Sunday, April 29, 2018

Tech Market Saturation

Apple sales are down because the smartphone market is saturated.  So is the computer market.

I am typing this missive on an old Gateway computer that is at least a decade old, perhaps 13 years old.   I bought it when we bought the lake house in New York back in 2005.   Since then, I bought another Gateway (even nicer) for the house here in Georgia.  That one died (bad motherboard) two years ago.  I took the hard drives and memory out of it and put them into this unit.   Over the years, I have replaced two hard drives, a bad memory stick, and upgraded the computer to Windows 7 ultimate.  It is probably about ready to die, the monitor has a yellow line on one side of the screen that won't go away.

We have two hoary old Toshiba laptops.  I paid $300 for one of them, new, and maybe $100 for the other used.  I have upgraded the hard drives and memory on those as well.  And yes, they are both running Windows 7 ultimate now.   It is a reliable platform.

Our smart phones are old Samsung Galaxy S4's that we bought on eBay for $99 each.   All of this equipment does what I want it to do.  The smart phones run all the apps I want or need.   The computer surfs the Internet and types letters.   I am not sure I want to "upgrade" to a Windows 10 computer and pay a monthly subscription fee to Microsoft in order to use MS-WORD, when I bought and paid for that program well over a decade ago.

We have reached a point of technological stasis in this country.   There is no compelling need to go out and buy new tech - at least not all at once.   There is only the gradual replacement sales of products lost, stolen, broken, or merely worn out.   And that doesn't promise to be nearly as profitable as the release of a new generation of iPhones.

It was only a few years ago that less than half the population had a smart phone.   I held out as long as possible, knowing that being an "early adapter" would just result in my wasting money on an instantly obsolete first generation machine.   I have an Apple iPhone 4 that my brother-in-law gave me for "emergency use" - it really has no other.  It won't even store music!   It is an quaint piece of antique technology that has literally no use whatsoever.   But his next generation iPhone, which is laughably out of date with the "in" crowd, does do all the things he wants it to do - he sees no reason to upgrade to an iPhone  X or whatever they are calling it these days.

In the early days, Apple minted money on smart phones - as did other makers.   No one had one, so there was a market of 330 million people to sell to in the United States.   And people who bought the early ones wanted to upgrade, not only to be "with it" with their peers, but because, as I noted, those early units became laughably outdated very quickly.

But now the technology has matured.  There are few, if any, new features that a newer phone has that one of two, three, or even four generations previous doesn't have.  Even my Galaxy has near-field capabilities.   Fingerprint?  Facial ID?   Really not necessary in my life.   Neat gimmicks, and certainly something that a future phone I buy (when I drop this one in the toilet or something) will have.   But not a "must have" feature that forces me to drop what I already own and rush out to buy.

When the PC first came out, sales were slow at first, and then took off, as an entire nation didn't have PCs.  And people rushed out to buy them - paying thousands for them.   But over time, the prices dropped down, sales leveled off, and they became a commodity item.  Once-hot computer companies went bankrupt - it nearly happened to Apple, too!   Today, a computer can be had for as little as a few hundred dollars, and nobody is buying them, other than to replace machines that break.  And the same is true for smart phones.

The fact that people are gushing about trivial things such as whether a phone has a "notch" or not, tells you that the technology has matured.   There really is nothing else to talk about with smart phones, so the marketers gin-up these "controversies" (do you really think this sort of thing occurred organically?) about notches and trivial design changes.   Malibu Stacy has a new hat!   The smart phone market has matured and these are commodity items now.  They are about as exciting to buy as a new toaster oven. And they should be about as expensive.   $1000 smart phones just don't make any sense in an era of commodity electronics.

Malibu Stacy has a new hat.  But it really is just the same old Malibu Stacy - with a new hat.

So Apple's market for iPhones goes from 330 million people who don't have one, to a replacement market of maybe 1/10th that amount - perhaps fewer.   And with a staggering price tag of $1000, many people are probably thinking what I am - that the current machine they are using works perfectly well, thank you.   Besides, wait a year or so, and the same phone is for sale on eBay for half the price, if not less, as folks turn those in for even newer phones.

Oh sure, Apple has tried to prime the pump by forcing "updates" onto older phones that basically turn them into bricks.  The problem with this model of marketing is that it doesn't turn customers into return customers, it pisses them off.  I am sure more than one "brick" owner has switched to an android phone as the result of this tactic - and found the phone to be cheaper, easier to use, and more attractive as well.   Apple phones are ugly - or at least their screen displays are.  The icons make my eyes hurt!

The staggering price tag of tech - particularly Apple tech - makes people pause.   My brother-in-law bought a macbook and an Apple iPad - staying within the Apple ecosystem, except for his old Dell laptop.   Guess which is his favorite tool?   The only reason he went with iPad was that he flies, and the airmaps and moving map displays for airplanes work well on the iPad, but (he claims) don't work as well on brand X.   But his frustration with the balkiness of the Mac is compounded by the fact he spend nearly two grand on it.   You can buy a Windows laptop for almost 1/10th that amount, and at least have the satisfaction of getting a bargain on it, even if it isn't as stylish.

So it is no surprise that Apple is having trouble selling its new iPhones.  Well, not trouble, exactly, but the glory days of people waiting overnight in sleeping bags at the Apple store to buy the latest-and-greatest iPhone are waning.   The days of selling out of inventory overnight are long gone - at least for now.

So what does this all mean?   Well, the idea that tech companies may be leveling out isn't that radical.   Tech stocks (and today, tech includes tech-that-is-not-tech like delivering pizzas or driving a cab - commodity businesses as well) are tanking lately, well, at least losing some value.   And this is not unexpected.  There is no new "must have" piece of electronics that folks need to rush out and buy.  The smart phone was the last of such devices - it was the computer for people who never were able to figure out computers, just as Facebook was the Internet for people who never figured out the Internet.

But what is the new device, or software or app or website that people "must have" these days?   I am sure there may eventually be one, but I am not seeing it on the near horizon.   In the meantime, we will see incremental changes, incremental improvements, and incremental profits.

The tech party isn't over, by a long shot.  But it has appeared to hit "pause" at least for the time being.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Use 'em Up!

Bottled beer is going to make a big comeback with the price of aluminum going through the roof.  About time, too!

Living here on retirement island, as well as going through the estates of four deceased relatives, you learn a lot about the "end game" of life - and it is a messy one.   We cleaned out Mark's stepmother's house, and she had a mountain of batteries and aluminum foil and ziplock bags.   We took them - and within a year used them all up.  Why she was hoarding these, I do not know.  We all do it, too - hoard things.  It is a bad habit and hard to break - it goes back to our very DNA and survival instincts.  Keeping things for hard times kept cavemen alive.  Today, it does the opposite - it drags us down.  And yes, this goes double or triple for "end times" people who are hoarding canned goods for the apocalypse.

I mentioned before in this blog about gift cards - and how you should treat them like hot potatoes.  Use them as soon as possible.   Cash them in and get rid of them.  They are like herpes - you don't want it!   To begin with, they are not cash, and they depreciate in value by the rate of inflation for every day you keep them.  And if you lose the card or forget about it - which happens to a staggering percentage of these cards (which is why merchants love them!) you are just pissing money away.  And when the company who backs these goes bankrupt, they are worthless.  Do you have a "Toys 'R Us" gift card floating around in a "desk drawer somewhere"?  If so - spend it, before it is too late!  And it may be too late already.

It is like "Plenti" points at Winn-Dixie.  The chain was bought by Bi-Lo and is going bankrupt - again.  Another victim of the buyout-and-leverage mentality that swept America a few years back and is coming unwound now.   Spend those points now, or they will be gone forever!  Or airline miles - the most worthless "reward" there is.  They expire if you don't use them, so if you get some, use it for an upgrade or a free stay at the "Admiral's Club" or whatever.  The idea of "saving" them for a trip to Hawaii is nonsense - even frequent fliers have trouble doing that!

Use it or lose it.   A neighbor asked me to help clean out their house before they moved.  In a box they handed me were several bottles of wine and three of champagne.   One was a Korbel (not really champagne) and another Great Western (ditto).  But the third was a 1975 bottle of Dom Perignon.  Whoo-whee!  Hit the jackpot!

Not really.  The bottles had been stored upright, the corks dried out and all were flat and stale.   What could have been a good bottle of champagne (the Dom, anyway) was reduced to rubble.   Why bother buying it in the first place?

Now we come full circle to this blog.   There is little to be gained by "saving" things, whether they are old bottles of booze, or flashlight batteries, or zip-lock bags.   Use it or lose it.  Half-empty bottles of chemicals are not an asset, but a liability.  When cleaning out my Dad's garage, we found bags of fertilizer that were 1/4 full.  What was he saving them for?   What scenario would result in him saying, "Gee, I wished I saved that  1/4 bag of fertilizer, I could really use that right now!"  Just dump it on the plants and throw the bag away and if you need more fertilizer in the future, they sell it at the store.

The store - the place that coverts money into things.   I mentioned before the miracle of money - how it converts things into ideas and vice-versa, just like Scotty's transporter beam on Star Trek.   You can give someone money and they give you goods.  And when you are done with those goods, you can give them to someone and they will give you money in return.

For example, in New York, we bought a Wagner power roller, which is a consumer-grade painting device that feeds paint to a roller.  I wasn't much impressed by it - I thought it gave too much paint to the roller, even on the lowest setting.  But Mark liked it - you don't have to keep dipping into a tray.  And if you are painting room after room - as we were - it works out well.   We bought it for maybe $65 and sold it at a garage sale for $25.   Yesterday, I bought one at a garage sale for $25 - magically converting matter into an idea and then back again into matter - without having to store an aging power-roller (which would have died of old age) in a box "somewhere" on the premise that a decade later, we might need to paint.   And a decade later, we do need to paint, as a house paint job (inside or out) needs to be updated every 10-15 years, just as the appliances, air conditioner, hot water heater, and roof need refreshing.  Owning a home - so much fun!

In the meantime, over a decade, that $25 in my bank account did better than the power roller would have on the shelf, with seals drying out and parts getting lost and spiders building nests.   Use it or lose it.  Hanging on to things on the premise that you might need it someday is nonsense.

But getting back to champagne, you should drink it regularly, or at least one of its lesser cousins, Prosecco or Cava.   Heck, at $6 a bottle, it is cheaper than beer.   And I know what some folks will say, "I prefer beer!" which is fine, but all Cava or champagne is, is beer made with grapes.   Same idea, different format.

The sad thing is, people think that sparkling wine (the generic term) is suitable for weddings, new year's eve, and launching ships.   So they buy bottles (as our neighbor did) and hoard them for "special occasions".   But the special occasions never occur - they fall asleep before midnight on December 31st, and no other occasion seems worthy of that bottle of Korbel.

By the time they do open it, it has gone bad, perpetuating their opinion that "they really didn't like champagne" in the first place.   Hey, if all you've ever had is a cheap bottle of "California Champagne" that has aged above your refrigerator for several years, I wouldn't blame you!   There are some things that need to be consumed, not saved.  And for us plebes, those some things are the every things we touch in life.  Very few of us have the time and space to set up a "cellar" in our homes and curate a collection of fine wines.   Just drink it!  It's table wine - and that's just fine.

The image above is of a bottle of Miller Beer.  Miller has largely abandoned its main brand, which I used to shoplift in massive quantities when I was a teenager.   Kids these days - not drinking until college and not getting laid until they are 30.   What's up with that?  I owned a car at 14.  I was being served in bars at 13.  We were expected to grow up faster back then.   But then again, we weren't such a nervous and cautious nation in those days.  Back then, "shit happens" - today it's "better call Saul!"

I saw a six-pack of the old long-neck Miller in the store the other day and bought it, as a friend of mine likes it.  It's isn't bad.  I had a Swedish client who liked it.  He said, "When I come to America, I want to have those big glasses of your lager beer and those huge onion rings!  We don't have those in Sweden!"

 So I took him to The Wharf in Old Town, which was a tourist-trap kind of place that served 20-ounce servings of Miller High Life in frosted frozen chalices, and baskets of hand-cut thick fonion rings, served at 1000 degrees Fahrenheit.  He was in heaven.  And come to think about it, it sounds pretty good right now - although it was hardly health food. 

Back in the day, the glass bottle makers ran ads on television saying, "the good taste of beer, it comes in a bottle!"  They also had a print campaign as well:

Sadly, it seems the idea fell by the wayside, a victim of the cheap price of aluminum, which is also lighter and easier to dispose of and also worth more as recycled material.  And cans do filter out 100% of ultraviolet light, which can turn beer skunky.  But beer in aluminum cans tastes like shit - and I don't care how many cancer-causing chemicals they coat the aluminum with.  Glass is better.  And it is sad that even the "microbrews" are selling beer in cans now, instead of bottles.

I thought it was interesting that Miller changed the slogan on their bottles, from "The Champagne of Bottled Beers!" to "The Champagne of Beers!" with the Miller lady (in her weird witch's outfit) holding a can of Miller, instead of a glass, as in the old labels.

But maybe that is about to change.   Maybe if the price of aluminum goes through the roof, we will see a return to the age of bottled beers.

But if that happens, please don't hoard them!  Use it or lose it!   Never hoard anything, particularly consumables.   It just doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Conundrum of Taking a Knee

When you make a symbolic protest, is it for life, or can you stop after a while?

The Philadelphia Eagles made the news recently not just for winning the Superbowl, but for equivocating on an invitation from the White House to celebrate that victory.  Traditionally, after a major sports victory, many teams are invited to visit the president at the White House for a congratulatory ceremony.

However in recent years, this has generated a lot of controversy, particularly since the election of President Trump.  Of course, this politicization of sports started many months ago with many players "taking a knee" during the national anthem to show solidarity with the black lives matter movement.

Many people on the left thought this was a good thing - sports celebrities making statement to draw attention to the plight of minorities in their interactions with the police.  Many on the right felt it was disrespectful to the country and the flag.  And of course those on the left and right will never see eye-to-eye.

Myself, I feel sorry for the players because of the conundrum this places them in.  Suppose you're an NFL player and you decide not to take a knee.  And supposed maybe you're even a black NFL player and decide not to take a knee.  You'll get a lot of flack from your fellow players and people on the left for not showing solidarity with BLM.

So, suppose you do "take a knee" - where does it end?  Do you do this for just one game or for every game of the season, and do you do this in perpetuity?  Does this become a new tradition in America - that for years in the future maybe decades, kneeling before the national anthem will be a traditional way of observing that event, but only for black players?  There has to be an endgame to this - and I think many of the players probably would like to see one, but that now find themselves backed into a corner.  If they stop taking a knee, that itself will be news and they will be criticized by people on the left for no longer showing solidarity.

It's one of those damned if you do, damned if you don't kind of things.  There's been a lot of talk of the NFL banning players from taking a knee during opening ceremonies of a game.  I wonder if some of the players actually would look forward to that, as it would give them an excuse to discontinue the practice without appearing to offend anybody on either the left or the right.

The Philadelphia Eagles players face the same conundrum with his White House invitation. If they refuse the invitation or indeed they even waffle on it as they have - they will piss off the right-winger, who claim they are disrespecting Donald Trump, the Presidency, America, and Mom-and-Apple-Pie. If they go to the White House, some will argue that this is an endorsement of President Trump and his policies.  And of course, you can't really force players to attend such an event - what happens if a large majority of them simply refused to go?

Again, it's a damned if you do, damned if you don't kind of thing. There really is no easy way out of this and you feel sorry for everyone involved because they've backed themselves - or more correctly painted themselves - into a corner and there really is no way out of this without losing face for everyone involved.

I suppose we could abolish White House invitations for sports heroes - probably something that was the case not too long ago. But of course, I'm sure that Donald Trump made the invitation knowing that it would generate controversy and give him something to tweet about if the players refuse to attend or even, as his case here, the team even equivocates in the matter.  It seems no matter what, the Donald wins this one.  He can play the wounded victim, a favorite role of his, if they don't attend, or if even one player bails on it - even if that player was in the hospital.

In a way it reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry Seinfeld throws away birthday card. He gets a birthday card from a friend and reads it and keeps it for a day or two and then throws it in the trash. The friend then sees the birthday card in the trash and gets upset. Jerry asks whether there is a particular waiting period for this sort of thing.  You're supposed to keep birthday cards for a certain period before you can throw them in the trash.  Who decides how long you have to keep these things? There really are no written rules.

It also reminds me of the post 9/11 era, where many people put up patriotic displays including American flags hanging from bridges and whatnot.  Months or years later, they are in tatters and the DPW takes them down.   It is similar to the displays created after tragic shootings or natural disasters or other events, where people stack flowers and cards and teddy bears in makeshift memorials with candles and whatnot.  It is very moving and touching, but what is the rule on this before somebody comes along with a snow shovel and scoops all up and puts it in the dumpster?  Because there has to be rule, right?  Who gets to make the rule?

Personally, whatever the Philadelphia Eagles do as a team or as individual players, I won't sit in judgment of them.  I don't think they're being anti-American or anti-Trump for taking a knee or refusing to go to the White House.  I don't think that standing up for the national anthem means they're against the BLM or that attending the White House means they endorsed Trump for president. It was just a symbolic gesture that has gotten totally out of hand.  It's not the players of the teams that are to blame, it's the prognosticators and pundits on both the left and right who decided to politicize this issue.  If left alone, the whole thing would probably blown over in a week or so.  (But then what would ESPN talk about?   And that is all ESPN does - talk.  It is a talk show channel these days.)

But then again, the same could be said for the "War on Christmas."  It's a tempest in a teapot that would have blown over in a week if left alone.  But there are people who are interested in keeping these issues alive because they generate outrage.  And outrage is probably the largest product America produces today.   Not a very useful product, but we are quite efficient at making it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Ethical Car Salesman

Could you sell cars ethically?  Not unless your customers let you!

I had a dream last night that I went to work for the local Japanese car dealer as a car salesman.  I was going to sell cars ethically, I thought, and not corral people into shitty deals - paying too much for the car and too much for financing.   Or so I thought.

A young couple came in to look for a new car.  He was a blue collar worker and she worked part-time at WalMart and was a homemaker.  They had just moved to a new double-wide outside of town. They had an old clapped-out sedan, and wanted something new.  She had her eye on a new midsized SUV, he wanted a monster 4x4 truck.  And we had those, all shiny and new lined up out front.  But out back, we had an acre of sedans, all marked-down and on sale, with generous factory rebates.  No one wants sedans today, but SUVs and trucks sell themselves.

I showed them a fully loaded midsized sedan with all the bells and whistles.  And they could have it for about $25,000 with the rebates and whatnot.   They liked it, but were not too excited.   When I showed the wife one of the midsized SUVs out front, her eyes lit up.  "All the other Moms in the trailer park have SUVs!  I want one too!"   The husband wasn't too sure.   "That's a fine car for her, but I would not be caught dead in it - it's a ladies' car!" he said.  It wasn't a bad car, but it was only mildly optioned and cost about $35,000 with no rebates.  It it only got mediocre gas mileage.

The husband went nuts when I showed him one of our monster 4x4 pickups out front.  "Wait until the guys at work see this!" he crowed.  It was pretty stripped and started at $45,000 - again, no rebates.  They decided they had to have this monster truck.  I pointed out that it got less than half the gas mileage of the sedan, and the monthly payments would be twice as much.   But they would hear none of it.  It was new truck, or walk.

So I ran their credit - it was a shambles.   In addition to a lot of late payments, they had two accounts sent to collection.  One was for a utility bill, and the other for a cable TV bill.   "Oh, that's when we moved," the husband said, "I forgot to call and cancel the service, and those dicks at the cable company just wouldn't let it go!" 

I gave them the bad news.  With their credit rating in the low 600's, we could only offer them "subprime" rates, which would be rather steep - on the order of 15% or more.   The pickup truck would cost about $1000 a month in payments for at least six years.   I mentioned that if they could call the cable company and the utility company and pay off those bills (which were rather trivial) and ask them to remove the negative data from their credit report, I could get them a much better rate - saving at least $100 a month in interest, maybe more.  It would take a month or two to get the bad data off their report, however.

But they ignored this suggestion.  They wanted that truck tonight, or they were going across the street to the other Japanese car dealer.   So I put together the deal and presented it to my manager.  We couldn't give them but $500 in trade for their clapped-out junker, and that was being generous (we padded the purchase price by $500 to cover the fact it would be sent to auction and yield little, if anything).  My boss had seen this sort of deal many times before.  And he was able to get the loan approved, thanks to all the subprime lenders out there competing for this business these days - forgetting all about the massive defaults in subprime mortgage lending of just a decade ago.

So I gave them the "good" news - they were approved for the loan.  I filled out the paperwork and took them to the "closing" room.  Our closer is pretty good.  Or bad, depending on your point of view.   He sold them an extended warranty, undercoating, paint protector, and even the floor mats that already came with the truck.   When he got done, he had added nearly $8000 to the purchase price.   They signed anyway.  Heck, it was only a hundred or so more a month, right?

We put temp tags on the truck and pushed their junker into the back lot.  They drove off into the night, happy as clams, not having had to make any sort of payment - yet - on the vehicle.   But I knew how it would play out.  They would not be able to make the massive payments on this rig - much less the insurance payments.  And in a few months, the repo man would come take it away, and their credit rating would really be ruined now.  They likely would end up in bankruptcy court.  They would be forced to fish even further down the food chain for their next car - and be forced to do so for many years to come. 

I tried to warn them.  I tried to steer them to the path of the straight and narrow - to buy something they could afford, at a decent price, with decent financing terms, that got decent mileage.  But like lemmings, they ran right off the cliff, because they wanted - nay, felt they deserved - what everyone else had, a monster gas-guzzler status symbol that cost nearly as much as their home, perhaps more.

I woke up from this dream and realized that you could be the most ethical businessperson these days, and it wouldn't really make a difference.  We all like to rag on the car dealer, the mattress store, the sleazy personal injury lawyer, or the rip-off cable company.  But the reality is, these folks merely cater to our whims, and often our whims are the lowest common denominator.  Since enough people seek out and accept shitty deals, these sellers need not offer better ones.  And even if you offered better deals, many people would simply refuse to take them.   And history - particularly recent history - illustrates this.

We do have choices in life, and often what we blame on other people is really the result of our own poor choices.  Poor in every sense of the word - bad choices that affect our finances in a negative way, made by people who don't have two nickels to rub together. Blaming the car salesman for putting you in a bad car deal (or worse yet, a lease) is just externalizing.  They offered you a deal you accepted.  You could have left your pen at home.   And the same is true for Cable TV - you could just decide, as many are now doing, to just not have it.   We have been cable-free for more than a decade now, and let me tell you, it is not only tolerable, but better than having cable.   Odd, but not consuming is oftentimes better than consuming.

I am not sure what the point of this was, but it was a weird dream, and I think I learned something from it.  The next time I see a car salesman, maybe I will take a little more pity on him.

Monday, April 23, 2018

How Externalization and Victim Politics Will Cost the Democrats

Is it a good idea to wait for a politician to solve your personal problems?  You'll be in for a long wait!

On National People's Radio this morning, one of our comrade announcers was interviewing someone (no doubt hawking some book or something) and he said something that made me puke up my morning tea:
"People in places like Flint, Michigan and Gary, Indiana have been forgotten. The politicians have forgotten about these people and simply don't care about them!"
It is not an exact quote (I cannot find the article on the NPR website, or Sputnik, or on Russia Today).  But it was the gist of it.

And it startled me that in today's world, people still believe it is the job of the Federal Government to "rescue" impoverished places, instead of just encouraging people to move to less impoverished places.   When the soil gave out (early on) in the Appalachian mountains, the smarter settlers picked  up their stakes and moved Westward.  They didn't sit around and mope and wonder when the government was going to come bail out their depleted farms - as if farming rocks was some sort of inalienable right.   The best thing for them - and the country - would be to not farm places where the soil is thin.

Similarly, propping up rust-belt towns with decaying factories and decaying populations - and often with corrupt local governments - isn't a good idea for the residents or the country.   And often it is local politicians who want these "bailouts" so they don't have to confront hard truths about their city, town, or county, and also confront the rampant corruption that was what drove industry away from such locales in the first place.

The choice of Flint, Michigan for the author's whiny quote was an obvious one.   Flint has been the whipping-boy for the left since Michael Moore made the move Roger and Me back in 1989.   Yes, 1989 - which illustrates how entrenched these problems with rustbelt towns are, and how hard they are to solve.

And before you send flames, I lived in Flint Michigan in the 1970's, so please, don't bullshit me about that town.   It was a shithole back then.  I know the dirt about it - and the best thing Flint could buy these days is a really large bulldozer.   Sometimes just starting over is the best option.   Places like Flint are never going to turn into some sort of Shangri-La, no matter how much government money you throw at them.  Flint's "water crises" was a self-inflicted wound, yet somehow the Federal Government is the bad guy here, for not handing out free water in perpetuity.

But Gary, Indiana?  Odd choice - because in nearby Elkhart, Indiana, jobs are a-plenty in the booming RV business.   You don't have to move far to find a job in that "rustbelt" area.   But you do have to move - or face a seriously long commute.   Alas, the poor being poor, choose the latter - driving two hours each way for an eight-hour job.   But that's why they're poor.

Moving on to better feeding grounds is just an obvious choice.   Why stick around in an area where there are limited opportunities?  Worse yet, why stick around in such an area and wait for a politician to fix things?  Because it ain't gonna happen - probably not in your lifetime.   Move on and move up.  Our ancestors did it (how do you think they ended up here?  Even the Indians migrated from Asia!).  Our parents did it.  I did it.

But that doesn't fit the liberal democratic world-view.  In their view, we are all victims, and the government should step in and "fix" things.   But as they say in the 12-step programs, you have to hit rock bottom before you can recover.  And places like Flint, Michigan need to hit rock-bottom and then build themselves back up.  Once land becomes cheap enough and people become willing to work (as opposed to being on forms of welfare) the area will pick up.  Companies will move there because the cost of land and facilities are cheap, and because there is a ready-and-willing workforce of people who can work for cheap because the cost of living is low.

And that right there is why places like Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, and the Carolinas are attracting new modern factories, and why places like New York, Michigan, Connecticut, and other "rust belt" States are seeing an exodus.   High taxes and an attitude of "let's milk the local factory for all it's worth" have driven away businesses.   Since people pay so much to live there (property taxes alone are murder, but State income and sales taxes are not far behind!) they cannot work for cheap.  And of course, corruption in local politics means that no only will you not get a tax break for moving your factory there, you will likely have to pay bribes - either to the local politicians or to the local mafia/union for "labor peace".

But the problem is, since so many people believe government intervention is the answer, they vote for higher taxes and higher welfare benefits.   As a result, you end up with places like Oswego, New York, where property taxes are skyrocketing because so many people are on welfare.   Pretty soon, people stop working and go on the dole, simply because it is easier.

But it is a funny thing, even the people who ostensibly "benefit" from social welfare programs know deep down that these programs are a dead-end.   They are given a pittance but never given the chance to get ahead.  They don't want handouts, they want honest government, lower taxes, and the chance to earn a living from their labor.

And that is what Trump tapped into, in places like Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Wisconsin.   The Left may paint the red-hatted Trumpeters as closet (or not-so-closet) racists and xenophobes - and indeed, many are.   But it was Trump's message about getting the rust-belt working again that resonated with those voters.

And in spite of Trump's best efforts to wreck the economy, folks are going back to work in many of these rust-belt towns - reinforcing the message that Trump's ideas are "working".  The boom in RV sales (to be followed shortly by a bust - it is a cyclical business) is keeping the lights on, day and night, in Elkhart and other locales.  To Trump supporters working there, the President's policies are clearly working (in their minds) and are a stark contrast to the crash and slow growth that occurred during Obama's tenure.

Again, appearances trump reality.  No pun intended. You are right - Obama didn't cause the recession, it happened before his election.  But tell that to a guy in a red MAGA hat.   He simply will choose not to believe it.   "Alternative facts" are all the rage right now.  Again, pun not intended.

So here we are, months away from mid-term elections. A sea change has occurred in American electoral politics - the idea of big government giving out handouts simply isn't resonating with voters.  And what are the Democrats selling?  More of the same-old, same-old, which is well past it's "sell by" date -  Look to the government for answers, wait in line for your handout.

One reason I was forced into early retirement was because of these policies.  Obamacare has subsidized my health insurance to the tune of $16,000  $20,000  $24,000 per year - far more than the few hundred a month I was paying on my pre-Obamacare policy.  And each year, the cost of these plans has skyrocketed to the point where I simply could not afford them, if I had to pay for them out of my own pocket.

If I went back to work, and made more than $69,000 or thereabouts, I would have to cough up twenty-four grand to pay for Obamacare.  I did the math on this and realized that not only was it cheaper to just retire early (and avoid the risk and liability of working - oh, and also all that work) but that I really didn't have a choice.  It was go on the dole, or pay through the nose.  Unless I could work full-time at some big mega-firm and make $250,000 a year, it made no sense to work.

I'm no idiot.  When the government starts handing out free money, I will get in line like everyone else, with a wheelbarrow.   But I realize too, that such a system is not sustainable in the long-run, nor is it an optimal outcome for the individual or the State.

And that is the same conundrum, on a smaller scale, that affects the poor in many rust-belt States - or even in the Sun Belt.   When companies were forced to raise the minimum wage, many employees asked for reductions in hours, so they would not lose their food stamp allotment (based on annual income, just like Obamacare subsidies) and other government handouts.   If you are working part-time as a single parent, you might have a plethora of subsidies, from ADC, to SNAP, to Section-8 or other subsidized housing, to daycare subsidies, and the like.   Start making more money and you lose that.

It is simple math, but anyone can do it.  And it never ceases to amaze me how supposedly "uneducated" people figure this stuff out.   Word gets around on how to game the system, or at least optimize your outcomes.   And of course, the folks running these agencies are all-too-happy to let you know how you can collect - it's their job to hand out money.

But is also seems that many of the people who are nominal beneficiaries of these systems are realizing that handouts and bailouts are not necessarily the answer.   Confronting hard truths is a better choice.   Self-actualization beats victim behavior.   Externalizing never solves your personal problems.

Someone please tell that to the Democrats, before they lose even more elections!

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Failures of Barack Obama

Is it too soon for history to judge the last President?

Barack Obama is retired now, for the most part, and the legacy of his eight years as President is becoming a little clearer with each passing day.   I think it will be remembered as a mixed legacy.  He tried to do the right thing, he thought, but often the end results were less than optimal.  Of course, it didn't help that for six of the eight years he had in office, he had an intransigent GOP-dominated Congress thwarting his every move - and even court nominees.

I think Obama made a lot of blatant mistakes, however - mostly trying to appeal to an ideology rather than being pragmatic and compromising.   "Politics is the art of the possible" Otto von Bismark once said (hmmm....).   And often Obama settled for what he thought was right, rather than what could have gotten done.

Anyway, here is a short list, in no particular order, of things I think Obama got wrong:

1.  Clock Boy: You may not remember this, but back in 2015, a young Muslim boy brought a disassembled alarm clock to school in a pencil case.   I happen to own a similar pencil case and similar alarm clock and readily recognized the components.  Others have similarly reconstructed his "clock" as well.   He claimed to have "made" it, but in fact, he simply disassembled a standard large-display alarm clock and put the components in a pencil box, and brought it to school.  The kid was hardly a genius.

Nevertheless, the media seized upon this incident.   He was asked to put the clock away, and after the alarm went off, a teacher became alarmed (sorry about the pun) and sent him to the principal, perhaps thinking it was some sort of bomb.   The media cried "racism" and "Islamophobia" and the whole thing got blown (again, sorry) out of proportion.

Ordinarily, this should have been a local matter, but Obama thought he had better step in and fix things, inviting the boy and his family to the White House and inspecting the supposed "invention" and calling it neat.   The family threatened to move overseas, and briefly did - only to realize that "freedom" in many Arab countries is somewhat illusory.

Why was this a mistake on Obama's part?  It illustrates his instinct to inject himself - and the presidency - into local and trivial matters, in order to make points with people.   If he had stepped back and thought about it, he would have realized that this kid did not "invent" anything, any more than I did when I disassembled my Mother's vacuum cleaner when I was six years old.   Taking things apart and stuffing them in a pencil case is not creating.   But Obama would later be famous for being quoted (out of context) "You didn't create that!" - which was a bit of irony.

Obama getting involved in this local issue is almost as embarrassing as Trump weighing in on every event of the day (as reported by Fox 'n Friends) with his poorly-worded tweets.   In a word, unpresidential.

2.  The Beer Summit:  Once again, Obama injected himself and the presidency into what should have been a local matter.   A black man was arrested by the Police in murky circumstances.  A black professor was trying to break in to his own home, as he lost the key or something.   Neighbors called the police (as you would hope they would do, seeing two people busting down the door on your home) and the professor was arrested.  When the dust settled and it turned out he owned the house, of course he was let go.  But the media ran with it and cried "racism" because that sells clicks and eyeballs, of course.

It would have blown over, but Obama decided that this was a presidential matter and invited both the arresting officer and the professor to the White House for a "beer summit" to patch things up.   This appalled me as much as the "clock boy" incident.  A president should be presidential, and not inject himself into every local issue that makes headlines on Yahoo or CNN.

I am not sure the "beer summit" solved anything, either.  It just made Obama look foolish and reactionary.

3.  Obamacare:   Obamacare is the reason I retired early.   I had two choices to make.  I could keep working, but make sure my income was below $69,900 a year, so I would not lose my Obamacare subsidy.  If I went a dollar over this amount, I would have to pay a whopping $24,000 in premiums.

Or.... I could retire and get free health care - courtesy of Uncle Sugar and your tax dollars.   If I kept working, making, say $50,000 a year, the ratio of my income to expenses would be about 1:1 - and I would have lost half my subsidy.   It made more sense to simply stop working.

And it worked.  In the past, my Federal income tax bill was usually in the low five figures.  Today, it is about $575 a year.   Thanks Obama!

Oh, but wait, someone has to pay for this and that someone is you.  Moreover, the cost of Obamacare keeps rising exponentially.   Originally, it was about $12,000 a year - still a staggering amount and nearly double what I was paying before.  But every year, it has gone up by healthy double-digit percentages.   Today, without the subsidy, I simply could not afford health insurance.    And I am hardly poor - but need to make myself look poor to afford health insurance.

It is a crazy game.  Someone is making an awful lot of money in this deal, but no one seems concerned about this.  Is the the doctors?  The hospitals?  The pharmaceutical companies? The insurance companies?  Who?  All are crying poverty, but my doctor has a new Porsche, and the hospital keeps adding new wings.   All that money is going somewhere -  to the medical-industrial complex.   We have created a monster, fueled by cash.  Obamacare tells the medical industry, "just send us the bill" and so they do.

The problem is, the system cannot be sustained for long.   Eventually, the GOP will dismantle it, piece by piece.   I may have to go back to work, or I may be on Medicare by then.   Or maybe I will be on WalMart Care when they take over.  Who knows?

Obamacare was a rushed job, and it has problems with it.  And the GOP wants it to fail, so there is no incentive to fix it - only to sabotage it.

I think a less ambitious plan would have been a better choice.   Dramatic overhauls of laws are never a good thing - they always have unintended consequences.

4.  Arab Spring:   Despite the cries of "Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi!" by the far-right, it is not clear that there was any sort of conspiracy or coverup of what transpired in that Libyan city.    Rather it was just gross incompetence and wishful thinking at work.

Granted, Obama inherited two wars that were not of his making.  And he managed to nurture both along for eight years and hand them to the next President.   It seems now that our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan will be as permanent as Israeli "occupation" of the West Bank.  It is the new status quo.

The problem with Iraq is that it fueled revolutionary fervor across the Middle East.  If brutal dictators like Saddam Hussein could be overthrown, what about Muammar Gaddafi or Hosni Mubarak?  And in short order, those dictators were overthrown and the end result was chaos.   We were content to sit by and let these leaders fall, but were not willing to step in to help with the cleanup.

It is, in a way, similar to our failure to help Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.  In the power vacuum that ensued, Oligarchs took power and the king of them all, is now king of Russia - forever.   A creature of our own making - or our own inaction.

5.  Hillary and Trump:   There was no love lost between Hillary and Obama.   And while she did serve as Secretary of State for Obama, it doesn't seem that Obama really went all-out to insure that she would win the election.   Obama waffled in his support for Hillary, keeping his options open if Bernie (who is not even a Democrat!) won the nomination.

As a result, support for Hillary was tepid.   Turnout among black voters was, well, mild to say the least.   And with a little help from Russia's Internet Research Agency, it was possible to get people to think negative things about "Killary" in the black community.

I think too late, Obama realized that his lack of vibrant support for Hillary could cause her to lose the election.   And perhaps this was his payback to her.    All I know is, Obama is partially responsible for Donald Trump being president today.

6.  Rule By Executive Order:   Frustrated by a Congress that was unwilling to act or compromise, Obama issued a lot of executive orders to try to get things done.  This came across as dictatorial in nature, and also further eroded our government structure by putting more and more power into the presidency.

But the big problem with executive orders is that they can be undone with the stoke of a pen, by the next executive - as we are now seeing.  And since so many orders were issued in the waning days of his administration, they could be overturned by Congress as well.  It is a shitty way to do business, really.

For example, Obama vetoed the Keystone XL pipeline.   Of course, the pipeline was rapidly completed within a year of him leaving office.   Was anything accomplished here, really?   I mean, other than delay and additional cost added to a project.

* * * 

I think Obama had his heart in the right place - or he thought he did, anyway.  A lot of liberals feel this way - that they want what is right for "the people" and anyone who sees things otherwise is just plain evil.  Moreover, they feel their way will persevere in the end, because they are right, and righteousness always prevails.   Oddly enough, Republicans feel the same way about their ideas.

The problem with the Obama administration was that it was too far to the left - too far for most of the American people.   As a result, in the mid-term elections, the Democrats lost their hold on Congress, and then struggled for six years with a President who was outnumbered by the legislative branch.   We can expect to see the same thing happen this fall.

Radical change is never a good idea.   And maybe that is why our system has these mid-term elections, to act as a brake on radical change.   Maybe the best thing about the Obama administration was that he was not able to accomplish all that he wanted to.

And maybe, too, this will be the best thing about the Trump administration as well.

Short Changed!

People will short-change store clerks and bar tenders - but bar tenders and store clerks may attempt to short-change you as well!

We were out bicycling yesterday and we stopped at the convenience store for a treat.  Ordinarily, I would have used a credit card, but I thought, "why not pay cash for a small purchase like this?" and it was an interesting experience.   The total came to $8.28 (!!!) and I handed her a ten.   The cash register had one of those machines that dispenses coin change, and she said, gesturing to the coin tray as money rolled out, "there's your change!"

I just stared at her.  I was due $1.72 in change, and the coinage came to only 72 cents, of course.

She glanced at me and said, "Oh, I guess I owe you a dollar as well!" and she opened the register and handed me a dollar bill.

It was an interesting exchange.  The place was noisy and crowded (a busload of children had just unloaded out front - what was I thinking?).   And she could claim she made an "innocent mistake" if called out on it.   But if I failed to notice, and just took the loose change, well, she could pocket a buck.   And if she could do that a few times an hour, she could effectively double her hourly wage, and of course, all of that "bonus" is tax-free, of course.

It is not the first time someone has attempted to short-change me - or actually short-changed me.  And I am sure there were other times when I was short-changed and failed to notice it.   Probably many times, in fact.   Bars are prime places for this sort of thing, as patrons are drunk and don't count their change or remember what they spent.   You wake up the next morning with a hangover and an empty wallet and wonder where it all went.   I stopped doing that nonsense fairly quickly.  Others never learn.

One of the most common scenarios I've seen is a simple one.  You hand someone a $20 and they give you change for a $10.   You point out that you handed them a $20, and they go, "oh, my bad!" and make the correct change.   Obviously this is a better deal than some petty dollar scam, as they net $10 on the transaction.

Mark taught me, and I always follow this when paying by cash, to announce in a clear voice what bill you are presenting.   "That will be $5.75!" the clerk announces, and I reply, "Out of a $20" as I hand her the bill, face up, in full view of the security camera.  It makes it harder for them to argue that you handed them a ten later on.

And fortunately, most stores have security cameras - focused on the cashier, not you.   Because while robberies and the like are not uncommon, it is far more common for the person behind the counter to be the one stealing.   Either they are not recording cash transactions, or are short-changing the customers.

Of course, one way to avoid this problem is to use a credit or debit card - there is no change involved.  But even then, I have seen servers play games with numbers.   Often they will present a bill that is not itemized, but merely the total on the charge receipt.   This makes it hard to figure out what it is they are charging you for.  But I am not sure whether they can personally profit from this, as charged bills don't generate cash they can take out of the till.

But speaking of which, I never did get a receipt from that store clerk, and in retrospect, I am not sure how the total came to $8.28 even at inflated tourist prices here.   Next time, I will be more careful - but of course, stopping at the convenience store isn't something I do very often.

It is funny, but I just don't use cash very much anymore.   Some folks go to an ATM every day, it seems, taking out small amounts of cash for spending.   I go maybe once every few months (one bank we do business with will lock out  your ATM card if it is not used every three months - a pain in the ass, as you have to reset the card at the bank and have a new PIN issued!) to get some spending cash.

And when that lady handed me that change, I realized what a PITA it is to have coinage clinking around in your pocket.  Coins I will have to take home, sort, and roll up and eventually take to the bank to deposit - because I am never going to remember to take the coins with me to spend, as I don't use cash anymore.

The video above illustrates how grifters can short-change store clerks and bar tenders with clever manipulation.  If you get a job that involves handling money with the public, just watch out for these folks who want to do deals like this "I want to get rid of some dollar bills" or some such nonsense.   It usually is just a means of confusing the cashier and setting up one of these short-change deals.   As the guy illustrates in the video, do each transaction separately, and avoid handing money back and forth.   Mark reports that someone tried this on him once at the store, and he was able to shut it down by keeping each transaction separate - and refusing to make change for the customer ("we're not a bank!" he told him).

I suppose it is a small-time con, short-changing people.  But oddly enough, people often get more pissed off about small things like this, than they do in losing hundreds or thousands of dollars in con-job investments or raw deals on leased cars.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Does College Really Matter?

Once you graduate from college, it becomes less and less relevant as you age, particularly in today's society.

I was at the local bar happy hour by the beach.  The locals go there because the drinks and appetizers are cheap, and it is a fun way to catch up with what is going on and what your friends are doing.  I was wearing an old "Syracuse" zip-up hoodie, and I guess it was during March Madness or something, and someone gave me a hard time about it - as if I was a Syracuse fan, and not someone who bought a sweatshirt 20 years ago when visiting there.

I ran into some others who were also alumni - from decades earlier than me (my college career spanned 1978 to 1992 - 14 years) and they wanted to know if I knew so-and-so on a college campus of 26,000 undergraduate students, from a decade before I was born.   No, I didn't know old Fred.  Sorry.

What was interesting to me, though, was how the person I talked to really identified themselves by the college they went to 60 years ago.   It seemed odd to me, as college for me was an experience that spanned more than a decade, but I don't think it defined my life.  I literally can't remember the names of anyone I went to school with, other than one or two people, perhaps.   I was too busy studying to get too involved in socializing.

Others here on the island fly their college flag in front of their house, and have a college sticker on their car.  They have made an identity for themselves based on what school they went to.  And I guess some folks need that - some pigeon-hole to put themselves into, as left to their own devices, they cannot figure out their own identity.  So they latch onto college as a means of drowning out the deafening silence in their lives.

College - that was 30 years ago.   So why would it be important to me now?  More of my existence on this planet has been post-college than pre-college.  I have learned so much more since then - my neural network has been programmed again and again by experiences that dwarf what I learned in school.  And what I learned in school wasn't facts and figures, but ways of thinking - and maybe that has stuck with me more than anything.

But the funny thing is, once you leave college, it becomes less and less important in your life.   In your career, you job experiences trump college experiences, which is why recent college grads with no work experience have a hard time finding that first job.  Once you have that first job, that job is the key to your resume, and college is a distant second.   Ten years go by, and you find that your "Education" part of your resume is more and more abbreviated.   You list only the school you went to, year you graduated, and what degree you got.   No one cares if you were in honor society or on the dean's list when you are 40 or 50 years old.   They care about how much money you can make for their company, and why you left your last job.   Yea, you should have the credentials and all, but beyond that, who cares?   Performance trumps Alma Mater every time.

Sure, when you are young, and your resume is pretty thin in the work department, your college education is all you have to tout on your resume.   So all that shit about honors and whatnot makes sense - you have to show you were able to buckle down and work.   But a few years out, putting that stuff on your resume is about as embarrassing as saying you were an Eagle Scout.

Which brings us to High School.   When you are young, you are told that high school is important, and that any transgressions will go on your "permanent record".   That is, of course, bullshit.   Good SAT scores and reasonable grades will get you into most colleges (which are more worried about your ability to pay than anything else).   You might list your high school degree and honors and whatnot on your resume when you are in your teens, and maybe even when you graduate from college.  But beyond that, it is just embarrassing.  Yea, you went to high school.  We get that - the fact you have a college degree sort of gives that away.   No, we don't give a rat's ass about your 10th grade science project getting "honorable mention" at the State Fair or whatever.   It just is irrelevant.

And so is college, once you are 10-20 years out.   No one really gives a rat's ass, and the college you went to back then is totally different than the college that exists today - all the professors who taught you are retired or dead.   It is a different place - something you realize when you go back 20 years later and come away with nothing more than a sweatshirt hoodie.

It is funny, but the folks at Syracuse used to call me and ask for money.   And they still send me an alumni magazine now and then.   I glance at it and toss it away.  It really isn't relevant to my life now.  It was just a place I once was, getting a credential I needed - and paid dearly for.  I had some fun, made some friends, but we've all moved on with life, and today, we are different people with little in common, other than a shared experience from decades past.

Others try to find meaning in all of that.  Not me.   My Dad, when my Mother died, went out of his way to look up all his "college buddies" from 1946 at MIT (he transferred to the management school when he flunked thermodynamics.  I simply took it three times until I passed it with an "A").   He traveled cross-country, sleeping on the couches in the houses of his old college "buddies" - their wives no doubt whispering in the next room, "Who is he, again?  And when is he going to leave?"

I think his experience was like the college visit scene from About Schmidt - where Schmidt goes back to the University of Nebraska, and bores some young college kids at his frat about his work as an Insurance actuary.   It is really irrelevant to them, and college at this point was irrelevant to him.   It's like the scene where he goes back to his childhood home and finds a tire store.

And yes, we've gone back to our childhood homes before and laughed about that scene - expecting to find a tire store, but instead finding only a house without a lot of emotional impact or in fact, any sort of closure or whatever.  There is little profit in the past, other than to learn from it.

And the same is true of college.  Get your degree and get out.  Just as High School is not an end in and of itself, but a means to an end - something those stupid kids who shot up Columbine High School simply didn't get.   Don't like High School?  Most people don't.   Graduate and leave.   Most people do!

And while college is generally a better experience than High School, obsessing about it decades later is, to me, kind of sad.

Should You Join a Fraternity? (Revisited)

Fraternities are a lot like Twitter - you never hear anything good come of them.

A recent article in the news about one of my alma maters, Syracuse University, discusses an incident at Theta Tau, the "Engineering" fraternity, where members were caught on tape pledging to hate blacks, Jews, and other minorities.  This struck me as odd for an Engineering fraternity, as in the Engineering business, you are going to run into a lot of people who hail from China, India, the Middle-East, Indonesia, and so forth.   It is a very international community.   Hating minorities will surely narrow your job prospects.

Most of the "high tech" companies these days are located in places like San Francisco and the bay area, or Austin or Boulder - all hotbeds of enlightenment, and not room for white supremacists.   I suspect the folks at "Theta Tau" might find that their Engineering careers are over before they even started.  Who in their right mind is going to hire them now?

Granted, the Engineering field has been largely dominated by men, and blacks are still very under-represented,  But it is hardly an all-white male bastion anymore.  Being racist is, well, just stupid.

So what was the point of joining this fraternity?   The members are now utterly fucked.  This story will stick around on the Internet forever, and when they apply for jobs in their chosen field of study, they will find the story will follow them.  Even if an employer fails to figure it out, some fellow employee will no doubt connect the dots.   And once you are known as the "white supremacist" Engineer, well, people will distance themselves from you.  No one likes creepy.

The problem isn't just this fraternity, but all fraternities.  And I think the problem is systemic, institutional, and impossible to fix.  The very nature of fraternities (and sororities) engenders these kinds of incidents (and far worse).  No one comes out ahead by joining a frat.

You never hear about good things fraternities are doing, because by and large, they don't do many.  Oh, sure, some frats will have a fundraiser here and there for some cause.  But for the most part, it is a bunch of 20-something dudes who swill lite beer and drive fart-muffler cars.   Joining a frat becomes all about partying and selfishness (and not the good kind!) in short order.

I discussed fraternities before, and came to the conclusion they were over-rated if not in fact dangerous to the individual.  Young men, left to their own devices, in a group, can get into a lot of trouble.  Get a group of young guys together, and they get nervous and egg each other on into doing odious things.   It is odd, too, in this day and age, that people willingly segregate themselves into single-gender housing.   You finally have a chance to leave home and move in with your girlfriend, but decide instead to hang out with 20 other drunken young men.   Sounds awfully gay to me.

And in fact, fraternities were dying on the vine in the mid-1970's.   After the "peace and love" era of the 1960's, it was seen as more "adult" to get an apartment, move in with your girlfriend than to join a frat.   Fraternities were seen as old-fashioned and stupid - representing the sort of white privilege of the past - sort of like the stuck-up "Omega Theta Pi" fraternity mocked in Animal House.

The sort of mumbo-jumbo nonsense that was mocked in the movie "Animal House"

The problem with that movie was that it re-ignited the fraternity movement.  Even as the movie parodied the "normal" fraternities, it also presented an image of a frat as a drunken party-house where everyone had a good time.   Fraternities might have died out by 1985 if not for that movie.  By the early 1980's, fraternities were back - and this time less of a bastion of white male privilege, but as a place to hang out and get utterly drunk out of your mind.   Bad things happened fairly quickly.

We read about it in the paper.  Pledges dying in fraternity initiation rites - which were less about homoerotic paddling ceremonies than they were about binge-drinking or even forced consumption of alcohol.  Young coeds being drugged and raped - sometimes gang-raped.   Racist incidents during parties or pledging, all captured on the ubiquitous smart phone, for the world to see.

And it doesn't matter if you were not involved.  When your chapter makes national headlines and the University shuts down your "house," you are tainted as much as the actual perpetrators.   Suddenly, having a fraternity ring doesn't seem like an "in" to business connections (if it ever was one) than a mark of shame.

Sure, maybe these sort of things happened in the "good old days" as well.  A pledge dies after drinking too much and his parents are told he "fell in the shower."   University Deans are more than happy to help sweep it all under the rug, of course.  And rape?   Back in the 1950's, it just wasn't reported, and even if it was, rarely prosecuted.   And again, Universities back then were more than willing to cover things up to preserve the "good name" of the school.

But today, we have the smartphone recording every incident in life, and the permanent archive of the Internet to preserve these things for all eternity.   Did we do stupid, regrettable things while in college?   Sure we did.   But back then, there were no cell phones, and no one carried around a Betamax tape recorder because it weighed over 50 pounds.   And there was no internet to upload things to, and no "viral" videos, or archives of data that could be retrieved with the click of a mouse.

It is true, kids have it harder today.  You make one mistake, and it could ruin you for life.   Well, maybe not for life, but it can derail your career for a few years, at the very least.   So joining a frat has a huge downside, if someone at the frat is caught doing very bad things.  Guilt by association will follow you around for the rest of your days.

But surely, there has to be an upside, right?   Joining a frat marks you as one of the elite - the cream of the crop, the sort of person from the "right" family.   And it provides you with connections later in life.  Give your new boss the secret fraternity handshake or casually show him your frat ring, and for sure you will be promoted, right?   Because in today's business world, connections mean more than absolute talent, right?

I am not so sure.  The environment today is just the opposite.  In the hard-nosed business world we live in, performance means more than who you know.   Social connections might help you get your foot in the door, but if you are not up to snuff, you'll be shown that door before long.  And the idea of privilege has fallen from favor in many sectors of the economy.   In fact, asserting such privilege may be a turn-off to prospective employers.

And then there is the distraction.   A college education is very expensive today.  And your grades and performance are looked at more closely than ever.   Do you really want to screw up a $100,000 investment by drowning yourself in beer parties?   That is exactly what happened to a friend of mine, who, upon leaving home for Engineering school, joined a frat and discovered his new friend, alcohol.  He dropped out in his second semester.

The drinking age - another aspect of the problem.   Fraternities are not known for teaching their members responsible social drinking. They don't sit around having cocktails and having sophisticated discussions, but rather swill kegs of lite beer and shout "Whazzzup!" at each other.   Since the drinking age was raised to 21, many are entering college with no drinking experience.  Worse yet, since most undergraduates cannot legally drink, the fraternity has become the speakeasy of the new age.   Fraternities are finding they are quite popular with the students, whenever they throw a kegger during pledge week.   And this has lead to a lot of the troubles.

From a personal standpoint, you have to ask yourself whether this is something that is going to profit you personally.   Are you going to get better grades and have an "in" with your first job interview as a result of joining a frat?   I suspect the answer is "No" to both questions.   Is there a significant risk you may be caught up in some scandal as a result of being affiliated with the frat?   I think yes.   And is there a significant risk you may end up spending too much time on socializing and too little on studying and hurt your college career as a result?  I think the answer is a resounding "Yes" to that.

So from a cost-benefit analysis, I think it fails the test.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Obsessing About Religion

People have been willing to kill one another in the name of peace for millennia.  When will it ever end?  Only when people wise up - which is to say, never.

A reader writes, in response to my last posting, that it is acceptable to wish ill-health and death on Barbara Bush, because of all the people in Iraq who died as a result of the Bush-lead invasion.   It is an interesting argument, but ironically, proves my point.

While the Iraq invasion was a strategic mistake and we did kill thousands of people there during the war, far more were killed and continue to be killed, all across the Arab world.... by other Arabs.   Yes, they may burn our flag and call us the "great satan" (or at least Iran does) but in fact, they spend less time fighting the US of A than they do each other.   We are just an annoyance that gets in the way of their cross-religious slaughter.  The image above is of a car-bombing in Iraq - not aimed at US forces, but aimed at Sunnis by Shiites.

Yes, the old Sunni-Shia rift has been a meat grinder for generations.   And it has been an effective tool for various governments (including our own) to manipulate people to do things against their own self-interest, such as strapping on a suicide vest.   It is all-too-easy to recruit young people online and convince them they will be "martyrs" for their branch of Islam if they will only just kill themselves - and maybe a few other people in the process.  This does little to advance the cause of the individual, or indeed the people or the religion he (or she) is nominally dying for.  It does, however, help the causes of governments and other people in power.

Islam isn't alone in this - although in recent times, they have been the most effective.   The Catholic v. Protestant divide in Christianity has been exploited by political powers for hundreds of years - and thousands have been slaughtered as a result.   It is only in recent decades that the "troubles" in Northern Ireland - the last gasp of this religious warfare - has tamped down.   But even then, it threatens to explode any minute now, as each side starts posturing again.

Our reader argues that a widow in Iraq whose husband was killed during the Iraq war, would want to kill either of the Bush Presidents or Barbara Bush, and that this would be "understandable" given the circumstances.   But oddly enough, if you look at history, the opposite is often true.  We dropped a nuclear bomb on Japan, and they are one of our strongest allies.  We flattened Berlin, and yet Germany stands by our side.  We dropped more bombs on Vietnam than in all of World War II, and yet Americans are welcome there and we have good relations with that country.  Of course, those wars weren't about religion - but the religion of nationalism.

Again, we get back to do-or-die politics.   Nazism brainwashed an entire generation of Germans to fight to the death for a "cause".   When they lost that war, some die-hard Nazis still held out and murdered those who cooperated with the occupying forces - at least for a time.   But I suspect that a lot more Germans felt betrayed by the false God of Nazism than they did by U.S. forces.   They realized that their real enemy was from within - which is why today, it is verboten to display Nazi symbols or give speeches promoting fascist values in Germany (but ironically, legal in the US).

The bloodletting that is going on today across the Arab world is not in response to any US-lead invasion, but is part of a power struggle between various countries and power centers.  The Iranians want to take control, and will use their version of Islam to convince people that they should die for a cause that is not their own - by fighting and killing their fellow Arabs.   Meanwhile, our Saudi friends want a different outcome - and use a different brand of Islam to program people to kill their own kind.

Maybe the Iraq invasion was the trigger for all of this - although from the quick rate of surrender of the Iraqi forces, it doesn't seem many in Iraq had an ideological allegiance to Saddam Hussein.  They weren't willing to die for his cause, it seems.  But once the dust settled, most people wanted to get back to life as normal.  And we naively thought they would embrace democracy.   But given a chance, such as in Egypt, people in that part of the world often vote for dictatorship.   And then outside forces, such as Iran, started to try to manipulate things.   We were in over our heads, in a situation that was not so simple or black-and-white.   We assumed that people in Iraq would act in their own best interests, and embrace a new government free of the tyranny and secret police of the old government (a government that we also installed).

But we were wrong.   Too many people are easily persuaded, particularly these days, to give up their own lives for a "cause" while neglecting what is in their own best interests.  And no, it isn't because many of these folks have "nothing left to lose"- many suicide bombers and ISIS fighters come from fairly wealthy (by world standards) backgrounds, and have many opportunities available to them.  The Boston Marathon bombers were hardly starving, but rather had a fairly well-off middle-class existence in the wealthiest country in the world.  They were convinced otherwise - by online websites.

Which brings us full circle back to the original point - it profits you not to become obsessed about politics.  It makes you a toxic person to be around, it turns away friends and business contacts who may have been helpful to you later on.  It turns away potential spouses - because no one likes creepy.

"But Bob!" you say, "What about causes worth fighting and dying for?  What about the American Revolution?   The Civil War?  World War II?   Aren't those instances where it would be better to sacrifice your life for the greater good?"

Perhaps.   But all I can say is, you had better vet these causes carefully before you forfeit your life, either literally, or by wasting it away by obsessing about politics.

As for the revolutionary war, I guess you'd have a point.   If we had not fought the British in 1776, we would have ended up like.... Canada.   Um, I guess that isn't a good point.   Alternative history is hard to parse, but if Canada is any example, I guess we would have ended up as a quasi-independent country eventually.  Or did the American revolution force Britain to give Canada more sovereignty?  Would we have expanded Westward with the Louisiana purchase if still under British rule?  It is hard to say.

The Brits outlawed slavery years before we did - and even enforced a blockade along the African coast to tamp down the slave trade.   It is possible the entire Civil War may have been avoided if we had remained a member of the British Commonwealth.   Possible!   Or maybe that is why the Southern States were eager to join the "revolution" -  to preserve their "peculiar institution."  Who knows?

What historians can agree on, though, is that the American revolution was fought to preserve economic interests - often that of the landed gentry and the upper classes.   If they could get some farmers to join in on the grounds of "patriotism" so much the better.   And the same is true of the Civil War - they dragooned thousands of dirt-poor white-trash Southern farmers to fight for a cause - slavery - that was not their cause, as most never owned slaves.   Oh, and the Civil War was all about slavery - so let's not even go down that road.  Nice try, though.

Of course, we honor and cherish our heroes - brave souls who gave their all for their country.   But you talk to a lot of returning veterans - from World War II onward, and you find they have no such romantic views about war or sacrifice.  Maybe they have seen the horrors firsthand, and seen friends die in order to obtain an objective that, the next day, was irrelevant.   Or maybe they are just tired of the idea of going to war and dying simply because a bunch of other people have gotten it into their head that killing people is the only way to resolve a dispute.  It is hard to say.

All I can say is, I am not sure I would be willing to sacrifice my life for the current crop of politics.  I am not willing to go to war or die for the likes of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or indeed, Barack Obama.  Nor am I willing to obsess about any of them - to the detriment of my own mental, physical, and fiscal health.

Maybe - and this is a crazy idea, I know - if fewer people obsessed about politics and religion and didn't make it a life-or-death matter, than maybe we'd have less wars in the world.  Every time someone straps on a suicide vest - literally or metaphorically - the world is a slightly darker place.

As as for Barbara Bush, may she rest in peace.   No doubt she and I would not have gotten along.   But I could at least be civil to her!