Friday, January 31, 2014

The Upsides to Obamacare (and there are several)

Obamacare is expensive, but it does have some upsides to it that might make it worthwhile.

Initially, I was disappointed in Obamacare, as it appears it will result in a steep increase in the cost of my health care premiums.  If you are too wealthy to get a subsidy, and too poor not to give a damn, Obamacare might end up being a steep increase in your cost of health care premiums.   The very rich can afford it, and the very poor are subsidized.  Those in the middle class, particularly the upper middle class, get a little screwed.

Take my case.   I was paying $240 a month with Blue Cross, for two people.  Under Obamacare, this would jump to $1000 a month, and it is unclear whether I would get a subsidy, or if so, how much.

At first this seems like an utterly raw deal, but I have to admit, I was not being totally honest with those numbers.

To begin with, as of January 1 of this year, my old plan (which is grandfathered for 12 months) goes to $300 a month ($298 to be exact).   And these sort of increases would continue, over time, if I was allowed to keep that plan.  That's how group plans work.

You see, in 2012, I was under an older Blue Cross group plan, and the premiums were approaching $600 a month - which is a lot closer to the $1000 quoted for Obamacare than the $240 I used in my previous posting on the subject.

Why did my premiums go DOWN from 2012 to 2013?    Well, it all has to do with group plans, and this is where Obamacare blows our old system out of the water.

When you sign up for a group plan, they lump you in with a group of people.  This might be a group where you work (like a law firm I used to work at) or an arbitrary group created by the health insurance company.

Over time, people in the group get sick, file claims, and the claims history of the group forces the insurer to raise premiums.   Each year you are in the group, premiums go up.   My old Blue Cross plan, for example, started out at about $150 a month (for two) and steadily climbed up to $600 a month in 2012.   Why is this?  And why was I able to get a new plan for $240?

Well, over time, the group gets older and sicker.  As premiums go up, the healthier members of the group decide to leave - and get a lower-cost policy from another insurance company (or even the same company, as I did).   The insurance companies are "cherry picking" healthy people, and offering them lower rates.

Meanwhile, the folks in my old group can't leave - if they have "pre-existing conditions" - so they are stuck.   Premiums not only go up because they are sick, but because the group is smaller and smaller every year.  Eventually, the group boils down to a small number of people stuck in the group, who are paying astronomical premiums.   All the healthy folks, like me, left.

So, the old system was great - provided you were healthy.   But the point of health insurance isn't just insuring healthy people.  And that is what the old system did.

For defined groups, like my old law firm, the problem is worse.   At the first firm I worked at, we had a group plan.   One of the partner's secretaries got cancer, and as a result, the rates for health insurance started to climb, much to the partners' dismay.   They shopped around and found that cheaper plans were available.   But if they switched plans, the secretary with cancer would be excluded as having a "pre-existing condition."   She would be utterly screwed.   And to the partnership's credit, they decided to bite the bullet and pay the higher premiums, than to screw one of their employees.

Other employers are not so nice.

So, Obamacare fixes this problem - completely and utterly and forever.    And since we are all now grouped into one mega-group, where our premiums are determined only by age and smoking status, many of us now are realizing just how expensive health care really is.  Under the old system, healthy people paid little and sick people paid a lot - until they could not afford to pay, and then they dropped coverage and died, or went bankrupt with medical bills. 

Under the new system, sick people pay the same amount as healthy people - which is how insurance was supposed to work in the first place.   Cherry-picking clients sounds great and all - when you are healthy.   The problem with that scenario is that if you ever get really, really sick (like with cancer) you are utterly screwed, big time.

(The one positive aspect of the old system was that it discouraged hypochondria.  People who went to doctors for every ache and pain ended up paying more.   It is like getting a dent in your car - do you report it to the insurance company and end up paying higher premiums?  Or do you just bit the bullet and fix it yourself or live with it.   One downside to Obamacare is that since your premiums are NOT determined by claims history or medical condition, there is no disincentive to going to the doctor every day of the week.   It is a hypochondriac's dream!).

So for many of us healthy people, Obamacare was a bit of sticker shock.   But for someone with cancer, it is a Godsend, as they won't have to declare bankruptcy or forgo treatment, just because they can't afford insurance.

And yea, under the old system, that happened.   A friend of mine, on the eve of his surgery and chemotherapy treatment (for tongue cancer) got a phone call from the billing department of the hospital.  "Bring $24,0000 in cash, or don't bother showing up" is the gist of what they said.   You wanna get well?   Well, we ain't doing it for free!   

That was a pretty sick system, no pun intended.

But getting back to sticker shock, it struck me the term was apropos, as what we are comparing here is apples to oranges, just like when buying a car.

For example, I just bought a Nissan truck, because it was cheap ($25,000).  If I bought another BMW X5, it would have run $50,000 or more - twice as much money.

Now, if the only thing you do is compare prices, you might say, "The Nissan is a better deal, as it costs less" - and to some extent that is right.   But with the BMW, do you get more car.  The question is, of course, whether paying twice as much for it makes it a value.  

The BMW has a nicer engine, leather interior, sunroof, a fancier sound system, and a better ride and handling.  It is a very nice car.

The Nissan, on the other hand, is a pretty stripped bare-bones vehicle with a few options on it, but nothing special.   But it costs a lot less.

My existing health care plan (non-Obamacare) is a Nissan.   It has a $10,000 deductible and not a lot of options.   It is bare-bones cheap, and I can get away with that, because I am healthy.   And it was a good policy, so long as I was healthy.   But I was taking a risk that I would never get sick, ever, ever.

The Obamacare plan (which would be a bronze, or cheapest plan) has a $3600 deductible and provides more coverage.   So it is more of a BMW than a Nissan.

But deductibles and trinkets aside, the really important difference is that under an Obamacare plan, I can't be cancelled for getting sick - or get priced out of the plan if I get sick.   And that is like having a rocket engine on that BMW.   It beats the pants off the Nissan, any day.

And what does this mean for our country?   Well, for starters, it might mean that medical bankruptcies become a thing of the past.   Until recently, the number one cause of bankruptcy in the United States has been medical bills.   Under Obamacare, you can sign up for a plan on the way to the hospital, and get covered, since "pre-existing conditions" are not excluded.   

And in fact, I am sure that hospitals will do this, for any patients that are uninsured.   In fact, I'll bet they insist on it.   If you are poor, there is no point in not signing up for coverage, as your tax credit will pay for the whole damn thing anyway.

This also means  that hospitals won't be stuck with deadbeat patient's bills - which then have to be paid for, by the rest of us, in the form of higher hospital bills.   The $100 Aspirin might become a thing of the past.

And these are good things - incredibly good things.   Yes, I might be paying more for Obamacare ($1000 a month versus $600 a month in 2012, and maybe less, if I get a subsidy) but in turn, I am getting something that is very, very valuable - locked-in rates that are not based on my health.   In other words, for the first time in my life, I will have real insurance that really covers me.

Yes, Obamacare is more expensive, at the present time.  But that reflects what real health insurance costs.   My old "cherry picking" policy was cheaper, but it really would have been of no use to me, if I ever got cancer or diabetes or had a heart attack.   And I say this because I have friends who have had all three of these conditions, and when they got sick, their premiums went up to stratospheric levels far and above Obamacare costs (read: thousands of dollars a month, not hundreds).

And it is possible that over time, the premium costs may go down.   As hospitals are no longer stuck with bad debt, they can lower rates, and in turn this will lower rates for insurance.   It is possible, although I won't hold my breath.

So, there are upsides to Obamacare, particularly if you have a major illness, it is a Godsend.   You no longer have to choose between getting well and going broke.   And that, right there, is a pretty valuable thing.

So when looking at the prices for Obamacare, bear in mind that while it costs more, you are getting a lot more.   Not being cancelled or priced out of a policy is a very, very valuable thing, indeed.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Free WiFi

AT&T provides free WiFi service to AT&T subscribers, in many locations.  Before you pay for WiFi, check to see if AT&T (or your service provider) provides it for free.

Twice a year, we go to the Mart in Atlanta, and say at the Hilton downtown.  Four people in one room - it gets crowded.

And of course, we want to use WiFi while we are there.   Problem is, Hilton charges a daily fee for WiFi use (and it is not insubstantial - like $20 a day!) and it would look bad to be charging this to Mark's employer.

One advantage of having AT&T service, is that they provide free wifi if you are already an AT&T subscriber.  You need only log in using your AT&T username and password, and you are set.

Of course, this only works for areas where AT&T is providing WiFi service.  But their interactive map allows you to find such places.

Companies do give away little tidbits like this, for free, and many people never utilize them (Like Bank of America's Museums on Us program).

Little "gimmies" like this are not enough to make it worthwhile to change telephone and internet providers (or banks).   But if you already are with a company that provides such freebies, well, you might as well use them.

Problem is, most of us forget we have these freebies coming to us, so we never use them.   Which is probably what they count on.....

They're Both Right.... Sort of.

Will raising the minimum wage cause inflation?  Or do low wages just act as corporate welfare subsidies?  Both views are right, sort of.

The latest issue to be suddenly thrust upon the American people (by design) is raising the minimum wage.   The plebes love this sort of thing, as it plays to the "every man a millionaire" mentality - that we can just make everyone wealthier by passing a law saying everyone gets more money.

But as economists point out, that really doesn't work.  When wages go up, prices go up, decreasing purchasing power.   It ends up as a null-sum game.

Both sides on this issue are right - and also wrong.

On the "raise the minimum wage" side, we have the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) which has been picketing fast-food restaurants to make headlines recently.   Many reporters are breathlessly reporting that "the workers" (paging Karl Marx) are picketing their employers and "going out on strike" for more money.

The reality is, paid union organizers are showing up at fast food restaurants in places like Manhattan (home of the news media) and picketing some national chains for an hour or two (to allow the television trucks to set up and do sound checks) and then leaving.   It is less of a grass-roots campaign than it is astro-turf.

Are wages at these restaurants low?  Yea, they are.   Because it is the ultimate, unskilled, entry-level job in the world.   It should be the lowest paying job there is.

The argument raised by the unions is that at $8 an hour, no one can afford to "feed a family of four", as the annual salary at that rate (assuming you work full-time) is a paltry $16,000 a year, and that's below the poverty line!

And they are right about that, but also wrong.

You see, there is no law or Constitutional mandate that everyone should be able to "support a family of four" on crap job wages.   And most people working crap jobs don't have a family of four to support.   And if all you can get are crap jobs, maybe you should re-think the idea of having a family of four.   But of course, saying that is just heresy.   It is an inalienable right, in the USA, to squirt out babies, without having any financial means of support to raise them.

The other little lie the unions are promulgating (or implying) is that restaurants in Manhattan are paying $8 an hour.  The reality is, of course, that in major metropolitan areas, even fast-food chains have to pay more than minimum wage, in order to attract workers.   When I worked in Washington, DC, the local Burger King was paying $8 an hour.  But back then, the minimum wage was under $6 an hour.   They had to pay over minimum wage, just to attract workers in a crowded job market.

Thus, for many markets in this country, raising the national minimum wage is just moot - even fast-food companies are paying more than the raised amount.   And in fact, local or State laws may already be mandating a higher minimum wage than the national rate.

So why picket in Manhattan?   Well, again, that is where the national media is, and no one is going to report on a picket in Utica, as that is a five hour drive from city.

The unions are RIGHT, of course, in noting that low wages result in many workers qualifying for food stamps and other Federal subsidies, and in effect (as I have noted before) these are subsidies to the employers not the employees.   It may seem odd, but food stamps are a form of Corporate Welfare, in two ways.  First, they help the farmers, food producers, and food retailers, by providing a subsidy to purchase food.   Second, they help low-wage employers as an effective subsidy to wages.

So, one positive aspect of raising the minimum wage is that it would decrease the amount of subsidies that these "workers" get from the government.  If Wal-Mart or McDonald's pays a dollar more to an employee, that is a dollar less (in theory) the employee would get in food stamps - thus saving the taxpayers a dollar.

Since we pay all this money out in food stamps and other benefit programs to the poor, it in effect, subsidizes wages for low-wage-paying jobs.   Wal-Mart can attract and retain a low-wage employee, as the employee can get by on a combination of their low wages and government subsidies.

And this is why both Wal-Mart and McDonald's encourage their employees to take advantage of all kinds of subsidies, in the form of food stamps, obamaphones, heating subsidies, housing subsidies, and whatever else they qualify for.   McDonald's, until recently, even had a website for employees, with suggestions on how to do this - as well as save money in other areas of their lives.  They pulled the site down after quite a few faux pas were posted on it - including the suggestion that fast food was unhealthy for you (they were right, it is).

(Low-wage employers also love Obamacare, too.   Rather than having to pay for health insurance, they make everyone a "part time" employee, and tell them to get federally-subsidized Obamacare.  A minimum-wage employee qualifies for a full subsidy under Obamacare, so the Government ends up picking up the tab - transferring what was once an employer cost to the taxpayer!   Again, government handouts to the poor end up being subsidies to big business!)

So, one positive aspect of raising the minimum wage is that it would decrease the amount of subsidies that these "workers" get from the government.  If Wal-Mart or McDonald's pays a dollar more to an employee, that is a dollar less (in theory) the employee would get in food stamps - thus saving the taxpayers a dollar.

Here's a hint, SEIU:   Push that argument, and the American taxpayer would support you! 

Put all that commie crap in the toilet, though, or you'll have some tough sledding.   Unions are still not looked favorably upon in the USA, even by the low-wage workers they are ostensibly trying to help.

But are the economists right that raising the minimum wage will fuel inflation?   Yes and no, yet again.

Again, in major metropolitan areas, where the prevailing wages are higher than the national minimum wage anyway, I doubt it will have much of an effect.   Employers already pay more to workers in places like New York City than they do in rural Georgia - and the menu prices at the local McDonald's are adjusted to reflect that.

But as wages go up in more rural areas, this will increase costs to retailers, manufacturers, and producers.   What makes sense as a "minimum wage" in New York City is an outrageous salary in the country.  In places where you can buy a house for $50,000, you don't need a lot of money to live on, to be sure.

So yes, it is not just some wild economic theory.   If Joe Restaurant Owner has to pay more for labor, then he has to raise prices, in order to stay afloat.    He cannot simply choose to "reduce profits" as most restaurants are marginally profitable businesses to begin with.

And maybe right there is the problem with a national minimum wage.  It fails to take into account prevailing wages in a given area.   What is a livable wage in one part of the country is homelessness in another.

And this doesn't just apply to low-wage jobs.   Many tech companies are fleeing the Bay area and Silicon Valley for greener pastures in Boulder or Austin.   Why?   Because a young Engineer out of college can't afford to live in the Bay Area, unless you pay him nearly twice as much as you would in Austin (and Austin is a whole lot more fun, anyway).

Move your company to where prevailing wages are lower, and you can pay people less - and they have better lives.   How much you make, in terms of dollars, is not always indicative of how happy or "wealthy" you are.

And this is also why all the new auto plants are in rural areas, as opposed to Detroit.   Nissan can pay less to a worker in Canton, Mississippi, and they can have a better, wealthier lifestyle than they would in Detroit.   It is a win-win for the employers and employees.   Not much of a win for Detroit, I'm afraid.

But both sides of this debate are "right" in part.  Raising the minimum wage should be thought about carefully.  We can't just make everyone "rich" by passing a law saying it is so.    On the other hand, why should taxpayers be subsidizing Wal-Mart and McDonald's?

And maybe that is where the SEIU can get the GOP on board.   Perhaps increases in the minimum wage can be tied to decreases in other subsidies, such as food stamps and the like.   That would sell to both sides of the aisle.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Class Warfare

Do the rich get away with murder?   Yea, on a regular basis.

I recently was reading an article in the Sun-Sentinal about an interesting DUI case that I had not heard of before.   A Florida "polo tycoon" named John Goodman (not the actor) was found guilty of manslaughter when he killed a young man in a DUI accident.

The accident has all the makings of Frank Capra movie.   A super-weathy heir, who spends all this time playing polo, drives drunk in his tank-like Bentley, through a stop sign at over 60 miles per hour.  He T-bones some hapless youth in a Hyundai, and flips him into the canal, where he drowns.

If you have ever seen one of these Bentleys, well, you get the picture.   The damn thing is the size of a switch-engine, and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.   The poor kid in the Hyundai didn't have a chance.  Goodman left the accident scene, didn't bother calling 911, and didn't try to help the poor kid in the Hyundai, who drowned as a result.

A blood test taken hours after the accident had the driver at 0.17, over twice the legal limit.  And bear in mind, that is a test taken hours after the accident.    He had been drinking, of course, at some posh upscale bars with his pals in the polo set.

It has all the makings of a Frank Capra movie, like I said.  You can't make this shit up.

He even went so far as to legally adopt his girlfriend, so he could transfer his wealth to her and avoid attachment in a Civil suit.   Boy, if any Lawyers are going to hell, his surely are.   How sick do you have to be, before you start thinking up stuff like this?

But wait, it gets worse.

While he was convicted of manslaughter and sent to jail for 16 years, the conviction was recently overturned, on the grounds that one juror lied during voire dire when he failed to mention his ex-wife was convicted of DUI.   This came out after the juror decided to write a book about the trial, where he claims he was "pressured" to find Goodman guilty.  What a jerk.

So, now we have a new trial, but the cars in question have been sold off or scrapped, so evidence no longer exists.   And the lawyers for the defendant are trying to get the blood test thrown out, on the grounds that laws enacted since the crash, would not have allowed the blood test.   And, they argue, without the remains of the Bentley to examine, they cannot raise issues of mechanical defects, which they claim are responsible for the accident.

In other words, it looks like the guy is going to get away with murder - or at least manslaughter.

And if you saw the O.J. Simpson trial, this should not surprise you.

A lot of people thought the O.J. trial was about race.  It was not.  It was about money.   O.J. was rich, and he could afford the best legal team on the planet.   And they turned the trial in to a celebrity circus and got him acquitted.

If O.J. was some poor black kid from the ghetto, he would have gotten life.   It's all about money, and it is as simple as that.

Now, lest you think I am some bleeding-heart populist, bear in mind our legal system has always been this way - and probably always will.

And in other countries, it works about the same way.   In Communist countries, the son of a party leader gets away with all sorts of nonsense, just as here, some Kennedy cousin does the same.  People with money and influence can buy their way out of trouble, in many instances, simply by slowing down the legal system to the point where local prosecutors will offer a plea bargain, rather than go to trial where they will likely lose.

And that explains, plain and simple, why white-collar criminals get away with short sentences, while the guy who shoves a gun in your face and demands your wallet, gets 20 years.

Yes, we live in a class society in the United States.  And the wealthy, it seems, do get away with a lot.  In a recent trial in Texas, a young man was given probation for killing people in another DUI accident.  His defense (affluenza) was basically that he was a spoiled brat who couldn't help himself.   And the judge bought it.   I wonder how much it cost to buy the judge?

The weird thing is, there are those on the Right who claim that this "class warfare" stuff is all a bunch of nonsense - that the rich are being demonized unfairly, by the far Left.    They claim that the poor are just jealous of the well-earned success of the very rich, and that the rich came about their wealth - every last one of them - by legitimate means, and were not helped along the way through government connections and the use of wealth to influence government officials in their favor.

But you would have to be pretty naive to think that someone who, for example, made a fortune in the telcon, wireless, or cable industries, did so by the pulling himself up by his bootstraps.   I have been involved in all three, and I can tell you, there is a seamy underside and history to these industries (particularly cable) where influence peddling is the name of the game.

I recall one wealthy Texan who approached us with a new invention for a two-way paging system (a precursor to texting).  We wrote the Patent Application on the eve of the 1992 election.  When Bill Clinton won, he told us to pull the plug on the whole project.  "Hell, I don't know any Democrats!" he said, "How am I going to get FCC licenses with a Goddam Democrat in the White House?"

It seems his business case depended more on political connections than the actual technology involved.  act shocked.

And the behavior of the very rich hasn't helped any, either.   One jackass compared his sheltered and pampered life to that of the Jews under Hitler.   He quickly retracted that asinine comment, but doubled-down his bet by bragging he bought Rolex watches "by the six-pack".   Here's a clue, Dude:  when it comes to the debate on class warfare, you ain't helping.

Will our system ever change?  I doubt it.   I was raised at the edges of the privileged class.  My parents came from humble backgrounds (e.g., one or two generations removed from white trash) and as "strivers" they were allowed into the Country Club, but never really accepted by the old money or the very rich.

And yea, rich kids get treated differently than the poor.  Even upper-middle-class kids, like we were, get treated differently.  My brother was once arrested for DUI and some pretty major drug possession.   Thanks to some expensive lawyers, not only was he not sent to jail, he had his record expunged when he turned 18.   A kid from the ghetto would have ended up in jail, or at least a youth home.

And there is the problem, right there.  The middle class and upper-middle-class certainly don't want to see their minor perks eliminated, if we truly went to a class-blind society or justice system.   When your 17-year-old gets busted for drugs, do you want him to get the same prison sentence as some poor kid?   Of course not - you'd pay in blood to keep him out - most parents would.

As a middle-class person, are you willing to give up what little perks you have?   Probably not.  Which is why they say the middle class does more to keep the very poor down, than the very rich do.   The super-rich really don't give a rat's ass about the welfare state - after all, they can afford tax havens.   Mitt Romney pays 15% long-term capital gains rates.  But the struggling striver making $100,000 a year in ordinary income, he'll kick a homeless person in the teeth, if he thinks it will advance him one more step up the economic ladder - and allow him to desperately cling to his middle-class status.

But maybe the great Karmic wheel does spin around.  O.J. is in jail now - on different charges, of course - and it will be a while before he gets out.   And maybe this Goodman guy will be convicted a second time - this time with a jury with no jackalopes on it (the juror in the first trial is, ironically, facing jail time).  Maybe our system isn't so bad, after all.

How Dare You Have an Opinion!

Hannity rhymes with Insanity

I was taken to task recently by some readers who asked, how dare I have an opinion different from theirs?

Bear in mind, they were not just trying to start a discussion or argue a point.  Their point was, you're not allowed to have opinions, but I am.

I am beginning to feel like Sean Hannity.   No, actually, not really.   But I do understand how he feels about New York taxes.   Here's a hint, John:  Property taxes and hurricane insurance in Florida are murder.   Try Texas.  The hill country is nice - although I doubt you'll find Austin to your liking.

But getting back to topic, why do some people feel threatened by opinions that are contrary to theirs?   The answer is, of course, that ideas are very dangerous - more dangerous than guns and bombs - and ideas that call into question someone's entire lifestyle are very dangerous indeed.

And as I noted in a recent posting, on the Internet, people tend to flock to discussion groups, social media, and other sites where their own pre-existing opinions are re-validated.  The Internet is not an open forum where ideas are debated anymore, but a series of cubbyholes where crackpots of every variety go to hunker down with their own pre-conceived notions.

Welcome to my cubbyhole.

But several postings have generated a lot of ire, as they call into question people's poor life choices.   For example, my postings on co-signing loans do not mince words:
"You're just fucked, period.  It is too late to say, "I'll never do THAT again!"  It is too late to stop playing the Hillbilly fucking financing game.  Your best friend just took you out, financially, and there is nothing, repeat nothing, you can do about it."
 And that about sums it up.   As I pointed out in that posting, every financial adviser in the country, even "You're approved to buy a jet ski" Sooozie Orman agrees with me on this one, and she and I don't agree on much (nor do Mr. Hannity and I).

In response to this posting, I got a "how DARE you!" message from someone who "had a very good reason why co-signing made sense, but not enough room here to discuss why" - and then went on for five pages flaming me and my ancestors.

Why all the anger and hostility?   Well, they-co-signed a loan and just realized how they screwed themselves.   But no one in our society wants to blame themselves for their troubles anymore.   So naturally, they defend a poor (in every sense of the word) practice, and take it out on me, the messenger.   That co-signed loan would have worked out OK, if not for my blog posting!  Right?  Sheesh.

It is, in a way, like how poor people are the first to defend the financial institutions in the ghetto that rip them off - the check cashing parlors and payday loan companies - along with the buy-here-pay-here used car lots, title pawn loan joints, and rent-to-own furniture places.   All of them are overpriced ripoffs, but the poor use them - and cherish their abusers.   Perhaps it is Stockholm syndrome.

Another "hot button" posting was my posting on Fibromaylgia,  where I pointed out that The Doctor who invented this disease, has now decided it isn't a disease at all:

"According to Frederick Wolfe, lead author of the 1990 paper that first defined the ACR fibromyalgia classification criteria, "the large majority of physicians, sociologists, and medical historians" are skeptical about the validity of fibromyalgia as a clinical entity. Some call fibromyalgia a “non-disease” and “an over-inclusive and ultimately meaningless label.” Wolfe now questions the validity of fibromyalgia as a disease. He considers fibromyalgia a physical response to stress, depression, and economic and social anxiety, and believes the associated symptoms are a normal part of everyday life."

Keep re-reading that paragraph until you "get it".   In response to this, I get messages like, "Well, you're not a doctor!" (hey lady, you ain't either).   The point is, the doctor who invented this nonsense said that basically (and I'm translating here) that fibromyalgia isn't an illness with a pathogen or condition that can be traced.  It's basically a bunch of hysterical middle-aged women who are depressed.   When the treatment is anti-depressants, that tells you all you need to know about the illness.

Yes, I have aches and pains in my joints and legs on occasion.  It's called getting old.  Get over it.  Stop making a hobby out of an illness.

But again, these sort of people spend all day on websites and discussion groups, validating their own feelings in the matter, and self-identifying as victims.   The radical idea that you can move on with your life and moreover that no one wants to hear you blather on about your fibromyalgia symptoms every time they see you, is just shouted down.

Another series of postings which generates ire, are my postings relating to the RV world.   As I noted in the discussion group posting, the RV industry does a good job of selling the idea of spending more on a vehicle than you spent on your house.   And they sell the idea that you should "see America" by traveling in a $200,000 rolling house, spending months at a time in a campground parked next to other rolling houses.

But maybe full-time RVing doesn't make sense - at least as a "cost-effective" way to live.    And maybe spending close to $100,000 on a leaky, easily dentable travel trailer, sprayed with clearcoat, doesn't make much sense, when a basic trailer can cost about $25,000, new.   But to the guy who just dropped $90,000 on a brand-new Airstream, this is heresy.

Maybe when gas was 89 cents a gallon during the Clinton era, this made sense.  And in fact, I drove our fifth wheel "across America" and saw Mt. Rushmore and all of that, in that era.   But when gas is $3 to $5 a gallon, and you're only getting 5-10 miles per gallon, this starts to make a lot less sense.   Living in trailer parks, for weeks at a time isn't "seeing America" but just living in trailer parks.

And the big issue is this:  If you blow all your money on a camper, at age 65, and by age 75 you are old and infirm and broke, was this such a swell idea?   It might be a better idea to buy less camper (that gets better gas mileage, costs less, and can go places a big camper can't) and really see America, and have enough money left over to fund your old age.

Just a crazy radical thought - being responsible with money and all.   But again, I get the how dare you response - usually from middle-income people who spent as much on a camper as they got from the sale of their primary residence (in many cases, their only asset).  They bought into this "lifestyle" and it scares the crap out of them that someone is even implying that it might be a huge financial mistake.

And again, it is not someone saying, "Well, you didn't take into consideration....." or something of that nature.  It is "You are not ALLOWED to have an opinion, but I am!"

And why they do this is simple:  They really don't have a persuasive argument going the other way, other than emotional arguments.  They want to believe that what they are doing is right, and shout down any contrary ideas.

And both sides of the political spectrum engage in this sort of group-think today, and what is really disturbing is that it is now part of our mainstream culture.   On the left, we have "Political Correctness" - the idea that certain ideas, words, or phrases cannot be expressed at all, lest they "offend" some class of persons.   This has done little to really change people's minds on issues, other than to drive some ideas underground (where arguably, they are more dangerous).

On the right, we have the "Don't tell me what to do!" crowd, who take every expression of an idea as another example of Socialist tyranny.   The First Lady adopts, as her "cause", the idea of eating right and getting exercise (something all of us need to do, right?) and people scream, "She's telling us what to do!   The socialist state begins!"   

Apparently, even suggestions about diet and exercise are not permitted.

The problem with this nonsense is that it does not encourage debate but stifles it.   If we all try to "play nice" and not offend anyone, our ideas get watered down to nothingness.  For example, in leasing postings (another area where I get "how dare you!" responses), people get upset, because they leased a car, and I tell them that people who lease cars are idiotically squandering their money.  And this hurts their feelings, as no one wants to think they squander money (we all do, on occasion) or moreover, think that their "smart lease deal!" was in fact, a crippling mistake.

"Some of my postings - most of them, in fact - may come across as mean-spirited or hard-hearted.  I am sorry for that, as it is not my intention to hurt anyone's feelings.  But if I say you are an idiot for leasing a car, and you have a leased car in your driveway, well, what should I say?  Should I say you are a nice idiot?  Or should I qualify things and waffle, and say, "well, maybe leasing isn't so bad after all!" and end up like Sooze Orman - just telling you what you want to hear and validating your bad choices?

And in the examples I use, if you self-identify with the hypothetical, am I really being mean, or are you merely projecting your own life into the fact scenario?  I can't help it if I say that Joe Blow is a fool for getting a payday loan, and you happen to think you are a lot like Joe Blow.

I would like to be "nice" - but going down that road only serves to take the edges off of ideas until they are watered down into bland platitudes.  Pretty soon, saying things like "Frequent Flyer Miles SUCK!" turns into, "Well, I guess they aren't all THAT bad, if you get lucky and all."

Pretty soon, you aren't saying anything at all - just mumbling to yourself and hoping not to offend anyone."

You see the problem.  Watering-down ideas so as "not to offend" ends up destroying the very ideas.   And instead of having ideas, we have nothing.

So I can't say, "Leasing might be a bad idea" as if I did, you'd immediately think, "Yea, those other people got suckered into bad lease deals - good thing I got a smart one!" - as we all want to think it was the other guy who got snookered, not us.

And I can't say, "selling your home for $200,000 and spending it on a $200,000 RV might not be a bad idea" for the same reason.   It is human nature of us to look for the exclusion, the loophole, the exception, that we are all sure we qualify for.

And so on down the line.   If you have decided to make a hobby out of Fibromyalgia - or mental illness (and I have seen people do both) it is a pretty sad way to spend the rest of your life - seeing yourself as put-upon or as a victim of circumstance, and boring everyone to death with your symptoms.   And yea, I've known a number of people like this, and their lives are sad - not because of the illness, but rather on how they perceive themselves with regard to it.   It is a form of learned helplessness.   And no, you don't have to live that way.

We all make decisions in life, and we have to live with them.   What distinguishes people from one another is how they own up to the decisions they make.   Today, it is all too easy to blame your misfortunes and woes on others - or to obsess about them as the centerpiece of your life.   We all want to complain about our "dysfunctional" childhood, as if it was a roadmap for our lives.  We all want to blame our misfortunes on Democrats or Republicans - or "rich people" or whatever.   It is easier this way - and more fun.   After all, we are blameless victims here, and other people should be called to task for our woes!

And on discussion groups and social media sites, a virtual lynch mob forms - blaming and castigating others for problems that are really self-inflicted.

The video below (I hope the link works) is from The Daily Show.   The Governor of New York, who is not too connected with the Mafia, recently was musing as to why there was a tea party in New York, and said "they didn't belong there."  It was likely a mis-statement, in that his real message was that he thought the ideas of the tea party were incompatible with New Yorkers' ideology.  (Of course, the Governor fails to realize that many people in New York STATE are getting staggering property tax bills which are forcing them out of their homes - in order to pay for some of the most extensive welfare benefits in the country.  Oh, right, you can't say that).

The sad joke is, on the far right, people like Sean Hannity take this "you can't have an opinion" type statement and morph it into a "how dare you say that!" kind of argument, and fail to perceive the irony.   The looney Left and the crackpot Right, both decrying the other's right to have opinions.   It it sort of stupid.

If you don't like my blog, don't read it.  No one is forcing you to.   And save the flames - they are deleted, unread.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Netflix's Weakness

Much ink has been spilled about Netflix.   But is the premiere online movie site bound to fail, eventually?

I am a Netflix subscriber and I enjoy using the service.   However, I don't think Netflix will be around for a decade or more, perhaps even less.   Why is this?   The service has a number of vulnerabilities:

1.  The Interface is horrible:  It is very slow to load, and on an older computer or device, it can take several minutes for all that HTML coding to load, and in many cases, it simply freezes or crashes.   Netflix coders think that we want a gee-whiz-bang interface with all the bells and whistles, so they keep making it more and more complex, and thus slower and slower to load.   It is annoying that a computer that has no trouble streaming an entire movie, can barely load the opening page to the service.

2.  The Interface is disorienting:  Like with social networking, the Netflix interface gives you seasickness.   Out of the thousands of movies they have in their library, you might very well think they have only a few dozen, as the search feature keeps steering you to the same films, over and over again.   As with Social Networking, the ratings on the films are based on an "algorithm" that decides for you, what it thinks you want to see.   The algorithm is usually wrong.   If you watch one WWII movie, well, too bad for you, because you are stuck with  WWII movies on your "suggestions" for the rest of your life, and they will all be given four stars based on your "viewing preferences".   It sucks.   You can't just get a LIST of all movies and scroll through it.   Many movies can only be found by using text searching.

3.  The library is very limited:   At first, it seems like Netflix has a lot of films to watch.   And then you watch them and realized that they really don't.   A lot of stuff is pure garbage - old B movies (or worse, euphemistically referred to as "cult classics") - made-for-TV movies, television shows, old History Channel junk, and the like.   It is like one of those all-you-can-eat buffets which is filled out with mac 'n cheese, bread, and a lot of other cheap starches.  And Netflix pushes you to eat a lot of starches - the more obscure B-movies and documentaries that they don't have to pay as much to license.

4.  Content comes and goes:   One day a movie is there, the next it isn't.  Or it jumps from DVD to online streaming - and back.  Netflix has licensing issues with many providers who grant and then withdraw their rights for viewing.   Netflix got started by using a lucrative licensing agreement with STARZ that did not anticipate online streaming.  That agreement expired, and they seem to be struggling for content ever since then.

5. HBO Syndrome:   The problem with HBO is that the content there is stuff you already saw in the movie theater, or saw on DVD in your home - so you don't want to watch it again.   And they show the same stuff over and over again.   Or, the content is just stuff that is, well, OK content, but not really compelling.   Netflix has the same sort of deal - constantly pushing the same so-so movies at you, over and over again.   New movies take forever to get to the Netflix DVD queue, and even then, you are fighting with everyone else to get them.   Expect a LONG, long wait for them to be available by streaming.

So what does this all mean?   Netflix is the Microsoft of online movie streaming, and that is not a compliment.   We use Microsoft products not because we love them, but because they are cheap and commonplace - and the de-facto standard in the market for the time being.  The first person to come up with an alternative operating system - or an alternative to operating systems - will kill the Microsoft monopoly.

Netflix is the same way.   No one really "loves" Netflix, with its hard-to-use interface and library of somewhat bizarre B movies, television shows, and documentaries.  But it is the only game in town, in terms of online streaming and mail-back DVDs.   Netflix killed off Blockbuster and other video rental stores, leaving a few sad kiosks in their place.  Netflix, for the time being, is the only game in town.

That could change - and suddenly.   If someone can come up with a better streaming service with better content (forget the DVD part) and a more user-friendly user interface (stop telling us what we want to watch!) they could steal away the market from Netflix.

First to market is often last in the marketplace.   AOL was the first big online portal.  It's gone.   Vonage was the first big VoIP provider.   Where are they now?  Online services are not hard to replicate, particularly once someone else has blazed the path.   Studios and other content providers could start their own streaming services - or steer their content elsewhere.  Other existing companies (Apple, Amazon, YouTube) are already trying the idea, and may come up with a better product - which wouldn't be all that hard.

Netflix stock, like Apple, has shot up into the stratosphere in recent years.   This is due more to plebes investing in something they are familiar with, than with any real numerical analysis of the value of the company.  Yes, the company is profitable at $1.85 in earnings per share.  But of course none of this is paid back to shareholders in the form of dividends - not that it would matter.   With a P/E ratio of 206.07, such a dividend (even if all earnings were paid out) would amount to about a 0.5% rate of return on your investment.  This is pretty good for a savings bond, pretty piss-poor for a risky Internet investment.

And if you don't think it is risky, look at the stock chart above closely.  The share price has taken quite a roller-coaster ride in the last four years.  Netflix has proven that they are more than capable of screwing the pooch, with the Quikster debacle, which caused the big dip in the chart you see above.  They want to "tweak" the business model, as Facebook does, but people don't really want the model changed - just better movies and more of them (and not an improved ratings prediction system or Facebook interface, thank you).

Even if you believe that Netflix is a sustainable business model that will become a blue-chip stock and major brand in the marketplace - with staying power measured in decades, not years, the price of the stock will have to come way down - or profits go way up - to correct the P/E ratio to something rational.

With tech stocks, most people are betting on the latter.  People buy Facebook stock or Linked-In stock, with fantastic P/E ratios, on the premise that "down the road" these companies will become wildly profitable, usually because they have a "monopoly" on some aspect of the market.  But trying to maintain a monopoly on some aspect of technology or the Internet is like shoveling water.

Apple had a brief monopoly on its iPod for music.   It still does.   But funny thing - in less than a decade, you don't see iPods anymore.   People now stream music over their phones, or "listen" to music on YouTube.   Having an actual iPod sort of marks you as a codger, in this day and age.  It is not that someone came up with a competing device (Microsoft tried, but failed) but that people just morphed to new technology entirely (streaming music).

I'll still continue to use Netflix - for the immediate future, anyway.   But increasingly, I am finding more and more content on YouTube (a possible competitor to Netflix for movie streaming).   After living through numerous online services (from Prodigy onward), I realize that on the Internet, what seems permanent one day, is often gone the next.  Last year's "must have" gadget ends up as a piece of e-trash, in a drawer, somewhere.

In fact, I would say the median time for a gadget or website to go from "hot" to "not" is about five years or so.  Netflix is about due for a turn on the spit.

And no, Netflix, I don't want to "share" my movie preferences on Facebook.   Sheesh!  Talk about taking your eyes off the ball.....

Heat 'n Eat

State Welfare Programs are defrauding the Federal Government in order to pay more money to their own citizens.   This is just wrong.

The new Farm bill is out, and the GOP has scored some successes.   Instead of paying farmers cash to plant crops, they will provide crop insurance instead.   This will save a lot of money, supposedly, but doesn't go as far as the GOP had wanted to go.   This is this new weird thing called "compromise" that is coming out of Washington.

But a second part of the bill is cutting out "Heat and Eat" and the media is painting this as the mean old GOP cutting benefits for people receiving "as little as $1 in heating subsidies".

As usual, the media gets it wrong.   From the way this is worded, for example, on CNN, you would think the GOP is punishing people just because they get a heating subsidy.   This is not the case.

What is actually happening is that Welfare case workers in many States, including Maine, are sending out bogus $1 or $5 checks to welfare recipients who have no heating bills at all.   By doing this, the recipient can then deduct $644 in "heating expenses" from their income, which in turn, increases their federal food stamp qualification level.

In other words, Maine Welfare case workers are cheating the system by sending out undeserved "heating assistance" checks, just so the recipients can then "deduct" nonexistant heating bills from their declared income.

As I noted in another posting, the qualification standards for food stamps are byzantine and rather arbitrary.  Theoretically, a millionaire could qualify for food stamps, as retirement savings and your home equity are not counted in the determination of "need".   In some States, your car doesn't count, either.   You could drive to the food stamp office in a Mercedes, and they can't say bubkis about it.

Moreover, if you qualify for food stamps, it can be a gateway to other programs, such as the incorrectly named Obamaphone.   Note also that qualification for other programs means that you may qualify for food stamps.  It becomes a web of interacting welfare programs - rather than one single program - and the costs are skyrocketing.

Now, you might argue this is right or this is wrong.   However, those are the rules promulgated by Congress.   And Congress can change the rules, if it wants to (as it proposes to do with the new farm bill).

But breaking the rules?  That doesn't strike me as right - even if a State Agency is doing it.   Who gave the authority to these States to send out "heating assistance" checks to people who pay no utility bills?   It is breaking the law plain and simple.

And the people doing it know this - as evidenced by the fact these "heating assistance" checks are just nominal amounts of $1 or $5 that are just printed so the recipient qualifies for some other government program.

That is not the way the rules are supposed to work.

And again, you can argue all day long whether food stamps (SNAP) amounts should be increased or decreased, and I have no problem with that.   That debate is healthy.   And Congress - our elected officials, hear our voices, and in theory, act on our wishes.   That is how the system is supposed to work.

On the other hand, a State official doing an end-run on the system by printing phoney "heating assistance" bills, so he can get more Federal money for his citizens, that's just illegal.   It is as wrong as, say, closing a lane of the George Washington Bridge, just on a whim.

And as a result, how much food stamp assistance you qualify for, depends on what State you live in.   If you live in one of the 15 States where they send you $1 checks for non-existent heating bills, you get more.   But then again, the qualification terms of the program vary from State to State as well - for no apparent reason.

Those mean old Republicans are proposing to eliminate this "Heat and Eat" loophole in the law.   Well, they aren't going to eliminate it, actually, but increase the amount of the bogus checks (in order to qualify) to $20 a year.   Now, the States, instead of spending a paltry $1 per welfare recipient, per year, need to spend $20.

The thinking is, most States won't be able to afford this, and thus drop the bogus heating check program entirely (in States like Maine, these bogus checks are part of a State Law!) and thus stop the practice.   However, States may up the ante by just paying the food stamp recipients the $20 (a nice yearly bonus for them) and then keeping the "loophole" in place.

What is the point of all this?   And why do 15 States do it?   The reasoning is simple:   Get as much money from Uncle Sam as you can.   The Federal Government taxes us as individuals, and then sends money to the States - usually with strings attached.   The more Federal Swag you can get for your State, the better off your State is.   You'll get new roads, bridges, fatter poor people, whatever.  It means more business, more sales, and more stuff.   And if you don't take advantage of all this Federal Swag, someone else surely will.

So our system of taxation quickly becomes a race to the bottom, where each State vies for its slice of Federal Largess, and like puppies, fight for a place at the mother teat of Uncle Sugar.

It is, in a word, quite appalling.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Never Take Financial Advice From A Discussion Group!

The Internet is a powerful thing, and it is changing our society, how we behave, and even how we think.  It is changing us the way Television did in the 1950's.   Suddenly, it seemed to us back then that buying stuff was a great idea, and low, low consumer financing was the answer to how to get it.  The television sold us that idea, with loud, blaring advertisements.   The Internet, at first, seemed a respite from the hucksterism of television, as raw data could be accumulated and processed by individuals.   But it didn't take long before the marketing overlords found a way to dupe us all - in more intimate ways than ever before.

I was waiting for my "free" oil change the other day, and noticed that nearly all the other plebes there had their smart phones or pads or whatever, and were furiously typing or touching them.   It was fascinating to me, as it illustrated how the Internet - and the smart phone - have literally changed us and changed our behaviors.   If you don't believe this, you're not paying attention.

And a big part of this today is what people call "social networking" - as if Facebook was the first one to figure this out.

But in the last couple of decades, this sort of group-think has evolved online, to the slick, well-oiled marketing machine it is today.

I recounted time and again, my first interaction with the Internet in the early 1980's.   Nerdy "Computer Science" majors spent hours on buzzing LA-36 DECwriters (a primitive 110-baud dot-matrix terminal that used reams and reams of wide green-and-white computer paper) discussing Star Trek on Internet "Discussion Groups".

These primitive groups, which used an ASCII terminal interface, allowed people to post messages and get into discussions - and flame wars.   The whole concept of emoticons, flame wars, trolls, and even SPAM evolved from this primitive online experience.

But in that era, there was sort of a self-policing of the forums.  "Netiquette" we called it.  If someone trolled or spammed or flamed, they were called out on it.

Then, an amazing thing happened.   People figured out there were really no rules to "Netiquette" - not any enforceable ones, anyway.   And if you wanted to SPAM and make a lot of money, you could - and no one could really do anything about it.  In short order, the Internet discussion "newsgroups" (e.g., alt.discussion.startrek et al.) went the way of the dinosaurs, as they got flooded with SPAM to the point where they were basically unreadable.

Primitive sponsored online "forums" based on websites started to predominate from there.  These forums, usually sponsored, were also moderated, so that SPAM and flame wars could be kept to a minimum.

But a funny thing happened - the group-think that characterized the newsgroups took on a whole new life in forums.   It turns out, when you go to a discussion group about sewing, for example, everyone is going to tell you how great it is to sew your own dress.   No one is going to point out that by the time you buy a sewing machine, fabric, needles and threads, buttons, and patterns, you've spent far more than you would have, buying a dress at Marshall's - considering how cheaply clothing is made overseas these days.

The group-think is, "What we are doing is right" and everyone reinforces the group-think.   Voices which question the logic or the underpinnings of the group-think are shouted down.   It is not a very good source of critical and independent information.

But wait, it got worse.    People figured out quickly that these sorts of forums were a good source of business.   You run a car parts company, and Joe Blow calls you and says, "I read good things about you on!  I'd like to order some parts from you!"   And pretty soon, the guy selling the parts figures he can get even more business if he fakes up some postings on a number of sites, saying what a great business he is running.

And from there, the Internet went downhill.

Today, we have review sites galore, and they are all spammed and shilled.  Companies hire professional trolls, shills, and spammers, to groom their image on the Internet.  Heck, one company,, even brags about doing this.

And people make a living as Internet Trolls.   Harriet Klausner apparently reviews more than six books a day (!!!) on Amazon and other sites, all with four or more stars.   Apparently, she gets paid to write reviews, or free books or something.   And that's just one lady.

Social Media sites work the same way - with people spamming or shilling for products, either intentionally or unintentionally.

So, you go to a site that is discussing Boxer Dogs.   There will be two kinds of postings on there.   The first are from fellow dog owners, who reinforce the idea that owning a Boxer Dog is the greatest thing on Earth.   The second are postings from companies selling puppies or dog accessories, who pose as "just ordinary Joe's" and say what great companies these are.   No one posts contradictory data.

Well, sometimes they do.   But the system is even clever enough to drown out that.   You see, the professional online groomers will try to get negative data deleted.  In some instances, they have been known to threaten individual people and browbeat them into removing postings, reviews, or websites.   If that fails, they try to toll the person, to make them sound unreasonable and outrageous, so that their opinion appears to be wacky.

It is a remarkably frightening and effective machine.

I used to post on car message boards, until I realized that (a) I was being an unwitting cheerleader for various commercial interests, and that (b) the data I got from these message boards was really not useful. 

Most of these sort of forums are designed to sell things.  In the case of car forums, it is aftermarket parts.   So you see an "innocent" message from a supposed "real user" that says, "I just bought a new Chevrolet, what should I upgrade first?"

And of course, like clockwork, another "real user" responds with a list of "must-have" items, listed by brand name, perhaps helpfully with the link to the company selling these often useless upgrades.

What got me thinking about this were some comments on an RV site.  One of the posters (who may have been a shill) noted that I wrote an aritcle pointing out the pitfalls of full-time RVing.  It costs a lot more to do than people think - and can cost more than living in a house, even.  Doing the math on this is essential before you jump off the deep end.   But of course, my ideas were shouted down as "unnecessarily pessimistic."

Really?  Setting up an RVing budget and figuring out the impact to your net worth are crazy ideas.   But selling your house and spending the entire proceeds on a motor vehicle is "just common sense."   You see the crazy world we live in

As I noted before, Affinity Marketing basically OWNS the RV industry.  They own the largest chain of parts stores, the largest chain of RV dealers, all of the RV magazines (Good Sam, Trailer Life, Motorhome), the largest RV club, the largest RV resort chain, and both RV directories (Goodalls and Good Sam).

It's a Good Sam world - we just live in it.

Seriously, if you want to run an RV park, manufacture RV's, buy an RV, sell an RV, repair an RV, or go camping in your RV, chances are, you cannot do this without giving some money to Affinity Marketing.   It is scary how much of a monopoly they have in the marketplace.

(Disclaimer, not only am I a member of the Good Sam Club, I am a Charter Lifetime Member which sounds very NRA, doesn't it?   Back when I joined, however, it was not as omniscient as it is today).

And in all their magazines and on their website, the idea is sold that (a) you should buy a very expensive RV, preferably from them, (b) you should go to their Camping World Store and buy thousands of dollars in accessories to "fix up" the RV, and (c) selling your home and living in your RV makes economic sense.

Now, granted, you can understand why Affinity Marketing sells these ideas - when you bite on these ideas, they make a lot of money.  So the idea of spending $200,000 on an RV is said to "make sense" even if it is about what your house cost.

Yes, there are people dumb enough to think that an advertisement is a good source of impartial information (or worse yet, an infomerical or time-share presentation!).   They don't need a lot of nudging to hand over their life's savings so they can drive around in a bus for a few years.  People are idiots - look around you.

But the discussion group (or social media site or review site) is a little more under the radar than a blatant advertisement.  An ad in the Good Sam magazine for a "power pack" for your motorhome is just that - an ad.   They are making a sales pitch to you, and you should know it.   But the Internet is far more subtle.   You may be fooled into believing that the "helpful advice" presented there is actually from real people, and not hired "internet groomers". 

And sadly, even a few of the "real people" are just people dumb enough to lend their name and credibility to selling someone else's commercial goods.  This latter group are usually the people who were SOLD the bill of goods, and want to validate that their decision was worthwhile.   We all want to think we are financial geniuses and made the right choices.  No one wants to think, "Gee, maybe I would have needed that money for assisted living, down the road!" - because planning for eventualities and unexpected events, is part of basic financial planning.   Living paycheck-to-paycheck (or pension-check to pension-check) with no plan "B" is never a sound idea.

The point is, take advice on the Internet with a grain of salt - even mine.   However, I have no agenda to get you to SPEND, do I?  And I have not monetized this blog to make money.  Nor do I have sponsors to cater to - and products to sell.  So consider the motives of the person presenting their ideas.

You have to learn to think for yourself, and come to your own conclusions.   Asking other people to validate decisions that you already want to make ("Should I have this ice cream cone?") is an exercise in self-deceit.  A calculator is a better choice than a discussion group, if you are making what is, essentially, a mathematical decision.

Do the math - don't ask others if what you want to do makes sense.  Chances are, their situation is far different than yours  - or they have made a horrible mistake, but have yet to realize it.   Frequent Flyer Miles Credit cards seem like a swell idea to the guy who just got one.   It takes about a decade to get into trouble with them - and the guy struggling to pay off $50,000 in credit card debt, doesn't post on the Flyer Mile discussion group page (or if he did, he'd be shouted down as a kook).

You are being marketed to, in this day and age, from the moment you wake up to the moment you hit the pillow (Someday, I'll figure out a way to put ads in people's dreams, and be a Billionaire!).  From the day you are born to the day you die, you are being sold on one thing or another.   Just ignore that nonsense, get out your trusty calculator, and do the math on your own life - and come to your own conclusions.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Weird Survey Calls

Take a survey and win a free cruise!   Are you really that dumb?

Lately, I have gotten a string of "survey" calls lately.   Usually I just hang up, as they are recorded calls.   The weirdest had to be from "The Institute of the Paranormal".    I don't know what they are surveying - pods in the basement?

Survey calls have been used as fronts for various scams, including the cruise ship scam which I wrote about before - and yea, they have called me, numerous times.  They call up and ask you questions, promising to enter you in a drawing for a "free cruise!" and after five or so innocuous questions, lo and behold, you won the contest!.  Of course, the cruise isn't free, and although the name of the cruise line sounds like a major cruise line, it isn't.   You can figure out the rest.  They want a credit card number.

And sometimes, they don't call you, you call them.  The latest trick in the scammer's book is to register a 1-800 number that is the same as a 1-888 number for a legitimate company.   I fell for this when I dialed Comcast to ask about their Cable Modem service, and was redirected to a survey site that told me I had won a free something-or-another.   Here's a clue:  Legitimate businesses don't play games like that.  Hang up.

The interesting thing about this whole mess, to me, is that I, like many other people, hang up on phone calls claiming to be surveys.   In fact, very few phone calls these days are from legitimate people.

When someone calls up and says, "How are YOU today?" I pretty much know that I am going to hang up.

When someone calls up and says, "May I speak to Mr. Robert Platt?" I pretty much know I am going to hang up.

When I answer the phone, I answer with my name, "Robert Bell" instead of "hello" - a habit I have from my days in the lab (it got tiresome answering the phone and saying, "TR-7A Lab" and having the Engineer on the other end say, "Who's this?").

So it only makes sense that the person calling you identify themselves, clearly, before asking "how are YOU today?" or "May I speak with Mr. Robert Platt?"

So, I always ask, "Who is calling?" and ask what organization they are from.   The scammers will muffle their voices and give odd names that are hard to pronounce or spell, or pretend there is static on the line, so you just get a part of the company name.   Hang up.

Others will say, "I'm not allowed to say, this is a personal matter, is Mr. Robert Platt there?"

I never, ever, say "YES".   Perhaps this is an obsolete habit, but back in the 1980's, even "legitimate" telephone companies like Sprint would "slam" your phone service by having telemarketers call you, and if you said "YES" at any time in the conversation, they would record this as "proof" of your permission to switch long-distance carriers.

Yea, these scams have been going on for decades now.   Sad, isn't it?   That we can't control our own telecommunications system?  That some corrupt GOP freak will say that shutting down obvious scams and rip-offs is "over-regulating legitimate businesses" and "killing jobs" or some other bullshit.

Like I said, we are morphing to a fraud-based economy.   Who have you scammed today?   Try Grandma.

Of course, major telcos could be regulated, and today, when you switch carriers or long-distance plans, they usually have a "verification agent" ask if you really want this.   So we can stop Ma Bell and Sprint from scamming (to some extent) but we can't touch the real con-artists, who want to slam an unnecessary phone service onto your cell phone, via a survey call or a contest you entered by filling out a form and putting it in a fishbowl at the pizza shop.

Entering contests or taking surveys is just not worth it.  Most of them are scams and trying to figure out if one is "legit" is just too much work - and not worth the risk.   By the way, many of these contests, particularly the fishbowl type, never award any prizes, or if they do, award the prize to a family member of the company running the contest.   So the next time you see a fancy car in the mall, with "WIN ME!" on the side of it, don't be a fool and give them your name and cell phone number.  On the back of the entry form is a "Permission" you signed to slam your own phone service with a $10 a month fee for nothing.   It just ain't worth it.

So this leads me to the main point.

When they tout surveys and statistics on the television these days, are the numbers they are flogging worth anything at all?

I mean, who in their right mind answers a political opinion poll these days?   Even if they aren't outright scams, chances are they are "push polls" that are not really interested so much in asking your opinion as in forming it.   "Do you still support Sentator Klaghorn in his re-election bid, even though it has come to light that he is an internet porn addict?"   That sort of thing.

So the only people who answer surveys are old people, lonely people, unemployed people, and total idiots.

That is a bit of a skewed sample.    People who are at work at a job aren't sitting around answering phone surveys.  They are too busy.   People who have half a brain or have something to do, hang up on these nuisance calls.    Young people with only cell phones, either never get these calls, or if they do, don't answer them, as they use Caller-ID to screen them out.   Anyone with half a brain would hang-up on a survey call.   What is in it for the person surveyed?  Nothing but wasted time and perhaps a risk of fraud.
So the people from the polling companies have a real problem here.  And I tend to doubt polling data and survey data as a result.   In the last Presidential Election, the last Gallup poll before election day had Obama losing to Romney, 49% to 48%.   Obama won, the next day, with 51% of the popular vote, to Romney's 47%.    Polls are pretty much bullshit these days.

It is sad, but much of what we read in the media today, that is not just outright lies crafted to help advertisers, is just bad data.