Thursday, December 31, 2020

Is the Wholesale Club Worth It?

Wholesale clubs can have good bargains. They can also be a trap.  Cristalino sells for $9.99 at the local liquor store.  I bought two cases.

A reader writes:

I just got a coupon for a one-year membership at BJ's Wholesale Club for $25. One of the stores is a 15 minute drive from me. I'm thinking of joining it, but want to be sure I turn a profit off of it by saving money on goods I would have otherwise bought from non-membership retailers I regularly visit, like Lidl and Wal-Mart. Is there a way I could achieve this goal, or is the BJ's membership not worth it?

I'm a single guy and don't buy anything but essential goods. I have some storage space and could do something like buy five years' worth of toilet paper from BJ's and slowly use it up. My only other real expense is due to my landlord business (building materials, new fixtures and appliances, etc.)

I have written about wholesale clubs before.  A few times, in fact.  One of my earliest postings was about them.  Long story short, they have some good prices on some things, but they hope you "impulse buy" other things without checking prices.  They are also an invitation to over-consume - you buy a ton of something, you tend to view it as less scarce, and thus consume more of it.  With BJ's in particular, the pricing is very confusing, as they rely on catalogs of coupons, in-store coupons, and virtual coupons, to make price-shopping confusing.

The history of BJ's is interesting - one of the first, if not the first, wholesale clubs.  It was born out of Zayre's if you can believe that!

A pandemic note:  In the past, wholesale clubs had mountains of toilet paper and paper towels and other paper products.  It seems that lately, BJ's has only one or two brands, and limit "one giant package per customer" - no coupons, and few discounts.  In the past, they had a plethora of confusing brands and package sizes and coupon discounts - although the "Berkley & Jensen" house brand usually beat the "national name brands" with the coupon discount.

I was told or read somewhere that one of the main sources of income for wholesale clubs was, in fact, the annual membership fees.  It may not seem like a lot - $55 for BJ's for a "basic" membership - but I guess it adds up.   Sometimes they offer "free" daily passes, but if you use one, you can't use another withing so many months.  I stood in line behind a guy once who argued with customer service for two hours over this issue.  The customer service rep didn't budge on the issue - the computer wouldn't let them.

There are other levels of membership you can buy.  We tried the "upgraded" membership once, which promised as "cash back" reward on things we bought.  After a year, the cash-back reward was almost exactly equal to the additional amount we spent on the upgraded membership.  So, unless you buy a lot of stuff for a family of 12, I doubt the upgraded memberships are worth it.

To answer the reader's question up front, I would say to try it - but to make sure the membership is NOT set to "auto-renew" or your credit card will be charged for $55 next year.  I suspect they get a lot of income from people who join and never shop - and never cancel.   It is not a hassle to manually renew.  If your membership is about to expire or has expired, the checkout kiosk will remind you and ask you to renew.  Again, you have to UNCHECK the "auto-renew" box at checkout.

For $25 and living 15 minutes away, it is worth exploring.  You may find nothing that interests you, or you may become a regular shopper.  There seem to be two types of shoppers there, by the way.  There are the people who live nearby who come in and buy a quart of milk, as though it were a grocery store or even a 7-11.  Then there are people like us, who have to drive an hour to get there, and "stock up" and wedge the car full of crap until it is riding on the bump-stops.

By the way, for all you cashiers out there, the next time someone says, "having a party?" when I buy more than two bottles of wine, expect a punch in the face.  It is about as annoying as when a customer says to you, "he he, must be free!" when a product refuses to scan.  Let's both be original as a New Years' resolution - how about that?

Are there bargains at the wholesale club?  Yea, but you have to know pricing and be astute.  As illustrated above, the Juame Serra Cristalino is regularly $7.99 which is two dollars cheaper than what the local liquor store charges.  On sale?  $5.99 - a savings of four dollars a bottle.  Of course, since we live an hour away, I bought a couple of cases ("having a party?" PUNCH!) which "saved" $96 over buying at the local liquor store.  Of course, you cannot "shop your way to wealth" and I would have bought those two cases anyway (maybe not all at once).  If you are buying something only because it looks like a bargain, and it is not something you would buy normally, well you are not saving money.  Impulse-purchases are the deadly trap of the wholesale club.

Why do I have a photo of that price sheet on my phone?  Simply stated, when we went to ring up the purchase, the discount did not automatically apply.  You have to be like a hawk during checkout and not be afraid to ask the head cashier to manually adjust prices, as sometimes coupons do not scan, or in-store discounts are not applied (how convenient for them!) or the app coupons don't apply automatically.  So I had to run back, take a photo of the price sheet, and then show it to the cashier.  For $96, I will do that.

And in spite of the name "Wholesale Club" the people shopping there are not retailers or store owners, for the most part.  Oh, sure, I've seen wholesale club products for sale in small Bodegas and corner stores.  You can tell by the brand-name (Berkeley & Jensen) or by the packaging ("Not For Retail Sale!").  But for the most part, retailers are buying directly from distributors.  The "wholesale club" is for schmucks like you and me.

As I noted in an earlier posting, BJ's now has an "app" which allows you to electronically add coupons. It sort of is stupid, as what we end up doing is putting something in the cart, and then looking up the item to see if there is a coupon.  If there is, we click on "add coupon" and it generally appears at checkout (again, you have to watch this like a hawk, and that gets tiresome).  So instead of inducing us to buy, it ends up being a windfall discount - something that goes against the theory of couponing.  We also compare the coupon price with the generic brand, and half the time, the generic brand is still cheaper.

But speaking of cheaper, online pricing still beats warehouse pricing most of the time. I used to buy things like vitamins and supplements at the wholesale club, but lately have found that is a lot easier and cheaper.  Again, wholesale clubs can be a bargain, or they can be a trap.   You still have to know competing prices and do comparisons.  For everyday things that you are price-aware of, it is not hard to spot bargains versus the rip-offs.

But getting back to the nature of these places, each end-cap has an impulse-purchase display, sometimes of an "as seen on TV!" kind of item.  You know, like the guy who sells My Nazi Pillows.  I hear he is still looking for his red stapler.  They also have a huge selection of televisions, and a smaller selection of laptops and pad devices.  We've bought a couple of televisions (to watch Netflix) and they seem to last about five years before they go pffft!   Of course, the price of these things keeps dropping over time, so it isn't worth fixing them, particularly when for the same price, you can buy one much larger with more features.

BJ's also sells gasoline at some locations and the price is pretty attractive.  Again, they play games with pricing, and if you buy certain brand name items, they can knock even more off the price per gallon. But in a way, it is like the deal with Winn-Dixie and Shell:  You buy $500 worth of groceries and you get 50 cents off on ten gallons of gasoline - or something like that.  No one is giving away free gasoline or free money samples this week.   But the regular price on gas is good - as evidenced by the long lines at the pumps.  By the way, they are Nazi about which direction you drive into the pumps.  Follow those arrows!

Their price on propane is pretty decent, too, and we've filled up there for cheap.  Some locations also sell tires and batteries, and back in the day, I remember the store in Virginia, as I recall, having rows and rows of tires to look at - the smell of new rubber!  Today, they keep most of the tires in the tire shop, as I guess they realized the real estate taken up by the mounds of tires could be better used selling other merchandise.  I think I may have bought tires there once - decades ago.  But the last set I bought, for the Nissan, I ordered from and had them mounted at Walmart.  Actually, all three companies had the same price on those BF Goodrich tires. I went with Tire Rack based on service (Walmart misplaced the last tire I had "shipped to store") and used Walmart to mount based on convenience - it wasn't an hours' drive away.  I suspect BJ's may be morphing away from auto service - I don't see a lot of cars being worked on at the wholesale club - the shop is pretty quiet.

They also sell eyeglasses, and my experience has gone from "Wow!" to "Meh!" and today I use online.  Do you see a pattern here?  I've gotten some pairs for cheap at the wholesale club, but lately the prices are increasing - to a few hundred dollars a pair.  You can go online and buy the style you want (as opposed to what the have in stock) for less than a hundred bucks - sometimes far less.

Note also that some stores have a deli, and the price-per-pound on deli meats can be far less than most grocery stores.  Cheese?  You can buy pre-sliced cheese in a nice plastic package in the refrigeration case for less-per-pound than at the deli. And Kentucky Legend pretty much beats deli prices even at the wholesale club.  Plus, no waiting in line for a half-hour with surly deli employees who act like you ruined their day!

Some locations also have a separate liquor store, and in Florida at least, you don't have to be a member to shop there.  The prices are about 10-20% less than "discount" liquor stores, but the selection is a lot thinner, of course.

Appliances? Yes, they do sell them online, but I've never looked. I found our local independent appliance dealer to have better deals even than the "big box" stores. There usually are displays at checkout (and sometimes desperate salesmen) selling replacement windows, or vacations, or even cars.  I've never investigated these, so I don't know how they work.

Some stores used to have a small pizza and hot dog snack shop, but many were closed during Covid, and some never reopened.  At one store, they tore out the pizza ovens and soda dispensers and replaced it with a stack of mattresses.  I guess the pizza wasn't a big seller.

That's about it, I guess.  There are bargains on some things, other prices are just "OK" and some things are actually higher than in other stores. And it goes without saying, if you impulse-buy a giant swing set or a set of patio furniture, you aren't saving money, you are just shopping.

I guess the main thing to keep in mind is that like any other major chain of stores, they have an army of marketers, computer experts, and psychologists who are analyzing your every move and watching what you do.  They know more about what is going on in your mind than you do. If you shop there at all, you will get coupons in the mail for what you shopped for previously, which often isn't helpful, as if you just bought five pounds of cheese, odds are, you won't need five more pounds in the coming week.

I digress, but these fears of "AI" are pretty stupid.  Online retailers, Amazon, Google et al., use "AI" to figure out what you want to buy.  You buy a microwave oven, and are instantly tagged as "Mr. Microwave Oven" and they assume that is all you want to buy for the rest of your life.  You get flooded with ads for Microwave Ovens - or knitting supplies (I still do!).  Somehow, this doesn't impress me much.   If this is the technology that will "take over the world" I am not losing too much sleep over it!

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Too Many Ingredients!

The best foods are the simplest foods.  Being a gourmand doesn't mean throwing dozens of ingredients at something - in most cases.

There is a misconception among a number of people that "fancy food" is difficult to prepare and requires a lot of ingredients.  For the most part, this isn't true.  Other than some curries from India that use a panoply of spices that are carefully balanced with one another, most cuisine is remarkably simple.  In fact, much of very fancy cuisine is down to two or three ingredients.  Order the most expensive thing on the menu - lobster.  They bring you two ingredients - a lobster and some butter.   That's it.

A friend of ours works as a spokesperson for the Vegetarian Society. She used to joke that so many "vegan" recipes call for so many ingredients. "You gather together 20 ingredients, spend two hours cooking them, and it still tastes like crap!" she joked.   And there is a nugget of truth to that.  The best vegan meals are often the simplest ones - and ones that don't try to mimic other foods, particularly meats, or try to hide the source food items under a mound of complicated sauces and a dozen spices.

Much of what we today consider cuisine was developed due to necessity.   Either the chefs had to "make do" with ingredients on hand, or poverty forced people to eat things that otherwise were deemed unappetizing, and in some cases, inedible.  Many spicy foods were developed to disguise the taste of unrefrigerated meat, which went South pretty quickly back in the day.  Much of French cuisine is based on making something-from-nothing - using part of an animal that otherwise would be discarded.

So many people are afraid of cooking, convinced it is some complicated deal involving dozens of ingredients, long cooking times, and dozens of dirty pots and pans and utensils.  Anything less just isn't cooking!  But that really isn't the case, and if you find yourself with a dozen ingredients on the counter while preparing a meal, perhaps something is wrong.

I fall into this trap all the time.  I make an omelette, and whisk a couple of eggs and just a touch of cream and then fry it in the pan.  How about some cheese?  Tomatoes?  Ham?  Bacon?  Mushrooms? Onions?  Before long, the omelette is a watery mess of ingredients, is about 5" thick, and falls apart when you try to fold it.  One or two or maybe three of these ingredients, tops, is all you need (and things like mushrooms, onions, etc. should be sauteed first to reduce their water content.  Sauteed is a fancy word for frying them in the pan, first).  Mark makes an omelette with just spinach and cheese, and it ends up being much better.  I have to resist the urge to put the entire contents of the refrigerator in the omelette.  I mean, maraschino cherries?  Bad idea.

But the best meals often contain only two or three ingredients, maybe four.  Simple things, prepared simply, are often the best.  On the other hand it is possible to take simplicity too far. Like I said, so many foods are based on poverty - a lack of good ingredients a hand - and an urge to dress-up poor ingredients or stretch them to feed more people.

Meatloaf and Chili are prime examples.  If you have a nice piece of steak, why would you chop it up into a meatloaf, or serve it as a thick soup?  Because you don't have a nice piece of steak, you have a not-so-nice piece of meat - and not a lot of it.  So you add beans to the chili and maybe onions and spices, along with a tomato sauce.   In the meatloaf, you stretch it with bread crumbs or rice, and add maybe onions and other spices.   Ummmmm.  Good.

Sadly, some folks think this is an abomination.  "The best chili is just meat!" they say, "no beans!"   Or they posit that meatloaf should be all meat.  Weirder still, they argue that using prime cuts of meat make for better chili or meatloaf.  I disagree.  It is like trying to hop-up your Mom's old Accord.  You can bolt-on all the accessories you want, it is still just a plebeian sedan - appreciate it for what it is, not what you think it could be.

So chili becomes a chopped-meat sauce - maybe suitable for spaghetti, but not really chili in my opinion.  And meatloaf becomes a slab of hamburger, which is OK, I guess, but not really very imaginative.  Once again, the desire to be gourmand or to expertize everything just ends up ruining everything.

It is funny, but we went to a chili cook-off in Natchez, Mississippi.  We stopped at a campground there and they said, "you here for the cook-off?" and we said "no" but were looking forward to good chili.  We didn't get any.  Turns out, they've turned this into a "thing" where people prepare these batches of chili (no beans of course!) just for the judges and that's that.  Nothing to see or do, but the smells were pretty good.  From what we understood, this was just one stop on one of the "chili circuits" where people compete to make chili, but no one actually eats any of it.  Just another example of people experting the shit out of something to the point of ruining it.  Probably put 100 spices in it, too.

It's like Ron White said - all you need is a goat and an onion.  And some beans, please!

Simplicity is the best in most cases.  You want to prepare a piece of fish, just batter and fry it.  Or broil it with a little lemon or something.  Adding more "stuff" on top doesn't always make the experience better.  Fresh steamed peel-n-eat shrimp beats made-from-frozen "scampi" any day.  Raw oysters with a little mignonette sauce beats fancy Oysters Rockefeller.  A simple hamburger or cheeseburger with one or two condiments beats these monstrosities with 500 things piled on top of them to the point where you can't even eat them.  Fancy "artisan" cocktails with seven ingredients are often worse than a simple martini with two ingredients - shaken until it is a frothy white.  And no, a "dry" martini with just vodka is not a martini - you're just drinking straight vodka.  Again, too little is as bad as too much.

Speaking of vodkas, what's the deal with flavored vodkas? Whipped Cream Vodka? Just drink something else.  Or these flavored beers that taste like strawberries or coffee or whatnot.  How about just make a really good beer made really well from three or four really good ingredients?  Sounds good, right about now.

I think that food is like life - simpler is better, up to a point.  Moderation is the key.  Making your life more complicated with too many ingredients isn't going to make it better. Yes, it was fun to have a vacation home and boats and "stuff" but like the ten-ingredient omelette, it was also a lot of work.  Ditto for the five-bedroom house.  Sometimes less is more.

And maybe there is a parallel to our financial lives as well.  Some folks think that complexity in our lives would be better - esoteric investments that are not well understood, but a "sure thing" to make us rich.  Chasing airline miles or coupon deals is just taking a simple transaction and making it more complicated than it needs to be.

Simpler is better.  Less is more.  But don't take it to extremes!

Can't Buy Me Love

For some weird reason, Trump is trying to buy our loyalty with $2000 checks.

2020, a weird year, is ending on a weird note.  Three "must-pass" bills were put before Congress, and in a rare show of bipartisanship (yes, it exists, when the shit gets real) they were all passed, as two bills, one to fund the military, and another combined Covid relief bill and government funding bill for 2021.  Both bills were what the Trump administration asked for and what both parties could agree on.

Trump has threatened to veto both.  What the heck is going on?

The sticking issue isn't the money.  Indeed, the Trump administration wasn't in favor of the $2000 relief checks to begin with.  By switching loyalties on this issue at the last minute, I think the Trump administration is trying to do one or more of three things. First, it is just a temper-tantrum Trump is having.  Someone puts a bill in front of him, and he pouts and says "No!" because signing it is what is expected of him, and he has found that doing the opposite often gets attention and gives him some sort of leverage.

Second, it is revenge for alleged slights by Republicans, for refusing to go along with his crazy conspiracy theories.  By the way, the FBI just completed the "signature audit" in Georgia as Trump requested.  Total tally of "fraudulent votes"?  ZERO, Zilch, None.   Oh, well, that will never stop a conspiracy theorist - they will just allege the FBI is in on it now.  Oh, wait, they already are.

Third is perhaps the chance to suck-up to Americans by positing himself as the CoVid Relief Hero, handing out big checks, when those Mean Old Republicans wanted to hold back.   Maybe he felt this would boost his falling poll numbers, or perhaps help out when the eventual Coup attempt is made.

But there is a fourth reason, and it has to do with Social Media.  Social Media companies and any online forum (including Blogger) were granted limited immunity from liability due to the content posted by users, such as me.  If this immunity didn't exist, companies like Google or Facebook could be sued for libel, copyright infringement, or whatever, for actions taken by one of their billions of users.   Lawyers would love this, as a "deep pocket" is an attractive target.   If someone makes a Facebook posting libeling someone, there isn't much the libeled person could do - under current law - other than to request the posting be taken down.

If this "Section 230" is repealed, well, the libeled person could then sue Facebook directly, which in turn would force Facebook to more closely monitor the content that users post - an exorbitantly expensive proposition as nearly every posting would have to be vetted, and as a result, the cost of operating even a basic social media website would be stratospheric.  Every posting would have to be moderated and vetted.  You couldn't just go on Twitter and say outlandish things, for example.

At first, this makes no sense at all.  And at second and third.  After all, Social Media is what created Trump.  He lives and dies by the Tweet.  The conspiracy theories he fosters all fester on places like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and whatnot.   Dominion Voting Systems is poised to sue major news media outlets for propagating slanderous lies about the company.  Can you imagine how things would be if they could go after Facebook and Twitter as well?

The first account that Twitter would take down would be Trump's.   It makes no sense at all that he wants to repeal section 230.   It is little more than an act of revenge - and perhaps an admission he lost the election.   This time around, the social media companies were less of a lap dog to Trump's whims.   Back in 2016, he and his followers could publish outlandish things and get away with it.  Facebook felt above the fray and realized that the crazy posts generated the most hits (and that the people who follow conspiracy theories are not very bright and thus prime fodder for "One trick of the tiny belly" Facebook ads).

But in 2020, it seems the Social Media companies - or some of them at least - developed a conscience and realized that they wielded an awesome power, or more precisely, failed to wield it.   This time around, false statements were labeled as false.  And in the post-election cycle, Trump's wild claims of fraud were labeled as such.   This didn't help his re-election bid much.  Worse yet, they tweaked the algorithms to prevent false stories from being retweeted as much as in the past, and to limit their exposure.   Sites like Reddit finally shut down rabid Trump subreddits, as well as blatantly racist groups.  They also tweaked algorithms to prevent brigading and other techniques to push obscure posts to the top of the Reddit cesspool.  If you perused "r/all" on the eve of the 2016 election, all you would see is Trump, Trump, Trump.  You might actually think he was popular.    In 2020, it is all cute cat videos.   They definitely changed the algorithm there.

Abolishing section 230 would not help Trump much, but be more of an act of revenge.  He would leave office and no longer need Twitter, but Twitter would be swamped with lawsuits galore.  Given that the company is now just become profitable as it is (and recently went negative), the increased cost of moderating every single Tweet as well as litigation costs, could arguably put it out of business.   Think about it - would people Tweet if they had to wait 24 hours for a Tweet to appear?  It could take that long for moderators to validate each entry.  The backup would be worse than Polish truckers at Calais during Brexit.

There is another possibility, of course, and that is horse-trading.  Trump often holds out for weird things that make no sense, until you realize he is basically holding something you want, hostage, until you give him something he wants - his idea of the "art of the deal".   So he holds out for Section 230 repeal, even though perhaps he doesn't really want that.  Perhaps it is just a threat against social media companies to get them to stop flagging his Tweets.   He isn't hoping to do a deal with Mitch McConnell, but Mark Zuckerberg.  Perhaps.

Or perhaps he is just off his fucking rocker.

Why mainline Republicans don't want $2000 stimulus checks can be seen at any major retailer.  Prices are skyrocketing for goods, as more money floods the market.  Just as easy student loan money made the cost of a college education skyrocket, so is the flood of money into the market in general causing the cost of everyday items to jump - or in some cases, end up in short supply.  Trump's tariffs aren't helping much in that department, either.  Free money sounds great, until you realize it wipes out your savings and that free money is worth what it cost - nothing.   $2000 checks sound nice, until you realize that next year, that won't even buy you a coffee at Starbucks.   Hyperinflation isn't pretty.

On the bright side, however, recent votes in the House and Senate show that, when push comes to shove, Democrats and Republicans can work together to pass legislation, when it really matters.  And if they over-ride Trump's veto on the defense bill, it may be the icing on the cake for Trump's final humiliation - and a sign that the Republican Party has a life beyond Trumpism.

Maybe.  Maybe not.  The next three weeks could change the world.  We could see marital law, or perhaps a smooth transition.  We could see a spectacle when Congress meets to confirm the electoral college vote.  We could see the GOP  renounce Trumpism.  We might even see the Democrats take the Senate.   It is an exciting time - at a time when most people are tired of excitement.  Exhausted, in fact.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Even moderation should be used in moderation.
Extremism is the antithesis of liberty.

A reader (perhaps rightfully) takes me to task to my previous posting on "Dr."* Jordan Peterson.  He argues that many of Peterson's positions are very similar to that I've  expressed in this blog. And that is probably true. Initially I was very enthused of his videos, but the more I watched him the more I sensed there was something wrong here.  He takes a good thing and takes it a little too far.

He became the darling of the alt-right which is something that is beyond right-wing thinking but really a form of neo-nazism. That alone should have been alarming. He should have denounced the alt-right and neo-nazisn more fully.  However, he was earning quite a lot of money at this gig, and apparently didn't want to rock the boat.

In short, he became a victim of his own success. 

While I believe in all that "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" nonsense, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Yes, we should hold peoples' feet to the fire and get them to get off their ass and go back to work, instead of sitting around collecting welfare. Ideas like "guaranteed annual income" stick in my craw for that reason. Paying people not to work only results and people lounging around and finding trouble, much as we've seen over the last 12 months.

On the other hand, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. When you oppress people too much, they will rise up and kill you, quite literally. We cannot return to a Dickensian England, with the poor put into work houses until they can work off their debts. People would literally riot in the streets, or at least do it more than they already are.

Not only that, it is a simple matter of economics. When wealth is concentrated too much in the hands of too few people, an economy can suffer. The booming post-war economy of the United States was fueled by a large, prosperous, middle-class, who could afford to buy the new gadgets of the mid-century, such as the television and the chrome-plated land-barges being sold by Detroit.

When the people building products on the assembly line can't afford to buy the products coming off the assembly line, the assembly line will eventually grind to a halt.  It's in Mr Bezos's best interest to make sure we still have enough money left over to buy more of the crap that he sells on Amazon. Otherwise his business will suffer as well.  Either that, or he'll have to cut prices so much to shave margins so we can afford the goods, that he'll end up making less money.  The system will balance itself out, either way.

But beyond that, there's something very disturbing about this new right-wing movement. Right-wing movements have always been sort of buttressed by hate. Whether it is Barry Goldwater shouting about "extremism in the name of liberty" back in the 1960s, or George Wallace standing in the doorway of the schoolhouse. Right-wing thinking has always been associated with racism, fascism, antisemitism, and neo-nazism.  And by the way, "extremism in the name of liberty" extinguishes liberty.  And today, many are pursuing that philosophy, arguing that the Constitution can only be saved by shredding it, Democracy saved only by abolishing it.

In the past, conservatives have gone out of their way to distance themselves from these extremists. And for the most part they had done a pretty good job of it. They had successfully argued that one could be conservative without being hateful. George Bush even had a phrase for it, "a kinder, gentler nation."

That phrase didn't come out of left field - if you'll pardon the pun - but was a response to criticism by people on the left that somehow Republicans had lost their heart somewhere along the way, considering ketchup to be a vegetable for purposes of school lunch subsidies, for example.  It just came across as unnecessary cruelty, like much of what Trump has done as of late.  You can advance a conservative agenda without being a bully.

Now some on the right to try to make the argument that people on the left are just as racist and evil as people on the far-right. And to some extent, they are correct. If you dive into some of these left-wing discussion groups, the talk turns very nasty and violent very quickly. But just as the alt-right doesn't represent mainstream conservative views, the antifa and anarchists and left-wing communist organizations don't represent main-stream Democratic views, either.

Some conservatives argue that some Democratic policies are inadvertently racist or patronizing toward minorities. By offering minorities only handouts, they're implicitly stating that minorities are not capable of competing fairly in the marketplace.  And maybe there's a nugget of truth in that characterization of Democrats. Maybe you could argue that welfare and handouts and food stamps are an example of a condescending Big Brother paternalistic government that is treating minorities differently because they are subconsciously thought of as inferior.

Maybe that is true. However, I would much rather have somebody throw a free school lunch in my face than somebody throwing a punch in my face. And therein lies the difference. Maybe Democrats are condescending toward minorities by giving them free things, but that's better than lynching them, isn't it?

Now, don't try to be contrary and argue that Democrats are the ones that supported slavery and Republicans supported abolition. Because that was a hundred and fifty years ago and both parties have switched sides as we all know.  We're all adults here and know the score as to which party harbors the most racists.

Unfortunately, the Republican party is the new face of the far-right, and for too long it has relied on hate and prejudice to get out the vote. This is blowing up in their face with the last final dying gasps of the Trump Administration.  It's gotten people out to the polls, but not in the way they wanted.

The GOP could score big in midterm elections if they moved more toward the center. However, it seems that they are stuck in the hate mode, at least based on the attack ads I'm seeing broadcast here in Georgia for the upcoming Senate election. While the ads for the Democrats were largely positive, stating hope for the future, the Republican ads play ominous music and show unflattering photos of the candidates and directly misquote them. They play a quote of Jon Ossoff saying we need to fund the police and then claim he saying we need to defund the police.  With the close-captioning on, you really notice this whopper.  This is basically lying to my face and I will have none of it.

They're trying to play the guilt-by-association game, putting pictures of Bernie Sanders with his hair askew next to Jon Ossoff, or pictures of Barack Obama's controversial Minister next to Raphael Warnock. They're claiming that both Warnock and Ossoff have a far-left agenda, which really isn't true. And even if it was, two Senators could hardly change the policies of the United States of America by themselves.  They're lying again, and I will have none of it.

Maybe this resonates with the shit-yeah redneck demographic, who doesn't really understand how government works.  Unfortunately, it drives away thinking people. And that is how Trump lost Georgia this time around. There are more and more urban and suburban people moving to Georgia, which is becoming more of a technology hub and attracting people with advanced degrees. These people actually think and aren't easily swayed by emotional arguments. The GOP, embracing bullshit, is driving these people away.  The results of the November election prove that some people split their ticket - voting for Biden for President, and for Republicans down-ballot.  Election fraud, indeed!

It's funny, but I get a lot of flak from people regarding my opinions, on both sides of the spectrum. Someone will read one of my postings about personal responsibility, and think "Yeah he's one of us, Conservative!" And then I post something attacking Trump's idiocy or that doesn't align with their worldview and they feel betrayed.

The same is true with the left. I'll post something attacking Trump Republicans and they'll think "Shit yeah, this guy's one of us!" And then I'll post something about personal and fiscal responsibility and they feel betrayed as well.

That's the problem with being in the middle of the road, you get run over.

*  * *

* Tucker Carlson has thrown down the gauntlet.  From now on, anyone who is not an M.D. gets their "Doctor" in quotes!  No exceptions!  Not even for right-wing darlings. Especially not for right-wing darlings!

Psychologists Are Crazy

Psychologists are only human.

If I seem somewhat skeptical of psychologist and psychiatrists, it is only because of my experiences with them.  As an Engineer, it seems to me there is some sort of wall in the laws of physics that would prevent us from truly understanding how our brains work.  After all, the amount of data needed to model the human brain would exceed the capacity of the human brain.  It would be like asking a toaster to understand its own workings.

I guess the other problem is that no one ever seems to be cured of "mental illness" or at the very least, the cure rate is astoundingly low.   I put "mental illness" in quotes simply because the definition of what is, and is not, mental illness changes over time - in our lifetimes, for example.  When I was a youth, homosexuality was deemed a form of mental illness.  In the early 1970's, this was changed, and today, fear of homosexuality is now deemed an illness.  I mean, this is progress, I guess, but "science" should be about the scientific method, and not about prevailing social values.   But that sort of is the definition of many mild forms of mental illness - that a person doesn't conform to societal norms.   So today, we diagnose people with depression or Asperger's syndrome, when their behavior is not in line with societal norms.

Don't get me wrong, there are bat-shit crazy people in the world, and the only humane thing to do with a guy who is hearing voices or screaming at birds in the trees, is to medicate them and put them in some sort of humane institution - so the rest of us will be protected from them.  Selfish, I know, but I have this weird aversion to being pushed in front of a subway train - so that some crazy fucker can have his "right" to piss all over the place and sleep on a bench or in a tent under the freeway.  Oh, but that would be humane - to let people live as feral humans?

There are people with severe mental illnesses.  But treating them isn't very profitable, I guess.  You get a small stipend from the government and that's about it.  But treating hysterical middle-class people, that rakes in the dough!  It is like the deal with Dentists - they are needed desperately in West Virginia, but there is no money to be made from such a practice.  On the other hand, prescribing adult braces and teeth whitening in rich neighborhoods will buy you a Ferrari.  Don't get me started on Veterinarians!  Telling little old ladies that their 18-year-old cat needs $5000 in chemotherapy is scandalous.

But I digress. There are Doctors, and Dentists, and Veterinarians and even Psychologists and Psychiatrists who try to do the right thing.  There are some who are really evil, of course, others who just want to make money and don't see themselves as evil, and yet others who are merely flawed human beings.

Growing up with crazy people and being attracted to crazy people (at least when I was younger) I ended up knowing a lot of psychologists and psychiatrists.  And some of them were flawed people, many were unprofessional, and... others?  Well, I wouldn't let them change the tire on my car, much less work on someone's brain.  Let me give you some examples of what I am talking about.

1.  Dr. Fred was my Mother's Psychologist, and my Brother's (a clear conflict of interest) and I dated his daughter (and she dated half the boys in town).  I remember going to their house and it had that quiet aura (and you know I don't believe in auras) of a crazy house.  I digress a bit here, but I felt that same quietness three other times in life.  My brother's girlfriend's house was quiet like that.  She was a little off, her brother was institutionalized, and her Mother was "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" on some sort of massive depressant all the time.  The other time was a friend of mine from school whose Mother had killed herself with an O.D., and he lived in the house, alone, with his Dad.  It was deathly quiet.  A friend of mine whose brother committed suicide also lived in a quiet house. There is a "crazy" aura about some houses, but it isn't haunting, only something about the people living in them.

Dr. Fred's daughter did believe in auras, however, and she got into some sort of cult ("Eckankar" or something like that) and was crazy as a loon.  The point is, here is a guy treating two people in the same family (who are no doubt talking about one another in "therapy") but at the same time, his own family is basically a booby-hatch.  I mean, if you can't straighten things out in your own home, do you have any business helping others?

Like with most "patients" my Mother and Brother were never "cured" of anything, but he did manage to invoice my Father for his services!  And maybe that is the source of my skepticism about psychologists - in the 1960's and 1970's, it became fashionable to have an "analyst" and be "in therapy" and talk about "your problems".   And maybe this helped some people.  But maybe for many more, it was just a trendy fad - an expensive trendy fad that faded from the scene once we (as a country) ran out of money in the 1980's.

2.  Bruce was a psychologist and a professor - head of his department, in fact.  He had spent many years in school, getting a Bachelor's, then a Master's, and finally a PhD in Psychology.  He worked in the field for several years, before switching to Academia, where as a professor, he published articles about gender identity and sexual orientation.

Bruce was over 40 years old when I met him, and it was at that time he decided to come out of the closet as gay.  It was kind of shocking, in part, that this guy who devoted his life to studying the field of human sexuality and who had counseled countless others, couldn't figure out his own life.   When I met him, he was always hanging around with 30-something pretty twinks, you know, the kind who wear Izod shirts and deck shoes and who are deathly thin, had short hair and were slightly effeminate.   I was wearing leather jackets with a v-neck white t-shirt, long hair, dirty jeans, and riding a motorcycle, so I didn't really fit into his crowd.

Bruce wasn't crazy - that I know of.  But on the other hand, it kind of freaked me out that he had such little understanding of his own mind, but at the same time, felt qualified to advise and counsel others.  It made me a little wary of trusting what a Psychologist had to say about anything - that, and my other experiences.

3. Dr. Bill was my boyfriend Ron's Psychiatrist.  I met Ron in college (he has since passed on, sadly, at age 53) and at first I did not realize he had some pretty severe anxiety problems.   His main problem, of course, was that he was a flaming homosexual, but his parents didn't accept him for who he was.  And he was the kind of kid you knew was gay by the third grade.

School with ruthless for him.  Kids would call him names and beat him up after class.  One group of boys would drag him into the boys' restroom and shove his head in the toilet and flush it - a form of torture known as the "swirly" in high school.  Sometimes they would give him a "yellow swirly" and you can sort of figure out what that means.

Shockingly, he became very anxious about going to school.  I mean, why is that?  Who doesn't look forward to getting harassed and assaulted every day of their lives?  High school - government school - sucks.  I had to deal with similar shit, but on a lesser scale.  Fortunately, I have a stronger personality, but in retrospect, high school and junior high school was six years of chronic depression.  Waking up every morning with that pit in your stomach - I know that feeling.

And it's only gotten worse since I was in school.  Facebook and Twitter have taken the toxicity to a whole new level.  That's why when I hear my Christian friends tell me they are home-schooling their kids, I say, "good for you".  Whatever toxicity they learn from "Creation Science" (which can be unlearned in short order) has to be better than the toxic level of hatred one gets in public (or even private) schools.  Bullying sucks.

So Ron was sent off to Dr. Bill, because, you know, the problems he was having in school were his fault. I mean, that makes sense - all the other kids are adjusting just fine, so it must be something wrong with Ron!  The School Psychologist and counselor thought so, anyway.  So anyway, Dr. Bill prescribes the first of many prescriptions for serious anti-anxiety medications that have some pretty severe side-effects, and Ron becomes addicted - to Psychiatry. He buys a copy of the Physician's Desk Reference and spends all day thinking about "his problems" and researching what his "meds" are all about.  Being crazy guy becomes an identity for him.

The problem was not necessarily Ron, who I thought was a pretty normal young (gay) man. The real problem was a school and parents who couldn't accept him for who he was, and a school system willing to look the other way when bullies beat the other children.  After all, the bullies keep the other kids in line, and often these bullies are favored students - athletes or teacher's pets.  And the kid who is making the "wild accusations"?  Well, he's a weirdo anyway.

What was even worse, was that as Ron got better, they kept sending him back to school, where he would suffer more, have an "episode" and then drop out.  He kept doing this until he was nearly 21. I guess they threw him out of school at that point, and he did what he should have done all along - take the GED and get a high school diploma.  But no, his parents and "doctor" thought he should finish school as that would be good for him.

I mention conflict of interest a lot here, and it raises its ugly head here.  I started going out with Ron - unaware of the extent of his past history.  Again, I came from a family of crazy, so to me he seemed "normal."  Dr. Bill was concerned about who Ron was seeing and wanted to talk with me.  So I said OK and made an appointment.  I went in and we talked for an hour and I don't recall much about what was said.  But I thought it was a bit unprofessional to go behind Ron's back - so to speak - to talk with other people in his life.  Worse yet, he handed me a bill for $150 for a "counseling session" - which I could ill-afford as a college student delivering pizzas.   Even worse, they hounded me for payment.  I think it was only when I made a veiled threat about the State Board and conflict of interest, that they dropped the matter.

Maybe Ron had severe mental illness problems.  Maybe not.  It wasn't like he was hallucinating, hearing voices, or screaming at the birds in the trees.  He wasn't violent or self-destructive.  He held a job and owned a car. He was a productive member of society. Part of me wonders, however, if he didn't get sucked into this "I'm mentally ill" mentality and then lived up to those expectations.  I guess I'll never know for sure, but all I know in retrospect, is that Dr. Bill was the third wheel in that relationship, which fell apart rather quickly as a result.

4.  Dr. Love was hip with all the kids.  Sort of a "Dr. Ruth" for the college set, he broke the mold and raised eyebrows by publishing comic books about sex education and drug use.   He was a nice man, an academic like Dr. Bruce, but a little weird, in some respects.

He also was horny.  I guess you can't be a "sexologist" without sampling the candy - after all, if you study sex all day long, eventually your brain will react, right?  It wasn't until he died, that I read his obituary than I realized I was not the only student he made a pass at.  The "condolences" section of his obit included many accusations by former students of improprieties and sexual advances he had made over the years.  It sounded a lot like the accusations leveled against Kevin Spacey (Kevin - call me!).

He was a nice guy, too, and had great advice to give.  But on the other hand, trying to "hypnotize" 20-something students and then putting his hand on their thighs, well, today that would get you boiled in oil, at least on the Internet.   He was married, too!

Again, someone who was giving advice to others, but whose personal life was a train-wreck.  And by making passes at sexually confused young men, perhaps damaged some people for life, or so they will claiming the lawsuit against the University, I am sure (where's my check?).

5. Dr. Evil practiced "aversion therapy."  Mixing his religious beliefs with science, he claimed he could "cure" homosexuality through electronic shocks.  I never met him personally, but I met his son - whose Dad I worked for.  Dad was convinced that "no son of his!" was going to be gay, but the truth was, the kid was a queer as a two-dollar bill.  So Dad shopped around until he found a doctor who would promise to "cure" his son of this evil.

The therapy worked like this.  They hooked up electrodes to the hapless lad and showed him racy photos of men and women.  When he saw the photo of a man, a slight shock would be administered, to "train" his mind to think that men were bad and that women were good.

Of course, it didn't work. The poor kid now has a kink for electric shocks administered by Playgirl hunks.  Dr. Evil no longer practices "aversion therapy" as it has basically been outlawed.  He didn't do much good for this kid, and in fact, a lot of harm.

As for Dad, he divorced and remarried and his new wife talked some sense into him.  He accepted his son for who he was, and in fact, kind of went overboard.  He tried to set me up with his son, and implied I might make partner that way. I appreciated his newfound enthusiasm, but politely declined as I was already spoken for.

Today, "aversion therapy" has fallen from favor, but there are still a few "doctors" out there claiming they can cure us of our predilections.  And who knows? Maybe they are right - and maybe 20 years from now, they will rewrite the psychology books, yet again.  But I kind of doubt it - it is a lot easier to just go with the flow, rather than try to change who you are.

* * * 

These are just four examples from my life.  Every psychiatrist and psychologist I've met in life has turned out to be a little wacko, a little unprofessional, or a little of both.  And this is not to be unexpected.  Why?  Because they are just human beings, frail and fragile as the rest of us.  But for some reason, if someone has a diploma on the wall or wears a white lab coat, they will surrender their lives to them.

Hell, I have a diploma on the wall - I wouldn't take my own advice about anything!  I don't suggest you do either, which is why I don't give advice.

The same is true of religious leaders - the psychologists of an era before psychologists. Maybe the confession booth has been replaced by the analyst's couch, I don't know.  But it strikes me as the same shit, different day, and the guy giving advice, in both cases, might not have his own shit together.  We look to a religious imam for enlightenment as to what God wants of us or to answer unanswerable questions in life such as "what happens when we die?" or "why are we here?" or "what is consciousness?" and expect a 30-year-old who went to Seminary School to have all the answers - even though his life experience on this planet is about the same as ours, perhaps less.

Even if you find a good Priest or Psychologist, the benefits you receive from them are only going to be proportional to how truthful you are with them.   If you lie to your doctor, well, odds are, he isn't going to advise you well.  A lot of doctors can tell when you're lying, of course.

For example, I have a relative who takes anti-psychotic and anti-depressant medication.  He washes these down with beer and marijuana (and no, we don't hang out as a result).  I asked him if that was a good idea, as one of the medications explicitly says it should not be taken with alcohol.  I also asked him if his "doctor" knew he was smoking pot.  "Of course not!" he replied, "If I told him that, he wouldn't prescribe these other drugs for me!"   You lie to your doctor, you aren't going to get better.

That being said, I haven't heard of anyone being "cured" of mental illness. Maybe they exist, but I've never heard of it.  The most I hear about are people who are medicated time and time again.  They feel a little better (like a college roommate I had) and decide to go "off their meds" as the side-effects, as I noted, can be pretty severe.  They have an "episode" and then end up in an institution or jail and are re-medicated.  Wash, Rinse, Repeat.  It is like a slow form of torture.  And as a result, they don't seem to live as long, from what I can gather - and from what I have seen firsthand.

Of course, to some, this is heresy.  We cannot question the almighty doctor!  Everything they say is true, even the things they say that contradict what they said last week - or next.

A Tale of Two Dads

Why do people get angry?  I mean, it must be some sort of survival skill or we wouldn't do it, right?

We were camping this summer in a number of places in the Adirondacks and saw a lot of "Covid Campers" out there.  Brand-new box trailers with temp-tags, backing into a site at full speed. People struggling to set up tents just out of the box from WalMart or Dick's Sporting Goods.  Entire families, out camping, many for the first time.  It was interesting to watch.

At a campground on a lake in the Adirondacks, on a site across from us, a whole family piles out of a minivan and unloads mountains of gear. They are all laughing and happy as they struggle to insert tab A into slot B of the tent assembly instructions.  They finally get the tent up, and one boy shouts, "Yaaay!  Dad got the tent up!" and Dad replies, "No son, we all did it together, by cooperating!"  I felt like Fred Rogers was going to pop-up any second.

I mean, who were these sick people? Actually liking each other and enjoying a challenge together -  what's up with that?  And they liked their Dad and he said nice things about them.  I was about to think I left planet Earth when a second family showed up, two sites down, and restored my faith in humanity.

This Dad came out of the car snarling angrily.  The kids were listless and looking at their phones and complaining loudly about what a lousy deal they got out of life, having to go camping and missing their favorite Tee-Vee shows.  Dad shouted and screamed at them as they set up the tent.  And it wasn't just to shout at them about how to set up the tent, but verbal abuse and humiliation and degradation.  Dad just didn't say, "Grab that tent pole!" but "Grab that tent pole, asshole!  You deaf or something?  You're a moron and will never amount to anything in life!"   He wasn't just criticizing what the kids were doing, but assaulting (verbally) their very being.

Anyway, after watching that, I felt the world had returned back to normal, and I realized I don't miss my Dad all that much.  In his defense, he did mellow out a bit as he got older (Dementia) but when he was younger, well, he was the #2 Dad in that campground.   He was angry - all the time.  That was his default mode of operation - shouting, screaming, demanding, demeaning.   If you did something wrong, it wasn't your behavior that was criticized, but your very being.

I recounted before how my Dad made my oldest brother "go out for" football in prep school.  A thin, scholarly fellow, my eldest brother was ill-suited to athletics, but went along with it because it was expected of him.  He sat on the bench most of the time and wasn't exactly a star athlete.  My Dad had such high hopes for him - buying him football equipment, weight sets, and chinning-bars.  I am not sure it worked.

When my other brother came of age, my Dad made him go out for "Pop" Warner football - a form of flag football for adolescent youth.  My brother hated it, as he too, was not athletic, didn't really get into football, and didn't know any of the kids who were on the team.  He wanted to quit, and my Dad, instead of being supportive and telling him to stick it out a few more games, or actually showing up and rooting for him, just ran him down.  He told my brother that he was a quitter, and made him go to practice and tell everyone assembled there that he was quitting.  All the way home, he berated him as a quitter and said weird things like, "From now on, everywhere you go in life, people are going to say, 'there goes the guy who quit Pop Warner football!'"  I mean, pretty sick stuff.   Kind of hard when your own father emasculates you when you are just reaching puberty.  My brother cried all the way home.

I guess about then, I decided I didn't like Dad much.

When I became of age for "Pop" Warner football, my Dad casually mentioned they were doing tryouts and I just said, "I don't think so, Dad!" and gave him an evil look.  For some reason, I had the balls to say "no" to him, while my older brothers were afraid of him.  My eldest brother now remembers things differently - that he enjoyed playing football.  But I think that is just his way of coping.  At the time, I recall him telling a far different story.  But I digress.

It got me to thinking about anger and why some people are angry all the time.  It seems today, a lot of people are angry about... nothing.  We are being baited a lot, it seems, to try to "trigger" us into "going off" and not thinking straight.   And maybe that is the point of anger.

Anger allows us to do things that our conscious brain would not allow us to do.  So, for example, Og the caveman wants to club his neighbor Grog in the adjacent cave, over the head, and steal his Mastodon hides, his stored corn, and wives.   Even as a caveman, he has a conscience and knows this is wrong - after all, he wouldn't want someone to do that to him, right?   But he gets angry - sees red - perhaps over nothing, perhaps over a perceived slight. Grog taunts him, showing off his lovely wives and rich Mastodon hide outfit.  Og gets angry, clubs Grog over the head, spattering his brains out - and inherits all of Grog's assets.   Anger works as a survival skill.

Maybe that is how it works.  I don't know for sure.  Anger instills fear in other people, which in turn, can make them acquiescent.

My Dad was angry most all of the time.  As a manager, he was always shouting at people - trying to instill fear in them, and it worked.  I ran into a guy who worked at his factory and without telling him who I was, he mentioned the "guy who ran the factory" was "a real asshole."   That's my Dad!

His father, who died of lung cancer before I was born, apparently was even further off the leash.  No one talked about him, other than vague statements by my Mother that his Dad used to beat him.  And like with my eldest brother, when my Dad got older, he started "remembering" his "great" childhood - the one that the PTSD prevented him from talking about in years gone by.  I guess they both want to re-invent the past, to paper over the bad parts, as a way of coping.  That or they both just lost their minds.

When I was younger, I was quick to anger as well, but it seems the level of anger attenuated with each passing generation.  Whatever demons drove my Grandfather were halved in my Father, and halved again in me.  We all get angry, of course, on occasion.  Usually I get angry at inanimate objects these days - the toast that falls on the floor, butter down, for example.  Of course, it was my fault I dropped the toast, right?

Maybe that is the key to anger - when we get angry, we are actually angry at ourselves for failing in some way or another. My Dad was angry at his slacker sons, as they grew up and turned out not like he expected them to.  He was never around, and never was very nurturing, so it was no real surprise that we turned away from his values and ideas.  He got angry with us, because he was angry at his own failure at fatherhood.  Well, it is one theory.  On the other hand, you come home from a long day at work, your boss hinting you might lose your job because the factory is hemorrhaging cash, and your kids are all sitting around smoking dope and watching television and your wife is an alcoholic bipolar proto-lesbian who you haven't had sex with in nearly two decades - that might make you angry, I guess.  It must have sucked to be him.

I am not sure what made me think of this, only that I was telling this story of the two Dads from this summer, to a friend, and it made me think, why was one Dad nice and the other angry all the time?  Interesting question, I am not sure I have the answer.

Monday, December 28, 2020

The Rise and Fall of "Dr." Jordan Peterson

What the hell happened to this guy?

A few years ago, a reader sent me a link to some videos done by "Dr." Jordan Peterson, a college professor from Toronto, Canada. You know, one of those "ivory tower" guys the far-right likes to lambaste.  But for some reason, while the opinions of college poindexters are roundly condemned by the right, they loved this guy. And he could call himself "Doctor" all day long, as far as they were concerned - because he's a guy, right?  Just kidding around here.  But it is funny how it is when the shoe is on the other foot.

At first, I was entranced by his presentations.  As I said at the time, he kind of felt like a Leo Buscaglia who kicked you in the teeth.  He was going on about the rise of the Man-child - the 20- to 30-something men who live in their parents' basements and play video games all day and smoke pot and work at slacker jobs.  As he pointed out, in previous generations, such men would be engaged in serious work with careers, and married and having children. What the fuck happened to our generation?  (Well, pot happened, but that answer isn't popular).

It's a theme I've harped on before, and at first I thought "Dr." Jordan Peterson was a kindred spirit. But then I started to watch more of his videos and I realized that maybe something was a little bit off about this guy.  And it turns out, he's a darling of the far-right, particularly the folks at "Toilet Paper USA" a college Republicans group of snarky young men who equate snarkiness with intelligence. They think that trolling is a sign of being clever and smart and that "owning the libs" actually accomplishes or proves something, when all it proves is that the person trying to do it is a fucking idiot.

I mean, not that I feel strongly about any of this.

I digress here, but in the bygone days of "newspapers" we had something called "editors" who were gatekeepers of what was, and wasn't, socially acceptable.  Left- or Right-wing, newspapers had standards, and today's snarky "journalists" who run everything down and then pat themselves on the back for being "clever" would never had made it past those gatekeepers of the past.  And maybe that was a good thing.  Because when we present oddball opinions alongside of common sense, and "let the reader decide" it makes it seem that both ideas have equal value.  And yes, there is a way to get a point across without being insulting and degrading.  But I digress.

Anyway, I was wondering what happened to "Dr." Jordan Peterson, who apparently is a Doctor although Jill Biden is not. I saw an image of his on the internet that showed him blathering on into the blogosphere while the background showed his house being a total mess of dirty laundry and dishes and crap. And I thought to myself, what the fuck happened to this dude?  And it turns out a lot of happened to him.

Apparently, he suffers from anxiety disorders and depression, which can be debilitating. I don't envy him in that regard and I give him my complete and utter sympathy. Anxiety disorders are nothing to laugh about, and I know a lot of people who had them and it basically destroyed their lives. A good friend of mine suffered from severe anxiety disorders and died in his 50s.  It was a pretty sad ending.  Mentally ill people often don't live very long.

But "Dr." Peterson seems to have some emotional issues as well. And apparently he felt that the Canadian medical system - the fabled Socialist medical system that our Canadian friends laud - wasn't sufficient to meet his needs. So he decided to travel to Russia of all places to have treatments to deal with his anxiety as well as addiction to anxiety-attenuating drugs.  What the fuck?  Russia?
In 2016, Peterson had a severe autoimmune reaction to food and was prescribed clonazepam.[140] In late 2016, he went on a strict diet consisting only of meat and some vegetables, in an attempt to control his severe depression and the effects of an autoimmune disorder including psoriasis and uveitis.[5][72] In mid-2018, he stopped eating vegetables, and continued eating only beef (carnivore diet).[141]

In April 2019, his prescribed dosage of clonazepam was increased to deal with the anxiety he was experiencing as a result of his wife's cancer diagnosis.[142][143][144] Starting several months later, he made various attempts to lessen his intake, or stop taking the drug altogether, but experienced "horrific" benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome, including akathisia,[145] described by his daughter as "incredible, endless, irresistible restlessness, bordering on panic".[146][142] According to his daughter, Peterson and his family were unable to find doctors in North America who were willing to accommodate their treatment desires, so in January 2020, Peterson, his daughter and her husband flew to Moscow, Russia for treatment.[147] Doctors there diagnosed Peterson with pneumonia in both lungs upon arrival, and he was put into a medically induced coma for eight days. Peterson spent four weeks in the intensive care unit, during which time he allegedly exhibited a temporary loss of motor skills.[142]

Several months after his treatment in Russia, Peterson and his family moved to Belgrade, Serbia for further treatment.[140] In June 2020, Peterson made his first public appearance in over a year, when he appeared on his daughter's podcast, recorded in Belgrade.[140] He said that he was "back to my regular self", other than feeling fatigue, and was cautiously optimistic about his prospects.[140] He also said that he wanted to warn people about the dangers of long-term use of benzodiazepines (the class of drugs that includes clonazepam).[140] In August 2020, his daughter announced that her father had contracted COVID-19 during his hospital stay in Serbia.[148] Two months later, Peterson posted a YouTube video to inform that he had returned home and aims to resume work in the near future.[59]
No offense to the "Doctor" but I think Canadian health care is probably a notch or two above Russian health care.  Maybe Putin wanted to do some more implants into his favorite Manchurian Candidate. Just kidding - but hey, "Doctor" Peterson likes to dish it out, so he can take it, right?  Or will this special snowflake melt?

His fascination with Russia doesn't end there. Apparently, he collects Soviet-era propaganda art which adorns the walls of his home.  I'm not sure what this fascination with Soviet totalitarianism is, it seems to be contradicting his philosophies - or does it dovetail with them? Or maybe he just lost his fucking mind?  Or maybe he always was crazy?  I don't know what the case is.
Starting around 2000, Peterson began collecting Soviet-era paintings.[10] The paintings are displayed in his house as a reminder of the relationship between totalitarian propaganda and art, and as examples of how idealistic visions can become totalitarian oppression and horror.[15][24]
OK, what the fuck is the deal with right-wingers and Russia? I mean, back in the day, being "conservative" meant you had a visceral hatred of everything Russian - especially including communism. Today? Well, some of the biggest right-wingers are embracing Russia, even as it acts in direct opposition to the interests of the United States. Say, you don't think these folks are being influenced by Russian trolls, doya? Nah!

"Dr." Jordan Peterson - the classic "useful idiot" for Putin's Russia!

All I know is, in this latest photograph he looks like some homeless dude who is bumming a cigarette from you or asking for a couple of bucks to buy some beers or something. Seems like his whole life is gone off the fucking rails. And yet, just a few years ago he was trying to tell the world how to act and think and do. It just goes to show you that no one is perfect.

It's a look, I guess....

I noticed that he is no longer the darling of the far-right anymore, either. Apparently his fall from grace was rather sudden and as swift as his rise. That seems to be the case with these right-wingers. From Joseph McCarthy onward, they rise like a rocket and burn brightly and then collapse into darkness. Either they become irrelevant overnight, or they are found in a restroom soliciting sex from an undercover officer, or found having parties with rent boys and cocaine, while claiming to be fundamentalist Christian ministers. Whatever the case, it seems to be a pattern that happens over and over again. Yanni Yapalapalous was not an anomaly.

Again, I feel sorry for "Doctor" Jordan. He built his reputation on being a hard-ass. He was going to hand out harsh advice to the rest of the world, but at the same time, his own world was collapsing. It's easy for some to have some schadenfreude over his fall from grace.  But on the other hand, the part of me that has empathy for others - the part that he eschewed as part of his right-wing philosophy - makes me feel sorry for this fellow.  He is a tragedy, not a comedy or a farce, and certainly not a fright.

But maybe his rise and fall from grace is illustrative of something else. Perhaps, this trend in modern politics toward hatred and violence and evil is something that should be slowed down and examined. The very people who are spewing this sort of hatred as well as draconian measures and lack of empathy for the "less fortunate" are often the ones who have severe personal problems. I'm not saying I'm a bleeding heart liberal who thinks we should hand over all our money to the homeless - far from it.  But on the other hand, I think we've taken this hate thing a little too far.

Hate is like a cancer that burns from within. And it tends to destroy people's lives, over time. I think "Doctor" Jordan's example is not an anomaly, but quite the common result.  His depression and anxiety are just a cumulative effect of being harsh and unforgiving for so long.  It happens to all the trolls, eventually.

The rise and fall of Donald Trump will probably follow a similar arc.

* * *

NOTE: For those who read this and say, "Well, aren't you being snarky as well?"  That's the point.  These folks on the right are very hateful and personally insulting - think Donald Trump name-calling of his opponents.   But when the shoe is on the other foot, they cry like babies - they are the "special snowflakes" they accuse the left of being (projection much?).   But as snarky as I might be, it pales in comparison of the hate that is power-vomited by the right - the attacks on Jill Biden, for example, as being "illiterate" are not only inaccurate (I am still waiting to see specific examples of these "spelling errors" in her thesis) but degrading.

But that's the whole modus operandi of the new right - insult and degrade the opposition, and when they call you back on it, say "how dare you!"  Sorry, but we can see through this obvious ploy.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Savings Bonds and the Financial Press

Savings bonds are not a particularly good investment right now.  Advice from the financial press isn't a very good investment, either.

Years ago, I wrote a blog entry about Treasury Direct - the US Government website that allows you to buy savings bonds and even treasury bills, directly from the government.   In the old days, we had the "Payroll Savings Plan" at work, and like with United Way Campaigns, the "new guy" was usually drafted into going around and soliciting people to sign up for this.  And as "new guy" at General Motors, United Technologies, and the Patent Office, I did this again and again.

The idea was simple - you signed up to have a small amount of money taken out of your paycheck every week, and it would go toward buying a savings bond.   Depending how much you took out, you would accumulate a savings bond every month or so, and build up a "nest egg" of after-tax savings.  This was in the era before the IRA and 401(k) became popular.

It was a painless way to build up savings, as the money came out of your paycheck before you would "see" it, and thus you would not be tempted to spend it - and us plebes love to spend it, don't we?  But of course, in the ensuing years, the 401(k) replaced pension plans, and putting $25 a week in a savings bond made less sense compared to putting it in your 401(k) tax-free, often with matching funds from your employer.

The interest rate on savings bonds back then was a few percentage points - like 5% or so.  Sounds like a lot, today, but bear in mind back then, inflation was running 10% or more and a mortgage rate could be as high as 14%.  So it was a low-yield investment, if not a safe investment.  Today, interest rates across the board are low - but oddly enough, not lending rates, for many people - and savings bonds are paying a tenth of a percent in interest.   It may be a "painless" way to accumulate money in savings, but it isn't a way to make money and perhaps never was, as the interest never outpaces inflation.

Today, the "payroll savings plan" is no more, and the government no longer runs ads exhorting us to "join the payroll savings plan, where you work" which is a phrase we heard so often as a kid, that we could repeat it along with the entire text of "ancient Chinese secret!" (Calgon).   You can now buy savings bonds and treasury bills online at Treasury Direct, which is a very well run, if not a little clunky, government site.  It does have pretty good security, using a virtual keyboard to log in.  With the click of a mouse, you can buy or redeem savings bonds or treasury bills, transferring money to and from your bank account within a day or two.  The site is well-designed and well-run.  One caveat: You can't use the "back page" icon on your browser.  For security reasons, they only allow navigation within the site using the internal site link icons.   A small price to pay.

I had a few thousand dollars squirreled away in savings bonds, as well as a treasury bill through Treasury Direct.  Some of the older bonds are paying maybe 3% or so.  But some of the newer bonds are paying like 0.10% and I realized it would be better to sell those off and put the money into a money market account that was at least earning a few percentage points in interest.  So I did.

Once you retire, it is time to start digging up those acorns you squirreled away and eating them - or at least consolidating them.  I realized it would be a hassle to deal with so many accounts as we got older - or if I died - so I have been closing out some of the smaller accounts.  Besides, many financial houses offer bonuses if you deposit money - and not small bonuses either.  So, over the next few years, I will be winding down my savings bonds and probably sell off the T-bill over time.

What got me started on this was a recent article in the financial section about savings bonds.  It was a complete fluff piece - almost something from an overseas text farm.  It went on for paragraph after paragraph without actually saying anything of consequence.  For example, that bond rates right now are a joke, and there is little point in buying a savings bond - other than as a means of forced savings.  The article doesn't contain any false information - but it would put you to sleep with its bland recitation of how savings bonds work.  Nowhere in the article is any exhortation that perhaps this is not a good place to invest right about now.  Savings bond rates are in the toilet, and t-bills are not far behind.  Hell, they even offer something called a "0% C of I" which is basically a way of saving up money to buy a larger product (e.g., t-bill).  These really aren't good "investments" right now, other than as a safe place to park money.

That is the conundrum these days.  With "safe" investments paying next to nothing or even negative interest in some countries, people seek out greater rates of return - in equities (e.g., stocks), commodities (e.g, gold) or bonds (e.g., corporate debt).  All are paying better rates of return than 0.1% or have the potential to.  They also have the potential to pay less or even evaporate into nothing, leaving you with a -100% rate of return.  As I noted in a previous posting, I liquidated my stocks and mutual funds about a year ago, and left it all in cash - which we are spending.  Mark's portfolio I left in a panoply of mutual funds.  Since then, we've pretty much broken even - my cash portfolio keeping current with Mark's wildly fluctuating mutual funds - which went down over 50% in March and have recovered since then. Being five years younger, he can afford to gamble more - or more precisely, we can both afford to gamble with his portfolio, while keeping enough money in cash and low-interest accounts to fund our retirement for a decade or so.

There is little incentive for me to get into savings bonds at this point.   As a "forced savings plan" the payroll savings idea was sound - money you don't see, you don't spend.   At a point in my life where I needed financial discipline, it was a way of squirreling away money - which we did using a number of techniques - putting money into a credit union account in another State, buying individual shares of stock through shareholder investment plans, such as Compushare or through The Money Paper.

But of course, the biggest and best "investment plan" was the 401(k) offered where we worked, which back then, even matched funds, at least for the first few percent of contributions.  Tax-deferred and taken directly from your paycheck, you never had to worry about bouncing a check as a result.   Back in the days when I was wildly undisciplined, financially, if I had money taken from my checking account, rather than from my paycheck, it could result in a bounced check down the road.

Then again, you can get into trouble with a 401(k).  I mentioned before a friend of mine who decided to contribute the max to her 401(k) plan because we told her than saving for retirement was a good thing.  Unfortunately, the 15% she was putting in the plan wasn't matched by a 15% cut to her monthly spending, and pretty soon, she was sucking air at the end of the month.  So she put more and more purchases on the credit card, which did not get paid off, and the interest payments at 22% compounded things, until she missed payments and the penalty rate of 30% kicked in - and then she borrowed against the 401(k) to pay off the credit card.  Do people do stupid things like this?  You betcha.  Hell, I did pretty stupid things, too!

The problem with the financial press is that they put out articles like this one about savings bonds that really don't say much.  In the greater scheme of things, this particular article is not very harmful, just bland and not very useful.  Worse yet are the articles hyping IPOs and trendy investments.  Every week, it seems, we are told about how great some new tech toy is, and how some tech titan is going to change the world.  You may be forgiven for thinking that all investments in the stock market involve technology stocks or some new widget or gizmo.

Again, the problem with the media isn't them, it's us.  We click on this nonsense and we like sensationalism, so they sell it to us.   We click on stories about the market tanking or a stock price skyrocketing - because that is something interesting happening.  We don't click on stories about a stock that has steadily climbed in value over a decade and pays dividends regularly because that's boring.  But finances are boring - stultifyingly boring.  Or they should be.  If your investments are exciting, chances are, you're doing it all wrong.  You don't get a do-over on this in life.  It is a one-shot deal.

The other problem with the financial press is they sell us the idea that a Billion dollars isn't a lot of money - a thousand million, or enough money to keep a thousand people well-off for the rest of their lives.  This feeds the idea that saving up money over time and careful investing is for chumps.  It's Billionaire or Bust!  And as a result, a lot of people go bust, often giving away their money to Billionaires in the process.

I have noted before that the fundamental flaw with the IRA and 401(k) model which replaced the "Defined Benefit Pension" model before it, is that it made us all into investors, regardless of whether we wanted to be one or not, and regardless of our level of skill, expertise, or native intelligence.  It is a system ripe for fraud and manipulation.   We know oldsters who hand over all their money to "the nice man" at the storefront investment chain (and you know which one I am talking about - they are in every strip mall near middle-class communities).   He is a nice man, and he doesn't steal their money, but on the other hand, they don't realize how much of their money goes to him, as his fees and charges are not really itemized in their monthly statement - they never are, even from the "big" low-fee investment houses.  And if you ask, directly, you will be given a lot of vague hand-waving answers.  I've asked.

But beyond that are the absolute rip-offs and con-jobs - investment "advisors" who churn accounts down to nothing to earn trading fees, or who put oldsters into annuities that don't pay out until age 80 or so - leaving people destitute.  Or helpful "structured settlement" places that will hand out a wad of cash in exchange for an insurance payout or even pension plan payments - often pitched at people in the early stages of dementia.  And don't get me started on Reverse Mortgages!

But these hyped stocks, gold, bitcoin, margin trading, and other sketchy investments are even worse, as they are pitched at people who haven't lost their minds and should know better and the financial press talks about them in such sunny tones as to make it seem like a kicky fun thing do with a few thousand of your hard-earned cash.

And that, in short, is why I started this blog.  Not to save others, but to save myself.  I never bought into the Kool-Aid of the dot-com startup or the IPO - I could smell something was wrong there from the get-go, being inside the sausage factory when it was going on.  Learning about this stuff is hard and then again, it is pretty easy.  Trying to "research" on the Internet will only steer you to weirder and weirder things - before long, you will be invested in gold and Qanon, which are basically the same thing.

What I found out, after years of beating my head against the wall, is that a lot of the old philosophies of our ancestors are still true today, despite "sea changes" and "new paradigms" telling us "profits are a thing of the past!"  "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!" is as true today as it was in my Grandfather's time.  And my parents' distrust of anything too heavily hyped or too slick turns out to be well justified.  You can spot a con-job from 100 paces, once you know what to look for.

I don't have to sit down and crank the numbers on buying gold or bitcoin or margin-trading on Robin Hood.  All I need to do is look at the sort of shady people pushing these things online, and the cheerful, chirpy articles talking about how fun and profitable these things are, to know they are a raw deal.  It is like MLM marketing scams - just the way they are presented should tell you volumes.

But some people never see this - again, a failure of our capitalist system, which allows the clever to exploit the dense and weak.  I wish it weren't so, but there it is, and perhaps it has always been this way, back to the dawn of time, when Og the caveman sold shares in his new square-wheel corporation which was going to revolutionize the rotational wheel industry.  I wonder how many people lost their life savings over that?

I digress, but not by much.  It seems every decade we go though this cycle of unbridled enthusiasm for everything that comes down the pike - as a new generation comes of age and starts to make a buck or two and thinks, "you know, I need to invest this money and make some big bucks!  And I bet I can beat the market by finding the next big thing to invest in!"

It's painful to watch, but I have a feeling, here we go again....