Monday, September 30, 2019

Media Lies

The media has told the same old lies for so long, I think even they believe them.

I mentioned before some baldfaced lies that politicians like to tell, and the media likes to repeat.  These are not "controversial" or "political" views, but basic economic facts, that for some reason, the media likes to distort.  What sort of things am I talking about?

1.  Retail Apocalypse:   According to the media, Amazon is bulldozing over every other retailer in the market.   And anytime a retailer files for bankruptcy, "online retailing" and Amazon are usually mentioned in the first paragraph of the story.  Who can compete, now that Amazon controls more than half the retail market?

The truth is, most of these retailers are going bankrupt for very old-fashioned reasons.  Most were loaded up with debt, and many sold products no one was interested in - or were wildly out of style, or were no particular bargain.  Sears is a classic example - no one wanted to shop in their old, dingy stores, there was nothing there of particular value, and the fashions were outdated.  And the place was loaded to the gills with debt.

Today, it is "Forever 21" - a laughable women's clothing store that appealed to trophy wives on their third face-lift, trying desperately to cling to youth.  It never took off with its designated age demographic, mostly because 21-year-olds don't want to buy their Mom's clothing.  Even the name of the store was embarrassing, particularly when you saw 40-somethings carrying the shopping bags emblazoned with the logo.  The stores were dated, the clothing was out-of-style, and the company was loaded with horrendous debt.  Amazon had little to do with it.

In other markets, "brick and mortar" is being supplanted not by Amazon, but by Walmart.   Walmart is the retail colossus in everytown USA.  Amazon is a seller of cheap Chinese junk online - and often not at particularly attractive prices.   Amazon sells $20 billion in groceries every year.  Walmart sells $270 Billion.  Yea, "Whole Foods" is going to take that over with drone delivery of asparagus water.

But members of the media, located in larger cities, rarely go to Walmart - and can afford to shop at Whole Foods.  And every night when they get home, there is a stack of Amazon boxes on their front porch (if the porch pirates haven't been there first).  So to someone writing for a major paper or news channel, the answer seems obvious:  Amazon is putting everyone out of business!

Thus, when writing an article about a retail company filing for bankruptcy, it is obligatory for them to insert a paragraph or two - usually the second paragraph in the story - mentioning "retail apocalypse", online retail, and of course, Amazon.  It is a standard form paragraph at this point.

2.  Homelessness:   The media reports two lies whenever there is an article about homelessness.  The first lie is that homeless people are "just down on their luck" and that it could "happen to anyone" as everyone in America is "one paycheck away" from being homeless.

The second lie is that homelessness is caused by high rents and high housing prices.  And again, this is a standard form paragraph (or two) usually inserted early on into the story.   Joe Blow is homeless because rents in San Francisco are $3000 a month.   It isn't until later on in the story, often "below the fold" that you read that Joe Blow is a convicted criminal who stole from his employers to feed his drug habit, and chose drugs over marriage, job, career, family, and everything else.

Granted, Joe needs help - in an institution.  You see, he's also crazy as a loon, as most homeless people are.  That's how they ended up homeless.   It wasn't "the high cost of rent" that put them out on the street, but the high cost of drug abuse.

Members of the media, I suppose, assume that their fat salaries are largely undeserved (probably the only thing they get right) and worry that maybe "they, too!" will end up out on the street someday, particularly when they are living paycheck-to-paycheck on $200,000 a year in a major coastal city.  It's all a matter of perspective.

3. Socialism in Scandinavia:  Most media outlets tend to lean left, Fox News and Breitbart notwithstanding (the latter being a website, not a media outlet).   And many of them like to harp about how socialism can "work" because it worked so well in Scandinavia.

Today, "Democratic Socialists" fall all over each other promising to unwind capitalism and promise millenials to make the system "fair" by taking away money from their parents and giving it to them, instead.  And they point to socialist programs in Scandinavian countries as an example of the "success" of such schemes, when in fact, these schemes have failed and most countries have run away from these ideas.

For example, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren want to tax the wealth of the very rich to "eliminate billionaires" from the world.    And yes, this was tried in Sweden, but it backfired in a big way.   The founder of IKEA - among others - simply moved to Switzerland to avoid this tax - billionaires can afford to do things like that, and I hear the weather is nice in Bern this time of year.

Since those days, the Swedes have largely abandoned their "wealth tax" as it simply didn't work, discouraged investment, and forced the smartest and most successful to move away.

But to hear the media tell it, socialism works, and the "Scandinavian model" is one we should adopt.  This is, really, an outright lie.

* * * 

Those are just three examples that are noticeable and noteworthy because I hear them so much today. Every story about homelessness has to have a paragraph about rents in San Francisco.   Every story about a company going bankrupt has to mention Amazon as the culprit - even though Amazon may be only tangentially involved, if that (I doubt the place where I buy my weed-whacker is the cause of a women's fashion chain's demise).   And every story about Bernie Sanders or AOC has to compare our "unfair" capitalist economy with the Scandinavian Socialist Miracle - even if it never existed.

There are probably other lies you are aware of - stuff that is so ingrained in the conciseness of the media that it is inserted - in knee-jerk fashion - into every story.  A black man is shot by the Police - after threatening them with a handgun and after shooting his entire family.   The story has to include one or more paragraphs about "Black Lives Matter" and Ferguson, Missouri, even though the story has nothing to do with that.

 The problem with this type of "reporting" is that it is setting forth a "narrative" and then just assuming we all agree with it.  There is no causal connection made between "Forever 21" declaring bankruptcy and Amazon - it is just assumed.   Granted, many paragraphs into the story, they finally get around to mentioning the staggering debt load and outdated fashions (and maybe even that the fashion industry is quite fickle, and no fashion brand or store is forever, 21 or otherwise).   But those salient facts are diluted in order to serve a greater cause - to reinforce the notion that "Amazon is taking over" or whatever.

The facts are being bent to serve the cause.    Reality is twisted to serve the narrative.   We can cure homelessness through rent control!   Right?   I mean, it's worth a try, huh?

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Your Drug Problem is Not My Problem

If people want to do drugs, that is their thing.  But they should accept the consequences.

Another weepy piece in the paper today, about a man who was a famous Sommelier at fancy restaurants, but is now reduced to homelessness!   He's living in a tent, man!  And it could happen to you, buddy, so you'd better vote for Bernie!  Of course, the paper in question is the New York Times.

We have to take his word for it that he was a Sommelier and not just a waiter. But about six paragraphs into the article, they drop the bomb - he's homeless not because of heartless Republicans raising rents, but because of mental health and drug abuse issues.  Big fucking surprise to anyone who pays attention.

The legions of homeless are not in fact legions.   In fact, they make up a surprisingly small amount of the population - far less than 1%.   But they make up for this by being annoying as shit - standing on busy street corners, tying up traffic, begging for money with their made-up cardboard pleas about being "just evicted" or whatever.  They make their presence known by stealing all your shit - breaking a $500 car window to take $3.50 in change from your ashtray.   They shit on your lawn, they piss on your shrubs.    And they assault and even kill each other, and perhaps you - or your childrenThey belong in mental institutions.

Sadly, "homeless advocates" use the homeless much as the homeless use a dirt-smeared child or a flea-bitten dog as a prop to beg for money. "We need more affordable housing!" these self-styled "advocates" argue.  As I noted before, I pissed off one such advocate when he tried to convince me that Key West should have free housing for the homeless - in a vacation resort no less!   And yes, he tried the usual shaming techniques on me (sorry, but I am immune to that kryptonite!).  The idea that maybe people who are homeless shouldn't have the choice of the best real estate seemed to elude him.

Building apartments for drug-addled mentally-ill people won't solve their problems.   They'll tear out the walls and turn the place into a crime-infested drug den.   How do I know this?   It has been the fate of most "public housing" since time began.  And in most of those complexes, the folks are not severely mentally ill.

Is it possible for a "regular person" who has a job and a career and a wife and kids, to end up in a tent under a freeway? Yes, but you have to work at it. First, you have to acquire a drug habit - methamphetamine is a good start, and easier to find these days than "crack" cocaine (which drove the "homeless epidemic" in the 1980's).  Opioids are another good choice - and quite popular today.  Got back pain?  Old sports injury?  Just go to your local pill-mill doctor, and when he suggests Oxycontin for your "chronic pain" just don't say no.

Of course, the media paints another picture.  Addiction is inevitable and it can happen to anyone, so watch out, buster!   They try hard to paint stories about "one of us" turning into "one of them" - even a journalist!  But you scratch around the edges of these stories and they come apart like a frayed sweater.   It isn't easy to become homeless - you have to work at it, being irresponsible and selfish for years and years at a time.

But it can happen, if you let it - if you work at it.  I recounted before how a friend of mine's husband was going to night school at George Mason University Law School.  Back then, it was located in an old Sears building (which were being abandoned even then) in Arlington.  They still had the escalators, even.  Third floor!  Ladies undergarments, Children's Toys, Torts and Constitutional Law!

Anyway, back then, it was not a good part of town, and there were drug dealers hanging around the place.  The husband had a mild pot-smoking problem, and he asked one of the dealers for some pot.  "I ain't got no pot, bro!" he said, "but try some of this crack - it's da bomb!"

He brought it home and found a new friend.  His wife tried it, but wasn't sure this was such a good thing for a young career couple to be doing.  The husband bought more and more crack, until one day he proposed spending the mortgage payment on crack.  "But then the mortgage won't get paid!" the wife argued.  "Yea, but we'll have a boatload of crack!" he replied.

They split up.  I am sure he called her a "materialistic bitch" - drug addicts do that sort of thing, even po-theads. He, of course, eventually lost his high-paying job, the condo was foreclosed upon, and he moved back home with his parents - at age 35 - but not before taking out some loans in his ex-wife's name.  The last we heard of him, he was in jail for running a meth lab.  His Dad, who was a successful attorney, kept bailing him out of one form of trouble or another, which of course, meant only that he ended up in one form of trouble or another.  By the time Dad finally cut him off, the son was a broken man.

So, yes, homelessness can "happen" to successful people, but you really have to work at it.  And note that in this narrative, the high cost of housing was nowhere an issue.   The high cost of crack, was.

But for some reason, the NYT article has to waste a couple of paragraphs about how high the cost of housing is in California, before they get down to the real issue.

Some folks say we should be compassionate to the homeless, and provide them with free food, shelter, and clothing.  They need these things because they are homeless!  But in reality, they need these things because what money they make panhandling is spent on drugs.  They choose not to buy food, clothing, and shelter but instead spend the mortgage money on crack. Indulging them or enabling their lifestyle isn't going to make their lives better.  It isn't going to "turn their life around" - it is just going to allow them to get high for one more day.

But of course, a lot of politicians realize this.  To them, the homeless are nothing more than props to be used for a political agenda - sort of like how Yasser Arafat kept his own people in refugee camps and in conditions of privation so he could point to them as an example of Israel's wrongdoing (not much has changed, sadly, since he died).  But he kept the aid money coming in - and going out to his Swiss bank accounts.

Sadly, we see a similar thing happening today. Politicians aren't interested in solving people's problems (which are often best solved by the government not trying to solve them!).  Rather, they want festering issues and festering unrest so they can get elected.  So long as abortion is legal in at least one State, the GOP has a platform that will get votes from the very people they are screwing economically.  Overturning Roe v. Wade would be a disaster for them.

But what about the people involved?  Aren't they victims?  Well, yes and no.  As my friend's husband illustrated, he wanted to do crack, and made a conscious choice to do so.  Even after he lost his house, his wife, and his career, he kept doing drugs and moved onto methamphetamine because he enjoyed it. I said it before and I'll say it again, these drug-addled homeless are having a ball of a time, even if you and I see only privation and poverty.   Being high all the time is actually fun, which is why people do drugs.

Most people see though this, though.  Getting high is fun - but there is always a downside to anything that is simple as that.  You get drunk, you end up puking - or hung over.  You smoke pot, you may lose your ambition. You do harder drugs, well, you can lose it all - and this isn't some State secret, but something published in the papers every day.  If you choose to ignore this, is it my fault?

It is like the student loan thing.  Maybe you could believe that some student from a decade ago had "no idea" that borrowing $50,000 to get a degree in anthropology was a bad idea.  But today?  Every paper and every media outlet publishes articles about what a raw deal college is and what a perpetual nightmare student loans are. Yet, right at this very moment, there is some 18-year-old, standing in line at the bursar's office, waiting to sign some documents and get that sweet student loan check to use for "housing" expenses.  I know this, because I was once that young man.   But I paid it all back, of course.

And I know other young people today who made different choices - going to a State school, working jobs in the summer to support themselves, borrowing as little as possible.  They don't write articles about them.

Just as the media doesn't write articles about the 99.83% of the population who doesn't smoke crack and end up living in a tent.

We need to put this stuff in perspective, and realize when we are being baited.

The Third Man - Price Controls and Shortages

Trying to control prices often leads to shortages and distortions in the marketplace.

It's funny, but mankind never seems to learn from its mistakes.  Every year some legislator tries to introduce a bill rounding Pi off to three, thinking that they can alter the laws of mathematics with the laws of man.  But of course, such things are simply impossible to do.

Similarly, even though ideas like communism and fascism have shown to not be workable, every so often somebody comes up with the idea that maybe if we had a totalitarian government, things would get done or maybe if we resorted to communism, where everyone was supposedly equal, the world would be a paradise.  And of course, these things never work out.

When someone has absolute power, they quickly become tyrants - Hitler and Kim Jong Un are not anomalies.  There is no such thing as a "benevolent dictator".   And communism breaks down when humans behave like humans - selfish.  So a dictator of the proletariat is installed to clean things up, and you end up back with fascism.  Stalin was not an anomaly, either, but the predictable end-result of communism.

And this isn't a matter of leftist versus rightist,  Democrats verses Republicans - or whatever - all parties are equally guilty in this regard.  Remember it was Richard Nixon who enacted wage and price controls in the early 1970s in response to staggering inflation, which was largely due to the price of oil skyrocketing as result of the Arab Oil Embargo.  The entire American economy was dependent on oil, so when the price of oil went up, the price of everything increased as well. The resulting effect was something called stagflation and it affected the American economy and the American mindset until even today.

And speaking of today, a new generation of socialist Democrats want to impose price controls on our economy.  Bernie Sanders proposes a nationwide rent control scheme where rent will be controlled by the government.  However, it has been shown in the past that rent control really doesn't work out, except for a very lucky few people who end up in rent-controlled apartments.  In New York City, after the war. there was a shortage of places to live, and prices skyrocketed.  New York enacted rent control laws.

But what evolved over time, was that those were lucky enough to get a rent-controlled apartment never let go of them because they were rented for far less than market value.  People would keep these apartments and sublet them to others or try to pass them down through other family members.  There was some very embarrassing articles in New York Magazine illustrating how many celebrities had rent control pied-à-terre apartments that cost them only a few hundred dollars a month even though the market value of those apartments was well into the thousands.  A system designed to help "the little people" ended up helping some very wealthy people, instead.

One of the most famous examples of how price controls don't work and how abolishing price controls restores balance in the marketplace occurred in Germany after World War II.  During the Nazi era, prices were controlled during the war, as most wartime economies do.  The Nazis also did this so they could purchase war materials for below-market Value.  It is perhaps another reason why they lost the war.

After the war, the Occupying Allied Forces kept these Nazi-era price controls in effect, and many unionists, manufacturers, and left-wing political types wanted to maintain these price controls, thinking erroneously that the government could dictate prices to the economy.

Of course, the net result was dramatic shortages of basic everyday supplies, including medicines. When the official price for a good was well below its market value, people would buy things and hoard them and then resell them on the black market.  And the black market is just the market.  You can try to outlaw things, but they will still end up being sold - often at a much higher price.  Hence, why we have a thriving market for illegal drugs in this country, even though technically they are outlawed.

This black market for everyday commodities was a primary plot device in the movie The Third Man starring Orson Welles.  Wells played an unscrupulous black marketeer who bought medicines such as penicillin and watered them down and resold them on the black market, the net result being that young children died from infections because of ineffective medication.

But within a few weeks in 1948, the entire black market collapsed. What happened was that more advanced thinkers in the German economy came into power and a new allied commander was sent to supervise the occupied territories. They reformed the currency, eliminating the Reich-mark and replacing it with the Deutsche-mark and thus reducing the amount of currency in circulation.  They also eliminated almost all the price controls overnight.

Initially, the result was chaos.  Once people realized they can charge whatever they wanted for products, they raised prices through the ceiling.  And of course, the prices were too high, and thus no one would buy.   But as prices were allowed to float, people were incentivized to produce and ship their products to the marketplace in the large cities.  Within a few weeks, prices stabilized and supplies increased, hoarding disappeared, and shortages disappeared as well. The German economic miracle took off.  Germany today is the strongest economy in the European Union.

What is so staggering about the German experiment is that the shortages and difficulties in the economy disappeared not within months or years, but within weeks and days after these price controls were eliminated. As one German Economist famously quipped, "don't just sit there, undo something!" As it turns out, government intervention wasn't what was needed to solve the crisis, but rather a removal of government intervention that was creating the crisis in the first place.

We saw a similar effect during the stagflation era.  We all like to credit Ronald Reagan for "deregulating" the airline and trucking industries, but these actions were initiated by the Carter administration.   Within a few years, the cost of shipping goods decreased dramatically.  No longer did you need permission from the ICC to drive a truck from point A to point B.   And the cost of air travel plummeted - and became a form of transportation for the everyman.  Of course, this meant that well-entrenched monopolies or duopolies came crashing to the ground - airlines had to compete on price for the first time, and many went bankrupt.

But through the 1980's, the economy recovered and then took off during the 1990's.  The regulations that were in effect back then would be unthinkable today - the amount of government intervention in the marketplace was staggering. Today, we are attacking the very idea of licensing taxicabs.  I wonder how many people protesting for rent control would like to give up Uber and go back to riding in a medallion cab?

People want to institute rent control or have the government force builders to create something called "affordable housing" -  and the reasons for doing this are not too hard to understand.  Housing has always been a huge portion of everyone's budget since the dawn of time.  When I graduated from college and was trying to find a job, it staggered me that almost half my after-tax income went toward paying rent.  The prospect of even owning a home seemed impossibly far off.  But then I found someone to live with, and that cut the rent in half and together we worked toward a common goal.  Within a few years we bought a house and within a few more years, we had an office building and then investment properties. It's amazing how things can change, quickly.

But if you would have asked me a few years before, when I was struggling to pay the rent on my first apartment in Washington, I would have told you that the entire system was sacked against me, and was unfair.  Back then I swore I would never be able to afford a home of my own, much less afford anything at all, with the staggering cost of rent taking such a huge portion of my monthly budget.

For some reason, the current generation thinks that their experience is novel.   Or maybe not - maybe politicians just understand that the cost of housing has always been an issue, and one way to pander to people - besides offering free college, loan forgiveness, and free money - is to offer them the prospect of cheaper rent.  They tell young people today that they're paying more in rent than previous generations, when in fact they're paying pretty much the same, or in many cases, maybe even less.

Certainly, in very popular cities such as San Francisco or New York, you're going to pay an enormous amount of money in rent. And again, wages are also higher in the cities as well.  But other parts of the country, you can live very inexpensively, and the range in prices from major cities to rural areas is rather staggering. A million-dollar home in one part of the country is worth barely $100,000 in another.  As they say in real estate, location is the key.

When prices go up, people seek out alternatives.  New York is too expensive?  Swallow your pride and move to New Jersey.   Apartment too costly?   Do what I did, and find someone to live with - a roommate or a significant other.  When shortages occur, people seek out alternatives, much as they did in postwar Germany, bartering for food. When the laws prevent people from seeking out alternatives, however, folks can end up in a jam.   And in places like San Francisco, zoning laws are often preventing people from building more housing and increasing housing density.

We sold our home in Alexandria and the builder - who bought every home on the block - knocked it down and put up two homes in the place of each one he bought.   Our house - like others on the block - was on two deeded lots and the land was worth more than the house.  Some decried the change to higher-density housing.  But the alternative of people moving further and further out into the suburbs, driving for hours in polluting cars and plowing under more of the countryside, was not an environmentally correct answer.   Increasing housing density in cities makes more sense, in that it increases the amount of housing stock, and decreases the amount of energy used for commuting and travel.

If rent controls were enacted, it would act as a disincentive for people to rent out apartments.  Most landlords would be smarter to turn their apartment buildings in the condominiums and thus avoid the problems of rent control. This would further remove more properties from the rental market.  As a result, even more shortages would occur.  Those who did manage to secure a rental apartment at a rent controlled price would not be incentivised to move away and buy a place of their own, but would rather hang on to that apartment, possibly trying to illegally sublet it at real market rates, and pocketing the difference. This is not some wild theory but rather the experience of what happened with rent controlled apartments in New York City in the past.

If the landlord is not making money on the apartment, he certainly has no money left over to pay for repairs or improvements.  Thus, there is no incentive to maintain a building but rather to let it decay into a ghetto slum. We saw huge sections of New York City turn into slums as a result of this type of rent control. People fled the city and moved to places like Long Island or Jersey or Staten Island, where suburban subdivisions popped up nearly overnight. This exodus from the cities continued until most apartments "aged out" of the rent control system as their tenants (and descendants) passed away.   Rent controlled apartments are now about 1% of the total inventory, although a lot of landlords have since signed up for "rent stabilized" programs, where they are offered tax breaks in return for certain rental guidelines.

Of course, in addition to tenants seeking other alternatives, high rents cause employers to act as well. Companies in silicon valley have relocated or located satellite offices in less-costly cities, such as Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colorado - but often in the process, end up increasing rents in those cities, of course.  There is no easy answer to any of this.

And that right there is the problem - politicians are offering easy answers to complex problems, and easy answers are almost always the wrong answers.  It doesn't take any thought to put up a platform that says, "We'll cut the cost of rent by telling people what rents should be!" or that they will make college more affordable by making it free - or make healthcare free by having hospitals send the bills to Uncle Sam.   The back-end of these "solutions" gets messy.   Who pays for all of this, in the end?  It is easy to dictate to the market what prices are, it is a lot harder to get the market to go along with this, particularly when producers stand to lose money at the dictated prices.

A reader writes:
As Thomas Sowell said:  
The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.  
Good point.

Cars are expensive.  Why not pass a law making them all cost $10,000? The government could do this, and argue that the "Commerce Clause" allows them to do so.   But within a few months, all the car factories would close, as one company after another goes bankrupt.   The remaining cars in circulation would become priceless - and a black market would develop.  It is an idiotic idea, of course, but no more idiotic than "rent control."

Sadly, people don't get this.  We are told that the homelessness problem in places like LA and San Francisco (where homelessness is still less than 1% of the population!) is a result  of rents being too high.   That is, of course, a bald-faced lie.   The homeless are living in tents because of their drug and mental health problems.  These are not people "looking for jobs" and "trying to get by" - if they were, they'd leave the area and move to somewhere else.

It just seems to me that we are being sold a bill of goods here. We are told we have these insurmountable "problems" that no one can solve, except by abolishing our Constitution (or amending it) and instituting socialist big-government policies.

I am not sure that this isn't just a big power-grab.   Perhaps the biggest in our history.

But then again, you don't get elected these days, unless you can convince people that everything is a crises.

Friday, September 27, 2019

The Gay Ghetto - Gay Campgrounds

Why live with things second-rate?

Minority groups often fall victim to the ghetto mentality. They tend to believe that they are not entitled to all the wonderful things life has to offer, and often settle for second-rate and rundown substitutes.  Not only that, it is difficult, as a minority, to rise above depression which can lead to things to self-destructive behavior such as drug use, alcoholism, criminal activity, and the like.

Of course, one way to avoid this is to move away from the ghetto, but many people think this is impossible to do.   It is all-too-easy to fall into a comfort zone, even in a place which is uncomfortable.

We have traveled across America and most of Canada by RV, staying in campgrounds in nearly all 50 states and almost all of the Canadian provinces except for the Unexplored Territories and the Disputed Lands.    Campgrounds vary from run-down dilapidated places filled with meth heads living in clapped-out campers. to high-end Motorcoach Resorts that cost hundreds of dollars a night and are manicured within an inch of their life.

On the whole, I would say the average Campground, whether it is privately owned or a State or local government run campground is pretty decent.  There's usually a certain level of amenity one gets used to and accepts.  There are few places which are just truly amazing wonderlands that are often quite inexpensive, and then there are other few places where you turn around and leave before checking in, because they look so run down and scary.

And over the years we've been to at least a dozen or more gay campgrounds.  And while most of them are pretty nice and the people are pretty friendly, none of them rise to the level of the even an average regular campgrounds.  In fact most of them tend to pale in comparison to the average campground.

One thing most gay campgrounds seem to have in common, is a lack of respect for sewage treatment. Many, if not most, do not have hookups available for your sewer.  Or if they do, it is so poorly engineered that you may end up getting sick because the sewage is dripping into the well water.  And I am not kidding about this, we went to one of the largest gay campgrounds in Florida, which touts itself as "America's first gay community," and we were not told there was a boil water advisory until after we had left.  And yes, we got sick.

The problem with Gay Campgrounds is often they are under-capitalized.  They try to grow organically through the use of profits and cash flow.  Many of them start off as a piece of property owned by an individual who invites some friends over the weekend.  They pitch tents in the yard and enjoy themselves in the pool, and the next weekend somebody brings an RV and asks to plug in to the outlet in the garage.  Others, ironically enough, are former Christian Bible Camps.

Fast forward 20 or 30 years and you have 25 to 50 or even a hundred permanently ensconce campers and only sketchy infrastructure to support them. Many campground owners spend more time maintaining glitzy displays of Christmas lights than they do the basic infrastructure of electricity, water, and sewage.  People try to paper-over these fundamental defects in infrastructure with lots of glitz and glamour.   A few disco balls here and some twinkle lights there, and it's all good, at least after dark.

One famous gay campground, which is actually owned by the residents as a condominium-like arrangement, has the very same problem with the sewage treatment.  When the owners were polled as to whether to spend money on a proper sewage treatment facility or to spend more money on glitz and glamour, they all voted for glitz and glamour.  Unfortunately, this means a lots of strings of half-broken Christmas lights and tinsel stapled up over cardboard, which after a few rain storms starts to look kind of sad.

We've been to some of these gay campgrounds where they keep putting up more lawn lights and streams of Christmas lights and rope lights and pink flamingos another tchotchke until it becomes rotted, mildewed, and dirty, at which point they just add another layer of glitz on top of the previous layer.  It starts to look very sad and cluttered after a while.  Regular campgrounds very rarely look this way.

After visiting will more than a dozen of these sort of campgrounds, one wonders, why can't gay people have campgrounds as nice as heterosexual people?  And the answers are complex and various.  Again, as I noted before, the lack of capital is part of the problem.  We recently visited a KOA Campground in Nashville located next to the Grand Ole Opry.  They clearly have an awful lot of money to spend renovating the place, particularly after a recent flood. They have a beautiful in-ground pool and the grounds are manicured and well-kept.

Notably missing from the KOA was stapled up strings of Christmas lights, disco balls, or plastic Pink Flamingos. The owners of the campground invested their money in infrastructure, not in superficial things.

But I think lack of capital is only part of the problem.  I think with most minority groups, there is a sense of low self-esteem that attaches to identifying yourself as a minority, separate from the rest of society.  People often convince themselves that they're only entitled to something less than what everyone else gets, and thus they are more than willing to accept something that is substandard or shoddy.

You need only drive through the cultural ghettos of any city of America to confirm this.  People living in ghettos have to settle for shopping at convenience stores that charge outrageous prices for substandard goods.  Housing is often decrepit and run-down. The streets are often dirty and unsafe. Most people won't tolerate those sort of conditions, but as a minority, you may feel this is all you're entitled to or all that you deserve

I'm not sure there's an answer to this problem, other than once people enter the mainstream of society, they realize that better things are available to them and then abandon ghetto culture.  Our American history is full of examples where cultural ghettos evaporate once people realize that better, mainstream services and products are available to them.  I noted before that in Ft Lauderdale there used to be a black business neighborhood that existed during the segregation era.  Since blacks could not shop in white department stores or other retail venues, they settled for black-owned businesses which made many black business owners fairly wealthy and created a black middle class.

When segregation was abolished, blacks realize they could shop at any store they wanted to, and they chose more mainstream outlets which had better pricing and better selection of goods. Overnight, the black shopping district evaporated, and many prosperous blacks fell out of the middle class.

Today, we see the same thing happening with gay bars.  At one time there were gay bars in nearly every city in the country, usually many of them competing with each other.  However, in recent years they've declined in number as younger people realize they can go to any establishment they want to and be accepted for who they are.  This is progress.  When given a choice, they choose something better rather than settle for some run down, crappy, over-priced bar, located in a bad neighborhood, and run by the mafia - as many gay bars were.

Ironically it seems that in recent years more and more gay campgrounds are opening up.  But maybe this just reflects the increased number of people buying RVs and going camping in general.  However, for the long-term, one might wonder if these gay campgrounds will survive if they continue on their current path.  Eventually gays will demand better services, better plumbing, and safe and clean water.  They will value the basic infrastructure over disco balls and flashing lights.

Perhaps, but then again maybe not.  A lot of people are blinded by flashing lights and glitter and fail to see the lack of underlying values.

So, what's the point of all this?  The point is, that if you have low expectations, they will be easily met.  But, if you push for higher standards, you may achieve more.  When I was a young stoner working various low-wage jobs, I assume that this is all I was entitled to.  If you were to tell me back then that someday I would become an engineer and then a lawyer and have my own law practice, I probably would have laughed in your face.

But then I came to realize after a long while, that these are not things that only other people were entitled to, but something that I could achieve - if I put my mind to it.  This is not to say everybody is cut out to be a surgeon or a lawyer or research scientist, only that we are all capable of doing better then we are.

Once we start to accept the mindset that all were entitled to is crappy second-hand merchandise, then our lives will slowly go downhill. This is not to say you can think your way to success, only that once you stop accepting mediocrity as all that you deserve and try to achieve more, you may surprise yourself.

As for the gay campgrounds, I think like the gay bars, they may go extinct very soon if they don't up their game to be competitive with the rest of the camping world.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Business of Government is Government

When governments get into the business of business, it usually doesn't work out well.

Sad news today from the tiny town of Front Royal, Virginia, the gateway to Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway (and the Appalachian Trail).  The Sheriff shot himself, the entire county government is under indictment, and $21 million is missing from county coffers.  The culprit?  A "business deal" the government tried to promote that went horribly wrong - or was fraudulent from the get-go, as prosecutors allege.

Front Royal used to be a manufacturing town.  But with the staggering increase in the size of nearby Washington, DC, it increasingly has become a tourist destination, as there are many campgrounds and hiking trails, as well as Skyline Drive.   When we lived in Alexandria, Front Royal was often a weekend destination, and we would take our camper there, often with friends, to go hiking and whatnot.

The industrial base is long gone, and government officials decided to "do something" to bring back jobs.   Turns out, it would have been better if they had done nothing at all.

Well, not nothing, but just manage a good government.  Pave the streets, staff the schools, keep taxes low, spend taxpayer's money wisely.   Create the infrastructure for people to live, work, and play, and businesses will come.  Jack up taxes to pay for a new "business park" and businesses will flee.    Offer generous tax incentives to one business, and you will be at the mercy of that business for the rest of your days.

These sweetheart deals - selling acres of county-owned land for $1 to some businessman on the premise that it will "create jobs" - often backfire.   In Jacksonville, Florida - the largest city in that State - a half-million has gone missing and city councilors are being tried for fraud.  At issue is an attempt to "create jobs" in the minority community by giving grants and loans to a barbecue sauce maker.

What is going on here?   When did government's job become creating jobs?   And do these programs work, or are they just opportunities for more graft, corruption, and greed?   More precisely, even if they did work, are they fair?

Yes, fair.  Fair to the taxpayers, who are effectively subsidizing private enterprises through their property tax dollars (which are often staggering in many places like New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut).    Fair to other business owners, particularly small businesses, competing businesses, and businesses who have been trying to grow slowly over the years through organic growth.

Say you run a small business in Front Royal.  Maybe it is a Motel, a souvenir shop, a campground, a car wash, a restaurant, or a variety store.   How do you feel about your tax dollars being spent to promote someone else's business?    Say you run Fred's Variety Store and the city decides to grant Walmart $1M in "tax amnesty" if they relocate to your town.   Not only are you going to be run out of business, you are paying for the privilege.

I recounted before about a friend of mine who used to own a small chain of grocery stores in Indiana. Walmart came to town, and the city went ga-ga over them, offering all sorts of perks and bonuses, from tax breaks, to infrastructure improvements.   My friend is a bartender now.    He sold most of the stores early on, but as he put it, "I should have gotten out entirely - early on" once it became clear that the government was picking winners.

Picking winners - a phrase the right-wing likes to use a lot, but it does have a nugget of truth to it.   When the government gets into the business of business, it has - by default - to favor one business over another.  And often, this favoring is not by default, but by design, as the larger businesses can bribe government officials (all legally, of course, through campaign contributions and PACs) to make sure that any "pro-business" subsidies only favor their business and put the other guy out-of-business.

And this has been going on for a long time.  Juan Trippe, who is celebrated as the visionary who stated Pan Am, also wanted the U.S. Government to anoint his airline as the "Flag Carrier" of the United States - effectively having a monopoly on overseas travel.  And with a Maine Senator in his pocket, Trippe was almost successful in this endeavor.  It was a good thing it didn't work out.  Pan Am went bust eventually, and "Flag Carriers" of all the other nations are also facing economic trouble, if they haven't gone bust already - or are drowning in a sea of red ink and rely on government subsidies to survive.

It is, in a way, like Amtrak.   Amtrak is now thoroughly entrenched in our government, and various Senators and Representatives put their sticky fingers into its management, deciding which routes should be maintained and what fares to charge.   It is unworkable in the same way the Brabazon Committee was - producing one of the world's largest white elephant airplanes, and dooming British aviation by dictating plane designs that were not even popular with the country's flag carrier.  Meanwhile, Boeing, designing airplanes the carriers actually wanted, ended up on top (although to be fair, many airlines were reluctant to sign on to the 707 at first).

Amtrak could make a profit, if it was a private company.   The first thing a private company would do is cut off unprofitable routes and focus capital on profitable ones - such as the Washington-Boston corridor.    But that will never happen, as government officials - like the Brabazon committee - have their own pet theories about how railroads should be run (preferably through their own district) and mass-transit and railroad advocates bend their ear with their beliefs about how railroads are better than cars.  "Why can't we have railroads like in Japan and Europe?" they cry - not realizing that many of those lines are being consolidated or curtailed, are losing money, or are being privatized (with resulting sky-high fares).  The US rail industry isn't like that of Japan or Europe - and never was.  We built quickly and cheaply, because we had thousands of miles to cover.   In places like the UK, they have beautiful stone railway bridges (as opposed to the wooden trestles that still exist in parts of the US today).   But then again, they are building a rail line in a place where people can walk across the entire country on vacation.  The scale is a little different.

But of course, it is hard for government not to be in the business business, as recent events have shown.  When we enact "free trade" we are, in effect, picking winners, and often these winners are overseas.   When we enact tariffs, we are similarly picking winners - particularly when tariffs (and their exceptions) are unevenly applied and favor one company over another.   It is hard for any government body to be value-neutral, particularly when politics are involved.

Oh, yes, politics.   When we lived in Washington DC, the airwaves were filled with ads from K-street lobbying firms, exhorting us to write our congressman to pass the "Fair Fees in Wireless and Cable Act!" which promised to lower our monthly cable bill (the easier way is to just cut off service, of course).    Another ad would exhort us to support the "No, Really, This is the Fair-Fair-Super-Fair Communication Act!" - both proposed pieces of legislation, of course, were not from grassroots consumer groups, but were products of competing Cable and  Telco consortiums.

Even when "the pee-pul" get involved and try to level the playing field, it can backfire badly.  When I was doing a lot of Cable TV Patents, they passed a law requiring that Cable companies offer a "basic tier" of service for about $25 a month - much as the Telcos were required to offer a "basic phone" service (today called Obamaphone, but it started with Reagan) to impoverished customers.  The cable companies revolted and lobbied like hell, but the law passed.

Not to be outdone, the cable companies just raised everyone's rates by $25 a month, calling it a "government-mandated fee increase" and arguing that this "sub-basic" cable requirement was an additional tier that had to be added to everyone's cable service.   It was about that time I decided I had enough, dealing with these crooks, and cut the cable, forever.

So you see, even attempts to "protect the consumer" can end up favoring one business over another.   When governments get into business, it gets sticky really quickly.   And my only thought is, maybe the government should take a minimalist approach to running businesses.

Of course, some on the right tout this view - or at least libertarians or some business people (those not favored by subsidies).  Some argue that these incentives and subsidies only end up wasting the taxpayer's money - and don't influence business decisions one iota.  The recent Amazon "contest" to see which State or City would throw the most amount of money at it, sort of backfired.  Insiders report that the decision where to locate was made in advance, and the whole point of the "contest" was to wring as many concessions from the cities already chosen for these sites.   And in a way, it all went horribly wrong, as folks in the Bronx said "no thanks" to paying Amazon with their tax dollars.

And then there is corruption - as illustrated by the Front Royal and Jacksonville incidents.   Even if people are not convicted and thrown into jail, there is always the appearance of impropriety that can taint a politician's life.  Both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are finding that out, to their dismay.   Sadly, the guy who many thought was the "alternative" is running a pay-for-play operation right out of his hotel next to the Whitehouse.    Maybe this sort of thing is unavoidable.

I guess there will always be this overlap between government and private business.  After all, the government is one of the largest customers for many businesses - particularly in defense.  And as a former defense contractor (and small business owner, who was tossed a bone now and then as a result of SBA rules) it is hard to criticize the gravy train, when you are riding on it.  But I guess, now that I am older, I am more skeptical of any politicians - right or left - who claim they will "create jobs" or improve the economy by bulldozing an entire neighborhood (and taking people's homes by condemnation) to put up a warehouse that houses mostly Chinese-made crap.

The photo above is of President Trump and some Foxconn officials breaking ground in Wisconsin to build a factory to make (depending on what day of the week it is) televisions or cell phones, or cell phone displays, or nothing.  Lately, it seems nothing is winning out, as the touted economic revival has amounted to little more than a warehouse, condemned properties which are now vacant, and a huge tax bill for county taxpayers.  But like most of these deals, the politicians (in this case, Trump) declare victory and walk away, not much interested as to whether the great plans worked out or not.  Sort of like how the villains are always trying to dispatch James Bond by leaving him alone in a situation of peril, and then just assuming it all works out as planned.

But maybe the problem isn't the politicians, it's us.  Like I said, I no longer believe in these photo-op moments with the gold spray-painted spades and the ceremonial shovel-fulls of dirt.  Maybe if more and more people became skeptical of them, politicians would stop pandering to us this way.   Maybe.

Maybe we could go back to an era, 40 years ago, before government officials decided that "creating jobs" (in an era of 10% unemployment) was a priority, instead of just "getting out of the way."

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

When Did Brands Become More Important Than Products?

Trademarks once identified the source of goods or services - as Trademark law provides.  Today, brands have a life of their own, and consumers find value in the brands alone, not in the products they are affixed to.

I harped before how Trademark law has become bastardized in this country.  A lot of people think the business of Trademarks is the business of buying and selling words.   Sadly, a lot of those people are Trademark Attorneys, who should know better.

The whole idea behind Trademarks, as the name implies, was to brand your product ("mark" it) in the avenues of commerce ("trade") so that consumers would know which products came from which producers.   If you saw a brand you knew and trusted, you knew you were getting a reliable product.  And in the era before the Pure Food and Drug Act, brands were very important.  If you saw a product from a particular brand, you might feel safer buying that.

Counterfeiting, back then, wasn't as widespread, but the effect was different.   Counterfeiters tried to sell substandard products by passing them off as premium brands.  Trademark law evolved to allow people to register their marks with the government (to avoid confusion between competing or similar brands) and laws were passed to punish counterfeiters, in order to protect the public.

That was the 1800's, today is today.   Today, people sell products that are little more than branded items, with the value being not in the product itself, but in the brand.   I recounted before how Mark bought an "Abercrombie" hat in a garage sale for ten cents (actually a friend bought it for us).   It was just an ordinary hat - like so many others - but with the word "Abercrombie" emblazoned on the front of it.   Once a coveted $20 item (perhaps even more), it languished at a garage sale because people stopped valuing the brand.   Nothing changed in terms of quality of the product, just the popularity of the brand-name.   Suddenly, it was no longer fashionable to sport the "Abercrombie" brand - or at least a lot less fashionable.

(In fact, in terms of quality, it was a pretty shitty hat, being "pre-stressed" at the factory to make it look like you were some old-timer or redneck who can't afford a decent hat.   Of course, we have a lot of hats like that - stressed the old-fashioned way from use.  Usually we throw them out).

Blue Jeans are a case in point.   In the olden days, Levis sold jeans with their familiar logo of two mules trying to pull apart the "copper riveted" jeans.   The Levis brand meant a quality product that would stand up over time.   Today, it is more of a fashion statement, in that some folks would never be caught dead in a pair of Wranglers - which are better made, fit better, cost less, and wear longer - because Levis are more fashionable.

And in terms of Trademark enforcement, going after counterfeiters isn't a matter of punishing people trying to pass off inferior goods by appropriated your brand name, but rather policing the quantity of goods in the market, so as to prop up prices with artificial shortages.   Oddly enough, with regard to many "counterfeit" goods, the quality is as good as, of often better than, the original product.   I recounted before how a major sneaker company has to deal with "counterfeits" made by its own supplier, who merely alters the logo slightly and then sells identical sneakers into the Asian markets, hoping not to be found out by its best customer.

There is nothing in a $5000 handbag that makes it worth $5000 or cost $5000 - it is merely a collection of fine leather pieces, sewn together often in third-world sweatshops.  The counterfeit is, well, fine leather pieces sewn together in a third-world sweatshop.   The delta in sales price is based entirely on the perceived value to having a particular brand of trendy purse, for certain people who have that kind of money to throw away impressing people they don't know.

It is like the short lived "Canada Goose" fad, which seems to have died off already (it was a big thing two years ago, this year, we saw nary a one in Canada).   Chinese people, in particular, coveted the down jackets with the patch, reading (in pidgin English) "Canada Goose Arctic Program" - even though there was no "program" associated with the jacket.  I guess they thought it made them look like intrepid Arctic explorers.  The jackets were not bad, just not worth what people were charging for them.  And once they were viewed as "yesterday's fashion" the "value" of the brand plummeted, even though the jackets remained largely unchanged.

A jacket selling for hundreds - even thousands - of dollars one year, and on closeout the next.  The only difference?  The perceived value of the brand based on fashion and style.

This trend was mocked in the animated movie "Wall-E" where it was posited that in the future, our planet would become so toxic that we would all live on intergalactic cruise liners, and become fat as houses and loll about all day in hover-chairs (it sounds too real to be funny anymore, though).   The masses are told on a daily basis what the new styles and trends are - from what fashionable drink to order, to what clothes to wear.  "Blue is the new Red!" they are told, and everyone switches their outfits from Red to Blue.   You don't want to be seen in yesterday's color, do you?

Something is being lost here - the original point of Trademarks.   When you bought a product with a particular "Mark" on it, you were assured of a certain level of quality.  Today, you are buying a pig-in-a-poke, as "Marks" are often bought and sold, particularly after a company goes bankrupt.  Sears sold off the "Craftsman" name, and today those tools are sold at Lowes.   Are they the same tools as in years gone by with the "lifetime guarantee"?   Not really, it is just the same crap Lowes was selling last year, under their house "Kobalt" brand - all made in China for cheap.   But for some reason, we are suppose to covet this failed brand of a failed department store as being of better "quality" or something.

And we fall for it, consciously or subconsciously.  My Dad briefly worked for an outfit called Bell & Howell.  Actually, he had quite a career in imaging, in retrospect.  He used to work for ITEK in Rochester, which made high-resolution cameras for spy planes.  Bell & Howell was famous for making home movie cameras and projectors (oddly enough, my parents owned a Kodak camera and projector, which they bought when he worked for Bell & Howell).

Both Kodak and Bell & Howell went out of business.  The brands survive today, being bought out in bankruptcy or sold to successors in interest, along with the associated "goodwill" of the business.  I've seen some products sold under the Bell& Howell name - mostly stuff made in China.  The brand no longer indicates the source of goods and services (from the Bell&Howell factory in Illinois) but rather seems to be just a brand attached to a random assortment of Chinese goods.

And maybe China is to blame for this.  The Chinese are very brand-conscious, buying the aforementioned "Canada Goose" jackets and Buick motorcars (the latter apparently because Chiang Kai-sheck and Mao rode in them).  Buick just has to hope they are not the next Canada Goose, whose popularity might have declined as a result of some high profile diplomatic disputes between the two countries.

Trademarks have seen a decline in real value to consumers while at the same time are more valuable than ever to producers.   As an indicator of the "source of goods and services" Trademarks are now next-to-worthless.  A "Mark" may be slapped onto whatever product the Mark owner decides to sell under that brand this week.   There is no assurance of quality or durability or purity or safety associated with any mark anymore.  Your "Baseball, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet" is assembled in Mexico with Chinese-made parts.

Meanwhile, though, if a producer can come up with a hit mark that appeals to consumer sentiment, they can sell product for ten times production cost, only because it is adorned with that mark.   And product management becomes less about quality control and consumer demands, and more about controlling the mark, so it doesn't become worn out too soon and end up in the bargain bins.   So long as there is perceived scarcity for a branded product, the plebes will pay top dollar.

The net effect, however, is corrosive to the Trademark business.  Consumers are starting to realize that Trademarks mean nothing, other than a style statement.  A Trademark no longer is an assurance that company stands for something or that their products meet a certain standard.   Today, there is little point in shopping based on brand, as the "brand name" product may in fact be identical to the no-name or store brand (often made in the same facilities) and in many instances, the no-name is not only cheaper, but better.

Today, all a Trademark is, is an ornament applied to a product as decoration, much as hood ornaments were once applied to cars (and in the case of Mercedes, still are, I guess).  At best, a Trademark today telegraphs your status to other consumers, whether it is the tri-star Mercedes ornament, or the snake-like logo of the King Ranch pickup truck.   Neither stands for any sort of underlying quality, only the price paid.

The problem doesn't lie in trademark laws - they largely haven't changed over the years - but rather in how companies use Marks and buy and sell them and hope we don't notice the difference in product quality.   In addition, there is also a sea change in how consumers perceive Marks.   For me, a status "Mark" is often a turn-off, telling me only that I am paying extra for the branded product, and that some less-brand or unbranded alternative might actually be a better deal.

The risk for Mark owners is that, if people perceive Marks as worthless, the "underlying goodwill" associated with the Mark may evaporate, and any premium associated with the brand evaporates as well.   Ask the folks at Abercrombie how that plays out.

Celebrity Victims

Millionaires want us to feel sorry for them.

I mentioned in my previous posting about Judy Garland syndrome. The pills and booze and depression and suicide attempts and whatnot - they define a lot of celebrity behavior, which is self-destructive.  Celebrities want us to believe that their life is just one horrible event after another, what with millions of adoring fans praising how great they are, filling an arena with thousands of people who cheer them on, and of course, counting all that money they make from these various enterprises.  It's a tough life, you don't know how hard they have it!

A rock star sing songs about how hard it is to be "on the road" with groupies throwing themselves at you and all the drugs and everything. They tear up hotel rooms out of sheer frustration at the futility of it all, because their lives are so difficult, what with the millions of dollars they make in record deals.

What's even dumber than that is that we fall for it. We listen to their songs and their stories and think about what a raw deal Madonna got in life, being super-famous and having all that money and celebrity. It must have been really hard for Michael Jackson to have those huge mansions and buy all that crap. He's the real victim here, right?

The reality is, though, that any one of these celebrities could have simply walked away from the entire thing any point in their career and probably had millions of dollars - more than you and I can scrimp and save together in a lifetime - and lived happily ever after. And indeed, some celebrities do just that, whether they're rock stars or movie stars or whatever. A very few of them actually save their money and put it aside and then decide that they don't need to work anymore and move off to some ranch somewhere and live happily ever after.

Yet others decide they need to spend more and more money and thus have to tour more and more and come up with more and more hit albums or movies or whatever in order to feed their ego. It was reported in the press, breathlessly, that Charlie Sheen spends $20,000 a month on wine alone - or something to that extent. He's created a money train that he can't get off of. He has more money in change under the cushions of his sofa than you and I can save it our 401K over 30 years. Yet, we are supposed to feel sorry for him as some sort of victim of his own malfeasance.

And that's just the point, these celebrities and rock stars were victims of their own malfeasance, whether it is excessive spending, drug use, cosmetic surgery, or a predilection for teenage boys as in the case of Michael Jackson. We are told they just can't help these impulses and that celebrity and stardom have ruined them, because they are given everything they wanted and have no self-control.

And perhaps there's a nugget of truth in this. We see the same thing happen with lottery winners, who have no financial common sense as evidenced by the fact they play the lottery. Once they win, they go to the car dealer and buy cars for themselves, their family members, and their friends - and then get Chinese takeout. Within a year or two, most of the money is gone.

It is said that birds can't count above five, so if you take one egg from their nest leaving five remaining, the bird will not notice. Similarly, rednecks and idiots believe that a million is a lot of money and spend it like it's an infinite amount. However the gap between a million and infinity is, in fact, infinity.

We don't really feel sorry for lottery winners who blow it all within a few years and end up bankrupt or in legal trouble. In fact we have a bit of a schadenfreude about it, congratulating ourselves for losing the lottery, because winning is such a rotten deal.

And perhaps then we commiserate amongst ourselves that being a celebrity or rockstar or movie star isn't such a great deal, as so many of them end up so unhappy. And thus we are much happier with our plebeian lives.

And again, there's probably a nugget of truth to this. Celebrity does have its downsides. As I noted before, Howard Hughes used to have old jalopy cars built up for him by his engineering staff, so we could drive them around and no one would think that he was Howard Hughes but someone who just looks sort of like him. He actually had one of these made for Katharine Hepburn so she could go to the grocery store and be an ordinary person, even if people stopped her and said "Hey, do you know you look an awful lot like...?"

Or perhaps celebrity is an addiction. Once you become one, the need for more celebrity becomes more insistent. Thus, it's much harder to would simply walk away from the entire thing and go back to a normal lifestyle. But then again, it may be hard, but not impossible.

Us ordinary folks have only so much emotional energy to spend in life. Spending it feeling sorry for celebrities seems to me to be a waste of time and effort.

All 50 States

There are many people who never leave their home State, or if they do, go to only one or two other States, in their own lifetime.

We were swimming in the pool at a campground and met a nice couple of had a big diesel motorhome.  We were talking about different places we've been to and the lady exclaimed to us, "Gosh, you guys have been to all 50 states haven't you?"

Well, we admitted, we've been to all 50 states, except Hawaii, and hope to go there sometime in the next few years. She seemed rather astounded by this, as she and her husband only been to maybe a dozen states at most, and not even one or two provinces in Canada.

One of the reasons the United States has become an economic powerhouse is that you can travel between all 50 States without needing a passport or having to pay duty on goods you carry across the borders between States.  This seems like a trivial thing, but take a look at what's going on in Europe right now with the Brexit nightmare.  The whole point of the European Union was to allow countries, or as we call them, States, to trade with one another without restriction.  This can create an economic powerhouse as the economy grows when commerce increases.  It's also the fundamental idea behind free trade, although that doesn't always work out as planned.

When the United States was formed, the term "State" didn't refer to a province or County or some small subunit of government, but rather to a country in and of itself.  Each of the 13 original colonies considered itself a separate governing body, at the time.  We talk about leaders of countries as Heads of State, and if you cut off their heads it was a coup d'etat -  blow against the State.

The United States started out as a collection of United Countries - under the Articles of Confederation.  That didn't quite work out, and today, we have a Federal system with a Constitution.  But this did not occur without a lot of bloodshed.   The rights of individual States to, say, allow slavery, conflicted with the overall Federal plan.   We killed more people in the Civil War than all other wars combined.   The net result, was, a more powerful central government and a more cohesive country, today known as the "United States" but consisting of just one State. 

Today, the term "State" has taken on a different meaning in the US, akin to the term "Province" as used in Canada.  We assume that a State, or Commonwealth as Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia, and Massachusetts call themselves, are mere subordinate governmental units to the overall Federal scheme, which in effect they are.  Most Americans don't give it a second thought.

But our European friends are always puzzled by our two concurrent and overlapping governmental systems.   You can be arrested by your village cop, the town police, the County Sheriff, the State Patrol, or the FBI - in some States, all five law enforcement agencies might have concurrent jurisdiction.   States can legalize marijuana, but it still remains illegal at the Federal level.   In a way, it makes no sense whatsoever.

Bu, it is amazing that you can travel across State lines in the United States without having to show a passport or declare and pay duty on products you are transporting. Not only that, you are free to live and travel in any one of these 50 States without having to obtain permission of the government. This may sound like a simple thing, but in Soviet Russia it was not so simple - nor indeed in Russia even today. In many countries, you need permission from the government just to move from one place to another. Mobility is the ultimate form of freedom.

That is why, perhaps, that Americans had high hopes for a "United States of Europe" - the European Union.   In addition to all the problems we had - individual States giving up sovereignty to a central government (In Europe, "Brussels" is as reviled as "Washington" is in the US), they also had problems with language and culture.  And once the various countries were opened up to free mobility, many people sought out the best and most prosperous countries.    Folks in the UK were alarmed by the number of Polish people moving into their "State".   Here in the US, folks in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Texas are alarmed by the number of Californians moving in.   In both cases, the complaints about these interlopers sound about the same - they are shitty drivers, they drive up the cost of housing, they take all the good jobs, and so on and so forth.  Same shit, different State.

Of course, part of the problem with the EU is that the central government isn't powerful enough, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, the EU was too eager to bring in former Soviet satellite States, as a bulwark against Russian aggression.   Sadly, not all these countries believe in the same levels of freedom or governance.  If you pay attention to what is going on in Poland right now, you understand why Poles want to move away.   It is the same reason blacks moved North after the Civil War - to escape the violence, poverty, and discrimination in the South.

But getting back to my main point, it is so sad that people have the opportunity for mobility in the United States, and yet few take advantage of it.  Granted, most people have to work for a living and have very little time available to them to travel.  But once retired, there's no excuse not to get out and explore the planet you live on, particularly the parts that are easy to get at and usually pretty safe.

It is like the young man we met in Ithaca, New York, who confessed he had barely left the County, much less the State, in his entire lifetime of 35 years.  "I went to Orlando, once, by airplane," he admitted, "Didn't think much of it."    Sadly, he was the manager of our local bank.  Keep those blinders on!

Worse yet, are people who cling to impoverished and backward areas, whether it is rural Mississippi or rural New York, where there are no jobs, no hope, and searing poverty.   You are allowed to move away, and yet many are afraid to - convinced that other places are scary and evil.   I kid you not about this last point - there are people today who still believe that much of the South is filled with Klansmen and rebel flags, when in fact, there seem to be more racists in the North these days.   You'd be surprised how things have changed in the last 50 years or so.  As I noted before, 45% of Georgians voted for Hillary- the "Red State" is almost purple.  Maybe if a few of those "my vote doesn't count, anyway" people actually voted..... oh, well.

Get out there and see the world - or at least your little corner of it.   You have the opportunity to freely travel to a substantial portion of it, in relative safety.    Why not go?