Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Trump Bubble?

When the market goes up, eventually there is a correction.   But over time, it goes up.  Timing the market is nearly impossible to do.  Click to enlarge.

Are we about to see the Trump Bubble collapse so early in his administration?   Like so many other things in his administration, the high-hopes of the market are turning into cold hard reality as profit reports from banks and car companies come in far below expectations.  And now with the abject failure of TrumpCare, the health insurance companies, whose stocks were climbing, are now bringing down the market.

The market was exuberant when Trump was elected.  We would be building roads and bridges and walls and prisons - a good time to invest in bulldozers and concrete!   The EPA would be muzzles and CAFE and emissions requirements would be slashed.   Eight-liter monster pickup trucks would be the new norm!  And gas would be cheaper than ever, as oil prices fall with new pipelines in place and peace in the Middle East!

Ahh.... December.  It was a sweet month!

But then reality kicks in.   Oil prices are up, so monster trucks are out.  California Air Resources Board may still be around even if the EPA is stifled - and many States have followed CARB with their own emissions requirements.   And an recession in the auto business may be coming, as everyone went on a car-buying binge in the last seven years and with seven-year auto loans, well, not many are in a position to buy a new one just yet.

What happened in December was a classic example of the market getting ahead of itself.   People were buying stocks in companies they thought would prosper in the future.   But now things are starting to look different.   The health care sector was improving, with my Blue Cross stock nearly worth what I paid for it.   In retrospect, I should have sold - but who could have predicted that TrumpCare would fail in an all-Republican Congress?

Well, I guess I should have seen it coming.  Obama had the same problem with a Democratic Congress.   Extremists on both sides of the party refused to go along with his plans in many cases.  It was amazing that Obamacare was passed at all.   And of course, many Congressmen will pass a bill if there is some sort of kick-back in it for him - a new bridge in his district with his name on in, in big, big letters.

The infrastructure program looks likely to fail as well, as hard-line Republicans put balancing the budget ahead of spending on roads.   It only appears that defense spending is the one area that everyone (even Obama) agrees that more should be spent.   McCain wants to spend even more than Trump!

And tax reform?   Well TrumpCare left in place some tax hikes for several years, and now that it has failed, well, maybe no ObamaCare tax cuts are on the table.   Whether the tax cuts for the highest brackets will take place is anyone's guess.   If they do, it will be a debacle.   Why?  Same reason as before under Bush.  Cut taxes, cut revenue.   If the economy doesn't grow exponentially, revenue will not increase after a tax cut.   So less money coming in, more going out as Congress spends like drunken sailors and, well, the deficit clock starts to be a thing again.

Eventually that currency collapse the far-right keeps harping about will happen.  Eventually.

But when?   Timing is everything, and if I knew that, I would be a billionaire.   Some guys bet on the collapse of the housing market and won big - dumping those credit-default swaps just in the nick of time.   But they could have bet wrong - even by days, weeks, or months - and lost their shirt.   I thought the market would settle in 2002.  I thought it would collapse in 2005.  It went on nearly four more years before a real reckoning took place.

What is disturbing to me is the recent reports from Ford and GM than fourth quarter profits are down - by 50% in Ford's case.   That's a lot.   If Trump follows through with his protectionist tax policies (which the GOP seems to think is a swell idea too) then the cost of importing parts could skyrocket.   Auto costs would increase, sales would drop, profit margins would slim, dividends would be slashed and share prices collapse.    That indeed is what happens when you start a trade war - and this is not some newfangled economic theory, either.

So, maybe we will see the Trump bubble collapse.   The question is when.   Next week or next month, or next year?  Or maybe years from now, as happened with Bush?
That is the tough question to answer!

A Victory for the Status Quo

What just happened and why?

The strangest thing happened this week and no one is talking about why.   Donald Trump gave a fake deadline of Friday to pass his poorly thought-out health care plan and then said, like a petulant suitor, "If you can't pass it, then forget I ever mentioned it!"

This is, of course, nonsense.  There is no real deadline to pass health care reform-reform.   Next week would work just as well as last.  In fact, the longer they take, maybe the better a bill could be crafted.  It seems both sides were hell-bent on rushing something through.  First, the poorly thought-out ObamaCare, and now the even more poorly thought-out TrumpCare.

Instead, we have this curious statement from Paul Ryan that Obamacare will be around "for the foreseeable future" - as if somehow the Republicans cannot craft a better alternative, or "repeal and replace" as they promised.

And even with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, President Trump blames the Democrats for the failure of his bill - which he has been running away from since it was proposed.

What the heck is going on here?    Well, a victory for the Status Quo is what.

I think Trump realized that any half-assed changed to Obamacare is going to be a loser from the get-go.   It will give the Democrats an edge in the mid-term elections as people lose their benefits - or even fear losing them.   It also won't sit well with die-hard Ayn Rand type Republicans who want to return to the age of bloodletting and leeches as a form of health care.   Just kidding, but some of the "Repeal and Replace" crowd are not so keen about "Replace" at all, just Repeal.

And it was a shitty bill.   At the last minute they added an amendment that chucked out the onerous cradle-to-grave requirements of the ACA, such as mental health care (which is ungodly expensive).   These requirements (including requiring certain deductibles, making my $10,000 deductible plan illegal to offer) meant that premium costs would not go down but instead would continue to rise, while the subsidies were slashed in half.   They didn't even have this provision in the original bill.  And the part about shopping across State lines?   We'll get to that later.

What this would have meant for many Americans is that their costs of insurance would skyrocket, as they lost their subsidies.  Poorer Americans would simply drop out of their plans, with no penalties, signing up only when they became sick.   It was not a well thought-out plan.  It was not "Obamacare Lite" but "Obamacare Half-Assed".

What was needed was a comprehensive overhaul, not tinkering with a sledgehammer.   Just repealing would have been better than this replacement, but not by much.   And the disruption in the marketplace of either option would be, well, catastrophic.

So Trump plays political theater, claiming (lying) that since a replacement could not be passed this week, it is somehow physically impossible to ever replace it ever!   That wily Obama, putting the clause into Obamacare that it cannot be repealed except in the first 60 days of a new administration!  Oh, wait, that is not the case.

Trump is just realizing that politically, it makes sense to leave Obamacare in place and say "we's the Democrat's fault"    It also is politically expedient to have the Obamacare whipping boy in place for a few more years, claiming time and time again that it has "failed" and that Democrats, who are now essentially powerless, are to blame for all the country's woes.

And the way things are going, we may be headed for woes.  Seen the fourth-quarter profit reports for GM and Ford?  Is this 2009 all over again?   Maybe Hillary lost on purpose knowing a correction was due?   Maybe the "Trump Bubble" has already peaked?   This is scary to think about.  Any maybe a topic for my next posting.

The problems with Obamacare are many as I have pointed out before.  The biggest is the crazy subsidy system that provides a full subsidy if you are above the poverty line but no subsidy if you are below it, forcing you to go on Medicaid, if your State allows it.  If you make a dollar more than four times the poverty limit, your subsidy is cut off.

But should we be getting subsidies?   I have analyzed in the past whether you could get food stamps as a millionaire or other benefits.   And in the past, it may have been theoretically possible to so do, although it seems today they have an "assets test" to get foodstamps, so maybe that door is closed.

As many articles noted, if TrumpCare passed (and we are sticking his name to this mess, whether he likes it or not) many early retirees would be socked with huge insurance bills or just drop coverage entirely.   One reason I was able to retire early was that Obamacare took care of a big chunk of my retirement expenses. Last year, I paid $1098 a month for health insurance.  This year I pay $18.

TrumpCare would have changed that.  Assuming I went to the cheapest plan available (Obamacare allowed me to upgrade to a better plan as well - I got the best plan I could for the subsidy available) and premiums did not go up, I would be looking at about $5000 to $7000 a year for health insurance, at least initially.

For me, this is not too big an issue.  Obviously, like anyone else, I would like free money from the government, even if it makes me uneasy as to who is paying for it.   And we should expect people to do just that.  Any idiot (and there were many) who paid the "fine" and refused to sign up for Obamacare (which cost less than the fine) as an act of "political protest" was just being an utter fool.   Republicans are not going to pat you on the back and say  "way to go!" but instead pat you on the head and say, "good little fool, keep doing as we say."

If you qualify for a government program, take it.   If you believe government programs should be changed, then vote.   But that is the problem, ain't it?  Once you get that Uncle Sugar money, you kind of sort of like suckling at the government teat, and as politicians find out, woe be to the guy who turns off the sugar tap!

That, in short is why TrumpCare was pulled - not defeated - pulled.

Now for me, who voluntarily retired early, you might not have so much sympathy.  But for others, well, it is a different story.   People who lost their jobs and cannot find any other jobs, other than low-wage service jobs, Obamacare was a godsend.   The factory worker who was making nearly a hundred grand a year until the plant closed, now finds himself making $20,000 a year, if that, working at Wal-Mart.   His benefits went South when his company went bankrupt.   So he is stuck, years away from Medicare, with rising health care costs as he ages.   Obamacare saved him.

And that is the problem for the GOP right there.  Because he is likely their sort of voter - the guy who wants the immigrants out and the Muslims banned.  The very poor who think Trump will bring back their factory jobs (which he won't, and any new factory jobs are not likley going to a 55-year old laid-off worker anyway).   Rip his healthcare out from under him, and well, you've lost a solid Republican voter.

So, they play this game, saying they could not pass a replacement by an artificial deadline so let's just forget we ever said anything.   And in this post-fact fake-news era, you can say that, and people will believe it.   I am sure the die-hard Trump supporters thought that March 24th was some sort of line in the sand that could not be crossed.   Trump tried - those nasty Democrats foiled him again!  Curses!

Meanwhile, that same Trump supporter will quietly enjoy his Obamacare and not really understand exactly just what happened in Washington this week....

The Mobility of Labor

A resort trailer park on Lake Powell?  No, a labor camp for the Glen Canyon Dam.   Oddly enough, today, there is an RV resort nearby.

Mobility of labor - it is one of the hallmarks of both the Capitalist and Communist systems.   As I noted in an earlier posting, one of the few logical things Karl Marx said was about the mobility of labor.  He argued that the ownership of land tied labor to the land, and not to where they would be most needed or could prosper the most.

One thing that marks a person for poverty is the lack of mobility or the lack of desire for mobility.   The news media loves to do a weepy piece about Flint, Michigan, where they interview some person sitting on their porch, and they say, "Been livin' here my whole life, see no reason to leave!  Just hope the jobs come back someday!"

And I've lived in Flint, Michigan, from 1978 to 1980, and I can tell you it was a depressed place back then, before they closed the factories.   The best thing about Flint was seeing it in your rear-view mirror.  And no, those jobs ain't a-comin' back, either.   Because even if they open more plants in Flint, well, robots will take a lot of jobs, and you'll need skills to work in a robot plant, as opposed to the old air-gun assembly line plant.

And yet we see this among a lot of people, from the poor to the middle-class - the inability or unwillingness to move away from expensive places to live (when you retire) or places where there are no jobs (when you are at working age).    I met a couple the other day, and they have a house in New Jersey where the property taxes alone are close to $20,000 a year.   She said she didn't want to move to a cheaper retirement location because she was active in the church choir.   Now, if they have tons of money, that's just fine.   But I have little sympathy if they start to bitch about what a raw deal they are getting in life - they have choices.

But people do that, saying "all my friends live here" or "I have family here" or some other reason why they cannot pick up and move to a better location for work or retirement.   And that's OK, again, if they are supporting themselves.   But in most cases, they say this in the same breath as, "And the government should therefore bail me out, give me a job, give me a tax break, or otherwise make it possible for me to stay where I want to!"

It don't work that way.   Or at least, it shouldn't.   Sadly, our country is increasingly asking the government to fix all sorts of things, even trivial bullshit, but asking other people to pay for things.   Need a sex change?  Obamacare will pay for it - funded by someone else's tax dollars.   I am not sure that is really a medical need so much as a want.  But I digress.

In the not-too-distant past, labor was mobile.   During World War II, the need for workers at defense plants caused housing shortages in many areas.  Trailer homes were built (of wood and canvas - non-essential war materials) for people to live in.   It made sense, to live as cheaply as possible and bank your paycheck for a job that was going to last only four years or so. 

Right here in Brunswick, was a huge shipyard that built Liberty Ships.  Overnight, the small, sleepy Southern town was flooded with workers, welding together ships which went down the ways every few weeks.   In four years, it was all shut down and the workers went away.   Anyone foolish enough to buy a house here during those war years was no doubt disappointed.

We are seeing the same thing happening in the fracking fields in North Dakota.   The media paints an "ain't it awful!" story about housing shortages and people "forced" to live in an RV in the Wal-Mart parking lot - of course the "workers" again being "exploited" by evil corporations. 

But the people living in the RV in Wal-Mart are the smart ones as the fracking jobs are transitory - they move from place to place as wells are dug and the industry moves on.   And eventually as in every oil boom in the history of mankind, people stop drilling and start pumping, and the drilling jobs go away.   And eventually the pumping jobs go away as a field is tapped out.   It is like the old mining towns.   Boom towns.   You don't put down roots or invest in a boom town.

When you are young and in your prime working years, that is about the worst time to be putting down roots or refusing to move.   It is much harder to do when you get older, so it makes sense to be flexible when younger, so you can go where the money is or where a job takes you.   And often, an employer will offer transfers to its better employees - including promotions and raises - if they are willing to move.   You work at Home Depot and they say, "Would you be willing to help open a new store in Bumfuck, South Dakota?" and that is an opportunity.   If you say, "No, my cats are too used to living here" you pass up an opportunity that likely will never be offered to you again.
For upper management, Engineers, and other professionals, moving is a way of life.   Engineers have to move to where the jobs are, particularly if they are defense jobs.  A company gets a contract and they hire like mad.  They lose the contract, they lay everyone off.  Such was the life at GE in the 1960's and 1970's.

My family moved all over the place.   My Father was in "management" for Booz-Allen, and moved to Egypt to work on the Aswan high dam, until the Egyptians threw us out and had the Russians finish the job.  He lived in New Jersey, Connecticut (twice), California, Illinois, and New York (twice), each time moving to a better-paying job (in most cases) and packing up the whole family in the process.

Myself, as an adult, I have lived in New York (twice), Connecticut, Michigan, Virginia, and now Georgia.   I moved to where better jobs were, or where it was cheaper to live, or where I could have a better way of life.   I realized when I returned to New York why I left in the first place - while the City is booming, the State is stagnating.   Low expectations, high taxes, and a "leave it to the government to figure out your life for you" attitude.  Just fill out this stack of forms and wait.

My siblings also left home to find work.   Back in the 1970's the "baby boomers" all moved to the "Sunbelt" which was a part of America where no one lived before air conditioning.   Austin was a tiny sleepy town, believe it or no.  Denver was hardly larger than Utica New York.   Even Phoenix was hardly settled, and Tuscon was no more than a village.   Today that has all changed, and the "New South" is now the industrial and technological hub of America, to some extent.   But maybe for the next generation, The North Shall Rise Again.   You never know where the next opportunity will come from.  Some are saying even in Detroit, if you can believe that!

When I was a kid, moving vans were new and shiny and a way of life.  Today, well, people don't move so much anymore, and companies rarely pay for the moves like back in the old days.  The lack of mobility of labor for our generation has created more poverty.  There are jobs today, going unfilled both for lack of skills and lack of people locally.

As I noted in an earlier posting, when we visited Ashboro, North Carolina to see the "pottery corridor" at the height of the recession, it was a bleak place, with the locals feeling sorry for themselves and claiming the "Mexicans took all our jobs!"   Meanwhile, not an hour away, Citibank has a billboard saying "NOW HIRING!" because they are short on people.\

But again it is the same-old same-old, people valuing their ability to deer hunt or their bar buddies over the needs of their family.   They would rather go on welfare or unemployment than seek a better life.

And maybe that is because we make it easy to get government assistance.  To qualify for many of these benefits, you only need claim to be "looking for work" in your local area.   There is no requirement for you to seek a better place with more opportunity.

We are entering an era of very low unemployment, thanks to the previous administration's fiscal policies, and not Donald Trump's 60 days in office (Let's be real here, folks!).   More and more jobs will remain unfilled for lack of applicants - and still people won't move to where the work is.

Of course, employers know this, and one reason why there are so many car factories in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, is that there is a huge supply of low-wage unskilled labor in these areas that refuses to move anywhere to get a job.   It is a captive labor audience, and many of them, rather than moving to a job, will commute a hundred miles or more to work.   No unions, no benefits, part-time status, and long hours at relatively low pay (by national standards).    The rednecks eat this shit up.  The auto plants aren't so bad, the captive parts suppliers can be a little more third-world.  But then again, isn't Alabama?

So what's the point of this?   Well, it goes back to what I have been saying early on in this blog.  Opportunities abound in life, but many people fail to perceive them, or reject them for very silly reasons.  "I'd take that job in the other city," they say, "It pays more and has better chances for promotion.   But I just planted my vegetable garden this year, and still have six more weeks of unemployment benefits!"

People have weird priorities!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Where Is Your Career Taking You?

Where is your career taking you?  Or have you already reached the top?

I get e-mails from readers, and I cannot answer them all.  Thanks for the feedback, both good and bad.  Some I think are attempts to troll me.   Maybe not.   Hard to tell sometime if people are being sarcastic or trying to bait me.   Either way, they sometimes raise interesting questions and get me to thinking, which of course is always dangerous.

For example, a reader mis-applies what I said about seven steps to getting out of poverty.   He already has a job and a skill as an auto mechanic, so what does he do next?  Move somewhere else?  No, that was what I was saying is helpful if you don't already have a job.

If you already have a job and a career and skills, the thing to do is figure out where it is leading you, whether it has lead you as far as it can, and whether you are content with that - or want something more and are willing to make the effort to get it.

The term "auto mechanic" has a number of meanings and levels of skill and pay.   At the bottom of the ladder are the mechanics working at Wal-Mart mounting tires, changing oil, and installing batteries - or at any one of a number of the chain stores.   Don't get me wrong, they do good work, I use Wal-Mart all the time to mount and balance tires for me.   But of course, the pay isn't the greatest.  People do make a living there, though.

Up from the chain stores are maybe the private auto shops - particularly places that specialize in foreign or unusual cars, or high-performance cars.  These can be some of the highest paying jobs for skilled mechanics, particularly for upper-end performance cars, custom cars, and the like.

Dealerships are a mixed bag.  Many a mechanic has told me that working at a dealership can be demanding and the pay not great, depending on the dealer.  The often work based on shop manual hours.  If there is no work to be done, they starve.   If a job takes more time than the manual says it should, they starve.   If they hump, they can sometimes make money.   And the kind of car makes a bid deal as well.  Obviously, working at a KIA dealer might not pay as well as working at a Jaguar or Porsche dealer.

So, even with the job description of "Auto Mechanic" there are tiers of skill and pay, starting at the bottom at a chain store installing batteries, and maybe working up to the top levels at specialty car shops or dealers, particularly for those skilled in things like electronic repairs.   There are lots of "auto mechanics" out there, but many are scared to death of anything with wires on it - in my experience.   A guy who isn't afraid to learn how to diagnose problems with modern electronic controls would be in higher demand than someone who merely can do mechanical work.

There are so many different skills that fall under "Auto Mechanic" from grease monkey, to auto-body tech, to painter, to suspension specialist, to engine rebuilder, transmission specialist, machinist, auto upholstery, etc. etc. etc.   The term "mechanic" could encompass any of these, or like a GP doctor, be a generalist doing some of each.   It is a very broad field.   And it spills over into boats, ATVs, motorcycles, and even small engine repair.  And heavy truck repair, diesel mechanic, construction equipment repair, hydraulic specialist, agricultural equipment, and.... well you get the idea.

But of course, within these levels of skill and specialty, there are different levels of achievement.  You can start out mounting tires at Wal-Mart and eventually be promoted to supervisor.   Maybe it isn't the greatest paying job, but it is a promotion.   Similarly, you may start out as a mechanic at a dealer and end up running the service department or as a service writer, or run the parts department.  Heck, you might even make the jump to sales, although that is a different skill set.

But of course, for every dozen Indians there can only be one Chief - not all of us are slated to be at the top of the heap.   For example in my career, I was never a "head partner" at a big firm making big bucks.   At my peak I maybe made in the six figures.   Some of these top guys make in the seven figures, particularly litigators.   Why didn't I make that kind of dough?   I don't have the talent necessary, and not everyone is cut out to be in charge.

And it pays to know this about yourself, or as Clint Eastwood once said, "A man has got to know his limitations!"

I realized early on that I was not cut out to be a top litigator, but my skill level was in drafting Patent applications.   So I stuck with that.   No shame in saying you are not the best and brightest in the world.  In fact, it is better to figure this out than go through life resentful of people with better skills and more ambition.  I was content with the choice I made, and did well with it, not making as much as some, but more than most.

My boss who made all that money?  The most miserable person I ever met in life.   I am not jealous, seriously.  There is more to life than money - you can live better on less, which is the mantra of this blog.

But there are other places you can apply your skills.   For a skilled mechanic with some business smarts, opening your own shop is always an option - a risky, difficult, and expensive option, to be sure.   And not one I recommend, either!  After trying to run my own business, I realized that employing people takes a special talent and temperament, and again, it was not something in my toolbox.  So I let it go.

But I've known many mechanics who run their own shops, and probably make more money than a mechanic working for someone else.   Or not.  If you specialize in a particular marque, it helps.   Specialized tools and knowledge are key, of course, and many companies are making this harder and harder to come by.

So you can see, there are plenty of paths a career in something as simple as "auto mechanic" can take.  Or take "HVAC tech" - there are again tiers of employment, from working for a small independent shop doing service, to working for a big dealer doing installs, to commercial work (which could pay union wages) installing heavy machinery, to running your own HVAC repair business.   The latter could range from being a guy with a van and a set of manifold gauges, to a guy owing multiple dealerships and making millions of dollars.   I've known both.

The thing is, to figure out where you career path is likely to go among these various paths.  If you are an auto mechanic and doing tire installs, it may pay to go back to school and learn more esoteric repairs and get ASE certification for one or more specialties and maybe get a better paying job - if that is what you want out of life.   Again, you actually have to want that.  It ain't gonna happen on auto-pilot.

And it's OK if you don't.   You just can't complain about getting a raw deal in life and be jealous of those that do try to get ahead.  One has to be content with one's own level of effort.  I have no sympathy for slackers who complain about successful people "taking all their money" as you have to have money in order for someone to take it from you in the first place.

If you don't see your career going anywhere, you basically have two choices, either accept where it has gone and make the best of where you are, or change careers entirely.   The latter, of course, is very risky and can backfire in a big way.

For example, I was working as an HVAC tech for Carrier, on experimental air conditioning systems.   If I had stayed in that job and the plant had not closed (which it eventually did), I probably would have topped out as a "senior tech" and made a decent comfortable living, but not get very wealthy over time.   If I put money into my 401(k) plan, down the road I could have retired with some modest comfort.    I doubt I would have ended up as a supervisor, like my boss - or wanted to, as he had a tough job and he had the temperament for it - something I lack.   It's OK to acknowledge that, too!  In fact, it is very constructive.

But as a technician, that is about as far as I would get.   So I finished my Engineering degree.  Now Engineers can make a lot of money, compared to some professions.  The top EE's working on semiconductor designs or CE's working on software can command good salaries, but often have to live in expensive areas.  They do well over time, if they bank a good portion of their salary instead of blowing it on eye-candy.   And again, a very few may make the jump into Engineering Management and make real bucks running a company, with stock options and all.   Few Engineers make that jump, again because of the Indians/Chiefs ratio and the fact that nerdy Engineers have shitty social skills (consider the CEO of Uber, for example).

But of course, there are EE degrees and there are EE degrees.  And since I had spent nearly a decade in heavy industry (GM, Carrier) no semiconductor company was interested in hiring me.  I did get a lot of interest from HVAC companies who wanted someone to design control circuits.   I thought about this, and I realized that I would probably plateau as a medium-range salary circuit designer, without a lot of job security.

The offer from the Patent Office was an interesting one - and a chance to change careers.   So I took the leap.   Again, this could have backfired in a very big way.   The Patent business is all about pushing papers around - you leave your Engineering degree at the door.   And many folks make this leap and regret it - and find it hard to make their way back to circuit design, particularly if they stay more than a few years.

The rest, I have recounted above.  I moved up but eventually found my new plateau.   But it wasn't a bad plateau.   Did I make as much money as some of my friends working at the "big firms"?  Hell, no.  They make more in a few years than I made in a lifetime.   Funny thing, though, they call me and tell me how "lucky" I am not to be working 60-hour weeks for those big paychecks. 

Sometimes, being an underachiever works out.   If you can live within your paycheck, spend a penny less than you make, preferably a dollar, preferably more than just a dollar.   Invest some, work for a few decades, and you're pretty set for life, if you play your cards right.

What doesn't work out?   Constantly wanting more than you can afford, and borrowing money to do it.  Being unhappy with your situation but doing nothing to change it.   Either accept your station in life, or change it.   Either is a good option, and you often have to do both.   And really, there is no third choice.

There is no "trick" to wealth, no shortcut, no special insights or secrets.   You already have all you need to know inside - pretty much everything I have said here is what people call common sense and stuff you have already thought of before, either consciously or subconsciously.

But please don't take any of this as advice.    I am not freaking Dear Abby or her sister Ann Landers.   People have to make their own choices in life, and it never ceases to amaze me how people in this world will ask advice from others and rather than consider whether the advice was any good or appropriate to their situation instead blindly follow it - often with disastrous consequences.

What you choose to do is up to you.   You know your situation better than anyone else.  You know your career field better than I do.   You know your own self-limitations better than anyone as well.   Although, bear in mind, if you had asked me when I was a stoner technician at the labs at Carrier whether I would one day be an attorney, I would have said, "Sure buddy, and you're the Pope!"

So we do underestimate ourselves sometimes, particularly when on drugs or when hanging out with people on drugs (same thing, really).  And this is important.   Folks who smoke pot will run down your dreams as unrealistic and actually try to derail them, so they can feel better about themselves.  Success is often a solo journey.   One of the most important things I had to do, as painful as it was, was say goodbye to my drug-addled friends and move on with my life.   Self-preservation is more important that the brotherhood of the bong.

FWIW, your mileage may vary.  No warranty expressed or implied!

Living Out of A U-Haul Pickup Truck

Living out of a car is pretty sad.   Living out of a rented car, even worse.

We were in the Florida Panhandle at one of those "Spring Break" kind of destinations, at a campground in our RV.  It wasn't a very nice place.   As we checked in, a very young couple in their late 20's or early 30's checked in ahead of us.  They did not have an RV, but were staying in a tent.  They had all their worldly possessions with them, in the bed of a rented U-haul pickup truck like the one above.

It was pretty sad.  So young, in the prime of their lives, healthy and able, and yet living in such a marginal situation with no clue as to what to do.   The RV park was also a parts dealer and fishing store and had a "help wanted" sign on the door.   The lady said to her boyfriend, "Hey, maybe I can find a job here!"

The manager shook his head.   People living out of a car are not destined to be good employees

He knew that their situation wasn't due to "bad luck" or whatever, but likely due to drugs or other personal issues (criminality, etc.).

I am not sure where this couple was going, other than nowhere fast.   The cost of the truck rental, $19.95 per day, would eventually add up to a lot of money, and they would have to turn it in eventually and end up walking.   How could you be that age and still have nothing to show for your life?   Hell, I'd just bundle up my stuff and get on a bus if I was that poor.

But they were doing a poverty-trick that we see all-too-often, particularly in places like Florida.   The poor tend to do things like move to another State to "get a fresh start" without any real plans of where they will work, where they will live, or whatever.  They just pick up and move, likely ahead of a posse of creditors.

When I said in my previous posting that one of the seven steps to escape poverty is to move, I didn't mean this!   This is poverty-think.   Move once you have a job offer in a place where there are jobs.   Go there and find a place to live and then move your stuff to the new location and report to work at the new job.   That's how middle-class people do it - or used to.

Increasingly, today, we see people moving like the Joads from Grapes of Wrath, renting a U-haul or Ryder truck, towing a trailer with an utterly clapped out "hobby car" - usually a Camaro, but it could be an Mustang, 20+ years old and not worth moving an inch.   Following is Mom in a car with a laundry basket and crap stuffed in the back seat.    People just moving willy-nilly and paying money to move garbage much as the poor pays money to store garbage in storage lockers.

Again, the poor make poor choices in every sense of the word.    And while they might not be able to help it, you can, if you have half a brain.

Perhaps a change of scenery is helpful for some folks, even if they move in this Brownian motion fashion.   And old friend of mine contacted me after 40 years and said he was still living with his parents and was flat broke.  I suggested he move out of his impoverished home town, and last I heard he was in Texas and had a good job.   So maybe it can work.

But more often than not, if you don't have some sort of plan, just picking up and moving away isn't going to work out very well, other than to take all your problems and move them to a new location.

It is sad that people live this way, but no, I am not interested in saving them.   How they got into this situation is something I have an inkling about, as I used to hang out with people like that - folks who lived in the margins, often mired in drug and alcohol abuse.   Folks who might steal your crap or beat the snot out of you, if you are not careful.   Best to stay out of their business and out of their way - as far away as possible.

You can't save people from themselves, and I am sure if you asked this young couple, living out of a pickup truck, whether they had their shit together, they would say they have things under control.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Expensive Hotels

Expensive Hotels are just expensive, and really don't provide you with an improved experience.

After the "Flyer Miles" fiasco with my stay in Savannah, I had to have a talk with Mr. See about reward points and miles.   He was still a believer in the frequent flyer miles fairy - or the reward points genie - even though he realized the folly of this in other areas of his life.  

We had started accumulating "rewards points" from Hilton when his work forced us to stay in Atlanta, and the points were part of the deal.   Rule #1 about Rewards: Rewards are fine and all when someone else is paying the airfare, hotel bill or whatever.   Spending your own money to earn rewards is just folly.

But we did take a couple of trips by car where Mark booked rooms at a Hilton property, arguing that the "rewards" points were worth it.  I went along with this, until I saw the rack rate - over $200 a night with taxes and whatnot!   What's more, he had enough "rewards points" from work to pay for the hotel stay!

When I pointed this out, he said he was "saving them" for a "trip someday".     Rule #2 about Rewards:  Cash them in as soon as possible.  Why?  Because they often expire and often plans to "go on a trip someday" never materialize in the interim.   Use 'em up and get your value out of them.   They count on you accumulating rewards or miles and then never cashing them in or letting them expire.  It is like with gift cards, a lot of people never spend them and they often are lost or expire, and yes Mark often saves gift cards for "special occasions" and then stuffs them in a desk drawer. 

Myself, I get rid of them like a bad penny.

For example, Sam's Club is opening up in our town.  The offered to sign us up at an event here on the island and gave us two gift cards for $25 and $15 (why not one for $45??) as an incentive.  The next day, we were buying groceries at Wal-Mart "Ghetto Gourmet" (Neighborhood Market) and I went to use them.   "I was going to save those!" Mark said.   "For what?" I replied, "They're just money - spend them and get rid of them as soon as possible!"

He was flabbergasted.  For some reason - an emotional reason - he was convinced these cards needed to be saved for "special."   But they are just cash, and if you "save" them, the odds of you misplacing them or forgetting about them increases with each passing day.   Get rid of gift cards as quickly as you can - without just willy-nilly spending of course.

And the same is true for miles.   If you fly a lot, of course you should "save up" for the trip you want to take.  But to try to "bank" them is folly - they will expire over time and you will lose whatever value you can get from them.

But getting back to hotels, a hotel is just a place to sleep and wash up.  It is usually not the destination of your trip, or at least it is not in most cases.   Very few hotel rooms, even in expensive hotels, are very nice.  No balconies or views of the city.  Just that carpet smell, 500 channels of bad television, and little soaps in the showers.

Paying $250 or more a night to stay in such a place (which is the rack-rate for a very middle-brow hotel in many towns) makes no sense for middle-class people.   Not when there are other hotels not far away that charge half as much.  Are they as nice?  Of course not, but you didn't go to the destination you are at to stay in the hotel.  It was not the reason for the trip, just a place to hang your hat.

Now, for business when someone else is paying, sure.  And for a resort with on-site amenities, of course.   But the rest of the time?   For what we were paying to stay one night at Hilton, we could have stayed in a lesser hotel for two nights.  Or a bed-and-breakfast, or even a condo on Tybee island.  Or an Air BnB or whatever.

The same is true of airfare.  Frequent flyer miles make sense for frequent fliers - folks whose employers are paying the airfare.  Rack up those miles and then frustrate the snot out of yourself trying to actually use them.  Blow your brains out.   But as one frequent flyer noted, "I fly all the time for work, the last thing I want to do in my free time is fly on a plane" so he gives his miles away or gives them to charity for a write-off.   Let's face it, he's right.  Flying on a plane is about as much fun as having your wisdom teeth pulled - sans anesthesia.   Staying in a hotel or motel room is about as exciting, frankly.

You cannot spend your way to wealth just as you cannot deduct your way to wealth.   Paying less is always a better option than paying more, even if they give you bonus points.   They throw pennies at us, hoping we spend dollars.  And in this case, for every week you spend in a hotel, you might get one free night with points - if you can navigate their horrific points system and actually book a room and not get utterly fucked at the last minute the way American Airlines did to me.

I would rather we had spent those "points" on a hotel room and used them up rather than accumulating them.  One less freaking thing to worry about!   And if we had no points to use up, I would have rather shopped around on price for the best deal on a hotel or motel.  Because paying $250 a night for a place to stay is just outrageous, particularly when it is just a place to flop for the night while you wait for a plane the next morning or are in town to see a show.

This was, of course, one of those difficult discussions you have to have with your spouse on occasion.   And of course, Mark was defensive about the points.  But after seeing how these "rewards" can be utterly useless and screw up your plans, I think he realizes that I was right.  He was chasing after a false dream.   It was like coupons - just a waste of time for the most part, and not a way to get ahead.   Like I said, ask a couponer, what's the name of their yacht?   Because if these stupid coupons, rewards, cash-back, bonus points, green stamps, or whatever were so freaking valuable, folks who chase after them would have a yacht.

No yacht.   That says it all.

What a Difference a Decade Makes....

When you decide to change your life, it can change fairly quickly.

A reader asks me, in response to my seven steps out of poverty posting, where to move to.   I cannot say for sure, as each person's situation is unique.  And moving somewhere and expecting your life to change magically is nonsense - and what poor people do.  You get the job there first and then move there.  That's how it is done. 

But you see poor folks do that all the time - schlepping a broken-down Camaro hobby car behind a U-haul truck to some new State hoping their fortunes will improve, with no real plan on how to improve them.   If that is what you took away from my previous posting, you got it all wrong.

But another reaction I get when I tell people they can change their lives is that it "takes too long" to save up money or accumulate wealth, and who wants to wait 30 years when they can have a new jet-ski right now?   The payback just is too long-term!

Well, it needn't take that long.   Almost 30 years ago, I reported for duty at "Patent Academy" which was a lot like the "Police Academy" movies without the car chases.   July 22, 1987.   I was offered the princely sum of $21,000 a year and had to borrow against my first month's paycheck to find a place to live.   It was pretty hand-to-mouth those first few months!  I was flat broke!

But ten years later..... a lot had changed.   When I moved to Alexandria, Virginia, I remember driving through historic Old Town and thinking, "someday, I'll own a row house here!"

By 1997, I did.   Actually, this and a whole lot more.   Within a decade of moving there, I had graduated from law school, opened my own law practice and bought a office building in Old Town for my practice.   We also had a house in Mt. Vernon, with a swimming pool no less.   We also owned a duplex and a condo, which we rented out.

A long way from my two-bedroom flophouse in Chittenango, and I can tell you that I would still be there if I had not moved to Washington - and if not for Mark.

A freaking decade.  That's all it took.   A decade of hard work to be sure.   I finished my Engineering degree at Syracuse and got a job offer from the Patent Office.  I also got some offers from HVAC companies in charming places like Fort Smith, Arkansas.   The problem with jobs like the latter was that the company making the offer was the only employer in Fort Smith, and that meant if I moved there and didn't like it, my options were limited.

The Patent business, on the other hand, was more flexible, as there were dozens if not hundreds of places to work (law firms, government, Patent Office, solo practice) in the D.C. area, which meant more opportunity.

Four years of night school weren't easy, to be sure.   But I was young and in my prime - what better time to do it?   Some folks actually discouraged me from going.  "You'll be 32 by the time you graduate!" they said.  "Yea, but this way I'll be 32 with a law degree" I replied.  And the long hours at the law firms and at my own practice weren't easy either.   But it all paid off.

In a freaking decade.  Ten short years.  From Bush to Clinton to Bush.

Now, this is not to say you are guaranteed the same results.   It all depends on who you are, how smart you are, how dedicated you are, how hard you work, and how willing you are to sacrifice things like smoking pot and feeling sorry for yourself, in order to get ahead.   It depends on your skill sets and what the market thinks those skills are worth.

I was "lucky" that I had a skill set (writing patents) that was in high demand back then.  Since then, demand has oddly slackened (in terms of pricing) even as the number of filings has skyrocketed.  Of course, it wasn't so much "luck" but realizing that studying Electrical Engineering was a better bet than "Communications" as my brother did.   He had a lot of fun in college.  So did I - all 14 years of it.

I am no longer a young man of 30, able to work ten hours a day and then go to night school for three or four more.   So it is good I am in  a position to wind down.  The brain gets tired.  I worked when I could so I can relax now that I can't work as hard.  This too, will happen to you - getting older.   You want to be a position to be kind to yourself later in life, trust me.

The sad thing is, to me, is that I see a lot of people in those prime years - age 25-45 - when your energy is at its peak, your mind at its sharpest, and your earnings often peak.  As a recent article noted, if you haven't made your fortune by age 45, odds are you aren't going to make it.  Or put more succinctly, by age 45, you can pretty much figure out where you life is headed and how much you will make in life.

This is not to say some don't buck that trend and become great writers or artists late in life.  It does happen.  But for most of us, this is not the case.

It is a crime to squander the best part of your life on pot-smoking and feeling sorry for yourself.

"I saw the best minds of my generation..." do just that, destroyed by drugs and low-self-esteem - sorry Mr. Ginsberg!

Change can occur pretty quickly, but not right away.   The turning point for me was 1985, the year I decided to stop smoking pot.  I went back to school full-time and finished my degree.   That meant I had to work night jobs and go to school during the day - all year long.  It took about 18 months, but I graduated.   Hard work, not a lot of money to spend, and not a lot of fun and games.   But I got it done.  My life hadn't gotten "better" but I was happier than I had been getting stoned and shitfaced all the time.

And the first few years in D.C. weren't too much better - long hours at work, a small apartment, but someone to share it with.  We squandered money on stupid things, but life seemed so full of promise and exciting and fun.   Those are the "best years of your life" when you are wanting and not having.   The future is an open book.

But things got better from there in a real hurry, even before I graduated from Law School.  I left the Patent Office and went to work for a law firm, making $52,000 a year - an amount I never thought I would ever make, in depressed Central New York - but a pittance in the D.C. area.   That was in 1990 - only three years after moving to DC!

I graduated in 1992 and was making close to $80,000 a year.  I had moved to another firm and stayed there for a couple of years.   In 1994, I took a big risk and hung out my own shingle.  The rest is history - a chapter of my life I am closing at the moment.   And by then, we were investing in Real Estate, which is quite frankly, where I made the most money.

From drug-addled lab tech to successful attorney in less than a decade.   All it took was making some different choices.

Those years was the part of the roller coaster where it goes clackity-clack up the hill.  Not very exciting in and of itself, although the view is great and the anticipation is exhilarating.   Now I am in the "whee!" part all the way down the track.  I can coast now, and along the way we have had a lot of fun.
For some of my old friends, family members, well, they spend their most productive years mired in drugs and alcohol, failed marriages, bitter divorces, acrimony, depression, hatred, and sadness.   I feel bad for them, but they made different choices.  And many of them resented me for making other choices

Back in Chittenango, I used to come home from United Parcel at 4:30 in the morning and find my old '68 Chevy covered from hood to trunk with a row of beer bottles.   My old neighbor Gwen Swatski would lean out the window in her nightclothes and say, "your friends were here last night!"   They were pissed I was no longer a party boy and wanted me back in the fold.  It was touching, really, but I knew that if I went back to drinking and smoking pot, my happiness and plans would be derailed.

Well, that's my story.  Yours will be different.  It may not even work out for you.  But I suspect if you try to improve your lot in life, odds are, at least in some small way, it will improve.   Not trying at all, on the other hand, is bound not to have any effect - which seems quite logical to most people, but it seems to escape others, who merely assume that life will improve, somehow, though luck or something, but no particular effort of their own.

Tell me how that works out!

Wy Airline Miles Are Worthless - Part III

Booking anything using airline miles is pointless.  Odds are you will never get that flight and you will end up with no hotel room even if you go.   Is this any reliable way to travel?  Of course not!

I have noted time and time again in my blog that the more complicated you can make any financial transaction, the easier it is to rip-off the consumer.  If offer to sell you a shotgun, and throw in a free toaster, you may be so distracted by the offer of the toaster that you forget that I am overcharging you for the shotgun.

But it is a tactic that works.  When I was a kid, banks literally offered free toasters if you opened a savings account, and as Michael Moore (misleadingly) illustrated, some banks even offer free shotguns.  One wily car dealer recently offered free "assault" style rifles with the sale of each car.

Back in the day we had S&H green stamps, which you could accumulate and get... ...a free toaster.  What is it with the toasters?  The gas station gave you free glassware with every fill-up, the grocery store gave you free dishware with every bag of groceries.   The idea was - and is - simple, to get you to be loyal to an overpriced merchant by distracting you with side deals.

And part of this scheme was to provide "free" deals that they knew few people would cash in on.   So many folks threw away their green stamps and never redeemed them.   Others would never cash in their receipts for free dinnerware.   You can make it sound like you are giving a bargain when in fact, you are giving nothing.

The other side of the coin is to make it damn difficult to redeem your points or stamps or whatever by having onerous requirements and esoteric rules, or making your "points" expire after so many months or years.  Again, you are seen as generous with the gifts, but they are left-handed gifts that expire in a puff of smoke.

The grand-daddy of all of these was airline frequent flyer miles now called "airline miles" as they are no longer aimed at frequent flyers.   When the concept began, it was a way of giving a bribe to frequent business travelers whose companies paid for the tickets.  The idea was, if the traveler could steer ticket revenue to the airline, they could give away something they had a lot of and cost them nothing - empty seats.

And it worked.  You worked for a big company and they flew you all over the place, in a few short years or even months, you had enough miles to fly the entire family to Hawaii - first class - because you earned miles quickly and the cost of each flight (in miles) was low and planes routinely flew half-empty (or half-full if you were an optimist) because regulations meant that fares were sky-high and only business people and the rich flew regularly.  Since routes were regulated by the CAB and even equipment was proscribed, you could fly - as I once did as a youth - from Syracuse Hancock Field to Hartford Bradley International Airport as the sole passenger on a Boeing 727.  Like a Saudi Prince!

Times have changed.   Back in the 1990's, when I flew United Coast-to-Coast, I racked up the miles, but they had doubled the number of miles needed to get a free ticket.   Not only that, redeeming tickets was hard to do - I tried several times to book both Mark and I on the same flight, only to be told that frequent flyer seats were limited.   Back then, the best use was an upgrade to Business Class or even First Class, if seats were available.

Well, it is 2017 and seats are even harder to find - even in first and business class.   Airlines fly full planes now, all the time, to every destination.   The cattle-car model of flying has meant lower fares, to be sure, but it also means that "frequent flyer miles" are very, very hard to use - if not impossible.

Yet the ways you can acquire miles have increased over time.  Credit cards routinely offer "miles" as an incentive, but the amounts they offer, even in the thousands, are not nearly enough to pay for an airline ticket, hotel room, or car rental.

And that is the other aspect of it.  The airlines now claim you can use miles to rent a car or get a hotel room, but redeeming these is anything but easy.   A few years back, we went to Savannah for a law conference and some poor bastard was trying to use his "miles voucher" to pay for his hotel room.  The clerk said they had no such reservation and that he would have to pay the last-minute rack rate for the room.    I should have taken this as a sign.

I realized I had some miles left over on my American Airlines account, as a legacy from USAir, which we flew not for the miles, but because it was cheap.   So I used these to book, or so I thought, a room in Savannah for this year's law conference.
So I thought.

Mark calls to see if the room has a refrigerator.   They have no record of the reservation.   After several phone calls, many to people with thick accents who do not understand English, we find out that "Tourico" the contractor that American uses, did not make the reservation.   We finally get a reservation number, but it is for Sunday through Tuesday, of no use to us.   American Airline's generous offer to us is to cancel the whole deal and give us our miles back without penalty.

Gee, thanks!   Screw up my travel plans and then tell me they won't penalize me for something that is their fault.

Of course, there are rooms available at the hotel, at $275 a night, far more than "Turico's" pre-negotiated rack rate of $169 a night.  And rather than lose $200 in the deal, Turico says there is "nothing they can do" and that I should just, well, kindly go fuck myself.

I mean, the temerity of some customers!  Actually trying to use these stupid miles for their intended purpose!  I mean, what were they thinking?

But it got me to thinking, that airline miles are dead and there is no point in chasing after them.   If you want to fly somewhere, just book the cheapest flight possible, as the airline miles are little more than a cruel joke.

There are "rewards" cards out there that don't play this game - they deposit money into your bank account, representing 1-3% cash back on every purchase.  You don't have to pull teeth to get them to do this - it is automatic.   Bank of America has paid me $2,220.97 in cash-back and discount rewards since I got the card in November of 2015, about $185 a month, which is the equivalent of a free airline flight every month.   This is far, far more than I ever got out of airline miles in my lifetime!

And there is no annual fee for the card.   Most miles cards have annual fees of about $100 to 200 or so.  So your "free airline ticket" actually cost you money.  And it may have cost your vendors money, as some are socked with airline fees, as I once was, when a client paid me with his "airline miles" card.

But with any "rewards" card there is usually a catch, and the catch is the 14-25% APR on the card that will smack you upside the head if you ever, ever, ever fail to pay off the balance every month.   They throw pennies at us hoping we spend dollars, and these folks are counting on everyone, at some time in their lives, not paying off the balance and thus negating all the "rewards" within a month or two, in the form of interest payments.

All rewards cards are like loaded handguns - treat with extreme caution.

The simplest, most direct deals are usually the best deals.  Want to buy a shotgun?  They why are you shopping for toasters?   Don't let "twofers" or discounts, or coupons, or BoGos or whatever distract you from the fact you are getting fucked in the price department.
Oh sure, they promise you a freebie down the road, just remember that actually getting that freebie is nearly impossible to do.

We had these miles because we were "legacy" customers from USAir when American Airlines acquired/merged with it.   The last time I flew American was back in the 2000's, when they skidded a 737 down the runway at Washington Reagan National Airport (the only airport named after two Presidents!) in a severe thunderstorm, placing all of our lives at risk.

We then sat on the tarmac for over two hours, because the union man with the little flashlights wouldn't guide the plane in due to the storm.   Other planes arrived and disembarked passengers.  We sat there, ten feet from the gate, because of union rules.   The pilots couldn't drive that last ten feet without a union flashlight guy leading the way.  So two hours in an airplane with no A/C, no drinks, nothing to do, but sit and let your legs cramp up.

I vowed then never to fly American again.   Quite frankly, I can see no reason why I should change my mind at this point.  No wonder some rate it as the second-worst airline in the country!  What a shame  the name "American" is attached to such a third-rate, third-world operation.

P.S. - I wrote a letter to American (their address is not even published on their website - which speaks volumes) and I will post what happens in response.   But even if they sent Brittany Spears to give me a blowjob, I am not sure it compensates me for three hours on the phone and internet, trying, in vain, to straighten out a problem not of my own making.

Or was it?  Is even using these miles just asking for trouble?   I think the answer is yes.

UPDATE:  This site has "tips" on how to redeem miles.  Some airlines let you redeem miles for merchandise, but it is rarely a good deal.   Other sites have less helpful advice, but illustrate how fees (and fuel surcharges!) can make a "free" flight cost $50 to $100 or more.

Trying to "win" at their game by learning all the rules and "playing" is just a waste of your time.  It is like trying to "win" by learning all the esoteric rules of cruise ships.   You are the fool to play their game, period.

AIRLINE MILES SUCK!   But then again, so does flying.  My next trip to Europe will be by ship!

Why Do the Poor Buy Exotic Pets?

Many folks - particularly poor folks - think that "rich folks" buy exotic pets, but in reality it is the poor and lower classes who are the prime consumers of exotic pets.

In a recent posting, I mentioned in passing that some of the poorest people in our country squander what little money they have on tattoos (which can cost thousands) and piercings (ditto) and exotic pets (ditto again).  This is, of course, because people we perceive as "poor" are not poor on a global scale.  In America, being poor doesn't mean you are malnourished, it means you have a shitty car.
As I reported in the Pet Trap, you can spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a year on a pet, and in fact, that kind of surprised me when I added up all the costs.   Just vet bills alone along with medicines can run into the hundreds.    I cannot fathom how someone making less than $20,000 a year can justify spending over a grand just on pet costs.   But of course, they don't know where their money is going, and don't realize how expensive it is, just to own a pet.

And this is just for a normal pet like a cat or a dog, which you can often get for free from the local shelter, or in my case, race track.   Many middle-class people adopt pets from shelters this way.  They are intelligent and realize that "puppy mills" are cranking out dogs with incestuous pedigrees and horrific health problems, and that buying a pet only encourages these puppy mills to flourish.

The poor, they often buy dogs - expensive dogs - as a status symbol they can ill afford.  As I noted in my debit card theft posting, my debit card information was stolen as part of an elaborate con to sell non-existent French Bulldogs to gullible people.  My debit card was used to post the ads on "dogs for sale" websites.   They also used a "secret shopper" con to get folks to unwittingly launder money for them through Western Union.  It was quite an elaborate setup!

But the main "hook" they used was to offer an expensive puppy to people who can't afford expensive puppies.   It is a common con game on the Internet - offering something that is expensive, such as a Kubota tractor, a Casita trailer, or a Harley Davidson motorcycle, for only a fraction of the price and then asking people to wire money to pay for it.

And the sort of people who fall for this con are not smart people, but lower-class and poor people, who believe they can get something-for-nothing.   What is interesting, therefor, is that it is clear that the poor want exotic pets and will pay a lot of money for them.

This reflects my experiences generally with expensive dogs, snakes and other reptiles, hairless cats, and whatnot.   The sort of folks who buy these animals are usually not upper-class people, but rather middle-class and lower-class, often the very poor.  When it comes to expensive vicious dogs, it is almost always the poor who buy these - to protect their meager possessions in their trailer homes or homes in the ghetto.

The question is, of course, if pets cost a lot of money to keep and exotic pets cost a lot of money to buy, why do the poor seem to like exotic pets?   Of course, half the problem is that the poor buy a dog and then never bother to neuter or spay it (hence the plethora of mixed-breed and ill-bred pit bull mixes at the shelter, which are often hard to adopt out).  They have vague plans of breeding the dog, which remain vague until their dog humps the neighbor's rottweiler, and another litter of unwanted puppies is born.

And of course, they don't give the dog its shots or medicines, and then they chain it to a tree and feed it occasionally from a rotting 100-lb bag of Wal-Mart "Old Roy" dog food.   These dogs don't live very long.   And sadly, I have been to more than one house where such a dog lives, with a clean circle of dirt and dog waste defined by the length of the dog's chain.

Many young people, struggling to get by, like to buy snakes or lizards or ferrets.   Why you would want these as a pet is a good question - here's the answer:  They want attention.   A fellow in Key West walks down the street every night with a ferret on his shoulder.  It is a status symbol and gets him a lot of attention - which is what status symbols are all about.

And as I have noted again, the poor and lower-middle-class are far more likely to squander what little money they have on status symbols.  Rich people don't put 22" bling rims on their clapped-out cars.  Poor people do so and rent the rims and get a doubly shitty deal.

Exotic pets, of course, are problematic on a number of levels.   First of all, in many instances, buying an exotic pet helps fuel the trade in exotic pets, which in turns threatens these animals in the wild.  People stuff parrots into cardboard tubes to smuggle them into the United States.  Half of them die in route, just so you can say you have a parrot.  Dumb.

Second, buying exotic bred animals like designer dogs, feeds the puppy-mills of the country, causing more and more animals to be inbred, causing the entire breed to suffer, and putting money in the pockets of really odious people.  When a movie or television show popularizes a particular pet, the shelters are usually full of them a few years later.  When Jack Russell Terriers became popular after Frazier went on the air, the animal shelters were full of the little nuisances, when people realized that unlike on the show, they were spasmodic little dogs that tore up their homes while they were away.  Rapid breeding and inbreeding didn't help matters any.

Third, often such animals escape or are let go by their owners, when they become too much to handle.  That Burmese python seems like a cute and creepy pet (the creepy factor being the status for the poor - they love to shock people for effect) at first, but eventually it will become large enough to kill you as you sleep.  Or as you try to clean its cageOr maybe kill your children.    Or whatever the fuck.  You Google this and end up with pages of hits.  Snakes, what's not to like?  And hey, being eaten by your own vicious pit bull isn't exactly fun, either.  Or having your face and fingers eaten by your pet chimp?

So they are let go or escape, and now populate the Florida Everglades.   Give the Alligators some competition!

Exotic pets are indeed a trap.   Not only do they cost a lot to buy, they cost a lot to own, and often they can live for decades or nearly a Century, in the case of some birds and reptiles.   It is another one of those deals where you sign on the dotted line as a lark and end up paying for a lifetime.

For example, a friend of mine has set up a "go fund me" page to cover his health expenses, as he claims he is living hand-to-mouth.   His two macaws are apparently living claw-to-beak as well!   Some of the poorest people I know are also the ones who have odd pets.

As for living situations, it limits your choices.   Landlords are reluctant to rent to exotic pet owners or vicious dog owners, due to the liabilities involved.   And think about it - you buy an exotic pet or a vicious dog before you have a place to live?  It makes no sense.   Another friend of mine with sixteen cats, eight dogs, two parrots, and even turtles was trapped in the same rented house as no one would rent to them.  They ended up building a small pole-barn type home to live in, as they could not find any other place to live.

And let's face it, when you get an exotic pet, it is creepy and you make yourself creepy and thus make yourself less attractive to other people, which is sure to limit your prospects in life, both romantically and financially.   Who wants to hire creepy snake guy?  Not me.  In fact, I would put that down on my employment application - do you own any weird pets?  As far as I know, it is one of the few questions left that you can ask!

So what's the deal with exotic pets?  Just say no.  Snakes and reptiles are not cuddly and they are not pets - they are just wild animals you are keeping in your home, and no, they don't like you one bit.  The lizard brain has little room for love.  Lots of room for salmonella, however!   Vicious dogs mark you as poor and will inevitably hurt someone.  Other exotic animals are an assault on nature, as you deplete their populations to own them - or destroy the local environment when you let them go free (yes, I am looking at you, snakehead fish owners!).

It just marks you as poor and stupid, not wealthy and sophisticated.   No, the very wealthy do not have tigers and exotic fish in their underground lairs or overwrought mansions - that's the Hollywood version of wealth - the one the poor and stupid bite on.

Exotic pets, when you get down to it are just wild animals you keep in your house, or should I say trailer or apartment as most of the stories you read about exotic pets describe them as being kept in apartments, rented houses, or trailer homes.

And let's face it, if you are really "poor" or "living paycheck to paycheck" can you really afford to throw thousands of dollars at something as useless as an exotic pet?

But that is the deal, ain't it?  The folks who complain about living "paycheck to paycheck" and having no savings or can't afford health insurance, all have satellite TV, a monster truck, a hobby car, a smart phone, and..... exotic pets!

Sorry, but my sympathy for poor choices in life is rapidly extinguishing.  And no, I don't have to respect them, either!

EDIT:  It should also be noted that when I lived in poor neighborhoods, many of my friends had very elaborate salt water aquariums - sometimes costing thousands of dollars!   I had an aquarium myself!

As I became more wealthy, I noticed my peers didn't have this crap.  Wal-Mart has a HUGE aquarium section, which tells us a lot.  The latest thing is fluorescent fish, genetically engineered so they glow in the dark.  I kid you not.

Hollywood movies always depict "rich people" as having exotic pets and enormous aquariums.   It is the white-trash view of wealth.  I suspect Warren Buffet doesn't even have a gold fish!  He does, however have (or had) a Labrador Retriever - about as un-exotic as it gets.