Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Should You Have Flood Insurance?

Should you have flood insurance?  Maybe.

As I've noted before in this blog, it is more than possible to over insure yourself, particularly for trivial matters.  Insurance companies love to sell policies like "car loan insurance" which pays off the balance of your car loan if you are killed or disabled.  In terms of risk and rewards, this is a pretty poor deal, as if you are killed or disabled you really won't be needing a car in any event.

Your biggest exposure in life is arguably liability.  If you are inattentive behind the wheel of your car even for a moment, and run over a small child, you could be sued for millions and millions of dollars. Of course, you would feel awful about yourself for the rest of your life.

But if you have car insurance, and better yet, an umbrella liability insurance policy you may have coverage, and it would least somewhat compensate the aggrieved party.  In combination with your homeowners policy, it may also provide coverage for other types of accidents that may occur, for example if you invite a guest into your home and they slip and fall.

Plus, it is pretty much a no-brainer that you should have homeowners insurance - or renters insurance, if you are renting.  However how much insurance you want to get is up to you.  Myself, I go for a very high-deductible, which cuts the premium cost considerably.  I'm not interested in filing trivial claims for broken windows - I'd rather covering major liability events.

Similarly, with car insurance, I'm less concerned with replacing the car than the damage I might inflict on somebody else's car or person.  Thus, the liability is more important to me than collision and comprehensive, although at my age, the cost of collisions and comprehensive drops down to a mere a few dollars a month - one of the only advantages of getting old.  But trivial coverage like broken glass, towing, rental car insurance, and the like seem kind of silly to me.  If I wrecked my car, I have another one to drive - I don't need to rent a car.  And I have AAA so I don't have to worry about towing.

In terms of liability, the best bang-for-the-buck is an umbrella policy.  Provided your car and homeowners policies have $300,000 liability coverage you can piggyback on an umbrella policy with one to two million worth of coverage for only a few hundred dollars a year.  This is far, far cheaper than trying to up the limits on your homeowners and car policies individually.

But what about flood insurance?  Whether or not you need flood insurance is a personal decision that you have to make, taking into account your risk of flooding and the cost of the premiums.  And you should first examine your homeowners policy to see what if any flood scenarios it covers. Most homeowners policies don't cover any kind of flooding, but check your policy and talk to your agent to be sure.  It is amazing, but most of us don't bother to check our policies until it is too late.  And too late, we find out that our flooded basement isn't covered under our homeowner's policy.

Here's where it gets weird.  What each company covers, in terms of floods, varies.  Most companies do not cover traditional flooding from external sources (e.g., hurricane, heavy rain, etc.) in a homeowner's policy.  Some might cover damage from broken pipes, but not the broken pipe itself.  Others will not cover damage due to lack of maintenance.  It pays to read your policies and to ask questions when shopping for policies.

Almost all flood insurance policies offered United States are offered through FEMA.  So it really doesn't matter which agent you go through in obtaining a flood insurance policy, the price is going to be pretty much the same.  There is a bit of a political scandal involving flood insurance, in that many people argue that taxpayers are subsidizing folks who live in flood-prone areas - or by the ocean - by providing low-cost flood insurance and encouraging people to build in these areas - and worse yet rebuild after floods.

At less than 12 feet above sea level, I guess I'm one of those persons, although we haven't had a major flood on this island in over a hundred years.  So either we're due for one, or it isn't going to happen. We pay about $1,000 a year for $250,000 worth of coverage. This is less than the value of the house, but is estimated to be the amount that would require to rebuild the structure if it was flooded to the point of obliteration.

And that's the first interesting thing about flood insurance - they offer you flood insurance for the amount of that is necessary to rebuild, not how much you would like to get.  For some reason, each year they offer to increase the amount of coverage by a minor amount for an additional few dollars.  If you go this route, each year your insurance premiums will keep ratcheting up.  In general, I've decline these additional add-ons, although I may live to regret that later on.

Getting back to homeowners coverage, many people fail to realize that most homeowners policies don't cover flood - and many don't cover wind damage from major storms either.  Here on the coast, we called it "named storm coverage" meaning hurricanes are other named tropical storms. Most homeowners policies don't cover these events explicitly, excluding high wind and flood damage which basically leaves insurance company clear from hurricane damage.  All your homeowners policy might cover is perhaps fire and theft - and of course liability.

Thus, when we first moved here we had to have three insurance policies -  the basic homeowners policy, a "named storm coverage" wind policy, and a FEMA-based flood policy.  Since then, I've been aggressively shopping this around and found that the Georgia Farm Bureau will write a policy for here on the island that covers both homeowners and named-storm coverage in one policy.  This cut our annual insurance cost from $3,000 a year (about $1,000 per policy) to about $2,000 a year - a considerable savings.  Again, use high deductibles to keep the premiums as low as possible.

But suppose you live on high ground or maybe in the desert?  Do you need flood insurance then? That's a good question.  FEMA has done a good job of trying to sell home flood insurance to people who are not in flood zones.  They argue that floods can occur anywhere - and of course they're right about this.  Living in the desert might seem like a safe place from floods, however heavy rain storms, while not common, can cause flash flooding, landslides, and other kinds of washouts.

Similarly, you could live up on the mountain but a broken sewer pipe could back-fill your basement all the way to the rafters.  And your homeowners policy might not cover this (again check with your agent to be sure) but a flood policy might.  Homeowner's policies seem to make the distinction between water from inside and outside the home.  Anything from outside, no matter what the cause, is considered flooding and might not be covered.  Inside pipe breaks might be covered in terms of damage, but not the pipe itself.  It seems kind of arbitrary, but there you have it.  Again, check with your company to be sure.

This is not to say that flood insurance is a good bargain, only that FEMA is using these scenarios to try to sell phone insurance to more people.  And the reason they want to do this is that currently the system is insuring only people in flood-prone areas, which isn't generating enough revenue to cover claims. So they run ads.

FEMA runs ads trying to persuade more people to buy flood insurance.  Yet many people in flood zones don't even buy it!

Since our house is paid for, we could do without flood insurance if we chose to.  The island Authority requires that we have homeowners insurance with liability of at least a half a million dollars, naming the Island Authority as co-insured. I guess they are worried about people slipping and falling in our foyer, and for some reason, suing the island.

But as far as I know, flood insurance is optional, although we have kept our policy in force for the decade or so we've lived here.  Like I said, at 12 feet above sea level it seems like a pretty good value.

If the premiums increased dramatically, however, I might consider dropping the coverage. For example, if we had to pay thousands of dollars a year for flood insurance, maybe we would rethink buying the policy. And of course, that would mean a lot of people would rethink even living here.  Maybe others would decide to build their houses on stilts or otherwise try to raise them up to avoid floods.

And that is one of the criticism of the flood insurance program. Since the insurance program pays for people to rebuild in flood zones, it ends up encouraging people to continually rebuild again and again when they are flooded out.  Since the homeowner is not really paying the true cost of the insurance, there is no incentive for them to jack their house up or rebuild it on stilts in order to avoid future flooding.

But of course, that's a political issue, and one that likely isn't going to change anytime soon.  The majority of humanity lives within a few miles of water, it seems to be part of our nature.  Moreover, most of the population United States lives within a few miles of water, and most of the wealthy population of the United States lives on or near the water.  And the latter group is the one that pushes through legislation, such as our flood insurance program.

Act shocked.

Monday, November 27, 2017

What Happened to Vacuum Cleaners?

NOTE: This is a post I started in 2014 and only finished today... A lot has changed since 2014!

My Mother had an Electolux like this from about the time I was born.   She's dead now, but the vacuum is still running.   Why don't we make products like this anymore?  There is a reason.

I am feeling older and older these days.  I go to the store to buy something and find out they no longer make it.  What's worse, I cannot fathom or comprehend the products they do sell.   Take vacuum cleaners, for example.  Today, everything you see at the store is a "bagless" cyclone-separator type of cleaner.   You'd be lucky to find maybe one bag-type cleaner at the local store.   The only good thing is, if you find one, it is usually the cheapest one - less than $100, sometimes less than $50.

This Wal-Mart Bissel bag cleaner is $42.  Pretty amazing, but I don't think I'll be leaving it anyone in my will.

Over the years we've had a lot of vacuums, and I've written about this before.  There are cheap vacuum cleaners, expensive vacuum cleaners, vacuum cleaners sold door-to-door, robotic vacuum cleaners and so forth.  You can spend less than $50 on a vacuum cleaner, or spend hundreds, even over a thousand dollars on one.

We presently own three of them, well, four if you count a small RIGID shop-vac we also own.  Well, that and a 12V unit in the camper.   We had an old GE canister vac - actually two of them, and I have been patching them together for years now.  The last one is on its last legs, missing a wheel and the wiring sort of cobbled together.  When we run out of bags, it will go in the trash.   We bought the Bissel above as a stop-gap measure.  A friend gave us one of those "cyclone" vacs and it works OK, I guess, but it is not really "bagless" as there is a filter you have to replace occasionally.   The cyclones are fine, but they seem to be limited to upright models - the canister vac is a casualty of the move to bagless vacuums.

We are a wealthier nation today than in the past.  Like I said, my Mother had that one Electrolux she bought in 1966, and as far as I know, it is still in the family.   She would take it to be repaired by the local vacuum cleaner repair man, who had a shop in a shed behind his house in a bad part of town.   He was like the lawn-mower repair guy - another aspect of a bygone age before disposable appliances - a person who made a living in the margins, and maybe a little creepy as well.

We tried to buy an Electrolux back in the 1990's, as we got tired of disposable vacuum cleaners.   It cost hundreds of dollars, as I recall.  The problem was, by then the Electrolux was merely an expensive disposable vacuum cleaner.  Instead of metal, it was largely made of plastic, and it broke frequently, particularly since our cleaning lady treated it badly.  We paid a lot of money for it, at a creepy vacuum cleaner store - that sold and serviced Electrolux vacuums.   Within a few years, he was out of business - another casualty of the cheap disposable vacuum cleaner business.

Mother did also have a "Regina Electrikbroom" but that never worked worth squat.  It had a hand-held mode to work as a primitive "dust buster" but it never worked very well.  You may remember it from About Schmidt as the vacuum Schmidt's wife was using to vacuum up spilled sugar when she had a stroke and died.  And no wonder, too - those things blew dirt around more than they vacuumed it up.  I remember taking it apart once and noting that the "fan" had flat blades that were not angled at all.   It didn't create vacuum, but rather just moved air around in a circle.  It was almost like they intentionally designed it to be shitty to punish customers for buying it.  Sort of like how GM used to build small cars.

Today, we have shittier appliances that you can't repair (despite my attempts to fix the GE canister vacs) as parts are hard to come by, or are so expensive as to make repair simply an uneconomical proposition.   For that reason, it doesn't pay to spend a lot of money on an appliance, if it can't be repaired economically.  Why buy a $500 vacuum that you can't get parts for and can't find anyone to repair, when a $100 vacuum works about as well?

And as I noted, today, you can spend an awful lot of money on vacuum cleaners, with decidedly mixed results.

The Dyson guy annoys me.  Yes, I said it.  For some reason, people seem to think anything advertised by a dude with a British-y sounding accent must be good.  After all, we are talking British technology here!  The same people who brought you the ultra-reliable Triumph and the Jaguar.  Lucas electronics - what could go wrong?   Yes, I am calling for a Fatwa on the Dyson guy.  It is time for him, his over-done accent, and his cyclone plastic crap to go away, for good.

The problem with these "cyclone" bagless cleaners is that instead of removing a bag and tossing it away, you have to spend hours cleaning the vacuum and replacing the filter.   Yea, they got rid of the bag - big deal.  In its place, we have a filter.   Cyclone dust separators are nothing new.  They swirl the air in a circle and centrifugal force (or centripetal acceleration, take your pick) forces the dirt particles to settle out.  If you go by any large factory you will see huge dust separators like this.

Problem is, they don't settle out the very fine dust particles.  So you need a fine particle filter to get those.  As a result, you have to buy an expensive filter, instead of cheap bags.  This is progress?  Instead of tossing a ten-cent paper bag after each use, we spend an hour cleaning the damn thing and then every ten uses, replacing a $15 filter.   I am not sure this is saving money.

And the dirt collection chamber gets pretty nasty pretty quickly.   So you have to take it out and wash it - along with the rest of the mechanism.   It is hard to clean and it is a nasty job.  Instead of remove-and-toss, you have to get up-close-and-personal with your old dead skin cells (and those of your friends and your dog).    If you have allergies, a cyclone vacuum isn't your best friend.

But that being said, this is the modern world and you'd better get used to it, buddy!   Sure, your old computer programs worked great in DOS and you actually got shit done.  But today, you have to run Windows 10 and rent software in the "cloud" on a machine that is 1,000 times more complicated and takes 10 times longer to do the same damn things.  Get with the program - whether you like it or not!  Cyclone vacuum cleaners now predominate, so goodbye to the canister vac (whose head would actually reach under your bed all the way to the middle!) and say hello to Mr. Cyclone, who can barely vacuum 6" under the bed.   Progress.

Of course, the big thing today is the robotic vacuum.  When these first came out, they were sort of a joke - little more than carpet sweepers that ran around in a random pattern, they tended to get stuck if you had throw rugs or worse yet, oriental rugs with fringes.   They really didn't work very well, and most people I know who bought them ended up putting them in a closet after playing with them for a few months - and getting out the traditional vacuum and going back to square one.

They have improved since then, getting larger, heavier, and more complicated.  Supposedly they have fixed a lot of the problems from the past, but I wonder how they handle fringes on oriental rugs.   There are still issues to be resolved, particularly if you have pets.   Apparently, if your dog or cat poops on the rug while you are away, the robotic vacuum not only will not clean it up, but smear poop all over your house while you are gone.   A vacuum cleaner should clean, not make more dirty, and it should never create a mess that takes hours, if not days, to clean up.

The futuristic promise of the robotic vacuum has yet to be realized.

We don't have any pets anymore, but I am not running out to buy a $500+ robotic vacuum anytime soon.    Even with the advances in technology, they are more of a supplemental cleaning aid, not a replacement for traditional vacuuming.   I suppose if you lived in a minimalist house with wall-to-wall carpeting and little or no furniture, they might work OK - but even then, their round shape means the corners will always have piles of dust you must manually vacuum.

I am not sure what the point of all of this is, other than it seems that sometimes "progress" is less than progress, but merely just change.

UPDATE:  A reader recommends Oreck upright commercial vacuums, which are about $135 on Amazon and use bags.   They do lay flat to go under furniture and beds.   I didn't mention in my posting, the trend of built-in-vacuums which was oh-so-popular in the 1990's, along with Subzero refrigerators.  The sort of thing promoted by This Whole House.  A vacuum cleaner built into your house - what could go wrong with that?  And it certainly wouldn't become obsolete, right?

Another reader recommends the "Henry" canister vac, although I am not sure if it is available in the USA.  It does not appear to have a beater bar, although he claims it works well in his cleaning business.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Fear and Loathing at Sam's Club

Just what you need - big savings on Armageddon supplies!

I finally had to remove the Sam's Club "app" from my phone.   We went there twice and didn't find many bargains, compared to BJ's.  Sam's Club is like Wal-Mart's weird uncle.   A great place to go if you need 100 hot dogs or 15 pork chops.  They take the "bulk" in bulk buying seriously.

The app keep sending "updates" about "Black Friday Deals!!!" including one last night at 6:00 PM.  They sounded like a desperate bar fly looking to hook up fifteen minutes before closing time.

What turned us off from Sam's Club was the lack of bargains and the confusing layout of the store that seems to favor impulse purchases and end-cap displays.   You want to buy your own bouncy castle and launch your children into space, you can do so.  But a good deal on food and drink?  I find it lacking.

A friend likes to go - a friend who always harps on how much they saved on things, and not what they paid.  And the latest Sam's Club circular caters to this - everything is listed as to how much is "off" the purchase price - but most items don't have the actual price (and the few that do, have it in small letters).  You would have to go to the store to find out the price.  Some bargain.   Even worse is that they put "limit 3 per customer!" as if you are going to go in and buy 100 of them and re-sell them on eBay or something.   They are using fear of shortages or limited availability to sell product.  "Didn't make many Hupmobiles in this color - better buy one now before it's too late!"  Same old, same old.

The weirdest thing they were selling was a pallet of food called the "1-year 4-person food kit" for $1000 off! which was listed online for $2699.   I guess $1699 for a year's worth of "food" isn't a bad deal, if you don't mind eating out of cans for a year.  But since this is "survivalist" food, I suspect that much of it will rust and molder in someone's basement before being thrown out several years from now.  They could put sawdust in the cans and no one would notice, as it never gets eaten.  Hey, after the Apocalypse, who are you going to sue?

I am sorry to disappoint the folks at Sam's Club, who seemed so desperate for my business.  But there were no "black Friday deals" I really wanted to buy - that I could not buy any other time of year.  I already have a flat-screen TeeVee for watching Netflix.  We hardly use it.  Why would I need a new one?   And since I am no longer on the Christmas nightmare train and feel compelled to go into debt every 12 months to buy stuff for other people that they don't want or need, I really have no "Christmas Shopping" to do.

Although, for my favorite survivalist friend, I think I found the perfect gift.....

Friday, November 24, 2017

Art Versus Commerce

Is art "above" the plebeian levels of commerce, or does it wallow right along with it?

At our local art gallery, some of the artists get a little offended when you talk about commerce in art.  We have a different gallery show every month, and I have done some videos of them.  Mark has been in a few shows and has another one coming up in February.

One of the gallery shows Mark was in a few years back

During the Christmas holidays, we have a big sale that allows local artists to sell items, and during the spring, the art festival is also another big sale time.   And during these sales, the place is jammed with art, and Mark helps out by merchandising the displays.  This is where it gets sticky.   Some of the little old ladies decry "commercialization" of art.  "This is art, not commerce!" one tersely informs me while we were setting up for one of the gallery shows.

"Oh, really?" I replied, "Then why do all the works have price tags on them?"

Now, our little art gallery is hardly the Met or the Guggenheim, but really those tony high-end places are no different, and in fact are a lot worse when it comes to commercialization.  You go to the Met and they have a Pizarro painting on the wall, and you say, "Nice painting, where did you get it?" and the docent will say, "Oh, we paid a record $6.8 Million for it at auction!"

Yup, there is a price tag on everything, particularly at the high-end places - even if they aren't selling the art.   And of course, all of those famous galleries have gift shops that you have to exit through, and of course you bought the print, the t-shirt, the tote bag, and the coffee mug.   Its how they stay in business.

Very few artists are altruistic about their works, and most would prefer not to be.  Most want to make sales.  The "starving artist" who makes no money from his works either sucks as an artist, or is before his time.  And sadly, many famous artists throughout history made little or no money from their art - but collectors and galleries have made millions from their art - long after the artist has died.

There is a staggering amount of money being tossed around in the art world, so to pretend that art is somehow divorced from commerce is, well, just idiotic.   Like I said to the little old lady in the gallery, if this ain't commerce, how come all the paintings have price tags on them?   The artists put on the shows hoping for sales.   And the sales help support the artists - and help disseminate the art to homes of people who will appreciate the works.

I suppose you could give away the art and be totally altruistic.  There are two problems with this model.  First, people would just grab every piece and take it, even if they didn't really appreciate the works.  Free isn't just a price of zero, it affects how people behave.   Second, those same people would turn around and sell your art for a lot more - and profit from your work.

The famous graffiti artist "Banksy" once sold some of his pieces by having some old homeless-looking man sell a few dozen pieces on the sidewalk.  Now, Banksy never or rarely sells any of his (or her) works, so this was a big deal.  And no one believed that the works being sold were genuine.  One person actually berated the man for selling phony Banksy paintings.   But the joke was on them - they were real, and the few people who snatched them up now own artwork worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Banksy scenario illustrates how commerce and art works - and that was the intention of the stunt - the sale itself was a piece of "performance art".  When sold for a ridiculously low price, no one believed them to be real.  When sold at a prestigious auction house or in a hushed gallery or at a reception, well, people get out their checkbooks.   Art is all about commerce - the two are inter-related.

The other irony of the Banksy stunt is that if he did sell his art at auctions and in galleries for hundreds of thousands of dollars per painting, he would not be the famous street artist that he is.  In other words, Catch-22.  His art would be worth nothing, if he commercialized it.   But since he can't commercialize it, it is worth nothing, so to speak - in a commercial sense.

Now of course, many if not most artists would wish this weren't so, for a number of reasons.  Commerce corrupts art, for starters.   My sister-in-law is a talented painter, sculptor and even makes stained glass pieces.  She showed some of her paintings to galleries along the Maine coast where she lives, and the gallery owners said, "these are nice paintings and you have a lot of talent, but what would really sell here is something with lobster boats and cottages on the craggy coast of Maine."

In other words, that's what the tourists want to buy - souvenirs of Maine.  And she didn't want to paint pictures of lobstermen with their traps and boats in picturesque bays.  And of course, that was her right - and she was right, too.   Art should be not just what people want to see, but also things that maybe they don't want to see but should.   Art should be challenging and provocative, not just pretty pictures that are sofa-sized and match your color scheme.

But even back in the day, art was always fighting with commerce.  The great Renaissance painters didn't have galleries or exhibits to hawk their wares, but rather sponsors called patronsWe still have "patrons of the arts" today, of course, but many of these wealthy people donating paintings to museums or whatever are often, like other philanthropists, looking for tax deductions and social recognition - as well as free advertising for the companies they own.   Hey, Joe Blow's company dumps toxic waste in the ocean, but he donated a $10 Million painting to the museum!  Joe Blow is a nice guy, right?  And what a great tax deduction, too!  Oh, and he gets his name on the wall, in the program, and is now considered part of "polite society" and not some money-grubbing tech dude or whatever.   That's how patronage works today - and even back then as well.

Money always ends up intervening.   You can pretend it doesn't, or that somehow you are above it all, or you can just accept it and work around it.   Because I think it is still possible to produce relevant and even provocative art and still find a commercial audience.  When you get right down to it, what is commercially popular today was what was avant-guard only a few years back.

So yea, the little-old-ladies are right, in that art should lead and not follow.   But that doesn't mean that art is divorced from commerce, only that it has an uneasy relationship with it.

Give Money While Living or Leave It In Your Will?

Should you donate to charity or give money to your kids while alive, or wait until you are dead and leave it in your will?   I suggest the latter.

A recent article in Marketwatch, illustrates the pitfalls of giving money to your kids while you are alive - they might not spend it very wisely.  The author of the letter laments that he gives $150 a month to his son, and his daughter-in-law donates it to their evangelical church as a "tithing".   Since the Father is Jewish, this is probably especially galling.

$150 a month might not seem like "a lot" of money, but invested over a 45-year working life at an average rate of return of 7% in the stock market, would yield $2,293,138.22 in your IRA.  The Dad in the article laments his son has nothing saved for retirement, while his spendthrift wife gives away the $7500 every year to some odious evangelical church.   Dad should stop pissing his money away on spendthrift son and his idiot wife.

Just to re-cap:  God doesn't need or want your money, and no, "tithing" isn't a thing in the Bible, but rather a made-up construct of the 20th Century by greedy mega-church ministers.   And no, "the end times" theology isn't in there, either, that is also a new thing.   The Bible has so much stuff in it, you can create whole new theologies out of it, if you have an evil bent and a creative mind.   But then again, that's why we have so many different brands of Christianity.  And we're not alone in this - every other religion has its different schisms as well.  But I digress.

The point is, God wants you to make sure you take care of yourself and your family.  He doesn't want cathedrals and stained glass windows.   He has enough of that.  So keep your money, it isn't "selfish" it is self-preservation - and not being a burden to the rest of society.   If you want to donate to the church, put that in your will and odds are, you will end up giving more to the church as a result.  But we'll get to that later.

This article got me to thinking, why is Dad handing out money in the first place?  It seems to me a foolish thing to do.   But a lot of Dads do this, and I think having control and feeling like a big-shot is part of the deal.  The article mentions that Dad laments the "empty chairs at the kitchen table" and that is a big clue right there.  Older parents often dole out small amounts of money to their children, in order to get them to call, write, and come visit. It is a form of control, and when you get older, you don't have much control anymore, once you are retired and the kids move away.  It sounds sick, sad, and pathetic, but we see it firsthand in many families, here on retirement island.   If your kids don't like you, odds are, you can't buy their affection at this point in your life.  But again, I digress.

Now granted, there are tax advantages if you are really, really rich, to handing out cash to your kids.  The Gifts and Estate tax, back in the day, had fairly low exemptions - like about $750,000 or so, which could be combined to $1.5 Million for a married couple.  Anything above that was taxed, pretty heavily, when you died.

There was a loophole, though.  You could transfer about $15,000 or so every year to each child, tax-free (to donor and recipient).   So a lot of wealthy people did just that.  Of course, the problem is, some kids just spend the money on drugs or fancy cars and just waste it.   Giving money to young adults is always problematic - which is why often wills and trusts don't allow youngsters access to their inheritance until age 26 or so.   But more on that later as well.

In recent years, the limit on the Gifts and Estate tax has been raised to about $5 Million, so most of us don't have to worry about paying the "death tax" and if the new tax plan goes through, it will disappear entirely, which Billionaires will be happy about.   So the whole reason for inter-vivos transfers really has evaporated - other than a sick desire to control your children, that is.

But of course, inheritances are problematic, as I have noted before.  But the problem rests with the heirs, not you, as you will be dead at that point.   But it strikes me that if you really want to give money to your children, or donate to your church or other charity, a better approach might be a will or trust or other mechanism to leave the money to them after you die.

Why is this a better approach?

1.  You may run out of money.   If you give away money to your church, your children, or charity, you may run out later on in life and end up broke and destitute.  And at that point, your children, your church, and your charity aren't going to give it back.   And you laugh, this happened to some friends of mine, who squandered huge amounts of money on "tithing" until they were nearly broke, at which point, the church showed them the door.   Religion sucks, really.

2.  You can leave more.   If you fritter away $7500 a year in donations, you end up leaving less to the charity, children, or church, in the long run, as the miracle of compound interest is working against you.   On the other hand, if you leave your estate to the charity/children/church, it could be a sizable six- or seven-figure number.    For the charity or church, you might end up with your name on a building, or at least a scholarship, or maybe a pew.   And please, don't act like you gave to charity with no thought of recognition for your efforts!

3.  The kids will be older.   My Dad recently passed, and it was thrust upon me to divide up the assets in my Mother's small trust account.   Some of this money went to my niece and nephews.   They were at an age today where they needed the money for down payments on a house, funding their own retirement, investing in a business, or providing a college fund for their children.   Since the money was given to them when they were older, they were more responsible in how they spent it.   If they were handed this money, $150 a month at a time, when they were younger, no doubt it would have been spent on beer, pot, and car payments.   And I am not taking a piss on them here, I would have done the same thing at that age as well.   And in fact, the same is true for me and my siblings - all in our 50's or 60's.   If we had been given this money at age 40, it might have gone to pay credit card bills.  Today, well, we are in retirement mode, and it goes right into the bank.

4.  You can set up a Medicaid Trust:  One aspect of getting older is the prospect of living in a nursing home, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars a month.   If you set up a trust, you can leave the money to your children/church/charity and still have limited access to it - but not have it counted against you for purposes of medicaid.  Of course this has to be done, just right.   Now, some may find this idea unethical, but I leave that up to you to decide.

The downside, as I have noted before, is that a will can be challenged, or the executor of the estate can loot it or subvert your wishes and intentions.  But then again, you're dead, so who cares?

I regularly get entreaties from my former prep school (that I was thrown out of) and my various alma maters asking me to write them into my will.   I also get similar pleas from the Frank Lloyd Wright foundation, the National Trust for Historic Places, and of course, even NPR - which makes a pitch every morning (fat chance, People's Radio!  Not after what I've read about "Cokie" Roberts!).

And quite frankly, that seems like a much better option than donating to any of these groups in my lifetime - as I may end up needing the money later on in life.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Are You A Passive-Aggressive Jerk? (We All Are, At Times!)

How you cross the street says a lot about you as a person.

A lot of us like to think we are nice people.  We don't go around hurting others intentionally or trying to take advantage of others,  even if the situation makes it possible to do so without consequence.  But many people are passive-aggressive jerks, without even realizing it.  And we see this all the time with human behavior, particularly in groups or crowds. And if you were to confront some of these people with their behavior, they would act innocent and wild-eyed and claim they didn't do anything wrong - and in fact they would even believe this themselves.

This was driven home to me recently when I went to the Dollar Tree in the shopping plaza.  It is a common everyday experience in America that that as a pedestrian, you have to cross the street or parking lot, preferably at a crosswalk.  As the old saying goes, a pedestrian is someone who just parked their car.  How you approach this routine transaction either as a pedestrian or motorist says volumes about your character, whether you realize it or not

For example, I was leaving the store and heading to my car, which was in the parking lot across the access road.  Halfway across the road, I realized there was a car coming, so I sped up my pace so as not to inconvenience them.  As a motorist, I realize how inconvenient it is to have to slam on your brakes to avoid hitting a pedestrian.  It just seemed like a matter of common courtesy to speed up my pace in order to get out of their way so we could both get to our destinations in the minimum amount of time and  inconvenience.

Sitting in the car, I watch other people negotiate this transaction with startlingly different results.  For example, one lady saw a car coming and even though she was still on the sidewalk she sped up her pace so as to arrive at the crosswalk at the exact same time the car would, thus forcing the car to stop to let her cross.  If she had merely maintained her existing pace, she would have reached the crosswalk after the car had already passed and neither person would have been inconvenienced.  But instead, she went out of her way to inconvenience another party, simply for the sake of having that minuscule amount of power and control over another.

Of course, some people do just the opposite, in another variation of this sick little game.  For example someone will be crossing the crosswalk and if they maintained their pace, would be through the crosswalk by the time the car went through.  Instead, they slow their pace to a crawl so that the motorist will have to stop at the crosswalk.  Again, they intentionally alter their pace so is to exert some minuscule form of control over others.

This is not only a matter of inconvenience, it also is a matter of personal safety, too.  Many folks cross parking lot or other roads diagonally, which means they spend more time in the road, and are thus more likely to get hit.   It also means they block the road for a greater amount of time - often with a car breathing down their necks as they walk, which they pretend not to notice.

Using your baby as a buffer against traffic just seems wrong to me.

Myself, I try to cross perpendicularly when there are no cars around, and will wait until there is no traffic before I cross - like we were taught in grade school.   Today, it seems, people step out into the road intentionally, to stop traffic and "make a point".   Even worse, some women push baby strollers out in front of speeding cars.   This I simply do not understand.

You also see this sort of behavior with people in groups, whether it is pedestrians the mall or people driving on the road.  People in busy shopping malls and stores will intentionally park themselves at choke points so that everyone is forced to walk around them.  Worse yet, some people walk two or three abreast and meander from side to side of the aisle to make it impossible to get around them. When you finally managed to squeeze past they give you dirty looks as if somehow getting your business done is a horrible aberration whereas their leisurely pace is in God-given inalienable right.

I mentioned before, my friend who was a carpenter who is installing sheetrock in an office building. He was pushing a cart with 12 foot sections of sheetrock on it down a busy Corridor.  There were a number of secretaries chatting and some of them even walking backwards while talking to friends who were walking away.  He stopped dead in the middle of the hallway and they plowed into his cart of sheetrock giving him a dirty look and saying, "Why don't you watch where you're going, Buster?"

I've had the same experience, seeing people not watching where they're going, walking backwards or otherwise distracted - today often with the aid of the smartphone.  I stopped dead in my tracks and remain immobile while they plow into me, and then curse me for bumping into them.   And yes, I've tried to play "dodge 'em" and try to swerve out of their path.  Guess what?  They instinctively swerve into you anyway.  It is just a sick passive-aggressive little game.  Better to remain stationary to absorb the impact.

Of course, there are other sick little games which are less passive and more aggressive, particular with regard to motor vehicles.  On the way back from the Dollar Tree, an ambulance came by with its lights flashing.  As we were taught in driver ed, when an emergency vehicle comes, you slow down and pull over and let the vehicle go by.  Once the vehicle has gone by, you then safely merge back into traffic in the same order that you pulled over.

There are some people, however, who view other people's personal tragedies as an opportunity to pass a few cars.  When the ambulance goes by, they roar out behind the ambulance and follow it, using this as an opportunity to pass a dozen or more cars in heavy traffic.  Not only is this very sick, it is illegal.

Then there are people who try to pass in merging lanes and off-ramps.  I've seen this a lot in our travels and it's particularly annoying when you're pulling a trailer. You come to an exit lane and put on your turn signal to change lanes to get to that exit. However the guy behind you has the idea that perhaps he can pull into the lane behind you and then floor it to get around you and pass you in the exit lane.  Again, this is not only unsafe and impolite, it is probably a illegal as well. It's also a good way to cause a wreck.

The common denominator of all these things is of course, the lack of civility in our modern society.  Whether is somebody trying to control the actions of others through passive-aggressive means, or people being overly aggressive in order to "get ahead" at the expense of others, what we have lost is a sense of community and polite behavior.

Of course, the question is, why do people do silly things like this?  And why in fact do we all tend to do this at one time or another?  Again, I think the answer lies in this feeling of powerlessness we have.  As I noted in my culture of belligerence posting, people at the low end of the economic spectrum, who have the least amount of power in their lives, tend to spend the most amount of money on vehicles with loud exhaust pipes, whether they be boats, motorcycles, cars, or monster trucks.

The very poor are also the most likely to spend what little money they have on tattoos, piercings, and outlandish clothes designed to make them look like they just left an armed robbery. The common denominator is a feeling of powerlessness. They may have no power in their personal lives in terms of economic power, power at their job, or even in their marriage or family relationships.  But they can project power through intimidation by being aggressive-looking or aggressive-acting toward others.

Similarly, these examples of passive-aggressive and aggressive behavior I've outlined above are ways for people to feel more empowered in their lives.  They may feel beaten down by the system, but they made some motorist wait for them at the crosswalk.  They may not have anything saved for retirement and are at the mercy of their lenders, but they got ahead of you at the exit ramp.

So what's the point of all this?  The point isn't that people are horrible and rotten and do horrible things.  The point is if you find yourself doing these sorts of things (and we all do, on occasion), ask yourself why.  Because in the end, you realized consciously or subconsciously you were doing them, and it makes you feel bad about yourself.  And even though you may score some minor victory in the parking lot, the crosswalk, the hallway in the mall, or on the interstate off-ramp, you really aren't getting ahead in life doing stuff like this.

I found as I got older that I am less and less inclined to drive aggressively and play passive-aggressive games in the crosswalk.  When I was younger and financially insecure and felt powerless against the system, perhaps I was more inclined to this sort of behavior.  Now that I'm older and more financially secure, I feel less inclined to act out these passive aggressive or aggressive behaviors.

We say that people "mellow out" as they get older simply because they are aging.  I think perhaps it is because as we get older, we become more financially secure and feel less of a need to lash out at society or our neighbors.  When people are financially insecure they become more erratic in their behavior.

So maybe the takeaway from this is, to catch yourself at these behaviors and ask yourself why you're doing them.  And maybe put that energy to more productive ends, and it will end up making you more financially secure and less anxious down the road - and the world will be better off overall.

UPDATE:  A reader writes noting another form of this passive aggressive behavior, where people on the subway or in other public places play music, not through their earphones but through the tinny speakers of their smartphone. They are intentionally annoying others with their music in order to generate some sort of reaction. They're desperately hoping somebody will call them out on this so they can have some sort of macho confrontation and assert authority and power. Again this is another form of sickness in our society.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Use The Internet, Don't Let It Use You!

The internet can be very useful to you, or it can be something that uses you.

In a recent posting, I sarcastically opined that Apple was the most evil company in the world and in fact was run by alien replicants, who were building a flying saucer, so they could fly back to their home planet.  Apparently this message resonates with people other than myself.  A recent article in the New York Times opines that Tech is perhaps become evil.

More and more people are noticing that social media, smartphones, the internet are being combined in a witches brew to addict people.  By providing incremental amounts of positive feedback, the powers-that-be can get us coming back again and again to various sites, or constantly pawing at our phones, hoping for that one little rush of dopamine that we so desperately crave.

But like anything else, it depends on how you use it.  Granted, there are some drugs that cannot be used responsibly.   I recall someone trying to tell me that they had a responsible meth habit -  however they had lost their job, career, and a small business in the process.  And of course opiates are turning out to be something that can be instantly addictive and very hard to kick.

Maybe other drugs, less so.  While I'm not a big fan of marijuana, as it seems to suck the willpower from people and make them feel sorry for themselves, many people smoke pot and hold jobs and are "functional" in that they at least support themselves and pay their bills.   And a large number of people in this country drink alcohol without serious adverse effect.

This is not to say that people don't become alcoholics or end up killing others in drunk driving accidents.  Or that some folks become "chronic" marijuana users and retreat to their parents' basement or the equivalent thereof.   There are some drugs which are very destructive no matter how hard you try to control your usage of them, and others than can be used somewhat responsibly.

In terms of electronic drugs, however, you have to weight the benefits with the costs.   And that's why I say that cable TeeVee is a horrible bargain.   It is very, very addictive, costing you hours of your life every day in channel-surfing.  And the payoff is just not there.  "500 channels and nothing on" goes the refrain, and that is the reason I unplugged from Cable TV - it just wasn't a value proposition, costing close to $100 a month, taking up a lot of my time, and providing no real benefit to me.

The internet, when used responsibly, however, can be useful to you, and in fact be beneficial.   You can work over the internet and make money - legitimately.   You can send business e-mails and communicate with clients.  You can do business over the Internet - file documents with government agencies, check your bank balances, or your investments, or whatever.

You can also find good bargains online, if you look.   And yes, you can communicate with friends and family and interact with others.

But like any other drug, it depends on how you use it.   If you find a bargain on the Internet for something that you want and need, then that is a good thing.   On the other hand, if you become a compulsive shopper on Amazon or eBay - just buying junk for the hell of it - you could ruin your financial life.  And people have done this - and articles have been written about it.   I've known personally, people who went on spending sprees on eBay and Amazon, to the point where their spouse had to hide the credit cards (lot of good that did, with one-click purchasing!).   One lady I know bought a car on eBay during a fugue state.

Similarly, keeping in touch with friends is fine and all, but getting sucked into a four-hour-a-day Facebook and texting habit can be destructive to you personally.   And a huge number of people are indeed sucked into this.  Not only is it a huge time-waster, it has little or no payback.  You can always tell when you are talking to "facebook people" as they tend to believe wild urban legends and "fake news" stories planted by the Russians.  "It was in my 'feed' so it has to be true, right?"

Similarly, compulsive texting is a self-destructive habit.  Not only is it a time-waster, it can literally kill you if you try to do it while driving (or worse yet, kill others, like me).   Again, the payback is kind of slim - the idea that you can carry on these abbreviated and awkward conversations by text with people all day long is, well, kind of dumb.

But few people have the personal willpower and strength to use facebook, twitter, texting, or other forms of social media in moderation.   Most people are like drunks, and cannot say "no" after just one beer, or one text or one facebook "like".

And this is why I am not on facebook - the temptation to check it constantly to see what is going on would be too much.  It becomes a real time-waster and I didn't like who I became on facebook.   Moreover, I didn't like who other people became on facebook.   Whether it was a friend sending me pictures of every meal he ate or another friend posting sarcastic comments on my photos, it seems that it is all-too-easy to become an asshole on facebook - just as people can become assholes after three or four drinks.

And the same is true for Twitter, which the media is obsessed about.   I have read hundreds and hundreds of "tweets" but have never been on Twitter.  The media reports tweets obsessively.  And usually - 99% of the time, it is because someone lost their job, career, or spouse, because of something stupid they said on Twitter.   Others, like our President, are wholly addicted and cannot control themselves on the platform - saying one stupid thing after another.   President Trump is like a drunk - he can't have just one Tweet, he has to slam the six-pack.

So I'm not on Twitter, either.  And quite frankly, I don't bother reading news stories anymore where the central premise of the story is what someone said on Twitter.   Who the fuck cares, really?

And it is why I don't have texting enabled on my phone, either (that and I only pay $100 a year for service, which doesn't include texting, and I'm cheap!).   It is nice, sometimes, to be able to get texts.   The bank will text me if something is up - I have them text to Mark's phone.   He has the service on his phone, and I can see firsthand how he gets sucked into it sometimes.   But he is trying to be a responsible drunk with the texting - at least so far.

You can tell if someone is addicted to Facebook, or Twitter, or Texting or whatever other form of social disease media.   And it is very simple to tell.   If someone sends you a text or a tweet or a facebook posting and gets pissed off if you don't respond within a matter of minutes, odds are the sender is addicted.   They just assume that everyone else on the planet is glued to their smartphone 24/7 and is waiting breathlessly for the latest messages.   The idea that someone might turn their smartphone off or not carry it with them at all times (two things I routinely do) is not even plausible to them.

And the funny thing, too, is that this technology is only about a decade old, its current level of penetration even less.  The majority of Americans have been texting, tweeting, and facebooking for only a few years now - but you would think it has been around since the dawn of time, from the way people treat these things.   And it is one reason why I doubt the staying power of much of this stuff - it is not that old, and other things came before it, and other things will come after it as well.   But of course, when that happens, we will all say we saw it coming or say, "facebook? what was that?" - much as we do today about MySpace, even if we had an account with them only a few years back.

The Internet, smartphones, social media - they are all electronic drugs, or inter-related electronic drugs that can harm you, personally, physically, and financially.   Check out the physique and health of anyone who spends all day online - it isn't pretty, and it is one reason our generation has a shorter life expectancy that the previous one.  The sedentary lifestyle is simply toxic.

Use the internet - but don't let it use you.   Think long and hard about the benefits you are getting from tweeting and facebooking and texting, and then weigh them with the costs.   Odds are, most of this stuff is just wasting your time and making you unhappy and depressed.

But it is making other people an awful lot of money.

How Little You Need to Live Large

Many people think you need a huge annual income to be "wealthy" but in reality, if you own money, you don't need to earn it so much.

I was talking with a banker the other day and they remarked how surprised they were that some folks who live on retirement island get by on so little money.   These are not poor folks, but people living in  houses worth at least $400,000, driving fairly new cars, and not wanting for anything.

My banker friend was puzzled by this, as they had to struggle to pay bills, pay the mortgage, make the car payment, and put food on the table - and save for retirement at the same time.   How can someone live on a retirement island in a home that costs twice as much as theirs, on half the annual income (or less)?

And the answer is pretty simple:  The retirees don't have any debt.

Of course, not all retirees retire this way.  We have friends with fat government pensions (yes, including those "underpaid" New York State schoolteachers!) who live the debt lifestyle in retirement.  One confesses to me that they have only $30,000 in savings.  But with a six-figure combined pension, they can afford to pay a mortgage, have car payments, and whatnot.   When they want to spend, they borrow, just like working people.

But the "old school" method of retirement, which is quickly becoming the "new school" with the 401(k) generation aging out, is to have no debt and thus no need for income in retirement.

And when you get older, well, a lot of bills simply go away or shrink.   For example, most jurisdictions have tax abatement for older folks.  In New York, it was based on need in our County.  Here in Georgia, they exempt you from school tax once you hit the age of 65.   Of course, many retirees move to lower-tax jurisdictions to begin with, so their taxes are far less.

Having no mortgage means not having to cough up $1500 to $3000 a month in mortgage payments - which is an awful lot of money, in case you weren't paying attention.    Since you don't commute, you don't drive as much anymore - and your car can last a lot longer.   We've had the hamster for over two years now, and it has only 12,000 miles on it.  You save on gas, you save on maintenance, your car lasts longer - oh, and your insurance drops down to nearly nothing.

Health care costs are another aspect.   While your health may decline in old age, much of the cost is picked up by Medicare.  For the middle-aged self-employed person, it is a catch-22.  In order to earn enough to pay that huge mortgage, you make too much to qualify for an Obamacare subsidy - and you could be paying thousands per month for health care for you and your family.

What you discover, as you get older, is that the cost of living can drop down significantly.   And it is not just these big ticket items, either, but a whole host of smaller things.   As you get older, the idea of paying $200 for a pair of "designer" blue jeans seems kind of silly, when you can buy the real deal for well under a hundred.   You really aren't interested in impressing people you don't know anymore, which is why old people dress so funny and unfashionably.   We tend to dig old clothes out of the closet and wear them - which appalls the younger generation.

Similarly, being seen at the "in" club and standing in line to pay a cover charge no longer seem like important things.   On our little island, everyone goes to the happy hour at the Hampton on Wednesday, where the drinks are half-priced and the appetizers are cheap.   Yes, we tend to seek out bargains more - we have nothing else to do all day long (not really, but you do have more time to think contemplatively about your money and how you spend it).

This is not to say we don't go to other venues, but just not as often.   Meanwhile, the working people here on vacation go to the club or the Westin and spend $10 or more on a cocktail and put it on their credit card.   A lot of fun for us, once in a while, but not an affordable lifestyle in the long term.

It becomes a bit of a game - to see how much you can get away with for how little.   And it is a fun game to play.   And since you are no longer working and have few sources of income at this point in your life, it is a game you have to play.

As a result, you can live the lifestyle of someone making "six figures" in the big city, for less than $50,000 a year - often far less.   But in order to do this, you have to be astute and you can't be burdened with debt.

Good ol' Sooze Orman has been harping about this as of late.  I guess she wants more attention or is selling a new book or something.   But even a stopped clock is right twice a day.  And for our generation, who is expected to retire on "savings" and a small amount of social security, she makes a valid point.  She argues that in the last few years before you retire, it makes little sense to stuff more money into your IRA or 401(k), as the compound interest you will earn will be pretty small.   Paying off that mortgage, on the other hand, will mean you can live on a lot less cash-flow, and the savings in interest are money in the bank.

Of course, her advice to someone who has serially refinanced their house for 20 years and now owes more money on the house than it is worth (or owes hundreds of thousands of dollars with no realistic way to pay it off before retirement) is sort of useless.  The best they can hope to do if they have any equity at all, is to downsize their lifestyle and sell the white elephant and move into something a lot cheaper, preferably in a State with much lower taxes.  And no, a reverse mortgage isn't the answer - it is more like throwing gasoline on the fire.

Which is why it is important to figure out how to be debt-free by the time you retire, and figure this out early on in life.   And often this doesn't mean scrimping and saving and doing without, but rather just not refinancing your home again and again to take out cash, but rather paying down that mortgage over 30- years.  It means living within your means, which really isn't all that hard to do.

Because when you retire, you will be forced to do it anyway.   Might as well get used to it!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Big Tent Republicans

Is the Republican "big tent" becoming too big?

With apologies to Martin Niemöller....

First, Republicans were conservatives in that they espoused conservative fiscal policies such as small government and low taxes.  And I thought to myself, these seem like reasonable policies, and I said nothing.  
Then, the "evangelical Christians" started flocking to the party.  Now the Party stood for fiscal conservatism, anti-abortion, "family values", prayer in school, and teaching "creationism" in school as well.   And I thought, maybe this is not such a good thing, but since I wasn't in school and didn't need an abortion, I said nothing.
Then, the "tea partiers" joined the party - demanding that taxes be slashed and the budget be cut to the bone - so that "those people" would have their welfare cut.   And since I wasn't on welfare, I said nothing. 
Then the "alt-right" joined the party - demanding that we go back to the "good old days" when women and blacks were subservient.   And since I wasn't a woman or black, I said nothing. 
And then Trump joined the party - promising to deport Mexicans and slap import tariffs on imported products and punish companies that moved business overseas.   But I wasn't Mexican, and didn't run an international business, so I said nothing. 
And then the white supremacists and the KKK joined the party - and they demanded that Jews and women and blacks be "put in their place" and that we return to our roots as a "Christian Nation". 
And I tried to say something, but it was too late.   And there was no one left to speak up for me.
* * *

What we are seeing today is an implosion of the Republican Party - a slow-motion death that they brought on themselves.  The GOP has always been a hard-sell to voters as they promise not more welfare and food stamps and minimum wage hikes, but rather self-sacrifice and draconian budgets and small government.   It is like trying to sell spinach to kids when the guy across the street is offering candy for free.   But we all remember what Mom told us about strangers offering candy, right?

So the GOP made unholy alliances with people on the "right" such as evangelicals.   And until about 1979, evangelicals, particularly Baptists, were apolitical, often not bothering even to vote.  The idea of the pulpit, pew, and voting booth being linked was an alien thought.   But then someone realized there was a whole lot of discontentment that could be tapped into.   So they promised to overturn Roe v. Wade, but of course had no intention of doing so.  It was just lip-service to get elected.  The last thing they wanted was a full overturn of that decision - it would cause their "base" to stay home and no longer vote!

But even that "base" of voters wasn't enough - even as their far-right religious views turned off many progressive Republicans (yes, such a thing existed in the 1960's and 1970's - today, Nixon would be considered a "Liberal" for founding the EPA and creating wage/price controls).   Many mainline GOP legislators found themselves in uncomfortable territory, endorsing the teaching of "creationism" in school and other retrograde and ridiculous positions.   But they swallowed their pride and did it, to get re-elected.   But again, it wasn't enough.

So they went after smaller and smaller groups of far-right radicals to get out the vote and get re-elected.  Hold your nose and campaign.  And when a supporter says that Obama was a Muslim, you just nod your head and try to figure out how to spin that later on.  Pretty soon, you are attending hate rallies - which are your campaign rallies - and wondering how you got here.   And wondering if perhaps, you created this.

And so here we are today, with a new "far-right" unabashedly admiring Hitler and pining for the "good old days" when blacks were slaves (slavery wasn't that bad, right?) and the Nazis were in power.  They certainly had snappy uniforms, right?  And the Autobahns - it made it all worthwhile!  A whole generation that slept through history class - or learned their history on YouTube - is now demanding to be heard.

And the GOP, instead of standing for something is now finding they stand for nothing, other than to pander to a "base" (in every sense of the word) and to wealthy donors who want their taxes cut and special favors and contracts.

No wonder the GOP is in a love-fest with the Russians - they want the same style of Oligarchy here as they have in Russia - where the well-connected can take over state industries and become billionaires overnight.

They should, of course, be careful of what they wish for.  Russian billionaires quickly become political prisoners or end up being poisoned or beaten to death, when some other oligarch decides they want a taste of the pie.  Such is the fate of tyrants.

Granted, there are some in the Republican Party who are saying, "enough is enough!" and speaking out.   But the only real action they are taking is quitting the party, which really doesn't accomplish much other than to insure that an even further-right candidate will win the next election.

There was a time in this country when the two parties were more alike than different - and ideological differences weren't something people were willing for fight over - much less kill for.  It seems that time has past already, and the transition was so gradual, taking decades, that we have really failed to notice the changes.

And sadly, it seems the Democratic party is doing the same thing, only in another direction - courting ever smaller minorities of extremist thinking in order to win elections.

Just a crazy idea, but the majority of Americans are pretty middle-of-the-road.   If you are going to pander to someone, why not pander to the clear majority?

Monday, November 20, 2017

What If They Had An Economic Boom And Nobody Came?

How can a consumer-based economy work without consumers?

There is a lot of talk in the press about how great things are going and how even greater they are going to get next year and the year after.   Company after company talks about projected profits and how their sales are expected to rise in 2018, 2019, and 2020.

And the stock market is rewarding them for these projections, which seems to me to be a little bit premature.   We are told that the new tax bill will put more spending money in the hands of the average American, who will go out and buy more and the economy will expand further.   The problem, is, the tax bill largely favors the rich.  As one Senator put it, "My donors called and said to get this done or don't bother calling back!"   It is rich donors driving our government, not the people.

And already our economy is divided further and further in to two groups, the very rich and the very poor.  The middle class is disappearing to large extent.  As I noted in another posting, talk to any boat salesmen - they can sell mega-yachts or rowboats, but nothing in-between.  The days of a young married couple starting out with a 21-foot cuddy cabin and working their way up to a 55-footer are long gone.   Today you either buy big or go home.   There is no room for the middle class.

The working poor and what remains of the middle class (which are two groups that are rapidly combining) are taking on more and more debt and saving less and less.   How exactly are these folks going to benefit from their $700 a year tax cut?  Most would merely apply this money to their staggering debts, or it would merely offset inflation.

Republicans like to say that "a rising tide lifts all boats" but I think it is essential that the smaller boats be lifted first.   One reason marinas and other maritime facilities are shrinking is that there are fewer and fewer middle class people who can afford to own boats.   And while this may make more room for the mega-yachts, the very wealthy should bear in mind that what keeps the marina in business isn't one or two mega-yachts, but boats of all shapes and sizes filling every slip.

And the same is true for our economy.   Sure a tax cut for the very wealthy sounds great - if you are very wealthy.   You take that money and invest it - but in what?   Buy some GM stock - but who is left to buy the cars?   Your investments will tank if no one is left to buy the products that your company makes.  You need all these "little people" to buy cars, cell phones, cable TV, data plans, fast-food meals, consumer loans, and all the other things that American companies offer for sale to consumers.   Without customers, though, it all falls apart.

And I think that message gets lost sometimes.   Many on the right want to cut welfare programs - but not corporate welfare, of course!  But the two are intertwined.   Food stamps and other "government handouts" act as wage subsidies as well as a lifeline or safety net to the underemployed.   You can cut these programs, but it doesn't necessarily mean than the folks relying on them will spontaneously go out and get higher paying jobs.   They might just end up destitute - and spending money on nothing but basic sustenance.

The very wealthy also (should) realize that keeping "the masses" content is an act of self-interest.   When people become poor and destitute, they are more likely to riot and act out their aggression on the upper classes - and no amount of policing can keep that in check.

There is a lot of talk as to why crime rates have dropped dramatically since the 1960's.  An aging population, sentencing guidelines, and the war on drugs, are all offered as possible causes.   But a growing economy and greater economic security are also cited as reasons why people are less likely to engage in crime today than in decades past.

I don't know.  I just don't see it.   All this happy-talk about how the economy is going to take off like a rocket, when already we've been experiencing the greatest postwar bull market.   How much further can the market go?   These things go in cycles.   And I am not sure that a lot of folks feel that economically secure that they want to go out and spend and consume even more.

And without consumers, how can a consumer economy grow?