Sunday, June 30, 2019

Everybody's Talking At Me.... Can't Hear a Word They're Saying.

The politicians and the media are screaming at us that we should care about issues that largely don't affect us.  The issues we do care about, they are deaf to.

I read the news articles online and am mystified.  It is like reading about the news in some foreign country or maybe an alien civilization on another planet.  It is interesting stuff, but really doesn't affect me - or most of the people I know - directly.   What concerns me, doesn't seem to make it into the papers.

"It's the economy, stupid!" Bill Clinton once famously said.  Bread-and-butter issues are more important to the average American than trans-rights, gun control, abortion, free college, debt forgiveness, or whatever.   Well, I suppose debt forgiveness is a bread-and-butter issue if you ran up a lot of debts.  But it is also a bread-and-butter issue to the people who didn't or who paid back their debts, and are now being asked to pay for other people's malfeasance.

The burning issues, we are told, are giving felons the right to vote and castrating the police.   As a law-abiding citizen (most of the time) these issues don't resonate with me.  In fact, as a guy most likely to be on the wrong end of a gun during a robbery, the idea of giving criminals more rights and restraining the police seem somewhat alien to me.

Politicians live in this bizarre parallel universe where the police are expected to be perfect all the time, and any mistake they make is de facto racism.  Well, except when a black officer shoots a white woman, and in that case, it is just discrimination against Australians, I guess.   We are fed a similar line that the fact more blacks are in jail than whites (per capita) is de facto racism, and nothing to do with the rate (per capita) of criminality.   So let's just let everyone out of jail!  I saw a Netflix show once that said everyone is innocent!

What planet is that on?    Because I certainly don't want to live there.

While the Democrats are falling all over themselves to see who can be the most wacky-liberal, the Republicans are competing to see who can march in lock-step with the President the most.   Again, I am supposed to be alarmed about, well, pretty much the same irrelevant issues, but from a different perspective.  Wacky conservatism isn't the answer, either.

Meanwhile, what really concerns me, no one is talking about.   The 800-lb gorilla in the room - the deficit and the national debt, the slowdown in the economy, the coming recession, the stupid trade wars, and so on and so forth - economic bread-and-butter issues.   No one is talking about these - yet - only because Americans don't pay attention unless the shit has already hit the fan.  The fact they can see the shit heading toward the the fan, and the fan is on the "high" setting doesn't alarm them.

And perhaps this is because most Americans' personal finances fall along the same lines.  So long as there is money in their pocket today and food in their stomach today and gas in the gas tank today, well, everything must be OK, right?   Never mind that they have these things due to a payday loan, an over-extended credit card, or a home equity line of credit.

So political silly-season will continue, with issues like "LGBTQ rights" (we don't have enough already?  I feel quite empowered, thank you.) being the centerpiece of their platforms.   Meanwhile, on the real issues that affect the majority of Americans, they remain silent.

At least for the time being.....

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Why I Gave Up On Netflix

TWD 01 ship
Netflix has turned television into television.

Years ago, early on in this blog, we started watching Netflix videos on our laptop, hooked into a wall-screen television through a VGA port.  Pretty primitive, but it worked.  We could order DVDs online, and even stream them through the Internet using Hughesnet satellite internet service.   It actually worked.

And the content was amazing.  They had the back catalog of most of the major studios, so you could watch all those great old movies, and also those of the auteurs - it was a film school education!   And because they had the STARZ contract, giving them access to that library by streaming, you could get a lot of great old content online.

But the STARZ contract expired, and Netflix tried to even spin-off its DVD rental business to concentrate on streaming.  And with reduced content, they had to do something, so they created new content just for their channel, much as HBO and other pay cable channels have had to do.   It has been a mixed bag.  Instead of watching a great old movie, or even a recent release, we are exhorted to "binge watch" some soap opera disguised as an action/adventure show.   And while it was interesting for a short period of time, I quickly realized I was trading one form of video addiction (broadcast and cable television) for another (episodic streaming content).

It stopped being interesting after a while.  All the shows had the same story arc - or lack thereof.  Many just meandered in plot, just to keep you watching.   We looked at some shows on the channel, but when we saw they were three seasons (instead of just one hour) we thought, "this is a big commitment of time and energy!  No thanks!" 

Netflix also started making "controversial" programs, such a "Making of a Murderer" where they tried to convince us that some guy who is in jail for murder is actually innocent.  And a lot of people bought into this shit.  It is like Facebook with its fake video of Nancy Pelosi - they would pull it down, but the click revenue is too great.

The latest thing, a reader tells me, is a "documentary" about some alien-conspiracy theorist.  No thanks - conspiracy theories are a dead end.   And as I noted before, I am part of the conspiracy anyway, one of the lizard people, the Illuminati.  Buwhahahahahah!  Buwhahahahahha!  Buwhaha.... cough! cough!  cough!

Excuse me.  Something caught in my throat.  Too many damn allergens on your planet.  I don't know why you people don't do something about that.  After all, on Alpha-4, we solved the pollen problem. It really sucks being stationed on such a backward planet as "Earth".  By the way, great move, naming your planet after the dirt.   Real freaking clever.  But I digress....

So I pulled the plug on Netflix, and haven't looked back.   While it is "only" $7.99 or $8.99 a month, that can add up to over a hundred bucks a year - and for what?

Recently, they were filming episodes of the "Waking Dead" or something here on the island.  Maybe it was "Walking Dead" or "Talking Dead" - I don't recall.  I went online to see what it was about, and it is one of these episodic television shows on one of the pay channels.  I've never seen it, but after googling it online, it sounds like a cross between "Twilight" and "Dawn of the Dead."  I am not sure what it is about, but in my head, the dialog goes something like this:
Stephanie:  "Isn't Chad cute?" 
Jennifer:  "But Stephanie!  He's a Zombie!" 
Stephanie:  "I don't care, I love him!"
Jennifer:  "Mark my words, he'll rip your heart out - and eat your brains!"
Maybe it doesn't go quite like that, but I suspect it isn't far off the mark - a soap opera with zombies.   That's all these shows are - soap operas.  And once you've seen one, you've basically seen them all.  Why do I need to see the same show, over and over again, with different settings and different character names - oh, and some new outrage to get me to watch?

We've been trying to consciously watch less and less video anyway.  We've been using the cell phones for internet service - going entirely wireless - for over six months now.   Not only is this costing a lot less, it is a lot less hassle (the AT&T modem was a nightmare of unreliability).  The data bandwidth doesn't seem much different.  Sometimes a show will bomb out and you have to re-load it.  It did that with AT&T's "premium" UVERSE service, too.

Quite frankly, there is a ton of free content out there on the Internet, and some of it is quite intriguing, as it isn't made by some studio with fancy production values and "stars" paid hundreds of thousands per episode.   One of our favorite videos to watch is a guy in Australia who restores matchbox cars.  There is something calming about it - I am sure it has replaced "Teletubbies" in the methadone clinics.

And then there are the old shows - What's My Line? or Highway Patrol.   Some of the acting in the latter is pretty stilted, and the plots paper-thin.   And of course, nothing caps off the night like a Russian crash compilation or Figure-8 demolition derby.  The great thing about shows like that is we don't have to commit to season after season of programming, or binge-watching hours of video to "see what happens next!" (which in a soap-opera is a self-defeating task, as something always happens next, ad infinitum).  What Netflix is selling just doesn't seem to be worth $8.99 a month, particularly when we may go for days on end without watching.

And certainly what the cable companies are selling ain't worth over a hundred dollars a month.  Sadly, Netflix has changed for good, and they really have no choice.   It is sort of like the early days of the Internet.  It was cool when it was just us computer geeks, and then they let just anyone in, including those AOL folks.  It was the beginning of the end.   The great masses turned the largest database in the history of the world into fake news and social media.   People always have to muck up a good thing.

Similarly, in the early days of Netflix, it was like film school.   Then it started morphing into regular TeeVee as the unwashed masses decided to "cut the cord" simply because it sounded trendy (they actually never disconnected, though - they pay for Cable AND for Netflix!) and they demanded programming just like what they were seeing on regular TeeVee.   Netflix has to go where the money is, and I don't blame them for that.  From what I understand, they aren't making any money to begin withFirst to market is last in the marketplace.

A lot of folks complain that media costs a lot of money.   DVDs are too expensive to buy!  CDs are outrageously priced!   Downloading songs at 99 cents a copy is highway robbery!   The Cable companies want over a hundred bucks just for a standard package!  Amazon wants $7.99 to download the latest best-seller!  The new video game is over a hundred bucks!  My favorite rap band charges over $100 for a concert ticket - and Tickemaster wants a "convenience fee" on top of that!   It is all so unfair!  Why should I have to pay so much?

And the answer is: because you agreed to.  People set prices, not corporations or artists.  They charge what the market will bear, and when you pay these prices - despite your grousing to the contrary - they charge them.   So you can whine all day long that you had to pay $250 for scalped tickets to your heavy metal concert, the problem is, you paid it, and thus you set the price.  This is a topic of another posting, however.

Fortunately, media is not like oxygen - you don't need it to live.  You can live without media, or with less of it.  You can also create your own.  You can write your own stories, play your own music, make your own videos.  That is the beauty of this new paradigm of the Internet.  And you can even make some money at it, if you want to.   I made a few bucks monetizing this blog.  I suppose I could make a dollar or two from my YouTube channel - maybe more if I bought a real camera and a real computer.

 But the other choice is just to consume less media.   And that is, in part, why I gave up on Netflix.  It was costing me money, and I wasn't watching it, and what I was watching, I didn't like.  Time to move on!

UPDATE:  We periodically sign up for Netflix for a few months, and then drop it, usually because we are going away in the RV.  What we are discovering more and more is that we are watching Netflix less and less.  So many of the "movies" on Netflix are just badly made television shows, with multiple seasons - a commitment I don't want to make.  The payback just isn't there!   We watch a few videos on YouTube - most made by amateurs like us, or quasi-professionals like "The History Guy" or "Marty's Matchbox Makeovers" and then call it a night.   It seems a lot of these YouTubers become mildly successful for a year or so and then fade away over time, as people get bored and move on.  Few make much money at it.

Then there are the professional YouTubers, which we never watch  - the folks who do "podcasts" where they stare into their laptops and drone on for an hour about politics or gaming.  People actually have time in the day to watch this?   I don't and I'm retired!

Consume less media!

Your Resume and You

It is so nice not to have to worry about this shit anymore....

Being retired rocks.  Well, it rocks if you saved at least two dollars in your IRA and can live comfortably, if not extravagantly on what you've saved.  Of course, your impending death puts everything in perspective at this point.  But oddly enough that is a calming experience.  It puts your life in focus, and makes you realize so much of what you obsessed about in life before - your credit rating, owning a home, your career, status, your education, your debts, and so on and so forth, are really just window dressing in the greater scheme of things.   Once you are comfortable and don't have to work, a lot of shit comes into really sharp focus.

There was a recent click-bait listical online about "credit nightmares" and it was almost comical to read - and sad, too.  In every instance, the "victim" in the article was a victim of their own malfeasance - taking out payday loans for example, and paying over twenty grand of interest on a few hundred bucks in principal.  Or the guy who got all pissed off when Bank of America lowered his credit limit on his credit cards by $30,000.   You read that right, he didn't have a credit limit of $30,000 - which would be obscene - but had it lowered by that amount.   No wonder Americans have so much troubles - they bring it on themselves.  It is funny to read these stories (and sad, too - you do feel sorry for these folks, even if most of their troubles, like mine, were self-induced).  But it also seems so distant.  I have no need for debt in my life now, and my credit score is consistently over 800, which is ironic, as I have no need to borrow money - and no means of paying it back!

A reader writes:
I got a well paying job after I graduated. I hated it, so I worked for a couple of years and then quit. I had hefty savings as I didn't spend much money. I thought I would be able to find a job I liked,but somehow that didn't  happen. 
I managed to goof off for 3 years and my savings are coming to an end,so now I guess I have to go to my first job. 
How do I explain the three year gap in my CV? I am around 29 now, got my first job at 24.
I am not sure if I am being trolled here or not.  But it intrigued me.  I am so glad not to have to deal with this sort of thing.  First of all,  I don't give advice, so I am not sure why he is asking me, who has been out of the work force for decades now, about resume advice.  What I knew about the subject is decades old.  I am not sure people even write resumes or Curriculum Vitae (CV) so much as they upload this crap onto or Linked-In or whatever.

So glad I don't have to deal with this shit.  No, really.

The first thing, of course, is to put your resume dates by year.  You don't have to break things out by month or date.  This may make the lapse seem shorter.  But you should be prepared, if you can get a job interview (and the market is getting a little tighter as the economy contracts) to answer questions from interviewers as to what you did for those three years.

If you spent the time living with your parents' basement, playing video games, downloading porn and masturbating and collecting swords, well, you are going to have a bit of trouble.   On the other hand, if you did as some young friends of mine did, and hitchhiked around the world and expanded your horizons in a "gap year" maybe you can pitch that as an effort to "find yourself" and figure out what it is you want to do with your life.  And while meditating in a temple in Kathmandu, you decided what you wanted most was to be an assistant purchasing agent for WillGrowCo, or at least that's what you tell the HR guy at WillGrowCo, if you get an interview.

But situations like this illustrate how the early years are so important.   Employers are looking for people who want to work and are self-starters.  And if you quit your job after a couple of years to "goof off" for three, the employer might think, rightfully, that you may repeat the same pattern - even though it is unlikely.

You see, the human brain doesn't stop developing until your mid-20's.   Age 25 or thereabouts is usually when people start to wake up and realize they are on their own in "adult life" and they need to get their shit together.  It was the age I stopped smoking pot and finished my EE degree.  Age 28 was when I stared law school.    Maybe by age 60, I will finally grow up - but I doubt it.

But the sad fact is, today you get judged by your actions a lot more harshly than I was at that age.   I mentioned my friends who hitchhiked around the world - twice - in their 20's.   They worked slacker jobs and saved up their money and quit and did what they wanted to do.  It all worked out for them in the end.  They both have good paying jobs, him a fireman, her a spokesman for the vegetarian society (!) and a house and two lovely kids.   So you can explain these gaps in employment and still get a job.

It all depends on what you did during those gaps - and how long they are.  Three years starts to get to be a little long.   But if you go by year instead of date, maybe you can make this look more like two, hopefully.

The other part of the problem is that job skills get stale.  Working in a good-paying job doesn't necessarily begin and end with punching in the morning and out at night.   You often have to keep your skills current, and also make and maintain contacts in the industry.  In Engineering and the Law, this is particularly true.   Technology advances, and you have to keep up.  Laws and regulations change, and you have to keep up.

I am not sure what to say to this young person, other than, yes, it will suck trying to find a job.  Your resume may end up in the trash without a second look not only because of the three-year gap, but because of the limited work experience to begin with.   But if you keep trying, you will get a call-back from somewhere, and if you can pitch it right, you may be able to posture this three-year gap as some sort of learning experience, or at least make it look less like a slacker move.

A job is not a right.  And you can't just walk away from a job and expect to pick it up, where you left off, years later.   Your youth is a time you should spend working, because let me tell you, it becomes damn hard as you get older, and eventually impossible.   Your skills get stale and it is harder to keep up with changes.   And if you are an employee, it is typical that by age 55 they show you the door - kicking you out to hire some 20-something for a lot less money.

And that's the good news for our reader.   Most job postings want younger people with "1-5 years experience" -  no less and certainly not more.  Once you have more experience than that, they can't afford to pay you.  Also, they wonder why you'd walk away from a job after five years - or were you fired?

So in contrast to that, two years' experience and three years off doesn't seem so bad.   You have a leg up on the 40-something trying to keep up and wanting twice your salary.   And you have a big leg up on the 50-something who isn't getting any callbacks.

Just keep applying, something will happen.  Or failing that, make a lateral career move to a related field.

Like I said, I am so glad I don't have to deal with this shit.  The prospect of a job interview makes my skin crawl.

Is Golf Elitist?

Is Golf elitist?   30 million rednecks would argue otherwise.

On National People's Radio this morning on Weekend Comrade, they had a bit about sports or something (at 14:34).   I was only half asleep but caught only a part of it.  They were discussing golf and Tiger Woods and the Augusta country club and one of the commentators made some snide comment about golf being "elitist" and the others chimed in to agree.   I threw the clock radio against the wall and went back to bed.

It got me thinking though, golf really isn't all that elitist - no more so than any other sport.  Yes, there are exclusive country clubs that have limited (or even restricted) memberships.   But those represent a small portion of the overall number of golf courses in America.   And country clubs are often less about golf than about socializing.

We were offered a chance to join two country clubs in Alexandria, Virginia, and turned them down. The first time was at Belle Haven Country Club, which is across the street from Marvin Bush's house on Fort Hunt road.   I went there to a law conference and a manager asked me if I wanted to join.  At that point in time, the club was undergoing renovations and was in a bad state.  The economy was also in the tank and they needed new members.   For only a few tens of thousands of dollars, I could join!   I politely declined.

The second time was a country club further down the parkway.  Our neighbors were members and again, the place was undergoing renovation and they needed new members.   The initiation fee was a lot less at this place, but that fee is just the start.  When these renovations occur, often there are special assessments made on the members - just like a condominium!   So the cost of membership would have gone up over time.

In addition to the initiation fee, there are membership dues.  And these were pretty steep as well.  The membership dues includes meals at the country club, so many nights a month, or in some instances, you are obligated to eat at the country club so many nights a month and pay a la carte.   The idea is, the restaurant needs a critical mass of people to work, and thus members are sort of forced to eat there - or pay if they don't.   Our neighbor said it was a pretty good deal, and they went several times a month for lunch or dinner.   The cost was competitive with local restaurants.  If you eat out a lot, and don't mind going to the same restaurant again and again, I guess it is a good deal.

But it illustrates how golf clubs are more than just about golf - many are about social life as well. And many also have pools and/or tennis courts, so the "country club" is more about family social life than just playing golf.  We didn't join mostly because we don't play golf that much - or very well - and since that time, have largely given it up.  The socializing aspect might have been nice, but since we didn't know anyone there, that didn't appeal to us.  For some folks, however, this socializing aspect is useful in making connections in business and finances - so a lot more goes on in these country clubs than just golf.

But again, these private clubs and courses represent a small fraction of the overall golf industry.  And by the way, many of these "private" courses have huge signs saying "Open to the Public!" because they need the money to keep the place up, particularly these days.   But the vast majority of golf courses are public courses, either run by municipalities or privately owned, but open to the general public.

And like clockwork, every day around 3:30, the plumbers, electricians, carpenters and other tradesmen hit the courses.   Young lawyers stay in their offices until 8:00 at night - what was the point of being a lawyer, again?   And these tradesmen often have the best quality clubs and are very good players.    They should be - they practice and play a lot.   It is hardly an "elitist" sport so much as it is a blue-collar sport.

And all sports are this way.  You could argue that football was "elitist" because in every stadium there are private corporate skyboxes, replete with air conditioning, a wet bar, and catered food.   But those private boxes don't represent the sport or the majority of the fans.

So why were the clueless dweebs on NPR tearing down golf?  Well, to be sure, the clueless youngsters they are using as on-air "talent" these days likely don't play golf, which they see as an old man's game or something "Bougie" people play.   And in recent years, the popularity of golf has tapered off a bit - hitting a peak in the late 1990's and early 2000's.  So likely, these kids don't play golf, and since the powers-that-be do, they feel it is somehow emblematic of the old school.

But also, it is part and parcel of this class-warfare nonsense.   They paint golf as an elitist pastime and then can dismiss it entirely out-of-hand. And right there illustrates how the Democrats lost the election in 2016 and will likely lose it in 2020.   Those critical voters in the critical states that Hillary lost are those tradesmen and carpenters I talked about.  Guys who have a set of Callaway clubs in a big leather bag in the back of their pickup truck, who get in a round every day after work with their friends.

Years ago, these guys were Democrats - dyed-in-the-wool union men, whose fathers were Democrats, and their fathers before them. But something changed along the way. The Democratic party abandoned these guys, and went after narrower and narrower demographics, hoping to cobble together an election-winning majority from the transgender, illegal immigrants, and convicted felons.  I am being sarcastic, of course, but it does seem that they are targeting very small demographic groups, while ignoring the needs of the large majority.

Worse yet, the message the Democrats (and the left) are sending is that those golf-playing rednecks are somehow to blame for the world's problems.   You know, by driving big pickup trucks, installing garbage disposals, and playing elitist golf.   It is bad enough that the Democrats are ignoring their traditional constituent base, it is worse that they are castigating them.

Guilt politics just doesn't sell.   You can't get people to vote for you by telling them they are awful people.  Well, maybe you get the masochist vote, but that is a another thin slice of the electorate. What is really ironic about all of this, is that here are some young, left-leaning, college-educated (with graduate degrees, no doubt) kids, who are acting, well, elitist.   They look down their noses at anyone from rural areas or folks who play golf as either primitive or "bougie" - and often in the same sentence.   These are elitists decrying elitism, and the irony is lost on them.

Meanwhile, the press gleefully reports that Joe Biden no longer has a pulse, and only extreme leftist politics will carry the day in November 2020.  Oddly enough, in the same breath, they report that most Americans aren't ready for, don't want, and won't vote for socialism.  Are they trying to sabotage the election on purpose?  Because that seems to be what they want to do.   Either way, they deserve to lose the election, if they continue to embrace these narrow groups of folks who live on either coast, and ignore hate the rest of America.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Fake Census

With letters like this, it is no wonder most Americans don't identify with either political party.

I got another fake piece of mail today, from the people who decry "Fake News!" - the Republican Party.  To be fair, the Democrats have sent me similar faked-up documents, but they call them "Official Congressional District Survey!" instead.  The envelopes say, "Do Not Destroy!  Official Document!" and have odd markings and numbers like the mail the IRS sends.

Inside this one, a "Census" from the GOP with a pitch for money - or asking me for $15 for the "processing fee" for my "Census" data.  Pretty deceptive stuff - a mild deception perhaps, but a deception nevertheless.   And any relationship you enter into, predicted on a lie, no matter how trivial, will go downhill from there.

The GOP has tipped their hand here, exposing themselves as lying bastards (big surprise to most of you, I know).  The Democrats have done likewise with their mailers.    And they wonder why we don't give a shit about them and their parties?   They pander to the "base" - the extremists who turn out to vote in primaries.  The rest of us, I guess, don't count, particularly if we stay home.  People get the government they deserve.

What irks me about these documents is that they have all the charm of an infomercial and all the honesty of a timeshare presentation.   And that is what they are selling us here - lies and deception.  "Vote for me, and I'll change everything!" they claim.  The reality is, "Vote for me, and I'll make sure the money looted from the treasury goes to my backers, and not my opponents' backers!"

Which is why big corporations donate money to both sides of most campaigns, as they want to have "connections" with whoever ends up winning.   They don't give a shit about abortion or trans rights or migration or whatever, they just want to sell cars or weapons systems or food.

I guess what really irks me is that these fake census letters (from both parties, by the way, not just one, Snopes!) illustrate what these politcos think of me.   They think I'm a blithering idiot or a doddering old fool.   They assume I'll send in money with this because, you know, the Census is mandatory and  you have to pay the processing fee!  Or maybe, living on retirement island, they assume I am halfway into dementia (fooled them! Only 1/4 way!) and will fill out any form that comes in the mail.

It just makes me want to throw up, quite frankly.  This is how low politics have become in this country.   Politicians lie, yea.  I get that.  But this?   Somehow, this crosses a line.

The New Royalty - Government Employees

When I was a kid, getting a "government job" was seen as a low-paying but safe job with good benefits.  Today, government work can be more lucrative than the private sector.  What happened?

A reader writes that where he lives in Florida, a lot of his fellow retirees are former government employees.  As a retired business owner, he has no debt and has to Shepherd his resources carefully so he doesn't run out of money in retirement.  His fellow retirees, who are former teachers, cops, firemen, and civil administrators, are all earning pensions equal to 75% of their last years' pay, which for a married couple that both worked, could be well over $100,000 a year, perhaps more.  And they were all in debt, making payments for houses, cars, and everything else in their lives.

And I wrote about this before - two friends of mine who live not far from my reader, who have Federal government pensions totaling over $100,000 a year.  They have a nice house, a nice motorhome, two nice cars (that they trade-in frequently) and live a pretty decent lifestyle.  He confessed to me, however, that his "life's savings" was only $30,000 and everything they owned was financed.  It is a different way of living, in retirement, than for most.

But what happened?  When did having a government job going from being the consolation prize, to being prized?  I think a number of things have combined to make government employment one of the most desirable jobs today - which spells trouble for our country in the long run:

1.  The 401(k) and IRA:  Laws enacting these self-funded retirement plans were enacted just as I reached the legal age to enter the workforce - around 1978.   Our generation is still a few years away from the official retirement age, but we are already seeing a lot of baby-boomers retire on these plans.  Pensions went away in the private sector, and the few that remain were very under-funded (see below).   Our generation has to save - and most haven't.  The few that have, have to marshal their finances and carefully monitor their spending - it isn't as carefree a life as the government pensioner.
2.   Bain Capital:   Venture Capitalists - or Vulture Capitalists, depending on whether you own a garbage disposal or not - bought up failing companies in the 1970's until today, and then sold off the profitable parts and pocketed the cash.  They then left the aging decrepit bits to fail, often guaranteed to fail by old machinery and infrastructure, an aging workforce, and unfunded pension liabilities.  The Mitt Romney's of the world took home big paychecks.   The guy who worked 40 years in the finger-cutting factory got 40 cents on the dollar (if he was lucky).
2.  The Incredible Shrinking Middle Class:  Time was, you could go to work for the auto factory and bring home a decent salary - not enough to get rich on, but enough to get by.  When you retired, you moved to Florida and lived in a modest retirement house and played golf and maybe fished.  We used to own condos in Pompano Beach, which was in the 1950's and 1960's the kind of place a blue-collar worker could afford to retire to.  Looking at the photos from that era, you see the houses are modest, and a 21-foot boat was considered "big".   Today, those houses are torn down for mini-mansions and the boats start at 21 feet.   We are a wealthier nation than back then, but the idea that the working Joe can afford to retire comfortably is starting to evaporate.
3.  Striking and Sickouts:  While an auto plant worker could go out on strike for higher wages, competition, in the form of foreign automakers (with their non-union plants, right here in America) meant that eventually something had to give.  High wages were also a greater incentive to automate, and today, it takes less than half as many people to assemble a car than in the 1960's.   In some cases, far less than half.   In the old days, dozens of people would man the "paint shop" and spray cars as they came down the line.  Today, one guy pushes a button and a robot does the rest - we can't afford to have someone inhale all those paint fumes all day long.
But for the government employee, there is no competition.   Ronald Reagan famously fired all of the air traffic controllers when they went out on strike, which put the fear of God into government unions.  But local unions, such as for police, firefighters, and teachers, have less fear.   They can threaten to strike, or "sick out" if striking is illegal, and bring local governments to their knees.  In some jurisdictions, they packed city councils with union members or those sympathetic to the employees unions (read: paid by them, though political contributions) and raises were handed out like candy.
In some famous cases, this has bankrupted cities and counties, and made salaries obscene.  The highest paid Police Chief in California wasn't in LA or San Francisco, but in an obscure small town which is now teetering on bankruptcy as a result.  Oh, and that Police Chief is now retired and drawing nearly a quarter-million-dollars in pension a year, and the California pension system is more stressed than ever.   Sadly, outrage among voters is strangely muted - we still believe the myth that our public servants are underpaid, and are distracted by irrelevant issues like trans rights and abortion.
This is not to say every teacher or fireman is wildly overpaid.   But most are paid more than the median or even average household income nationwide, and in many cases, far over what median and average household income for their local area.  Getting a government job today is akin to getting that coveted job at the auto plant back in 1966.

But bear in mind that even using the more aggressive 5% rule for withdrawal, in order to fund a retirement income of $50,000 a year, I would have to save up a million dollars.   Read that again until it sinks in.    So a retired schoolteacher couple from New York State, drawing $75,000 each a year in pension (and driving my property taxes up to the point I had to leave) has the equivalent wealth of over three million dollars.

And yet, if you asked them, they would say they are not wealthy, but merely middle-class.  And they could decry those "evil 1%'ers" who have a million dollars or more.    The sad thing is, of course, that given all the money they have (in terms of salaries over the years and pensions) they could have ended up really, really rich, to the tune of millions in the bank, but most, like my friends, have only a few thousand.

Their lifestyle doesn't seem much more extravagant than mine, because a huge portion of their income is squandered on interest payments and restaurant meals and designer coffees and brand-new clothes.   My life may look similar, but I am buying used cars and paying cash, paying little or nothing in interest, and not going out to restaurants and coffee bars on a daily basis.   Oh, and the bulk of my wardrobe comes from the thrift store.    We can put on the appearance of their lifestyle by scrimping and saving.   If they did as I did, they'd be millionaires many times over in addition to their fat pensions.

But such is the trap of the salaryman.  If you are told you will have a guaranteed income of $X for the rest of your life, you'll figure out a way to spend that amount every year.   And you might not blanch at borrowing money so much, because it becomes a way of life for you.  So you squander a huge portion of your income in interest payments and think, "this is the way everyone does it!"

Of course, for people with pensions from municipalities and not from the State or Federal government, it may not be all worry-free.  There is already a background hum that some pension obligations might not be fulfilled.   So far, most pensioners have dodged a bullet - even Detroit found a way to keep most of the pensions intact.    For Federal employees, their future seems assured.  But future retirees, of course, will be under the new retirement system, which is more akin to a 401(k).

But what does this all mean?   Well, it is interesting to watch how this all plays out - interesting and scary at the same time.   The whole point of the 401(k) and IRA was to change the mindset of Americans from "employees" to "investors" and for middle-class people who bothered to save, it pretty much worked out.  For the poor who could not afford to save much, it was (and will be) a sick joke.  For the middle-class who chose not to save but to buy a new car instead, it will be the culmination of a lifetime of poor choices.

You can see where Congress was going with this, though.  As my friends' example illustrates, when you receive a pension or a steady paycheck, you tend to think of purchases in terms of monthly payments, and not in terms of overall wealth.   And maybe for a vast majority of Americans who are largely ignorant of finances (as I was, and still largely am) and not only that, not capable of learning, perhaps the cradle-to-grave pension plan and government safety net is the only answer.   It is hard to say.   You give a man a pittance every week, he can buy food to survive.  You drop a pile of money in his lap, and it is all spent in a week or two.

What is also scary to me is that a country where working for the government is the best job you can get, is not a country that is very stable or productive.   If you read Waiting for Snow in Havana, you might understand what I mean.  In the pre-Castro era, getting a good government job was the key to success - that or being a wealthy landowner or business owner.  Everyone else had to make do.  Those who found favor with the government largely did well, and often this followed along ethnic and racial lines.   In the post-Castro era, of course, everyone works for the government, so to speak, and everyone now has the same level of poverty.   When more and more people become government employees, and government employment is seen as the most desireable endeavor, then socialism becomes the norm by default.

However, I think this is an anomaly, not a long-term trend.  "Retirement" as we know it, is a modern construct that has only been in place for about a half-century or so, since the end of World War II.  Before then, retirement was something you did for 18-24 months before you died, if in fact, you didn't die on the job.    If you did retire, you likely were supported by family members and lived in the same house.  The whole model of retirement communities for "active seniors" is something that really didn't get started until the 1960's.

So it is hard to say this is a trend or a data point when our experience is so limited and we have no real hard data on trends for more than a few dozen years.   I suspect that since the new hires with the Federal government are going to this new 401(k)-like plan, we will see a paradigm shift in their thinking.  And this will trickle down to municipal governments as they struggle with their unfunded pension liabilities in the coming years.   It may take a municipal bankruptcy or two (Hello, Chicago?) and the serious threat of a pension meltdown for the government unions to buckle and give into self-funded plans (at least in part).   And as events in Wisconsin have illustrated, the power of government unions to shape government policies is limited by the power of the taxpayers having to foot the bill.

We will look back at this era as a "golden age" of retirement for government employees.   I don't think it is a trend that will go on perpetually.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

How the Recession Will Happen (and is Happening)

The snowball effect works in recessions, too.

Just last year, there was a hue and cry that there weren't enough truck drivers to haul all the nation's goods.  We need more!   Well, a year later, several trucking companies have gone bankrupt and FedEx is reporting a loss.  Even taking aside one-time write-downs, FedEx isn't doing well and has lowered expectations for the coming year.

The culprit?  People are buying less stuff.  Commerce is down.   In the car business, sales are off, and each company is trimming its sails for the coming storm.  GM smartly sold off its money-losing European operations and rightfully closed the money-losing Lordstown plant and dumped unprofitable car lines.  They know the Buick party in China will end soon, as nationalist fever increases and being seen driving an American brand is viewed as an act of treason.

It doesn't take much for a recession to start.   It is a cyclical thing, to be sure - and we are overdue for one.  During good times, people spend money.  The stock market goes up, and people feel good about their investments.  Why not spluge a little, when your stocks went up a few grand this month?   Why not buy more when your house just jumped up in value?   And hey, you can "cash out" on this "equity" by taking out a HELOC or refinancing your house!

So people spend, and the snowball effect kicks in.  More spending means more jobs, which means more profits, which means bigger dividends, which means higher stock prices, which means more consumer confidence and more spending.   It is a perfect feedback loop.

But eventually, the balloon has to burst - or at least deflate a bit.   People run out of money to borrow.  Once you have over-mortgaged your house and have two hefty car loans and a credit card balance, reality kicks in.   This happened to me in the early 2000's - we were having a grand old party, and then one day, "suddenly" it seemed the bills got a lot harder to pay.  It works that way - you can go along making the minimum payments on your debts for months, even years, until one day you can't, because the debt load has been steadily increasing.   It appears to be sudden, but it was a long time in coming - catastrophe theory in practice.

Once people stop spending - or just slow down - the results are predictable.   Companies stop hiring.  Then they start laying off.   Companies that are over-extended with debt may end up going broke.   More people are laid off.  The guy who is laid off stops buying stuff he doesn't need.  The company selling junk to him makes less money - and they lay off people as well.   Unemployed, the laid-off guy sells his stocks, depressing stock prices.  Maybe he sells his house, as he can't afford the two mortgages.

Or he stops paying on the mortgages, and the bank forecloses.  The bank unloads the house for below market value, depressing home prices.  Again, this takes time, so you don't see it happen overnight, but when it kicks in, it appears to be sudden.   Once home prices are depressed, consumer confidence drops.  People worry their house is worth less than the mortgage balance.  Some simply walk away from underwater houses.  Others cash in their 401(k) - further depressing stock prices - to hold on to their "home".

This is the pattern we saw in 2008, it is a pattern we will see again.  And you and I can't control this, not through any direct or indirect means.  It doesn't matter who is in the White House, recessions happen.   But this time around, deficit spending and tax cuts have delayed recession for a year or two.  Tariff wars will insure the recession will be worse and longer, much as they were in 1929.

So what can you do to protect yourself from recession?   Basically the same things you should do all along - minimize debt and have a plan to pay off the debts you have.   Cut back on spending on frivolous things like $1000 smart phones and $100 restaurant meals or $5 coffee drinks.   Diversify your portfolio, so if one thing goes bad, it doesn't take you out financially.   And as you get older, find more and more "safe harbors" for your cash.   And if something does drop in value, don't panic and sell it all, thinking it will go all the way to zero.  When you buy high and sell low, you lock-in your losses.

We are well-prepared for a recession.   We have no debt, so no one can take away our home or tow away our cars.  Everything is paid for.   We have a very diversified portfolio, and I have been selling off stocks in mine for a year or so now (including just the other day) so I am sitting on enough cash to survive for at least three or four years, without having to sell off stocks at a loss during a market crash. We try to keep our expenses low and a lot of the "stingy" habits we've learned since I started this blog in response to the last recession, are still with us.   I just bought a new hair trimmer - it cost $20, or less than the cost of one haircut.

By the way, the idea for that money-saving tip didn't come from some old  fart or some tech-y geek who didn't care how his hair looked.    Rather, it was a trendy friend of ours who lived in Atlanta (and now New York City) who always had the latest clothes and accessories and was up on all the things the kids are doing these days.  If it worked for him, it certainly can work for me.  Although maybe now that he lives in Manhattan, he's getting those $200 haircuts, I don't know.

We're ready for this recession.   But many others are not.  The last time around, I wasn't and we still survived.   And others will, too, but there will be much moaning and groaning about how "unfair" it all is, and how the government should, once again, "bail out" homeowners who refinanced their house to buy a Mercedes.   Cut the loan balance in half!  That's only fair, right?

Sadly, they will likely do this, too.   It is like the student loan thing.   Maybe some of these kids are stressed financially (but whose fault is that?).  But others, such as myself, were easily able to pay off their loans (over a decade!) because we majored in something useful and found jobs and worked hard.   Would it have been fair to pay off my loans (as Bernie Sanders posits)?   Worse yet, it is fair to the guy who works hard and scrimps and saves to pay off his loans that the unemployed guy smoking pot gets his paid off for free?   What about the guy who paid off his loans last year?   Doesn't he feel cheated that he didn't wait a year for Comrade Sanders to wipe out his debt!

But I digress.   The point is - and I did have one - is that what we consider "financial distress" in this country is "wealth beyond our wildest dreams" in 90% of the world.   We need to put our problems in perspective, today and in the coming months as things start to unwind.

Death of Guilt Politics - Part II

The Democrats are going to lose in 2020, because Americans are tired of being told they are guilty of something.

I mentioned guilt politics before.   It is an extension of "ain't it awful" politics that both sides of the political spectrum engage in.   The right decries our society as going off the rails, but blames this on other people or Americans "turning away from God" (and yet, we have more church-goers than most other countries).   The left decries our consumerist culture and posits that just about everything wrong in the world can be traced back to America and its citizens, who are just a bunch of selfish bastards.   Not a real great selling point, if you want to get elected.

This sort of thing leads to a lot of faux environmentalism, which doesn't really accomplish much, but makes us feel better about ourselves, and allows us to shame others.    A lady I know is on the board of her hometown in charge of trash collection and recycling.   I mentioned to her that most of what we "recycle" doesn't end up getting recycled.   Glass, for example, is worth less - and worthless - to recyclers, as no one will take it to recycle it into new glass.   It is far cheaper to make glass from new raw materials.

"But we recycle glass in my town!" she cries, convinced that since it went onto the recycling truck, it got recycled.   But there is a "back end" to this recycling business.   It doesn't end once you toss a bottle into a plastic tote.   And today, more than ever, glass is separated from the recycling stream and simply thrown away. And much of the remainder was shipped overseas where legions of impoverished people sorted through it and tried to get something useful out of it.   I say "was" as China and the Philippines are tired of getting containers of North American garbage to sort through - it sort of is a stain on their national pride, and increasingly, it is less and less profitable.

It is implied that we are responsible for the majority of the world's garbage problems.  But the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" is full of old fishing nets and trash from India and Asia - 90% of it, in fact.   This doesn't mean we should not conserve and recycle, only that we are not the problem here, but part of the solution.   While China comes to grips with its smog problems, we here in the USA have been working on pollution controls for several decades now.   We lead the way in emissions reductions for automobiles - ahead of both Asia and Europe - and are now leading the way in solar and wind power as well.   Yes, the folks in Norway are all driving electric cars - because their fat checks from their oil business allow them to do so.  It isn't just us - and in fact, these are worldwide problems.

But guilt sells, apparently, at least to a certain segment of the population.   Problem is, eventually people get tired of feeling guilty and then sign on to the first charismatic leader that comes along telling them to feel good about themselves.   After World War I, the French and British decided to punish Germany with the Versailles treaty.  Germans were told they were evil, warmongering people (and historically, they were, I guess) and were responsible for the war, which they were, in part.   After decades of punishing sanctions, people got tired of being the whipping-boy for World War I.  And the first charismatic guy who came along and said, "You are great! Someone else is to blame for your woes!" ended up in charge.

So the whole cycle repeats itself, this time with a more horrific war with the horror of the holocaust.  This time around Germans feel even worse about themselves.  And for decades, they served penance.  But a younger generation today is wondering why they are born into the guilt of their parents and grandparents.  Nationalism rears its ugly head once again - Neo-Nazis are on the rise again in Germany.  This should be a concern to us all.

But this pattern of guilt, followed by ultra-nationalism should give us all pause.   When you tell people over and over again they are "bad" and not necessarily for things they have done personally, eventually they will snap.  And when that happens, they will react to the other extreme, with ultra-patriotism.  The rubber-band theory strikes again.

This is, in short, how Donald Trump got elected, and will get re-elected.   Young, white, middle and lower-middle class voters in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio were tired of being told they they were bad people, just by dint of being born in America.   Maybe this isn't the explicit message that is sold by the left, but it is implied.   Anyone who dares improve their lot in life, or desire nicer things, such as a garbage disposal, is an evil "Bougie" who needs to be shouted down, taxed, and maybe sent to a re-education camp.   Middle-class white people are tired of being the "Bougie" man.

So that's how we ended up with Trump.  And in response to this, the left is doubling-down its bet on shaming politics.  The problem, we are told, is that people aren't made to feel guilty enough.  And what's more, we need to "blame" others for the nation's problems, rather than working together to solve them.   Sadly, it is the same scapegoating that both sides use - "but for" the evil actions of "the other guy" we would all be living in paradise!

Not mentioned, however, is how good we actually have things and how easily we can screw up a good deal though this guilt politics and telling everyone how rotten things are (when in fact, they are not).

Switching from plastic to paper soda straws?  Sure, why not.  Quite frankly, I don't like using straws at all, and I don't see what the big deal is switching to paper.  When I was a kid, that's all we had, anyway.    Will it make a big difference?  Maybe not, but it is a symbol of our greatness, not our weakness, that we make such symbolic gestures.   Folks in Asia and India haven't given up on just throwing everything in the river.  Ahhhh, but they're the victims here, right?  No doubt forced to toss trash in the rivers due to Yankee Imperialism.

We can't solve our problems - or the world's problems - through jingoism and guilt politics.  We have to look at things from a realistic point of view.  Sadly, it seems the Democrats this time around are even further and further detached from reality.  Abolish borders!  Let all the criminals out of jail!  Chastise the police!  Forgive student loans!  Make college free!  Give away money!  Make everything free!  Why should we have to work when robots will do it all for us?  (never mind that these robots don't really exist at the present time, and even with automation, employment continues to expand).

Guilt politics works for a certain portion of the population who doesn't think they are guilty of anything, of course.  Student loan debt?   Has to be the fault of the big banks - after all, it wasn't my signature on all those loan documents, right?  And so long as I decry my luxury apartment as "Bougie" it's OK if I live in it, so long as I do it ironically.   And yet the true irony is lost on them.

This doesn't bode well for the next five years.   And no, I am not looking forward to the demolition-derby debate tonight, as an angry old '58 Chrysler Imperial goes up against a customized 1975 Dodge Van.

It even looks like him. Odd ride for a socialist, though.

Remember what your Mom said about taking rides from men in windowless vans.

UPDATE:  Uncle Joe owns a vintage '67 Vette 327 that he bought new and has owned ever since.  Now that's a car guy - who takes the train!

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Migration - Why?

Image result for migrants

Across the world, people are migrating from South to North, from the third-world to the first-world.  From countries with backward laws, superstitions, and fundamentalist religions, to countries with secular governments and liberal politics.  Why is this?

Every day now, we are treated to another article that slams the United States and Europe for being heartless bastards, because people are dying and being exploited as they try to migrate to these destinations.  But what these articles don't bother to investigate is why now is migration such an issue today?  Why are people flocking in droves from South to North, not just in the Americas but across the planet?  What is going on?

In a way, it is like rats leaving a sinking ship - or people climbing into the fantail of the Titanic.  People do what they have to do, to survive.  And in many places in South and Central America, as well as Africa, survival is getting harder and harder to do.  Countries there are ravaged by war, poverty, crime, and gang violence - as well as corrupt authoritarian governments that jail anyone who dares to question what is going on.   Leaving is the only logical answer - we can't fault refugees for that.

But how did it get this way?  Not overnight, for sure.  And in both America and Europe, there is a lot of guilt going around, as part of the reason for this migration dates back to our colonial ambitions in those Southern countries.   Every country in Europe - or nearly every one - had a doppleganger in Africa, or wanted to.  France had Algeria, Italy invaded Ethiopia, Germany had  German East Africa, West Africa, and South-West Africa (creativity in naming not being a German strong point).   Great Britain had... well, just about everything else.

In the Americas - our territory - we told European powers to butt out, under the Monroe Doctrine.  This didn't stop the Portuguese from colonizing Brazilia, or the British from claiming a number of Caribbean islands.  Spain released its hold on much of Central America, including Mexico, only to see it invaded, albeit briefly, by the French.   And then we stepped in, protecting "American Interests" in the form of the United Fruit Company and the Cavendish banana.  And during the cold war, we didn't think it unwise to depose elected leaders - if they were too cozy with the Russians - and install brutal dictators of our own. Of course, the Russians did the same thing, in Cuba, and today in Venezuela.  International politics is a brutal contact sport, not a polite game of chess.

So there is a lot of hang-wringing in Europe and in the USA that maybe we brought this on ourselves, through our colonial ambitions.  The British brought their efficient bureaucracy to the Caribbean, Africa and India, but left behind a legacy of intolerant laws, including those targeting Gays and Lesbians.  We criticize third-world countries for their intolerant views, but they are only enforcing the laws we left behind as Westerners.  Similarly, in a lot of countries, particularly in Central America, we left behind the legacy of intolerant Western religions, particularly Catholicism.

One of the central tenets of Catholicism is that birth control is a no-no and that you should "go forth and multiply" - with the result being many families having a dozen children or more.  In the era of high childhood mortality and short life expectancy, maybe this wasn't such a problem.  But one of the other legacies we left behind in these former colonies was Western Medicine.  Thanks to advances in modern medicine and the efforts of Jimmy Carter, people in these third-world countries are living longer and reproducing faster and faster - at a rate higher than the food supply and other resources can keep up.

The anti-vaxxer movement has yet to take hold in these countries, it seems.  They aren't that stupid.  And sadly, the people who are behind the anti-vaxxer movement themselves were vaccinated, so Darwin doesn't kick in here.   Their kids, on the other hand, who didn't have a choice in the matter, may find themselves kicking off due to measles or whatever.   But it may take a generation or two for this particular form of idiocy to be bred out of the genetic line.

So you end up with a perfect storm.   In countries like Nicaragua, not only is it a crime to get an abortion, it is even a crime to miscarry!  Countries with backward laws, backward religions (even Catholicism is ingrained with superstition in many of these countries), lack of education, corrupt governments, overpopulation, and dwindling resources.  The result is like an explosion of rats in the New York sewer.   This is not to say people breed like rats (no, you can't say that!  You'd be shamed on the Internets!) but well, we are animals, and yes, given the chance, we too, will overrun our ecosystem until it is utterly depleted.

So people migrate.   And where do you migrate to?   Where there is money, food, shelter, laws, order, and good clean living.   The question is not why anyone would migrate to the USA or Europe, but why they would stay behind?  Only those in power - who have assets or belong to a gang - would bother to stay in such places.

Both the USA and Europe have generous immigration and refugee regulations.  If you can make it to the border and claim refugee status, you are in - at least for a few years.  But in the USA in particular, it is easy to fall off the radar, once you are in.  And living illegally in the US is often better than living legally in your home country (or dying there).

So how do you stop this flow of migrants?   In a way, it is like trying to stop the flow of ants into your home - or any other "invasive species".   Again, you can shame me all you want (I don't give a fuck) but the point is (and you know this, deep down) that human beings are animals and thus behave like animals and are no better or worse than animals. That is, in part, why psychologists study animal behavior for insights into human behavior.  Yes, Skinner put rats and dogs in his Skinner boxes - because their behavior is not much different than ours - we share a LOT of DNA, my friend!

With any infestation, you can try to stamp out the invaders as they come in, or go to the source and stop the flow there.  Usually the latter approach is more effective.   If you see ants in the kitchen, you can try stomping on them or spraying them, but you only stop the ants that are already there.  The hive is still intact and the queen still pumping out baby ants and you've only addressed the symptom, not the problem.  The next day, they are back.

The more effective solution is to attack the hive.  Once the queen ant is gone, no more ants.   You have to attack the problem from the supply-side.

This is not to say we need to annihilate Nicaragua in a nuclear holocaust, although that technically would "solve" the problem (and raise a host of others - sort of like burning down your house to get rids of bugs).  Rather, we need to figure out why people are leaving these countries in the first place, and figure out how to make them more attractive to stay in so people are not incentivized to leave.

This is the humanitarian thing to do, too.  So take your shaming elsewhere.

You can install cots for migrant children and give them toothpaste and happy meals.  This doesn't solve the migration problem.  People will still be exploited and die making the trek, even if the end result is made more comfortable.  Oddly enough, making detention centers more livable would only serve as an attractant to many migrants.   A jail in America or Europe is probably more comfortable than life in Nicaragua or Sudan.  Three hots, a squat, and a cot.

And before you go off on migrant detention conditions, bear in mind that in the countries these folks came from no one is doing investigative reporting on jail conditions in their country.  If you did, you'd be found dead in a ditch by the side of the road.  We are appalled, and rightly so, by the treatment of these migrants, because in our country, this is considered an outrage, and not normal operating procedure.  And as a result, conditions will change and improve over time - that much cannot be said for Mexican jails.

So how do we make South Sudan or Nicaragua attractive places to live, so that people don't want to leave?  Aye, that's the rub.  You'd have to change not just one or two things, but everything.  Fundamentalist Islam or Catholicism, exhorting people to have as many kids as possible and professing intolerance (and inciting violence) needs to go.  And that ain't about to happen, as people's grip on fundamentalist religion gets tighter and tighter, the further they slide down the economic ladder.

Next, you have to get rid of the corrupt governments that steal all the food aid and most of the government budget.  Good luck with that.  In half the cases, these are governments the West had a hand in installing, in the other half, the "revolutionary" government (propped up by the Soviet Union) that overthrew the first half.  While the two-bit dictators we installed were often brutal and used police state tactics to remain in power, most were very Western in their views and very secular.

We decried the likes of Batista or the Shah for the use of secret police to keep the masses in line.  But their successors?  Not much better, it seems.   This is not to say we should get back into the business of overthrowing governments (did we ever get out?) only that a power vacuum now exists that the West has lost the taste for that sort of thing.   Vladimir Putin doesn't seem to have many qualms about it, nor do the Chinese, who are more than willing to offer e-z payment finance terms and payday loans to African and Asian governments.   Just sign here on the dotted line...

So, in a way, migration is our fault, and then again, it isn't.  The legions of people swimming ashore from Cuba aren't fleeing the tyranny of the Batista government (as many of their forebears were) but the tyranny of Communism.  There are no good guys or bad guys in this, just human nature.

What is the solution, then?   There probably isn't one, and that is a tough answer to swallow.  It is like the mess with Israel and the Palestinians.  You can propose as many mid-east peace plans as you want, none of them are likely to work.  The Israelis are not going away - and the Palestinians know this, and vice-versa.  A perpetual low-level conflict and endless suffering seems to be the new status quo.  Maybe eventually, something will snap.  Maybe.

So what's the point of this?  If the answer is "no answer" why bother asking?   Well, I think the wrong question is being asked - or no question is being asked at all.  We seem obsessed with the politics of it all - how migrants are being treated, whether they can be granted refugee status, and whatnot.   But you never see a reporter down in Nicaragua, asking pointed questions as to why people are leaving that country (and others as well) and why the government there isn't doing more to make life better for its inhabitants.  The media doesn't want to ask hard questions, particularly in countries were reporters can go missing.

So they do the easy thing - bring the News at 5 truck to the border for some eye-candy shots of people in ragged clothes clinging to a fence, or appealingly talking to the camera through an interpreter.   This is somehow all our fault, we are told, that these folks are victimized during their thousand-mile journey through Mexico.   It's all our fault, that we don't post lifeguards on the Rio Grande to prevent drownings when people try to swim across.

It is sad.  It is tragic - that is true.  But feeling guilty about it isn't solving any of the problem.  And not shipping beds to a detention center seems like an odd way of protesting, when kids will keep sleeping on the floor, as a result.

Lies, All Lies!

The big rip-offs in the world are predicated on lies.   If you choose to believe these lies, you likely will be ripped-off.   But you have to choose to believe.

A reader writes, asking me the title of a book I mentioned in my posting about gambling.  As I noted in that posting, I was drawn into a "friendly game of poker" which is to say, a "friendly game of playing with our wealth" which really was more of a "scheme to take money from you and give it to me."

One of the players perhaps took pity on me, and loaned me his book about poker playing, as I wasn't quite clear on strategies for obtaining a winning hand (there are few, it is mostly luck).   What was fascinating about the book was that it had only a chapter or two about how to play the cards, but the rest of the book was about how to play your opponent.   They offered strategies on how to get your opponent drunk (or high) while you carefully nursed watered-down drinks.   They offered advice on how to use psychology to keep a loser in the game ("you could win it all back in the next hand!").   They offered advice on how to collect on gambling debts through intimidation - calling your opponent at work, calling his wife, implying you are "connected" and even threatening bodily harm.

Fun stuff!   I quit the "friendly poker night" and found new friends.  I don't recall the title of the book, I'm afraid, as this was in 1982, which seems like yesterday to me, but I guess was 37 years ago (!!).  Time sure does fly.

I have been reading Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, and what struck me, other than the writing was pretty basic, was how Fleming used gambling and casinos in almost every novel.  Fleming himself was a prolific gambler (and apparently womanizer and playboy) which confirms to me that he wasn't all that smart.  He was very taken in by flashy things - cars, women, nightclubs, wealth, casinos, etc.  And his books reflect that, and they reflect a fascination - on both sides of the Atlantic - for this sort of lifestyle.

The gambling industry, or as they like to call themselves, the gaming industry love books and movies like James Bond, which paint gambling as a form of sophistication, with men in white dinner jackets and women in slinky black dresses all having fun gambling and sipping cocktails and champagne.  They also love the mythology of gambling - that somehow it is possible to "win" at gambling through sheer skill and verve and perhaps a little luck.   James Bond, in Casino Royale, takes down the bad guys not by shooting them, but by gambling them to death.  Because, you know, you can do that - if you are good enough, you can out-gamble someone, and it has nothing to do with luck.

But the fact that these poker tournaments are routinely won by unknowns paints a different picture.  And just as Wall Street lauds the latest wunderkind who successfully picked three stocks in a row which went up in value in a bull market, the press interviews the come-from-nowhere poker winner and lauds his "skills" in beating the big-time players.   Of course, we never hear from that fellow again.

These ideas that gambling is somehow glamourous and moreover that you can "beat the odds" if you are sufficiently suave like James Bond are all, of course, base lies.  "The house always wins" is a phrase you hear not from gambling critics, but from gamblers themselves.  I was invited to the Mohegan Sun casino by a "diamond club" member (or whatever they call it) for a free meal he "won" by dint of losing a substantial portion of his wealth at the casino.

"Look around you!" he said to me, "What do you see?"   I mumbled something about flashing lights and security cameras which is all I noticed.

"Losers!" he replied to his own question, "Losers, every damn one of them!  And I'm the biggest loser of them all!"

It was an odd admission for him to make.  And he still goes to that casino and still loses regularly.  I should have bought those bonds!   He would be funding my retirement.

But of course, he was hooked.  And once you are addicted, it is hard to quit.   The opiate addict is drawn into that world by promises that "it's not that addictive" and that he needs "pain management" for his "sports injury" - never mind the fact the "sports injury" was caused when he fell out of his easy chair reaching for the remote while watching football.    Sometimes it is a blessing that I am allergic to pain medication.

These sort of industries use lies to rope you in.  And once you are roped in, you can't get out - or can't get out easily.   Like the bear trap, it sure looks tempting with all that sugary bait, but once you step into it, you'll have to gnaw your leg off to escape - either that or walk around with a bear trap embedded in your leg and tell people, "It isn't so bad, once you lose enough blood to not feel your leg anymore!"

Lies are what is used to rope people into raw deals, usually by appealing to their emotions.  If you can get someone to think emotionally, they will do just about anything you want them to do - strap on a suicide vest, run up credit card debt, lease a new car, buy a timeshare, become an MLM distributor.  The first is the least painful.

This is why I say it isn't hard to spot raw deals - they are predicated on lies.  You can spot them from 100 miles away, once you know what to look for.   Any deal predicated on a lie, no matter how trivial, is sure to be a raw deal for you down the road.  Just now, the phone rings, and a recording tells me that there is a "limited enrollment period!" for a new health care plan!  Press # for more information!

They have lied to me twice already, before I even picked up the phone.  First, they spoofed the caller ID to use the same area code and exchange as my number - to trick me into believing that someone I know is calling, so I'll answer.  Second, they drove a semi-truck right through the tissue-paper-thin protections of the Do-Not-Call registry.  These are people who are quite comfortable with being deceitful and breaking the law - am I going to buy health insurance from them?   Only a fool would - yet there are many fools out there.

But that's just an obvious example.   The loud ads for the car dealer, followed by the tiny fonts (in print or on TeeVee) or compressed audio (on the radio) spooling the "fine print" that basically negates the verbal promises made by Smilin' Sam the used car dealer, pretty much tell you the whole deal - you are not going to come out ahead here.   Yet, every middle-aged heterosexual white male I know tells me that they "pulled a fast one" on the car dealer and somehow scored a deal.   No, they did not get a car for free, of course, and they are still making payments on their Jalopy.  But they told the dealer what they would pay and that was that!  (Since the amount they "demanded" was $100 over book, the dealer readily agreed).

Lies, lies, all damned lies.   These are the things they use to get at us, to get us to spend.   "If you lease the car, it frees up your cash-flow!" the salesman chirps.  So now you can kid yourself that you are not just mortgaging your future so you can have a flashy car today, but are making a smart financial decision.

You can waste your time "cranking the numbers" on raw deals - just be sure you are not distracted by funny accounting, such as "opportunity cost" arguments or "why not invest in your vacation?" kind of deals - because liars know how to use math, to their advantage, by failing to include all the variables.   It's just a lot easier to walk away from these sort of deals, as you can see they are raw deals from 100 yards away.   You can't "win" at the casino, or the credit card company or the car dealer, so just stop trying.

That's all you need to know to get ahead in this world - turn away from lies.   It doesn't take rocket science or "secret inside knowledge" to wealth, insider tips on stocks, or strategies for slot machines. The "secret" is no secret - just turn away from these things - and perhaps instead of gambling at the casino, own one.   Or maybe at least own a slot machine at your place of business, if you are in Reno.

That is, of course, a metaphor.   You can make money by exploiting other peoples' weaknesses and by being willing to lie, yourself.   I could have made millions setting up an "invention broker" house and put ads on the Internet on how you can get rich with your invention - if you first send me some money, of course.   And it's all perfectly legal.  Oh, sure, the FTC may harass you now and again, but that is like brushing off a fly.

And I don't blame you if you go that route.  Of course, you'd understand why I keep one hand on my wallet when I am in your company, of course....

But for the rest of us, there is a middle-course that doesn't require we sell our souls to Satan, or to the finance company (a division of SatanCo, Inc.).  We don't have to become crooks ourselves, or be beholden to crooks.  Just turn away from these sleazy deals and use your logic, not emotions, when investing or spending money.

That's it - the vaunted "insider" secret to everything in life.