Friday, July 27, 2018

Uncle Tomorrow

When we borrow today for our wants today and expect to pay tomorrow we are asking Uncle Tomorrow to pay for us today.

Mark coined an interesting term which I think I should share with you.  We were discussing how, as younger people, we spent money on things we really didn't need using borrowed money - expecting the person of tomorrow to pay for the things we wanted today.  The problem is, of course, that the person of tomorrow has their own wants and needs, and doesn't want to have to pay for the wants of the person of yesterday.

Of course, that person of tomorrow - let's call him Uncle Tomorrow - doesn't have a choice in the matter.  If the person of yesterday decided to borrow money to buy a jet ski, then Uncle Tomorrow has to pay for it, whether he wants to or not.  If the person of today decides to borrow $100,000 for a sociology degree, then Uncle Tomorrow has to pay for it - whether he wants to or not.

Is it it is easy to see, in retrospect, how this works, particularly when you become Uncle Tomorrow and are saddled with the debts of Mr. Yesterday.  You start to realize that Mr. Yesterday was an idiot and bought lots of stupid things that he really didn't need, but rather wanted and expected Uncle Tomorrow to pay the bill.  As you might imagine Uncle Tomorrow is rather pissed.

I mentioned this before in my blog.  Particularly, how we tend to disassociate ourselves from the person of yesterday and the person of tomorrow.  We tend to see ourselves as discreet entities in time and maybe there is some sort of metaphysical basis for this.  Maybe we only exist in discrete moments and not as a continuum.

All I can say is, as an Uncle Tomorrow, I am glad that the person of yesterday put aside a little money for me when he did.  Because although he squandered a shitload of cash on stupid idiotic things, he did manage to put some money into investments, thinking of his good old Uncle Tomorrow.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Why Underarmor Is Struggling

No one wants to pay more for a logo.  Well, at least not rational people.

We poked our heads into an outback supply house here in Fairbanks, Alaska after trying to find some decent Thai food.  There are good Thai restaurants here in Fairbanks - something that apparently the locals love.  However the one we went to was in Dys-feung-shui mode with too few staff and too many customers.  This is the problem in an economy where the unemployment is very low and wages are very high and the cost of materials is skyrocketing.  I am describing Alaska, but this is also starting to apply to the rest of Trump's United States.

Alaska is a nice place to visit, but if you go to the local grocery store you'll pay two to three times as much money for basic grocery items.  Thus, you have to demand more in wages, and as a result, everything ends up being far more expensive than in the lower 48.  Like I said, it's a nice place to visit but I'm not sure I'd want to live here, particularly in the winter.

Anyway, we wander into this outback supply house and they have lots of Patagonia-type clothing and accessories as well as fishing gear and guns and ammo and whatnot.  Over on the closeout rack (where I usually go first) are a number of shirts and jackets and fleecewear.  I am in need of a new fleece jacket as my old Syracuse University hoodie has nearly worn out after more than a decade.

As I paw through the rack, I noticed a trend.  Anything with the brand name on it costs more than things with no-name brands or unknown brands.  And of the brand names, UnderArmour is the highest, topping even Patagonia, which is known for its high prices.  A simple UnderArmour fleece is selling for $140 on sale, marked down from a $180.  Meanwhile I find something from an unknown brand that fits me very well and is marked down from $48 to $14.  You can guess which one I bought.

In the news today is an article that UnderArmour is "struggling" to compete with Nike and is going to invest huge amounts of money in marketing to convince people to spend huge amounts of money on their product versus others.  I'm not sure this is going to work.  We saw the same problem with Abercrombie and Finch - another "name" brand store which sold products which were virtually indistinguishable from other people's products other than for the brand name sewn to the front or back for everyone to see.

The quality of these products is basically indistinguishable from others but the price is increased by a factor of three to five or more.  And yes there is a group of people - which we call idiots - who are willing to pay huge amounts of money to be seen with the correct logo on their sweatshirt or hat or pants.  Usually these are high school kids who will work after school jobs to pay for this nonsense, just so they won't be mocked in class for having no-name underwear.

But the rest of us grow up and realize that money in the bank is better than money on your back.  And also we realize that these trends change dramatically within a matter of a year or two.  When Mark bought an Ambercrombie hat at a garage sale for ten cents, I realized the demise of that chain was imminent.  Once people were willing to get rid of this stuff for cheap it was clear that the cache of having the "correct" brand was lost.

Do you remember Aeropostale?  Most people don't.  But not a few years ago it was a "must have" item for the teen set.  If you didn't have an Aeropostale shirt or sweatshirt you were considered a lamer in high school.  And again, most of us graduate from high school (although many people stay in it for the rest of their lives at least mentally) and realized it trying to impress people you don't even know is really a silly waste of time.

And this is the uphill battle for UnderArmour.  They have to convince people that their product has value, not just a brand name that is trendy.  Companies that sell products that are solidly built and have a quality reputation have less trouble with this.  I do own a Patagonia shirt that I bought in Laramie, Wyoming a few years ago.  It was on sale, but even then was expensive.  But it is very well made and has lasted a long time.  I didn't buy it because of the name on the front but because of the quality of the product.

The news article I read posited that Under Armour is going up against Nike.  If so I wish them luck.  Because in addition to just having a fancy logo and a name,  Nike does make quality products, or for the most part, does. They have the R&D budget to make products that not only look good but scientifically provide better cushioning and support.  The Johnny-come-lately in the shoe industry don't have this type of R&D budget or expertise, but hopes they can sell a generic sneaker made Korea for 15 times its manufacturing cost, based only on the logo alone.

Two caveats here.  Many years ago I used to do patent work for Nike and they were a good client and they do make a good product.  However, I haven't bought a pair of Nike sneakers in over a decade at least, if not two.  And the reason is this: the sneakers they make today come in bizarre colors and styles that I just don't feel comfortable wearing as an aging adult.  And that's why I've been wearing the same pair of Merrell's for years - not the same exact pair, but the same make and model which I bought at least five times on Amazon, for cheap.

As the economy craters, this is the challenge UnderArmor and other companies selling products based on name or logo alone will face.   People eventually seek out value over style, in the long run.  The companies selling only brand name or cache, end up failing - eventually.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Unimog

Do you really need a Unimog to go camping in Alaska?  No, not really.

We are traveling through the Yukon, and internet service has been sporadic. Several readers have written to me asking whether we are okay. We are doing just fine we are just away from civilization for a while.

When I say civilization, I mean things like constant internet service and telephone service and being connected 24 hours a day. The reality of life in the Yukon is that the roads are mostly paved and even the unpaved roads are easily passable.

We are in Dawson City at the moment which is a big tourist trap. Apparently they have done some reality TV show about this area, according to one of the locals, and it has become quite popular as a tourist destination - more so than before.

What is interesting is that the tourists seem to feel they need to drive some sort of extreme off-road machine - something like from Mad Max's Beyond Thunderdome. You see all sorts of jacked up vehicles with brush guards and heavy-duty bumpers and all sorts of equipment lashed to every quarter, as if they were expecting the Apocalypse.

The most extreme of this are Germans and particularly the Swiss, who have Unimogs shipped over from Europe in order to explore North America. Apparently they believe we don't have roads here in America or in Canada and thus need an extreme all wheel drive vehicle with tires that are taller than my truck.

If you are not familiar with the Unimog, you may remember it as a Matchbox car that we all got on our 6th birthday. I still remember it vividly was an off-road amphibious vehicle with huge tires with the letters BP on the side for British Petroleum. It was built in Germany by Mercedes as a military and off-road vehicle for used by oil exploration parties and whatnot.

We've seen several of these rigs, some of them Unimogs, some Mercedes trucks and some MAN trucks, all jacked three feet off the ground with huge boxes on the back. They have fording snorkels and giant metal tracks for extricating themselves from bogs and whatnot.

The funny thing is, when you see the locals here, they are driving things like a minivan or a Geo Metro that doesn't even have four-wheel drive. For sure, the people working on pipelines and whatnot have off-road trucks, but they don't have all this unnecessary frou-frou bolted on to their rigs, it is strictly business.

We've seen a lot of this in our travels. And it takes two forms. The first are Europeans who feel they have to ship their motorhomes over as deck freight on a containership from Europe in order to explore America. Some of these rigs are pretty much standard class C motorhomes that you can easily find in the states. For some reason they think it's worth spending thousands of dollars to have their own vehicle shipped from Europe even though parts are not available over on this side of the Atlantic.

We met a British couple had a little more common sense. They came to America and bought a used motorhome from one of the rental companies for very little money. It had a lot of miles on it but that way they don't have to worry about it being damaged. They would spend 6 months every year in the states exploring America and then put it into storage when they went back to England. This strikes me as a far more cost-effective solution if you want to explore America from Europe than having you rig shipped over. Oh, and shipped back as well.

The second thing that strikes me as kind of a silly is the idea that you have to have this extreme off-road vehicle to travel to Alaska. Yes they do have gravel roads here but then again most of the roads are paved and even on the gravel roads you can travel over 60 miles an hour on with little or no damage to your vehicle. We are traveling in a 2 wheel drive pickup truck and a trailer that has less than 4 inches of ground clearance and we haven't had any problems whatsoever other than to lose a sewer cap.  And that was only after traveling over Campbell Highway which is 250 miles of dirt and gravel roads.

But of course, that's not what it's all about. It's like the guy with the obnoxiously loud penis boat or the fellow with the monster truck. These guys jack off thinking about driving their big rigs through the Yukon or Alaska and how they're going to go bounding off road running over bears and Caribou. They have their fording snorkles so they can go through streams that are 6 ft deep. But the reality is they won't even travel over a gravel road for fear of getting their rigs dirty.

The locals seem to take this all in good humor. They're used to driving through this area in extreme weather in the dead of winter when you really need 4 wheel drive and chains on your tires. The summer time is the one time you really don't need much of anything and that's the time the tourists come here with their extreme rigs to explore.

Once again, status - seeking behavior raises its ugly head.  There is a competition to see you can be the most badass off-road dude, even if we are driving on roads that are perfectly possible by the most plebeian of vehicles - even bicycles.

I'm not sure what the point of all this is, other than if you are from Switzerland, don't feel the need to buy a Unimog in order to explore America. We do have paved roads here, even in Southern Michigan. Although the pavement in Southern Michigan leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, the worst potholes and frost heaves we have encountered so far on this trip have not been in the Yukon but in fact in Michigan.

Save the Unimog for Detroit.

PS - I apologize for the typographical errors, I'm dictating this on my cell phone from a bar in Dawson City.

PPS - Apparently the Swiss and  the Germans have more money than they know what to do with, if they can afford to buy Unimogs and have them shipped to America. Maybe Donald Trump is right - they should be spending more on their own defense.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Why Abortion Doesn't Matter Anymore

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Once the hot button issue of the 1970's, abortion no longer brings liberals to the polls.

Democrats are up in arms again, and promise yet more futile protests, spending millions of dollars to accomplish nothing.  Rather than trying to get out the vote and win at the polls, they are spending and wasting their efforts at getting out the protests and winning only public opinion polls.  The latter doesn't get anyone elected or change policy.

The latest outrage is that President Trump is going to nominate a conservative Supreme Court justice - a big surprise to many, apparently.   But what did people expect from a Republican, albeit an odd one?   It seems that so much of the protesting going on these days is to protest that Republicans are doing what they promised to do, which is to slash taxes for their friends and eliminate regulations for big business.   Act shocked.  This is what they have promised to do since Reagan was elected.

And overturning Roe v. Wade is next on the agenda.  And the Democrats want to use this to galvanize support for the mid-term elections and the 2020 Presidential election, so they can elect a "Democratic Socialist" as President.

Problem is, it ain't gonna happen.   The abortion "issue" isn't as compelling today as it was in 1973 - for a number of reasons.   In terms of "getting out the vote" it just isn't going to work this time around.  And the reasons are varied, but cumulatively, they amount to a "who gives a shit anyway?" on the part of the vast majority of voters - even Democrats:

1.  Society has changed:   Back in the 1950's and 1960's, there was a shame associated with out-of-wedlock pregnancies.   If a young woman got pregnant, she was damaged goods and could not hope to marry a "nice" man and settle down - which was about her only career choice back then.   Women were trapped in a dual-standard society.  They were expected to have sex before marriage as part of this "sexual revolution" but at the same time, were held to the chaste standards of the previous generation.

Back then, a back-alley abortion was a real possibility.  And back then, many young women were scarred for life or even died from such operations.   I recall an episode of Dragnet that addressed this issue.   A young woman hemorrhages to death from a botched abortion, and Joe and Bill shake their heads as if she somehow had it coming.

Today, however, more than half of all births in America are out-of-wedlock. The concepts of "bastard" children or "loose" women have fallen by the wayside.   The impetus to have an abortion - to avoid societal shame - has lessened or has been eliminated entirely.  Today, having a child out of wedlock is more a matter of convenience.   Having a baby in high school or college and trying to raise it as a single Mom is going to set back your career options, but it won't mark you as a "wanton woman" for life.

And there are other options - adoption being one.  My brother adopted a child from a young Mother who didn't want to have yet another baby by her abusive husband.   It worked out for everyone involved.   For the most part, there are more adoptive parents than children to be adopted, at least judging from the want-ads in the back of the paper, and today, online.  Another friend of mine went all the way to China to adopt a baby, because it was nearly impossible to adopt in the United States.

So yes, there are other options than abortion.   And "shame" no longer drives anyone to a back-alley abortion today, nor would it drive them to one if Roe was overturned.

Yes, there are reports in the press regularly about some young teen mother, usually the daughter of fundamentalist Christians, who stuffs her newborn baby in a trash bin during prom night.   These are tragedies, to be sure, but it is unclear to me how legalized abortion would have prevented them - changing the societal and social values of the parents might be a better alternative.   (Not surprisingly, children of fundamentalist parents have the highest teen birth rate of any social group).

2.  Yes, Abortion is used as birth control:   When I was an intern at Planned Parenthood, we had a policy that we would not recommend abortion services for the same client more than twice (like most offices, we did not perform abortion services but referred clients to doctors that did).   The thinking was, once was a mistake, twice maybe an error, but three times was using abortion as birth control, and that wasn't what we were all about.

Not only that, it isn't healthy to have repeated abortions.   It would be irresponsible to recommend that to someone.

But others have fewer qualms.  When Mark worked at Sheets 'n Things (before they went bust when they couldn't service all that leveraged buyout debt), he met a lot of young women working there who had two or three kids by different fathers.   They explained to him how the system worked, and how you had to have at least three kids to make enough money from government assistance in order to get by.  Of course, some of these programs had a work requirement, which is why these young ladies were working part-time at the store.

They also told Mark that they had had three or more abortions along the way - not for medical reasons, but matter of convenience.   They had enough kids and didn't want more, and didn't want to use birth control.   So, if they got pregnant, they got an abortion, and it was possible to afford this, as there were programs that would subsidize the cost of the abortion.

The pro-choice lobby likes to argue that abortion is not used as birth control, but I am not sure this is entirely true.  And I am not sure that the practices of Mark's co-workers is some sort of anomaly.

And sadly, this problem isn't limited to the lower classes.  When I was an intern at Planned Parenthood, I would leave the building for the day and see young men hunched down in the seats of their hopped-up economy cars, waiting for their girlfriends to emerge, either with a prescription for birth control, or a referral for an abortion.   Today, I am sure not much has changed, other than the makes and models of the hopped-up economy cars favored by teens and 20-somethings.


3. The Abortion Lobby was too successful:   Like the NRA, the pro-choice movement has had a good run, until recent years.  Despite the setbacks in red states and in the courts, the abortion movement has had a lot of success in the past.   And often such success is met with an equal and opposite force - something the NRA should consider before pushing the next part of its extremist agenda (Silencers?  I mean, really!).

Federal funding for abortions for the poor has issues as I noted above.  Forcing employers to provide funding for free abortions is another issue.   Allowing teenagers to have abortions without parental consent was also a bit too much.   A 14-year-old girl could not have a tooth extracted without parental consent, but until recently, was allowed to have an abortion in some States without telling her parents.

Even Democrats might have a problem with that, particularly if they have a 14-year-old daughter.  At the very least, even the most liberal parent would want to know about this and have a sit-down to talk with their daughter about where this is going.

Now, a lot of these things have since been walked back, of course.  But again, I think it was an example of reaching too far, and again, the NRA should take note.   When there is a parade, get out in front and lead it, rather than be the curmudgeon on the sidewalk cursing all the noise.


4.  Roe v. Wade is bad law:  I went to a "liberal" law school, and even there, my constitutional law professors admitted that Roe v. Wade had serious constitutional issues.   The Supreme Court is suppose to decide whether a law is constitutional or not.   In Roe, they went beyond this and wrote new law, defining by trimester when an abortion is permissible or not.  This was made out of whole cloth - doing the job that Congress refused to do.

Congressmen want to get re-elected, so they wouldn't touch the abortion issue with a ten-foot pole.  Actually, they tend to avoid doing anything, whenever possible, and it becomes a matter of gridlock.   Should the courts intervene and do what Congress refuses to do?   That is the constitutional question, of course, and those on the Left say "yes" and those on the Right say "no" - unless of course, the "legislating from the bench" favors a right-wing view point.  Then, it is not legislating from the bench, but merely good jurisprudence.

Regardless, Roe has some structural issues, and the Court could find some legal leverage to highly restrict it, if not outright overturn it.   If the Left wanted to enshrine the right to an abortion, they should have done so by legislation, not by court decree.


5.  There have been abuses:   No one on the Left likes to talk about this, but some doctors who perform abortions have less than stellar records.  Some have ended up in jail as a result of botched operations or by performing abortions in the last trimester.

Now, granted, you could argue that there are more botox doctors out there who have botched operations and killed patients.   The problem is, these abuses, even if rare, provide gristly grist for the gristmill of the anti-abortion lobby.  When it comes right down to it, the whole process of an abortion, even when done properly and legally, has an "ick" factor to it.  And the Right has been quick to use this to their advantage.


6.  The sexual revolution:   Sex has changed a lot since the 1960's.   Not only are attitudes about sex changing, but sex itself has changed.  No longer do people feel the need to go "all the way" to satisfy their sexual urges.  Without going into gross detail, there are a number of sexual activities that people can perform without any risk of pregnancy or even disease.

Perhaps the HIV epidemic is partly the cause of this.  But it is clear that there are other alternatives to vaginal intercourse which can result in pregnancy.  We are no longer teenagers trying to score a "home run" in the back seat of Dad's Oldsmobile on prom night.


7.  Demographics:  Here is the big problem for Democrats.   If we assume that roughly half the country is to the Left and half to the Right, that means the abortion issue (in terms of preserving Roe) really only resonates with half of the population.  Of this half, maybe 1/3 are not strongly committed to it.  Of the remaining 2/3rds, well, only half of them are women.

Yes, men are less likely to be concerned about reproductive rights than women, by dint of the fact they don't risk getting pregnant.  So as a result, as an issue to galvanize support, it may generate a "who cares?" attitude among a pretty big segment of even the Left.   In short, it may not be a winning issue for Democrats.

And of course, the point is moot:  The Republicans have the votes to confirm their nominee, and now have the votes in the Supreme Court to overturn Roe.   All the protests in the world won't change that, but will make the Democrats look silly and powerless.  In a way, it is like the Clarence Thomas hearings - much sound and fury, but nothing accomplished in any real form.

* * * 

So what is the answer for the Democratic party?  Just being against Trump is not enough.  Traditional hot-button issues don't seem to resonate anymore.  And the further the party lurches to the Left, the fewer and fewer supporters they will have.   I for one, am not quite ready to cut a check to a "Democratic Socialist" anytime in the near future.    People like Bernie Sanders are the reason we lost the last election and not the salvation of the party.

Until things get really, really bad, most moderate Democrats will not embrace this new leftism.  And sadly, many on the far left secretly hope things get really, really bad, so they can look like a rational alternative.

But has history has shown, this strategy often doesn't work.  By the time things get that bad, you are locked up in the gulag or on a train to an internment camp. 

\Maybe what we need is less extremism and more moderation.   Crazy idea, I know.