Friday, January 31, 2020

Trouble For Uber - Tech-That-Is-Not-Tech

The Colombian government has decided that destroying their own taxi business and handing it over to a silicon valley company and funneling 1/4 of revenues to the United States is not an attractive idea.  Funny, that.

A recent article on Reuters must have been paid for, lock, stock, and barrel, by Uber.  The article uses high-index Pavlovian response words to queer the debate.   Like most of these "half the story" articles, it starts out with a meandering tale about a "single mother" (high index words) of two children (ditto) who is trying to "make ends meet" (again) driving for Uber.   The big mean old courts in Colombia have decided that because of some pesky laws regulating taxi companies, that a silicon valley company can't just remotely take over the taxi business in Colombia and funnel all the profits to the United States.

The article is so laughably wrong on so many levels.  To begin with, they posit that Uber is "technology" because hailing cabs on your smart phone is akin to splitting the atom or landing on the moon.  Second, they make these emotional arguments that "jobs are being lost" because this lady profiled, who is operating an unlicensed cab will lose her "job" and that Uber will not open a "center" in Colombia that might employ 600 people.  They then posit that Colombia is missing the boat by not updating their laws to allow such "technology" companies to "invest" in Colombia.   These companies are not "investing" - they are raping.

Not mentioned, of course, is how many taxi drivers and taxi companies have gone broke trying to compete with these "online" ride-hailing services, which are hemmoraging cash by offering fares for below cost, in order to put traditional taxi services out of business - and then reap monopoly profits (or duopoly profits) once they succeed.   This is not "technology" or "disruption" but plain old vulture capitalism - ravage an industry, go big and get "too big to fail" and then ask for forgiveness later on.

And the "industries" they are targeting are often ones that employed the lowest-wage workers - food delivery, taxi services, warehouse workers, retail workers, and so on and so forth.

It is bad enough in the United States - but overseas?   In addition to gutting traditional taxi companies, which have complied with their country's own laws and regulations, these "new" taxi companies such as Uber and Lyft, are siphoning off part of the cash and sending it to America.   If you live in Colombia, this should alarm you - low-wage jobs are being turned into "apps" and a big chunk of the money made is leaving the country - 25% in the case of Uber.

Now, if Trump went to Colombia and said, "from now on, all low wage jobs in Colombia must pay 1/4 of their income to the United States as a form of tax!" there would be riots in the street.   People would burn him in effigy.  The American flag would be spit upon.   No country in their right mind would stand for this -  allowing a foreign country to take over an industry and siphon off a huge part of the cash-flow.

But that is what Uber and its ilk are in effect, doing.  Under the guise of "helping" desperate people, they are systematically undermining traditional taxi services worldwide, and running off with the cash.   And the big problem is, Uber is losing money doing it.   This is the most troubling aspect of it.  If Uber succeeds in destroying the traditional taxi business and becomes the default new taxi business, it will have a monopoly.   At that point, it can raise rates to whatever it deems as "fair" and people will have to pay it or walk.

Of course, that might not happen.   Many countries are waking up to the idea that these schemes are not "technology" at all, but just attempts to do end-runs on existing laws and regulations.   And in the case of overseas countries, many, such as Colombia and India are waking up to the idea that these "apps" are siphoning off huge chunks of cash from their country to America - something no patriotic Colombian or Indian should stand for.   At the very least, if they are going to allow ride-hailing apps in their home countries, they should be apps from the home country that keep revenue inside the country and not allow a quarter of the taxi revenue to end up in Uber's bank account in America.

It turns out, oddly enough, that all of these issues were visited before - about 100 years ago - in the taxicab business.   Before taxi regulations, people would clog the streets with cars - each trying to undercut the other on fares.  Passengers would be picked up and promised one fare, and upon reaching their destination, charged another - and threatened or held hostage until they paid.   Other gypsy drivers simply robbed passengers or stole their luggage.  People demanded change.  So we regulated cabs - the fare structure, how many could be licensed, how fares were charged.  Meters were installed.  Since it didn't matter which cab company you used - fares were all the same - there was no "race to the bottom" by cab drivers to undercut each other.  And since cab driving was profitable and cabs and their drivers were licensed and insured, it was easier to control (but not eliminate) crime by cab drivers.   Uber wants us to go back to the 1909 days - when anyone could drive a cab, with sketchy inspection of the cab itself, the drivers, or their insurance policies.

That's bad enough - here in the United States.   But when the model is moved overseas - to countries where driving a cab is a marginal business to begin with (and often dangerous) the idea that an American company should be allowed to (a) put all the domestic cab companies out of business and (b) siphon off one-quarter of cab fare monies and export them to America is just ridiculous.  Any country that allows this in the name of fostering "technology" or "investment" is going to find out it does neither.

Perhaps many of these countries are waking to to this reality - and that handing over your domestic industries - even low-wage service industries - to America isn't a good idea.   And indeed, even in America, maybe some are waking up to the idea that destroying our own domestic taxi industry isn't necessarily a great idea - that replacing thousands of independent taxi companies with one or two silicon valley "tech" companies could backfire in a huge way.

I guess we'll have to wait-and-see!  Uber will have to bribe a lot of people in Colombia to make this work.

UPDATE:  It seems to me that this story should have focused on the real victims here - those silicon valley millionaires and billionaires who can't afford a new Ferrari to add to their collection, because of these intransigent Colombian courts.  Have pity on them!  The other billionaires at the country club are no doubt laughing at them because they are driving a year-old Lamborghini.   We need to understand who the real victims are here!

Thursday, January 30, 2020

What Happened to Google (Don't Be Evil)?

When Google was founded, their philosophy was "Don't be Evil, Man!"

Today, their philosophy is to be the very personification of evil.

Something happened to Google, and we all know it.  In fact, searching online for the images above, under "Hippie" and "Darth Vader" didn't direct me to sites discussing these topics, but instead to costume rental and sales shops selling hippie and Darth Vader costumes.   It's all about commerce, now - what can we sell you?  How can we get a "taste" of it?  How do we get inside your head?

No doubt, I will be inundated with adverts for costumes now - as the Google "AI" thinks that is all I am interested in.   As far as their "AI" is concerned, all I buy online are scooter parts and knitting supplies.  Yes, it has been years, but I am still getting hits on knitting.   I may end up taking it up - just giving in to the machine that is Google.  Mark has taken up needlepoint.   We no longer have free will.   All hail almighty Google!  But it illustrates why I don't think "AI" is going to take over the world - it isn't artificial and it isn't intelligence.  It is just a program that scrapes keywords - I wrote a Patent on it.

Google services are the worst now - slow loading and tracking your every move.  Gmail takes forever to load, and I notice the thermometer goes 95% of the way when loading and then grinds to a halt.   I can stream a video from Netflix or YouTube, but loading a simple e-mail program can take a minute or more.  I am in the habit of starting the computer, loading the programs and then going to make coffee now - by the time I get back, the system is "up".

The other day, I had the wifi hotspot off and loaded Chrome by accident.   Gmail comes up and the same thermometer goes 95% across before halting.   The thermometer is fake - designed to get you to think the program is loading when it hasn't even started.  Why does it take nearly a minute to load the rest of Gmail?   No doubt the tracking software they are using to read the content of your e-mails and figure out how to get into your head.

The changes have been subtle and abrupt.  It seems like in the last few months something radical changed - free services like Gmail and Calendar are now slow-loading (Calendar so slow to the point I gave up using it).   Blogger is still pretty quick, but for how long, anyone's guess.

What is going on?  Monetezation, plain and simple.,  Google has a monopoly on the search engine business, and they are milking it for all its worth.  Want to buy something on the Internet?   Likely you'll go through a Google search, and if you click on a link, Google might get a referral fee.  They are pushing advertisers further up the search results, and pushing certain advertisers above others.  There are still deals galore out there on the Internet, they are just harder to find on Google, until you get to page 10 of your search results.

Want to buy something?  Amazon pops right up, so does Walmart.  eBay, less so.   I guess eBay didn't pay as much to Google.   Hits from the companies that actually make the product you are interested in often don't appear at all.   And oftentimes, you can buy directly from the company website for less.

The other weird change to Google is that Google is the worst way to search other Google properties. If you search google for a video, it likely will not find the Youtube video you are looking for, but in fact, steer you off to some other video site.  The only way to properly search Youtube is from within Youtube itself.  Is there some sort of turf war going on within Google?

Youtube itself has changed dramatically - no longer a place for people to post home movies, it now has professional or semi-professional videos, as well as entire movies (with ads) and ads are being placed even in amateur videos and are getting longer and more frequent.  The glory days are gone.  Many people are using Youtube as a music player, and Youtube (the app) even offers this as a plug-in service (for more money).  Youtube the site is offering an ad-free experience for over $12 a month.   It's all about the Benjamins, baby!

Similarly, searching blogger - from Google or even within blogger - is harder and harder to do.  Within blogger now, it only goes back two years.  You have to do a "site" search in Google to find anything older than that, and sometimes that doesn't even work, if you don't have the exact phrase in quotes.

What is going on?  Something, for sure.   Since I no longer monetize my blog, Google is less interested in letting people find it or see it.   I am just guessing, but if I monetized the blog, it would move up in the search engine.   But I hesitate to do that - it was an interesting experiment, but generated only about $2000 a year in income - and spammed my blog with lots of distracting ads for crap - the very sort of crap I decry.

So, what's the next Google?   Is Google now "too big to fail" and so big that no one else can enter that "space"?  Or will some scrappy up-and-comer with a bankroll from some venture capitalists come up with a new "free" search engine that will take Google's place?   If you look at the history of the Internet, we do see that pattern, again and again - some company being "dominate" and then fading from view rather quickly.   Before Chrome, there was Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Netscape Navigator (remember that?).  Before Facebook, there was MySpace, Second Life, and AOL.   Each has their time in the sun, and then disappears - or a mere shell of what once was lingers on.

It is another example of threshold of pain theory, which I learned about in the cell phone business.  Simply stated, the cell phone industry will install only so many towers as are needed to satisfy customers up to their threshold of pain.   In the early days, people had low expectations for cell phones - the idea that they worked at all was amazing.  Dropped calls were the norm and accepted as part and parcel of mobile communications.   Why bother installing more cell towers when the customer's threshold of pain was already so high?

The same is true of Google - they can make the service more and more annoying, and so long as they stay below that magic limit, people will not migrate to another service.   And if other services are harder to find or difficult to use (i.e., have a higher threshold of pain than using Google) people will not migrate.   It is like Windows - a clunky and virus-prone operating system that is expensive and slow.   But what is your choice?  Spend thousands (instead of hundreds) of dollars on some Apple product?  Or figure out how to reconfigure your old computer to run Linux?  The threhshold of pain of both is far higher than the hassle of buying a $500 laptop running Windows 10 - hence why Windows has a dominate share of the marketplace - to date, anyway.

Google is turning up the heat on the pot of water.   We are the frog inside, who will not jump out, so long as the temperature rises slowly.   Pretty soon, we are boiled to death.   A nice old gentleman from Alabama told me that story, and some readers have taken me to task for it - claiming that actual tests show that a frog will pretty much jump out of a pot of water as soon as you put him in it (thankfully, a lobster won't).  It is an analogy, folks, not a literal story!

The problem for Google is that we are noticing the temperature go up, and this means that some folks might think about jumping - if they knew of some place to jump to.

In the meantime, Google will keep jiggering with the stove, keeping the water hot, but not so hot that most of us don't jump.   If they are good at it, they can cook us very, very slowly!

UPDATE:  Several readers have said "just reset your cookies!" and the tracking will go away. Nice try, but no.  I just installed new hard drives in both laptops (500 GB for $25 - oh brave new world!) and had to do a "clean" install of windows and re-install all my programs.   I downloaded chrome and had cleared out all my cookies and browser history multiple times checking off the box "for all time".

Problem is, since I use  multiple Google services - gmail, Youtube, Blogger, Calendar, etc., I have to have a Google ID to use them.   I may clear my browser of all cookies, but Google has in their records, everything I've ever searched for, watched, e-mailed, or whatever.

Yes, it is handy to some extent.  I make a reservation for a campground and they send me an e-mail confirming it.   Google "reads" the e-mail and adds the reservation to my calendar - kind of creepy, but handy. And it "syncs" all this data across multiple devices.  It shares photos between our phones. Handy, yes, but you pay a price for this, in terms of privacy.

So, even after a new HD and new install of Chrome and clearing cookies, I still get ads for knitting and ads for Honda carburetors (because I need to buy these on a weekly basis, I guess).

Clearing cookies helps preventing third parties from tracking you.   Google doesn't consider itself a third party, but part of the conversation.   Hello Google!  This is worker speaking.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

What's In a Name? Sealy Response Premium Summer Street Plush Mattress

Who in their right mind wants to buy a "street" mattress?

I was looking though a BJ's wholesale club circular that arrived in the mail today.  It is an interesting piece of marketing and psychology.  On one page, there is an ad for a BJ's VISA card, and the accompanying image is disturbing - it shows a car with an apparent homeless man leaning out the window wearing a Russian hat.  In the front seat, also halfway out the window is a child with oddly-colored glasses.  I couldn't understand what the image had to do with credit cards, when I realized it was just one of these vaguely disturbing images that advertisers like to use to get you to look at their ad - images you can't turn away from, like a bloody SUV wreck, or Joe Camel's penis face.

The entire brochure was a fascinating example of how marketers "get" to you - in this case, offering "discounts" on items with "coupons" that tell you how much you are "saving" but not actual prices.  If it weren't for the cheap Cava, we'd cancel our membership already.  Note that Sam's Club doesn't use these "coupon" come-ons as BJ's does.  Their selection is not the same, however, and when they say they sell in bulk, they aren't kidding.

But getting back to the brochure, in the back was an ad for the "Sealy Response Premium Summer Street Plush Mattress" which struck me as a pretty darn long name for a mattress, and a rather odd one, too.  Street Mattress?  Not something I would think of in selling an upscale brand.   Besides, I've already had one experience with a mattress in the street - I'm not ready for another one.  But it got me to thinking, someone was paid - and not a trivial amount of money - to come up with this name.  And in the mattress game, naming is important, as you are in a now-competitive business and trying to sell a product that costs a few hundred at best, for a several hundred, if you can swing it.

A reader noted long ago, "what's the deal with mattress stores?" and articles have been written about this. There are many in some small towns, with their yellow, orange, and red signs advertising perpetual sales (or perpetual going-out-of-business sales) and apparently no one in the stores.  As one article profiled, many of these outlets have salesmen on commission, and low overhead, so if they sell one mattress a week, they make money.   The key is, of course, they are selling a mattress worth $500 on a good day, for well over $1000, sometimes in the thousands, particularly if you factor in the interest charges on the loans they offer.   And yes, people will pay that much for a mattress, once the persuasive salesman is done with them.

We live in a interesting era - mattresses have gone high tech and very expensive, with motors and pumps and memory foam and whatnot.   At the same time, online sellers are bundling mattresses into tubes and selling them cheaply for home delivery.   Turns out that a mattress isn't all that expensive to make, and what's more, it is a commodity item.  And yes, we may end up in the market for one down the road, as our tempurpedic is over ten years old, and starting to take a "set" particularly on my side.  And yes, we like that mattress, but likely paid way too much for it (salesman, again).  Today, there are plenty of knock-offs on the market, so it may be worthwhile looking around.  The problem with a mattress is the same problem with tires - you buy a crappy set of noisy, poor-handling, and poor-riding tires for your car, and you are stuck for years with them (although I saw someone take a set back recently - I was surprised the dealer let them do that!).  With a mattress, I doubt that would happen.  So you buy a crappy mattress, you may have to live with it for years.

The commodization of the mattress business may explain one reason why Sealy felt they needed five names for their mattress.  It sort of reminds me of the dying days of the old GM, when car names became longer and longer.  You no longer bought an Oldsmobile, but an Oldsmobile Cutlesss Ciera Custom Coupe Landau Brougham De-Luxe - or something like that.  Long names are a tacit admission that the name has more content than the product.

What is even odder - to me, anyway - is that Sealy has multiple lines of mattresses, each with its own convoluted name.  There is the "Response" series, and within that, the "Premium" line (with Corinthian Leather no doubt) and the "Performance" line (which requires 92 octane gasoline).  And then there is the "Essential" line - the Vega of the series, or at least the Chevy Nova.  You know, the kind of car where the clock is replaced by a "starburst" design on the dash, just to remind you what a cheap bastard you were for not ordering the clock.   Kids today - they won't understand that reference - every car today has air conditioning for chrissakes!

I get that they want to sell a "good, better, best" line, just as Sears used to do.   You offer an el-cheapo to get them into the door, and then upsell them to the mid-level line, which the consumer thinks is a good deal, because at least they didn't splurge on that $1200 job.   And yea, every so often, you get a chump who will buy the top-of-the-range model, financing it on time.  But I don't understand the "Summer Street" aspect of it - it sounds like a feminine hygiene product for the homeless.  Summer Street for her - keep smelling fresh... like a summer street!

What was odd about the Sealy site was the "reviews" section, which turned out to be comments extracted from warranty registrations.  More than one person noted that they were not reviewing the product but merely inserting required comments and random answers, just to register their mattress for warranty coverage - or in one case, just for a box spring.  The following is a "review" by a consumer of the mattress:
Comments about Sealy Response Innerspring Essentials Collection Tight Top Cushion Firm

I only purchased a boxpring. There was not anywhere on the registration page to register it, so I had to put in mattress information for it to work. The serial number is for the boxpring only. 
Yes, I would recommend to a friend
Neededboxspringonly  - Lancaster, SC
That's a new one on me - requiring purchasers to review your product before they provide warranty coverage.   If you give only one star, do you not get warranty coverage?   Sounds like a facetious question, but that was my experience with the Ford dealer.  They offered to pay for new shock absorbers , but only if I gave them a five-star (highest rating) review.  I guess they get a bonus based on their net promoter score.

Note also the convoluted name: Response Innerspring Essentials Collection Tight Top Cushion Firm.  They must have someone working there full-time coming up with this nonsense.

What an amazing time to be in the marketing business!  What with all the computer tracking, surveys, monitoring, and so-called "AI" and whatnot, they can really get into your head these days.

If we let them.

UPDATE:  Mattresses, like chairs and bicycle seats, are the most comfortable when FIRM.  People think that a soft mattress is more comfortable or that big floaty pillow-tops are better (the French in particular seem fond of this). But such mattresses just cause you to sink in, and you end up swimming in it.   Give me a nice, firm, rock-hard mattress any day.   A manly mattress!

Monday, January 27, 2020

Balance Transfers - Throwing You a Life Ring or Anchor?

Should you use a balance transfer to get out from under a credit card crises?
With interest rates at an all-time low, many people are considering using balance transfers to get out from under high interest credit card debt.  Banks, seeking new avenues for investment, are offering pretty amazing deals - some offering no interest for 21 months(!!).  Should you take one of these balance transfer deals?  It depends.  But the first thing you should bear in mind is if you're considering a balance transfer means you've really screwed up your finances and it's time to start taking life more seriously.

You should never carry a balance on a credit card - all the experts say this, and it is true.   Yet 70% of Americans do so, and probably 100% at one time in their lives.   I did it - chances are you did, too, or will.   In retrospect, it was idiocy - charging things I could not afford, and then paying staggering interest rates (10% to 20%) every month for things I consumed such as food and gasoline.  When you do this, all you are doing is taking a dollar and turning it into ninety cents.   Depending on the interest rate on your card, and how long you take to pay it off, it could be as bad as turning a dollar into fifty cents.

And who in their right mind thinks turning a dollar into fifty cents is a bargain?

But it's too late for that.   You've gotten yourself into a situation where you have this intractable credit card debt that just won't go away.   If you are poor, it could be just $5,000.   If you are middle-class, it could be $50,000.  If you are wealthy, it could be $100,000 or more - a personal credit card crises is a game anyone can play at any income level.

The problem is, of course, that the victim played the "monthly paycheck" game or "paycheck-to-paycheck" as folks like to posit themselves (as victims, natch!).   They've divided up their paycheck into little cubby-holes labeled "mortgage" and "car payment" and "credit card bill" and so on and so forth.   They spend money and so long as all the payments are being made, they think they've got this covered.  But eventually, credit card debt climbs up, and interest takes up more and more of the monthly payment, and eventually credit limits are reached and exceeded.   Some take on a second or third credit card as a "solution" to the problem - sort of like dousing yourself with gasoline and lighting a match.

The real problem is in spending, and oftentimes in marriages, money isn't talked about - too much.   Each partner goes out and spends and measures their spending by comparing their lifestyle to their neighbors and friends - who are just as broke, or might make an awful lot more money than they do.   So charging a $5 coffee every day is no big deal.  Buying that new sweater at the mall "on sale" is no big deal.   Buying that new fishing rod that you've always wanted (at this price, who can afford not to buy - right?).   That's how it happens.

So it seems like a good deal to take one of these transfers.   It will give you a "breather" for 12 months, right?  Maybe as much as 21 months!   Finally, all of your monthly payment will go to principal and not most of it toward interest!.   Sounds appealing, but there are a lot of pitfalls - which could end up making your financial situation worse not better.

Let's take a look at two such offers from a major credit card company.  The one on the left offers "points" while the one on the right offers "no annual fee or penalty rate" - although the rates quoted are pretty much near that, particularly in an era of single-digit interest rates:

 Purchase Rate

0% introductory APR for 12 months from date of account opening; after that your variable APR for purchases will be 16.24% - 26.24% based on your creditworthiness.*
Balance Transfer Rate
0% introductory APR for 15 months from date of first transfer; after that your variable APR for purchases will be 14.99% - 24.99% based on your creditworthiness.* Balance transfers must be completed within 4 months of account opening.*
Balance Transfer Rate

0% introductory APR for 21 months from date of first transfer; after that your variable APR for purchases will be 16.24% - 26.24% based on your creditworthiness.* Balance transfers must be completed within 4 months of account opening.*

If you transfer a balance with this offer, interest will be charged on new purchases and unpaid introductory balances after your 0% introductory APR on purchases has expired, unless you pay the entire balance (including any transferred balance) in full each month by the due date.
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater, for each transfer.*
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater, for each transfer.*

Note the terms are somewhat different, and I suspect the card on the left is harder to get.  In order to get one of these deals, you have to have a pretty good credit score.   If you are over your limit and have already missed payments on your old card, or worse yet, been late on a mortgage payment, too bad for you.   But note the hand-grenade in the deal - if you don't pay off the balance in 21 months, the usurious interest rates kick in on the unpaid balance you transferred.

They are hoping to break even by charging you 3% of the balance owed, just for the transfer.  So you transfer $10,000 and you owe then $10,300 right off the bat.   If you can make 21 payments of $500 each, you might be able to pay this off in the time allotted.   They are counting on you not doing that.  And your spending habits and history gives them good reason to believe that.

The big problem with a balance transfer is not only the fees involved - sometimes as much as 5% of the balance - plus the suicidal interest rates should you not pay off the balance within the allotted time period, but the temptation to go out and spend more money.  You transfer the balance of one credit card to a new credit card and now your old credit card has a zero balance. If you rack up debt on that and also have the outstanding balance on the new card, you are now in twice as much hot water as you were before.

Not only that, they are offering 0% interest on new purchases for the first 12 months, and also baiting the trap with "rewards points" in the left-hand offer.   So you might be tempted to think that charging more money on this new card is a smart move.  After all, 0% interest, that's like free money, right?  And you can "play the float" and "invest" that money  you would have used to pay off your credit cards on stocks or something, right?   "Opportunity Cost" rears its ugly head and its bag of lies.  The sad reality is, you have no money to "invest" and there is no "opportunity cost" involved and you'll never get out of debt believing such bullshit.

And you will rack up debt on the old card if you don't change your habits.  In a way, it is like people who want to contribute to a 401(k) plan, but don't reduce their spending in another part of their life.  Yes, you can put $100 a month in your 401(k) plan, if you cut some $100-a-month expense from your life (such as cable TV or an expensive cell plan, or eating out at restaurants).  If you don't make that balancing act, then you just run up credit card debt - maybe how you got here in the first place!  I've seen it done!

The banks will tell you that a balance transfer is "a smart move" and a sign of financial acumen.  If you're considering such a move, it is a tacit admission that you are a complete fuckup when it comes to your finances and it's time to start having a serious conversation with your spouse about spending.   A balance transfer can be a life ring, or it can be an anchor that pulls you down to the bottom.

If you decide to go this route, the first thing to consider is which offer to take. They're an awful lot of offers out there and you should consider them all very carefully and read all the terms.  Most have a balance transfer fee, on the order of 3% or more, which represents a substantial portion of the balance.  Most offer 0% or low interest rate for certain number of months, but then at the end of that period, interest rates can be jacked up as high as 15 or 20%.  If you don't pay off the balance within the specified time period, you may never be able to pay off the balance at the high interest rates they offer.

The banks are counting on this.   They figured out long ago that they can make more money ruining their customers financially than by helping them.   They offer tempting things - car loans, leasing offers, credit cards with "rewards" and high interest rates, and when you bite on these and lack financial discipline, well, you can easily get in over your head - most of us do at one time in our lives or another.   Under new bankruptcy laws, they can still get paid back the principal they loaned you, after having collected interest for a number of years.   So far from being a "risky loan" such offers are actually pretty secure.

And they are betting you won't declare bankruptcy.  Most lenders do the math on this, and realize that middle-class people are not about to go through bankruptcy, either out of shame, or because they don't want to lose other assets, or because they don't want to further damage their credit ratings.  So Joe Middle-Class will hang on for years, struggling to pay off debts like this, until they either succeed at it (as I did) or throw in the towel and go bankrupt - or die.

Sadly, most people fall into this trap. It's very similar to the trap of using a home refinance to pay off credit card debt. You clear off all your credit card debts and maybe other debts such as car loans and whatnot and feel that you're a financial superman.  But all that does is time-shift this debt to a 30-year mortgage secured by your home.  And the temptation, having a "zero" balance on your credit card again, is to go out and spend more.

Now, some might ask, is it possible to "steal the cheese" on these deals and roll over debt into one zero percent offer after another?  Yes, no, and maybe.  It is possible, but not probable, and eventually, debt has to be paid back.  These zero percent offers are not always available, and whether or not you get one depends on your credit rating and your debt load.  If you keep rolling over a zero percent offer and running up new debts, eventually your debt-to-income level will be such that they won't make you these offers or they won't let you have one, if you apply.   And then you are left standing there when the music stops, with a huge balance at 20% interest or more.

I have often made the analogy that a credit card is like a loaded handgun.  A handgun is a tool, like any other, and if handled carefully and safely, can be of use.  But carelessly handled, it will blow your head off - or that of a friend or family member.   A credit card is the same way - a loaded gun, cocked and aimed at your head.  One false move and its all over - yet the credit card companies want to paint that handgun in bright girly colors and tell you its "fun" and "kicky" because you'll get bonus points and airline miles for every bullet you use!   And sadly, a lot of people fall for this, and end up in a lot of credit card trouble - I know I did!

These 0% balance transfer offers are the same deal, only perhaps even more dangerous.  They can be a lifeline, or an anchor, and I've use them both ways.   Early on in my career, I took a minor credit card crises and turned it into a larger one with a balance transfer (back then, they were not nearly as generous!).   And, like an idiot, I "solved" that problem with a cash-out re-fi of my house.  Duh.    Later in life, I used a 12-month 0% transfer (with a 4% fee) to get out from under a 25% interest rate credit card.  That time around, I buckled down and paid off the balance over 12 months, and took stock of my life and decided that perpetual debt was no way to live. I also cut up the old credit card and closed that account, and went to a cash-basis in spending, until I got my house in order.

Sadly, most folks do as I did initially, and don't take these 0% offers as a sign their financial lives are in ruin, but rather as a sign of their financial acumen.  Hey, after all, the bank told them they were "smart" for taking such a "good offer" - right?

And we all know banks never lie to us, ever!

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Walmart: 1 Amazon: 0

Two-day shipping for free is no big deal - and you don't have to "join prime" to get it.

Mark needed a new pair of jeans.  The last pair he bought a few years ago from Boot Barn- they were "cowboy cut" Wanglers - model 13MWZPW which makes it easy to search online.  I went online and searched - Boot Barn, Amazon, Walmart, eBay, Target, etc.  Target doesn't carry them, only "pre-distressed" ghetto jeans.   It quickly settled down to Amazon versus Walmart - each offering $19.95 prices, and "free shipping" if I bought two pairs.

The catch was, Amazon offers free regular shipping, and two-day shipping only if I "join prime" which I don't want to do, as I explained before.   Walmart offers two-day shipping for free, period.

I clicked on "buy" on the Walmart site. In the battle for online hearts and minds (and wallets) Walmart won this round.

But it made me think - is Amazon shooting itself in the foot with this obsession with "prime"?   It is a loyalty program, and I suspect it makes a lot of money for Amazon, as not only do they collect a fee for it, but it sort of encourages, if not forces, people to narrow their online shopping experience to just Amazon.

But for more price-conscious shoppers, "prime" is not that big a deal.  We buy a few things online, but I shop on price not convenience.  And when it comes to price, Amazon doesn't often have the best prices.  When it does, I buy from them.  When it doesn't, I buy elsewhere.  I bought parts for my laptop online - from various sources.  Ditto for the scooter parts.  Amazon either didn't have these things, or wanted outrageous prices for them.   If you don't look around, you may end up overpaying for things.

Funny thing, after I started writing this blog entry a week ago, I saw an article online saying essentially the same thing - Walmart has made Amazon Prime irrelevant.   But wait, it gets better. Better?  How?  Well, in addition to free shipping, how about negative cost shipping.  Sort of like negative interest rates - it makes no sense!   The Jeans arrived in two days and the size was off.  So we returned them (painless process - print a label, put it back in the box, take to the Post Office or hand to your carrier) and ordered the next size up.  This time around, Walmart offers a "discount" on shipping, if I am willing to forgo the 2-day delivery and accept three-day delivery.   The bribe isn't much - they first offer $1.50 or so, but when I type in my zip code, they reduce this to $0.75.

What is going on here?  Well, it is a gag, of course - the shipping is not "free" at all, nor are they paying me to ship things, but rather are folding the cost of 2-day shipping into the transaction and then bribing me to accept a slower (and less expensive) shipping alternative.  Very clever - and it worked.  For seventy-five cents, I agreed to wait a day longer.  It is smart marketing and pscyhology - instead of asking me to pay a monthly fee for "free shipping" like Amazon does, they offer it for free, period, and then incentivize me to accept a slower, cheaper method.   It is like how I structured my leases as a landlord - I never charged "late fees" but instead offered an "early payment discount" of $25 (and raised the "normal rent" by $25 accordingly).  Tenants loved it - and loved me for offering a discount instead of a fine.  Walmart is on to something here.

Oh, and that return?   The very next day I get an e-mail from Walmart saying it is being processed.  Walmart is getting on their game, which shouldn't be too hard for them to do, as what Amazon has done to retailing is what Walmart did to competitors decades before: cutting prices and offering shopping convenience -  and systematically under-pricing competitors to force them out of business.

Of course, if you join "Prime" you also get "Prime TV" which turned out to be a nothing - just a pitch to buy more television, much as "Prime" is just a pitch to get you to buy more junk on Amazon - and become a serial-shopper, coming home every night to packages on the porch (the ones that are not stolen) that clutter your house with yet more junk, until you become a hoarder.

But the point is, and I did have one, that Walmart is getting its game on, and this should concern Amazon.   Sears walked away from its storied catalog and online service (Prodigy) at the dawn of the computer age.  One wonders whether Sears could have leveraged both and still be in business today (instead of plowing more and more money into Mall locations).  Walmart got a slow start in the online business, but is playing catch-up quickly.

And they have a huge advantage.  Walmart has four times as many employees as Amazon, nearly double the amount of sales and profits, a P/E ratio that is in the 20 range (rational, versus Amazon's 141) and so on and so forth.  Oh, and Walmart pays dividends on its stock, too.  But of course, the same could probably have been said back in the day when Sears dominated America's retail, and Walmart was the scrappy up-and-comer.

Walmart succeeded back then with a new mode of merchandising - eschewing carpeted malls and the "department store" model in favor of concrete floored "big-box" standalone stores that emphasized low price over selection and service.   In a recessionary economy, Walmart's model took off.  It didn't help any that Malls in general fell from favor as customers got tired of the high prices, huge parking lots, long walks, and being harassed by teenaged "Mall Rats".   What Walmart did to Sears, Amazon could do to Walmart.

Perhaps.  Prime is part of Amazon's problem.  Whenever I buy something from Amazon, I feel I am in a libertarian marketplace, with one hand on my gun, the other on my wallet, keeping an careful eye on Jeff Bezos as we haggle over prices.   Amazon has all the charm of a carnival huckster, trying to cheat me out of my last two cents.   Do you want "fast, free shipping?"   Well, of course I do, if it is really free.  But no, that is a confusing page they put up with every transaction asking me to join "Prime" and thus pay for fast free shipping.   When you pay for something, it isn't free - seems like a simple concept, but it is lost on many.  Worse yet, when you get to the checkout page, you find that the regular "free shipping" that was proffered at the purchase page has been replaced by an $8.95 extra-cost shipping and you have to uncheck this and re-check to get the really free shipping.  On the "app" this is even harder to avoid, as they keep egging you on to buy with one-click, which of course, defaults to the higher-cost shipping.

Any financial transaction entered into based upon a lie, no matter how trivial that lie, will only go downhill from there - a famous man once said that.  I trust Jeff Bezos as far as I can throw him, and quite frankly, I would prefer to launch him from a canon.   As a result, Amazon is not my "go to" place to buy things anymore - if it ever was - but my supplier of last resort.   I check ebay and Walmart as well as manufacturer's websites before buying on Amazon. As I noted in an earlier posting:
(I digress further:  I recently ordered a new chair mat on Amazon, as the old one was for carpeted floor, and we finally finished the wood flooring in the office.  I looked on Amazon and eBay and the best price I could find for the 46" x 60" mat from E.S. Robbins (a woman-owned company!) was $55 delivered.   I get a notice from UPS that I am getting a delivery from Costco tomorrow - what gives?  We don't belong to Costco.  I go to the Costco website and the same chair mat is $45, including free shipping.  With a couple of clicks of a mouse, a "seller" on Amazon made ten bucks.  Nice work if you can get it, and why Amazon doesn't always have the best prices, and in fact, rarely does. Lesson learned - need to check Costco next time around!)
But that does bring up a salient point:  Both Amazon and Walmart are online marketplaces.  Some items on both are sold by and/or fulfilled by, the host companies.  Others are more like eBay listings, and you are dealing directly with a merchant who is using Amazon, Walmart, or eBay (or all three) as a "platform" to sell product.  Thus, when you search for a product on these sites, you may see prices all over the map - for the same product - you have to be careful you don't click on one of those $100 jars of mayonnaise.

In this regard, it seems Walmart has a slim lead - their major problem isn't overpriced mayonnaise, but third-party vendors selling Hitler shirts, and then the media, in a moment of hysteria, claiming that Walmart is selling nazi merchandise, when in fact, it is not.  But those stories, like the "Walmart Slasher" e-mails and facebook posts, quickly die down.  So long as Walmart offers rebates on shipping (Gee, I feel like a Rockefeller!) in place of cheesy come-ons and deceptive shipping practices (that Amazon seems to favor) they may end up getting more and more business online.

It is just a matter of wait-and-see. Walmart is also aggressively moving into the food delivery business, as well as the "pick up at store" line (although the latter, I fail to see many people using).  They are not going down without a fight, and they have better ideas in their arsenal than Eddie Lampert's "Shop your way" - and a deeper war chest with which to fight.

Stay tuned!

Saturday, January 25, 2020

"You Didn't Build That" House In Martha's Vineyard (Where's My Rebate?)

While it is true that businesses benefit from government-funded infrastructure, politicians also benefit from the contributions from their supporters.

During Obama's re-election, the right-wing made much hay out of a quote of Obama's taken out of context and made into a meme on the Internet.   During a speech, Obama pointed out that business people are successful in part because they have a ready infrastructure to rely on - an infrastructure supplied by the people of the United States.  Without this infrastructure, many businesses wouldn't be able to get off the ground.   In China, for example, the lack of roads and infrastructure is preventing many regions from developing - something the Chinese are playing catch-up to fix.

It used to be, back in the 1970's, that Truckers would put signs on the back of their rigs, advertising, "This truck pays $5000 a year in road taxes!" which sounds like a lot of money, until you realize that one mile of Interstate highway costs about a million dollars to build, and that truck easily destroys more than $5000 (or whatever the number is) worth of roadway a year.   Ride in the right lane of any Interstate Highway and you'll see what I mean.

People driving in cars pay fuel taxes and registration fees as well (here in Georgia, we tax electric vehicles $200 because they pay no fuel tax).   But in terms of road consumed versus road paid-for, car drivers (who outnumber truckers by more than 10 to 1) probably are paying more than their fair share.   But we don't mind, as we all get our goods delivered at some point by truck, and we want this infrastructure in place.

So, if you start a trucking company, you might say you "built it from the ground up" and no doubt you put a lot of sweat and work and risk into the business.   Good for you.  But without the Interstate Highway system, it would be a non-starter.  That is what Obama was getting at.   But the conservative mouthpieces took this quote out of context to make it seem like Obama was saying that people didn't create their own businesses at all.

Obama had a point.  None of us can thrive in some post-apocalyptic libertarian nightmare, where there is no infrastucture or cooperation among people.   You can't cook semiconductor chips or pour engine blocks in your back yard - you need the cooperation of thousands, nay, millions of people.   Our modern society can't exist unless all these people work together.  Unless you want to go back to living in a log cabin and slaughtering your own hogs, we have to maintain a society.   Besides, if you want to go the log cabin route, you can always move to Alaska or some remote region and leave the rest of us alone - because the rest of us want our smart phones, computers, and 600HP fuel-injected cars, thank you very much.

But I digress.

Obama had a point, but it is a point that is lost on today's legion of far-left politicians and even Obama himself.   Leftist, Socialist, and even Communist liberals are claiming "they built that" with no help of anyone else, including the voters and the people who contributed to their campaigns.

Exhibit one is Bernie Sanders.  Bernie, after getting tired of being poor, decided to write a book and cash in on his fame - a fame we created or at least created by his supporters and the voters of Vermont, who vaulted him into the spotlight and put him on CNN and on the debate stages (thankfully, not in the White House).   His fame was not something he made but we made.  Just as you can't make your own smart phone from raw sand and plastic, without the cooperation of thousand upon thousands of people, Sanders did not become a successful (such as it is) politician without the support of thousands.

Yet when queried about making a million bucks from his book, he pushed back with an "I made it myself!" kind of quote.  His actual quote was "I didn't know it was a crime to write a good book!" which implies two lies.  First that his book was good (it was not) and second, that he is just some lowly author whose book was published because he is such a good writer.   I could have submitted the same or similar manuscript to every publishing house in the nation and garnered nothing more than rejection slips.   Even if published, no one would read it.  It is only because of his celebrity that he made a million bucks from it.

He was cashing in on his fame and fortune, and more power to him.   But it is utter hypocrisy for him to to suggest that his book would have stood on its own merits, if written by a nobody.

You didn't build that, Bernie, we did - well, we helped you by making you a political celebrity that we either love or hate.  Without that "infrastructure" your book would have been self-published and written-off (sorry, pun) as the crackpot writings of some obscure failed carpenter from Burlington, Vermont.   And that is what it is, without the cache of celebrity attached.

But that's Bernie, and being surprised at hypocrisy from Bernie is to be naive.  This is a "man of the people" who owns four houses, including a dacha on Lake Champlain, whose wife drove a college into bankruptcy - a man who knows nothing about government or business, but wants to tell us how to run both, by running for the nomination of a party he steadfastly refuses to join.   A man who has accomplished nothing after decades as an elected official. Why people follow the rantings of that madman (and not my madman rantings) is beyond me.

Getting back to Obama, the same effect is in place, although Obama has yet to say something as dumb as Bernie.  The Obamas really cashed-in on their fame and fortune, much as Bill and Hillary did.  A lot of leftists complain about this - the $50,000 speeches, the poorly-written tomes bought by PACs and special-interest groups by the cartonload.   The same leftists who bitch about this give Bernie a pass, of course.  But then again, Bernie is small potatoes next to Hillary and Barack.

The Obamas just bought a $12M house on Martha's Vineyard as a vacation home.  A President elected on a platform of providing "affordable housing" doesn't seem to think the issue applies to him personally.    But beyond that, one wonders, where did he get all that money?   Because the salary of a President isn't all that great, comparatively speaking.   And speaking of speaking, that's the answer - the books-and-speeches route.   Books generate royalties long after they are written, even after you are elected - even after you retire.

But again, "You Didn't Build That".  No one would pay a plug nickel for a book written by a "community organizer" from crime-ridden Chicago (which appears to be the only place he doesn't own a home).  No one would dump $12M in his lap to buy a luxury vacation home on tony Martha's Vineyard, without his celebrity.  And who created that celebrity?   We did, in part, by electing him President.

I voted for him - twice (the alternatives were not that appealing).  Of course, with the electoral college, my votes didn't really count in Georgia.   Hillary did win 45% of the State, however, which illustrates that it is possible for a less odious and more centrist candidate to win even a Red State.  If only Hillary wasn't Hillary - with that screeching voice and that carload of baggage from a lengthy career in politics with Bill.   If only....

I also donated money to his campaign.  My question is, do I get a rebate or something from this?  I mean, I'm glad for him that he got elected and wrote books and gave speeches and made millions of dollars, but without us, none of this would happen.   Maybe we should get some sort of dividend on our "investment" in this man - or any other politician.  Maybe it should be like gofundyourself, where you get a product or something, in return for your "donation."  Maybe!

Just a weird thought.   Why should politics be so profitable?   Even running for office - and losing - can make you a few bucks with "leftover" campaign funds (and matching funds) usable for a number of purposes, including building political power.  We should get some sort of payback - at least a small check - pennies on the dollar.

Failing that, I would accept if Obama lets me park my trailer in his yard on Martha's Vineyard for one weekend this summer.

Seems only fair, right?

Friday, January 24, 2020

When Did Politics Become So Profitable?

Working for the government was never a high-paying job, until lately.

One of the key issues that will be harped on in the 2020 campaign is Hunter Biden's work in the Ukraine.   Republican operatives are already haunting the campaign trail with signs saying "Where's Hunter?" or peppering Biden with questions about the Ukraine deal.   Biden had replied calmly in some instances, at other times calling out GOP plants for what they are - "liars".   In one instance, he made reference to "his one surviving son" which struck me as a little off-color - using the death of your child for political gain.

But the issue touches a  nerve, and oddly enough, Biden has gained less than other recent politicians for his time in office.   Others have raked in millions, literally.   Oddly enough also, whether or not Trump has gained from his time in office is debatable.  While the Trump Hotel in the former U.S. Post Office building is booking rooms from those seeking Presidential favor, other Trump properties are seeing declines in bookings or even the Trump name removed.   Trump is no "billionaire mogul" but a failed real estate investor who morphed into a reality-show brand.  At this point in his career, his major asset is (or was) his brand, which he licensed to clothing, accessories, hotels, and whatnot.  That brand has been tarnished by his Presidency.  So arguably, he may leave office with less money than when he started with.  But maybe the sale of MAGA hats will make up for that.

Others have prospered. The Obamas, as I noted before, just bought a $12M vacation home on Martha's Vinyard.   In an era where progressives are decrying fantastic wealth and incomes that exceed that of the "ordinary worker" by a factor of 20 or more, the Obamas seem to be strangely exempt from criticism.  How the heck did a kid from the streets of Chicago end up with $40 million?

Of course, his Vice-President did only a little worse, making a paltry $9M from speaking engagements and books.  Good ol' Middle-Class Joe! 

It is part and parcel of the new politics.   You give a speech to a trade group, and they pay you $50,000 for an hour of your time.   Hillary and Bill famously did this, and also are now multi-millionaires.   Or, you write a book, which in some instances may be bought up in bulk by political action committees to hand out to people.   This vaults an even mediocre tome to the New York Times Bestseller list, which in turn generates more sales (since no one reads anymore, it doesn't take much to become a "bestseller").  The net result is money can be transferred legally and "above-board" to candidates, politicians, or former politicians.

There are, of course, other ways for people to legally transfer money to politicians.  You offer a job to a relative, such as Chelsea Clinton or Hunter Biden, for a fantastic salary that is far beyond their actual worth.   The understanding is, that if down the road you get into some difficulty, their parents will remember the favor you did them.    In other cases, such as with Hunter Biden, it could be that other investors in your company might be impressed with a famous "name" on your board of directors.

Act shocked - that's how the system works.  You become wealthy and famous, and you are asked to sit on the board of a company or a non-profit or a charity or whatnot.  You draw a nice salary and do little other than to rubber-stamp the CEO's recommendations.  And once you are on one Board, you are asked to be on others.   Being on the Board bolsters your credentials as well, opening up new opportunities for you.   It is a  pretty sick system, and not just limited to former politicians.

Should politics be so profitable?  Is there anything wrong with giving a speech for $50,000 if people are willing to offer it?   After all, other public figures are often paid very highly to give speeches at universities and forums - why not you?

And I guess Bernie Sanders said, "Why not me?" and went out and wrote (or had ghost-written) a mediocre tome that made him a million bucks.  He defended this by saying, "If you write a best-seller, you can make a million dollars, too!" which is apparently his proposal for fighting poverty and homelessness in America - under a Sanders Presidency, everyone will write a best-selling book.

But of course, not everyone can write a best-seller.  And books by politicians, even if they were good ones would only become best-sellers by dint of the author's name on the title page.   If you or I were to write the same book, it would generate nothing but rejection letters.   Book-writing and speech-giving are little more than trading on your fame and notoriety, which is why whenever someone does something that makes them famous - even for a minute - they write a book, sign a movie deal, or even record a record album.  Whether it is Homer cashing in on his perfect bowling game, or Leonard Nimoy doing a monotone record of contemporary hits, or a guy who lands a plane on the Hudson writing a book, everyone cashes in on their fame.

And I guess there is nothing wrong with that, but with politicians, their fame is something that we created, not them.  Moreover, their notoriety is supposed to serve the people who elected them, not merely line their own pockets with cash.  They should not be making money, running for President.

But of course, that's assuming that their best-sellers and speeches are truly being received by an audience who just wants to be entertained and informed, and expects nothing in return.   The problem with books-and-speeches, as I noted above, is that they can all-too-easily used as a means of channeling bribes to a politician, in a manner that is "above-board" and also taxable (so they don't end up like Al Capone).

Sadly, it seems no candidate is exempt from this largess.   Even Elizabeth Warren has a net worth of over $12M mostly from book royalties and whatnot.   She will help the "little guy" from being exploited by the banks, but lives in a $3M home.   No doubt, she can afford to pay off her payday loan or pay back her student loans.

Of course, the only exception to this rule appears to be Kamala Harris, who makes a shitload of money (combined with her Husband's attorney salary) but managed to somehow spend it all.  That's not how the game is played, Kamala!

Pete Buttigieg is even worse off, having a paltry net worth of $100,000 and not even a lot of income to show for.  But then again - millennials - probably is still paying off student loans and blowing his disposable income on avocado toast and looking fabulous.

So what is the point of all this?   I dunno.  I hear a lot in the press that Trump is "corrupt" and somehow making money from the Presidency by renting out hotel rooms.   He probably is doing this as writing a book with a Sharpie is kind of hard to do.  And I suspect that the audience for his unhinged speeches won't pay $50 grand to listen to him.  But even his opponents' data shows that while he funneled a lot of campaign money to his own properties (mostly by putting his campaign headquarters in his own building) since becoming President, his income has actually declined.  Maybe he has a secret slush-fund like Nixon had, that hasn't come to light - yet.

They throw the "C-word" around a lot, but really fail to show where it is happening.  Charging the Secret Service for the use of Trump's private jet?  I guess, maybe.  Under the law, the secret service does have to reimburse their protectees for use of their properties.   The Secret Service was obligated to pay Hillary rent for space they used in her Chappaqua property (the amount was so trivial, the Clintons declined it).  Jet airplanes, of course, might be more expensive to operate.  Whether or not Trump broke any rules by charging the Secret Service, or whether the Secret Service was obligated to pay for their seat-cost is not clear.

But throwing around terms like "corruption" while at the same time raking in millions of your own seems kind of duplicitous.  Making money from your time in public office, even while you are in office, or while you are campaigning for office, seems to be a new norm.   And whether it is a political PAC buying up your latest "best seller" in bulk, or some lobbying group spending the night at your hotel, it doesn't really change what is going on - money being transferred from point A to point B by people seeking political favor.

I guess I shouldn't be so naive.  Even Kennedy wrote a book - "Profiles in Courage" which some say was ghost-written.   Maybe Lincoln had some lucrative speaking gigs.  Hey, even Washington managed to make a buck or two out of the location of the Nation's Capital - named after him - to his back yard.  So I guess this is really nothing new, after all.

While Jimmy Carter might live in a $167,000 hovel (and Plains, Georgia is indeed a festering shithole, I've been there - dry county, no less!) he does has a net worth of $8M.   We miss you, Harry Truman!   I guess he was the last President who was content to just be middle-class.   What a shame he was also connected with the Kansas City political machine.  There really are no "clean" politicians, of either party.

But I think the Democrats throwing around the "C-word" - corruption - could backfire on them during the campaign.   While Trump may have benefited in some regards from bookings to his hotels and other properties, these bookings have declined in recent years, and his overall brand has arguably been tarnished by his Presidency.  Meanwhile, the pure-as-snow Democrats are raking in millions - literally - in enterprises with no risk or overhead - with books-and-speeches.    Enterprises which can more easily be used as means of legally bribing politicians as well, often in ways which are untraceable.   Who's to know if the Koch brothers bought 100,000 copies of your book and then burned them?    And let's not go into salaried jobs for family members - both the Clintons and Bidens have to answer for that.

But maybe that is the answer - instead of trying to look for the "perfect politician" that "money can't buy" or basing our judgments on "character" - we should be looking at actual policies that affect our lives.  Because in the long run, it doesn't matter if Trump is renting out hotel rooms in exchange for favors, or whether Hillary is giving a $50,000 speech to a petroleum think-tank, you have to ask yourself whether the policies these candidates espouse and enact, will benefit or harm you - and the country.

And that's difficult to determine, sometimes.   Myself, I tend to want to vote against the candidate who is promising to void my health insurance plan.   So that means "No" to Trump.

But hey, I did get another helpful phone call from a telemarketer, informing me that the "window" to enroll in Trumpcare is opening!  (It never closes, of course - fraud never does).  Gee, thanks!