Thursday, February 25, 2021

Trade In Cell Phone Via Kiosk?

Old electronics sitting in a drawer somewhere are worth little or nothing - or are they?

e-trash.  That's what I call it - maybe others do as well.  Chances are, you have a drawer or box or something with old electronic junk in it.  Old cell phones, maybe an iPod, that fitbit that broke, or maybe a broken pair of ear buds.   The crap accumulates, like old pairs of glasses (might as well keep them as spares, right?).   Cell phones are problematic, as you have a lot of personal data on them, and are loathe to give them away.  It's like that old computer - worth nothing, but you'd better be sure to wipe the hard drive before you sell it or give it away to anyone, or the data on it might be worth more than the device itself.

I was in Walmart the other day, picking up a prescription, when out of the coroner of my eye, I noticed a kiosk offering to pay cash for old cell phones.  Walmart is the place for kiosks.  They have one for change sorting, another that dispenses water to fill jugs, and of course Redbox.  They also, inexplicably, have that claw machine.  Speaking of which, there are videos galore on YouTube on how to "win" at the claw game.  And yes, if you are willing to spend $30 to win a stuffed bear from China worth 50 cents, you can do this.   What's more, some of the claw machines are "a winner every time!" type, where you can play until you get at least one prize to go through the electronic eye at the prize chute.  People will do anything for YouTube clicks, it seems.

Anyway, I went online to the "ecoATM" site and entered the data for my old Samsung Galaxy S4's and they offered me six dollars apiece for them.  They suggest doing a manufacturer's reset and charging the battery before bringing them in - and you need a driver's license (presumably to prevent people from redeeming stolen phones).   Twelve dollars might not seem like much, but it is $12 more than I have right now - and moldering electronics are worth less and less every day.  I only wish I did this a year ago when the might have been worth $10 apiece.

Anyway, next time I am in Walmart, I'll try this kiosk and report back on what happens.  It should be interesting......

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Griddy Greedy?

Who is to blame for staggering power bills, the electric company or the consumer?

Recent articles in the media imply that everyone in Texas is now receiving thousand-dollar-plus electric bills, which is ironic, considering they have been without electricity for so long.  The reality is, however, that some consumers who signed up for alternative electrical suppliers, are getting these bills, as they agreed to pay "spot" market prices for electricity.  During normal times, this means reduced electric bills.  During peak demands times, well, all bets are off.

And like everything else these days, many Republicans are proposing that relief money designed to compensate people for damage caused by the Texas "big freeze" be used to pay these electric bills.  Why should the utility companies have to suffer?   Also on the agenda, is a proposal to use disaster relief money to pay Ted Cruz's Margarita tab at Cancun.

Are consumers innocents in all of this? Perhaps.  Perhaps not entirely.  When we had the house in New York, we were bombarded with offers to go with "alternative" electrical suppliers.  I never quite understood how this worked - after all, electricity is electricity, and the electrons have no idea what company produced them.  It is like these companies that claim they are "green" because they buy only "green" electricity from solar panels or wind farms.   But the reality is, the juice comes off the grid, and if you designate a particular source, you are not really making things greener - just laying claim to a particular portion of the power source.

Our neighbors in New York, from whom we bought the house, both worked for NYSEG, the utility company, and they recommended just going with the standard option.  A lot of these "alternative" companies seemed kind of sketchy and had funny names (I don't recall "Griddy" being one of them, though).   The idea was, I guess, that they would negotiate power prices for you, and your share would be allocated.   But as the Griddy fiasco shows, these types of arrangements can backfire, as they have no upper end on costs.

When we had the office building, I opened a commercial account with Virginia Power.  Probably a mistake on my part, as residential rates would have been far lower.  Anyway, I was billed on peak usage, not on Kilowatt-hours.  They went to a radio meter but for some reason didn't change out my meter.  After three months, they read the meter and charged me peak usage based on three month's worth of electricity!  I was able to negotiate down the bill, as it was their error, but it was an interesting experience.

In Auburn, New York, there was an old GE plant for sale (a real PCB cleanup mess!) and apparently someone came to check out the old factory. The Real Estate Agent turned on the lights - and the seller got a huge electric bill as a result.  Since they billed by peak usage, just turning one one light bulb triggered the meter and they had to pay the minimum amount for usage for that month - in the thousands of dollars.   Commercial electric billing is a weird beast.

I suspect a similar thing happened with Griddy.  They bought power based on peak load, and when everyone's heat pump went to "auxiliary heat" (which they do, once the temperature goes below 40 degrees or so) load levels went though the roof (auxiliary heat is resistive heat - an electric heating coil, which is the least efficient form of heating).   So Griddy gets charged a maximum amount for power, which in turn is passed on to consumers as part of the contract they signed.

NOTE:  Griddy offers this explanation as to what happened - they claim the utility commission is to blame for setting rates at a staggering $9/kW-h.  Compare this to the ten cents per kW-h most people pay, and you can see the problem.  But of course, if you had a standard utility company contract, odds are, you wouldn't be getting these sky-high bills.  We'll see.

Of course, consumers profess innocence in all of this.  Sure, it is all fun-and-games when you are paying $50 less per month than your neighbor.  But when the chickens come home to roost, where's my government bailout?  Why should I have to pay the contract prices on the contract I signed?   Why can't I get the low, low prices during lean periods of energy usage, and then get low prices during periods of high energy usage?  Why can't I have heads-I-win and tails-you-lose?

Sadly, this is the way of the world today.  We saw this in 2008 when people defaulted on mortgages on houses they could never afford - and petitioned the government for a bailout.  And some got it, too!  One lady in Ft. Lauderdale got a "mortgage reduction" on an overpriced condo she had bought, and then turned around and sold it for a profit later on!   Of course, many more got no reduction and ended up on bankruptcy court.  Others foolishly held on, cashing in their 401(k) (and paying huge tax bills as a result) to make payments on a house that would never, in their lifetime, be worth what they owed on it.  When they finally lost the house to foreclosure, they were utterly broke.  And yes, some folks today are still "upside down" on houses they bought before 2008.

I suspect the same will happen here - a few people will get "bailed out" of these high utility bills, which in turn will be a bail-out of Griddy.  Many more will simply not pay the bills, get default judgments against them, end up bankrupt and/or with their credit ratings destroyed. It is like food stamps - is that a bailout of poor people, or a bailout of Walmart, which can afford to pay employees less?  You decide.

The more complication you make a transaction the easier it is to fleece the consumer.  I mentioned before how Georgia Power offers a "flat bill" service which sounds appealing, but if you read the fine print, isn't a free giveaway of power.  It is not a mere bill-leveling service (where you pay a flat amount every month and then they reconcile the difference at the end of the year) but something far more complicated than that.  I read the fine print and decided to nope out of it.  If you go over your standard limit, they can drop you from the plan, or when you sign up the next year, jack your monthly rate.  Oh, and there is a "convenience fee" attached as well.  So you don't really come out ahead.  You just pay more for electricity for "peace of mind" - and you know I feel about people selling "peace of mind".

So I don't feel too sorry for Greedy Griddy customers - they wanted cheap power and didn't want to read the fine print.  In exchange for cheap power during low-usage periods, they were signing, in effect, a blank check for power (with no apparent cap) during high-usage periods.

The real question is, why do we allow such plans for ordinary people?  Commercial customers, who are sophisticated, can understand these billing practices and are held to a higher standard.  But in the interests of "deregulation" we are offering plans to ordinary folks that are far too complicated for them to understand.  They sign up, out of greed, not realizing there may be a hidden catch - and there is always a hidden catch.

But the same can be said for car leases, high-interest credit cards, variable-rate mortgages, and so on and so forth.  Shitty deals abound, and people think they are being clever and "stealing the cheese" by biting on these deals.  But when the deal blows up in their face, who do we blame?  The guy offering the shitty deal, or the consumer, who thought he was pulling a fast one on a major corporation (nice try!) and what's more, mocked the rest of us for being cautious with our money?

Like I said, the point is moot - the government will step in, once again, and bail out a select number of individuals (but not all) in a very uneven and unfair manner, much as "mortgage adjustments" were done.  Probably would help, in Texas, if you contributed to Ted Cruz's Margarita fund.  That is how these things work, in a kleptocracy.

UPDATE: A reader writes with an interesting perspective on this:

I have an interesting experience on this. We run a factory here in Texas.  About two years ago, I had a young salesman canvassing the block (it's all factories in this section of town), selling 'wholesale' electricity. These guys were middlemen to the energy companies. Since we run heavy machinery, our electric bill is about 2000-2500 per month and was only increasing with company growth. If I provided our estimated annual consumption and signed to a 4 year contract (with early termination fee), I could get lower wholesale rates. I didn't like the salesman much but liked the idea and made a quicker decision than I should have. For the most part, our electric bills went down even with increased use, but we did hit a summer price spike last year that scared me. Luckily we didn't work during this winter storm, so the factory wasn't in use (even then, power in our area was mostly down), but I'll have to wait and see what the bill is. At home, we use static rates.

Even as a finance guy, I didn't know about the extreme market rate cap and the probability of failure like what occurred. They sell you on the historical average price, not on the volatility or once-in-a-lifetime extremes on price. They don't even mention that the chassis or infrastructure of the grid needs major upkeep. I couldn't possibly expect a retail consumer to know about these intricacies and it doesn't make sense to have variable rates for such low retail consumption. And I'd bet Griddy customer support is nonexistent or not as informed on these details as well.

Market rate electricity basically requires being knowledgeable in options pricing and insurance writing. You're being paid a little bit every month in the form of savings, in order to insure the grid in case of catastrophe. You get a little bit of savings upfront with almost unlimited loss in case of disaster. The grid and energy companies knew we'd have to back-up their lack of investment in the grid. It's like they drove recklessly because they now had insurance. Consumers were hedging the electric firms' bets.

Many financial lessons to learn here. The market rate deal didn't intuitively feel right to me so I should have declined it. For retail consumers, saving $50 per month isn't worth the anxiety in exchange. Who wants to check electric spot prices every time we have a heat or cold spike? Having to turn off all your appliances, just in case the spot price swings! 2nd lesson is if the contract is too complex to understand then don't sign! Hopefully, we all learn from this and you're right, I was greedy in this! Nothing is free, so if I was receiving a bit of something for nothing that's greed.
I think that is an interesting way of looking at it - with all this talk about hedging and short-selling these days, it seems the electric companies have found a way to hedge or insure their bets - using our money.  As another reader noted, the system would be "fair" if there was some way to send users messages showing them their cumulative energy usage, rather than waiting until the bill arrives to find out how much you owe.  $9kW-h is scandalous!

Maybe $0.03 a kW-h is a "good deal" compared to the ten or eleven cents I pay.  But then again, I never have to worry about nine bucks!

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Time for a New Galaxy?

Phones become obsolete when apps will no longer install on them.

A few years back, I broke down and bought some used Galaxy S4's and joined the mindless heard of smart-phone gazers.   Since we travel a lot, it is essential to stay in touch and keep track of banking balances (on a daily basis, thank you!).   The S4's worked well, and could act as a "WiFi hotspot" so no more dicking around with crappy WiFi services at campgrounds.

Funny thing, I know people who pay twice as much money as I do - per month - so they can have the latest "iPhone" and have no data service.  They are constantly using WiFi and trying to find a WiFi cafe or asking people "what's the password on your router?"   I try to explain to them that for $50 a month or less you can get unlimited data from AT&T GoPhone and they respond, "But do I get a free iPhone with that?"

Oh, well.   Still believing in the dream of free ponies!

Anyway, since we did that, we even dropped our landline router (UVERSE) and stream video through the phone.  Most "televisions" today have WiFi capability, so just set the phone as a hotspot and you can stream Netflix or YouTube or whatever.  If your television isn't Internet-ready, it isn't hard to connect it to an old laptop via VGA or HDMI (or with an adapter) and use that to stream video.  Oh, brave new world.  We've been doing this for years now, and now it seems to be the new norm.   How much longer will cable hold out?  Stay tuned, if you'll pardon the pun.

I had to get rid of the Galaxy 4's when some pretty major apps (such as Bank of America) refused to update, with the message that "this app is not compatible with your device".  The phones still work, and indeed, I still have them (they are worth nothing, today) but they are outmoded as they don't have certain features that some newer apps require.  So we bought used Galaxy S7's on eBay for $149 apiece, a few years back. 

I was concerned the same was happening to the Galaxy S7's - so far one app has refused to update due to "compatibility" issues.  Then the camera stopped working on mine, with various messages about "server error" and "the camera has stopped".   I tried some of the easy fixes - clearing the cache and whatnot, which worked for a while, but eventually the camera just went dead, which is kind of crappy as you can't deposit a check or take a photo without it.

I found a site online "the droid guy" which had some good suggestions.  I rebooted the phone in safe mode and erased the cache partition and then rebooted.  My camera is back - for now.  It is kind of interesting - sort of like "safe mode" in Windows or the good old days of DOS when you knew the status of every bit (and not just every byte) on your hard drive or better yet, floppy.  Format C: /s

Yet, the writing is on the wall for the Galaxy S7, I think.  You can survive in this online world with hardware that is a generation or two removed, but once they are three or four generations ahead of you, well, they aren't writing software to be backward-compatible with your old junk.  It seems that these phones last about three years before they are obsolete.  I suppose if I spend $1000 on a brand-new model, it might last longer, but then again, that's $900 more than I want to spend.  And given how easy it is to break, drop, lose, or let fall into the toilet, it makes more sense to spend less than to pay top dollar and insure your phone.   It is like cars - once you drop the collision and comp, the cost of ownership drops - by a lot.

Phones become obsolete long before they "wear out".   On the other hand, PC's seem to last forever these days.  I am still typing away on a decade-old Toshiba Satellite.  That's about all it is good for - running basic websites and as a glorified typewriter.   Painfully slow, but it works and refuses to die.  It won't edit video, and I lost my only copy of beloved Windows Moviemaker during a hard drive upgrade (duh!) and is no longer available.    Some day, I will have to move on from Windows 7, Word 2000 and Quickbooks 2002.  Yes, I am using software that is twenty years old!   Smart phones may still be evolving, but laptops have pretty much plateaued.

Funny thing that - the new "Chromebooks" (which I experimented with years ago, when they were little more than toys) seem to be the next big thing and should be making Microsoft nervous.  Since everything is on the "cloud" there is no need to "own" software anymore or maintain a creaky hard drive.   And since these "Chromebooks" run Android, they pretty much are just glorified cell phones.  I think perhaps that when the time comes, I will leave the Microsoft ecosystem for good, rather than try to upgrade to Windows 10.  Plus the Chromebooks are so much cheaper.

I mean, already, I am typing on a Google Site (Blogger) which is storing and editing my blog "in the cloud".   It is a rare day anymore that I load Word to edit or create a document.  But then again, I'm retired and glad off it.

Speaking of retirement, the cloud and whatnot, I ran into a fellow who was retired but was "called back" to work at a computer company when someone opened the wrong e-mail.  They run a cloud storage company and apparently the entire place was encrypted and is being held for ransom.  Each "client" of theirs has a choice - try to reconstruct their data (which is why my friend was called back to work) or pay $10,000 or so to the "kidnappers" in Bitcoin (no good ever came of Bitcoin and its only real use is in illegal transactions).   Many chose to pay as it was cheaper than trying to rebuild their databases.

It was interesting to me, though, that even the "cloud" or perhaps especially the cloud could be corrupted this way.  Apparently one of their clients opened the offending e-mail which somehow jumped to the cloud servers and even the backup servers and then encrypted everything, including other client's data and even the backup data.  Was a festering fuckup!

And it is spreading.  Our own island authority went through this recently, when an employee opened the wrong e-mail attachment ("what's an .exe file, anyway?") and it encrypted the entire network.  The system is back up and running and no word whether they paid the "ransom" or not.   Like any good kidnapper (or drive-by attorney), they asked for less money than the cost of rebuilding the database, so it made it easier to pay the ransom than to fight.

And from the kidnapper's point of view, it cost them nothing to send out the mass e-mail to millions of people, and even a few thousand dollars is found money (and a small fortune in many parts of the world).   What was scary to me was that even backing things up in "the cloud" isn't a safe haven from such problems.  I still have a couple of terabyte portable drives I back things up on (which are quickly becoming full, what with pictures, music, books, and videos) and I keep them in a desk drawer between backups.   Hopefully they can't be encrypted or held hostage.  But then again, none of the data I have is really important, anymore.  Sure, photos and other "mementos" are nice to have.  As you get older, though, you realize they crowd your life out, and after seeing more than one oldster's house cleaned out, with "precious memories" tossed in the dumpster, you realize that stuff is just going to be junk after you die - even if you have kids to leave it behind to.

Anyway, enough being maudlin.  Here is the solution the folks at the droid guy came up with.  It seems to work.... for now.

Q: “Shortly after my phone updated, there was an error message that popped up. ‘Warning: Camera failed,’ it said. I understand it’s a camera problem but what I don’t understand is why it occurred only after I updated my phone? Does it mean that it’s damaged or something? Is it only a problem with the camera or the entire phone? Do I have to buy a new phone because of this?

A: There are actually two possibilities here; either it’s a minor firmware issue or a serious hardware problem that may have been triggered by the update. Rule out the first possibility by wiping the cache partition since it occurred after a firmware update:

  1. Turn off your Samsung Galaxy S7.
  2. Press and then hold the Home and Volume UP keys, then press and hold the Power key.
  3. When the Samsung Galaxy S7 shows on the screen, release the Power key but continue holding the Home and Volume Up keys.
  4. When the Android logo shows, you may release both keys and leave the phone be for about 30 to 60 seconds.
  5. Using the Volume Down key, navigate through the options and highlight ‘wipe cache partition.’
  6. Once highlighted, you may press the Power key to select it.
  7. Now highlight the option ‘Yes’ using the Volume Down key and press the Power button to select it.
  8. Wait until your phone is finished doing the Master Reset. Once completed, highlight ‘Reboot system now’ and press the Power key.
  9. The phone will now reboot longer than usual.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Gold, Bitcoin, Gamestop, and the Tide Pod Challenge

The great thing about the internet is you can convince people halfway across the globe to do stupid things.  It also is the worst thing about the Internet.

What do Gold, Bitcoin, Gamestop, and the Tide Pod Challenge have in common?  Everything.   Seems you can suggest something on the Internet, and odds are, since there are millions of people out there, one of them will do what you suggest.  So, for example, if you post a fake YouTube video saying that putting your cell phone in the microwave will recharge it faster, some idiot will do it.  And teenagers have been doing this sort of thing for laughs, since the dawn of time.  The problem is, today, they have a far-wider reach with the Internet.

I mentioned before a hapless friend of mine.  We used to hang out together with another "friend" Eric, who in retrospect was no friend at all.  Eric would say to my hapless friend, "Hey, Chuck!  I bet you can't break that streetlight with this rock!"  And Chuck would demur until Eric made clucking noises and called him "Chicken!"   Chuck had a great throwing arm, so he would huck that rock, glass would shatter, and we all would scatter - that is, except Chuck, who would be standing there holding a rock when the Police arrived.

People can be like that - casually evil on the one hand, and stupidly ignorant on the other.  The Chucks of the world are always at the mercy of the Erics of the world.

So, someone goes on the Internet and says, "What jolly fun!  Let's screw some hedge fund by bidding up a worthless video game retail company stock by a factor of ten!"  And people jump in and do this.  The guy who started it all, who paid only a few dollars a share, makes out like a bandit.  The hedge fund gets burned a little bit.  But the guy who really got hurt was Chuck, who paid top dollar for the stock and "held on" to it on the advice of Eric.   Maybe he didn't lose a lot of money, but it was a lot to Chuck.

Gold and Bitcoin are the same way - manipulated online and in the media, to get gullible Chucks (and even a few Erics) to buy and sell.  As I have noted before, Gold is a fear metal and people buy it out of fear.  Fear of the economy collapsing, the "fiat currency" being worthless, or just plain old fear of missing out.  Better buy now before the train leaves the station!

But historically, gold has been a mixed bag.  It peaked right after it was deregulated in 1973 during the first gas crises, and then languished until about 1982, when people were freaking out over yet another gas crises and inflation.  Then it sank and stayed there for two decades.  People who bought in response to the market crash of 2008 ended up trailing the market in subsequent years, as stocks and bonds recovered, but gold.... languished.

I recently read an article that gold is dropping like a fly.  But I looked online at the gold charts and found that... well, it is just being gold, hardly dropping much at all.  What was the point of the article?  To get people to panic-sell?  To induce fear?  Perhaps.  And that is the problem with the financial media - they can manipulate markets and not much can be done about it, as they are "reporting".

Pump 'n Dump is a game as old as time.  And anyone can play.  I noted before how a teenager in New Jersey made tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars (millions?) by sending out mass e-mails hyping penny stocks. All it takes is one or two out of a thousand - when you are e-mailing millions of people - to cause the stock price to spike, which fulfills the "prediction" that the stock is going places.  The teen then sells, the whole thing collapses, and a lot of people lose a little and one guy makes a lot.

Recently, Elon Musk, the mother of all stock manipulators, bough $1.5B of Bitcoin and the market went nuts.  Almost overnight, Tesla made more money on its Bitcoin gambit that it did making cars.  And the press was complicit in all of this.  "Tesla is buying Bitcoin!" they shouted, "This shows it will see wider acceptance!  You can buy a Tesla with Bitcoin now!"

Well, yes and no.  The problem with Bitcoin, which has not been solved, is that it can take an hour to process a transaction and it costs tens of dollars to perform - at the very least.  And with each successive transaction, the process takes longer and gets more costly.  So yes, maybe buying a "big ticket" item like a Tesla with Bitcoin may be possible, but then again, it already was done, a long time ago.  Give how volatile Bitcoin is, Tesla isn't so foolish as to price their cars in Bitcoins.  So the price remains in dollars (or other local currency) and if you buy with Bitcoin, they figure out how much that is and then process the transaction.  In prior years, this was done merely by converting the Bitcoins to dollars and then taking dollars as payment.

Since Tesla's suppliers are paid in dollars or local currency, the same will hold true.  Maybe it will be convenient for Tesla to pay Chinese battery suppliers in Bitcoin, but the price paid will still be in local currency, and no doubt the supplier will immediately convert the received Bitcoin to local currency.  Indeed, hanging on to Bitcoin is foolish, as it can change in value radically - up and down - in a matter of hours, if not minutes.  So if you accept $1M in Bitcoin, and hang on to it for a couple of days, it may be worth only $800,000 and you are screwed.

Quite frankly, I learned this lesson the hard way, dealing with overseas attorneys. I would hire an attorney for file a Patent Application in Japan for my US client and then invoice my client for my services and my Japanese partner, who invoiced me in Yen.   In the 30-to-60 days it took for me to get paid, the movement in currency exchange could be such that I would end up losing money on the deal - if currencies moved 5-10% in the wrong direction.   Now consider Bitcoin, which can change in value by 20-30% or more, overnight.  It just is not a workable "solution" to anything.

So why the big announcement by Musk about Bitcoin?  Well, he wanted to manipulate the market and succeeded.  And a bunch of doofuses out there who took the Tide Pod Challenge or microwaved their smart phones - or bought Gamestop Stock - went out and bought bitcoin.  In fact, I suspect a lot of Redditors did just that - convinced these little "inside tips" are only being shared with them, and not 5 Billion other Internet users.   And yes, since they bought, the price goes up, "proving" that Musk was right!

Of course, Elon Musk is no stranger to stock price manipulation.  You recall the SEC had to have a little chat with him, when he tweeted that the company was going to be bought out for $420 a share (get it?  420! Like in marijuana, man! tee-hee!).  The stock price soared and of course, there was no buyout offer.  The folks who bought high and sold low got screwed.   But Musk got to stick it in the eye of the short-sellers of his stock, of which there are legions, and he has been doing so for some time now - and getting away with it, too.

It seems that we have re-entered the era of the robber barons.   Back in the late 1800's, the Jekyll Island Club was founded as a retreat for the mega-wealthy.   Back then, there was no income tax, so if you made an obscene amount of money, you got to keep it all.  So we had superstar industrialists and investors like Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie, and others, who busted unions, kept wages low, and raked in monopoly profits and didn't feel bad about it at all.

In intervening years, not so much.  The income tax and inheritance taxes - as well as numerous heirs - dissipated dynastic wealth in short order.  The Jekyll Island Club is now a hotel in a State Park.  The Carnegie family, who settled in nearby Cumberland Island, divided up the place into hundreds of tiny lots, which the government has been trying to buy back to form a national seashore.

Today, we have a new legion of industrial and investment superstars - Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, that Zuckerstein kid, and that refugee from ZZ Top who runs Twitter.  We still have more conventional Billionaires, such as Warren Buffet, of course.  But the financial press hangs on their every word, and we laud and admire them from afar.  Well, some people do.  I am less and less enamored of our rock-star Billionaires.

Being a CEO of a company wasn't such a lucrative gig back in the 1950's and 1960's.  Oh, sure, you had fellows like Kaiser, who made a fortune in Aluminum and shipbuilding (and almost lost it all in automobiles).  But it wasn't like the glory days of the monopolies and trusts. High union wages meant that profits were pretty thin - if non-existent.

But something changed, right about the time I started college.  Pension plans and health plans started to go away, replaced by the 401(k) and "go fuck yourself".  Unions declined in popularity, and foreign companies opened up plants in the "Sunbelt" where wages were low.   But more than that, the officers of companies realized they could make a lot more money by running a business into the ground.  Paid in "stock options" to please shareholders, they would pump up the stock price long enough to cash in, and then leave the smoking ruins for the next chump to deal with.  It was pump-and-dump at a whole new level.  You could make tens of millions of dollars as a CEO, CFO, COO, Chairman of the Board or just a lowly President of a company - something unheard of, when I was a youth.

Meanwhile, new "business models" were being dreamt up, where low-wage employees would become low-wage contractors forced to work "side hustles" in order to put food on the table. The disparity in wealth started to accelerate.  And since everyone had to fund their own retirement, a whole generation had to learn how to become "investors" in this new economy.  Problem is, the guy driving for Uber isn't really going to be such a great investor - particularly when he gets his investment tips from some anonymous guy on Reddit, or from Elon Musk.

Fortunately, our friends at the National Review are concerned for our welfare!   Suppose the Federal Government adopts California's "three prong" test for who is an employee?   We would lose the "freedom" to work five "side-hustles" to survive!  People might have to be paid a minimum wage!  The horror!

Wait a minute.  Does this mean I'm turning into some sort of Communist?  Hardly.  My bitter experience with Unions made me realize why it is never a good idea to let the inmates run the asylum.  But I can see where the pendulum is starting to swing in the other direction.  Ms. AOC is the symptom of this scenario.   When people feel put-upon, they will lash out, which is why it is never a good idea to take all you can get, even if you can get away with it for the time being.  When ordinary people feel they have nothing left to lose, well, the very rich could find themselves in a bit of a pickle.

The irony, of course, is that a lot of the people who first felt this pinch - the high-wage union workers in the rustbelt - voted for Trump, who promised that high-paying steel and coal jobs would come back.  Jobs that basically destroy your lungs over time, that is.  And yes, while the union wages of their fathers were great, I am not sure those wages are coming back anytime soon - or those industries.  Pittsburgh is no longer clouded in smoke from steel mills, as the steel mills are long gone and never coming back.

The irony is, of course that Trump never paid a union wage to any of his employees in his life - at least not without a bitter fight.   Sure, the casinos organized and went on strike.  Those casinos are no longer in business.   Trump is hardly the friend of "the little man" or a true populist.  He just tells populist lies to get elected.

If he isn't, then who is? Traditionally, or at least in more recent tradition, this was the mantle of the Democrats.  And it still is, for the so-called "progressives" of the party.  Sadly, their embracing of far-left causes has alienated the blue-collar workers, who don't want to shut down dirty industries, but just make sure they get a slice of that pie.  And as for transgender rights, well, they are mystified by that and other far-left causes as well.

But perhaps some sort of sea change is in the works.  While the prospect of being an independent contractor seems keen at first, the reality kind of sucks, particularly if you don't have health insurance or a retirement plan.  And our friends in the GOP keep promising to kill off both Obamacare and Social Security - eliminating what little we do have.  Yet blue-collar workers vote Republican, just as people take the Tide Pod Challenge and microwave their cell phones.  People are idiots, look around you.

Sadly, this will probably push the pendulum too far in the other direction.  We will see a resurgence in unionism and regulations, which will help some workers, but raise costs and fuel inflation.  And this whole "let's let everyone out of jail" thing has already gone too far - New York City is turning right back into the crime-ridden ghetto it was back in the 1970's.   And no, it wasn't glamorous, either.

This is the inevitable result of "too much of a good thing" - when people grab for too much, and leave others with nothing.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

On Matters of Faith

Qanonsense has one redeeming feature - it illustrates the fallacy of faith.

A reader writes that an earlier posting about "Don't Care" is an insult to his Christian Faith.  That is the neat Catch-22 the faithful can use against us as a cudgel.  While we may not believe in their faith and may in fact find it as ridiculous as Qanonsense, we have to respect their beliefs.  The Muslims have made a good game of this - threatening to kill anyone who even questions their religion and sadly, a lot of people going along with this - willing to mock any belief system except Islam, which is "off-limits" because, you know, they get upset.

Sadly, others are signing on to this scheme as well,  Hindus in India have jailed a comedian because he might tell a joke about Hinduism, although he hasn't told the joke yet.  In Thailand, it is a crime to criticize the king.  And so on and so forth.  Free speech is free, unless it pisses someone off, in which case, they are justified in jailing you or even killing you.  Talk about cancel culture!

But faith can be wrong. In fact, most faiths stipulate that all other faiths are wrong. Thus, it is a mathematical certainty that, if you believe in faith, then all the other faiths are wrong and only one true faith is right. You just have to hope that the true faith that you believe in is in fact the true faith.  Then you have to ask yourself, why are all those other people believing in the wrong one?

We are chastised for not respecting the faith of others, yet the central premise that most faiths is at the other faiths are in fact wrong and in fact, heresy.  Muslims criticize the West for disrespecting Islam by publishing cartoons of Mohammed. Yet Sunnis and Shiites are quite ready to go to war with each other -  and in fact have been involved in a bloody war with each other for hundreds of years and even today - over matters of faith.  Protestants and Catholics aren't much better.

There was an interesting article recently that opined that Qanonsense may be in the process of morphing into a religion.  It has all the aspects of a religion - a mysterious leader, some impenetrable texts which can be interpreted a number of ways, and of course, a legion of blind followers.  It checks off all the boxes.  Well, except for one - they haven't asked for money, yet.

Qanonsense illustrates the folly of belief and faith - that the premise cannot be questioned, and that people are quite literally willing to kill or commit other acts of violence in furtherance of the cause.  It isn't far off from Branch Davidians, Jonestown, or the Manson family.  People suspend disbelief in order to believe, and if you think about it, that is kind of a prerequisite to belief.

There are some who claim that Scientology arose out of a bet or a discussion between some science fiction authors that they could literally create a religion out of whole cloth.  Heinlein sort of hints at this in the novella If This Goes On... where the false religion of the "Prophet Incarnate" is foiled by a Masonic-like quasi-religion that doesn't challenge the Prophet directly, but discretely undermines his teachings.

The funny thing about Scientology is that it cloaks itself in the garments of science, claiming to be a "science of the mind" and yet is the result of the teachings of one man who wrote a book.  The doctrine, unlike real science, is not up for discussion, testing, and revision, but rather must be taken on blind faith.  Pretty neat trick, when you think about it - claiming a religion is science and vice-versa.

And like every other religion before it, its detractors accuse it of abuses of one sort of another, if nothing else, asking for a big chunk of your money and trying to control your life.  Sounds like a real religion to me!

I noted before that religion is a neat way of controlling people.  Religion and debt get the plebes out of bed in the morning and on their way to work.  It keeps people pliable and obedient - and thinking they are part of some greater scheme or greater plan - in service of a higher power.  Like the mysterious "Q" for example.   Qanonsense isn't morphing into a religion, it already is one.  And like any other religion it is manipulating people to do things against their own interests - and in the interests of Vladimir Putin.

This is not to say religion is always bad - it just usually is.  Early on in the colonization of this country, religion was used to unite people with a common goal.  The Bible was often cited as justification for what people were doing - manifest destiny!  Slavery!  It's all in the Bible!  We are doing God's will!

We were destined, as Christians, to settle this continent and "convert the heathens" - and if they didn't see reason, kill them off.  Within 100 years or so, small towns sprung up, each with a town square that centrally featured a church.  The church was a primary source of guidance, inspiration, and even governance.

The Spanish knew this - setting out friars to build "missions" to convert the natives and also serve as a seed for later settlement and trade.  The French were pretty much the same.  It wasn't something limited to the English.  And maybe this use of religion was necessary for people to do things that ordinarily they would be considered abhorrent - taking land away from the natives and moving them Westward or slaughtering them.  Or enslaving blacks - the Bible was also used to justify that.

So it is understandable why some claim the US is a "Christian Nation" as our country used religion as part of the overall technique of colonizing the land.  It is only later that we became ecumenical land, although Jews were arguably here early on.  

But what happens if someone has no beliefs?  That is a scary thought for many of the faithful - and for many of the rest of us.  I mean, this is real red-pill stuff.  If you believe in nothing but yourself then everyone else is just something to be used for your own advantage.  The rest of us are wallpaper to such folks - folks we call sociopaths.

Most of us have a code of ethics we live by - the things we do when no one is looking.   For example, a few years ago, I found a wallet in the middle of the road.  A guy was getting gas and put his wallet on the roof of his car and drove off.  I looked through the wallet and found a business card and called the number. The person who answered had the cell phone of the owner of the wallet and within half-hour, I had reunited the lost wallet with its owner.

Why do this?  Arguably it would make more sense to keep the money in the wallet and throw the rest away - or even sell the credit cards to some shady character downtown.  But I felt that if the situation were reversed, I would want someone to do the same for me - and in the past, people have done just that.  Do unto others... - the golden rule, which isn't in the Bible, by the way (but "eye for an eye" is!). It is an idea that overall civilization is better off if each of us treats others the way we would like to be treated.  It doesn't always work, but if enough people do it, it is like herd immunity.

On the other hand, I went out of my way to return this fellow's wallet because I could afford to.  If I was some homeless bum who hadn't eaten in two days (or more likely, needed a fix of drugs or booze) I would have been more likely to spend the money.  The veneer of civilization is awfully thin, which is why we revert to a feral state when our blood sugar gets low.  A man who hasn't eaten in a few days is willing to do almost anything, morals or no morals.  You'd be surprised at what you'd do.

But imminent starvation aside, what about others? There are people in the world who have no compunction in steamrolling over others in order to get what they want - and in fact, they often will cite their "faith" as compelling them to do so.  I am successful in life, ergo God likes me best - thus anything I do is right.   The robber-barons of the 19th century (or indeed, any century) used this logic.  The poor? The workers?  Too bad for them - they must have pissed-off God, somehow, probably by going to the "wrong" church.

Therein lies the problem with faith.  Faith can be used to excuse all sorts of bad behavior.  And the "good" that comes of faith is usually outweighed, ten-to-one by the bad.  Granted, an utter lack of faith can be used to excuse bad behavior - the sociopath merely says, "what's in it for me?" and takes what he wants, consequences to a greater society be damned.   But the faithful often does the same thing and justifies it (in their own minds) as "God's will be done!" which in a way is even worse.  At least the Sociopath is being honest in a twisted sort of way.  But again, maybe faith is a way for our brains to justify us doing horrible things sometimes, so that we do these things for society to survive - such as going to war.  Perhaps.

I disagree with the notion that lack of faith or belief means one has no moral compass.  The golden rule, for example, pre-dates most Western religions, which indicates that the idea of morality predates many, if not all, religions.   Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed do not have a monopoly on righteous thinking.

I have mentioned before that doing things that are not necessarily in your direct best interest may often, in the long-run, be in your best interest.  For example, while accumulation of wealth may seem like a swell deal, if the "1%" accumulate so much wealth, it could backfire in two significant ways.  First, if the lower classes have no money left to buy the products you are selling, the entire economy could collapse.  Second, if people become too destitute you may have a revolution on your hands and end up deposed.  Remember what I said about hungry people - they will resort to anything.

It is like our school taxes.  When I turn 65, I no longer have to pay school tax here in Georgia.  I have mixed feelings about this.  I have friends who have opined they should never have to pay school taxes as they have no children!   But as I tell them, it is in your best interests to have kids go to school.  They become educated, get jobs, pay taxes, and contribute to the economy.  They are less likely to stick a gun in your face and demand money.  Even if you don't have children of your own, you benefit - indirectly - from public school education (in addition to the fact you received one yourself).

But you have to have faith to believe that.  Aha!  I knew this was going somewhere!  Faith is the ability to believe in things that are unseen.  And "giving back" to society is one of these unseen things. You pay your school taxes and you don't see an immediate benefit to you - but a greater unseen benefit is made to society.  You turn in a wallet you found so the owner gets it back - no benefit to you, but if everyone did this, the world is a better place.  When you come to a construction zone, you take turns merging, instead of cutting everyone off.  Traffic flows more smoothly as a result.  It doesn't appear that way at first and some never see it.  But it is true.

Sadly, some will use faith in the opposite way.  They find a wallet on the beach and think, "This is a windfall from God! I have prayed for a miracle, and here it is!"  They use sharp business practice go get ahead and justify their actions by thinking, "God must be smiling favorably upon me for my business to be successful!  Hiring those union-busting goons was his will be done!"   You can use faith to justify anything, if you put your mind to it.

And it seems that today, so many are willing to use faith in this evil way - to justify everything from misogyny (and Gee Whiz, the Bible is chock full of that, ain't it?) to white supremacy to antisemitism to terrorism.  And a lot of these "new" faiths seem to be little more than evil.  What good ever became of the Branch Davidians - even assuming the Waco fire and ambush never took place?  Was there an upside to Jonestown?  Is Scientology really helping people or just making them really creepy?  And what is the upside to Qanonsense?  It seems to be destroying both personal lives and civilization itself.

Even traditional religions these days seem to be in self-destruct mode. The Catholic church is being torn apart from within - not because of pedophile priest accusations - but because those on the far-right and far-left cannot agree on a direction the church should go in.  Each used the faith to justify their actions, whether it is Opus Dei or liberation theologians.  Lutherans are splitting over things like ordaining women as ministers.  Of course, that is part and parcel of the problem with faith - since it is supposedly unchanging, it is always threatened by change.

I think there is a middle ground here - or I believe there is. You don't need an organized religion or dogma to get along in the world - and the world doesn't need one, either.  But that is not to say that without faith you are without any sort of values or beliefs, whatsoever.

And it goes without saying that if you take faith so seriously that you are willing to kill others over it, something isn't right.  If you are "offended" because someone questions your faith, well then, maybe your faith isn't all that strong.   I think the real threat to the world isn't the faithful, but those that are not sure of their faith, and as a result, have to lash out at others to "prove" their faith.

That's the real evil, right there.