russians are, well, I don't have to explain what the Russians are doing.   Every country in the world fights for a piece of the pie and also tries to expand its influence, build up alliances, and negotiate treaties.   We've just been more successful at in in the last century since we were the last superpower left, after two devastating wars.

So the criticisms that the US throws its weight around too much are somewhat hypocritical.  Other countries do the same thing - or would like to, if they had the weight to throw around.  Still others, such as the Brits, used to do the same thing, but have since lost their influence (so you get a lot of sour grapes from that bunch).

But however you perceive our weaknesses and strengths, it does little to obsess about them or to constantly run down your own county.   To be sure, it is important to be politically engaged.   Vote - and donate money to the party of your choice.   That is how you can "change the world" effectively.

That and be successful in your own right.   Whining about Wall Street "taking all your money" because you signed odious student loan documents isn't going to change your lot in life.   You signed those papers, you got the worthless degree.  You chose this.  And oftentimes, the amounts of money people are whining about is less than the cost of a moderately priced car.  Hardly a "mortgage on your life" by a long shot.

Concentrate instead on what you can change in your life, as opposed to complaining about things you can't change.

And mindlessly blaming America for everything that is wrong in the world is not only incorrect, it is a dead-end.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Growing Old Gracefully

Your "golden years" should be a time of relaxation and letting go.  For many oldsters, they are a time of stress and worry.   It needn't be that way.

Living here on retirement island is like training wheels for retirement.  We are easing into retirement like easing into the grave, one inch at a time.  And we are seeing how some folks are enjoying the last decades and years of their lives, while others are worried and stressed out all the time.   And the latter is a sad scenario.

Growing old isn't easy.   But it doesn't have to be hard.   You just need to realize a few things.

1.  It is inevitable.   You might not want to get old, but it is going to happen.  And it sneaks up on you, too, a little bit at a time.   You wake up one day at age 40 and realize more than half your life has elapsed.   You wake up the next day and you're 50 and wondering how the fuck a decade got away from you.   And pretty soon you are looking at 60, and the decades are flying by a lot faster.  It is concerning, to be sure.   But there ain't nothing you are going to do about it.

2.  You are going to get sick.   Yes, sick.   It happens to everyone.   It is not just one thing, either.  Just like an old car has mutiple things wrong with it - a fallen headliner, creaky door hinges, a broken power window, and a transmission than "thunks" into reverse - the human body is the same way.  You fall apart a little bit at a time, and over time, these "chronic conditions" get worse and worse.   It will happen, so just get used to it - and raising your threshold of pain.

3.  You are going to DIE.  And yea, that is not negotiable, either.  The oldest person on the planet is maybe 114, and the title changes hands rather often.   Average life expectancy in America is around 77 years.  If you make it to 60 or 70, you have a good shot at 85 or 90.   But beyond that, well, the odds are slim and it gets ugly fast.

Well, OK, these things sound so depressing, right?  Well, as I keep harping in this blog, reality is what it is, how you deal with it is up to you.   The long and short of it is, these are not negotiable items.  If you live long enough, they will happen to you and you don't have a choice in this matter.

How you choose to react, however, is entirely up to you.

And in America, getting old and retiring and dying is a lot better than getting old and dying in most other countries.   In most non-Western countries of the world getting old is not an option as life expectancies are far shorter than in the US.

How you react to aging, sickness, and death is going to determine how well you live your remaining years.   Yea, it ain't pretty, but obsessing about it only insures that your remaining decades or years are miserable ones.

1. No one wants to hear about your illnesses.   Talking constantly about your illnesses - real or imagined - and your doctor's appointments, test results, latest medications, battles with medicare or your insurance company, your aches and pains, and so forth is only going to make you the most unpopular person in the room.   Among old people, no one wants to be reminded of their illnesses, much less hear about yours.   And by obsessing about illness, you amplify illness and make it worse.

And by the way, this goes double when talking about your spouse's illnesses or making a hobby out of your spouse's illnesses.  It particularly offensive when you talk about your spouse's intimate problems, to other people, when he is in the room and within earshot.  Yea, having a colostomy bag sucks.  It is worse when you megaphone it to all your friends.

So, just shut up about illness.  If you need help from a friend because your husband is in the hospital and you need a ride, great.  But hours-long diatribes about illnesses, hospitals, doctors, tests, medications, and symptoms is not helping you or anyone else.   You've got a decade left, if you're lucky.  Don't waste it whining about being sick all the time.

2.  Get Out and Do Things.   A lot of seniors convince themselves that they are no longer capable of doing anything, so they shut down.  This is about the worst thing you can do.  Yes it is hard to go up and down stairs and maybe you need an adult diaper.  But that doesn't mean you should stay shut up at home.  There are plenty of things to do still in the world, and although it is a lot more effort, it is worthwhile to go do them and be happy, rather than sit home and be miserable.

Seniors love these bus tours.  They come to the island every spring.   For young people, they sound pretty dumb - getting on a bus, going to some tourist destination, having lunch and going to a museum.  But for a senior, getting out of the house and going out and engaging the world is important.  Go one a bus tour.  go on a cruise.  Go see Italy.  Whatever.  The clock is ticking, so you might as well go out with a bang.

3.  Stop Worrying.   Youth, as they say, is wasted on the young.  When I was in my 20's, I was pretty care-free and worry-free.  Being drunk and stoned all the time probably helped.  But I had nothing and I had nothing to worry about.  Life seemed long and I would have a lot of time later in life to make money and get ahead.

The last decade of your life should be the same way, really.   You have little or nothing to worry about - you are going to die and that is about it.   Why worry about the inevitable?  Why not have a good time while you are still around.  If you think about it, really Seniors have nothing to lose at this point, so what fret?  Don't worry, be happy.

Sadly, I see a lot of seniors do just the opposite.  They worry and fret about the dumbest things.  "I'll run out of money!" one says, "and I'll end up in a rest home!"  That may be true, but other than spending less money there ain't much you can do.   They have to have a $160 a month cable bill, and yet worry.

"I want to leave an inheritance to my kids!" another cries.  Why?  No one left an inheritance to me.   Chances are, you didn't get one either.  Take care of yourself and stop worrying about your kids.   They sell more of this "Elder Life Insurance" (which is a rip-off) because parents worry about leaving "something behind" for their next of kin.

"I worry about bills" another says, still making mortgage payments on his home, well into his 70's.   They have lots of "things" and thus are financially stressed from month to month.   Granted, this is a result of a lifetime of poor financial planning.   But why spend your "golden years" worrying about making payments on a house?   There are cheaper places to live, smaller houses, and yea, you can live without 500 channels of cable and shopping at the mall every weekend.

Others spend their hours being busybodies (self-style "activists") or trying to get Marge thrown out of the Parcheesi club.  I simply don't get it.   You've got a decade left, tops, and this is how you want to spend it?  Being a busy-body?

Get out there and do things.   Have fun.  Enjoy life.  It is incredibly short and getting shorter all the time.  Stop obsessing about sickness and decline and looking for "signs of trouble" in your body or mind.  They will be there, to be sure.  But documenting your inevitable decline is not the answer to anything.   Cutting yourself off from activities on the grounds that you are "too old" is a self-fulfilling prophesy.  





The Bad, Old IRS (1099 forms)



The IRS has made great strides in customer service, but a lot remains to be done.

In my last posting, I was applauding the IRS for being proactive and customer-friendly.   Of course, this is not always the case, and readers have reported that trying to call the IRS through their 1040 line means a lot of time waiting on hold with no one ever answering.

And there are some aspects of the IRS that are somewhat infuriating.   For example, take the 1099 form.   1099 forms are used to report income - what you pay to other people, or what people pay to you.   The IRS uses these to track income and see that it is properly reported.   As I noted in my previous posting, the problem I had was 1099 related, as income was reported for a joint account in one person's Social Security number, but was claimed on the tax return of the other joint owner.  There should be an easy technological fix for this, one would think - a way to put two SS numbers on a 1099.   Maybe someone is working on it.

One frustrating aspect of the 1099 and 1096 reporting forms is that you cannot do them online.  In fact, the IRS "teases" us by displaying a fillable 1099 on their website, and it seems like a no-brainer to fill this out and send it in.   But while they provide the form, it is not meant to be used.   On a page before the form is this notice:

 Attention:
This form is provided for informational purposes only. Copy A appears in red, similar to the official IRS form. Do not file copy A downloaded from this website. The official printed version of this IRS form is scannable, but the online version of it, printed from this website, is not. A penalty may be imposed for filing forms that can’t be scanned.
See part O in the current General Instructions for Certain Information Returns for more information about penalties.
To order official IRS forms, call 1-800-TAX-FORM (1-800-829-3676) or Order Information Returns and Employer Returns Online, and we’ll mail you the scannable forms and other products.
See IRS Publications 1141, 1167, 1179 and other IRS resources for information about printing these tax forms.
Screwy, eh?  Here is the form, all nice and fillable and obviously someone went to a lot of work to do this.   But if you actually use it, they will cut your nuts off with a rusty hacksawThe form is for "informational purposes only".

So you have to order the old-style carbon-copy forms, unless your accounting software can generate a 1099 form.   And since you sold your typewriter ages ago, you have to fill out the carbon-copy forms with a pen, along with a 1096 "reporting" form.

OK, so far so good.  A minor hassle.

But the IRS uses optical scanners to log the data from these forms.   So unless your penmanship is perfect, there is a good chance that your "9" will be logged as an "8" and the 1099 will be credited to the wrong Social Security number, as has happened to me two years running.

When this occurs, you will get another vaguely threatening and poorly-written letter from the IRS saying "Warning!  You may have to take out backup withholding!" or some such nonsense.   Since the name and SS number did not "match" on the 1099, due to optical scanning error, the IRS presumes someone is using a fake or incorrect Social Security number (e.g., illegal alien or something).

The first time this happened I called the IRS and they assured me that no further action was necessary.   Again, the letter says this, but does not make it clear.   I got a second notice and called again.  Again, the operator assures me that if the error was in the scanning, and that the information is otherwise correct, no further action is required.

When I got a third letter, I filled out a "corrected" 1099 and 1096 forms and sent them in with a cover letter asking them to correct this.   A month later, I got my letter and corrected forms back, telling me that I did not need to correct the 1099 as there was no error, other than on their part.

A month later, I get the automated letter saying the 1099 is incorrect.  Arrrrgh!

What is going on here?   Well, it is just how government works, I'm afraid.   Official letters will always be written in officialese, and they will always have vaguely threatening remarks as in some instances, there are some dire consequences if things are not paid attention to.   It doesn't pay to have letters that say, "Dear Taxpayer, please ignore this letter!"

Of course, the easiest way to fix this problem would be to allow people to file their 1099 and 1096 forms online, or at least create and print these documents from the website, filled out.   Clearly, someone at the IRS has the capability to do this, as demonstrated by the link above.

But, it ain't happening.  Why, do you ask?   Well, Intuit, Turbotax, Jackson-Hewitt, H&R Block, and a host of other tax preparers, accounting software, tax software, accounting services, and whatnot, make an awful lot of money from people at this time of year, helping them through the labyrinth of tax laws.

Think about it a second.  Turbotax has an online system that can file your taxes for you.  Why doesn't the IRS have such a system that allows you to fill out and submit forms online?   The Patent Office has one, why not the IRS?

The simple reason is, this is big money, and these companies don't want the IRS making things simple, easy-to-use, or available for free online.   What motivation do I have to buy an expensive upgrade to Quickbooks so I can print out my 1099's automatically or file them electronically, if I could do this for free at www.irs.gov?

None.  And now you know why the IRS is the way it is.   The more difficult the system is to use, the more money tax preparers make "helping" you through the system.

So, the next time you get an indecipherable letter from the IRS and wonder why it is written in Sanskrit, be sure to thank all those tax preparation companies out there.   You see the fear of the IRS not only works to help the IRS collect taxes, it also helps all these tax preparation companies sell their services as well.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Royal Scam, Revisited


What exactly is the Royal Scam?  It means different things to different people.

Most people in America fall within a range of what we call "middle class."  If you ask people where they sit, most will say "middle class" as they either are strivers trying to make it there, or they are upper-middle class who don't want to appear to be overly rich.

The median household income in America is about $51,000.   Average is about $63,000.    Yea, some folks make twice, or even three times that amount.   But since they blow it all on fancier cars and houses, and pay more taxes, often they have the same or similar disposable income as someone closer to the mean.

Even people working minimum-wage jobs, if they qualify for every government program they qualify for, can end up having a pretty middle-class lifestyle, as I have noted before.

In other words, our society is awfully egalitarian at a certain level.

There are, of course, two groups who fall outside the middle-class.  Both are fairly small groups.

The very, very poor is a pretty small group, because poverty line or not, it is really hard to be utterly broke in a country where your very existence entitles you to money every month.   Unless, of course, you are an illegal immigrant.

The other group is the very, very rich - those 1%'ers that we are all supposed to hate, as the media told us to hate them (along with Police Officers this year.  Last year it was Immigrants.  Year before, Muslims, who's up next year?).

These folks not only make a lot of money they have a lot of money.  And that is the difference between the upper middle class and the truly rich.

The upper middle class guy makes $100,000 or even $200,000 a year, but is living "paycheck to paycheck" and can't seem to get ahead.   Not many of us feel sorry for him.

The really rich guy has millions in the bank and how much he makes is more a function of how much he needs to spend on his personal upkeep, than any function of his income.   In other words, his income is what he takes out of his business, not some paycheck he gets from someone else's.

How did the really rich guy get really rich?   Well, some start out with a head start.   The Koch brothers started out with millions - and made Billions from them.  They have two other brothers, however, who were content to just spend their millions and not multiply them.

Others, like Sam Walton, scrimp and save and throw everything they have into a business, sacrificing every comfort, and get fabulously wealthy.   For people like that, making money becomes an obsession, and the creature comforts in life are secondary.  Not surprisingly, they tend to make a lot of money.

For most of us, however, we are interested in the creature comforts.  We think of wealth in terms of things - mansions and fancy cars and private jets and yachts.   And yes, once you make Billions, you can buy that sort of thing and not blink an eye.

The problem is, for us little people, the temptation is to "have a taste" of the good life.   We want a fancy house.   Maybe it isn't a mansion, but it is a mini-mansion, and that's almost as good!   And maybe we can't afford a Bentley, or even a 7-series BMW.  But we can swing the payments on a 323i 4-door and pretend we are going places.

And of course a big yacht is out of the picture, but we can swing the loan on a 35 or even 40 foot Sea Ray or Meridian - or so we think.   And while we are not rock stars, we can qualify for a loan on a Rock Star Bus Motorhome.   The monthly payments are so low, low, low!

So we anesthetize ourselves in life.   We are not going to be rock stars or the next Steve Jobs, or famous attorneys arguing cases before the Supreme Court (and pulling in million-dollar salaries in the 200-man firm).   We won't be the famous doctor at the Mayo clinic.  We won't be Warren Buffet or a Wall-Street Tycoon.  We won't be rap stars or professional athletes.  And that's OK.  Not everyone can be famous.

But.... we can have a taste of their bling.  All for a low, low price and e-z monthly payments, if you'll just sign here.

And that, in short, is the Royal Scam.

In my previous posting about Fake Status, the idea was ricocheting around my head for a while, and I started to see the pieces coalesce in my brain.  Everything I have written about here for the last few years, all coming together, forming a unified body, a whole, a complete map of how it all works.

You see, we entrap oursleves as middle-class people.   We decide to "treat ourselves" with take-out pizza, or reward ourselves at the ripe old age of 28 (for a lifetime's hard work!) with a $3000 mountain bike.   Why not?  We "deserve it" - and as one young woman told me, "Why should I eat beans just to see my bank account increase?"

Why indeed?

You see, that is a choice in life - a choice freely made.   A choice whether to be wealthy or to just spend it all and have-it-all now.   And most of us choose the latter.   In fact, we borrow more and more money to have more now, and then act as victims in our lives when the bills come due.

When I was a young hot-shot lawyer, flying out to Silicon Valley every month, I would visit companies to take invention disclosures.  During the tech downturn of 1995, I felt like an undertaker sometimes - visiting companies that were clearly shuttering.  I would take the disclosure from an inventor who would probably be laid off within a month - which is why the company sent me.  Get the Intellectual Property and then turn the lights out.

And during lunch, the said same young Engineer would proudly show me the new Acrua he leased.  Such a smart young man to be able to understand Integrated Circuit Design, but yet unable to add up a column of numbers.   I was in his shoes once - or more than once.

Other friends told me of opportunities they had to join Silicon Valley start-ups.   "Join us!" their friends would cry, "The pay is nothing, but you'll get stock options up the ying-yang, and when we do an IPO, you'll be a millionaire!"

Sadly, my friends told me that had to turn down these opportunities - with companies that are now famous names you have heard of - because they were saddled with mortgage debt, credit card debt, and car payments.

I never had a chance to join a silicon valley start-up.   But when I saw the Real Estate market tank in 1989, I thought to myself that there were some bargains to be had out there.  And for a brief moment I looked at buying a "look at me!" mini-mansion, but decided instead to keep my 1100 sq. ft. two-bedroom, one bath house, and use my income to finance investment properties instead.

If I had stressed myself financially to buy the mini-mansion, I would probably be broke right now - underwater and foreclosed upon, like so many of my friends and neighbors.  You can't make money from things you buy for your own use.

Similarly, when a friend told me he wanted to start a bank - and offered me founders shares in the company, I jumped on it.   I only wish I had more to invest - as the stock more than quintupled in price and cranked out hefty dividends as well.

That is the basic bargain you make.   Opportunity will come knocking in your life.   A sweet deal will appear, and if you have cash and low debts, you can take advantage of it.   If you are financially stressed to have a lot of "things" then deals like that will escape you.

Could the poor or lower-middle-class get rich this way?   Likely not.   But if they didn't spend money on check cashing stores and payday loans, they could certainly live better lives than they do.   But in poor neighborhoods, the desire for luxury goods is the strongest, which is why you see more old used Mercedes and BMWs in the ghetto than anywhere else - and fancy clothes, bling rims, hair styles, and the like.

The middle class - and the upper middle class - have the opportunity to dynastic wealth in their lifetimes.   But few chose to do so, but instead buy the goods that give them the appearance of real wealth.  And in doing so, they are entrapped.

This is the Royal Scam.   It's how the rich get rich and why our middle-class is shrinking.

Today, more than ever, middle-class people feel entitled to new cars, cell phones, large televisions, 500 channels of cable, a computer in every room - and so on.   We have tons and tons of "stuff" that our ancestors never had.   Robotic vacuum cleaners and $1000 front-load washers.

And the funny thing is, when you point this out to people, they get defensive.   Their expensive toys aren't all that expensive.   They're actually saving money!   And they believe this, as they add more and more technology to their lives.

But what they are giving up, is the ability to really accumulate wealth.   Oh, sure, they throw a few bucks into the 401(k) plan, and they are "on target" to retirement, or as the mountain bike girl said, "I'll just work until I'm 70!"   Really?  See any 70-year-old Engineers where you work?

I have no complaints, of course.  It is a Royal Scam, but it is one that anyone can see if they look hard enough.   It is not a secret conspiracy on some Illuminati website.   It is out in the open for everyone - but you have to be willing to see it.

I didn't want to think about that - from an early age.   I made a lot of money in my lifetime, and spent most of it on what, in retrospect, were pretty stupid things.  Cars, boats, motorcycles, houses, and other "big ticket" items of course.  But also junk food, poorly made clothes, drinks in bars, and other stuff that, well, I could have done without or done with a lot less of.

So, the guy who figures this out, and puts that hundreds of dollars a month that I spent on beer and pot and cable television, into an investment account - am I jealous of him?   Do I resent him for being an "evil 1%'er?"

No, not really.   And no, I really don't think I'm entitled to any of his money.   He should pay, of course, his fair share of taxes to support our society.   What that amount is, we can debate.   But the idea of punishing people for making sacrifices that I chose not to make?   No.

Of course, in any society, there will be those who float to the top of the cesspool on inherited wealth or some nefarious scheme that gets them there when they shouldn't have.   And yea, it is "unfair" that crooks and con-artists get ahead.   But a funny thing, con artists require someone to con - and it is the plebes like you and me who willingly give them our money.

And beyond the con artists are the legitimate businesses that are pretty much cons.   You get a high-interest rate credit card and then the bank bends you over.  Or you borrow too much on a poorly made mini-mansion using a loan whose terms on their face are onerous.  Or you sign your life away to student loans and get an unmarketable degree.   You then protest Wall Street and complain you were taken.  But were you really?

Yes, these are part of the Royal Scam.   You were fleeced.  But you were willingly fleeced.   I was too, before I wised up and stopped looking for bad bargains like that.   I never signed an ARM loan if I could help it.  And certainly not a "toxic" arm or something stupid.   I gave up on high interest rate credit cards.  And I buckled down and paid off those damn student loans.

It is an amazing system, if you think about it.   And figuring all of this out - very late in life - has been illuminating.   I wrote this blog to set down my ideas, mostly so I could read them and reinforce them in my own mind.

A few others have read them and offered encouragement, suggestions, or corrections.

Most others just ignored this blog, or tried to shout it down.   And this, I realized, is to be expected.   Most folks want to take the blue pill - go back to the Matrix and have everything the way it was before - and all their toys.   They don't want to hear ugly truths.

When I was in my 20's, I wanted, but never had.  I wanted fancy cars and fancy motorcycles and fancy boats.  But like most 20-somethings, I had an economy car and a secondhand bike, and I didn't really take good care of either.

It is ironic, you get old, and you can afford your "dream car".   I would have killed people to have the M Roadster now parked in my garage.   But like my neighbor who has a Corvette, we both are finding that the dream cars of our youth are awfully hard to get in and out of, when you are over 50.  And they are loud and noisy and not very comfortable.   You get older and you realize a quiet smooth ride and lower operating costs have their merits.   Youth is wasted on the young.   Sports cars are wasted on the old!  At least we can afford the insurance.

I am lucky in that I survived the Royal Scam relatively intact.   I have a little money left over to live a comfortable retirement.   However, it could have been much worse.   Most of my peers are still looking at another decade of commuting to work, just to be able to fund their retirements.   And maybe some will work longer.   They claim they like the work, but hey, 30 years of anything gets to be old hat after a while.

So there you have it.   But it doesn't change anything.   You can try to tell a 20-something this, and they simply won't listen.  A kid who thinks scissors doors on a Dodge Neon is a good investment isn't going to listen to you.   He will do the same dumb things we all did at that age.

Well, not all of them.   Out there is a young Warren Buffet or Sam Walton, who has a fire in his belly and a burning desire to get ahead.   And those folks likely will, too.  And I hope they make a Billion bucks, too.

I really do.



The full album, if you want a trip down memory lane.  Trip being the operative word.

Are We Ahead of Europe?

AMA cruises offers great river cruises in Europe, apparently only for older white people.

We are on a mailing list for AMA river cruises and Viking river cruises (the latter being the only one endorsed by Dr. Evil!).  While they sound like a lot of fun, one thing that keeps me from going (besides the staggering prices) is that in the brochures, all the folks they show are mostly older white people.  Most of them look like my Dad, and going on a cruise with my Dad is not my idea of a fun time.

But it struck me that in all the brochures, they show nary a single person who is not white - other than the smiling, helpful natives in the African and Asian tours.  And it struck me that in America, there would be hell to pay if you tried to market your services using brochures that were so mono-chromatic.

I remember back in the 1970's, most American companies did the same thing.   If you got an advertising circular, brochure, or other document with photos of people in it, they were all white folks.   And some people started to get upset about this.   I talk a lot about normative cues here and how they affect the way you think - and how subtle they are.

For example, the "flesh" color of band-aids is a very subtle cue as to what "normal" skin tone is - and the band-aid people are not happy when you bring this issue up.   Sure, a lot of people say this sort of thing is trivial, but in a larger sense, it really isn't.  If you are told, every day of your life, that you are not "normal" and are less desirable just because of who you are, it does tend to sink in, over time.  Trust me.

So starting in the late 1970's, Corporate America started to diversify its photo stock.   No longer was the Sears catalog all-white, but the occasional black or Asian person or family was shown.   And before long, this became the norm in the US, as companies found out it not only didn't harm them at all, but that it was good for business.

Our European friends like to chide us all the time for having "racial problems" but when you look at their record, you easily see they are behind the times.   And I am not just talking about how races are represented in brochures.   Most European countries are mono-cultural, and as such, tended not to have racial problems, that is, until recently.   Yes, many black American performers went to Europe in the 1900's and found a more receptive audience there.   But that was because there was no large black population in Europe, so racial discrimination was not the norm.   When you are a novelty there is no threat.

Since then, in more recent times, a large number of people from the Muslim world have migrated to Europe, and our better-than-us European friends have started to show their true racist colors.   Things that would never be dreamed of in America, are routine in Europe.  Banning Mosques, banning headscarfs, and the rise of right-wing parties (that actually are winning votes and seats in Parliments) are just a few examples.   More and more racist incidents are popping up, and of course, Anti-Antisemitism (Europe's dirty little not-so-secret) is again on the rise, even though the Jewish population of Europe has largely been diminished since the last pogram.  That is one place the Europeans surely have us beat - antisemitism.  Hell, they invented it.

To me, this is ironic, as Europeans look down their noses at us Americans - calling us primitives, violent, gun-toting, and racist.   We are painted as rapers of the planet, war-mongers, colonialists.   In short, everything they want to be.

But a funny thing.  The US has been on the forefront of environmental regulation.   We required pollution controls on cars decades before they were required in Europe.   Catalytic converters were standard here in the 1970s, but not mandated until the 1990's in some European countries.   Much of the science behind ozone depletion and global warming came from US Scientists, not European.   In fact, the greatest "contribution" our European friends have made is the "Climate-gate" e-mails.  Nice going, Europe!

In terms of auto safety, we were ahead of Europe in mandating airbags in cars, as well as other safety features, such as side-impact requirements.  Of course, one reason we are ahead in terms of auto safety is that our accident rate is so much higher than in Europe - nearly double.  But when you look at it in terms of miles driven, while still higher, it is on a par with some European countries like Spain.  Nevertheless, while we obsess about self-driving cars here, Europeans are better at actually driving.

Granted, we have not embraced socialism and high taxes to the extent Europe has.  Our society is more of a dog-eat-dog world, where you have to work to get ahead.   But that does not mean we utterly lack any sort of safety net.  The number one medical problem we have among the poor in America is obesity, not malnutrition.   There are a host of government programs and giveaways to the poor here in the States.  We are not exactly a feudal system.

And yes, we are nuts about guns in this country - or at least a vocal minority of us are.  But despite its vaunted gun control laws, one does read about mass-shootings and other gun-related crime in Europe.  And France beats us, in terms of suicide rates.

Now some might argue that the reason for so much religious tension in Europe has to do with the fact that in America, the Muslim population is more moderate - fewer "radicalized" Muslims live in the USA.   And I would have to agree with that.  But I think one reason this is, is that our culture tends to smother other cultures, and since we are more inclusive than our European pals (who concentrate recent Muslim immigrants in suburban high-rise ghettos), perhaps American Muslims tend to feel less alienated than their European counterparts.

SMOKING is of course one area where we are light-years ahead of the Europeans and Asians.  While we have banned smoking in restaurants, bars and airplanes, our European counterparts have been behind in every way.   And oddly enough, we export a lot of tobacco and tobacco products to Europe, so you would think that general anti-Americanism would be enough reason to get them to quit.  But they still smoke like chimneys over there, and often in public spaces where you can't get away from it.

Well, that's what I get from reading a European river cruise brochure.   I am not sure I am going to go on one anytime soon, only because it costs about $10,000 for a week's vacation, and to me that sounds like an awful lot of money to spend on one week.   For a lot less, I can rent a boat in Europe and have a lot more fun that sitting around with a bunch of old white people, whining about the service and going on guided bus tours.

There are cheaper ways to go boating in Europe, and you aren't stuck on a cruise ship with a bunch of old white folks!