Friday, June 30, 2017

Lessons from Television

NOTE: This is an older posting that I just completed today.

Was television always this bad?  Yea, I'm afraid it was.

We are staying in a campground, and I thought I would see what is on television.  We have a small flip-down video player in the camper, which I bought on eBay for $150.  It plays DVDs and such, but does not receive off-the-air TV.   

Another camper was throwing away a new-in-the-box digital television converter (the kind you could buy with a government coupon, back when they made the switch).  I dug it out of the trash and hooked it up to the A/V input on the flip-down television.   Voila, TeeVee!

You can get a lot of channels off-the-air these days, it seems, although most of them are garbage.   A lot of religious channels (send us your money) and a few play old television shows (I dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, that sort of thing) with frequent commercials.

The commercials are fascinating.  One tells you that you have some undiagnosed illness and you should "ask your doctor" about TRAFLYPTIX once-a-day medication.   The next ad is from a law firm advertising that "if you took TRAFLYPTIX and had side effects, you may be eligible for damages!"

It is the old  something-for-nothing game.  A pill will change your life.  If it doesn't, well, you win at litigation lottery.

Other pitches were for "diet supplements" that would make you feel "decades younger" and eliminate wrinkles, etc.  Or, you can get your hair back (two different companies, here, but I suspect they are the same).   Eat an acacia berry.  Or get your own free (or "nearly free") back-brace, if you call this number in the next ten minutes!

Also, interestingly enough, are a lot of pitches for charities.  The ASPCA has a long, long spot with pictures of pitiful pooches (mostly pit-bull roteweiller mixes) that have been abused.  They want you to pledge $18.99 a month (!!!!) to help their charity.   All I could think was, "Gee, that's a lot of money" and "That television ad must have cost a lot of dough!"

A similar ad for the wounded warrior project.   Noble causes?  Yes.   Money spent on television ads?  Staggering.

But it reflects the statistics on charities - poor people will donate far more of their money to charities than the rich, as a percentage of income.   And often these poor folks donate to questionable charities that have very high overheads and very high salaries for their key employees.  Charity is a fine thing and all, but investigate the company (and it is a company) you are giving money to.  If they can afford ads that cost tens of thousands of dollars a minute, you have to ask yourself where the money is going.

Of course, the Jesus channels, staffed by sweaty, overweight white men (or sweaty overweight black men), who put the fear of God into you, ask for $1000 from "40 people" to buy a new fiber optic cable to spread the word of God to Muslims (!!!).  A thousand bucks!   Gee, that makes the ASPCA look pretty cheap by comparison.  Of course, the Jesus channel needs more money as they broadcast 24/7, not just in 30-second spots.

It struck me that the ads were all aimed at poor people and people who had a victim mentality and were sympathetic to the victim mentality.   If you are overweight and feel like shit, it isn't your fault.  All you need is a simple pill!  And when that pill causes your son to grow breasts (I am not making this up) you can sue for damages!   In the meantime, you can latch onto the next cure for a disease you don't have, or help rescue a rotweiller mix from some white trash who tried to beat it to "make it a mean guard dog!"   Dang puppies, always being so goofy and cute!  Need to toughen them up!

But sadly, the number of rednecks in the world who decide they have to have a mean dog is apparently infinite.  Go to any shelter and you will see cage after cage of these inbred mutts, all with short muzzles and large heads, bred for fighting and not much else.   They don't make good pets, so don't bother trying to "save" one.   An elderly friend of mine tried that, and it did not work out well.  The dog was basically untrainable and wild, and when he saw a squirrel, he bolted, pulling my friend off their feet so that they broke their hip.

You can't save the world - particularly if you don't save yourself first.

It got me to thinking, though.  Was television always this bad?  So chock full of poor normative cues?  So utterly stupid?

Well, yea.

The off-the-air programs were old sitcoms from the 1960's and 1970's.    While dreck like I Dream of Jennie and Bewitched and other "Screen Gems" were patently stupid (and recycled the same plot from week to week), even the "progressive" intellectual shows of the 1970's such as All in the Family and Maude (and other Norman Lear dreck) were really idiotic and written at an 8th grade level, if that.   Back then, they were "groundbreaking, thought-provoking" shows because they often dealt with trendy issues.  But the writing and the jokes were lame beyond belief.  You try to watch them today and you just shudder.

Television has always been stupid, I'm afraid.  And only stupid people watch it.  If you are not stupid, and start watching it, you will become stupid in short order.  You can't help it - you are being barraged with an information stream of data that hits your cerebral cortex at the speed of light, without your brain being able to filter or process it, first.

Sadly, there is very little media these days which is analytical, thoughtful, intellectual, or rational.   Most media is designed to capture eyeballs, whether it is sensationalist journalism or explosion movies.   News programs are heavily biased to the right or left, with little in-between.  And sadly, even the newspapers (which are now websites) are resorting to sensationalism to generate clicks and capture eyeballs.

I am not sure what the answer is, other than to unplug entirely and read a good book.  

You Can't Go to McDonald's and Order the Salad

McDonald's offers "healthy choices" on their menu, chances are, you won't order one.  (even if you did, some "salads" with dressing, have more calories than a Big Mac!).

One way to avoid temptation is to simply avoid temptation.   I know this sounds moronic, but our behaviors are programmed into us before birth.  Our tendencies to self-indulge are hard-wired in our brains.  We look down upon others who use drugs, drink too much, or are overweight or are shopaholics and having "weak resolve" while at the same time not examining our own behaviors too closely.

The long and the short of it is that if you put yourself in a situation where there is temptation, odds are you will grab at that temptation and run with it.   Self-control is just not in the cards.   Granted, it may be true that your "self-control" may work once or twice, but the more you expose yourself to temptation, the more you are likely to succumb.

For example:
You can't buy a smart phone and not compulsively play with it.

You can't go into a casino, "just to look around".

You can't go to the pound and not come back with a dog.

You can't go to the pizza shop and not have a slice.

You can't go to the car dealer "just to kick the tires."

You can't go to the "all you can eat" buffet and eat responsibly.
You can't rely on "self control" with a crack pipe.
And so on and so forth.   Human nature is what it is.  We are all weak.   Avoiding temptation is a better plan than "self control".  Not putting yourself into situations where you are likely to succumb to temptation is a better plan.  NOT going to a casino is a far better plan than going and promising "not to gamble (too much)."

And yes, this goes for drugs as well.   I recounted before about a friend of mine whose husband, at age 30 in Law School became a crack addict.   How did this happen?  Well, they had been smoking pot, so using drugs was a "norm" to them.   And the Law School was in a bad part of town and surrounded by drug dealers.   He walked by them every night on his way to his car.   Eventually, one night, he struck up a conversation with one of them, hoping to buy pot.  The rest is history.  He is in jail right now for running a meth lab.

Not smoking pot would have been a better choice.  Parking in a different place (even if that meant paying to park) would have been another.   When you place yourself into a situation where there is temptation, over and over again, you will eventually succumb.

Which is why I say you can't hang out with pot-smoking friends and expect not to smoke pot.   Eventually, the temptation and accessibility will conspire and you'll say, "Well, OK" and before long you are "chronic" who looks at pot-smoking as a religion.

We all have weaknesses and are all tempted.   The easiest way to avoid temptation is to avoid putting ourselves in situations where it is easy to be tempted.   The idea that we have "self control" is illusory.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Sooze Orman Has A Change Of Heart

Has the Sooze had a Road-to-Damascus Experience?

We haven't heard much from the Sooze lately.  Maybe her "You're Approved" program lost its appeal (EDIT: It was cancelled, and the successor program is in limbo - and controversial, apparenty).  Whatever the reason, she's apparently decided to go back to her roots and offer some common-sense advice.  Maybe it's because so many financial advisors now these days are encouraging self-indulgence that going against the flow would get her some attention in the Press.

Or maybe she is just whoring for publicity to sell a $54 online course on finances.  Maybe.  I guess since she can't make money selling "FICO kits" anymore, this seemed like a good deal.

Whatever the reason, it's time to give the Sooze a big hug (at arm's length, with one hand on our wallet, just to be safe) because she's saying something rational for a change, even if she is attempting to personally profit from it.  In a recent CNBC article, she counsels people to spend less money on convenience transactions and points out that these little indulgences cost little by themselves, but  over time they add up to an awful lot of money missing from your bottom line.

Whether is getting takeout food instead of preparing your own meals, or stopping off at Starbucks for a three-dollar coffee, or at leasing a car instead of buying one and taking care of it, the incremental cost of these conveniences can really break the budget of a middle-class person.

I get a lot of flack from people who defend this type of behavior.  They don't believe that not indulging yourself in tiny little luxuries will make a big difference in your life.  After all it's only a dollar here, two dollars there, ten dollars here, or a hundred dollars there.  How could that add up to a million dollars over time?

This also plays into the mentality that if you can't be a billionaire in 10 seconds or less, why bother trying?  You might as well just spend all your money to entertain yourself and wallow in self-pity. And to some extent we all do this, it is a part of human nature.

But having been at both ends of this transaction, I can see how it plays out over time.  When I was very young, I squandered a lot of money on self-indulgence and it was pretty stupid.  I did manage to save some money, and over period of thirty years this morphed into a sizable retirement nest egg.  My only regret is not cutting back even just slightly on my self-indulgence in my earlier years and put more money aside, is it would have meant a much larger nest egg at this point in my life - not to mention the option of retiring even earlier.

And we're not talking about extreme sacrifices either.  I get emails from people saying "I don't want to eat ramen noodles for the rest of my life" or some such thing.  For some reason, raman noodles get picked on a lot by people who want to disavow any kind of frugal lifestyle.  I'm not sure why they pick on ramen noodles.  They probably are not good for you - very high in carbohydrates, and also that powdery flavoring packet that comes with it is usually loaded with salt and MSG.

That is the nature of the "logic" that people use.  It's either caviar or ramen noodles and there's nothing in-between in their mind.  You either go out and have a good time or you live like a monk. There's nothing between these two extremes.  And of course, we call this a straw man argument.  You set up a straw man and then you knock him down which is easy to do because he's made of straw.

But the reality is, if you just cut back by a little bit, you can save an awful lot.  For example if you go out to lunch several times a week at work, consider brown-bagging it for one of those days. The amount of money you save might not be a lot - maybe five to ten dollars or so, but over time, it is going to add up to a significant amount in your retirement account.  When you get comfortable this, think about maybe brown-bagging it two days a week and so forth.  You might also find ancillary benefits in that going out to lunch with your co-workers can be an emotional drag and also make you look like a slacker to your superiors - as usually these lunches extend for more than an hour.

Or take leasing. Many young people are lured into leasing a car because the monthly cost is lower. However the overall transaction cost is far higher, something most people realize when they try to turn the car in at the end of the lease and are socked with a lot of back-end charges.  All cars are used cars the moment you buy them.  So why not consider buying a two- to three-year-old car that is off-lease that some other idiot paid all the depreciation on and drive that instead?

A two- to three-year-old car looks just like a new car. I remember when I was at the Patent Office I bought a second-hand Camry from Avis.  I'm not necessarily recommending you buy a used rental car, but for me it was so much cheaper deal than a brand new car.  And all of my neighbors thought I had a brand new car, so if you're looking for bragging rights there really is no difference.  And realize that usually buying a new car is nothing more than bragging rights.  Just get over that and acknowledge your own human frailty - we all have the same problem.

But getting back to the Sooze, maybe this is a dawn of a new era from Ms. Orman.  Maybe from now on she'll start offering practical advice instead of going on television and telling people they're "approved" to buy things.  Quite frankly she lost me when she started going down that road.  She went from offering frugal advice to saying "you're approved" to buy a Sea Ray boat or a Buick car, after those companies sponsored her and paid her to endorse their products.

On the one hand, I don't blame her for going after the money, as we all need to make a living in this world and it's very hard to avoid the temptation of being corrupted by commercial influences.  We live in a capitalist society and you have to exploit your opportunities when they arise.

Corporate sponsorships can be a double-edged sword, as perhaps she is finding out.  Many people, including myself, criticized her for taking all these sponsorship deals as well for her "You're Approved!" television show, which cheapened her overall message and reputation.

Sadly, it seems that most people just don't get this, or at least the television people think that we don't get it.  The shouting guy on the financial Channel still screams buy and sell for various sketchy stock deals which usually end up being a raw deal for the small investor.  The other Financial channels just hype the stock price and never talk about anything else such as profitability, P/E ratios, and least of all, dividends.  You would think from watching television that the only thing that matters about a company is its market cap.  The reality is of course, that market cap really needs nothing and if you were using that as a metric for evaluating a company, you have a broken compass.

So here's to the "new" Suze Orman.  Let's hope she is going back on track to her old advice and echewing the corruption of our secular world.  And hopefully, maybe she'll find an audience for this good advice.  But I would not pay $54 for it.

But given the feedback I've received from some readers, I think that she would be better off telling people what they're approved for, as that seems to be what people like.  No one wants to hear hard truths - that's not marketable!

Serial Number Reg. Number Word Mark Check Status Live/Dead
9 78759146 3158360 YF&B TSDR DEAD
10 78757479 YF&B TSDR DEAD
11 78757448 YF&B TSDR DEAD
12 78757413 YF&B TSDR DEAD
14 78731943 SUZEU TSDR DEAD
15 78731931 SUZE U TSDR DEAD
16 77591323 3653822 CAN I AFFORD IT? TSDR DEAD
21 77031286 3468566 SAVE YOURSELF TSDR DEAD
32 76588413 SUZE O TSDR DEAD
33 76588412 SUZE O TSDR DEAD
34 76588411 SUZE O TSDR DEAD
35 76588410 SUZE O TSDR DEAD
46 76290262 2769811 SUZE'S CHOICE TSDR DEAD
47 75612268 2542073 SUZE ORMAN TSDR LIVE
48 75879603 2601884 ASK SUZE TSDR DEAD
Somebody's been a busy little beaver at the Patent & Trademark Office!

Index Funds?

What are index funds and should you invest in them?

A few years back, a reader wrote that I should look into index funds.  And I did and bought some shares in a couple of them.  What are index funds?  They are just mutual funds - that follow some stock index.   There are a plethora of mutual funds out there, investing in everything from stocks to bonds, to government bonds, to whatever.   And each fund usually has some sort of goal or strategy.  Small Cap, Large Cap, foreign bonds, US bonds, Municipal Bonds, tech stocks, energy stocks, income stocks, or whatever.

And each fund has a fund manager or managers who manage the fund and decide what to invest in.  And for the most part, you have no idea on what they are investing in, on a day-to-day basis.   You can sort of get an idea from the prospectus and annual report, but you don't know what they are buying and selling in real-time.   You are leaving it to an expert to make sound decisions, and he generally gets paid more for making better decisions, so his interests are aligned with yours.

Compare this to hedge funds, where the managers get paid a percentage of the fund balance regardless of whether they make money or not.   You can understand why people are fleeing hedge funds these days - the overhead is high and the returns in recent years are not as attractive.

Mutual funds may have front-end loads or back-end loads or they may be no-load.   For a typical "load" fund may have to pay a fee upfront (deducted from your investment) when you invest, and often this fee goes in part to the salesman who sold you the fund.  Yes, that friendly "investment advisor" isn't working for oxygen, he needs food on his table.  And that is why, when you, as a young person, go to a "storefront" investment advisor (and you know exactly which one I am talking about - coming to a strip mall near you!) they really aren't interested in talking to you unless you have at least $10,000 to invest - so they can make $500 "advising" you which mutual funds to invest in.   If you are just starting out in investing, well, go fuck yourself.   Come back when you got some real money, kid!  (Or at least that was my experience when I was in my 20's).

Some funds have fees (back end loads) you have to pay when you sell shares in the fund.  The idea here is to encourage you to invest for the long haul, rather than trade. So they penalize you when you decide to sell.   And some funds are "no load" which seems to defy gravity.  How does a mutual fund company make money if they are not charging a fee?  Volume?  No, they have something called an expense ratio that they charge to the fund every year.  You don't see this as a line-item on your statement, but it is buried in the annual report somewhere if you look for it.  And no, the friendly storefront investment advisor doesn't mention it unless you ask, and even then....

And let me just say right here that I was invested in mutual funds for well over a decade before I understood any of this.   And yes, I had investment "advisors" tell me I was investing in a "no load" fund which turned out to have a 5% front-end load, of which the advisor got half.   When rolling over a 401(k) or IRA, be particularly aware of this.  You might, after a few years of hard work, accumulate $100,000 or more in your 401(k).   Your friendly "investment advisor" will suggest you roll this over when you leave the company.   And if you are not careful, he may skim 5% off the top when you move the funds to his company - as a State Farm rep once tried to do with me.

It seems that no matter what investment house you use, they want you to "roll over" your investments to their little playpen, and usually there is a reason for this - a monetary reason.   Caveat Emptor.

But there are "no load" funds out there, and these funds make their money for their managers through the expense ratio fees.  And some funds charge a lot, and some charge a little.  Vanguard has a lot of low expense ratio funds.  And of these, index funds usually have the lowest expense ratios.  Why?  Well an index fund, as the name implies, invests in a "market basket" of stocks that correspond to some market index, such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), the S&P 500, the NASDAQ Composite, or the like.

What are these indexes?  Well, that is the funny thing.  When people say "the stock market went up" or "the stock market went down" they are not talking about the entire market but an index instead.  The DJIA, for example, tries to measure the health of the market using a collection ("market basket") of stocks, usually "blue chip" type stocks.  And who is on this list of stocks and who is not, changes over time.  So in essence, the Dow, Jones people are "managing" your fund by determining what stocks are in the DJIA.   Your management company merely buys these stocks, takes a small, small cut as the expense ratio (like 0.15%) and then pays you the rest.

The advantages touted by such funds are many.   These indexes seem to go up over time far more than many "managed" investments.   People say if you just followed "The Dow" you'd make out better than most prognosticators, over time.   And since the expense ratios are tiny, you don't waste a lot of money on overhead costs.   For the mutual fund company, the costs are low, as a computer can basically trade the stocks automatically, as each person buys into the fund or sells out.

For example, Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund, states its goals as follows:
The Fund seeks to track the performance of a benchmark index that measures the investment return of the overall stock market. The Fund employs a "passive management" approach designed to track the performance of the CRSP US Total Market Index.
So in this case, the "index" is the "US Total Market Index" as determined by the Center for Research in Security Prices (CRSP).   This is an index that actually tries to track the overall market.   How does the fund perform?  What are they invested in ?   Well our friends at Morningstar (who I thought made breakfast sausages, but I was mistaken) have some data on this:

Performance  VTSMX More...

YTD 1 Mo 1 Yr
3 Yr  * 5 Yr  * 10 Yr  *

Growth of 10,000 10,970 10,142 12,299
Fund 9.70 1.42 22.99
+/- S&P 500 TR USD -0.42 0.22 0.59
+/- Category 0.40 0.21 1.36
% Rank in Cat 44 32 35
# of Funds in Cat 1,431 1,495 1,358
* Annualized returns.
Data as of 06/28/2017. Currency is displayed in USD.

Top Holdings  VTSMX More...

Weight % Last Price Day Chg % 52-Week Range

Apple Inc 3.00 144.57 -0.88
93.63 - 156.65

Microsoft Corp 2.02 68.98 -1.15
49.80 - 72.89 Inc 1.59 981.77 -0.84
710.10 - 1017.00

Facebook Inc A 1.41 151.34 -1.23
112.97 - 156.50

Johnson & Johnson 1.38 133.13 -0.50
109.32 - 137.00

% Assets in Top 5 Holdings 9.40

What is a little scary to me about index funds is that these indexes tend to include popular and trendy stocks. I would not buy Facebook stock on a dare, but since I am invested in mutual funds, I end up owning some of it, although only 1.41% of the overall fund.

Should you invest in an index fund? Sure, why not. But not as the only thing you invest in. Odds are, at your place of work, if you have a 401(k), one of the choices of funds to invest in, is an index fund. I would not put all my eggs into one fund basket, though, as indexes do go down over time.

Which are the best funds? Well, it depends on who you ask, and when. "Investorplace" has a list of the 7 best funds, but they also have a list of 10. Kiplinger has a list of "only five" funds you need to know about. Even Motley Fool has a list. Odds are, your investment house has some of their own funds. Fidelity and Vanguard have them, I am sure Merrill does as well. The real decision to make is which index to use and who has the lowest expense ratios. It goes without saying that paying a "load" on an index fund is sort of pointless. It is not like they are advising you or trading your shares.

The advantages are many. It sort of puts your investments on auto-pilot. The market goes up, you make money. It goes down, you lose with everyone else (unless your particular index outperforms the overall market). You don't have to worry about traders churning your account down to zero by making crappy trades. It is a pretty brainless form of investing.

But for the most part, it is a risk-taking venture, and unless your index fund is indexed on a government bond index or something, you can lose money. So putting all your eggs into the index-fund basket is, in my opinion, a bad idea.

The Reality Show President

People don't understand Trump because they don't understand Reality Television.

I have noted time and time again that Reality Television isn't real.  And many others have documented on YouTube and elsewhere how it is created.   You may not have a script with lines and direction, but you have suggestions and a rough outline.  You video your actors (and they are actors) for hours and hours and then in editing, using strategic cutaways, mood music, and snippets of conversations, create the story line you want.

The media is losing its collective mind over Trump - that is except Fox News.   Trump promises to save jobs at Carrier - and the jobs go away anyway.   And the number of jobs is pitiful to begin with.  Why is a President worried about 700 jobs at factory?   He promises to create new coal jobs and claims tens of thousands are "put back to work" in coal mines (what a treat!) when in fact, few, if any jobs have been created.   He claims that "clean coal" technology will save coal, in an era of dirt-cheap natural gas.   And in Mississippi, Southern Company decides to toss in the towel with "clean coal" as the technology simply doesn't work and the plant is converted to natural gas. 

But Trump continues with his Pepe-the-Frog shit-eating grin.  He doesn't seem bothered by the fact that the facts contradict almost everything he says or tweets.  Is he delusional?  Crazy?  Or just a reality television star?

Trump may be smarter than he appears, or at least more clever.   He doesn't really care about the 700 votes he'll get from Carrier employees (and likely lose, when their jobs go away).   What the rest of his supporters remember is that he "cared about the little man" and "saved jobs" even if the jobs weren't saved.   These are people getting their "facts" from Inforwars, not the New York Times.   So they believe that big coal is back on track, and Carrier is employing thousands more in Indiana, and Ford is building its new Focus in Detroit. 

With reality television, perception is the key, not reality.

In the Tee-Vee show, The Apprentice, people didn't actually work as an apprentice to Donald J. Trump.  They didn't "create a new hamburger" for Burger King.   If you believe this, you are a dolt.   What they did was get Burger King to sponsor the program, and then take a product that Burger King had already developed (or developed for the show) and then faked up a "contest" to have the "apprentices" appear to invent it.

But the plebes eat this shit up.  They all want to see the end part of the program where, in a conference room to the tune of dramatic music, Trump "fires" someone.   Of course it is all fake.  I mean, Celebrity Apprentice?   You really think Jay-Z is going to work every day at Trump Tower as Donald's butt-boy?

These are the kind of people who vote for Trump - people of low intellect who think reality television is real, or that American businesses are like The Jetsons, where someone gets "fired!" every week.  The reality of American business is that if you fired everyone who lead a project that was unsuccessful, you'd fire your entire staff every year and have a horrendous turnover rate.   Not all projects succeed, that is a given.  Which is why research is so expensive.  But then again, the projects and research on The Apprentice are all fake and the outcomes predetermined anyway.

This is what Trump is selling - The Reality Presidency.   And his fans eat it up.  He tweets outrageous things and says even more outrageous things - and people sit on the edge of their seat to see what outrageous thing he says next.   And the folks who hate Trump watch twice as much as those who like him.

But unlike television, ratings don't count for much in a Presidency.   But again, maybe that is where his real genius lies.   He was only days into his Presidency when he formed his re-election campaign.   Trump knows where the real battle ahead lies, not in legislative or executive branch "accomplishments" but in selling a narrative to his core base that he is "getting things done" and "saving jobs for little people" even as he knows it isn't true.

In a way, it is so beautiful how this is constructed.  He's reduced the Presidency to its essential core - all appearance and no real action.   He is, to some extent, like the Queen of England - cutting the ribbon at a new Tesco, but not really controlling the government.

And that is what most people want out of a President.   Not policy wonkism or carefully thought out foreign policy.  They want a President who speaks out about issues that are important to them.  Who says things that staid politicians shy away from.   Whether or not this accomplishes anything is actually secondary, what people want to hear is that the President is thinking of them.

And maybe there is precedent for this.   Teddy Roosevelt said that the Presidency was a "Bully Pulpit" and he used his position to rail against corruption and the trusts.   And people ate it up, even if his progressive agenda didn't go too far - and his hand-picked successor unraveled much of it.  He was a populist President, and one that many folks thought might be a bit reckless.

Another Roosevelt used a similar technique to his advantage.   Franklin Roosevelt certainly won the hearts and minds of many folks during the Great Depression by talking about their problems, even if he came from the same wealthy patrician family as his distant cousin.   Many "New Deal" programs were later invalidated by the courts, and many historians and economists debate the real effect of things like the "National Recovery Act" in turning around the economy.   The point is - and was - he was a populist.  Herbert Hoover didn't engage the troubled working class and showed that he cared about their plight, but was standoffish and talked about economic policy as if it didn't affect real people.

I am not comparing Trump to the two Roosevelts, of course.  Even Teddy was far, far smarter than the Donald.  But if you read his biography, Teddy was, in part, a "reality" star, traipsing off to Montana in his Abercrombie and Fitch dudewear, trying to remake himself as a cowboy, rather than the fop he was known as.   Teddy Roosevelt built a tennis court behind the White House, but famously remarked that he would never allow a photographer to take his photo holding a tennis racket, but rather holding a gun.   He knew about how to groom a public image.

President Trump isn't nearly as smart, of course.   But he knows how to groom a public image, as indeed, much of his life has been sent selling himself as a "brand" to other people, particularly in recent years, where his vaunted real estate deals amount to little more than branding arrangements.

The media is getting it all wrong, if they think they can debunk Trump with "the truth".  His supporters don't care about the truth, they care about appearances.   And their perception of the truth is shaped not by witty editorials in the Huffington Post, The New York Times, or The Washington Post, which largely go unread by the masses of his supporters.    They are getting their "truth" from shadowy conspiracy theory websites, Alex Jones, and Fox News.   And very likely, in four years, they will vote again for Donald Trump.

And he might win, if the Democrats put up a "progressive" candidate like Elizabeth Warren, who by all accounts is a nice and sincere person, but doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of winning in the States that count.

And given that the Democrats seem to spend an awful lot of time these days cow-towing to Bernie Sanders, who isn't even  a Democrat, I suspect we may see eight years of Donald Trump.   Not because he will win, but because the Democrats will lose.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Shave Clubs - Breaking the Monopoly of Those Bastard Gillette People?

Is there a cheaper way to shave?

One aspect of my life that I haven't been aggressively stingifying is shaving.  I wrote before about the razor scam and how the shaving companies charge so damn much for razors.   Even if you buy the heads at the wholesale club, you are spending a lot of money for what essentially is a chunk of plastic with a piece of metal in it.   A Patented chunk of plastic with a piece of metal in it.

And the razor companies keep up this game by coming out with two, three, four, and now five blades and then obsoleting their older designs, forcing you to upgrade.   Sounds like a software company to me!

But at the same time, the Internet allows us to cross-shop with other products and allow new companies to "disrupt" older ones.

You would think that traditional brick-and-mortar stores would do this, but you'd be wrong.   Producers actually pay retailers for shelf space and also to de-emphasize their store-brand products.   Wal-Mart, for example, used to have great store brands, but has decided to push "brand names" and often make their own great products impossible to find, if they stock them at all.

Similarly the Winn-Dixie brand razors were great - until Winn-Dixie stopped selling them, no doubt under pressure from the razor mafia.  Brick & Mortar has been corrupted by the brand-names.   The big cola companies buy end caps in the grocery store and even stock them.  The "stores" are no longer wholesale buyers and retailer sellers, they are just a platform (like eBay or Amazon) for 3rd parties to hawk their wares.  In a way, they are no different than those booths people rent at the super-flea market or the antique mall.   The retailer just provides space and checkout facilities and takes a cut off the top.

Into this market the online disruptors enter.  And they have entered in the form of "shave clubs" which offer competitive products at cut-rate prices.  And no, don't go looking on Amazon or eBay or whatever - those sites don't really have great prices on razors - just slight reductions from Brick & Mortar retail.

What got us started about thinking about this was a friend gave us some free samples of the "Schick Xtreme3 Sensitive" disposable razor.   When you think about it, disposing of just the head and keeping the plastic handle isn't really changing much in the world, and these razors seemed to work even better than the Gillette Mach 3.  The razor itself is actually flexible.

Schick has been the "we try harder" competitor to Gillette lately, but has tried to fight back with their own online "shave club".  But as you might imagine, they can't undercut their retailers, so the prices on that site are not very good - more than a dollar a razor.  What was interesting was that they sold Schick blades that fit Gillette handles (expect some sort of Patent or Trade Dress battle to ensue).  But the prices were "meh" so we took a pass.

Dollar Shave Club has gotten a lot of press as starting this "shave club" trend, or at least being one of the early parties.   But the site is a bit confusing, and it seems they want to sell expensive five-bladed designs, with their own handle, of course, and accessories, on a subscription basis.  Their website is slow-loading and clunky.  And they seem to be more interested in selling "product" (a shorthand for goo that women and gay men like to slather on their faces) than actual shaving gear.   After ten minutes on the site, I could not find a razor or a price for one.   I was just about to exit the site at that point....

I finally found this page, which lists $9 a month razors, which is a little more than just a buck!  If you scroll down, it does go to a buck a month for a twin-bladed razor.   This reminds me of how GM offered a "low low list price" on the Chevette by offering a model with no back seat.   Twin-bladed razors are not horrible, they just slice up my face into little chunks of meat.  Oh, and "this razor does not ship free" but no word on what shipping charges are.  I suspect this is their "loss leader" product that they use to try to sell accessories and upgrades.

The "monthly" charge is based on four razors per month,  allowing you one per week, which is OK, I guess.   The four-bladed model for $6 (free shipping) seems like it might be a good bargain.  That's about $1.25 per blade.  Is that a good price?   We'll see.

Harry's advertises on the internet a lot, so I thought I would check them out.   A "starter set" with two blades, a handle and shave cream is a whopping $15, with your choice of handle colors.  The more deluxe set is over $30.   The "shave plan" costs a whopping $1.87 per blade, however.  They seem to be pushing a more "upscale" shave, and that's fine and all, but not what we are looking at here.  Obviously, there is little money to be made in "dollar shaves" so they push lotions and fancy razors which have much higher margins.   Can't blame them for trying, but can blame ourselves for buying!

The National Shave Club doesn't have their own brand of razors, but carries the Schick disposables, for about a buck apiece.   They offer to sell you the items outright, or on a monthly subscription basis.  I don't like the subscription idea, as I am not sure I want to "subscribe" to something I haven't tried.  I ordered the Schick razors, 24 for $25 or about a buck apiece, with free shipping.

Sam's Club has the same Schick disposables for less than a dollar each.   So we picked up some there as well.  They also sell the Gillette Mach 3, but it costs nearly $40 for 20 razors or about $2 a head.  National Shave Club is no better - about two bucks a head.  Gillette is just expensive, period.

I think the long and short of it is that we will say goodbye to Gillette on a permanent basis.  Their razors are more expensive than competitors and not necessarily better.  And by more expensive, I mean twice as expensive.   When you pick up a package of razor blades and it costs $40, something isn't right.

Of course, there are even cheaper alternatives.  My hippie brother still uses a double-edged "safety" razor (you know, the old fashioned kind with the thin blades you take out and put in that slot in the back of the medicine cabinet when they get dull).   This makes for macho excitement when you shave.

There is also the Al Qaeda beard approach favored by many hipsters today.  However, even people with beards have to shave - or should.   There is nothing worse than someone trying to "grow a beard" by just letting it all grow out, leaving a tangle of pubic hair coming out of their neck and cheeks.  That's not a beard, that's just forgetting to shave.

I may re-examine the dollar shave club later on, but I am gun-shy about starting another "negative option" subscription service in my life.   If I don't like the service, how can I cancel it?

As a reader notes, many "negative option" companies are finding ways to keep charging your card even after the expiration date on your card passes.   Actually, it isn't hard, just enter a new year in that field, odds are, it will be from 1-5 years from the last expiry date.  And apparently there is even a service for negative option subscription people to use to obtain new expiration dates when their subscriber's cards fail to process.

No, I am not sure I want to get back into negative option again!


A reader writes:

I made the switch to a safety razor about 2 years ago. 
From Amazon:
100 double sided “Feather” blades:  $27.75
Parker 99R razor:  $31 (comes with 5 blades)

And, to get in the spirit and have a much better shaving experience than the store shelf shaving creams:

Taylor of Old Bond Street Sandalwood Shaving Cream:  $16.99, or with bowl and brush $34.93

All that sounds fine, and I briefly used a safety razor for a while (I believe it was a gift from said hippie brother, in fact).   But my spouse likes the triple edge, so sometimes we have to make concessions.  I'm just happy to be saving 50% over Gillette.

And the cost of accessories  - $31 for a razor (they have generics for $9 on Amazon) and the cost of shaving cream.... I buy mine at the dollar store!  (guess the price).   You might be getting a more enjoyable shave, but I think I have you beat on price.

The best shave I ever had was at an old Italian barber shop in Bristol, Connecticut back in the 1970's.  Old Italian Barbers are a dying breed, if in fact they are all not dead by now.  He put hot lather on your face and shaved you with a straight razor which he sharpened on a strop.   He'd put the thing on your neck and say, "hold still now" and I'd think, "You're damn straight, you've got a knife to my neck that could cut through my esophagus with a flick of the wrist!"

You got a complete haircut and shave at a place like that.  They cut your nose hairs and ear hairs, too.  It was an experience that probably has been lost to time.  You could hear the theme from The Godfather playing in your head the whole time.  And the other customers all looked like, "They knew a guy..." if you know what I mean.

But if you want to go "old school" and save money, then go with the straight-razor and strop.  The bonus was, back then, you could beat your kids with the strop (and did).  Today, a guy gets thrown in jail for slapping his uppity daughter.

Chuck that sissy "safety razor shit" and get a really manly straight razor.   The nice thing is, it doubles as a weapon.  And it's only sixteen bucks!

You go first.  I'm sticking with my plastic.