Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Pension Crisis




Pensions have been underfunded for decades, and now the chickens are coming home to roost.   It won't be pretty.


When I was a Teamster with United Parcel, I was told that if I stayed with the company, I could retire with a fat pension.  I declined their generous offer.  But others took them up on it, conveniently forgetting about Jimmy Hoffa, the Mafia, and how the Teamster's Pension plan was a slush fund account for the mob.

It took decades, but the entire thing is finally melting down and this could be a disaster for many Americans.    Right now, the Central States Pension Plan which covers truckers, is basically insolvent - paying out $3 for every $1 it takes in.   The current plan is to cut benefits by 60% for retirees, including those already retired.

But wait, it gets worse:
The Treasury Department appointed attorney Ken Feinberg, who's known for overseeing the 9/11 victim compensation fund, to review the plan. He has until May 7 to make a decision. If he approves the plan, it will be put to a vote for the plan's workers and retirees. But no matter how they vote, Feinberg has the final say.


That's because the Central States Pension fund is one of the biggest in the country and if it fails, it could also wipe out the government's pension insurance fund, the Pension Benefits Guarantee Corporation. 
You read that right.  If this pension plan fails, it is so large that it would bankrupt the safety net for pension plans.  This would mean that Congress would have to bail out the Pension Benefits Guarantee Corporation, or failing that, when other pension plans fail, there would be no alternative but to lose all of your benefits.

Pensions were a good idea, but they failed for three reasons.   First, companies promised lavish benefits to workers to get them to avoid striking.  Second, the companies didn't fund these pension plans, as they needed the money to invest in R&D and pay shareholders.   Third, people started living longer and retiring earlier than ever before, padding the ranks of the retired.   We already saw this effect bankrupt both GM and Chrysler just a few years ago.

In my posting The Year of the Living Dead, I noted that it takes a long time for companies to topple - Sears has continued to struggle while closing stores.  JC Penny is doing likewise.   Radio Shack finally threw in the towel last years - years longer than analysts thought it would.   It takes quite a while for economic systems to fail.  You could lose both engines on your airplane at 30,000 feet, but it would still take 20 minutes or more for you to finally hit the ground.   Similarly, in your personal finances, you can spend more than you make for years before the chickens come home to roost.

The problems with these pension plans have been well-documented for years.   And people see the problems with the companies supporting the pension plans, but nothing is done about it.   Some politicians, including Bernie Sanders, support bailing out these pension plans, as the Pension Benefits Guarantee Corporation was supposed to do.

The problem with bailing out failing pensions, of course, is that once companies realize they can let pensions fail - and that pensioners realize they will be bailed out - companies will just stop funding pensions entirely and pensioners won't object, knowing the government will bail them out.   And unlike Social Security, pensions can be rather generous.  Do we bail out the entire pension plan, or just a portion of it, as the PBGC currently does?   Either way, someone gets screwed.

The pension debacle is one reason why the IRA and 401(k) plans were created in 1978.   Congress saw that unfunded pension liabilities were soaring.   Companies simply couldn't afford to fund the promises they made to employees back then, as the economy was in dire straits.   And like underfunding your 401(k) plan, it is very hard, if not impossible, to play "catch up" later on.

Government pension plans seem fairly safe - for the time being.   High government salaries and generous pension plans, along with earlier retirement ages and longer life expectancy has meant that property taxes and State taxes have risen and States are finding it hard to balance budgets.   The Federal Government simply operates at an increasing deficit to fund the pension plans, which means that inflation could end up making all of us pay.   All of us except pensioners who have cost-of-living (COLA) adjustments.

For those of us retiring on our savings, inflation could wipe us out.

Already noises are being made about cutting public employee salaries and benefits.  What is happening in Wisconsin is no accident.   And there are more property tax and income tax payers in that State than there are public employees, which is why Governor Walker survived a recall.   Private pension plans are threatened and failing now.   Perhaps government pensions, at least on the State and Local levels, might be under attack in the future.  Some smaller towns and cities are already defaulting on obligations.

And in a way, this is to be expected.  A town or city is like a Corporation (and indeed may be "incorporated" at least in name).   If the amount of income drops (people move away, businesses close) and expenses increase (a large number of pensioners starts to accumulate) then bankruptcy is inevitable and pensions may be at risk.

So what can be done about it?   Vote for Bernie?   I doubt that would change much, as it would be Congress, not Presidents, who rescue these plans - if they are rescued at all.   Even if a bailout occurs, most pensioners can expect less than half their promised retirement.   It will get ugly.

Sadly, a lot of people did retire based on these pension promises.   And since they had these promises, they didn't bother to save - not one penny.   I know two Federal government employees who have nice pensions but only $30,000 in savings.   Like Bernie, they borrow money to buy everything, applying for 30-year mortgages at a time in life when their life expectancy is less than 30 years.   So long as the government holds up its end of the bargain, they are set.

But not too long ago, in the era I grew up in, people would save up money in addition to relying on pension plans.   Pension plans were not so generous back then (some today paying 75-80% of last year's working salary!) and were designed to supplement retirement income, not replace it.   Today, you can live high on the hog on a pension plan, which has COLA increases annually.

So my parents tried to accumulate wealth instead of dissipating it.   And it wasn't easy to do with four children to put through college.   Today, we would rather spend it all now and have a higher standard of living than save for tomorrow or for future generations.

Inheritances were another aspect of the equation.   A middle-class child could expect some sort of inheritance "nest egg" that would represent wealth in addition to pensions.   My parents inherited $400,000 from my late Grandmother (on my Mother's side, my Dad's Mother was left destitute by her husband).   This supplemented a small pension and social security - along with their own savings and home equity (yes, they had no mortgage) to live comfortably.

Of course, this money got spent, so I ended up with no inheritance.   Mark's parents were a little more thrifty and left some money to their kids - a nice supplement to existing savings.

But inheritances are getting harder and harder to come by.   The Baby Boomers spent it all and are going into retirement with mortgages and reverse mortgages and leaving their children with nothing or often worse than nothing.    Insolvent Estates are the new thing - leaving your kids just a tangled mess of debts and problems to unwind, often at their personal expense.

Yes, this all sounds very bleak, and to some extent it is.   So what can be done about it?   On a national scale or whatever, not much.   Money simply doesn't exist to fix all the problems with pensions.   And it is very unfair that a few people will get paid generously in retirement while others with similar or even more important jobs will end up broke.   Life isn't fair.

However, you do still have personal responsibility and personal choices you can make.   If you are younger, you can jump off the consumerist bandwagon and create your own wealth by saving rather than spending.   Don't count on pension promises to fund all of your retirement.   If you are older, you can spend less and live more frugally.   The fellow in the story profiled above said he was "cutting back" by getting rid of a few cable channels.   With about half his pension ready to evaporate (or all of it, in a few years) he should be cutting cable out entirely.

We all face this risk in retirement, although some more than others.  My friends with the Federal pensions seem pretty safe.   Folks with State and Municipal pensions much less so.   Those with private pensions are at a very high risk.   People with pensions from rust-belt industries are basically screwed.   And those of us with IRA and 401(k) plans just have to hope and pray that deficit spending doesn't blossom into hyper-inflation down the road, even if inflation seems eerily quiet today.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Mulch

When did mulch become a landscape feature?  Within my lifetime.


When I was a kid growing up in the 1960's and 1970's we didn't have mulch.  We didn't have shit, really.  There was no Lowes, no Home Depot - maybe an 84 Lumber if you were lucky.  We had the local lumber yard or hardware store, where they sold nails by the pound, and stacks of 2 x 4's.   

But no mulch.

If you asked someone back then what mulch was, they would have said some sort of compost.   Pine bark mulch wasn't a thing.   Logging companies threw it away.   

But in the late 1970's and early 1980's that changed, and shows like This Old House started to showcase yards with enormous mulch beds.   Originally, you might mulch to keep the weeds down until your shrubs and plants established themselves.   At that point, they dominated the planting area and no more mulch was needed.

But for some reason, the "look" of a broad bed of mulch became a thing and today, people have half their lawns covered in mulch, aided and abetted by its co-evil twin, landscape fabric.   I still remember "Norm" showing us how to do this on PBS back in the day.

So, what's the deal with mulch?   And what's the problem with it?

Well, to begin with, it is expensive.   It can sell for $5 a bag or more and you need many, many bags to fill the enormous mulch beds that many folks have today.   We're talking beds that are 30-40 feet long and 10-20 feet deep.  These take dozens of bags to fill, and cost hundreds of dollars to establish.

And once they are set up, you're not done.   Since leaves and other detritus makes them look messy, you have to get a leaf blower and blow all the leaves out of the mulch bed.   And every few years, the mulch starts to degrade, so dozens of new bags are needed to re-fill it.

A neighbor of mine just re-stocked his mulch bed with two dozen bags.   And only a few years ago, I helped him spread well over 50 bags.   At $5 a bag, we are talking hundreds and hundreds of dollars.  Of course there are cheaper mulches and more expensive ones.  You can buy a "permanent" mulch made of shredded car tires.  That sounds nice.

And here in the South, throwing wood on the ground is always problematic.  You are basically creating a termite attractor.

When we were in Virgina, we used to get "free" mulch from the County, who shredded lawn waste and offered the resulting chunks in huge steaming piles at the community rec center.   We would shovel the truck full of the stuff and then build mulch beds at home.   All that was needed was dirty, messy, backbreaking labor at both ends of the pipeline.

Is mulch worthwhile?   It think not.   And as I noted, the idea of the mulched planting bed is a relatively new phenomenon.   Back in my parent's day, if you wanted a garden, you planted your plants and then pulled weeds all day long.   Since this was a pain-in-the-ass, you kept your planting beds modest and small.

Today, with mulch and landscaping fabric, we can create huge planting beds which are never filled in with plantings, but remain mulch beds.  We like the "look" of mulch today, for some reason.   It is a fashion, however, that is only a few decades old.

I have resisted buying mulch at our house here on the Island.   In addition to the termite deal, I am kind of done with elaborate gardens (having built two already) which create maintenance nightmares and mean you can never go away on vacation without coming back to an overgrown garden that will take weeks or months of trimming and weeding to get just so.

The back of our property was landscaped by the original owner who planted Ligustrums and Azaleas, along with ornamental grasses.  After more than a decade on the rental market, it was an overgrown nightmare.  Over the years, I have attacked it slowly, removing all the poison ivy vines, trimming the Ligustrums (which are now the size of trees) and bring the Azaleas back to human size.   With all the tall Georgia pines, we have a steady rain of pine needles.

Some folks around here use "pine straw" as they euphemistically call it, as a mulch.   It is just dead pine needles, and paying for a bale of it seems rather foolish when every day a bale is dumped on our property by the six Georgia pines we have.   We used to have seven, but one almost fell on the house, and some good old boys offered to take it down for $650 which seemed fair as it was well over 100 feet tall and three feet in diameter.  The remainder just threaten to crush us to death someday.

So I rake up the pine straw and then run it over with the mulching lawnmower which turns it into a fine mulch which costs nothing and looks good (and spreads itself).   The acidity of the pine needles keeps plants from growing - other than the Azaleas which love acidity, which is why people plant them under pine trees.  I let some native "fan palms" grow up and they look good and also provide privacy from the neighbors.

The result is a "mulch bed" that sort of fills itself and needs only the occasional run-over with the lawn mower.   Recently, I bought a shredder on Amazon which can be used to shred the pine needles and other leaves into a fine mulch.  It works pretty well (it has actual blades, not the string-trimmer kind) and cost less than one load of mulch would.

We have sort of taken an incremental approach and minimalist approach to landscaping in this house.  We don't want to create high-maintenance areas, so we use native plants or plants that require little water and care and thrive on neglect.   And rather than pay some landscape architect to design and construct the landscaping, we have added a bit every year, as time, labor, and money permits.

As I noted in earlier postings, it is entirely too possible to over-do your landscaping.   Going to Lowes or Home Depot every weekend and buying carload after carload of landscape timbers, edging sprinkler systems, lawn lights, mulch, plants, soil, and other yard tchotchke, you can run up a lot of credit card debt.

Worst yet, your yard can tend to look "busy" with so much going on.   We've always thought our house was a little shabby looking when it came to landscaping (but improving every year, incrementally) and are surprised when people say how good it looks.   It looks "good" because there is not too much going on.

By the way - here's a hint - those bags of "weed and feed" they stack up at the home improvement store?  Just avoid them.   Turns out the "weed" in those mixes can kill a lot of grass types, such as the centipede grass we have here in Georgia.   Centipede grass is called the "lazy man's grass" as it requires little mowing, water, or care.  It spreads by sending out centipede-like tendrils and eventually takes over a lawn, leaving a lush carpet.   It doesn't like a lot of heavy traffic, so you can't walk on it a lot.   It also hates "weed and feed" too.   Just throw a couple of bags of regular fertilizer at it once a year and be done with it.

After several years, our yard is looking better than ever, not by spending more money and more labor, but often by spending less.   We fired the yard service, whose tractor-like mowers were killing the centipede grass (traffic again).   We bought a Honda push mower for less than the cost of a few months of that "service" - and the exercise has been good for me.

We don't have a sprinkler system, but do water a bit in the spring and fall.  In the summer, we just let the grass do its thing, and in the fall, throw some realtor grass seed on it, and it stays green all winter (unlike the neighbor's manicured lawn, which goes brown despite all the watering).

I think we've found a happy medium between an over-manicured and over-maintained (and overly busy) look and the abandoned house look.  Learning to live with and work with the native plants is part of the deal.   Walking away from enormous "mulch beds" was another part.

It is funny, but we did talk with a landscaper and asked him for ideas on how to landscape the property.  He wanted to build (you guessed it) enormous mulch beds, plant non-native plants, install a sprinkler system, tear up the hardy centipede grass and put in sod, and so forth and so on.   And the cost was only in the tens of thousands of dollars - to start with!   Of course, the resulting maintenance would have consumed all my time, or cost hundreds more per month out of our budget.

The fanciest house on the street and the poorest house are only a few thousand dollars apart in price.   Price depends on location first, and condition second.   Fancy landscaping might help with "curb appeal" in selling a house - or it may backfire, as we learned trying to sell houses with extensive gardens.   Most folks see lots of mulch beds and plantings and think, "Gee, I'll be out here all day weeding and mulching!  No thanks!"

Spending a ton of money to build a high-maintenance home just doesn't make any sense.   You'll find your "dream home" becomes a nightmare of constant expenses and labor.   You may end up feeling trapped by it - never able to leave, never able to vacation, because you have to constantly maintain it.

Less is more.  Doing things is better than owning things.

And I am done with mulch beds.   We lived, as a society, without them for generations.   For some reason, our generation has adopted them as a norm, without thinking as to why.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Sarah Palin of the Left?


Bernie Sanders admits he knows little about Latin America. But he wants to sell us the same Socialist solutions which are failing miserably there.
 
When John McCain nominated Sarah Palin, everyone was ecstatic.  I remember hearing her "pit bull lipstick" speech (a line she ad-libbed) the night she was nominated and thought, "Wow, this is a real game-changer!"

Not that I was impressed by her ideas, but her delivery was top-notch and she knew how to work an audience.   McCain had a real powerhouse VP candidate who could rile up the crowds.

But it all came unraveled when people started asking her questions.   Questions like "What newspapers and magazines do you read?" ("All of them" was her lame answer).   In retrospect, she should have stuck to the stump speech and avoided all interviews.

Of course, Palin claimed that such questions were "gotchas" - designed to make her look foolish.   But in reality, they were just exposing her underlying foolishness.   Maybe the one about the "Bush Doctrine" was a bit "gotcha" as no one really used that term at the time - or even now.   It was a vague, open-ended question.   But she could have handled it better - just by saying, "Well, define what you mean by the Bush Doctrine!" 

Water over the dam at this point.

In a recent interview on Univision, however, Bernie Sanders illustrated his lightweight credentials.  When asked questions about something other than "the big banks" and "Wall Street" he flummoxed and flubbed it.  He didn't want to offer an opinion about the situation in Venezuela, which is about to erupt into civil war.  And likely that was for the obvious reason that the socialist policies of Chavez are not far off those that Sanders would like to implement (but of course, could never actually get through Congress).

At least Sanders was man enough to admit when he had a blind spot in his resume:
Sanders spoke about the drug war and immigration, but when pressed on the levels of violence in Central America caused by the U.S.’ deportation of hardened gang members, the Vermont Senator said “Look, you’re asking me questions about the impact on Central America, which honestly I should know more than I do know.”
You know, maybe he should serve in some capacity with the government where he would learn about foreign affairs and be up on these sort of things.   Maybe Secretary of State or something.

Yea, it would be swell to have a President who used to be Secretary of State.   Good idea.

Maybe we've had enough of amateur hour?

UPDATE:   This frightening quote from Bernie's Senate Blog:

"These days, the American dream is more apt to be realized in South America, in places such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina, where incomes are actually more equal today than they are in the land of Horatio Alger. Who's the banana republic now?" 

Do you want to be the next Venezuela?   It frightens me that he looks to Latin American socialism as a model for future development, when the human rights record in Venezuela under Chavez was anything but good.

UPDATE:   Do you like bread lines?  Because Bernie thinks they are the sign of a country that is functioning well:


Scary, scary stuff.

Restroom Follies

What is behind this transgender restroom bruhaha?  Politics - as usual.

Many folks are confused by what is going on in North Carolina.  Why are companies threatening to move elsewhere just because they won't let a guy in a dress use the Ladies room?   It makes no sense!

And if that was the real issue I would agree with you.   But the GOP has done a very neat job of tying three laws together into one, and then making sure the debate is only about one part of this three-part law.

North Carolina passed a "religious freedom" bill just as Mississippi recently did.  What is disturbing about these bills is that they allow any business owner to discriminate against anyone if they feel that serving them conflicts with their religious beliefs.   That is the first part of the bill.   The second part allows government employees to deny service to anyone if it conflicts with their religious beliefs.

These two parts of the Mississippi and North Carolina laws are part of the "Cake Wars" and "Gay Marriage" wars.   Apparently, to some people, the act of writing "Good Luck Sam and Bill!" in cake frosting is going to send you to Hell.   And a funny thing, we recently had a birthday party here for four people who were turning 50, 60, 70, and 80.   And the cake place gave me a funny look about having four men's names on the cake until I explained it.   You see, you have to explain things these days, just in case.

But getting back to these laws, they seem innocuous enough, until some yahoo decides that "his religion" prohibits him from serving Gay people at all.   So you are driving through rural Mississippi and are down to your last gallon of gas.  You go to buy gas in the next small town and they see your "Human Equality" bumper sticker and say, "We don't serve your type here!".   You can't get cell service, so you can't call a tow truck.   And they won't let you use the phone.   You can't eat in the cafe.  You can't stay in the motel.   All you can do is sleep in your car until someone rescues you or they decide to drag you out and beat you to death.

OK, maybe that is an extreme scenario.   But when you tell people - through the law - that it is OK to single out certain groups of people for abuse, well, people start to abuse.  We are seeing this right now in Russia, and of course, the Police refuse to investigate.

The pendulum of hate is swinging back to 1983 and pretty soon, "Gay Bashing" will be back in vogue again (as it was during the Reagan era).  In fact if you Google it, it seems to be already happening.

So what does this have to do with restrooms?  Well, the North Carolina law tacked on another provision - about bathrooms.  And the GOP has made sure that this is the only talking point to be raised in any discussion in order to make any discussion about the law seem ridiculous.   Men should go to the Men's room and Ladies to the Ladies' room, right?   These Liberals are being downright unreasonable!

If you can control the language of the debate, you win the debate.   So even seasoned journalists fall into this trap (particularly NPR) and never investigate the other parts of this law that are really what people are objecting to.

Republican politicians are obsessed with restrooms - that is where they are usually arrested for soliciting undercover police officers.   Well, they are, with regularity.

But that comment brings up a number of issues with regard to restroom design, and maybe this discussion is useful in updating the architecture of the modern restroom.

Back in the 1980's, Republican politicians were in fact being arrested in public restrooms for soliciting sex from undercover police officers.   Back then in the closeted era, many public restrooms along public highways, in college libraries, department stores, and other areas were notorious "cruising" areas for closeted men - often married men.   There was even a little book - Dameron's Guide - that had a listing of which places to go to (it has since morphed into a travel guide).  And it was pretty out of control, too.

Since then, the highway departments have bulldozed most of the old seedy restrooms and reduced them significantly in number.  In Florida, for example, they would tear down four rest stops and replace them with one mega-travel center.   These were less costly to maintain, easier to police, and could offer travel information and tourist destination guides.   By that time, of course, men were no longer using restrooms for sex, as being gay was less stigmatized and there were other outlets.  Today, young gay men (and closeted married ones!) use "apps" on their cell phone like Grindr to find their sexual mates.

So it is possible to change restroom architecture in response to changing conditions.  And those changes were for the better.

A second problem with restroom is gender inequality.   If you go to a concert or ball game or whatever, there is always a line at the ladies' room (a long, long line!) and no line at the men's room.   Men can use urinals and don't need to "sit down" to pee.   I was at a concert once (classical) and a group of men took pity on the line of women waiting to go and closed off the men's room and let the ladies use it until the two lines were equal in length again.   That's how bad it gets.

Some restaurants and bars (and grocery stores like Trader Joe's) solve this issue by having "one-holer" restrooms (a toilet and a sink, maybe a urinal, in a single room with a lockable door).  These are gender-neutral restrooms and provide privacy and security.   Moreover, they don't discriminate based on gender.  The line for the restroom is THE line, not separate lines for men and women.

Then there is the issue with children.   If you are a Mom shopping with your young son, or a Dad shopping with your young daughter, you have a dilemma.   Do you let them go into the restroom alone?  Or do you take them into "your" gender restroom to do their business?   Dear Abby usually has a letter or two every other year on this topic - at what age is it inappropriate for Mom to bring her little boy into the Ladies room?   It gets awkward.

Again, architecture to the rescue.   In some rest areas they have "family" restrooms which are handicapped accessible, have changing tables and are basically just a private room with a toilet and a sink.  These are, in effect the "one-holers" I mentioned above. 

So why do we still have separate "gang" restrooms today?   This goes back in time to earlier years when the cost of plumbing and construction was much higher.   When I was in High School, we had "gang showers" - large tiled rooms with dozens of faucets.   It was cheaper to build, I guess, but there was no privacy and a lot of towel-snapping going on (plus leering gym teachers).   Today, most modern high schools have separate stall showers, as do most health clubs and other athletic venues.

Similarly, the "gang" restroom with its row of stalls was probably cheaper to build that a series of separate restroom "one holers" that can accommodate one at a time.

The single-occupant restroom, however, does have a lot of advantages to offer:
1.  It is gender neutral in that women don't have to wait in separate lines.
2.  If there is a maintenance issue, you can close one of a number of such restrooms with little or no impact.  If you close the men's room or the ladies' room, you have to get porta-potties for one gender to use until repairs are effected.
3.   For families with small children, the single-occupant restroom is a godsend.
4.   All of them can be made handicapped accessible, so the handicapped don't have to wait for "the" stall or be stigmatized.
Oh, and it solves this whole "men in a dress" using the ladies' room thing.

Of course, retrofitting existing structures from two gang-style restrooms to a plurality of single-occupant restrooms might not be practical and could be costly.   But in a lot of new construction, that is exactly what architects are turning to.   And quite frankly, most people prefer their own personal restroom to using some gang-restroom with multiple people farting and shitting and pissing together, with nothing separating them but some flimsy metal divider.

But again, realistically, that is an architectural solution that will only work going forward, and it would be more costly than conventional "gang" restrooms.

So what about these "Transgender" people using the wrong restrooms?   Well, despite their high profile in the news, the number of transgender people in the country is very, very small.   Many of them you would not recognize as transgender (ask Eddie Murphy!) so you would never notice them in the "wrong" restroom.   In fact, a transgendered man (appearing as a woman) would make quite a scene in the men's room, and probably be assaulted.

And sadly, this is where it is all headed.   After this law was passed, there have been a number of episodes where men have followed women into the restroom to challenge their gender.   A law designed to keep "men out of the ladies room" has resulted in so-called restroom vigilantes to start invading the ladies' room as the gender police.  And one overzealous security guard actually assaulted a Transgender woman in Washington DC - apparently believing that North Carolina's law was enforceable there!

One man even assaulted a parent for bringing their child into the restroom!   I guess kids will just have to pee on the floor of the Wal-Mart from now on...

Is there a threat of transgender people molesting women and children in restrooms?   One conservative site claims this is so - citing five examples of such incidents (one in Canada - does that count?).   But the funny thing is, since this law came out, there have been at least as many examples of men harassing or assaulting women and questioning their gender - sometimes even following them into the ladies' room.

But again, it is all a distraction.   The real reason people are upset about the North Carolina law is not the restroom part of it.   If a transgender man can "pass" as female, no one is going to notice if they use the ladies' room, law or no law.   What is disturbing is the other parts of the law which basically codify discrimination in favor of "religious liberty" - as if running a business and serving the public was a religious calling.

I must, however, enter one caveat:   There have been some isolated incidents where some Lesbians (and it appears to be mostly Lesbians at this point) have gone out of their way to find a Christian bakery or flower shop and then make some big stinking issue about their refusal to bake a wedding cake, cater a wedding, or make flowers for the wedding.   Yes, if you serve the public, you have to serve the public.

But on the other hand, going out of your way to tweak people isn't right either.   They put those Jesus fish on their business signs for a reason - so you can avoid narrow-minded people and take your business elsewhere.    Seriously, though - folks who make their religion part of their business plan are often very crappy business people and should just be avoided.  You will get lousy service and crappy prices just because they are not very smart people. 

When "praying" is your business model, you are sure to go bankrupt.   Jesus doesn't handle accounts receivable, you do.  The folks who cloak themselves in religion are usually using it to cloak their incompetence.  To me the Jesus Fish on a business sign is like a one-star rating on Yelp!   Just avoid.

Fussy Kitty

Are you a Fussy Kitty?  (Dora, circa 1995, now deceased)

Fussy Kitties are everywhere.  Chances are you are one, too - at least some of the time.  We all are, to some extent, by design.   We all want to feel special, catered to, waited on, and unique and different from the crowd.   And the marketing experts know this and fuel this and encourage us to be Fussy Kitties.

But being a Fussy Kitty is annoying to everyone else.   Moreover, like couponing, it is a distractor which allows the marketing types to fleece your wallet while making you feel like someone special.   In short, it is a dead-end game.

How can you tell if you are Fussy Kitty?  Take this simple test:

1.  Do you get a "special meal" when you go on an airline - even though you don't have any dietary restrictions, or your dietary restrictions are imaginary (e.g., self-diagnosed allegries, gluten-free, etc.)  And yes, kosher is an imaginary dietary restriction.

2.  Do you send back meals at a restaurant on a regular basis?

3.  Do you try to order "off the menu" or make insane substitutions, even at places like McDonald's?

4.  Is your coffee order so complex that it has to be written down?

5.  Do you fall for special promotions for "limited exclusive guests" or seek out other "limited" or "exclusive" experiences?

If you can answer "YES" to more than a couple of these, chances are, you are a Fussy Kitty.   And in a way it is not entirely your fault, our society encourages Fussy Kittyism.  In particular, the marketers and retailers cater to this trend because it makes them a lot of money - and takes money from you.

I'll give you some examples of Fussy Kitty people and maybe you'll understand what I mean.

Josephine likes to go out to eat.   But about 75% of the time she goes out, she sends her meal back to the kitchen, claiming it was the wrong entree, cooked improperly, is lacking an ingredient she requested - or has an ingredient she wanted removed, or is just something "she doesn't like." 

Now, we all have gotten a bad meal once in a while.   Most of us just suck it up and never go back to a bad restaurant.   But the Fussy Kitty will go back to a bad restaurant again and again, trying to make a bad deal "work" by being fussier and fussier.

If you've read Kitchen Confidential you know the perils of sending food back.  If it is a steak, they will drop it on the floor and then cook it until it is charred.   Other foods they just spit in.   I don't send food back.   I just eat somewhere else.

Not only is being a Fussy Kitty fruitless, it annoys your friends.   Josephine is no fun to eat with, as she has complicated instructions for her food order - which are never followed to her satisfaction - and when she sends her food back, she complains about the restaurant and the food, while the rest of us are eating.

Her entree arrives back just as we are ready to leave.   She has it put in a clamshell, and having not eaten at all, her blood sugar is very low and she is grumpier and grumpier.  Don't be like Josephine.

If you don't like what is on the menu, don't eat there.   Don't go to a Barbecue joint and order the pasta dish.   Don't ask for the sauce on the side or some other complexity.    Stop trying to make the restaurant into something it is not or some sort of personalized chef.

Josephine defends her practice by saying, "Well, I just like things a certain way."    Well, we all do.   But you will never have a new or interesting experience in your life if you don't try things another way.  

I had a friend who took a cruise around the world, and when they were in Vietnam, they said, "Finally!  Some decent food!  They have a Hard Rock Cafe here!"

You might as well stay at home.

Sylvia loves to go to Starbucks, and when she orders, she has a page-length of instructions as to how her half-caf/half-decaf cafe macchiato with skim, soy, and whole milk, is to be made ("not too much cinnamon!").

Of course, it is never made quite right, or her order gets confused with someone else's and it gives her something to bitch about.   But she goes back, day after day, trying to get "special treatment" and hoping the 21-year-old "Barrista" remembers her by sight as a "special customer" (he remembers her, of course, as the PITA customer!).

Starbucks is genius at this shit.  They have armies of psychologists and marketers and other evil people who sit down and figure out how to plant "off the menu" stories in social media so the Sylvia's of the world can feel like special snowflakes and not just some drone dropping his 401(k) money into a tip jar for a beverage that used to cost twenty-five cents.

You see, Fussy Kitty is a form of marketing.   We are told, again and again, by markers that our purchasing choices and preferences define who we are.    Are you a Pickup truck guy who chews "chaw", listens to the "New Country" station and drinks lite beer?  Or are you a Volvo-driver who smokes a pipe, listens to NPR, and drinks Chardonnay?  Or are you the kicky girl in the Volkswagen Beetle who smokes Virginia slims, listens to pop music, and drinks frozen wine coolers?   Or maybe you are a bearded "hipster" who ironically drives a SAAB, "vapes" and drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon - but only for the irony factor?

They sell us these masks to wear and roles to play - and try to get you to think you are being unique or different.  And they usually get us to consume more or pay extra for the privilege of being "unique" or "special".

For example, one credit card company offers "Special VIP treatment" at restaurants and concert events if you book using their credit card.  Problem is, the "Special Offer" was advertised on television to tens of millions of people and no doubt millions signed up.   How special can that be?  It isn't - it is just the appearance of special.

Carolyn has special dietary requirements.   They tend to change over time, depending on whatever fad diet she is on.   She was ordering the "diet plate" and eating salads on Pritikin, but then decided that big juicy steaks on Adkins was the way to go.  Then she went low-salt followed by low-fat, and then low-sugar, then no HFCS, and finally gluten-free.   It is hard to keep up on what her restrictions are this week, and of course, none of it makes any sense whatsoever.   A lot of it is, in fact, unhealthy.   But secretly, she enjoys having her special plate of food when going to a friend's house, even if it is not as good as what other folks are eating.

Kevin decided to go all-Kosher, at least when on an airplane or cruise ship.   He enjoyed getting his special meals, untouched by human hands, which were "different" from everyone else's food.   Kevin isn't particularly religious, but he likes being pampered and catered to.  "And the Kosher meal is usually better!" he chirps.   So he is "winning" in the game of consumerism.

Cruise ships, Disneyworld, Hotels, Airlines - they all play this game where they try to get you to "win" by collecting secret value points or flyer miles or being "in the know" as which line to stand in, when to book your tickets, or whatever other secret "tip" or "trick" that will put you "one up" on the rest of the plebes.

Sam and Mary like to go on cruises for this reason.  They have accumulated enough "points" to become "gold members" and they know all the secret tips and tricks to get a free drink here and there or to have just a little extra tequila in your margarita.  To them, the pleasure of cruising isn't lounging in the sun or visiting exotic tropical ports, but rather "winning" a this game and congratulating themselves that they were better than the other people because they "won".

Tom likes to go to the Football game.   But of course, he leaves halfway through the third quarter so he will "beat the crowd" out of the stadium and get home that much faster!   The best part of the game is often in the final seconds - but he listens to that on the radio in the car.   He knows all the insider tip and tricks to getting ahead in life - but misses out on the actual experience of life in the process.

For a lot of people, life is a game to be rushed through as quickly as possible, with each event an optimized outcome.   What is important to them is not the experience, but making it special, different, superior, unique, or better than everyone else's experience.

It is, in short, Status.   And after rushing through life this way, you can have a unique theme funeral with a custom-designed casket, so you can win at that, too.

There is, of course, another way.

Life is not an optimized event(tm) for starters.   Trying to "win" at life is a futile endeavor.   At most you will operate at an efficiency level of 5% or so, being human.   Making special plans or making things complicated will almost always result in things going awry.   Sometimes - all the times - simplicity is better.

Taking things as they come is sometimes a better deal.   Rather than trying to go tailored, buy off-the-rack.   Not only is it cheaper and more convenient, you won't fret so much about getting your clothes dirty or torn, or have to have them dry-cleaned.

Go with the flow, stop trying to make things unique or special, when they are pretty damn good just the way they are.

I realize in retrospect that 99% of the heartache and trouble I have had in my life occurs when I try to do the opposite - make things complicated, custom, different, and difficult.

Fussy Kitties are never happy, in the long run, just fussy.   And they also annoy the snot out of everyone else!



Monday, May 23, 2016

They Will Not Go Quietly....


Why are angry white males supporting Trump and Sanders?   Because they feel threatened by minorities and women.

There is an interesting thing going on in this country for the last few years.   After electing a black President (well, half-black anyway) one would think that racism would start to decrease over time.   But instead, it seems that racism is more virulent and outspoken then ever before.

And it is, although the people making these loud comments are a tiny minority.  A tiny, obnoxious minority, given the megaphone of the Internet to shout with.

And in smearing President Obama, they have used every racial stereotype out there, and also made up the most ludicrous and disgusting stories imaginable.     They portray the President as little more than an animal.

But what is up with Hillary?   Hillary Clinton is poised to be the first woman to lead the free world, and that is scaring the shit out of a lot of people.  The most lewd and obnoxious things are being said about her, along with outright lies and made-up stories.   Something visceral is at work here.

Trump supporters, coming from the more conservative side of the aisle, are expected to support the idea of women in more "traditional" roles, as many on the far-right still harbor notions of women as baby-makers.   While we may find such thinking antiquated, it is what we tend to expect from that portion of the political spectrum.

But on the Left?   You expect Democrats to be progressive and welcoming women and minorities.   Yet these two demographics - which make up a huge part of the Democratic voting base - are largely absent at Bernie rallies.   If you took away the signs and slogans, a Bernie Rally and a Trump Rally look an awful lot alike - white, male, and largely middle-class.

(In a way, it is like the Aryan Nations rallies and the "bear weekend" at the gay campground - both have hoards of pasty-white overweight men running around with their shirts off, when they should be on).

But it is more than demographics.   A lot of these Bernie supporters are quite misogynistic as well.  After the Nevada convention, Bernie supporters started calling and texting the head of the Democratic Party in Nevada, calling her a 'bitch' and making death threats, because two whole delegates were allegedly "stolen" from Bernie (and as we know, that is enough for him to win the nomination!).

(Meanwhile, after Hillary wins Nebraska, but the delegates are pledged to Bernie, not one Hillary supporter cries "foul" - who is the class act, here?).

So what is going on here?  It is an example of the old guard having to step down and let new people into the process.   And this holds true even if the "old guard" is an old white guy from Vermont with a sense of entitlement.  Misogyny is not just a game conservatives play, but liberals can get in on it too - scoring twice as many points for the hypocrisy factor.

Sadly, this is not going to get better.   The Bernie camp is promising to "burn down the convention" by attacking Hillary as much as possible, no matter how much that helps Donald Trump.   Bernie doesn't have to worry about "party unity" as he isn't a member of the party, but instead took a free ride in the Presidential Primaries after running as a Socialist for so many years.

It is very sad.  By any normal measure, Bernie Sanders is not qualified to be President (nor is Donald Trump).   A man who has existed outside of either political party, who is heavily in debt and living paycheck-to-paychek with no savings whatsoever while making a six-figure salary for over a decade, believes himself to be Presidential timber.    And this woman is standing in his way!   

This woman who spent years helping her husband develop his own political career before becoming a Senator in her own right, serving as Secretary of State and working with the Democratic Party and not against it is viewed as some sort of wicked person because, well, Democrats, including the voters, like her more than him.

The real fear is that he will do something stupid like run as an independent or something.   History has shown that independents tend to be spoilers - allowing only the person with the political views most opposite of their own to be elected.

Perhaps this is just political silly season.   The latest word from the Bernie camp is that he is staying in the race to get "concessions" from the Democratic leadership to "reform" the primary process.   The problem with this theory - as with all Bernie's pipe dreams - is that it is totally unrealistic.

First of all, Bernie isn't losing because "the fix is in" or "election fraud" or the "process is flawed" but because more people are voting for Hillary.   Sure, Bernie fills huge rallies.   20-somethings like to go to stadium concerts.   A big rally with lots of pot smoking is fun.   People in their 40's no longer like to go to such things.   Hillary doesn't have huge rallies.  She has voters.

And no matter how you slice it, she is ahead in the polls and ahead at the polling places.   As for superdelegates, the Sanders people say that the superdelegates should vote for who the people chose at the polls.   Well, so far, that has been Hillary by a wide margin.   So shouldn't the superdelegates be voting for Hillary?

Well, no, in their crazy world, the superdelegates ("who haven't voted yet") should be harassed and intimidated into voting for Bernie, even though he isn't winning the popular vote.   It is a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose argument.

But the big thing is this:  The Democratic National Committee doesn't control primaries.   Individual States do, and most of these States have no interest in changing their primary or caucus functions.   I have written about open primaries before - it is a good idea.  Sadly, the only State to change its primaries lately went from open to closed.

So the latest "big lie" that Bernie is spouting (after free college and whatnot) is that he is staying in the race to reform the system, when he knows full well the Democratic Party has no control over the primary system whatsoever - particularly in States dominated by GOP legislatures.  So why is he staying in?

The primary system illustrates that States elect Presidents, not people, and this has been the case since the founding of our republic.   Oh, sure, you can pine for direct election.  It ain't happening.   Too many States come out ahead with the electoral college that the end result is that nothing is likely to change anytime soon.

Rather than pine for your "perfect" candidate who has no chance of being elected (and every chance, if running as a third party of getting Donald Trump elected), figure out which candidate best represents your views.

Sadly, so many of these young people today are so addled by smoking pot they fail to realize that a Democrat in the White House is the only thing keeping their legal marijuana legal.   All it takes is a phone call from the President, and the DEA starts shutting down marijuana dispensaries - which are still illegal under Federal Law.

You hear these kids say, "Well, it doesn't matter.  If we can't have Bernie, we might as well have Trump!" - as if far right and far left are the same thing (well, they are, if you go far enough).

But Donald Trump is endorsed by the NRA.   What do you think will happen to instant background checks if he is elected President?

What will happen to abortion rights if he appoints the next Supreme Court Justice?

What will happen to our new consumer protection agency?

People are not thinking this through, clearly.   And sadly, it seems that a big part of the problem is that the woman running for President reminds them too much of their Mom.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Aeropostal Goes Bankrupt - Lessons in Mall Fashions

Once a coveted item at the trendy mall store, now a 10-cent garage-sale purchase.

I have mocked Aeropostal in the past as an example of the overpriced crap that kids like to buy.   If you don't have the hot sneaker or the hot shirt or the hot hat, you are deemed to be a dweeb.  So the kids spend $50 on a t-shirt just to "look cool" and a few months later it languishes in a closet.

In the meantime, they don't realize that to adults, they look like a dweeb for having "Aeropostal" or "Hollister" or "Benneton" plastered across their chest.

I knew Aeropostal was going to hit the skids soon when our personal garage sale shopper showed up with an Aeropostal hat like the one shown above.   She said, "I thought you might like this and it was only ten cents!"   So, we took it, because for 10 cents, it was appropriately priced and kept the sun off your head.

I can only imagine what the original owner paid for it.  

But apparently these things have a half-life of about five years, and it is no longer "cool" to wear Aeropostal as old people are wearing the stuff after finding it at garage sales.  I speculated that the company might go out of business.   Now the company has gone bust:
AĆ©ropostale Inc. is preparing to file for bankruptcy protection this week and close more than 100 stores, according to people familiar with the matter, as the teen-apparel retailer contends with mounting losses and falling sales.
New York-based AĆ©ropostale plans to seek chapter 11 protection in the next few days before May rent payments are due, the people said. It is in advanced talks with specialty lender Crystal Financial LLC on a loan to finance its operations in bankruptcy, they added.
The retailer would close more than 100 of its roughly 800 stores soon after filing and potentially more later, the people said. The company plans to reorganize around its remaining stores, but the precise contours of its restructuring plan remain unclear, they added.
A number of mall-based specialty retailers have filed for bankruptcy in recent years as declining mall traffic, changing consumer tastes and competition from "fast-fashion" chains like Hennes & Mauritz AB and Fast Retailing Co.'s Uniqlo eat into their sales.
Teen retailer Pacific Sunwear of California Inc., known as PacSun, sought bankruptcy last month, citing the "shifting retail landscape." In 2015, women's formalwear retailer Cache Inc., teen-focused Wet Seal and surfwear seller Quiksilver Inc. filed for chapter 11 protection.

Of course, to "old people" this whole idea of basing the value of something on what name is plastered on it seems foolish.   I guess (no pun intended) it started in the 1970's when "designer jeans" became popular.   Hippies wore blue jeans, and no on really cared which brand you had.   Levis became trendy with gays - particularly the button-fly 501 style.   But frankly, if you want a good pair of jeans, go to a Western wear store and buy a pair of "boot cut" Wranglers.  They are cheap, last forever, and don't have stupid rivets on them to tear up the upholstery in your car.  Levis suck, period.   And please, no "pre-distressed" jeans - that shit is idiotic.

But I digress.

In the 1980's all the girls from Long Island wore "Benneton" sweaters when I was at Syracuse University.   They were just green and white sweaters with the word "Benneton" in foot-high letters across the front.

Why would you want the brand name in large letters on the front?

Something had changed in our society.  Suddenly, it wasn't enough to have "nice clothes" but they had to be a particular brand.   And maybe this was because more and more clothes were being made overseas and people no longer wore "suits" (whose quality could be determined by the discerning eye, not by a brand blasted across the front).

When I asked the girls who wore these sweaters why they bought them, they looked at me like I was some clueless moron.  "Because they're cool!" the said.   And everyone else in the sorority had the same sweater or one like it.  So to "fit in" they bought them.   It was the beginning of college turning into High School 2.0

I am not just picking on the girls.  The guys back then had to have brand-name merchandise as well.   Remember "Members Only"?  Click to enlarge.
And over time, the trend has accelerated.  Today, we are accustomed to having brand names plastered in large letters on much of our clothing.   And if not a brand name, we are walking advertisements for commercial products and services.   Owning or wearing "plain" clothes without something written on it is deemed to be odd.   Only a poor person would wear a jacket or shirt without a corporate logo or brand name on it!

But it is funny - fashion is fickle.    And in the old days, the "fashion store" could stay in business by changing its product mix to keep up with the times and trends.   Today, single-brand stores are popular, so long as the name of the brand (as plastered on all of the merchandise) is considered coveted and cool.   Once the cool-factor wears off, the entire company goes bankrupt and the store closes.   It is an interesting change in the paradigm of retailing.

Abercrombie & Fitch, who once sold elephant guns and fly rods to Ernest Hemingway, became a teen retailer and similarly saw its fortunes wax and wane.   Fortunately for them, they were able to create "spin-off" brands such as "Hollister" which is the new "name" t-shirt to have today.   Oddly enough teens covet the Hollister brand, but would not be caught dead today in an Abercrombie shirt.   If only they knew!

Of course, the entire point of "brands" as they were originally envisioned, was to allow consumers to determine the source of goods or services - that is the definition under Trademark Law.   You sought out a reliable brand not because you wanted to show off the brand to friends and strangers, but because you knew that brand was reliable.   Today, it is all switched around.   Everything is made in China and is of about the same quality level.   The only distinguishing feature of a "Hollister" shirt is the name on the front.   You are literally buying a Trademark to wear, not an actual piece of clothing.  Or more succinctly, the cost of clothing is incidental to the transaction - the bulk of the "cost" and the value to the consumer is in being able to display the brand.

It is, in a way, hilarious.   And it illustrates how people are sheep.   You tell people that it is desirable to drive a nail into their forehead, and within a week, you will see thousands or millions of people with nails sticking out of their head.   Oh, wait, that sounds a lot like the body-piercing trend, doesn't it?   Once again, I try to be sarcastic and it comes too close to reality because reality is so ridiculous today.

But it is ridiculous.  And if you were to say that people are going into credit card debt so they can overpay for a t-shirt with someone's name plastered on it, in the abstract, you would think that was insane.   But it is the reality of modern consumerism.

And we wonder why we're broke!


Job Dependency


When did it become the norm for candidates to promise to "create jobs"?

Today a lot of people can't remember a time when government was the public sector and the business was the private sector - and rarely the twain would meet.   For most folks today under 50, the idea that the President or the government should do everything in its power to "create jobs" and act as steward of the economy is the norm.

Why is this and when did it start?

Well, to be sure, the Great Depression did start the whole ball rolling.   Roosevelt started the WPA and a whole host of other programs (many later found to be unconstitutional) with the idea of getting the economy rolling again and putting people back to work.    Of course, government spending, in the form of World War II really put the economy back on its feet, although by that time, the economy had largely recovered organically.

After the war, though, the idea that the government should manage the economy and create employment sort of fell from favor.   After all, that was the snake-oil the Communists were selling, and in that era, you didn't want to be accused of being a "Red".

Things started to go off the rails in the 1970's.   Richard Nixon, when he wasn't being distracted by Watergate, tried to control rampant inflation with "wage and price controls" in phases.   It seems odd today that a Republican President would attempt to use command economy tactics, but then again, what it means to be a Republican then is different than today.   For example, Nixon was the one who opened the door to China.   Today, Trump wants to close it.   Same party, different philosophies.

By the end of the 1970's, stag-flation was in full bloom.   High wages for union employees, coupled with high energy costs, meant that everything cost a fortune, and people started buying less.   You may not recall this, but there were shortages of gasoline, coffee, and peanut butter (!!) at the time.   The latter came about not because of a real shortage, but because we were all so poor we resorted to what was once a cheap staple item to live on, and demand shot up (as did price).

From then on, if you wanted to get elected, you had to promise to "fix the economy" and "create jobs".   Once again, Republicans found themselves in the position of contradicting one of their fundamental tenets - that the government should take a hands-off approach to the economy and business.  Instead, you had to promise "programs" that would create employment and prime the economy.   Since then, it is the fixture of every Presidential campaign.

Why the paranoia about jobs?   Well, at the time, people were losing their jobs.   A lot of manufacturing jobs went overseas and never came back.   Of course, new jobs were created.   There were no "IT guys" back in 1979, but there are millions today.   New industries, such as the wireless business, were created, and new jobs in new technologies emerged.   This was little consolation to the guy who made a living pounding steel in a forge plant - he wasn't about to configure servers for a living.

Recently, Hillary made headlines when she said that she would like to see big coal go out of business - replaced, of course, by the newer and cleaner energy businesses of solar, wind, and other renewable resources.   Despite this comment, she still won the Kentucky primary.   Pundits thought that people would be outraged by this, and indeed some were.   But I thought to myself, "Does anyone really enjoy working in a coal mine?"   I mean, do people say, "Gee, I love working a mile underground in the dark where it is all dusty and nasty and at any time I could die in a cave-in, flood, or explosion, or just slowly linger over black lung in my declining years!" - really?

I doubt it.   I am sure that most coal miners would rather work above-ground in a wind or solar farm - but lack the skills to work there - so they are stuck.  And the mine owners don't want to see their investment go away, even if what is good for them is bad for America and the environment.

In a way, it is like Edison and his DC current.   Edison set up DC generating stations and sold them to local utility companies.  These companies didn't have the capital to pay him, so they gave him stock (where do you think "Consolidated Edison" came from?).   Thus, he owned a lot of stock in a lot of utility companies and was dependent on their success.   If they failed, he would be ruined.

Westinghouse put DC power out of business.   This put a lot of people out of work, but created far more jobs in the long run.

So it is no surprise that he lead a campaign to discredit Westinghouse and AC current - even though the technology was clearly superior and would win the day eventually.   He spread rumors and lies that AC power was "dangerous" compared to DC, which really wasn't the case.   While his tactics did delay the entry of AC power, it did not stop it.
Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. --Victor Hugo.
Similarly, a dozen years ago, if you told me that electric cars, solar power, and wind farms were the wave of the future, I would have said you were a hippie dreamer.   But in recent years, there has been a pronounced technological shift.  Lithium-Ion batteries solved the "battery problem" with electric cars (and newer versions will go even further).   Cheap solar panels from China are making the payback with solar more effective - putting it on a par with more "traditional" power sources.  And those same Lithium-Ion batteries might solve the problem of "what happens when the sun doesn't shine?"   Elon Musk is the new Edison - or Westinghouse, or Tesla or whatever.   Hence the name of the car.

But people are still afraid of change.   If people go to electric cars, what will Exxon do?   On a local level, what will the guy at the service station do if everyone is plugging in at home or at charging stations on the street?   What about my job?

This gets us back to the point of this post (Once again, I digress!) and that is why people are so paranoid about "jobs" in the last few decades.   In 1979, it was because folks were losing them regularly.   Today, it is about debt.    People buy a lot of crap, because the banks are willing to loan on easy terms.   And many Americans - if not most - live "paycheck to paycheck" with their six-figure salary barely covering the payments on all of their debts.    One of these debt-slaves (Bernie Sanders) is actually running for President - blaming all of his personal problems, as well as those of a nation, on "The Big Banks".

And I have talked about this before,  Specifically, "paycheck-to-paycheck" people who mortgage their lives to the hilt so they can have monster trucks, jet skis and tattoos, but are vulnerable at work.  When the boss says, "dump that toxic waste in some third world country" they can't afford to day "No, I won't that.   I don't need a job that badly.  I quit and I'm blowing the whistle on this!"

Instead, they say, "Yes sir!" because they need that paycheck to "survive" or so they think.

So our debt generation becomes a subservient generation, willing to do anything at all to keep a job and willing to vote for whoever promises to "create jobs."

When people are struggling and there is no work to be found - as was the case in 1929 and 1979, one can understand this subservient attitude.   Oddly enough, one popular hit song in 1979 was "Take this job and shove it!" which was an anthem to these job-subservient people, who could sing along and fantasize about living in a world where they actually would be financially independent.

In 2009 we had another recession.   But people weren't selling apples on the sidewalk or waiting in line to buy gas on even or odd days.   Rather folks took to the streets (and the internet) to decry the loss of their "things" or the cost of the horrendous debts they racked up.   The Joads weren't being forced off the farm, but the Jones' were losing their mini-mansion in Foreclosure Mews Estates.   The dream of granite countertops and stainless steel appliances was being taken away and someone had to be at fault!

Similarly, young people were (and are) offered huge sums of money to go to college, and many took it.   Why struggle and scrimp and save to attend college when you can have a brand-new car?  And I am serious about this.  I know one young man who said he wants to go back to college for a graduate degree, not because he thinks he needs it, or because it will help him pay off his staggering undergraduate debt, but because college was more fun that "real life" and he could live large on more borrowed money and get another new car, because the one he bought as a freshman is already five years old!

This time around, it is different.   We are job-dependent not by necessity but by choice.    In the 1970's it was a struggle to make ends meet.   But if you were older, you had your house paid for so you didn't worry too much.   Today, people are at retirement age with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and yes, Bernie Sanders is poster-boy for this mentality.    A lifetime of work, decades of six-figure salary, and nothing to show for it whatsoever but a mound of debt and an upside-down house.
This is the new norm, and when asked about it, people say, "Well, Bernie is like one of us!  He's just an average American!"

And sadly, the are correct.   A vast majority of people today are helplessly in debt, with no plan or no idea as to how to pay it off.   The idea of getting by with less stuff is alien to them.   They crowd debt sites with pleas for help - "How can I pay off this staggering debt, but of course, without actually changing any any of my habits or lifestyle?"

It is like the fat girl who wants to lose weight and is willing to try anything - anything that is, but eating less, exercising more and going hungry.

It is sad to me that we have created an entire generation of debt-slaves.   Sad enough!   But sadder still is that these folks see no alternative to having debt and believe that their debts were the fault of someone else.

Their lives will never change, so long as they believe this.   Someone else will always be calling the tune, and they will have to dance.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Cars of the Future?



In the future, cars may be all the same under the sheetmetal, but people will still personalize them for status reasons.


In C.M. Kornbluth's science fiction short story, The Marching Morons, he describes a future America dominated by incredibly stupid people.   The few smart folks remaining try to hold everything together by operating a secret shadow government and appearing as "assistants" to the nominally elected or promoted heads of State or companies.   Given how the Bush administration worked, he was very prescient.

He also describes how cars in the future will look and work.   No doubt influenced by the gaudy be-finned and be-chromed monsters of the 1950s, he describes cars that are flashy and showy and have a dashboard that looks like a jukebox.   And while they make an enormous amount of engine noise and while the speedometer shows the car going 150 miles an hour, in reality, it is barely going over 40 - for the protection of the idiotic occupants.

Again, Kornbluth is prescient.  People today have the worst sort of driving habits.   People text and drive, eat and drive, drink and drive and do everything, it seems, other than actually driving.   And when they do actually drive their cars - watch out!   Something as simple as merging onto an expressway is a lost art today - people have no idea what "Yield" means and expect four lanes of heavy high-speed traffic to slow down, move over and "make room" for cars entering the highway - as if they had the right of way!

And sadly, if you talk to most people, they say this is how you are supposed to merge - just pull onto the Interstate doing 45 or so, and a big truck doing 70 is obligated to lock up his brakes to "let you in".   Once you are settled in, have your coffee opened, eat your hamburger, set the radio station, and catch up on your texts, you can then accelerate to highway speed - but of course, you never, ever use cruise control, right?   That's for driving in the desert or something.

Because of all of this, we have six, eight, or ten airbags in our cars.  We have retractable seatbelts and lane drifting indicators.  We have blind spot monitors, adaptive cruise control, automatic braking, and a host of features designed to drive the car for you, so all you have to do is point and shoot.   And of course, this technology is combining with other technologies to create the self-driving car, which may be a reality in 10- years or so - maybe sooner.

Electric cars are rapidly advancing.   New battery technologies, hybrid drivetrains and whatnot mean that electric cars are no longer pie-in-the-sky ideas, but real products for sale in showrooms across the country.   You can decry electric cars as a fad or whatever, but it is highly likely they will supplant or supplement most internal combustion engines within a decade or so as well.

Carmakers, of course, are faced with making the most complicated cars ever built.  People decry modern cars as "too electronic" and pine for the days of their '65 Chevy and four-barrel Rochester carburetor and points ignition.   But those days are gone for good, and if you think cars today are complicated, wait until these self-driving cars come out.  The number of sensors will be multiplied by a factor of five - not to mention the number of computer modules.   And without expensive diagnostic equipment, the local shade-tree mechanic will be hard-pressed to do little more than change a tire - if he can even do that without mucking up the tire pressure sensors.

Since the cost of developing a new car "platform" is so high, carmakers are increasingly looking to share platform development costs.   Companies buy parts and engines and even complete cars from one another and have been doing so for a long time.   Fiat is selling Miatas now - and their 500 is based on the same platform as the Ford Ka.   BMW is doing a joint venture for the new Z5 with Toyota, who will built a new Supra on the same platform.  But the car will be made by neither company, instead being assembled by Magna Steyr in Austria.

And so on down the line.  Toyota and Subaru combine forces on a new sports car.    Particularly for low volume cars (like sports cars) it makes sense to join forces and reduce overhead costs.   Of course, this raises issues - aren't you competing with yourself?  Or if you agree not to compete, is there some sort of anti-trust issue here?  

The CEO of Fiat-Chrysler is still shopping the company around, after being turned down by both GM and Ford (Hint:  Honda has little or no presence in the SUV and big truck market, they might be willing to go in on a deal.   Everyone else already has trucks and SUVs - why would they want to merge?).   His  logic is compelling - the cost of platform development is staggering and there is far too much build capacity worldwide.   As cars continually improve, they become more and more standardized.

GM started this trend in the late 1960's.   Each division had its own engines - usually around the same size and horsepower.  It made little sense.   They decided to standardize to three engines - the small block Chevy, offered in 300 and 350 CID displacements (and 400 sometimes) expanded with different carburation to a number of horsepower offerings, as well as the old 250 CID inline six.  By the 1980's, these offerings were narrowed further to the 300 and 350 small blocks, the 3.8 "corporate" V-6 and a smaller V-6 as well, as well as a couple of four-cylinders.

People got upset and sued GM, claiming they expected an "Oldsmobile" engine in an Oldsmobile.   But we know how that worked out - Oldsmobile is no more.   The idea that you needed to many different lines of the same car was ludicrous.  With increased emissions, crash safety, and fuel economy requirements, certifying different engines and different cars became staggeringly expensive.

And with self-driving cars, this cost will become even more staggering.   No doubt such cars would have to be certified to a number of Federal safety requirements, and such certification will not be cheap.  So it will make sense to share platforms among a number of different car models and types.   And such platform sharing will make sense from a functional standpoint - in self-driving car traffic, it will be helpful if each car had similar driving characteristics - similar acceleration rates, similar braking abilities, similar handling.   Particularly in automated highways - where blocks of self-driving cars might travel at 80 mph with only inches apart.

So it goes without saying that the trend in recent years toward sharing of cars, engines, platforms, electronics will only accelerate over time.   As more car companies combine or engage in platform sharing, cars will become more and more alike.   Self-driving cars may become as standardized as the transportation pods Woody Allen envisioned in "Sleeper".

Not only did Woody Allen predict self-driving pod cars, he also got the sound right.

Of course, electric cars are eerily silent, which annoys a lot of people for two reasons.  First, they can sneak up on you, which is disturbing if you are a pedestrian, doubly so if you are blind.  So many carmakers, such as Nissan, have artificial "sounds" piped through external speakers so people are aware of the car's presence.

Second, people want a car to sound like, well, a car.  They want a throaty roar of an engine that screams of dying hydrocarbons.   And as in Kornbluth's story, today many carmakers are resorting to fake sounds to enhance the driving (and riding) experience.   Volkswagen, Audi, Porsch, and BMW have been caught adding sound-making devices to their cars or piping engine sounds through the stereo system, as the sounds made by cars today are often disappointing.  EPA noise requirements mean that cars often sound like "a UPS truck" as one wag noted.   Even on my old BMW E36 cabrio, there was a sound valve in the muffler, so that engine noise would be attenuated at low speeds.

Cars of the future will be electronic and probably electrically driven.   And many folks may forego car ownership entirely and instead just call up an Uber self-driving taxi and take that where they want to go.   But a lot of folks will probably still own cars, for practical reasons as well as status reasons.   If you live 20 miles from town, waiting for a self-driving car to come to your home may be time consuming and costly (no doubt you would be expected to pay for the car having to travel far out of the mainstream).  It would be more convenient to have your own car so you could travel when you want to.

Other folks would prefer to have "their" car with a custom leather interior and all the appointments (no doubt including a refrigerator and bar, so they can snack and drink will cruising down the road.   And of course, what is the point in having a car of your own if it just looks like everyone else's?   You'd want styling that says "I spend money on this, you plebe in your self-driving Uber taxi!" and car makers would supply the market with unique and different styles - all on the same chassis or "platform" of course.

I could envision that folks would even want to have "vintage" or "retro" styled cars - much as they do today.   However, the Camaro of 2040 probably won't even have a steering wheel, much less a gas pedal or a shifter.    You'd just sit in it and enjoy the view, while turning up the "engine noise" knob so you could enjoy the "muscle car experience".

Oh brave new world....

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?   It depends on your point of view.  If you enjoy downshifting through a corner and feeling the response of a car, it is a Utopian nightmare, of course.  If you are one of the tens of thousands of people who are potentially maimed, injured, or killed in auto accidents every year, it sounds like paradise.

I suspect there will still be "auto enthusiasts" in the future, but actual driving of a car will be limited to very rural roads or perhaps to track events.    The few dire-hards who want to burn hydrocarbons will find it to be an expensive hobby.   Once demand for gasoline tapers off, the supply will be very short and prices will be sky-high - on the order of $20 a gallon or more (in today's dollars" if not more.  

Some would decry this as automotive heresy.   But it is the future, and while we can grumble about it, it isn't going to change just to suit our whims and tastes.   And it is a future that future generations will embrace.  Already, it appears that the current generation of young folks are less enthusiastic about owning cars or owning performance cars.   And perhaps the somnambulistic feedback and handling of today's cars (which are faster and handle better than cars of the past, but feel more isolated than ever before) is part of the problem.

When cars are all basically the same, it is hard to get excited over a car.