Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Poor Mindset or Wrong Mindset? Plus, Credentialism!

Poverty isn't caused by the "Wrong Mindset" but is perpetuated by a Poor Mindset.   There is a difference between the two!

Poor Ben Carson.   He is under attack again by the New York Times for saying that poor people have the "Wrong Mindset."  The Times, whose editors know all about poverty, argue that he has it backwards - Poverty causes one to have the wrong mindset.

Both the Times and Carson are wrong.

But first let me address Credentialism.  A reader writes that I am being "unfair" in mocking Ben Carson, as, after all, he is a neurosurgeon, and thus must be a smart guy!   This is a Credentialist Argument and is based on false logic.

The argument breaks down to this:
1.  To be a Neurosurgeon, you have to be a smart guy.

2.  Ben Carson is a Neurosurgeon.

3.  Ergo, Ben Carson is a Smart Guy.

4.  By extension, anything he says is right, because smart guys are never wrong.
The first three steps at least follow a logical pattern - even if the assumption in step #1 is not necessarily true.   Complete blithering idiots, at least in some areas of their lives, are capable of obtaining professional degrees and accreditation.  For example, they let me be a lawyer.   So you see, the bar is set pretty low.

But it is the last step that makes it a Credentialist argument.   People "shut down" discussion by saying, "well, so-and-so is an expert, and he says...." and you can't refute that argument other than to say one of two things.  Either you attack the credentials of the "expert" (and are drawn in to a credentialist debate, negating the inherit merits of the arguments) or you correctly point out that just because an "expert" says something doesn't mean it is necessarily correct - particularly as in this instance, where their field of expertise lies somewhere else.

It is like when Penn & Teller argue that a Physicist says that secondhand smoke isn't dangerous.   I guess they thought we would confuse Physicist with Physician.   And who cares if secondhand smokes is dangerous or not?  It just stinks, period, and your "right" to smoke ends when it intersects with my right not to have my clothes smell like an ashtray.

But getting back to the argument, both the Times and Carson are wrong.   The term "wrong mindset" is an example of Carson's poor communication skills.  It is not "right" or "wrong" but it just is.   I would use the term "poor mindset" instead, as it reflects the double-meaning of that word.   But it is an inevitable mindset as well.  There will always be people in any society with a poor mindset and you can't change their mind.  It is neither "right" or "wrong" but just is.

And Carson is right - you can throw money at someone with a poor mindset and they will remain poor.   Nothing you can do about that.   And in our country, poverty is equivalent to wealth in most of the rest of the world.   So we should stop wringing our hands about the "poor" here in the USA but instead maybe think about the poor elsewhere, for whom poverty is often a death sentence.   Being poor in America means having a shitty car.   That's not poverty, on a worldwide scale.

But the Times is also wrong in that their "experts" they consult suggest that poverty causes a poor mindset and that Carson has it backwards.   To be fair, the Times suggests that perhaps both are a little of the truth, but they seem to favor their own explanation more.  And I disagree about this.

You might be born into poverty, but what will keep you there is a poor mindset.  And granted, it is easier to develop a poor mindset if you are born into poverty.  This is true.   When you are raised with poor normative cues (in both senses of the word "poor") you will have a much harder time of getting out of poverty.   On the other hand, you can come from wealth and develop a poor mindset (usually drug use causes this) and slide down the economic scale.  Marijuana is a particularly easy way to develop a poor mindset, if you are starting out the middle and upper classes.   Other drugs are even faster-acting.

But - and this is important - it is possible to change your mind, or at least for some people to change their minds - and mindsets.  The problem is, often the poverty mindset becomes a religion, just as drug use does.   I recounted before about the family I met in a rural campground.  The son said, "Mommy, and I a redneck?" and the Mom replied, "Yes son, and you should be proud to be a Redneck!"

There ain't no rich rednecks in the world.   Those that appear to be so (entertainers and the like) are usually just posing as rednecks to make money.  The "Duck Dynasty" people, for example, have been shown with their beards shorn, in tennis togs.   Hardly redneck material.

Or, it is like the fellow I saw at the Dollar Tree in rural Georgia recently.  He tears into the parking lot at 45 miles an hour in an early 1980's S-10 pickup truck.  Each panel on the truck is dented and a different color than its mates.   Long after he screeches to a halt, the cloud of oil smoke catches up with the truck and blankets the front of the store.   On the front of this wreck is a novelty airbrushed license plate with a rebel flag on it and the words, "You're Damn  Right I'm a Rebel!"   You can imagine the collection of tats for yourself.

Point is, do you think he'll change his mindset any time in the near future?   I doubt it.   Myself, I wouldn't have bothered putting gasoline into a 1982 Chevy S10, much less a novelty license plate.   Different priorities, I guess.   But you say that and people accuse you of snobbishness, class warfare, or whatever.

The point is, he's happy with his life the way it is.  Sure, he'd like to have more and better consumer goods, if possible.  But he's not about to change his mindset to obtain them.   And obtaining wealth is something that, if it ever did occur to him, would only be by fantasizing about winning the lottery.

So what's the point of all of this?  Well, a number of things:

1.  Credentialism sucks.

2.  We should be able to discuss ideas without people shaming ideas themselves.  "How dare you blame the poor for their own plight!" isn't engendering discussion.

3.  Carson is right - your mindset has a lot to do with how well you do in life.

4.  Carson is wrong, the terms "right mindset" and "wrong mindset" are not accurate.  "Poor mindset" and "wealth mindset" might be better terms.

5.  The Times is wrong that the poor mindset is caused by poverty but right in that poverty makes it a helluva lot easier to obtain the poor mindset - and makes it very hard to shake it.

6.  I am skeptical that education or throwing money at people can improve their mindset.   Poor mindset attitudes are imprinted early on in life and obtained from parents and peers.   Even first grade is far too late to instill a different mindset in a child - and you'd have to have the same mindset instilled in the parents and peers as well (which is why moving to a wealthier neighborhood is such a good idea mentally).

When people are proud of poverty or the poor mindset, it is hard to change their minds.   And I know this because I nearly fell into this trap, or more precisely fell into it for a decade or so of drug use.  When you hang out with drug users, your expectations in life plummet.  Suddenly, you accept as normal, the idea of living on the edges of society and eking out a living, and view wealth in terms of what is parked in your driveway. 

But eventually, I cried "Bullshit on this!" and changed my mindset and within a decade, I went from scratching a living, to being solidly in the middle-class.   It certainly helped that I grew up in a household that did not have a poverty mindset.   But my family was only one or two generations removed from that mindset.   And my siblings, well, they had the same upbringing as I did, but actually eschewed wealth as bourgeois, due to the political styling of the time (the 1960's).

And I have to wonder if that whole "wealth is evil" mentality in the 1960's - or even today - was promulgated and nursed along by outside forces with interests opposed to ours.  Say, for example, Russians.   They never try to influence public opinion in the United States, right?

Mental attitude has a lot to do with your station in life.   If you have the investor or wealth mindset, you see a junked car as $200 that could be earning dividends for you.  If you have the poor mindset, you see an attractive yard ornament.   That right there sums up how mindset is indeed important.  And we should discuss this, not shout it down.

You Can't Fix Stupid

Some folks think that my blog is some sort of advice column for the poor.   Far from it.  I have no advice for them, as they are utterly fucked, period.   However, if you are an educated middle-class person who finds themselves sliding down the economic ladder.... well, there may be hope for you, yet.

Traveling through Western Georgia, you get to see how the other half lives.  And as I noted in my half-assed fencing posting, the poor seem to like to live in trailers by the side of the highway, surrounded by every single damn thing they have ever bought in their lives, scattered across the front yard.  (But at least they appear to own the property the trailer is on, rather than rent it.  That's something).

Maybe it is some sort of status thing we in the middle-class cannot fathom.   After all, if you have three sofas in your yard and one on the front porch, it means you have a new one in the living room.  You must be doing pretty well, to afford five sofas in a row, right?   The same is true for cars - abandoned cars on the front lawn provide a visual record of the owner's history with the automobile.   If you have 10-20 junked cars on your lawn - in addition to the "running" ones, it means you bought all these cars during your life - a sign of real wealth!

Maybe that is itOr it could be an example of constipated commerce.  I don't know.   As an educated middle-class person, I see valuable scrap metal that could be liquidated and converted to invest-able cash.  I see used furniture that could have been sold at a garage sale to pay for this week's groceries.  I see an improved "curb appeal" to the home which would bring up home values and increase my equity in the property.

But then I realized that the folks living in these trailers will never see what I see, and I will never see what they get out of a yard full of junk.   It is not a matter of snobbishness or class-warfare or anything like that.   Many of these folks make good money (or made good money) at jobs at one time or another - but it gets squandered as fast as it is made by purchasing "things" - on time, of course, rather than investing or trying to improve their situation in life.

And this will never change, either.   The poor are not poor because of circumstance or "bad luck" as many on the Left like to posit.   They may start out poor because of a shitty social situation, but they remain poor because they simply don't understand money, are not very smart and this likely will never change in their lifetimes.  And it is not condescending or "wrong" to say this, as it is the truth.   But sadly, today, truth-telling will get you into trouble.  You are better off repeating lies, such as "these people are less fortunate than ourselves" as if poverty just happens to people for no reason whatsoever.   But lies are never helpful.

While driving by these hovels, we were tuned to People's Public Radio, which was nearly drowned out by 100 Jesus stations (another place the poor spend money).  On PPR, they had some guy on a talk show - one of these ones that has boops and beeps in the background (this one with a beat!) talking about how hard it was to live in the ghetto and how no one who never lived in his shoes would ever understand what he went through and moreover had no right to judge him because of how hard he had it.   In other words, you are not allowed to have any opinion other than to feel sorry for him.

I shut the radio off.  This is why the Left loses elections.   I suppose as Liberal NPR listeners, we are supposed to cluck our tongues and feel sorry for this guy and maybe be a little afraid of him, too, because, you know, black.   Yea, that is how the Left is racist - buying into nonsense.   And I am not kidding about this.  There are people on the Left who argue that criminality is "part of being black" and we shouldn't judge that.   This is beyond sick - it is racist as well.

But a funny thing.   I know some black people who grew up in the same ghetto as the announcer on PPR, and they found their way out by not buying into the feel sorry for me motif, but instead getting the fuck out of a poor neighborhood anyway they could and never looking back.  This is not a lot of people to be sure, but it does illustrate  it is possible to rise out of poverty in the USA through hard work, education, and effort.  It happens every day.  And every day a lot of people slide the other way.

It is the same reason, I don't revisit Chittenango, New York.   There was nothing there for me but a squalid life with no future and no hope.   Leave and don't look back.   And no, it ain't easy.  If it was, we'd all be billionaires.

But again, people who are chronically poor don't get this and never will get this.   They sit on their porch in Flint, Michigan, and tell the nice lady from the TeeVee how awful things are and how they don't want to leave "their hometown" even after it has been a long-running butt of jokes since, well, since even before Michael Moore became famous lampooning it in  Pets or Meat.  When I lived there in 1978, it was known as "the armpit of Michigan" - and hasn't improved its image since.

So I get flack from idiots on the Left (I am being redundant) who say, "You don't know how hard it is to be poor!" (not true) and things like, "You make it sound easy to escape poverty, but it isn't!"

No, it isn't easy to escape poverty - and I never said it was, only that it was possible.   But quite frankly, it is literally impossible for the vast majority of poor people to lift themselves up.   What is holding them back?   The government?   The big corporations?   Racism?   Social Attitudes?   Nope.   Try again.

What holds people back is largely themselves.   This may sound "cruel" but it is largely the truth.   If you live in a trailer with a yard full of garbage and junked cars, the main problem in your life isn't that they closed the mill, but that you think living in a yard full of garbage and junked cars is a perfectly normal thing.   Similarly, if you think living in the "projects" or "homes" (perhaps we should just call them "the warehouses" - because that is all we are doing with low-income housing, warehousing people) is "normal" and that getting involved in petty crime and gangs is an inevitable part of your life, the main problem in your life isn't the government or the Republicans, but you.

In both cases, though, these folks aren't reading what I just wrote.  They aren't reading at all, in fact.  Not a book or magazine in the house.  Yes, a big TV sitting with no stand, but not a book.   The people "mad" at me about what I say are middle-class and upper-middle-class people who feel sorry for the poor and think there is some magical solution to poverty, usually involving paying people someone else's money.

You throw money at the poor, they remain poor.  This is the conundrum.   It just means a new trailer, more stuff in the yard, and yet another ve-hickle to run down and tear apart and leave in the side yard up on blocks.   In the city is no better, and the really sick thing is the pittances handed out are never enough to really get ahead such as starting a business, going to college, or moving out of the ghetto.  Instead, they are just enough to keep you in stasis, living in these warehouse-like conditions, for generations at a time.

The smarter people - they leave the trailer park or the ghetto and find some way to succeed.   The rest?  They accept this as "normal" and throw another piece of furniture onto the front lawn.  "It was broke, anyway!"

And this latter behavior will never change as the folks who live like this see nothing wrong with it and in fact, like it.   It is not dissimilar from the homeless drug addict living under the bridge panhandling for money.   He likes his lifestyle and doesn't want to change it.  He doesn't want a "job" or a house or other responsibilities.  He wants to be as high as he can for as long as he can.   And if you talk to people who work with the homeless, you will hear this - the only time that guy will come into a shelter is when it is freezing out.

So what's the point of all this?   Well, for starters, if you've read this far, you have no excuse to be poor, as you are smart enough to see the difference between a trailer strewn with trash and a neat and tidy home.   You are smart enough to understand the value of money and see through the shitty financial deals offered to the poor.   In short, you have no excuses for being poor.

The rest of the poor?   We can feel sorry for them all we want to, it won't change their condition much.  You can throw money at them (please, use your money, not mine!) and it won't change their condition much.   And please, don't give me that sad-sack-of-shit story about "the starving poor" in America - we have the fattest poor people on the planet.

Maybe a change in cultural values will change things.  I am not sure.  Trailer homes and ghetto homes like this exist all over America, not just in Georgia.  We've seen them, everywhere.   Maybe more education will help.  But in edu-centric New York State, we saw just as many of such trailer homes as here in Georgia - and just as many housing projects.

It sounds heartless, but I think there are just people you can't help much, because they are just not very smart.   You give them food stamps and assistance to keep them from starving, for sure.  But you can't expect them to change their behaviors, as they see no need to do so.

And yea, the trailer ones all voted for Trump.   Like I said, you can't fix stupid!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Bust-Out and Other Complicated Scams

Most con artists are not this obvious.

I mentioned before in another posting that smart people born into poverty often find odious ways to get ahead - as part of a gang or organized crime.   And their schemes and cons are often very complicated and detailed, which makes it hard for law enforcement to prosecute such cases.

I recounted before how my debit card was stolen.  Not physically, but the numbers on it.   Today, they call this "identity theft" but really it is just plain old credit (or debit) card fraud.   What did they do with this debit card number?  It is so complex it boggles the mind:

1.  My debit card was used to buy classified ads online selling non-existent purebred puppies.

2.  People answering these ads were told to send money by Western Union to an office in Mineral Wells, Texas.  The price of the puppies was such a "bargain" people would send money.

3.  Ads were run in Craigslist in Mineral Wells for "secret shoppers".  The people answering the ads were told they were to "test" Western Union's service by collecting wire transfers and then sending the money to Russia.
Now, even here in Reader's Digest form, a lot of people are still confused.  "Wait, so who ends up with the puppies?" they ask.   There are no fucking puppies, just pictures of them on fake ads on the Internet!  Sheesh!  This is why people keep falling for these scams - since they are hard to explain, people don't see them.

It was like one of those Russian stacking dolls - which was appropriate as it was run by the Russian mob.   They had a network of ads on multiple sites, Google Voice phone lines hooked to local phone numbers in the US (but ringing in Russia).  Fake web sites, fake e-mail addresses, and so on and so forth.  It took a lot of time and effort to set up, but it made them a lot of money.

It is a lot more complicated that breaking into your house and stealing your television, or putting a gun in someone's face and demanding their money.

And since it is so complicated, so hard to prove, and crossed continents and national boundaries (The US, Canada, Russia) it is nearly impossible for the Police to do anything about it, other than warn people that "if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is!" - in other words, blame the victim.

Most of the the people who fall for this nonsense are lower-class people (for some reason, more "designer dogs" are sold to the poor than the rich) who still believe in the free lunch and "stories" spun by fraudsters.

And yes, this applies to things other than puppies.  Cars, boats, motorcycles, and whatnot.  It goes on every day, and every day, stupid Americans send money off to Russia, India, Nigeria, or Al Qaeda, because they are greedy and think they can get something-for-nothing.

Scams are rarely simple, which is what makes them hard to detect, hard to avoid, hard to police, and hard to prosecute.   If you have to explain something to a jury in a paragraph or more, their eyes glaze over and they lose interest.  In the era of the 140-character tweet, you can't explain to people why colluding with Russia is a bad thing.

The Bust-Out is a similar scam, often used by organized crime, to create money from destruction.   An example of this was illustrated over a series of episodes of the Sopranos.   A middle-aged, middle-class guy who runs a sporting goods store wants "in" on a poker game, and Tony lets him in.  He loses heavily (most gamblers do) and Tony "lends" him more money to gamble.   Now, bear in mind Tony isn't "lending" anything - the "Mark" is playing poker with Tony's friends, so basically all the money on the table is Tony's.   No one is really losing money except the Mark.

Now heavily in debt to Tony, the Mark is given two choices - let the boys "bust out" his sporting goods store, or end up floating dead in the East River.   Guess which one he picks?

The boys order more and more merchandise for the store, but stop paying invoices.  They sell goods and keep the cash.  They stop paying rent, taxes, employee withholding, or whatever.   Other goods leave through the back door and are sold on the street.   Within a few months, the store is bankrupt - heavily in debt - and the boys leave with all the money, leaving the "Mark" to suffer through bankruptcy and the loss of his business.

Does this sort of thing actually happen?   Well, yes, and I related that before.   I worked at the ill-fated Olde Tyme Gaslight Restaurant where my boss, a young chef, had invested the proceeds of his father's life insurance money in the restaurant, partnering with his Uncle, who had run a number of restaurants before (all of which mysteriously burned).   While my boss busted his ass trying to make a go of the place, his Uncle was stealing him blind.   He took money out of the till, he took supplies (particularly booze) from the back room and used it in his own bar.   He stopped paying suppliers, rent, and withholding, and siphoned off more and more cash.  When it all came tumbling down, my boss shot himself in the kitchen.   Or at least that is what we were told.   I often wonder how he really died - and his Dad as well!   Bust-outs happen.   And the restaurant industry is famous for them.

It also happens in "legitimate" business as well - which is why cons are getting harder and harder to spot - they have spilled over into the legitimate business world.   "Entrepreneurs" like Mitt Romney and Bain Capital will buy up a run-down company, strip it of assets, load it up with debt, let it fail, and then let the government bail out the pension fund - 40 cents on the dollar.  All perfectly legal, too.  If you tried to take them to court, they would just argue they are shitty businessmen who didn't know what they were doing - but of course they did, they knew exactly what they were doing.  There is often more profit in failure than in success.

Mortgage Fraud is a variant on the bust-out.  And it is such a complicated fraud that even though I have explained it here before - twice - many people simply don't "get" it.  And they don't get it because they think the big banks caused the mortgage meltdown of 2008 and that "Mortgage Fraud" was something Fannie Mae did.  Again, people are stupid and they want to hate "the big corporations" or "the big banks" because they are fed a lot of socialistic and communistic crapola by the press (and Russian trolls on Reddit), so in knee-jerk reaction, when you mention mortgage fraud, they nod and say, "Oh, yea, Bank of America, right?"


Here's how it worked:
1.  Since anyone in that era could get a "liar's loan", it was possible to have a straw-man (usually someone owing money to the mob, or someone willing to do this for a small amount of cash) buy a house on a liar's loan.  They never make any payments on the loan.  They get to live there for a few months, however.

2.   Before the house is foreclosed upon (which can take months or years in some States) the house is "sold" to another straw-man buyer for say, $100,000 more than the purchase price in step #1 above.  At closing the first stray-man ends up with this $100,000, which he hands over to the mob (or ends up floating in a canal somewhere).   Pure 100% profit, tax-free.  Capital gains on a primary residence are tax-free.  The two straw men might get a "taste" of this profit, or merely not have their kneecaps shattered.  They get a place to live for a few months to a year, a small amount of money, and have their credit ratings ruined in return.

3.  REPEAT - as many as five to six times on one single property.  Some properties were bought and sold and bought in the same day, yielding hundreds of thousands in profits.   You use crooked appraisers and mortgage brokers to push the deals through.  You use a broken-down attorney to do the closings, and throw him a bone as well.   If you have this going on with a dozen or a hundred houses, you can make millions and millions of dollars in a short period of time.
Of course, when the market finally collapses, the game is up.   Financial reform meant no more "liar's loans" so the gig was up.   It doesn't matter - they made their millions and walked away scot-free.  And it is damn hard to prosecute, too.  The "straw-man" buyers all can claim they were just homeowners caught up in the real-estate bubble, and fell upon hard times and could not make their mortgage payments.  The principals - the mobsters - are untouchable, unless you can get one of those straw-men to testify against them - and keep your witness alive until trial.

So who lost money on these deals?  You and I did.  The banks made these shitty loans, but many of these loans were guaranteed by the government, or the banks were "bailed out" - so we the taxpayer were on the hook.   Even if the bank took a loss, this was passed on to the customers and shareholders in the forms of higher fees and lower dividends.   So you and I also took a loss.

Homeowners in these inflated neighborhoods - in Atlanta and Miami - also took a hit, as they saw their homes mysteriously "appreciate" in value according to recent comp sales.   Many real buyers were dumb enough to pay purchase prices based on these false "comps" - or refinanced their homes based on them.   Much of this fraud took place in poorer neighborhoods, too, pricing locals out of their own homes, at least temporarily.

In fact, in all of these kind of cons, it is society as a whole that is slightly degraded as a result.  Cumulatively, it comes out to a huge loss to society, and in some regions (the Northeast, for example) the cost of organized crime pads the cost of doing business to the point where, well, people stop doing business and move away.   When you have to pay for "labor peace" to the mob, plus pay huge taxes to cover padded government expenses, the incentive to move South and away from the rust belt is pretty high.  Corruption eventually kills off governments and civilizations - not all at once, but a little bit at a time, chipping away at the edges.

And the point is, it isn't some simple thing you can get your brain around in five words or less.  You can't explain it in a tweet.   People think the antics of Tony Soprano are funny or even to be emulated.   But while it maybe entertaining to read Mafia books or see Mafia movies, make no mistake that these folks "getting a taste" of the action, end up bringing down a society, a little bit at a time.  It really isn't very funny at all.

People understand basic crime.  And the poor don't have the sophistication to commit more organized crimes.   Put a gun in someone's face - you can explain that to a jury, and that guy goes to jail.  Steal someone's TV - jurors get that, and he goes to jail, too.    Set up an elaborate con with layers upon layers of deceit?   Hard to explain to anyone, and some helpful doofus (usually a Republican lawmaker) will argue that such cons are just "legitimate businesses" and not in fact criminal enterprises.

Worse yet are the cons that have become mainstream and are thus untouchable.   Timeshare sales, MLM schemes, that sort of thing - all based on high-pressure techniques to separate you from your money - and give it to someone else who doesn't need it.    At one time, this sort of thing was illegal - today it is an industry.

And then there are legitimate businesses that use highly complex contractual agreements to get people to sign their lives away.  Lease agreements with back-end fees.  Seven year car loans that leave you upside-down for the life of the loan - that sort of thing.  At one time in this country, those sorts of things were illegal as well.

Of course, casinos were once illegal in this country, too.  Today there is one on every block.   You see where this is going.   Welcome to the United States of Go Fuck YourselfToday you have to be astute and look out for yourself, or get screwed.   And you have to be able to wrap your brain around these complex cons, because they are complex, and moreover they are more and more becoming the mainstream way of doing business.

Al Gore once said we were transitioning from a manufacturing-based economy to an information-based economy.   He may be right about that.  But I think the next step is transitioning from an information-based economy to a fraud-based economy.  In the future - perhaps a future that has already arrived - we will simply spend all the hours of the day trying to defraud one another, while robots do all the real work.

Hey, maybe then we can all be Tony Soprano and get a "taste"!

Monday, May 29, 2017

Why Ford Matters

Ford may very well be the miner's canary in the automobile business.

In a recent Opinion article in Business Insider, which was listed as a "briefing" in their Australian edition, a young editor argues that "fake news" has been slamming the auto industry unfairly.

I thought this article was funny on a number of levels.  To begin with, it is distributed widely in the Australian format, as their Australian branch doesn't have an ad-block detector, apparently.  Given the demise of the Australian Auto Industry (now 100% GONE)  I found it interesting they would make this argument at all in Australia.

But I also found this article an interesting example of the mindless drivel in the "financial press" which often posts articles to boost or depress stock prices (I believe) or to make contrarian arguments.  In other words, it is pretty worthless news.

The central premise the author makes is, gee, car sales have been going like gangbusters in 2015 and 2016, so what's the problem?  The problem is, it's 2017, and car sales are falling off dramatically.   People are running out of credit and defaults on sub-prime car loans are skyrocketing.   The auto industry still suffers from massive over-capacity, and the troubles of the "Big-3" are far from over - and as in the past, leveraged on the sales of SUVs - and this time around leveraged even further on sales in China.

The author of the Business Insider piece apparently believes in the Disco Stu method of trend-spotting.   What happened in the past is not a forecast of the future!

GM has recovered the best of the big-3, but makes a large amount of its profits on sales in China.  The Chinese are not stupid.  They let in Western automakers just to pick their brains and learn from them.  Their domestic car makers will eventually supplant transplants in their home market - and they will eventually export cars, and in fact are already doing so, through GM dealerships.  I think it will be safe to say that foreign-owned car companies may see decreased sales in China.

GM in the USA is going back to the same old tired playbook - selling monster SUVs and Trucks at monster profits.  I read the other day that the "Average" new vehicle sells for $38,000, Pickups average about $42,000, and average large SUV for $60,000.  This astounded me, as I paid $25,000 each for my last two vehicles - $10,000 below the average retail price on a car.   A lot of people are paying a lot of  money for empty steel boxes and financing them with seven-year loans.  Small car sales are in the toilet, as no one wants useful, inexpensive, efficient cars in an era of cheap gas.

And we all know how that worked out last time around, right?

Fiat-Chrysler is still struggling with its quality image - any list of "10 worst" is peppered with vehicles from their fleet.  The CEO has been desperately hawking the company like the last ugly girl at the dance bar, after they turned the lights up.   "Please go home with me!" he says to suitor after suitor (GM in particular) only to be snubbed time and time again.  These are not the actions of a healthy vibrant company.

Ford is in a particular pickle.  They eschewed the bailout money and bankruptcy, using debt to get themselves out of the recession of 2008.   But this heavy debt load and lack of investment shows in their product lineup.  A friend of mine just bought a brand-new Expedition, which externally looks identical to his old Expedition.  While GM has updated their line of huge SUVs twice, Ford is still selling the same pre-recession large SUV - leaving the field clear for GM's Suburbans and Tahoes and their GMC counterparts.   A gamble on small cars paid out in the post-recession years, but looks to be a bad bed in this new era of cheap gas.   Worse yet, Ford has no new products in the pipeline for at least two or more years.

Ford stock has dropped 40% in the last few years, even as it remains profitable.  Many analysts are wondering why, given that things have been going so well.   But just as people "buy ahead" stocks and houses by bidding up the prices, people also look ahead and see trouble down the road, and bid things down.   And with Ford's debt to equity ratio, (over twice that of GM's) lack of new product lineup, and a general recession in the car industry, things are not looking well for Ford.

The idiot who wrote author of the article for "Business Insider" disagrees.  He claims that a lot of nervous nellies are driving down the stock price based on "Fake News" articles that promote the idea that Uber, Waymo, or Google self-driving cars, or Tesla are going to "disrupt" the auto industry and drive companies like Ford bankrupt.

Nothing so high-tech, my friend. Just your typical good-old-fashioned carburated, four-on-the-floor auto recession.

We have them every few years, like clockwork.   Perhaps the most famous was in 1958 through 1960.   Go to any car show and you see gobs and gobs of "Tri-Five" Chevies and other mid-fifties befinned monstrosities.   But 58's?  59's?  60's?  Not so much.   Sales plummeted during those years due to a minor recession.   People shied away from dual-quad Hemis and bought things like Falcons, Valiants, and Chevy II's. Ostentatous and expensive was out, cheap and economical was in - at least for a few years until the "Muscle car" era took off.

And then like clockwork, in the early 1970's, it all came crashing down again.  The must-have muscle-car of 1968 languished on the used-car lot in the 1973, particularly after the Arab oil embargo.  But insurance rates were already killing them off, not to mention the costs.

People get giddy and buy expensive look-at-me cars.  Hey, it's fun, right?   Then they get tired of making payments and are broke.   Either they don't bother trading in again, or if they do, they go for something simpler and cheaper.   It is a cycle, and we are due to repeat it again.

In the 2000's we were all giddy and making money.  I had six cars then - four of them BMWs, three of those, convertibles.  It was fun, wasn't it?  Then 2008 happened, and we all shit our pants.  I didn't lose a lot of money, and in fact made a lot by selling out early.   But it was a sobering lesson, and I decided to downsize.  Today I drive a Hamster, and like it very much, thank you.   But I won't need a new car for many years at this point.

And others are in the same boat - and often locked into their cars.  Bill Ford himself warned of this a few years back - seven year car loans putting buyers "upside down" on cars and making it harder and harder to sell them new ones.

This isn't the end of the world, of course, just the normal business cycle.  And no it isn't a cyber-this or e-that "disruption" of the auto world.   Self-driving cars are farther away than we'd like to think. And Tesla will have significant problems in an era of protracted cheap gas.  Market Cap notwithstanding,* Tesla is not "worth more" than Ford.  Ford makes more cars in a month that Tesla sells in a year.  In fact, it is somewhat ironic that the new head of Ford formerly was in charge of their automated vehicle division.  It is not that Ford doesn't have a hand in these emerging technologies, only that the current technologies are not selling very well.

So yes, in a way, the author of the Business Insider piece is right - in that anyone who is arguing that the car business is headed for trouble because of Uber, Waymo, Google, Tesla, or whatever, have their head up their ass.   But I don't see a lot of people making this argument about the current situation in the auto market.  Maybe five or ten years from now these "disruptors" may have an impact - we will have to wait and see.   Most of the analysts I have read had pointed out instead that the fundamentals of the car market point toward recession and such a recession could be very hard for the weakest of the carmakers - Ford.

* * *

* Market Cap is meaningless and the Ford example illustrates why.  Ford has a D/E ratio of over 4.  This means that four times as much of Ford is "owned" by bondholders than shareholders.  So naturally, the stock is worth less - the real owners of Ford are the lenders.  If you don't believe this, guess who ends up owning a company after bankruptcy?  Yup, the bondholders - while shareholders are wiped out.  So when people harp about "Market Cap" of such-and-such a stock, just plug your ears and tune it out.  Market Cap is a meaningless number than only boobs on the financial shows toss around.  It means nothing, whatsoever.

UPDATE:  Not only is Ford seeing lower sales, GM is too, particularly with cars and even their trucks.   Again, the press raises the canard of the "tech" sector cutting into sales, even as Tesla has hardly sold any cars, and no one has actually sold any self-driving cars to date.   Rather, the reason is simple:  Recession.   Ford and Fiat-Chrysler are propping up truck sales with sales to fleets and steep discounts, cutting into GM's revenue.  Car sales are down as gas is cheap and everyone wants a huge SUV or pickup truck - those who are still buying at this point, that is.

This will turn around in 2-4 years, of course!

Cooking in Bulk

You can save a lot of money by preparing food at home, and you can save a lot of time by cooking in bulk.

In a recent story on CNBC, Ester Bloom recounts how she saved $100,000 on a salary of $30,000 a year.  It was an interesting story and had some helpful hints - after all she was trying to live in New York City on that salary, while her husband was in law school.  And some critics will note that she bumped-up her savings by inheriting money from her grandmother - a "money baton" if you will - but unlike the lady who squandered a $60,000 inheritance on clothes, Ester invested the windfall from Grandma.

And maybe that is why being stingy is useful.  When you see how heroic it is to save up even $1000, when a pile of money is dumped in your lap (if you are lucky) you will not be tempted to blow it all on a car or clothes or something stupid.   Being frugal trains your brain about money.

You could nitpick at the edges of her story and decry her efforts as unrealistic (after all, everyone has to go clubbing, right?   Actually, I found that hanging out in bars not only expensive but also not fun).  But there are nuggets of truth in there about how to live within your means.   I only hope she does not end up being the law school wife, scrimping and saving so hubby can get his law degree, only to later marry his secretary (trophy-wife), who then spends his entire paycheck every month.

But I digress.

One of the nuggets in the article was this:
Once we moved to New York, we split a bedroom in someone else's apartment, cooked in bulk, and shopped at food coops, secondhand stores and other places we knew we could get good deals.
Cooking in bulk, something she mentions in passing, but is essential to home economics - and something our Mothers did back in the 1950's and 1960's.   The ubiquitous casserole was a staple of dining back then because it was easy to prepare, often used up leftover ingredients, and could be served a number of times (what we used to call "leftovers" back in the day) during the week or month (if portions are frozen).

Preparing your own food at home saves a lot of money, as I have illustrated before.  Not only is the cost far less, it is less hassle than driving to a restaurant and waiting around for mediocre food to be made for you.   Oh, and the savings in automobile expenses (at 50 cents to a buck a mile!) add up as well.  

But it is a pain in the ass, sometimes, to make your own meals.  I get that.  You work hard at a job and at the end of the day it is temping to dial out for a pizza, and blow $20 on a bad meal when that same $20 would prepare five at home. 

This is where the housewife of 1950 had you beat.   She could prepare a large meal - cooking in bulk - and serve a portion that evening, and then save another portion for lunch the next day, and perhaps freeze two more portions for later meals.   It is akin to making your own frozen entrees at home, preparing meals days or weeks in advance.   It also cuts down on  food waste by using up things like fresh vegetables and whatnot that would be thrown away if not put into a casserole, pizza, soup, or other entree.

For example, Mark likes to make pizza.   It is less costly than getting a take-out pizza (although probably on a par in terms of price to a frozen ready-made pizza from the grocery store, although those can be gross).   It takes just as much labor to make two pizzas, or even three.   You can cook one, eat half, and save the other half for lunch the next day.  The other two can be frozen raw (or cooked) and then cooked or re-heated at a future date.

Soups work especially well this way, and it is just as easy to make a huge kettle of soup than it is to make one bowlful.   Yes, canned soups are pretty cheap, although lately they have gone up from three-for-a-dollar to a dollar a can (at dollar tree) or more ($2-$3 for fancy soups at the grocery store).   In terms of ingredients, soup can basically use up things you would likely throw away, such as vegetables (carrots, celery, spinach, onions, etc.) if not used.  In fact, that is one dirty little secret of the restaurant and food business.  The "soup special" at your favorite restaurant is basically all the stuff that was nearing expiration date that the chef tossed into a pot and simmered for a few hours.

The casserole, of course, was the housewife's friend in 1950, and today it has exploded in terms of what you can make in a casserole.  Breakfast casseroles (made with eggs) are quite popular, keep well, and are easy to re-heat in the morning (no more excuses that you "don't have time" to make breakfast - although I can make an egg sandwich in less time than it takes for the teakettle to boil).

Since the 1950's, reusable/disposable containers have replaced the expensive Tupperware® of yore.  So it is not hard to store food, safely, in the fridge or freezer.  The key is, of course, to understand food safety and to know how soon things need to be consumed so they can be consumed safely.

Preparing food in bulk is a great way of multiplexing the labor involved in food preparation.   Rather than expend a half-hour or hour of your time making one meal, use that same labor to make two, three, four or six meals.   And once you have a freezer full of frozen entrees you have created, you don't have to worry about being "too tired to cook" when you get home.

The old coin-on-a-frozen-cup-of-water trick.

If you do keep food in your fridge or freezer, put a coin on top of a plastic cup of frozen water.   If you see the coin has sank down into the ice, you'll know you've had a power outage and the food may not be safe to eat.   This is especially handy if you are going out of town for a few days.   However, it is probably a good idea at least once a year to clean out your fridge and freezer and consume or throw away all of the contents, unplug it and clean it out with a bleach solution.   Food should not be kept in the freezer for months or years at a time - not only is it not safe, it's just gross.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Everything You Think is New is Old

A lot of technology you may think of as recent is really decades old.

People love to gush about Apple Pay or the "Digital Wallet" but fail to realize the technology has been around a long, long time.  I had a friend who worked for a mobile phone company back in the early 2000's.  They were trying to combine the RFID technology (near-field communication as we now call it) of the Mobil Speed-Pass (remember those?) with the primitive cell phones of the time.   He was quite excited about it - "Imagine, using your cell phone as a means of payment instead of a credit card or wallet!  You'll have a digital wallet!"  Bear in mind that cell phone cameras were just becoming a thing back then, and this seemed like a far-out idea.  The smart phone, as we know it, was years away.

But the basic bones of the technology was already there.  The problem would be getting enough people with the correct kind of cell phone (with the hardware and software) and all the merchants to have near-field communications technology Point-Of-Sale terminals in order to make it all work.   More than a decade later, it finally is hitting the market, although the real key is getting people to use the technology and that still appears to be a stumbling block.

Self-driving cars seem like all the rage now and an example of "the latest technology" of our Century.  However, the National Highway Administration has been funding this research since the 1980's.  One of the first Patents I wrote in the late 1980's was for a research group called IMRA which was loosely affiliated with Toyota, on using optical systems to self-drive cars.  I did a lot of background searching on this and was amazed to see how many people were working on it for decades.  The University of Pittsburgh, as I recall, was a leader back then, slowly driving (autonomously) huge box-trucks around campus, loaded with computers and sensors.

Of course, like any technology, there were a lot of dead-ends to explore.  Some suggested driving magnetic nails into the roadbeds so the cars could sense the lanes.  Others relied on optical approaches.  Each had advantages and disadvantages.   The real key was in developing better, faster, and smaller computers to replace the racks of mainframes being used in the early models.

Dry-clutch automatic transmissions may seem like high-tech stuff from the likes of BMW these days.  These transmissions do away with a torque converter in place of an electronically shifted (and clutched) transmission that acts like an automatic, without all the energy loss.   Sounds new and sexy, eh?  Well, back in the 1970's my Dad went to a demonstration of such a transmission, for truck use.  It was a huge thing - requiring a trailer and generators to drive all the computers.  But it did work.   The problem was not in figuring out how to make it work, but in how to make the electronics small enough to fit into a vehicle.  The technology was there, it just wasn't practical.   Decades later, well, the electronics caught up, and now that van-load of computers is on one single chip.

Anti-lock brakes and traction control first appeared about the same time, in the 1970's - in production vehicles (along with airbags).   None of them were popular options, even thought DOT tried to make them mandatory for big rigs for a short time.   It was only later on - in the 1990's that they became commonplace, and today, pretty much standard equipment in every car.   Smaller computers and the lower cost brought on by mass production made them a viable technology.

Virtual Reality goggles may seem like "the next big thing" but the idea has been around for some time.  The problem was, in the past, those pesky CRTs were pretty heavy on your head.  Lightweight and cheap flat-panel displays are making 3-D virtual reality, a reality that is more than virtual.  Whether anyone really wants to buy these things remains to be seen.   For a lot of people, the idea of completely retreating into an online world sounds more frightening than good.

The list goes on and on.   We are talking about technologies that have been proven to work, not just some pie-in-the-sky idea or futuristic concept.   What prevents the technology from coming to market is a number of things:
1.  Materials Science - "Mat Sci" tends to drive a lot of technology.  Until materials can be invented to do things that we want technology to do, a lot of great ideas stay in the lab.  Whether it is teflon or the heat tiles on the Space Shuttle, it is the availability of materials that make technology work.   Aluminum - once one of the rarest metals on the Earth, became one of its cheapest.  And everything from airplanes to beer cans became possible not because the technology wasn't there before, but because the material to make the technology didn't exist.

2.  Miniaturization - almost everything you can do with a computer today could be done with a computer back in the 1960's or 1970's.  The difference is, of course, the computer back then would fill an entire building, cost millions of dollars, and take overnight to render just the welcome screen on Windows.  Microprocessors with more power than a "supercomputer" of the 1970's are now no larger than your thumbnail, if that, and even a mundane run-of-the-mill car may have dozens of them.  Once the technology is sufficiently compact, it can be integrated into products.

3.  Cost and Volume - once you make enough of something, the cost goes down considerably.  When you are offering traction control as an option on select Buicks in 1973, well, you sell maybe a few hundred a year.  When it is standard equipment on all models, well, the parts cost drops off significantly.  There is a tipping point where volume of production and costs reach a point where the product becomes affordable.
4.  Consumer Acceptance - this is arguably the hardest part for some technologies.   Consumers don't like to feel they are being forced to do something.  At the same time, they will latch onto the "latest and greatest" technology in an effort to appear to be sophisticated and modern.  But if you can't get people to like the technology, it may fail from the get-go.  Self-driving cars, for example, is an exciting technology.  Yet there is a drumbeat of discontent among some people against these cars (and indeed, hybrid and electric cars as well). Overcoming this will be the key to implementing the technology - the "tech" issues are really secondary.

This last item is the real stumbling block.   When I was very young, my parents took me to the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York.  One of the exhibits was the world's first picturephone, which allowed you to call someone and see them as you talked to them.  The technology was crude and expensive, but over time, the costs came down.  Funny thing, though, people didn't clamor for the service.

Today, you can picturephone anyone with an app on your smartphone.   You can Skype on your laptop or PC.   For some reason, these apps are not as popular as people thought they would be.  In fact, texting has surpassed even voice calls as the main source of communication these days.   It seems that we don't want more communication but less and less personal communication.

As it turns out, and as the folks at the "Bell System" discovered by the 1970's, people simply didn't want to look at each other on the phone.  Chalk it up to answering machine stage fright or whatever, but for some reason, it was not the "must have" application that everyone thought it would be, even as the Jetsons demonstrated it.

(I suspect that video calls are popular, but not for the reasons that the inventors originally thought they would be.  Porn and sex seems to drive a lot of the Internet and today Smart Phone apps.   Sexting and video sex seem to be the major applications for many of these new phone features.   Why do you think middle-school kids favor an "app" that erases their photos automatically?  Because they don't want Mom and Dad to see what they've been up to!).

Whether Virtual Reality takes off where the "picture phone" failed remains to be seen.  However, I think that once again, sex will rear its ugly head, and if VR is a hit, it will be porn-driven, sadly.

As for other technologies like self-driving cars and whatnot, again, it will depend on consumer acceptance more than anything.   We all say we want a self-driving car, whether we are willing to spend twice as much to have one is another question.

We Lie to Ourselves

One could argue that there is personal gain to be had by lying to others.  But why do we lie to ourselves?  Could it be a survival instinct?

I have noted time and time again that 70% of Americans claim to pay off their credit cards every month.   This statistic is based on self-reported data and illustrates why you should question statistics touted by the media.

The credit card industry, which owns the computers which keep track of everyone's debt, with the click of a mouse or a tap on a keyboard, can tell you the real answer: 70% of us carry a balance on our cards.

But it doesn't end there.  Not only do we lie to ourselves (and others) about our nagging credit card debt, we lie about how much we have As this CNN article illustrates, people under-report their actual credit card debt by nearly half.   The total amount of credit card debt in the country is about 415 Billion, but people, when surveyed, admit to 268 Billion of it.

Now, to be fair, there are a number of reasons for this discrepancy.   First, the survey takes responses and projects them to the total population.   People with serious debt might not be surveyed.  Surveys today are flawed in that they sample only people who answer the phone or fill out a form.   People might be picking as their number the lowest balance for the month, while the credit card company picks the highest number.  People who pay off their balance every month might say "zero" as an answer, while the card company computers show a real balance in the middle of the month.

But whatever the reason, I suspect people do tend to lie to themselves - and others - about credit card debt.  And as I have noted before, it seems every American gets into a credit card debt crises once in their lives - if not more often.  It ain't hard to do.  With staggeringly high interest rates, once you start accumulating that debt, it becomes harder and harder to pay it off.   We tend to go out and buy things and sign up for services until our paychecks are spent, and then go and spend a little more.   Before long, well, you end up over a barrel.

If you have a credit card with an interest rate over 20%, you are basically screwed if you get into a situation where your spending is tight and you get behind on bills.  The interest will accumulate faster than you can pay it off, period.

I was on a "financial" site that was discussing credit and debit card fraud and one person opined, "Well, if you don't check your monthly statement carefully, you might never notice a $30 fraudulent charge here or there, right?  And who checks their monthly statement that closely anyway?"

This sort of thinking appalled me.  I check my credit card balance daily, along with the balances on all my other banking accounts.   Why?  Because this is serious shit and should be taken seriously.   Being lackadaisical about money is what got me into financial trouble in life, regardless of income level.

And that is the entire point right there.   People in general and the media love to posit that money problems are a problem of not having enough money.  If you are in financial difficulty, the answer is to make more money, either by working harder, getting a better-paying job, or getting "assistance" or relief from the government in the form of handouts or debt-forgiveness.   Anything else simply won't work!

But a funny thing, as I made more money in life - raising my educational level and job skills levels higher and higher - I found I was never off the money treadmill.   It always seemed that the credit card bill was nagging and the monthly mortgage payment was anxiety-inducing, no matter how much more money I made.   Of course, this didn't stop me from looking at new car brochures and spending my weekends dropping hundreds at the big-box store.

We lie to ourselves, and one of the biggest lies we tell ourselves is that our financial problems are external not internal.   We would be on easy street if only we got a raise.   That would solve all our problems right there!  But raises come and go and not much changes, other than we find ourselves even deeper in debt.

Perhaps this form of living is a survival instinct.  After all, we lie to ourselves about a lot of things.   We aren't that fat.  We are pretty handsome.   We will live forever.   Death is something that happens to the other guy, not us.  If we had to be truthful to ourselves about all of the bad things that have happened to us and will happen to us, we'd probably flip out or suffer from anxiety attacks.  Simply not thinking about death - or your nagging credit card bill is a lot easier way out.

When I started this blog, I "kinda sorta" kept track of my finances.   I carefully organized every bill and statement into file folders, which were neatly labeled by month and year.   On a moment's notice I could tell you what my phone bill was for May of 2005 - or my credit card bill.   But I never bothered to look at the phone  bill to see if I could lower it somehow or whether I was paying too much. Similarly, I never bothered to look at my credit card bill, other than to glance at the charges and then pay off as much of the balance I had left in my bank account after paying off the mortgage and other bills.

It was a pretty dumb way of managing finances - but a lot of people do it.   And I was well into my 40's and still doing it.   Maybe it was the financial crises of 2008 that forced me to re-think things.   It caused a lot of people to react in one of two ways.  Many did a lot of soul-searching and thought about what they were spending their money on and why.   Others doubled-down their bets and lied even more to themselves convinced that nothing was their fault but that somehow the government or the banks had deceived them.

It took several years of tracking expenses to figure out that while I was making a lot of money, I was spending it just as quickly.  Oh, we had a lot of fun, but the stress levels were pretty high as well.   Selling off "things" and owning less turned out to be the path to real relaxation.   Having a lot of stuff was fun, but a lot of work as well.   While middle-class America might be able afford a mini-mansion, only the truly rich can afford the real deal - and the gardener, the maid, and the rest of the staff needed to maintain it all.

Am I totally 100% honest with myself today?   No, not at all - that is part of the human condition.  We all lie to ourselves to some extent, on a continuous basis.   Confronting truths - ugly truths - is never a fun experience.   It is a lot easier to believe in fun things, like Santa Claus and Guaranteed Minimum Income (I am being redundant, again) than to believe in sacrifice and balancing the books.

But deep down, of course, we all know when we are lying to ourselves.   You can feel it, and you can see it in others.  It is that certain, far-off look in the face of the tea-partier, who claims to be "overtaxed" when he likely pays little or no taxes at all, but rather is pissed-off because he owes the finance company for a Jet Ski he broke three years ago.  It is that insincere smile on the face of the "progressive" who claims that if only the government would hand out more money, the massive unemployment problem (!?!) would be solved.   They all know they are lying, deep down.  

The Problem With Libertarianism

One of the problem with Libertarianism is that the people who support it are largely whack-jobs.   But that's not the only problem.

A reader writes that I am not being fair to Libertarianism.   He claims I am misinterpreting and misrepresenting what it stands for.  I disagree.   You can characterize Libertarianism as whatever you want it to be, as it stands for everything and nothing at the same time.  It is the Rorschach ink-blot test of politics - you read into it what you want to see.

Liberal or Conservative, Fundamentalist Christian or Gay-Rights Advocate, you too, can be a Libertarian!   However, you may find yourself at odds, not with the rest of society, but your fellow Libertarians.

For the pot-smoker living in his parents' basement (or bong-lair flophouse) Libertarianism represents the government legalizing pot.   

For the gun-nut who is assembling an arsenal of firearms and ammo (often the same person as the pot-smoker above) it represents the government lifting restrictions on firearms.

For the religious nut, it means the government not interfering in their practice of religion.

For the tax denier or tax protester, it represents the government being so small as to "drown in a bathtub" and a simplified "flat tax" code or some such other nonsense.

The list goes on and on.   The problem is, of course, that this disparate group of people are often at odds with one another.    Each one of these groups wants the government "out of my face" and into the face of someone else.   The religious freedom nut, for example, wants the government off his back, but snooping into the habits of the pot-smoker - or into the bedrooms of his neighbors.

He also wants religious freedom for him (as a Christian) but not for his Muslim neighbors.

Like I said, it is a Rorschach test - you read into it what you want to see, which usually an "I win, you lose" scenario that everyone wants, but is not really workable.

And besides, most of what these Libertarian nut-jobs want, we already have.   The USA already has the greatest religious freedom in the world.   Our European friends are banning head scarves and prayer-blaring minarets at Mosques.    We debate whether there is a "war on Christmas".   The religious right is hardly under attack in this country.  It is hard to see how we could be more Libertarian than that.

Marijuana rights are greater than ever before (until Jeff Sessions gets into action - but then again, he's from the same "freedom" side of the fence as the Libertarians).   Gun rights?  Do we even have to go there?  We have more gun rights and guns than any other country on the planet - and no sign whatsoever, despite NRA propaganda, that anyone is going to "take away yur guns!"

What, exactly, are Libertarians liberating us from?   What sort of "government tyranny" are we suffering under?    What sort of drugs are they smoking to believe we are being tyrannized?

Oh, right, you can't go on government lands and graze your cattle for free.  You can't ride your four-wheeler through Yellowstone National Park and turn it into an erosion pit.   You can't infringe the rights of others in order to have your own rights.

And that is the thrust of it.   Libertarians are just plain selfish people who want everything their way, and everyone else on the highway.   They fail to see that rights are accompanied by responsibilities and that your rights end where they impact or intersect others'.

There is one, and only one thing that Libertarians, like their progressive counterparts, are good for - vote spoilers.    If you can convince enough muddle-headed young people that voting for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein is a worthwhile endeavor, you may be able to siphon-off enough votes from a legitimate candidate to sway an election.   Worthless third-party candidates are what got Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump into office - for better or worse.

Sorry, but no sale.   And Libertarianism is just a prime example of externalizing which I have mentioned before - merely once or twice - in this blog.   The typical Libertarian is convinced that nothing will ever change in the world until their unworkable political philosophy is adopted as the norm.    Since this will never happen in their lifetime, they have a convenient excuse to fail at life - Just like the Jill Stein or Bernie Sanders supporters. 

Why bother even trying when the system is so rotten and corrupt?  Except that it is not - it is the best system in the world for personal freedom and opportunity, if you just open up your eyes and bother to see it.

Sorry, America is a great country.  I have no time for people who run it down because of their personal failures. 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

United States of Mexico, Libertarian Edition

The formal name of the country you know as "Mexico" is actually "United States of Mexico."

Libertarians are an interesting bunch.   While some of their rhetoric is appealing, they fail to think through where their ideas would eventually take them.   If they want to see what a Libertarian paradise on earth looks like, they need look no further than the United States - of Mexico.

Yes, Mexico, the Libertarian paradise.   Why do I say this?   It has everything a Libertarian pines for - a limited weak government, a weak police force, a weak military, and very little intervention in the economy.  There are few inheritance taxes and few taxes in general, which is why a few families have ended up owning most of the economy and why the roads are so crappy.

This is what Libertarianism leads to - that and crime and corruption.   When government is limited in power, it is hard to control government officials and police officers, who mostly use their positions for personal gain.   Hey, why not?  That's being "free market" - right?   If you want a building permit or to skip out on a speeding ticket, you pay.   And if you can't pay, too bad for you.  You go to jail - and you pay for that, too.

The problem with this model of government, or non-government, is that those in power tend to stay in power.  Wealth accumulates too easily in the hands of a few and there are few opportunities for new people to join the club.   Your station in life is determined by the station you are born into - and you can work your ass off and it makes no difference whatsoever.

And while some may argue that is "unfair", the problem goes deeper than fairness.   If the people with wealth and power are born into it, there is no filtering mechanism to insure those controlling wealth and power are qualified to do so, for example by dint of having the wherewithal to accumulate wealth and power.

This is why monarchies eventually fail.   The King may be a swell fellow and all, but his son, who was raised a spoiled brat, ends up a despot despised by all, and eventually overthrown, but only after much bloodshed.  In the meantime, he has mismanaged the economy and created hardship and difficulty for everyone.   Maybe once in a while you get lucky with a monarch, but history has shown this is the exception rather than the rule.

In America, we have accumulated wealth, but until now, at least, it tends to dissipate over time.   Name any one of the 19th Century "Robber Barons" and then look to see how far their influence extended even into the 20th Century.  They die off, leave their estates to children, who divide up the proceeds and squander it.  The Estate tax insures that totally obscene amounts of money are trimmed.   And no, this doesn't mean people are being thrown off the family farm - those are explicitly excluded under the law (nice urban legend, though, or is it "fake news" or an "alternative fact" these days?).

The irony of the far-right is that many want to indulge in these Libertarian fantasies.  While others want a "small government" but a "strong defense" - two goals which clearly conflict with one another.   Most of the "strong defense" types are either pandering to defense contractors, or pandering to companies (e.g., oil companies) which benefit indirectly from a strong defense.

The bottom line is, Libertarianism is just a fantasy - an unworkable fantasy, as the experience in Mexico illustrates.   Such a government or economy would quickly devolve into survival of the fittest, with the most ruthless and violent coming out on top.   You would have to hope to be lucky to be born into the right family or the right clan.

But that is the appealing part to Libertarians, I guess, as most of them are utter losers in our economic system.  They cannot compete on the merits, so they want a leg up by dint of their heritage, race, or whatever.  They want a system that rewards those without talent, and punishes those who actually work hard to succeed.   The Libertarian fantasy benefits only the man behind the gun, who can force others to do his bidding.  It doesn't help the person who actually works and produces and creates.

We don't need to turn the United States of America into the United States of Mexico, thank you.

Viewer Mail - Craigslist Scammers and Timewasters

It seems that nearly all responses you get on Craigslist are just scammers or bots.

A reader writes, in response to one of my Craigslist Scam postings, in which I mentioned that you will get weird e-mails if you post on Craigslist, asking "Is the item still available?"
"I disagree.  A legit buyer will more than likely say, “Is it still for sale”, “when can I see it”, “will you take $____ for it instead?”, things like that."
I'm not sure I agree with this logic.   Or at the very least, why wouldn't you ask all of these things in one email?  Why bother asking "is the item still available?" as your only question?  I get a lot of robo-replies to Craigslist postings that are like this.  And lately, it seems they are getting more sophisticated.   For example, I recently posted two listings for some 18" golf cart tires and a battery charger for an EZ-GO golf cart.   I got two weird replies, the first was "are these 18" tires?" (the size was in the title!) and the second was "Will this charger work for an EZ-GO?" (again in the title!).   I think they are getting more clever with their bots to get you to respond, which in turn gives them a legit e-mail address they can harvest and sell.  It seems I get more SPAM e-mails if I respond to these kind of weird questions.

But others are far more primitive.   For example, if you list a car for sale, you will get an e-mail asking "What is your final price?"   -  "Final price" is not a phrase that Americans use, but many foreigners use - which tips me off that it is probably a Nigerian scammer.  As the reader noted, the use of "kindly" and "regrets" (both common British English sayings) are also a tip-off that you are talking to someone who is from a former British colony.  Nigeria.

A weird one lately are e-mails addressing me as "Dearie" - as if grandma was sending me a Nigerian Scam letter.   I am not sure what is up with that, only that it must work, or they wouldn't use it.

"Will you take $1000?" might sound legit, until you get five e-mails from fishy addresses and odd names (Jeb Stewart? - no, really) with the exact same wording.   Very odd that someone would offer a price for merchandise WITHOUT EVEN LOOKING AT IT.  Even odder that five people would make the same price offer.  I suspect a 'bot is programmed to look for a price and then generate an e-mail saying "Will you take (price-$500)" to try to sound legit.   After all, agreeing to pay full price is suspicious, right?

"Is the Item still for sale?"  or "Is the vehicle still for sale?" are also red flags.   No mention of what the "item" is, or what kind of "vehicle" we are talking about (could cover cars, boats, motorcycles, etc.).   Again, scammers want to use generic responses, perhaps using a 'bot, to cover as many postings as possible.

And a note:  If the item is still on C/L, it is still for sale, right?  What numb-nuts leaves up a C/L posting after selling something?   So asking if the item is still available is just redundant and wastes everyone's time.   And the telling thing is, every single damn e-mail asking whether the item was still available that I responded to, never resulted in a further inquiry.   Well, except one, where two days later (typical, to build tension) the "buyer" told me he would buy the "vehicle" for $2000 over asking price and have it shipped overseas - with me wiring the surplus to a friend to cover shipping.   In other words, the classic Craigslist Nigerian overpayment Western Union Scam.

Craigslist is a LOCAL sales advertising medium.  There is no need to get caught up in rounds of e-mail discussions for such things.  There is no need for five e-mails in order to sell a $100 item.   If you are interested in an item, a real person would not waste time asking if it was available or negotiating on price before even seeing the item in person.

One way to avoid this problem is to put in your Craigslist ads, a note to CALL your phone number (no texts!) if they want more information, or to put THEIR PHONE NUMBER in their e-mail if they want me to respond.  That way, you filter out the scammers and bots.

Most people on C/L just don't respond to e-mails anymore, as so many of them are phony, if you'll pardon the pun.   A Nigerian scammer won't CALL as their thick accent will be a giveaway (not to mention their foreign area code in your caller ID).   Responding to e-mails and texts, is, ironically, the riskiest way of doing business on Craigslist.   Talking to a person, in person, is the best.

Now there has been a lot of press lately about "Craigslist murders" or "Person robbed on Craigslist" which is an interesting way to phrase things.   If you were selling your car in the classifieds and murdered or robbed, the media would not call it a "classified ad murder" of course.  But the media loves to put cyber-this and e-that in front of everything, and of course to scare the oldsters who thought all this "Internets" stuff was just hooey to begin with.   You are far more likely to be killed on Facebook anyway.   Just kidding about that last part, but who knows?  It may be true.   At least you are far more likely to be bullied or indoctrinated.

Sadly, Craigslist has been, in my experience, a big time-waster personally.   You get a lot of tire-kickers and dreamers, if you get any real interest at all (and not just bots harvesting names or looking to scam you).   I have sold over a dozen vehicles (cars, boats, motorcyles, RVs, trailers) on eBay with no problems at all.   I have never sold a single vehicle through Craigslist, even though I have listed nearly all of the ones I sold on eBay.   The problem with Craigslist is that it is a local medium, and your audience is very limited, so the odds of finding a buyer are much slimmer - and even if you did, you won't get the optimal price.

I have bought very little on Craigslist as well - most people who advertise there are dreamers, wanting thousands for a clapped-out car ("I know what I got here, so no low-ballers!").   Since the cost of listing an item is FREE, it encourages hoarders and dreamers to list their merchandise for obscene prices.  I have also found that a lot of people who sell on Craigslist are squirrely.  You e-mail or call about an item and they get evasive about it, or just don't return your calls.   It is another aspect of the "it's for sale but it's not for sale" or perpetual for sale gambit - which are time-wasters as well.

Another annoying aspect of C/L is that dealers are increasingly getting bold about putting cars "for sale by owner" when the photos clearly show them on a dealer lot - and they have 10 or 20 such ads in the "for sale by owner" section.   Worse yet, they have a page of junk text designed to snare you if you use a search term.   Remember what I said about people lying to you?   Here is a car dealer lying - using search terms in junk text - to get you to click on their ad.   They have no compunction about breaking Craigslist's rules - advertising dealer cars in the "for sale by owner" section.   You think things are going to go uphill from there?

Throw in the scammers and the bots and, well, Craigslist is just not a very useful advertising media.   It can be a good place to kill a half-hour laughing at some of the entries, though!