Tuesday, October 4, 2022
Monday, October 3, 2022
Put a fork in it, it's done!
I used to get a lot of crap from my British friends - as well as American friends who moved to the UK - about how great Britain (pardon the pun) was compared to the USA. Free college! Free healthcare! Parliamentary democracy! The EU!
But it seems that, one by one, these things are being dismantled - or perhaps were not what they were cracked up to be in the first place.
This year, they had a major change in government. Boris
Yeltzin Johnson stepped down, finishing his career as PM on a high note - Brexit was a smashing success and inflation was at all-time lows and the Pound at all-time highs.
And unlike American Democracy, where an "electoral college" chooses the President, in the UK they use the much more democratic method of letting about 160,000 people (out of 67 million) freely elect the new Conservative Prime Minister - or about 0.2% of the population. Gee, that makes our pathetic voter turnout and the machinations of the electoral college look downright democratic!
The "other" leader, who is supposedly only ceremonial, was the new King - elected by... nobody. Well, he was elected by birth, a process that is decidedly un-democratic and archaic in this modern age. Sadly, today, many wordwide want to go back to the era of kings and appointed dictators - failing to remember how awful things were back in those days - and why we fought a revolution to displace a King and a World War to squash dictators. Gosh, maybe we were wrong all those years?
Maybe not. And maybe what the UK is going through isn't any different that what people are going through in many Western countries - the US, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, and even the Nordic countries. There is this perpetual dichotomy between conservative thought and liberal thought. And as populations age out, the conservative think-tanks realize that the younger generation will trend liberal and conservatives will lose power.
They need a "hook" to stay in power - even as their support base races towards the grave and the majority of the population despises their values. So how do you do it?
Well, in the US, the electoral college certainly helped Trump - and controlling the State houses allows them to gerrymander districts to skew representation in the House. Since every State has two Senators, States like Montana, which has a population less than that of Brooklyn (about a third, in fact) gets the same representation as, say, the State of California, which has a population 40 times as large.
With these factors in play, it makes it appear that the two sides are nearly evenly balanced, when in fact, the GOP is a distinctly minority party. But even that isn't enough - with enough people voting, the Democrats can overwhelm even gerrymandering and the electoral college - as the 2020 elections illustrated, just barely.
So you have to get younger voters. But how? Well, you don't run on your actual platform of cutting social programs (including college assistance) and cutting taxes on the very rich. The young don't benefit from that platform - neither do the middle-aged or the very old for that matter (who are living on Social Security). So you push "social issues" like this whole transgender thing which is being fanned not by transgender people themselves (other than some useful idiots) but by the far-right commentators.
Xenophobia and racism are also hot-buttons. Immigrants are ruining "our way of life" (funny thing, the Native Americans made the same complaint, 500 years ago). And the blacks! Nothing but trouble! Always whining that "their lives matter" when we know from "science" that they don't really feel pain.
Sad as it sounds, those are arguments making the rounds on the Internet these days. Marshal McLuhan once said that television would make the world a "global village" but the Internet was what really did it. Ideas pass from country to country in a nanosecond, and you can influence opinion on the opposite side of the globe with the click of a mouse.
So the rise of nationalism, petty dictators, xenophobia, and other trappings of the far-right, are appearing all over the world at the same time. And young people - not a lot of them, but some - are falling for this nonsense. The right targets the disaffected, the loners, the people who don't fit in. They go after (and created the whole concept of) "incels" - telling unattractive, self-centered young men who are overweight and have hygiene issues that liberal thinking and feminism are the only reasons why Stephanie the lead cheerleader doesn't want to date a 75-lb overweight teenager with greasy stringy hair, who smells bad and rants about politics all the time. If only the USA was like Iran or the Taliban, where you could just buy your brides outright!
Similarly, in the UK, you tell some lazy slob that the reason he lost his job wasn't the fact he showed up late (if at all) and drunk or on drugs, but because of "Brexit" and minorities and immigrants. Even today, as their economy craters (faster than other Western countries) they play this blame game. The damage done by "Brexit" wasn't the fault of conservatives, but rather petty retribution by those snooty EU technocrats! Why can't we "fast lane" the visa queue when visiting Malta? I mean, just because we don't let them into our country!
But of course, the problems the UK date back to the second World War. The British Empire peaked about 1922 and then went downhill from there. Colonialism was already dying by the time of the first World War, by the end of the second, it was largely dead. The UK, broke and broken, retreated inwardly into itself. Workers decided that after the travails of war, they deserved a break. And labor strife slowly destroyed the coal industry (which was a good thing) and the British auto industry (no great loss!). Brexit may be the final nail the coffin for remaining industry as well as the financial sector.
What's the point of all this? Not to beat up on the UK - it is a fine country, once they work out all the bugs and maybe abolish the monarchy*. Rather the point is, no country is perfect, and we are all subject to the same worldwide trends in politics and human nature. Donald Trump was not some sort of American anomaly, but a symptom of a communal desire for a strong-man - a desire that seems to overwhelm humanity every 50 years or so. Even today, people are praising "Dark Brandon" because Joe Biden appears to be taking the gloves off and "getting shit done!"
But one thing is for certain. The next time my Euro friends crow about the advantages of a multi-party system and parliamentary democracy, I will cry "BULLSHIT!" as loudly as possible. Because while our system is imperfect, experience has shown that other systems aren't much better - and in fact, some are far worse.
* Why not replace the royal family with historical re-enactors? It works for us! After all, it is what the tourists want to see - the pomp and circumstance. And a bunch of actors would be a lot cheaper and easier to manage than the real royals. To prevent them from being beatified, they should be swapped out every year, perhaps in some sort of Eurovision song-contest kind of competition. Say, since Brexit, is the UK allowed to compete in Eurovision? Just asking. I mean, they aren't part of Europe anymore, right?
Sunday, October 2, 2022
Friday, September 30, 2022
People are freaking out - and rightfully so - at the level of destruction caused by hurricane Ian. It hit Ft. Myers Beach (Estero Island) pretty hard, pretty much washing over the island and wiping out a number of homes. Down the road, the causeway to Sanibel island was wiped out in many spots - the bridges collapsed in sections and water rushed over the sandy parts, forming new channels - including one right where our hamster is shown parked above.
The death toll is unknown, but it could be bad, as a lot of people didn't leave when they had the chance. Many more left cars and boats behind, only to be destroyed by the storm. It will take months and years to rebuilt it all - but a lot will be built back faster than you'd expect. The causeway to Sanibel will likely be fixed in months, I suspect. But we'll have to wait and see.
The big problem is insurance. I wrote before that we had a windfall (sorry, pun) profit with our condos in Pompano Beach after a big hurricane, as the State Farm adjusters all needed a place to stay during the normally-slack summer months. Those State Farm checks paid our mortgage!
So they will once again send down agents and appraise damage and cut checks, although State Farm no longer writes on coastal areas and many more agencies have left Florida (as I noted before) due to the roofing scam (which will go into overdrive now). The few companies left may also leave the State or jack their rates - already high - through the roof.
Would you write a policy on a house built on a spit of sand in the ocean? An honest question, as I own a house on a spit of sand in the ocean. So far, it looks like the hurricane will miss Jekyll Island, but by Sunday, I could be homeless. Good thing we are in the RV in Mississippi, where it is sunny and cool and a little windy.
The insurance issue could have ripple effects across the country, as other companies re-think their exposure to storm damage. Anything on any coast is suspect - Texas, the Carolinas, California-Oregon-Washington (with added tsunami risks!) as well as New England which was socked with hurricanes. You do remember what happened to the Jersey shore, right?
Even inland areas are not safe. I wrote before how we traveled through Vermont on Route 9 after a hurricane - yes, a hurricane - hit that land-locked State. The road was washed out in several spots, but the Governor redirected road crews across the State to stop work on every project and rebuild Route 9, which they did in record time. So it can be done. The main road of Estero Island looks bad, but it is just sand over the road. When the hurricane hit in the 1950s, they brought snow plows from up north to move the sand away. The same will happen again - or something similar.
On the other hand, many entire neighborhoods were reduced to rubble. The question is, will people rebuild and what will they build if they do? Already the island was over-developed, as I wrote about before, more than once. Old houses were torn down and replaced with high-rises, but the same narrow road handled all the increased traffic. It took hours to traverse the island, which is hardly larger than the one I live on.
Maybe this is a chance to rebuilt in a way that is better for the environment as well as traffic flow and quality of life. Nah! Can't have that! This is Florida, after all.
It is interesting to note that in the views I have seen so far, the newer houses and condos, built on stilts, and made of concrete, seemed to weather the storm much better. The old "beach shacks" made of wood, floated away and were smashed to kindling. No doubt, insurance companies (and zoning laws) will require that any new construction be elevated and hurricane-proof or at least resistant.
But whether it is affordable to rebuild is the question. As I noted in an earlier posting, the property taxes in Florida are obscene. So if you buy a wiped-out house from the owner (who cashes his insurance check and leaves) and you build a million-dollar home on the bay (it's been done, a lot, there) your property taxes will be in the five figures, easily. Add in a five-figure insurance bill and you wonder who can afford to live there. Even a half-million-dollar home is unaffordable - which is why we sold Mark's parents home on Ft. Myers Beach, when they passed away. As out-of-state owners, we'd be looking at 20K a year in taxes and insurance and would have to rent the place, week by week, to vacationers, just to cover costs. And of course, today, we'd be looking at a vacant lot.
Actually, it was a vacant lot a few years ago, when a storm came in (two years after we sold out) and pretty much destroyed the place. And that was just a "tropical depression" not a major wipe-out that we had this time around.
We are fortunate - so far - that Jekyll seems to miss hurricanes. Florida sticks out into the Gulf Stream, as does South Carolina. The Georgia coast - all 100 miles of it - is inland from the Gulf Stream and protected not only by barrier islands, but by offshore sandbars and reefs which mean we have shitty surfing, but little erosion.
But that doesn't mean we are safe. In the late 1800's a hurricane hit the island dead-on and water washed over the island much as it just did to Ft. Myers Beach. Fortunately, most of the island was uninhabited at the time. Today, it is only 1/3 developed, but that still means a huge economic loss if we get a major storm.
Maybe it is time to sell? Or maybe it is too late - after all, the orgy of buying peaked about three months ago when interest rates spiked.
I am sure a few savvy investors will fly down to Florida on private planes and start snapping up damaged properties and either bulldoze them and build mini-mansions, or do half-assed repairs and sell the mildew-smelling homes to unsuspecting buyers (we've seen more than a few in our real estate adventures in the sunshine state!).
But on the whole, I think within a few years, all will be forgotten, particularly if there is not another major hurricane making landfall. There are lots of hurricanes out there - if you visit the NOAA site during hurricane season, you will notice this. Many - maybe most of them - either fizzle out in the deep ocean, or hit "other countries" which of course, as Americans, we don't care about much, other than to throw paper towels at them.
And once again, we will get complacent, and then a big storm will hit - and everyone will act like this never happened before.
What would I do if hurricane Ian turned sharply West and wiped out our island? Hard to say. FEMA flood insurance covers only $250,000 which they claim is the cost of rebuilding the house. If this is so, then the cost of the land is another quarter-million. Problem is, if you want to just "walk away" no one will pay you much for a piece of land that was just scoured by a hurricane, particularly if everyone else is selling at the same time.
People like to talk about insurance scams - and they exist. But for the most part, with deductibles and all, you don't come out ahead when making an insurance claim - you end being made partially whole, but not entirely whole. And it is rare that you would come out ahead.
But then again, sometimes it happens. When Mark's stepmother weathered one of the minor hurricanes on Estero, the insurance company came out and wrote her a check for $10,000 to repair the screen "cage" around the swimming pool. She called her handyman who repaired and re-screened the cage for $3000. "I feel guilty about this!" she said. We told her to bank the money - the next storm would not be so generous!
To the insurance company, it was a minor payout and the cost of researching the cost of repairing versus replacing the cage wasn't worth dickering over - particularly when there were hundreds of other houses to visit and adjust. And of course, they just pass on these costs to the consumer - so Floridians love to gloat about how they "pulled a fast one" on the insurance company, but then bitch about the outrageous premiums.
Mark's Uncle once had a chimney fire in his house. Before he called the fire department, he pulled logs out of the fireplace and rolled them on the carpet. "This way I get new carpet!" he boasted. I am not sure he came out ahead there, but it illustrates the mentality of some people, particularly folks who consider themselves to be "operators" like Mark's Uncle did. By the way, that's called insurance fraud, although the $500 in wall-to-wall carpet wasn't worth litigating over, from the perspective of the insurance company.
Of course, hurricane season isn't over quite yet. So hold on to your hats!
Thursday, September 29, 2022
When you see something being sold in poor neighborhoods, it is probably a "poor" bargain!
We were driving through rural Arkansas and saw many a sign for gun shows, or pawn shops hyping that they sold guns and gold (or bought back same, for half-price, of course!). The funniest, I thought, was a vaping store that advertised that they sold "Crypto!"
Of all the things an impoverished redneck doesn't need...
I recounted before how during the last recession, people were unloading guns (no pun intended) for half what they paid for them. They went out and bought an AR-15 because, you know, crime and all, and after a decade of it sitting in a closet (loaded of course, where the kids can find it) they realized they spend a thousand dollars or more on what is, in effect, a paperweight. No one was busting into their dilapidated trailer to steal their precious collectibles.
But again, you see this all the time in impoverished areas. A run-down trailer or house with "NO TRESPASSING!" signs all around it, or, as we saw at one house in Missouri (that upon initial inspection, appeared abandoned), "TRESPASSERS AND THEIVES [sic] WILL BE SHOT ON SITE [sic]!"
The less someone has, the more paranoid they are about it being taken away. So they cling to rusted-out old cars that stopped running during the Reagan Administration. Then they tell poverty stories to their friends how their rusted-out collection of mediocre cars will someday be worth millions.
But they won't. The common denominator is that poor people "invest" in things like gold, crypto, and guns and then later on - when they need the money - they sell them for half what they paid for them (the real market value). Worse yet, they sell them to make payments on a credit card, which is where they charged the purchase to begin with.
It would be funny if it wasn't so sad. And things like vaping and tattoos and piercings just add to the pile. You could argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with these pursuits (except maybe vaping, which can destroy your lungs) but they are things that are unnecessary to daily living and really a burden if you are living "paycheck-to-paycheck" as so many claim to be doing. And yes, in these same neighborhoods are liquor stores with bars on the windows, selling pints of booze - right next to the payday loan place.
But like clockwork, people defend these practices and businesses - often the very victims themselves or people claiming to be sympathetic to the poor. More than once I have read, in "liberal" publications, that the poor need payday loans, as no one else will lend to them, and they need to borrow on their paychecks to put food on the table. As if turning $1 into 50 cents somehow feeds your family.
Similarly, many on the left claim it is "poor shaming" to call out someone who has $10,000 in tattoos but complains they will "never be able to pay off" their $25,000 in student loans. Sadly, unlike a gun or a bar of gold, you can't pawn a tattoo.
They want their cake and eat it too. Every "poor" person I know has an iPhone they bought on a three-year contract with Verizon. Every "poor" person I know eats out more times a week than I do - often every night of the week, day of the week, and morning of the week. But I am "poor shaming" by scrambling my own eggs! Lookit Mr. Gotrocks with his fancy-dancy hotplate!
The point is, the poor are poor not only because they are exploited by the rich, but because they make poor decisions which makes them easy to exploit by the rich. And in terms of changing behavior or changing society, I see only one realistic and achievable path for most people. We can wait for massive social changes and hope they don't screw us further (as revolutions tend to do) or we can change our own lives. In terms of what is do-able, the latter is far easier to achieve.
No one is pointing a gun at your head and saying, "drive ten miles to McDonald's for breakfast!" - and yet, I see people do it, every day, in campgrounds and neighborhoods across America. Not only is it a horrible waste of money, it is a horrible waste of time. Similarly, no one points a gun at your head and says "get a tattoo instead of paying your credit card bill!" - yet so many do and then claim to be victims of the "system."
You drive through poor neighborhoods like that - in rural Arkansas or the ghettos of the city - and you see these raw deals being presented and you know the reason why these stores and shops are there. People are lapping up these raw deals, in droves.
And apparently, that is the fault of us who do not.
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