Saturday, February 27, 2021

Will Airline Travel Rebound?

Airlines made a lot of money from business travelers.  Will this ever return?

Ah, for the glory days of jet airline travel - from the early 1960's to the late 1970's.  It was a heady time.  If you watch "Catch Me If You Can" you'll get an idea of what it was like back then.  And the movie is not too over-the-top in terms of how things were.  Imagine going to the airport, dressed in a suit and tie.  The airports were all new, and not overcrowded.  The airplanes were all new, too.  Eastern Airlines "Whisperjets,"  PanAm "Clippers," and the gold tails of Continental airlines.   Sipping cocktails in the American Airlines Admirals Club at O'Hare.  I was there.  It was fantastic.

Part of the reason was regulation.   Airlines were told by the CAB (later FAA) what routes to fly, how much to charge, and what equipment to use.   Most planes were flown half-empty (or half-full, if you were an optimist).  And the cost of a round-trip ticket was about equal to what you'd pay for an older used car in running condition.  As a result, the airports were not crowded, nor were the planes.   The hoi-polloi weren't allowed in those hallowed halls with their sweatpants and greasy t-shirts.  It was a glorious time.

Pilots back then were Gods, not bus drivers.  A friend of mine is a pilot for cargo jets.  We watched with amusement as a young woman in yoga pants was hitting on him the other day - he exudes that pilot mojo, apparently.  I am not sure his wife would have been too happy about it, but then again, she's probably used to fending off strays.  After all that's probably what attracted her to him in the first place, right?   Today, maybe this is less the case, as the job of flying airplanes becomes more of pushing buttons, which can turn out to be a bad idea when the buttons break, as we have seen in recent years.

I recall back in 1977, flying in a 727, complete with built-in rear airstairs, from Syracuse Hancock Airport, to Hartford's Bradley International Airport and being one of maybe 2-3 people on the plane, other than the crew.  I think we stopped in Albany on the way - it was like a Greyhound bus, stopping on a route mandated by regulations.  On that last leg, I believe I was the sole passenger. On one occasion, they held the plane for me and paged me at Hancock Airport, as I was late for the flight.  Since there were so few passengers, they felt, well, might as well wait.

But all that changed - for the better and the worse.  Airlines and trucking companies (also regulated in a similar manner) were deregulated in the waning days of the Carter administration (which Reagan and the GOP took credit for). The cost of fuel had skyrocketed in the 1970's and many argued that deregulation was necessary.  Of course, the result was airfare wars, the rise of small independent (non-union) airlines and the slashing of fares.  A lot of airline employees lost their pensions. One by one, the legacy carriers went bankrupt, merged, and morphed into the few remaining carriers we have today.  A lot has changed.

Today, we fly on planes that are older than many of the passengers.  Airports are overcrowded as are the planes, which are routinely overbooked.  A full flight is now the norm, not an anomaly.

Well, it was, anyway, before CoVid.

Back in the day - the early 2000's, I made a monthly reservation on United to fly from Washington DC to San Francisco.   I figured out, early on, that if I booked the flight round-trip from San Francisco to DC, "staying over" four weekends in Washington, the airfare was far less.   The thinking was, if you flew out on a Monday and returned on a Thursday, you were a business traveler and should pay top dollar.  But if you stayed over the weekend, you were a tourist, and could only afford so much.  By reversing my reservations, I was "staying over" as a "tourist" in my home town for four weekends, which allowed me to fly out and back to the coast during the week for the princely sum of $200.

United claim they were going to put a stop to that, but never did.  And of course, it meant that I "threw away" one-half of the first ticket I bought, and the last - years later - when I finally stopped flying out there.   And of course, I quickly realized that BWI and Oakland were cheaper places to fly to.  I had it down to a system.  Since my clients weren't paying my airfare, I cut costs to the bone, and racked up frequent flyer miles, which allowed me to upgrade to business class on most trips.

But over time, the face-to-face meetings became less and less important.  We could do things on the phone, over the internet, and through these newfangled things like "Skype" and whatnot.  Say, whatever happened to "Skype" and why did "Zoom" sort of take over their space?   Interesting thought, and something that should give Zuckerberg pause.  What is hot one day on the Internet is not.  I still have a sticker on one of my laptops advertising it is "Skype compatible!"   How quaint.

Business travel drove the whole system back in the day.  "Frequent Flyer Miles" weren't a come-on to sell credit cards, they were a bribe to business travelers to get them to be brand-loyal to an airline.  The idea was, you'd book your business travel through United, and then accumulate enough miles to fly the whole family to Hawaii next Spring.   And back then, you could, as half-empty airplanes had plenty of seats for "free" customers to take.   It was a nice perk of being a business traveler, and at one point the IRS was talking about taxing these miles and the government was trying to force employees into coughing them up to Uncle Sugar.

Today?  Well, the airlines seem less concerned with who is flying, so long as the seats are all full.   Sure, they still use an arcane pricing structure so that no two seats in any airplane have the same price.  You want to book at the last minute, first-class, you pay a premium.  You want to book a month in advance, using super-saver fare, with no luggage, you get a deal.   But every seat has a butt in it, and flying is no longer so much fun.

CoVid has killed off a lot of businesses that perhaps were ready to die.  A lot of forgettable chain restaurants are filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and closing locations as people realize they really didn't need to eat a fatbuger with fries and pay $27.50 with tip for the privilege.   People are also realizing that it is just a lot easier to order stuff online than to spend an hour driving into to town to rummage through stores trying to find things and then settling for "what they got" in stock.  These sort of trends were already in the making - the death of "brick and mortar" has been well-documented.  The pandemic just accelerated these things.

Many people are predicting a huge rebound - and it might happen, too.  People need that personal contact and personal experience.  Maybe the cruise lines will see a huge resurgence.  Maybe people will flock to Disneyworld again to stand in line with a lot of sneezing snot-nosed booger kids.  Maybe being locked into an aluminum tube, breathing the same stale air and farts of 200 other people of questionable hygiene will become a "thing" again.  Maybe, maybe not.

We are creatures of habit, and habits are hard to shake.  Back in the 1980's attendance at our little island declined precipitously.  Low-cost airfares to Orlando meant that "family vacation" could be a trip to Did-ney, and not some lame beach on the coast of Georgia.  Instead of a six-hour drive to brown water, you could fly to sandy-white beaches in Ft. Lauderdale, for about the same amount of money.

But in recent months, people are taking to driving again.  RV sales are through the roof, and our little island is being over-run with tourists who want to get away from it all, rather than be crowded into a tourist destination.   We are the home of splendid isolation, and people are starting to appreciate that - and seeking it out.

We've been coming here since about 1990.  In the late 1990's, we made an offer on a house, which fell through.  Mark wasn't so sure we should buy here.  "It's kind of creepy and quiet" he said.  "Yea, isn't that great??" I replied.  After 9/11, the anthrax scare, and the beltway sniper, "creepy and quiet" started to look appealing.  The charm of the big city wore off.  I suspect CoVid is doing the same to a new generation of folks - who can afford to leave.

The point is, our habits have changed, and I am not sure that it will "snap back" to pre-CoVid behavior, at least not overnight.   Sure, airlines will see increased traffic in the coming months - they already are.  Disney has reopened, as have restaurants and bars - in some parts of the country.  Slowly, over time, things will go back to "normal" but I suspect it will be a new normal.  If we do go back to the old ways, it will take a long time to do so.  Leisure airline travel may not come back so fast, if people get out of the habit - and discover new habits.

But will business travel rebound so quickly?   I wonder.  So much of business travel was a boondoggle.  A chance for "face to face" selling by salesmen (and maybe a chance for an under-the-table bribe, or maybe setting up the purchasing agent with a prostitute).  You laugh, I've seen it happen, firsthand.   Business conventions were historically a time to trot out new products, and to get fabulously drunk -and again, prostitutes.   But were they really the big sales "gets" that people claimed they were?  Sure, the company would announce a big sale with a big customer at the big convention - but in many cases, that big sale was really closed before the convention started - or would have closed in any event.  It is hard to say - I am sure the die-hard salespeople would disagree with me.  Kind of hard to hand someone a suitcase of cash over Zoom, ain't it?

All I know is, that in the few years before I retired, I stopped traveling for business.  Clients realized they could contact me by phone or over the Internet, and the need for in-person meeting declined.   Granted, there was something about "being there" that made a difference.  If I was in the office of a client for a couple of days, they often would throw more work my way. "While you're here, can you look at this case as well?  We've been having problems with the Examiner..."   That sort of thing might not occur, if you are in on a Zoom call.  It is, of course, hard to say what could have happened or not.

I suspect that we will see a long hard haul for the travel business in the near future.  The stock market seems to think otherwise - wishful thinking, perhaps.  We will all be inoculated (I have an appointment for March 8th) and immediately jump back on an airplane to fly to Disney and then go on a cruise - those of us who still have a job or money, that is.

I think maybe people are being a little overly-optimistic.  But perhaps that sort of optimism is the good part of humanity.  We'll see!

Friday, February 26, 2021

Stealing the Cheese?

Once you get your financial house in order, you get better and better deals.

Early on in this blog, a reader advised me to "steal the cheese" by taking advantage of these cash-back offers and come-ons.   While they seem temping, they are a trap - a trap baited with tasty cheese.  If you stick your head in the trap, well, there is a chance it might spring and crush your skull.

Credit card offers are a classic case.  When I started this blog, I was not very good about balancing my monthly credit card statements.  Like most Americans, I glanced at the statement and then left it on my desk with the idea that eventually I would write a check and put it in the mail - for the minimum amount due or maybe a little more.  Idiotically, I carried a balance on my credit cards - and I had far too many of them.

It wasn't until I realized that you have to treat your personal life like a business, and log every expenditure and keep track of payments, that I started to get a handle on my debt situation.  It is embarrassing, but back then, I had no idea of the statement date, the payment due date, and the interest rate on any of my cards.

Well, since I began this blog, a lot has changed.  I paid off all my debts - even my mortgage - by downsizing my lifestyle.  In retrospect, it was something that had to be done, eventually, if I ever wanted to retire.  It was fun to have "things" but the stress of all that debt was literally killing me.  I had a lot of stress-related ailments, including gout attacks and diverticulitis.  I haven't had a gout problem since I paid off my mortgage and a diverticulitis problem in well over a year now.  50-something growing pains.

And as I noted before, once you get your financial house in order, good things snowball in your favor.  On the other hand, once you start to fall down the economic ladder, things snowball out of control.  The best offers are made to people who least need them - it is unfair but the way of the world.

The Internet has become the default mode of communication since I started this blog.  Cell phones - do they even call them "phones" anymore? - are no longer primarily for making phone calls.  In fact, it is a PITA to do so - you have to unlock your screen, open the phone app, select the dialing keypad, and then "dial" your number.  No one does it anymore, so it is not a very primary app.   But this change means you can also monitor your bank accounts on a daily basis and electronically pay your bills.  The checkbook rarely leaves the safe anymore.

So today, every morning, after breakfast, I log on and check all my accounts and pay off the balance on my credit card daily.   I don't have to worry about paying interest or late fees or "going over" my limit, as I never carry a balance.  And since I do this now, I can get those cash-back rewards, such as 3% back on purchases.  The danger of such deals is, of course, that they are attached to a 14% interest credit card (or more, depending on your credit score) and if you don't pay off the entire balance every month, well, the interest payments can wipe out a year's worth of "rewards" in short order.

Recently, Bank of America - the bank every one loves and hates, including me - offered a $200 bonus if you got a new rewards card and charged $1000 on it within 90 days.  Given that one trip to the grocery store costs over $100 these days, and filling up the tank on the pickup truck can cost $50 or more, it isn't hard to charge $1000 in three months.

And while credit card companies offer up to 3% or even 4% cash-back (3% for this Bank of America card), a $200 bonus amounts to a whopping 20% cash-back.   Nice work if you can get it - and don't fall into the trap.

Why do credit card companies offer these rewards?  It seems counter-intuitive. Giving away $200 for spending $1000 isn't a good way to make money.  Even assuming the bank makes 5% on each transaction, that comes to only $50 for $1000 in spending.  And up to 3% of that is paid back to the cardholder in "cash-back" rewards as it is.  How do they hope to make back their $200, much less make a profit on this?

Well, if you charge $10,000 on the card, which isn't hard to do, over time, particularly now that so many bills - indeed everything - is paid for by credit card these days, they do make $500 in transaction fees, and even assuming they pay back $300 of that in rewards, they will break-even.

But the real kicker is interest payments.  They are hoping you run up a balance and don't pay it off every month and thus end up paying hundreds of dollars in interest over the course of a year.  If you end up like most Americans do, and carry an "intractable" balance for years on end, you may end up paying thousands of dollars in interest over time.

So you see, that $200 bait is pretty tasty, but the worst case scenario for them is that they break even.  Best case scenario, they make back that $200 several times over - maybe ten times over - depending of course, on your own malfeasance.  If they are lucky - and you are stupid - you end up paying thousands of dollars in interest over a decade.  We've all done it, too - most Americans do, at one point in their life or another.  I did it.  Don't do it!  Dumbest thing I ever did - among a litany of dumb things, too!

Since most of our credit is - or was - in my name, I decided to bite on this deal in Mr. See's name.  Since I already have this card, the offer is not available to me, anyway.  Of course, with an 800+ credit score, it was approved right away - once I unlocked my credit file.  Since Mr. See is younger, he likely will outlive me, and one mistake many married couples make is taking our credit in only one spouse's name - usually the husband, traditionally.  When the husband dies, the wife is chagrined to find out all "her" credit cards are cancelled, and what's more, she has no credit history.

There is another reason I sought out this card.  I realized that we were both carrying the same credit card, which was taken out in my name with Mr. See as an authorized user.  Same card number, same expiration date, same CVV2 number.  I realized while shopping one day, that if the card was declined for any reason (e.g., the card number was compromised) that we would have no way of paying.   It made more sense for each of us to have a separate card with a separate account. If one card is lost or stolen or otherwise compromised, we have a backup option.

And yes, we still have our Capital One cards, as when traveling to Canada, Bank of America socks you with a 3% transaction fee for every purchase (while Capital One does not).  Maybe someday, when this pandemic is over, we will go there again.  Sigh.

But again, if your financial house is not in order - or in fact, is a train-wreck as mine was - then using a debit card or a low-interest credit card (7.5% or so - which I still have) is not a bad idea.  Rewards cards are the reward for getting your shit together, not a way of digging yourself out of a financial grave.  You can't "rewards" your way out of 14%-25% interest payments with a 3% cash-back.  Seems pretty intuitive, but you'd be surprised how many people miss this.

And in terms of "rewards" forget about "points" or "airline miles" (which are doubly worthless today).  Stick with dollars - we know that they are worth, and cannot be modified or cancelled out or expire like points or other schemes.

UPDATE:  Since I wrote this draft, we managed to charge $1000 on this card, making reservations for our summer vacation-from-vacation.  And sure enough, BoA gave us a $200 cash-back bonus, credited to our savings account.   Frankly, I was worried they would "forget" to do this and then say, "computer error! my bad!" after I spent two hours on the phone.  You know how that works, right?  But they didn't.

Now the trick is to make sure we pay off the balance daily and never, ever pay a penny in interest charges.  That is the trick.  It ain't easy to do, either!

Again, steal the cheese is a dangerous game to play.  The only time you should play it, is when you already have all the cheese in the world.  The starving mouse gets caught in the trap!

UPDATE:  A reader sends this link to various "steal the cheese" offers.  Be forewarned!  They can be a deadly financial trap!  I would avoid "points" or "miles" cards or anything with an annual fee.  Cash back with no fee is the best deal.  Keep it simple - and watch it like a hawk!   Also, note, the "Credit Doctor" is probably getting a kick-back if you sign-up using a link through his site.

Lady Gag-Me

White trash buys designer pets - and cares more about them than people!

Just a quick note.  I wrote the other day about French Bulldogs and what a white-trash trend that was.  Today in the news, Lada Gag-Me's dog walker is shot in the heart and two of her French Bulldogs are stolen.

She offers a half-million dollar reward (more than most of us can hope to save up in a lifetime!) not for the arrest and conviction of the criminals who brazenly shot a young man for some stupid dogs.

No, no, not that.

The reward is for the return of the dogs, "no questions asked."

The guy who shot the dog-walker stands to gain a half-mil for his efforts.  Nice work if you can get it.

If I was a dog-walker in LA, I think I would find a new job.   Lady Gag-Me has basically weaponized dog kidnappings at the expense of human life.

Fuck her and her stupid Oreos.  What a fucking piece of human filth!

Not that I feel strongly about it, or anything....

There is something seriously wrong with a person who cares more about their designer dogs than the lives of human beings.

Quite frankly, I never understood the appeal of this woman, or why she has become some sort of gay icon.

Fuck her and her dogs.  Did I say that already?

UPDATE:  Someone "found" Lady Ga-ga's dogs and returned them.  I suspect that maybe someone else got paid a half-mil as a result.  I keep hoping that her half-million reward was part of a scheme she entered into with the LAPD in order to catch the shooters and she will be revealed as a hero in the end.  If so, my apologies will be in order.

However, I suspect that will not be the case.

UPDATE: The person who "found" the dogs appears to be related somehow to the people who stole the dogs.  That big reward flushed them out!  So maybe I am wrong about Lady Ga-Ga (other than about her music, appearance, weird clothes, and, everything else).  Maybe this was all plotted by her as part of an undercover sting operation.

On the other hand, shame on her for promoting designer dogs.  She is feeding this whole white-trash trend of expensive bulldogs - the tulips of our era!

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Trade In Cell Phone Via Kiosk?

Old electronics sitting in a drawer somewhere are worth little or nothing - or are they?

e-trash.  That's what I call it - maybe others do as well.  Chances are, you have a drawer or box or something with old electronic junk in it.  Old cell phones, maybe an iPod, that fitbit that broke, or maybe a broken pair of ear buds.   The crap accumulates, like old pairs of glasses (might as well keep them as spares, right?).   Cell phones are problematic, as you have a lot of personal data on them, and are loathe to give them away.  It's like that old computer - worth nothing, but you'd better be sure to wipe the hard drive before you sell it or give it away to anyone, or the data on it might be worth more than the device itself.

I was in Walmart the other day, picking up a prescription, when out of the coroner of my eye, I noticed a kiosk offering to pay cash for old cell phones.  Walmart is the place for kiosks.  They have one for change sorting, another that dispenses water to fill jugs, and of course Redbox.  They also, inexplicably, have that claw machine.  Speaking of which, there are videos galore on YouTube on how to "win" at the claw game.  And yes, if you are willing to spend $30 to win a stuffed bear from China worth 50 cents, you can do this.   What's more, some of the claw machines are "a winner every time!" type, where you can play until you get at least one prize to go through the electronic eye at the prize chute.  People will do anything for YouTube clicks, it seems.

Anyway, I went online to the "ecoATM" site and entered the data for my old Samsung Galaxy S4's and they offered me six dollars apiece for them.  They suggest doing a manufacturer's reset and charging the battery before bringing them in - and you need a driver's license (presumably to prevent people from redeeming stolen phones).   Twelve dollars might not seem like much, but it is $12 more than I have right now - and moldering electronics are worth less and less every day.  I only wish I did this a year ago when the might have been worth $10 apiece.

Anyway, next time I am in Walmart, I'll try this kiosk and report back on what happens.  It should be interesting......

UPDATE:  The machine is actually kind of fun to use.  I charged up the phones, wiped them by hitting the "reset to factory" on the utility menu, and removed the cases and screen covers.  I followed the prompts on the screen and it examined the phones and offered me $7 for each.

Are they worth more?  Beats me.  On eBay, I see prices all over the map.  But considering that some apps won't even run on them anymore, I am not sure why someone would want them - in this country, anyway.  I suppose I could have gotten more money listing it on eBay, but most listings include shipping, which with Priority Mail (more on that in another posting about I doubt I would have gotten a whole lot more.

With the cost of the elaborate kiosk and the overhead in collecting the phones and then re-selling them (or whatever it is they do with them) they can't offer much for the phones.  It was a fun experiment, quite frankly, and took two pieces of e-trash out of my desk drawer with minimal effort.

The Galaxy S7's on the other hand, well, the camera on one is broken, it seems, so I wonder if the Kiosk will give me much money for those when the time comes.  And of course, those too, are outdated and outmoded - some apps won't update on those as well.

If you are expecting a big payday from these Kiosks, think again.  But on the other hand, $14 is $14 more than I had before.  So I can't complain.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Griddy Greedy?

Who is to blame for staggering power bills, the electric company or the consumer?

Recent articles in the media imply that everyone in Texas is now receiving thousand-dollar-plus electric bills, which is ironic, considering they have been without electricity for so long.  The reality is, however, that some consumers who signed up for alternative electrical suppliers, are getting these bills, as they agreed to pay "spot" market prices for electricity.  During normal times, this means reduced electric bills.  During peak demands times, well, all bets are off.

And like everything else these days, many Republicans are proposing that relief money designed to compensate people for damage caused by the Texas "big freeze" be used to pay these electric bills.  Why should the utility companies have to suffer?   Also on the agenda, is a proposal to use disaster relief money to pay Ted Cruz's Margarita tab at Cancun.

Are consumers innocents in all of this? Perhaps.  Perhaps not entirely.  When we had the house in New York, we were bombarded with offers to go with "alternative" electrical suppliers.  I never quite understood how this worked - after all, electricity is electricity, and the electrons have no idea what company produced them.  It is like these companies that claim they are "green" because they buy only "green" electricity from solar panels or wind farms.   But the reality is, the juice comes off the grid, and if you designate a particular source, you are not really making things greener - just laying claim to a particular portion of the power source.

Our neighbors in New York, from whom we bought the house, both worked for NYSEG, the utility company, and they recommended just going with the standard option.  A lot of these "alternative" companies seemed kind of sketchy and had funny names (I don't recall "Griddy" being one of them, though).   The idea was, I guess, that they would negotiate power prices for you, and your share would be allocated.   But as the Griddy fiasco shows, these types of arrangements can backfire, as they have no upper end on costs.

When we had the office building, I opened a commercial account with Virginia Power.  Probably a mistake on my part, as residential rates would have been far lower.  Anyway, I was billed on peak usage, not on Kilowatt-hours.  They went to a radio meter but for some reason didn't change out my meter.  After three months, they read the meter and charged me peak usage based on three month's worth of electricity!  I was able to negotiate down the bill, as it was their error, but it was an interesting experience.

In Auburn, New York, there was an old GE plant for sale (a real PCB cleanup mess!) and apparently someone came to check out the old factory. The Real Estate Agent turned on the lights - and the seller got a huge electric bill as a result.  Since they billed by peak usage, just turning one one light bulb triggered the meter and they had to pay the minimum amount for usage for that month - in the thousands of dollars.   Commercial electric billing is a weird beast.

I suspect a similar thing happened with Griddy.  They bought power based on peak load, and when everyone's heat pump went to "auxiliary heat" (which they do, once the temperature goes below 40 degrees or so) load levels went though the roof (auxiliary heat is resistive heat - an electric heating coil, which is the least efficient form of heating).   So Griddy gets charged a maximum amount for power, which in turn is passed on to consumers as part of the contract they signed.

NOTE:  Griddy offers this explanation as to what happened - they claim the utility commission is to blame for setting rates at a staggering $9/kW-h.  Compare this to the ten cents per kW-h most people pay, and you can see the problem.  But of course, if you had a standard utility company contract, odds are, you wouldn't be getting these sky-high bills.  We'll see.

Of course, consumers profess innocence in all of this.  Sure, it is all fun-and-games when you are paying $50 less per month than your neighbor.  But when the chickens come home to roost, where's my government bailout?  Why should I have to pay the contract prices on the contract I signed?   Why can't I get the low, low prices during lean periods of energy usage, and then get low prices during periods of high energy usage?  Why can't I have heads-I-win and tails-you-lose?

Sadly, this is the way of the world today.  We saw this in 2008 when people defaulted on mortgages on houses they could never afford - and petitioned the government for a bailout.  And some got it, too!  One lady in Ft. Lauderdale got a "mortgage reduction" on an overpriced condo she had bought, and then turned around and sold it for a profit later on!   Of course, many more got no reduction and ended up on bankruptcy court.  Others foolishly held on, cashing in their 401(k) (and paying huge tax bills as a result) to make payments on a house that would never, in their lifetime, be worth what they owed on it.  When they finally lost the house to foreclosure, they were utterly broke.  And yes, some folks today are still "upside down" on houses they bought before 2008.

I suspect the same will happen here - a few people will get "bailed out" of these high utility bills, which in turn will be a bail-out of Griddy.  Many more will simply not pay the bills, get default judgments against them, end up bankrupt and/or with their credit ratings destroyed. It is like food stamps - is that a bailout of poor people, or a bailout of Walmart, which can afford to pay employees less?  You decide.

The more complication you make a transaction the easier it is to fleece the consumer.  I mentioned before how Georgia Power offers a "flat bill" service which sounds appealing, but if you read the fine print, isn't a free giveaway of power.  It is not a mere bill-leveling service (where you pay a flat amount every month and then they reconcile the difference at the end of the year) but something far more complicated than that.  I read the fine print and decided to nope out of it.  If you go over your standard limit, they can drop you from the plan, or when you sign up the next year, jack your monthly rate.  Oh, and there is a "convenience fee" attached as well.  So you don't really come out ahead.  You just pay more for electricity for "peace of mind" - and you know I feel about people selling "peace of mind".

So I don't feel too sorry for Greedy Griddy customers - they wanted cheap power and didn't want to read the fine print.  In exchange for cheap power during low-usage periods, they were signing, in effect, a blank check for power (with no apparent cap) during high-usage periods.

The real question is, why do we allow such plans for ordinary people?  Commercial customers, who are sophisticated, can understand these billing practices and are held to a higher standard.  But in the interests of "deregulation" we are offering plans to ordinary folks that are far too complicated for them to understand.  They sign up, out of greed, not realizing there may be a hidden catch - and there is always a hidden catch.

But the same can be said for car leases, high-interest credit cards, variable-rate mortgages, and so on and so forth.  Shitty deals abound, and people think they are being clever and "stealing the cheese" by biting on these deals.  But when the deal blows up in their face, who do we blame?  The guy offering the shitty deal, or the consumer, who thought he was pulling a fast one on a major corporation (nice try!) and what's more, mocked the rest of us for being cautious with our money?

Like I said, the point is moot - the government will step in, once again, and bail out a select number of individuals (but not all) in a very uneven and unfair manner, much as "mortgage adjustments" were done.  Probably would help, in Texas, if you contributed to Ted Cruz's Margarita fund.  That is how these things work, in a kleptocracy.

UPDATE: A reader writes with an interesting perspective on this:

I have an interesting experience on this. We run a factory here in Texas.  About two years ago, I had a young salesman canvassing the block (it's all factories in this section of town), selling 'wholesale' electricity. These guys were middlemen to the energy companies. Since we run heavy machinery, our electric bill is about 2000-2500 per month and was only increasing with company growth. If I provided our estimated annual consumption and signed to a 4 year contract (with early termination fee), I could get lower wholesale rates. I didn't like the salesman much but liked the idea and made a quicker decision than I should have. For the most part, our electric bills went down even with increased use, but we did hit a summer price spike last year that scared me. Luckily we didn't work during this winter storm, so the factory wasn't in use (even then, power in our area was mostly down), but I'll have to wait and see what the bill is. At home, we use static rates.

Even as a finance guy, I didn't know about the extreme market rate cap and the probability of failure like what occurred. They sell you on the historical average price, not on the volatility or once-in-a-lifetime extremes on price. They don't even mention that the chassis or infrastructure of the grid needs major upkeep. I couldn't possibly expect a retail consumer to know about these intricacies and it doesn't make sense to have variable rates for such low retail consumption. And I'd bet Griddy customer support is nonexistent or not as informed on these details as well.

Market rate electricity basically requires being knowledgeable in options pricing and insurance writing. You're being paid a little bit every month in the form of savings, in order to insure the grid in case of catastrophe. You get a little bit of savings upfront with almost unlimited loss in case of disaster. The grid and energy companies knew we'd have to back-up their lack of investment in the grid. It's like they drove recklessly because they now had insurance. Consumers were hedging the electric firms' bets.

Many financial lessons to learn here. The market rate deal didn't intuitively feel right to me so I should have declined it. For retail consumers, saving $50 per month isn't worth the anxiety in exchange. Who wants to check electric spot prices every time we have a heat or cold spike? Having to turn off all your appliances, just in case the spot price swings! 2nd lesson is if the contract is too complex to understand then don't sign! Hopefully, we all learn from this and you're right, I was greedy in this! Nothing is free, so if I was receiving a bit of something for nothing that's greed.
I think that is an interesting way of looking at it - with all this talk about hedging and short-selling these days, it seems the electric companies have found a way to hedge or insure their bets - using our money.  As another reader noted, the system would be "fair" if there was some way to send users messages showing them their cumulative energy usage, rather than waiting until the bill arrives to find out how much you owe.  $9kW-h is scandalous!

Maybe $0.03 a kW-h is a "good deal" compared to the ten or eleven cents I pay.  But then again, I never have to worry about nine bucks!

UPDATE:  The media is awfully vague about the Texas Utility Bill Massacre. In fact, they've moved on - new news cycle!  Story is OVER!   Ted Cruz in Cancun, big utility bills, pipes froze - that's all ye need know, right?   Particularly if you don't live in Texas, I guess.  But I think there are valuable lessons to be learned here - particularly about the "free market" and utilties.  Say, isn't Texas the people who brought you ENRON?

Anyway, another reader writes with more insight:
This cold snap was an ordeal, and it made history by breaking a lot of records for Texas. I feel especially sorry for people in south Texas, who are used to living in a subtropical climate. Abilene, being on the south end of the great plains, actually gets pretty cold in the wintertime, we have at least two or three stints below freezing every year, and yearly ice and snow storms that turn the roads into an inch thick sheet of ice.

The town that we live in has a population of about 600 people. They are nice people for the most part, but it definitely has the small southern town vibe (uber conservative, i.e. a majority of the town still believes that Trump is president). The town has a "community forum" page on Facebook, and it was both entertaining and nerve grating to read the things that people were saying on the page during the snowstorm.

When the storm hit, it was announced that rolling blackouts would be starting. For the first couple of hours everyone nervously waited, and then they started. Inconvenient at first, but scary when some people realized that their power wouldn't be coming back on anytime soon. We ourselves went to bed on Sunday night and woke up to a freezing house the next morning, and our power wouldn't be back on until Thursday morning.

The complaints on the community forum started before too long, ranging from, "This is ridiculous! Don't they know we have small children?" to "We can't finish our movie because of these rolling blackouts! Nghyuuuhh!" There were plenty of people suffering in the cold and the dark to be sure, but as many were whining and complaining because of the inconvenience, and it was off-putting. Southern self-reliance is a bit of a farce, living in Georgia you have probably seen that by now. The same people who rail against the government on a daily basis are now asking for (demanding loudly) help from the government. ERCOT, the grid authority in Texas, is now the new villain of the day, even though before all this none of us knew that they existed. But they are evil personified, that is for sure, a guy from work said, "I bet the ERCOTs have power and water in THEIR homes!" And it goes without saying that Joe Biden and the gang are the cause of all of it, with their green energy policies. (Only 20% of the energy in Texas comes from solar and wind power, but whatever) Anyway, not trying to give you every minute detail, but it is funny and ironic to see, and it also irks me a little.

Ourselves, we went to town and found an old Dearborn propane heater that someone was selling, and that was more than adequate to keep us warm. We made snow packs for the fridge to keep our food cold. I ran an inverter with my car a few hours a day so we could watch movies and have a lamp, and we cooked on a 70 year old camp stove that I bought at a garage sale 10 years ago. (Eagle Scout ) It didn't take that much imagination, and it was a heck of a lot better than cowering in our cold house waiting for someone to bring us a free generator. (It sounds funny, but there were people asking for people to donate them generators and firewood because they couldn't leave their house because of the ice. We drove our Toyota Camry all over town that day)

As for the Griddy thing, it was funny to read your blog post, because I had actually checked into that last year. Our electric bill is not bad, but just wanted to check anyway. At first glance it seems like a good deal, but if you think about it a little bit, it falls apart. There were plenty of people that had posted pictures of their low, low energy bills, but the killer is in the policy. You are giving Griddy the permission to charge you an unlimited amount for electricity based on second to second wholesale prices, and that is exactly what they did, and are doing even right now. I didn't like the historical records of summer electricity prices, and that is what turned me away from them, but those prices pale in comparison to the current ones. Scary, but whose fault is it? It's definitely a "steal the cheese" situation. You can blame Griddy, but they are charging the customer the prices that they are purchasing the electricity for, or so the policy says. The money that they make is from the delivery charge alone. I lean more towards the greedy consumer idea. Talk about playing with fire!

What is interesting to me is that Georgia Power has treated us pretty well over the years.  We've had outages with hurricanes and storms and they show up in a matter of hours - sometimes minutes - and fix things.  These guys are freaking heroic!  You get text messages telling you when the power will come back on., too - and it comes back on, right on schedule.   The rates are reasonable and they offer rebates if you conserve energy.

But our power outrages are rare - even in storms - as they are very proactive in having Asplundh trim all the trees around the power lines.  They spend the money to prevent problems, rather than wait for them to happen.  Do we pay a little more?  Yea, but we've never had a five-figure utility bill.

Yes, those publicly-regulated utilities are dinosaurs!  We need to let the "free market" take over and cut costs to the bone, bankrupt the pension plan, and then bust the unions for good!  They'll cut $5 or $10 from our electric bill and the power company will be less reliable!   Oh, and the guy who takes over will make billions.  What's not to like?

They tried to do this in Jacksonville, but fortunately, the citizenry caught wind of it in time.

There are some things the government can do well - or quasi-government organizations can do well. The Patent Office regularly turns a profit.  Amtrak would do the same, if Congress would let them close unprofitable lines.  Ditto for the post office - if they let them set rates and canned Saturday delivery.

Privatizing isn't always the answer to everything. Texas decided to go its own way with an "independent" grid network, so as to avoid Federal oversight.  Was it worth it?  How's that working out?

Republicans used to have a saying, which I think Ronald Reagan popularized, "Beware of anyone who says, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help you!'".  Ha-ha.  Very funny, Ronny.

Since those days, I think a better saying is, "Beware of anyone who says, "I'm from the private sector, and I'm going to help you by privatizing the government!'".   Because those private sector people aren't doing this out of noble intentions, but to make money - and a lot of it.

UPDATE:  The Griddy saga continues, with the company no longer allowed to sell power because, of course, they haven't paid for their share of power at $9kW-hr (who could?).  Could Griddy go bankrupt?  What about other power suppliers?  If they were selling power at fixed rates (e.g., 10 cents a kW-hr.) they are on the hook for $8.80 for each ten cents sold.   Will this bankrupt other Texas utilities?  The whole thing seems bizarre.

And like everything else, I suspect that we won't know the real story for years.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Time for a New Galaxy?

Phones become obsolete when apps will no longer install on them.

A few years back, I broke down and bought some used Galaxy S4's and joined the mindless heard of smart-phone gazers.   Since we travel a lot, it is essential to stay in touch and keep track of banking balances (on a daily basis, thank you!).   The S4's worked well, and could act as a "WiFi hotspot" so no more dicking around with crappy WiFi services at campgrounds.

Funny thing, I know people who pay twice as much money as I do - per month - so they can have the latest "iPhone" and have no data service.  They are constantly using WiFi and trying to find a WiFi cafe or asking people "what's the password on your router?"   I try to explain to them that for $50 a month or less you can get unlimited data from AT&T GoPhone and they respond, "But do I get a free iPhone with that?"

Oh, well.   Still believing in the dream of free ponies!

Anyway, since we did that, we even dropped our landline router (UVERSE) and stream video through the phone.  Most "televisions" today have WiFi capability, so just set the phone as a hotspot and you can stream Netflix or YouTube or whatever.  If your television isn't Internet-ready, it isn't hard to connect it to an old laptop via VGA or HDMI (or with an adapter) and use that to stream video.  Oh, brave new world.  We've been doing this for years now, and now it seems to be the new norm.   How much longer will cable hold out?  Stay tuned, if you'll pardon the pun.

I had to get rid of the Galaxy 4's when some pretty major apps (such as Bank of America) refused to update, with the message that "this app is not compatible with your device".  The phones still work, and indeed, I still have them (they are worth nothing, today) but they are outmoded as they don't have certain features that some newer apps require.  So we bought used Galaxy S7's on eBay for $149 apiece, a few years back. 

I was concerned the same was happening to the Galaxy S7's - so far one app has refused to update due to "compatibility" issues.  Then the camera stopped working on mine, with various messages about "server error" and "the camera has stopped".   I tried some of the easy fixes - clearing the cache and whatnot, which worked for a while, but eventually the camera just went dead, which is kind of crappy as you can't deposit a check or take a photo without it.

I found a site online "the droid guy" which had some good suggestions.  I rebooted the phone in safe mode and erased the cache partition and then rebooted.  My camera is back - for now.  It is kind of interesting - sort of like "safe mode" in Windows or the good old days of DOS when you knew the status of every bit (and not just every byte) on your hard drive or better yet, floppy.  Format C: /s

Yet, the writing is on the wall for the Galaxy S7, I think.  You can survive in this online world with hardware that is a generation or two removed, but once they are three or four generations ahead of you, well, they aren't writing software to be backward-compatible with your old junk.  It seems that these phones last about three years before they are obsolete.  I suppose if I spend $1000 on a brand-new model, it might last longer, but then again, that's $900 more than I want to spend.  And given how easy it is to break, drop, lose, or let fall into the toilet, it makes more sense to spend less than to pay top dollar and insure your phone.   It is like cars - once you drop the collision and comp, the cost of ownership drops - by a lot.

Phones become obsolete long before they "wear out".   On the other hand, PC's seem to last forever these days.  I am still typing away on a decade-old Toshiba Satellite.  That's about all it is good for - running basic websites and as a glorified typewriter.   Painfully slow, but it works and refuses to die.  It won't edit video, and I lost my only copy of beloved Windows Moviemaker during a hard drive upgrade (duh!) and is no longer available.    Some day, I will have to move on from Windows 7, Word 2000 and Quickbooks 2002.  Yes, I am using software that is twenty years old!   Smart phones may still be evolving, but laptops have pretty much plateaued.

Funny thing that - the new "Chromebooks" (which I experimented with years ago, when they were little more than toys) seem to be the next big thing and should be making Microsoft nervous.  Since everything is on the "cloud" there is no need to "own" software anymore or maintain a creaky hard drive.   And since these "Chromebooks" run Android, they pretty much are just glorified cell phones.  I think perhaps that when the time comes, I will leave the Microsoft ecosystem for good, rather than try to upgrade to Windows 10.  Plus the Chromebooks are so much cheaper.

I mean, already, I am typing on a Google Site (Blogger) which is storing and editing my blog "in the cloud".   It is a rare day anymore that I load Word to edit or create a document.  But then again, I'm retired and glad off it.

Speaking of retirement, the cloud and whatnot, I ran into a fellow who was retired but was "called back" to work at a computer company when someone opened the wrong e-mail.  They run a cloud storage company and apparently the entire place was encrypted and is being held for ransom.  Each "client" of theirs has a choice - try to reconstruct their data (which is why my friend was called back to work) or pay $10,000 or so to the "kidnappers" in Bitcoin (no good ever came of Bitcoin and its only real use is in illegal transactions).   Many chose to pay as it was cheaper than trying to rebuild their databases.

It was interesting to me, though, that even the "cloud" or perhaps especially the cloud could be corrupted this way.  Apparently one of their clients opened the offending e-mail which somehow jumped to the cloud servers and even the backup servers and then encrypted everything, including other client's data and even the backup data.  Was a festering fuckup!

And it is spreading.  Our own island authority went through this recently, when an employee opened the wrong e-mail attachment ("what's an .exe file, anyway?") and it encrypted the entire network.  The system is back up and running and no word whether they paid the "ransom" or not.   Like any good kidnapper (or drive-by attorney), they asked for less money than the cost of rebuilding the database, so it made it easier to pay the ransom than to fight.

And from the kidnapper's point of view, it cost them nothing to send out the mass e-mail to millions of people, and even a few thousand dollars is found money (and a small fortune in many parts of the world).   What was scary to me was that even backing things up in "the cloud" isn't a safe haven from such problems.  I still have a couple of terabyte portable drives I back things up on (which are quickly becoming full, what with pictures, music, books, and videos) and I keep them in a desk drawer between backups.   Hopefully they can't be encrypted or held hostage.  But then again, none of the data I have is really important, anymore.  Sure, photos and other "mementos" are nice to have.  As you get older, though, you realize they crowd your life out, and after seeing more than one oldster's house cleaned out, with "precious memories" tossed in the dumpster, you realize that stuff is just going to be junk after you die - even if you have kids to leave it behind to.

Anyway, enough being maudlin.  Here is the solution the folks at the droid guy came up with.  It seems to work.... for now.

Q: “Shortly after my phone updated, there was an error message that popped up. ‘Warning: Camera failed,’ it said. I understand it’s a camera problem but what I don’t understand is why it occurred only after I updated my phone? Does it mean that it’s damaged or something? Is it only a problem with the camera or the entire phone? Do I have to buy a new phone because of this?

A: There are actually two possibilities here; either it’s a minor firmware issue or a serious hardware problem that may have been triggered by the update. Rule out the first possibility by wiping the cache partition since it occurred after a firmware update:

  1. Turn off your Samsung Galaxy S7.
  2. Press and then hold the Home and Volume UP keys, then press and hold the Power key.
  3. When the Samsung Galaxy S7 shows on the screen, release the Power key but continue holding the Home and Volume Up keys.
  4. When the Android logo shows, you may release both keys and leave the phone be for about 30 to 60 seconds.
  5. Using the Volume Down key, navigate through the options and highlight ‘wipe cache partition.’
  6. Once highlighted, you may press the Power key to select it.
  7. Now highlight the option ‘Yes’ using the Volume Down key and press the Power button to select it.
  8. Wait until your phone is finished doing the Master Reset. Once completed, highlight ‘Reboot system now’ and press the Power key.
  9. The phone will now reboot longer than usual.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Gold, Bitcoin, Gamestop, and the Tide Pod Challenge

The great thing about the internet is you can convince people halfway across the globe to do stupid things.  It also is the worst thing about the Internet.

What do Gold, Bitcoin, Gamestop, and the Tide Pod Challenge have in common?  Everything.   Seems you can suggest something on the Internet, and odds are, since there are millions of people out there, one of them will do what you suggest.  So, for example, if you post a fake YouTube video saying that putting your cell phone in the microwave will recharge it faster, some idiot will do it.  And teenagers have been doing this sort of thing for laughs, since the dawn of time.  The problem is, today, they have a far-wider reach with the Internet.

I mentioned before a hapless friend of mine.  We used to hang out together with another "friend" Eric, who in retrospect was no friend at all.  Eric would say to my hapless friend, "Hey, Chuck!  I bet you can't break that streetlight with this rock!"  And Chuck would demur until Eric made clucking noises and called him "Chicken!"   Chuck had a great throwing arm, so he would huck that rock, glass would shatter, and we all would scatter - that is, except Chuck, who would be standing there holding a rock when the Police arrived.

People can be like that - casually evil on the one hand, and stupidly ignorant on the other.  The Chucks of the world are always at the mercy of the Erics of the world.

So, someone goes on the Internet and says, "What jolly fun!  Let's screw some hedge fund by bidding up a worthless video game retail company stock by a factor of ten!"  And people jump in and do this.  The guy who started it all, who paid only a few dollars a share, makes out like a bandit.  The hedge fund gets burned a little bit.  But the guy who really got hurt was Chuck, who paid top dollar for the stock and "held on" to it on the advice of Eric.   Maybe he didn't lose a lot of money, but it was a lot to Chuck.

Gold and Bitcoin are the same way - manipulated online and in the media, to get gullible Chucks (and even a few Erics) to buy and sell.  As I have noted before, Gold is a fear metal and people buy it out of fear.  Fear of the economy collapsing, the "fiat currency" being worthless, or just plain old fear of missing out.  Better buy now before the train leaves the station!

But historically, gold has been a mixed bag.  It peaked right after it was deregulated in 1973 during the first gas crises, and then languished until about 1982, when people were freaking out over yet another gas crises and inflation.  Then it sank and stayed there for two decades.  People who bought in response to the market crash of 2008 ended up trailing the market in subsequent years, as stocks and bonds recovered, but gold.... languished.

I recently read an article that gold is dropping like a fly.  But I looked online at the gold charts and found that... well, it is just being gold, hardly dropping much at all.  What was the point of the article?  To get people to panic-sell?  To induce fear?  Perhaps.  And that is the problem with the financial media - they can manipulate markets and not much can be done about it, as they are "reporting".

Pump 'n Dump is a game as old as time.  And anyone can play.  I noted before how a teenager in New Jersey made tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars (millions?) by sending out mass e-mails hyping penny stocks. All it takes is one or two out of a thousand - when you are e-mailing millions of people - to cause the stock price to spike, which fulfills the "prediction" that the stock is going places.  The teen then sells, the whole thing collapses, and a lot of people lose a little and one guy makes a lot.

Recently, Elon Musk, the mother of all stock manipulators, bough $1.5B of Bitcoin and the market went nuts.  Almost overnight, Tesla made more money on its Bitcoin gambit that it did making cars.  And the press was complicit in all of this.  "Tesla is buying Bitcoin!" they shouted, "This shows it will see wider acceptance!  You can buy a Tesla with Bitcoin now!"

Well, yes and no.  The problem with Bitcoin, which has not been solved, is that it can take an hour to process a transaction and it costs tens of dollars to perform - at the very least.  And with each successive transaction, the process takes longer and gets more costly.  So yes, maybe buying a "big ticket" item like a Tesla with Bitcoin may be possible, but then again, it already was done, a long time ago.  Give how volatile Bitcoin is, Tesla isn't so foolish as to price their cars in Bitcoins.  So the price remains in dollars (or other local currency) and if you buy with Bitcoin, they figure out how much that is and then process the transaction.  In prior years, this was done merely by converting the Bitcoins to dollars and then taking dollars as payment.

Since Tesla's suppliers are paid in dollars or local currency, the same will hold true.  Maybe it will be convenient for Tesla to pay Chinese battery suppliers in Bitcoin, but the price paid will still be in local currency, and no doubt the supplier will immediately convert the received Bitcoin to local currency.  Indeed, hanging on to Bitcoin is foolish, as it can change in value radically - up and down - in a matter of hours, if not minutes.  So if you accept $1M in Bitcoin, and hang on to it for a couple of days, it may be worth only $800,000 and you are screwed.

Quite frankly, I learned this lesson the hard way, dealing with overseas attorneys. I would hire an attorney for file a Patent Application in Japan for my US client and then invoice my client for my services and my Japanese partner, who invoiced me in Yen.   In the 30-to-60 days it took for me to get paid, the movement in currency exchange could be such that I would end up losing money on the deal - if currencies moved 5-10% in the wrong direction.   Now consider Bitcoin, which can change in value by 20-30% or more, overnight.  It just is not a workable "solution" to anything.

So why the big announcement by Musk about Bitcoin?  Well, he wanted to manipulate the market and succeeded.  And a bunch of doofuses out there who took the Tide Pod Challenge or microwaved their smart phones - or bought Gamestop Stock - went out and bought bitcoin.  In fact, I suspect a lot of Redditors did just that - convinced these little "inside tips" are only being shared with them, and not 5 Billion other Internet users.   And yes, since they bought, the price goes up, "proving" that Musk was right!

Of course, Elon Musk is no stranger to stock price manipulation.  You recall the SEC had to have a little chat with him, when he tweeted that the company was going to be bought out for $420 a share (get it?  420! Like in marijuana, man! tee-hee!).  The stock price soared and of course, there was no buyout offer.  The folks who bought high and sold low got screwed.   But Musk got to stick it in the eye of the short-sellers of his stock, of which there are legions, and he has been doing so for some time now - and getting away with it, too.

It seems that we have re-entered the era of the robber barons.   Back in the late 1800's, the Jekyll Island Club was founded as a retreat for the mega-wealthy.   Back then, there was no income tax, so if you made an obscene amount of money, you got to keep it all.  So we had superstar industrialists and investors like Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie, and others, who busted unions, kept wages low, and raked in monopoly profits and didn't feel bad about it at all.

In intervening years, not so much.  The income tax and inheritance taxes - as well as numerous heirs - dissipated dynastic wealth in short order.  The Jekyll Island Club is now a hotel in a State Park.  The Carnegie family, who settled in nearby Cumberland Island, divided up the place into hundreds of tiny lots, which the government has been trying to buy back to form a national seashore.

Today, we have a new legion of industrial and investment superstars - Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, that Zuckerstein kid, and that refugee from ZZ Top who runs Twitter.  We still have more conventional Billionaires, such as Warren Buffet, of course.  But the financial press hangs on their every word, and we laud and admire them from afar.  Well, some people do.  I am less and less enamored of our rock-star Billionaires.

Being a CEO of a company wasn't such a lucrative gig back in the 1950's and 1960's.  Oh, sure, you had fellows like Kaiser, who made a fortune in Aluminum and shipbuilding (and almost lost it all in automobiles).  But it wasn't like the glory days of the monopolies and trusts. High union wages meant that profits were pretty thin - if non-existent.

But something changed, right about the time I started college.  Pension plans and health plans started to go away, replaced by the 401(k) and "go fuck yourself".  Unions declined in popularity, and foreign companies opened up plants in the "Sunbelt" where wages were low.   But more than that, the officers of companies realized they could make a lot more money by running a business into the ground.  Paid in "stock options" to please shareholders, they would pump up the stock price long enough to cash in, and then leave the smoking ruins for the next chump to deal with.  It was pump-and-dump at a whole new level.  You could make tens of millions of dollars as a CEO, CFO, COO, Chairman of the Board or just a lowly President of a company - something unheard of, when I was a youth.

Meanwhile, new "business models" were being dreamt up, where low-wage employees would become low-wage contractors forced to work "side hustles" in order to put food on the table. The disparity in wealth started to accelerate.  And since everyone had to fund their own retirement, a whole generation had to learn how to become "investors" in this new economy.  Problem is, the guy driving for Uber isn't really going to be such a great investor - particularly when he gets his investment tips from some anonymous guy on Reddit, or from Elon Musk.

Fortunately, our friends at the National Review are concerned for our welfare!   Suppose the Federal Government adopts California's "three prong" test for who is an employee?   We would lose the "freedom" to work five "side-hustles" to survive!  People might have to be paid a minimum wage!  The horror!

Wait a minute.  Does this mean I'm turning into some sort of Communist?  Hardly.  My bitter experience with Unions made me realize why it is never a good idea to let the inmates run the asylum.  But I can see where the pendulum is starting to swing in the other direction.  Ms. AOC is the symptom of this scenario.   When people feel put-upon, they will lash out, which is why it is never a good idea to take all you can get, even if you can get away with it for the time being.  When ordinary people feel they have nothing left to lose, well, the very rich could find themselves in a bit of a pickle.

The irony, of course, is that a lot of the people who first felt this pinch - the high-wage union workers in the rustbelt - voted for Trump, who promised that high-paying steel and coal jobs would come back.  Jobs that basically destroy your lungs over time, that is.  And yes, while the union wages of their fathers were great, I am not sure those wages are coming back anytime soon - or those industries.  Pittsburgh is no longer clouded in smoke from steel mills, as the steel mills are long gone and never coming back.

The irony is, of course that Trump never paid a union wage to any of his employees in his life - at least not without a bitter fight.   Sure, the casinos organized and went on strike.  Those casinos are no longer in business.   Trump is hardly the friend of "the little man" or a true populist.  He just tells populist lies to get elected.

If he isn't, then who is? Traditionally, or at least in more recent tradition, this was the mantle of the Democrats.  And it still is, for the so-called "progressives" of the party.  Sadly, their embracing of far-left causes has alienated the blue-collar workers, who don't want to shut down dirty industries, but just make sure they get a slice of that pie.  And as for transgender rights, well, they are mystified by that and other far-left causes as well.

But perhaps some sort of sea change is in the works.  While the prospect of being an independent contractor seems keen at first, the reality kind of sucks, particularly if you don't have health insurance or a retirement plan.  And our friends in the GOP keep promising to kill off both Obamacare and Social Security - eliminating what little we do have.  Yet blue-collar workers vote Republican, just as people take the Tide Pod Challenge and microwave their cell phones.  People are idiots, look around you.

Sadly, this will probably push the pendulum too far in the other direction.  We will see a resurgence in unionism and regulations, which will help some workers, but raise costs and fuel inflation.  And this whole "let's let everyone out of jail" thing has already gone too far - New York City is turning right back into the crime-ridden ghetto it was back in the 1970's.   And no, it wasn't glamorous, either.

This is the inevitable result of "too much of a good thing" - when people grab for too much, and leave others with nothing.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

On Matters of Faith

Qanonsense has one redeeming feature - it illustrates the fallacy of faith.

A reader writes that an earlier posting about "Don't Care" is an insult to his Christian Faith.  That is the neat Catch-22 the faithful can use against us as a cudgel.  While we may not believe in their faith and may in fact find it as ridiculous as Qanonsense, we have to respect their beliefs.  The Muslims have made a good game of this - threatening to kill anyone who even questions their religion and sadly, a lot of people going along with this - willing to mock any belief system except Islam, which is "off-limits" because, you know, they get upset.

Sadly, others are signing on to this scheme as well,  Hindus in India have jailed a comedian because he might tell a joke about Hinduism, although he hasn't told the joke yet.  In Thailand, it is a crime to criticize the king.  And so on and so forth.  Free speech is free, unless it pisses someone off, in which case, they are justified in jailing you or even killing you.  Talk about cancel culture!

But faith can be wrong. In fact, most faiths stipulate that all other faiths are wrong. Thus, it is a mathematical certainty that, if you believe in faith, then all the other faiths are wrong and only one true faith is right. You just have to hope that the true faith that you believe in is in fact the true faith.  Then you have to ask yourself, why are all those other people believing in the wrong one?

We are chastised for not respecting the faith of others, yet the central premise that most faiths is at the other faiths are in fact wrong and in fact, heresy.  Muslims criticize the West for disrespecting Islam by publishing cartoons of Mohammed. Yet Sunnis and Shiites are quite ready to go to war with each other -  and in fact have been involved in a bloody war with each other for hundreds of years and even today - over matters of faith.  Protestants and Catholics aren't much better.

There was an interesting article recently that opined that Qanonsense may be in the process of morphing into a religion.  It has all the aspects of a religion - a mysterious leader, some impenetrable texts which can be interpreted a number of ways, and of course, a legion of blind followers.  It checks off all the boxes.  Well, except for one - they haven't asked for money, yet.

Qanonsense illustrates the folly of belief and faith - that the premise cannot be questioned, and that people are quite literally willing to kill or commit other acts of violence in furtherance of the cause.  It isn't far off from Branch Davidians, Jonestown, or the Manson family.  People suspend disbelief in order to believe, and if you think about it, that is kind of a prerequisite to belief.

There are some who claim that Scientology arose out of a bet or a discussion between some science fiction authors that they could literally create a religion out of whole cloth.  Heinlein sort of hints at this in the novella If This Goes On... where the false religion of the "Prophet Incarnate" is foiled by a Masonic-like quasi-religion that doesn't challenge the Prophet directly, but discretely undermines his teachings.

The funny thing about Scientology is that it cloaks itself in the garments of science, claiming to be a "science of the mind" and yet is the result of the teachings of one man who wrote a book.  The doctrine, unlike real science, is not up for discussion, testing, and revision, but rather must be taken on blind faith.  Pretty neat trick, when you think about it - claiming a religion is science and vice-versa.

And like every other religion before it, its detractors accuse it of abuses of one sort of another, if nothing else, asking for a big chunk of your money and trying to control your life.  Sounds like a real religion to me!

I noted before that religion is a neat way of controlling people.  Religion and debt get the plebes out of bed in the morning and on their way to work.  It keeps people pliable and obedient - and thinking they are part of some greater scheme or greater plan - in service of a higher power.  Like the mysterious "Q" for example.   Qanonsense isn't morphing into a religion, it already is one.  And like any other religion it is manipulating people to do things against their own interests - and in the interests of Vladimir Putin.

This is not to say religion is always bad - it just usually is.  Early on in the colonization of this country, religion was used to unite people with a common goal.  The Bible was often cited as justification for what people were doing - manifest destiny!  Slavery!  It's all in the Bible!  We are doing God's will!

We were destined, as Christians, to settle this continent and "convert the heathens" - and if they didn't see reason, kill them off.  Within 100 years or so, small towns sprung up, each with a town square that centrally featured a church.  The church was a primary source of guidance, inspiration, and even governance.

The Spanish knew this - setting out friars to build "missions" to convert the natives and also serve as a seed for later settlement and trade.  The French were pretty much the same.  It wasn't something limited to the English.  And maybe this use of religion was necessary for people to do things that ordinarily they would be considered abhorrent - taking land away from the natives and moving them Westward or slaughtering them.  Or enslaving blacks - the Bible was also used to justify that.

So it is understandable why some claim the US is a "Christian Nation" as our country used religion as part of the overall technique of colonizing the land.  It is only later that we became ecumenical land, although Jews were arguably here early on.  

But what happens if someone has no beliefs?  That is a scary thought for many of the faithful - and for many of the rest of us.  I mean, this is real red-pill stuff.  If you believe in nothing but yourself then everyone else is just something to be used for your own advantage.  The rest of us are wallpaper to such folks - folks we call sociopaths.

Most of us have a code of ethics we live by - the things we do when no one is looking.   For example, a few years ago, I found a wallet in the middle of the road.  A guy was getting gas and put his wallet on the roof of his car and drove off.  I looked through the wallet and found a business card and called the number. The person who answered had the cell phone of the owner of the wallet and within half-hour, I had reunited the lost wallet with its owner.

Why do this?  Arguably it would make more sense to keep the money in the wallet and throw the rest away - or even sell the credit cards to some shady character downtown.  But I felt that if the situation were reversed, I would want someone to do the same for me - and in the past, people have done just that.  Do unto others... - the golden rule, which isn't in the Bible, by the way (but "eye for an eye" is!). It is an idea that overall civilization is better off if each of us treats others the way we would like to be treated.  It doesn't always work, but if enough people do it, it is like herd immunity.

On the other hand, I went out of my way to return this fellow's wallet because I could afford to.  If I was some homeless bum who hadn't eaten in two days (or more likely, needed a fix of drugs or booze) I would have been more likely to spend the money.  The veneer of civilization is awfully thin, which is why we revert to a feral state when our blood sugar gets low.  A man who hasn't eaten in a few days is willing to do almost anything, morals or no morals.  You'd be surprised at what you'd do.

But imminent starvation aside, what about others? There are people in the world who have no compunction in steamrolling over others in order to get what they want - and in fact, they often will cite their "faith" as compelling them to do so.  I am successful in life, ergo God likes me best - thus anything I do is right.   The robber-barons of the 19th century (or indeed, any century) used this logic.  The poor? The workers?  Too bad for them - they must have pissed-off God, somehow, probably by going to the "wrong" church.

Therein lies the problem with faith.  Faith can be used to excuse all sorts of bad behavior.  And the "good" that comes of faith is usually outweighed, ten-to-one by the bad.  Granted, an utter lack of faith can be used to excuse bad behavior - the sociopath merely says, "what's in it for me?" and takes what he wants, consequences to a greater society be damned.   But the faithful often does the same thing and justifies it (in their own minds) as "God's will be done!" which in a way is even worse.  At least the Sociopath is being honest in a twisted sort of way.  But again, maybe faith is a way for our brains to justify us doing horrible things sometimes, so that we do these things for society to survive - such as going to war.  Perhaps.

I disagree with the notion that lack of faith or belief means one has no moral compass.  The golden rule, for example, pre-dates most Western religions, which indicates that the idea of morality predates many, if not all, religions.   Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed do not have a monopoly on righteous thinking.

I have mentioned before that doing things that are not necessarily in your direct best interest may often, in the long-run, be in your best interest.  For example, while accumulation of wealth may seem like a swell deal, if the "1%" accumulate so much wealth, it could backfire in two significant ways.  First, if the lower classes have no money left to buy the products you are selling, the entire economy could collapse.  Second, if people become too destitute you may have a revolution on your hands and end up deposed.  Remember what I said about hungry people - they will resort to anything.

It is like our school taxes.  When I turn 65, I no longer have to pay school tax here in Georgia.  I have mixed feelings about this.  I have friends who have opined they should never have to pay school taxes as they have no children!   But as I tell them, it is in your best interests to have kids go to school.  They become educated, get jobs, pay taxes, and contribute to the economy.  They are less likely to stick a gun in your face and demand money.  Even if you don't have children of your own, you benefit - indirectly - from public school education (in addition to the fact you received one yourself).

But you have to have faith to believe that.  Aha!  I knew this was going somewhere!  Faith is the ability to believe in things that are unseen.  And "giving back" to society is one of these unseen things. You pay your school taxes and you don't see an immediate benefit to you - but a greater unseen benefit is made to society.  You turn in a wallet you found so the owner gets it back - no benefit to you, but if everyone did this, the world is a better place.  When you come to a construction zone, you take turns merging, instead of cutting everyone off.  Traffic flows more smoothly as a result.  It doesn't appear that way at first and some never see it.  But it is true.

Sadly, some will use faith in the opposite way.  They find a wallet on the beach and think, "This is a windfall from God! I have prayed for a miracle, and here it is!"  They use sharp business practice go get ahead and justify their actions by thinking, "God must be smiling favorably upon me for my business to be successful!  Hiring those union-busting goons was his will be done!"   You can use faith to justify anything, if you put your mind to it.

And it seems that today, so many are willing to use faith in this evil way - to justify everything from misogyny (and Gee Whiz, the Bible is chock full of that, ain't it?) to white supremacy to antisemitism to terrorism.  And a lot of these "new" faiths seem to be little more than evil.  What good ever became of the Branch Davidians - even assuming the Waco fire and ambush never took place?  Was there an upside to Jonestown?  Is Scientology really helping people or just making them really creepy?  And what is the upside to Qanonsense?  It seems to be destroying both personal lives and civilization itself.

Even traditional religions these days seem to be in self-destruct mode. The Catholic church is being torn apart from within - not because of pedophile priest accusations - but because those on the far-right and far-left cannot agree on a direction the church should go in.  Each used the faith to justify their actions, whether it is Opus Dei or liberation theologians.  Lutherans are splitting over things like ordaining women as ministers.  Of course, that is part and parcel of the problem with faith - since it is supposedly unchanging, it is always threatened by change.

I think there is a middle ground here - or I believe there is. You don't need an organized religion or dogma to get along in the world - and the world doesn't need one, either.  But that is not to say that without faith you are without any sort of values or beliefs, whatsoever.

And it goes without saying that if you take faith so seriously that you are willing to kill others over it, something isn't right.  If you are "offended" because someone questions your faith, well then, maybe your faith isn't all that strong.   I think the real threat to the world isn't the faithful, but those that are not sure of their faith, and as a result, have to lash out at others to "prove" their faith.

That's the real evil, right there.