Friday, May 14, 2021

Short-Term Pleasures Versus Long-Term Comforts

It is worthwhile to take a short-term gain if it causes you pain down the road?

We have been walking 2-4 miles every day during the last few months, and also eating better - and eating less - and not surprisingly, have lost weight and feel better.  Funny how that works.  It got me thinking as to how I got to where I was in December - feeling like crap and sitting around a lot.  I was finding it more and more painful to move about, which in turn lead to less mobility, which lead to less exercise, which lead to more weight gain, which lead to more pain.  Some folks might call that Fibromyalgia.

There reaches a point - a "Coffin Corner" if you will - where it becomes too late to make changes.  You see people 300 lbs and up, and you realize they likely will never get better.  At that weight, it is very, very hard to start exercising (and potentially dangerous) so the weight keeps piling on, until you are dead from some obesity-related illness such as heart disease or type-II diabetes. And these illnesses can take years - decades - to kill you.  In the meantime, you are in a world of pain and discomfort.

Why the hell would anyone do that to themselves?  Why do we do this to ourselves?  Because when you get down to it, this form of behavior is present in all of us to one extent or another.  We trade-off the long-term comfort of good health for the transitory pleasure of a snack food or a television program.  As our health deteriorates and our bodies bloat more and more, we indulge in more snacks to stimulate the brain with more dopamine or whatever it is that tickles our pleasure center.

And you start to feel shitty, so you eat more to try to get back that pleasure - and like any good addiction, the "reward" gets smaller and smaller the more you consume.   Just as a junkie has to up his dose of heroin, or the compulsive gambler has to gamble more and more, or the drunkard has to drink staggering amounts of booze, the compulsive eater has to eat constantly to achieve the level of pleasure that he used to get from one bite.

The problem is, these short-term pleasures cause long-term pain.   The gambler goes broke and loses his job, his career, and his family.  The drunkard does likewise, as does the junkie.  And like the compulsive eater, many lose their life as well.  But long before that happens, is a never-ending world of pain and discomfort.

I thought about this on our walk this morning and it seems to be applicable to all aspects of our lives - including financial.   We "treat ourselves" by shopping or buying things - triggering that dopamine rush we get from a fancy shopping bag filled with new trendy clothes wrapped in colored tissue.  Or the new-car smell and the pleasure of having a fancy, shiny new ride.  We spend for today and screw Uncle Tomorrow.

I see this all the time on financial sites.  People pleasure themselves for today by spending their future income.  The future arrives, and boy is he pissed that Mr. Yesterday spent all his money.  Surely there is some way out of this mess, right?   There has to be an easy way out - debt forgiveness or something!

I digress, but I get a lot of junk calls for everything from "Marriott Vacations!" I have supposedly won, to extended warranties on my 1909 Hupmobile.  Yesterday I got one - a "punch board"* call from the "Official Debt Consolidation Department" that promised me "debt forgiveness" due to CoVid as part of the "Fair Credit Reporting Act."  I almost had to laugh, it was so stupid - but I am sure a lot of people bite on this nonsense.

As I noted time and time again in this blog, a personal credit card crises happens to almost everyone in the United States at one time or another.   We get that first credit card and run it up to the max, and spend a decade paying it off - it happens a lot.  70% of Americans carry a balance on their card, I am told.   That's a lot of high-interest revolving debt.   And much of it was for stuff people really didn't need in life, like restaurant meals, designer coffees, and tchotchke that merely clutters up their lives.

Again, it is the same pattern - trading long-term health and well-being for instant pleasure today.  It must be part and parcel of our brain programming, and if you think about it, this makes sense.  Our cave-man ancestors struggled to get enough calories to survive the day, so when they came upon a feast of food, they ate it - no one was too concerned about being "overweight" back then.  And since you had to walk everywhere and work hard to survive, there was little chance of turning into a couch potato.

And back then, gathering nuts and berries, or a shiny rock, or a mastodon hide, didn't require you have a Mastercard or VISA.  Debt did not exist, so you were not mortgaging your future for today.  And speaking of mortgages, you didn't have one on you cave - although maybe you had to fight a rival clan to occupy it.

Debt is a modern invention, and perhaps not un-coincidentally, some major religions decry debt as an evil thing.  Our ancestors could live for today and plan for tomorrow, without one detracting from the other - too much.  This is not to say that our ancestors didn't strip their environment of every available resource until the land was desolate.   But even then, you could pick up and move on, as the Indians often did, to find fertile new hunting (and planting) grounds.

We live in a land of plenty in America.  We are awash in a sea of cheap food, cheap gas, and cheap booze (and cheap drugs).   You can indulge yourself in America for not a lot of money, and if you don't have a lot of money, banks are willing to loan you enough to destroy yourself.  You may not recall this, but when I was a kid, you couldn't buy liquor with a credit card, in some jurisdictions.  The idea was, if alcoholics could buy booze on credit, they'd ruin themselves twice as fast.  Today, you are given all the rope you need to hang yourself.

That is why I say I am lucky to experience pain in my life.   For many people, over-consumption has no immediate or even long-term consequences, until it is too late.  They can wolf down food with abandon, drink staggering amounts of booze, consume copious quantities of drugs - all without immediate consequence.  By the time the consequences are felt, it may be too late to change anything, or at least damn difficult to do.

Myself, I feel like crap when I indulge myself, and maybe this has allowed me to "pull back" before it is too late (or at least I hope so!).   Since January, I have lost over 20 pounds and feel great.  And while I am not enjoying the short-term pleasure of munching on snack foods or indulging in another drink, the long-term pleasure makes it all worthwhile.

I got a lot of flack early on in this blog, from a reader who commented that "it wasn't worth it to eat raman noodles and stay home" in order to save money, when he could be out at a fast-casual restaurant, eating a mound of french fries and swilling down lite beer with his buddies.  I mean, that's what life is all about, right?   You can't have fun unless you are consuming!  It is like how rednecks believe that you can't have fun unless an internal combustion engine is running.  You don't need to eat, burn gas, drink booze, do drugs, or waste money to have fun.  Obviously, the people selling these things to you, would prefer you do otherwise.

* A "punch board" call is a call from an Indian call center, where the caller does not have a good command of English or has a heavy accent that gives away the game.  Rather than talk to you directly, the caller presses buttons (or keys) that plays pre-recorded snippets that are designed to sound like a real conversation.  Usually the voice is some booming American male or a chirpy-sounding Karen.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Help! I'm Being Gentrified!

Our little island is being gentrified, but there ain't much you can do about it.  And it ain't all that bad, either!

When we moved here, right after the recession started, the Jekyll Island Authority made bold plans to re-make the island.  Nothing had changed much since 1970, when much of the island infrastructure was built - the houses, the hotels, the shopping "plaza" and the convention center.  It was like living in a mid-century-modern time-warp.  But it was all kind of shabby and run-down and visitation was at its lowest in the history of the island as a State Park.

So they tore down the hotels - almost all of them, other than the Club Hotel, of course, and the Days Inn, which was always popular.  And what is now the Holiday Inn was closed and gutted for remodeling.  We lost something like five hotels almost overnight - and our Waffle House, which was crushed by a falling oak tree in a storm.  The Waffle House people took a pass on rebuilding it - it was not very profitable.  They cashed the insurance check and went home. One by one, businesses and restaurants closed. And because of the recession, none of it was rebuilt for almost a decade.  It became what I called, "Georgia's Abandoned Island."

It was marvelous.

We had the whole island to ourselves.  The average age here was 74, which we lowered by at least a year when we moved here.  Mark was 41 and I was 46, and all our new friends, who were "old enough to be our parents" (as they constantly reminded us) told us we were "too young" to be living here - as if there was an age requirement like the height requirement for the rides at Disney World.  "I have children your age!" one said, to which I replied, "Sorry they're such losers!" That wasn't a very popular thing to say.

But the island was in stasis.  Most of the residents were retired Yankees - typically husband-and-wife retired school teachers from New York or some other generous pension State. The island was very "low key" and everything was run on a shoestring budget.  Our fire department was staffed by volunteers. The garden club would raise money to place benches along the bike path.  When Christmas rolled around, we'd all go down to the Jekyll Island Club and make wreathes and garlands with greenery harvested by the Authority staff.  The Club Hotel would provide urns of hot coffee and box upon box of donuts.  Then we'd go and decorate all the historic buildings. The Authority staff would dust off the rusty light displays and set them up.  It was pretty amazing.

At the South end of the island was the recycling center.  You took your cans and bottles and newspapers and cardboard there and sorted them - the glass I think even by color.  If you had some old piece of furniture or something to throw away, you left it there, and some other island resident would pick it up.

Further South was the blockhouse for the Jekyll Island Cable Company - started because the mainland cable companies refused to come to Jekyll and the hotels needed cable for their guests. Old Matellivision computer consoles ran "blue screen" scrolling text channels, which advertised everything from various island events, to lost dog notices. It was all pretty small and human-scaled.

Our gas station was a tired affair and always looked like it was closed.  Some local "Good Ole Boy" ran a car-waxing business out of the service bay, but that was about it.  This sort of typifies the low-expectations of that era, I'm afraid.

We had a marina - with a sketchy collection of live-aboard boats, plus a few more abandoned boats in storage or on racks.  We traveled to Key West once in our boat, and someone there saw "Jekyll Island" on the stern of our boat, and said, "Isn't that the place with the crappy restaurant at the marina?"  And we had to nod our heads and say "yes."

Well, all that is gone now.  The Christmas decorations are now artificial and put up by the authority staff.  The Club Hotel does their own decorations. We have curbside recycling and no one leaves an old sofa at the recycling center anymore.  We get a hefty monthly bill from Waste Management, too! The fire department went from volunteer to part-professional to all-professional and we  are now assessed an annual $650 "fire fee".  There is talk of tearing down the fire department and building a new "public safety building" by the old putt-putt golf course (which survives only because it is profitable). 

Jekyll Cable is gone, although you'll find remnants of the old buried cable in your backyard.  We now have Comcast - well, my neighbors have it, those who haven't gotten disgusted and gone to Dish Network (and they end up disgusted with that as well).  The old shopping plaza, which was literally starting to smell bad, is gone, replaced by a new fancy "downtown Jekyll" with multiple shops and stores.  The old grocery store is still there - no longer an IGA - selling $8 jars of pickles and more t-shirts than groceries.

New restaurants have opened up - and stayed open.  We have a critical mass of people now, to sustain multiple restaurants, and the new clientele, mostly from Atlanta, has higher expectations for cuisine.  Gone are the days when the local restaurants would close early due to lack of business.

Our new gas station is a multi-pump affair and probably the busiest place on the island. It has a convenience store and a Dairy Queen (wait time for an ice cream cone: one hour.  Avoid at all costs!). The fuel prices are at least in line with the mainland - no more price-gouging going on.

The new convention center is spectacular - and as unbooked as the old one was.  Indian weddings seem to be a major draw, but even the Georgia State Bar still meets in Amelia or South Carolina (traitors!).

As for the hotels, we have a fancy new Westin, whose pool bar serves amazing tropical drinks that I can no longer afford, which is OK by them, as they don't want "locals" hanging out by the pool.  We are less-than-welcome at the Club Hotel, which (under old management) used to host a "locals night" with discounted drinks and free appetizers.   I can't blame them for that - they have new rich friends who spend money and don't want to hang out at the lobby bar with a bunch of drunken island residents.

Speaking of island residents, while new hotels are springing up (and have sprung up) at least three of the former hotel sites are being converted (or have been converted) to housing.  New houses at "Ocean Oaks" and town homes at "the Cottages" - and now new condos by the marina.  We had 600 homes on the island before redevelopment, I suspect that number may nearly double.  Hope the wells don't run dry.

Speaking of the marina - it is under new management and the derelict boats are gone and the docking fees are up.  The restaurant is under new management and the food is good - although I can't really afford to eat there much.  There is a waiting list of people wanting to dock their boat there - willing to pay top dollar to do so.  But in the old days, the "Good Ole Boy" network set aside low-cost slips for their friends, some of which were living on boats as small as 18 feet.  It had to change.

The golf courses - all four of them - were getting kind of worn out, and the popularity of golf has plummeted in recent years.  Many newer courses have opened up on the mainland or on adjacent islands.  The golf course was a money-loser for many years.  There is talk of consolidating the courses into three, instead of four, and adding yet more housing and perhaps an eldercare center there.  We'll have to see how that plays out.

The garden club is no more - dissolved due to lack of interest as members aged out and died.  You can still have a bench installed along the bike path, complete with a plaque honoring your loved ones.  But it will cost you $3000 and will be installed by the Island Authority.   They are nice benches, too.  And more of them are popping up than ever before.

We have a new tollbooth that uses your license plate to collect tolls.  No more are there locals manning the booth with a wad of cash in their hand, with one $5 fee going to the Authority and every other going into their pocket - and of course, all their friends get in for free, right?  The Good Ole Boy network has been dismantled somewhat - there was a lot of theft going on in the "good old days" which is why many are lamenting its passing.

At a local restaurant, you could drink all night for $10, provided you tip the bartender $20.  And the island Authority wondered why they never made money (a former chef was supposedly caught stealing food and taking it to his own restaurant he ran on the mainland).  Everyone had their snout in the trough - and it was that way since the island became a State Park after the war.  The island authority contracted with the nephew of a State Senator to pave the roads - using free prison labor housed in the old dairy barn.  Shades of Cool Hand Luke.

So yes, the "good old days" are gone, but to some extent, that is a good thing.  The island was losing money and we can't just keep asking the State of Georgia to subsidize a retirement community for a bunch of New Yorkers, can we?   And many of the changes are for the better - like better food, for example.

But with change, comes loss.  Gone are the days when we could go to the beach, park ourselves on the sand all day and never see another soul. People are "discovering" Jekyll, and some of the "locals" aren't happy about it.  We were here first!  It is frustrating to be tailgated by someone who is anxious after a six hour drive from Atlanta - not realizing that they have already arrived nd the speed limit is as low as 15 MPH.  Worse yet, once they check into their hotel, they drive around the island at 10 mph below the speed limit (until you try to pass them, then they speed up).  Fuckheads from Buckhead, we call them.  Everyone hates tourists, even if they are one.

But change is inevitable, and the few lonely voices who wanted things to "stay the way they were" were largely off their rocker.  Things change over time, and fighting change is pointless, unless you have some alternative proposal.  Stasis is not an option, which is why the GOP is so out of touch.  Change may be coming too fast for many of us, but "going back to the good old days" simply is a non-starter.  And yes, some in the GOP want to go back to "the good old days" before 1865.

Our island is moving upscale, there is no doubt about it.  When we moved here, the Buick ruled the road, and we were one of the few people with a BMW and our friends down the way had one of the few Mercedes.  Today, the situation is reversed - high-end foreign cars are commonplace.  We have a wealthier clientele, and wealthier residents - many of whom own homes here but come to visit for only a few months or weeks of the year.  Full-time residents are declining in number, as they leave the island feet-first.  The lady who told me I was too young to live here has passed on.  So many of our friends here have - or are making their way to the final exit.

Will we ever leave Jekyll or be forced out?  It is hard to say.  We've been through this before - being offered staggering sums of money for our house in Virginia, our condos in Florida, and my office building in Old Town.  We took the money.  Right now, prices are pretty high and we could "cash out" although it would not realize a lot more than what we paid for the place.  Maybe this bubble has more legs in it yet - but I doubt it.  The conundrum of "where would we live, then?" is always a problem.  Florida is too crowded and the property taxes are murder. If we stay here, we are homesteaded and our taxes will drop to $800 a year when I turn 66.  It a very attractive trap!

But decrying gentrification is pointless.  Yes, there are so many new things here on the island - but I can't afford most of them.  The new museum is supposed to be nice, but I'm not paying $15 a head to see it.  The Turtle Center (and hospital) is interesting as well.  I saw it long ago - no need to go back at $10 a pop. The bars and restaurants are nice - but again, priced for vacationing clientele from the city.  We go once in a while, split an entree and have a glass of wine.

The bike path is still free - although increasingly we are seeing more and more e-bikes on it.  But it has been expanded and widened, too - something that was long overdue,  Today, we saw the queer site of 20 people, all dressed alike, riding Segway Scooters on the path - which is not allowed.  While I can see that an e-bike might be a good thing for an 80-year-old with mobility problems, the folks we are seeing, riding these motorcycles (and some are quite motorcycle-like) are all young wealthy people from the city.  Something is lost there.

The beach is still free as well, and you can ride you bike on it, and have a picnic and string a hammock between dead driftwood trees.  But again, there are far more people these days - the Authority has had to add more parking spaced by the beach and reduce the speed limit to 25 as there are so many people walking in the road.

Of course, there are other improvements as well.  The acres of beach parking lots have been replaced with more eco-friendly parking areas, divided up by trees and green space, so that it is more intimate and the drainage doesn't all go into the ocean or marsh.  New picnic pavillions have been installed, each with its own barbecue grill.  We go there and grill a hamburger or sausage and the locals think we are crazy.  "Why barbecue at the beach, when you have a backyard?" they ask.  "Because it is at the beach, and I don't have to clean the grill" we reply.  People get it in their head that these things are for "visitors" and not residents - but visitors rarely use them as well.

A quick trip to the beaches of Florida puts this all in perspective. We are hardly crowded.  And we aren't "priced out" of the neighborhood just yet.  Others, however, who came here and rented places, or stayed for four months in the campground, are starting to feel the pinch.  The current campground manager (who used to rent our house, before we owned it) is nearing retirement.  He filled the campground with "Snowbirds" by offering attractive monthly rates.  It worked, too - the campground used to be pretty empty in the winter when we would come here back in the 1990's. 

Today it is full - and the Authority is limiting how long you can stay.  Everyone out by March 31st!  Or something like that.  It is profitable, though, and they plan on expanding it - further.  But many of our campground friends are grousing that they can no longer spend November through April here, but instead, only three months, unless they want to pay a lot more.

It remains to be seen if our Canadian friends will return post-Covid. They might find themselves squeezed out - of a lot of places.  Snowbird destinations in Florida that were popular with Canadians are filling up with the new generation of "CoVid Campers" and unless they all decide that RVing is a bunch of hooey, it may be very crowded next fall.

If it sounds like I am complaining, I am not.  I am just reporting the facts - reality - and reality is value-neutral.  How you interpret reality is how it works out.  And from our perspective, redevelopment of the island was inevitable and necessary.  It couldn't just keep on the way it was, falling apart and run-down, for long.  The State of Georgia couldn't keep subsidizing our retirement homes forever.  And as every inch of waterfront in America is "discovered" by an ever-increasing population, over time, it was only a matter of time before our overlooked island was revisited.  You can't stop progress, anymore than you can stop a freight train by standing in front of it.  I mean, you can get run over, but that's about it.

So, gentrification hits our little island, and you know what?  It ain't all that bad.  Yes, we lost something along the way, but we also gained something as well.  It is up to you to decide whether what was lost was worth what was gained.  But bear in mind that it is human nature to long for the past, and to over-value what we have versus what could be.

It is funny, but when I mention we live on Jekyll Island, some folks I talk to say that they came here - years ago - and leave it at that. "But it's changed!" I say, because I know what they are thinking: what a dump!  And yes, it pretty much was.

So, overall, progress is a good thing, even as it leaves some of us behind.  But the folks "left behind" are the old generation - one foot in the grave.  The heads of the "Coalition to Hate Jekyll Island" - who I have written about before and waste all their energy hating these developments (and accomplishing nothing) are all over 70, many over 80, some even over 90.  In other words, almost dead.  We have to make room for the next generation, whether we like it or not, and the next generation isn't gathering together to make evergreen wreathes for Christmas, because they all have jobs to go to.

It is like Ms. AOC.  I don't like her, or her politics.  But she represents some of the younger generation, and I will be long dead before she has any real power in Congress.  It is up to the next generation to decide how to run the country, not me.  So long as they don't screw up my Social Security, that is!

Similarly, the folks moving to Jekyll these days are all younger - in their 50's, even older than when I moved here (and remember, I was told I was "too young" to live here, at the time!  Fuck you, grandma!).  This new generation of residents - many part-time - are younger, more urban, more Southern, and wealthier than the previous generations.  In a few years, it will be "their" island, and they will have their own clubs, their own traditions, and their own institutions.

And that's OK.  We have to let the past rest in peace.  Appreciate it for what it was, but realize it could not be sustained forever.  Life is like that - we have to let go of the past and stop trying to "preserve" our childhood, or things from our childhood, or friendships from childhood - or things of that nature.

Because when you get down to it, when you cling to the past, you forego the future.  And the future can be so much better.  At least historically, this has been the case, in the long-term.

Whatever Happened to Mercury?

Mercury struggled with an identity crises from day one.

The Mercury brand, like so many before it, has been history for some time now.  Recently, I was reading some of the old Mercury brochures, as well as the history of the marque and several of the models, and realized it was a textbook case of poor brand management - or just poor management.  Over the years, different managers tried to take the brand in different directions, which just ended up confusing consumers.  The end result was probably preordained anyway, as the plethora of car brands in the USA was pretty ridiculous and a consolidation was long overdue.  But it wasn't as if Ford had as many brands as GM to deal with.  Surely three brands (as GM has today, in effect) wasn't too much to manage, was it?

Ford of course, started out as the maker of cheap, mass-produced cars.  In an era where a car was an investment for only the very wealthy, Ford had a "better idea" to "put America on wheels!"   It is hard to believe, but back in the early days, cars cost thousands of dollars (which today would be over a hundred thousand dollars) and only the very wealthy could afford them.  In fact, you bought a "chassis" and had coachwork made for it.  Some folks would have separate bodies made for winter and summer - and change the bodywork with the seasons.  Engines were huge affairs - six to eight liters, with long strokes and low compression to handle the crappy gasoline of the era.   Low horsepower, but loaded with torque, you didn't so much shift gears, as pick a gear and drive off in it.

Ford came up with a cheap and lightweight car that was more affordable - costing hundreds instead of thousands, and over time, costing less and less with each passing year, much as computers did in the early days of the PC.  But eventually, people wanted something more - something fancier, more stylish, perhaps riding nicer. The Model T was cheap, to be sure, but people wanted more.  And General Motors offered a range of cars for "every purse and purpose" - from lowly Chevrolet, up through Pontiac (Oakland), Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac.  Ford had only... Ford. Granted, the Model A - successor to the model T - was much nicer and more stylish that its predecessor.  But that left only a single model to sell still.

While Ford had acquired luxury marque Lincoln, that left a huge gap in product and pricing.  You either had the cheapest car in America, or one of the most expensive.  So, in 1939, Ford brings out the Mercury, a slightly larger car based on the Ford, with more "luxury" and status, but not cannibalizing sales from Lincoln or Ford - or so they hoped.  Unfortunately, Mercury had only a couple of years to develop a following before the war intervened.

After war, Mercury never really took off.  The car was perceived either as a gussied-up Ford, or a stripped-down Lincoln, and in terms of actual content, the perceptions were largely true.  It didn't help matters any that Ford decided to bring out the ill-fated Edsel brand, which initially had two lines of cars, one based on the "smaller" Ford chassis, and the other on the "larger" Mercury.  During its brief tenure, Edsel was positioned as both a cheaper alternative to Mercury and also as a step-up from that brand.

The Edsel fiasco served only to confuse buyers as to what a Mercury was all about.  A wanna-be Lincoln, or something to move up to, from a Ford?   The gargoyle styling certainly didn't help any, and the marketing lurched from one idea to the next.  "The Big M of Mercury!" for example, barely lasted two years, before they took the giant letters off the front of the cars.

When McNamara was in charge, he wanted to ditch the Mercury, Edsel, and Lincoln (MEL) brands and strip down the company to just Ford - which probably was a better idea.  For some inexplicable reason, the Thunderbird - one of the early "personal luxury cars" (besides the Lincoln Mark II) was sold under the Ford nameplate - and it would be years before Mercury had a corresponding model.  Meanwhile, Mercury is given a fancied-up version of the Falcon (Comet) and Fairlane (Meteor) the latter of which never sold very well.

Once again, the marketing message was muddled. Mercury started advertising their cars were as cheap as "the low-price three!" which served only to cannibalize sales from Ford dealers.  Meanwhile, in Canada, where dealers were fewer and far between, the Mercury brand was little more than re-badged Fords - offered at Ford-like prices.  They even sold Mercury pickup trucks.

As the 1960's progressed, the personal luxury car took off - and Ford was there with the T-bird.  The muscle car and pony car eras took off, and Ford was there with the Torino Cobra and the Mustang.  Mercury ended up getting the Cougar - eventually - which should have sold well as a personal-sized luxury car or luxury-performance car.  But for some reason, all the advertisements for the car were aimed at women, which no doubt gave the car a reputation as a "chick car" - which is deadly to sales.

My Dad had a series of "Grand Marquis" Mercuries as company cars during the 1970's.  They were leased by the company and I think he got a new one every two to three years.  They were slightly bigger than the Ford LTD but not as big as the Lincoln Continental.  Sort of the front-end of the Lincoln mated to the back-end of an LTD.  Oddly enough, the biggest year for sales for Mercury was in 1978, when the bloated Cougar (now stablemate to the similarly bloated Thunderbird) took off.  My Dad always dreamed of having a Continental, but Marquis was as far as his company would go.  It sort of cemented the reputation of Mercury - in my mind, at least - as a wanna-be Lincoln that was really more of a glorified Ford.

As the years went by, things didn't get much better for Mercury.   The cars became more "badge-engineered" and there was little difference between a Mercury and its Ford counterpart.  The Mercury Marquis was a clone of the Ford Crown Vic, with only grills and taillights to distinguish the two.  Sad, too, as Ford made a long-wheelbase version of the Crown Vic (for taxicab use, only) and in Mercury trim, might have given Mercury dealers a selling point over the Ford.

The recession of 2008 was the death-knell for Mercury, but the writing was on the wall for some time.  Certifying a car for crash and emissions standards became an expensive nightmare for car companies.  Maybe back in the 1960's you could sell limited-production models, as you didn't need to spend the millions of dollars needed to certify a car for production.  It made less and less sense to "badge engineer" a car, as it was just as costly to design a whole new car as it was to tweak the taillights to make a different model.  Not only that, the public started to see through this chicanery, realizing that an optioned-up Chevy was just as good as a mid-level Oldsmobile, for a lot less money.

Could Mercury have been saved?  Easy to speculate, in retrospect.  Perhaps if the T-bird was introduced as a Mercury product (giving buyers a reason to visit the showroom, and positioning the car as a near-luxury brand) might have helped.  Offering something different and unique from Ford and Lincoln may have helped.  But Fords kept moving upmarket, with the LTD encroaching into Mercury territory, right down to the hide-away headlights.

Ford was not alone in this problem.  In his book, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors, John Delorean recalled how he pissed-off the executives at Cadillac by introducing new Chevrolets in 1971 that had Cadillac-like design features, right down to the bulging center grill.  I remember friends of my parents buying a loaded "Caprice" with power windows, door locks, and the exotic "air conditioning" and commenting, "It's almost as nice as a Cadillac, but for a lot less money!"  The folks at Cadillac were not amused.  Now granted, the Chevy was on a shorter wheelbase platform, but most folks didn't care about such things.  Which is better, having all the options and paying less, or buying a stripped Cadillac "Calais" and having status and crank windows?

That was the problem for Mercury as well.  The folks at Ford division upped the content on their cars and made them look like Mercuries or worse yet, Lincolns, cannibalizing sales from the mid-level and upscale marques.  As I noted in an early posting, however, perhaps the idea of the "luxury car" was becoming obsolete by that time, as each brand offered different levels of luxury or options on their basic cars.

At one time, if you bought a Ford, you bought the "Ford Car" - there were no models to be had.  But over time, they offered "DeLuxe" trims, and then different model numbers and then names.  And as each year went by, the top-of-the-line model worked its way down the range.  The top-of-the-line BelAire in 1957 was, by 1967, next to the bottom, with only the stripped-down "Biscayne" being lower.  Impala suffered a similar fate, when the "luxury" Caprice was introduced.  Car companies do this to themselves, it seems.   Funny thing, the Japanese and Germans don't see to do it as much, though.  A Camry is still a Camry - after decades of production.

Our Japanese friends did create "Luxury" divisions (Infiniti, Lexus, Acura) for the US Market, but tellingly, sell these products (if at all) in their home country under the basic corporate brand.  It seems Americans are unique in their desire for status grills and logos.  So why did this work for the Japanese and not for Ford?

To be sure, some of the "upscale" products offered by the Japanese are offered under their lessor brands as well.  A Toyota Avalon can also be had as a Lexus.  But not all Lexus models can be had as Toyotas.  And they've done a much better job of making the products look unique. No one is going to pay thousands extra for a car with differently-shaped headlights than its lowly cousin.

But all of that is probably moot. The ultimate culprit was the demise of the US auto industry - the decline in quality, the increase in prices, and the resulting decline in sales.  Not only have Ford, GM, and Chrysler shed division names, they basically have given up on selling cars - for the most part - and have become SUV and Pickup Truck companies.

So maybe the end game for Mercury was inevitable.  Perhaps McNamara should have killed the baby in the crib and be done with it, and just as Edsel products (Comet) were folded into Mercury, the Mercury products could have been offered as premium Fords - or merely discontinued.

It is an interesting example of how corporations can mismanage a brand and get away with it - for decades - before it all comes tumbling down.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Is Covid Over?

It is too soon to call this over?  Probably so.  But it feels like we've turned a corner - but the rest of the world is catching up.  Click to enlarge.

It is interesting how things have changed in the last few months.  I have to say that I was a bit depressed back in December.  It seemed like this Covid thing would go on forever and the vaccine would never come out.  And then something happened on January 6th, but I don't remember what, and the GOP would like it if you didn't remember either.

But.... then something happened.   We all got vaccinated - well, the smarter people did.  The idiots who thought Trump "won" the election are sitting home and pouting and surfing conspiracy sites.  They're still depressed.   But a new year, a new President, and a new Senate, and your faith in humanity is somewhat restored.  But the politics are like the virus - it ain't over yet.

This chart makes it seem like the USA is on a tear - but it is not based on per capita as the previous chart was.

I had been looking at the second chart - forgetting what I had said earlier about per capita statistics.  The second chart, at first glance, makes it seem like the USA has turned a corner and the rest of the world is seeing massively more infections.  But on a per capita basis, we still are ahead of the world average, and as bad as things are in India, on a per capita basis, they haven't yet exceeded the USA.

Of course, in that previous posting, I pointed out how people were using the overall infection and death numbers (instead of per capita) to make it seem like the USA (at that time) had a higher infection rate than the rest of the world, when countries like Italy (at the time) had it much worse.  As you can see, statistics, which seem mathematical and absolute, can always be manipulated in a number of ways to tell the story you want to sell - that the virus is out of control, or that the pandemic is already over.

And switching between per capita and overall numbers are just two legitimate ways of manipulating data.  Using scales that are magnified (and not starting at zero) is one sneaky way of making data look more alarming (particularly when trying to hype a stock price).  Better yet, just don't label the axis of the scale entirely - so no one can check your answers.   Or make up metrics, like "wealthy countries" for example (what standard is used?) and if that doesn't work, just make up data.

Of course, people like to look at trends in graphs, and if you look at the graphs, they show a downward trend in infections (and the death rate graphs are similar).  But as we learned from Disco Stu, just because something trends in one direction doesn't always mean it will keep trending that way, whether it is stock prices in 1929 or housing prices in 2008.  In fact, sudden reversals are the norm, as illustrated by our own infection and death rates this summer.

But I am cautiously optimistic we've turned a corner, provided the vaccines work and also prevent the spread of new variants.   The media is making a big deal about vaccine refusniks, claiming that they need to be "persuaded" to take the shot.  Myself, I think if you want to get sick and die, that's your business.   It would thin out the herd to be sure, and if it thins out the MAGA set, so much the better.

Speaking of which, a trip to the local hospital was illuminating.  Our new doctor has an office there, and when you go to the local medical center - a hulking beast with all the charm of the Star Wars Death Star, which is slowly enveloping the entire neighborhood - you realize there are an awful lot of sick people in the world.  And in the United States, much of this sickness is self-induced.  We saw people beyond morbidly obese, barely able to walk, or unable to walk, having lost limbs to diabetes.  Damn Sweet Tea - why anyone drinks hummingbird food, I do not know.  One fellow, at least 100 pounds overweight, using a walker, was wearing a t-shirt (you know, dressing up for the hospital) that said something along the lines of  "I'm a patriot, I support the NRA and am against the Demmy-Crats!"

I thought about this, and thought about Mark's late stepmother, who had type-II diabetes and was morbidly obese.  Before she got on her medications, the peaks and valleys in her blood sugar would cause her to go from peaceful calm one moment to raging insanity the next.  She had a lot of anger, to be sure.  And I wonder whether this is, in part, what is driving the bewildering anger we see in people today - on the Left and Right - as they decry how awful things are in the wealthiest country in the world.

Funny thing - the people struggling to get here, and often dying in the process, don't seem to think the USA is so bad after all.  In fact, the think it is pretty keen, compared to their home country.  Plenty of work available, lots of inexpensive food, and no one shooting at you or police "disappearing" you.  We fail to appreciate how lucky we are.

Anyway, getting back to Covid depression, after I got my shot, I realized I had put on a lot of Covid pounds, and we started walking 2-4 miles a day.  And since January, I am pleased to report I have dropped 20 pounds so far, both by diet and exercise.  It is hard work, but the upside is, I feel better than before and have more energy and am sleeping better, too.

I think there is a connection between being overweight and anger. I mean, just look at Trump - or half these people storming the capital.  People sit around all day long, watching television or looking into some other sort of screen, and munch on snack foods absent-mindedly.  They watch the "news" and get more and more angry and eat more and more, and develop high blood pressure, clogged arteries, obesity, and diabetes.  And they wonder what happened - after all, they are living a "normal" life, right?

Watching less TeeVee is part and parcel of happiness.  We found ourselves being drawn into the rabbit-hole of YouTube, which over time, has turned into another cable channel.   You can sit down and watch hours of it, and it is not healthy.  It doesn't matter if you are streaming movies or watching Fox Newson cable - four hours a day of screen time isn't good.

I also find that I don't enjoy reading "the news" anymore and as a result, don't read it.  Most of the "stories" are not stories, but just crap designed to get you to click.  "Republicans demand that Biden resign!" or some stupid headline like that.  Demands can only be made by people who have leverage.  Hostage-takers can make demands, minority parties cannot.   But it makes for a good headline.  I find that I am not "enlightened" by the news anymore, and if I "miss" a news cycle or two, there was nothing really life-changing that I missed, other than being up on water-cooler chat.

As a result, my blood pressure is also lower, too - not that it was very high to begin with.  It is funny, but I find I can change the readings on my blood pressure by 20 points or more, simply by relaxing my jar muscles.  We don't realize how much tension we put on ourselves in life.  I wonder whether that is why black people have a history of high blood pressure - it is the stress of being a minority, perhaps.

But look at me, rambling on like Warren R. Schmidt.  You probably want to go cash that Covid relief check and get yourself something to eat!

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Good Ole Boys

When people start asking personal questions when you are trying to negotiate a deal, watch out!

I recently replaced the shocks on the pickup truck.  It tended to bounce a lot over bumps, and someone suggested putting Bilstein shocks in the back, which I did, but it didn't seem to help much.   I put Bilsteins in my old truck (1995 F150) and they worked great.  I hesitated replacing the fronts ones, as they coil-overs and require you disassemble a good portion of the front suspension (tie rod, sway bar, upper ball joint, loosen upper bushings, remove strut) and is a bit of a PITA.

But the bouncing continued.  So I went to order Bilsteins for the front and.... Covid!  No delivery until June at the earliest.  But RockAuto had AL-KO extreme heavy duty shocks on closeout for $35 apiece.  For the price of one Bilstein, I was able to get two AL-KOs.  I will sell the Bilsteins on eBay.

And it went well, too.  Initially I was going to have  a local tire store install the front shocks, and I drove there to get the work done.  The guy behind the counter was a "Good Ole Boy" and the shop came recommended by a friend.  He hemmed and hawed about the job and admitted that their hourly rate was over $100 an hour, and that it would take "at least an hour" to do the job.

But then he asked me about "where was I from?" and I replied we've live here for 15 years and 20 years in Virginia before that.  "But where you from originally?" he asked, and I demurred.  He wanted to know if I was a Yankee, and if so, he was honor-bound by his pledge to the Klan to scam me for as much as possible.

Then the questions about where I lived and what I did for a living - basically sizing up my wallet to see what he could zing me for.   Suddenly, the one-hour job turned into a four-hour plus job.  So I left.  I went home, watched a YouTube video about the procedure, dug out my suspension tools and spring compressors and got it done in about two hours.   Jacking up the truck was half the work.

It isn't hard work, just messy and tedious.

I knew what was going down as a few years earlier, the exact same thing happened to us.  More than a decade ago, we put a screen room on the back of the house.  It cost $5000 and since the recession was in full swing, the company that we hired was eager for the work.   Several years later, the recession is over and I am looking for someone to screen in Mark's studio and cover the pillars with aluminum or something.   I called the same guy.

He came over and didn't even bother to measure the job.  Instead he measured my wallet.  Same deal - where was I from, what did I do for a living, and so on.  He was pricing the job for the customer, not based on the cost of the job.   In a way, he is practicing basic economic theory - you charge what the market will bear, and each segment of the market (income level) will pay a certain amount.  So like General Motors, you sell a car for "every purse and purpose" and the old schoolmarm might buy a stripped Chevy Biscayne, while the town doctor drives a Buick, and the town Banker a Cadillac.  They cost about the same to make, but the more expensive cars have a much higher mark-up, just as big SUVs and pickup trucks are hugely profitable for the big-3 automakers, but they can't even pull a profit out of a small car.

Again, I demurred.  I mean the guy wasn't even measuring the job.  He quoted me some obscene price, like $8000 or something.   I told him that that was more than they charged us to build the screen room on the back of the house.  "We didn't build this for $5000!" he said.   But I had the receipt.   A whole room should cost more than merely screening-in an existing space.

We found a local guy, "Gene's Screens" and he screened it in for like $1500.  I wrapped the pillars with plastic soffitt material, which avoided the problem with pressure treated lumber interacting with aluminum (it causes it to corrode).

The funny thing was, this "Good Ole Boy" assumed we were helpless as kittens, until I pointed out to him that we built the damn studio ourselves for about $22,000 and weren't going to spend nearly half-again as much just to screen in the porch.

It isn't just a Southern thing.  Up North, we had a carpenter who just kept sending us bills and slowing down work on a front porch for the lake house.  The workers showed up at 10AM each day and left before 3PM - on the days they showed.  And yet, each week, he had a bill for 40 hours of labor and the exact same amount of materials.  When I pointed out to him that the workers were not here for 40 hours, he hemmed and hawed and said, "Well, they were back at the shop making things for this job!"

The project was 80% complete and I fired him.  "How are you going to finish it?" he asked.  I replied, "Plan B - do it myself" and he was a bit flabberghasted.  Again, he assumed we were helpless as kittens without his "expertise" but finishing the ceiling and trim wasn't really all that hard.  In retrospect, we should not have hired him.  Well, in retrospect, there are a lot of things you learn in life - often too late. Not being a patsy is one of them.

Salesmen like to play this game with people, though.  They talk you up and pump you for information, sometimes subtly, sometimes not.  They want to figure out if you have any money at all - otherwise you are wasting their time.  If you come across as poor, they might literally walk away from you.  But if you tip your hand as having two nickels to rub together, well then, the price just went up.   So they ask the innocuous questions about what you do for a living, where you live, are you married, how many kids, and so on and so forth.  And if I say I am a lawyer, well the price doubles almost instantly.

In some instances, it works the other way.  If you are willing to walk away from a deal, they might cut you a better one.   For example, in buying the truck, we negotiated via text and phone calls for nearly a week, until the price was somewhat reasonable.   On the other hand, the poorer clientele who want to slap temp tags on it and "drive it home tonight" will wait around for hours in the dealership, begging to have their credit approved (at 14% of course) and buy all the add-ons including the floor mats that came with the car.  Often poor and minorities are given the worse deals in terms of car sales.

But in other instances, a salesman might realize that the poorer customer might walk if a high price is quoted, as they simply don't have the money to buy.   It is an interesting psychological game, to be sure, and a good salesman is a good psychologist.

It pays to be astute when this happens.  And I notice this a lot more, now that I am older and have one foot in the grave.  There is small talk, of course, but when a salesman starts pestering me asking me what I do for a living, where I live, where I am from, and so on and so forth, I realize I am being scammed - he isn't interested in chit-chat, he is interested in seeing how much he can get away with charging for a job.

And with deals like that, all you can do is walk away.