Sunday, October 31, 2021

Is Our Culture Debased?

Today's movies are based on comic book characters.  Today's books are comic books. Is our culture going down the toilet?  Maybe not. (image from the Onion)

Whenever people talk about literature or culture - at least Western culture - they talk about music by Beethoven or Mozart, Operas by Vivaldi or Wagner, Plays by Shakespeare, or novels by Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Of course, I threw in a ringer right there - Hemingway or Fitzgerald would be considered "modern" literature compared to those classical composers and playwrights of yore.

But to some extent, this is a misrepresentation of classic culture.  We sit in quiet reverence during the Opera - not understanding a word of what is being sung, even if it was in English.  We sit in quiet awe of a symphony, waiting to the very end to applause. And Shakespeare? Scholars write PhD dissertations on what his plays mean - or who actually wrote them.

By some accounts, this is a modern affectation - holding classical works in awe.  At the time they were written, audiences treated them far more informally.  Symphonies were social events, and people would chat and talk while the orchestra was playing.   The plots of many operas are no better or worse than some of the soap operas on television today.  Soap Opera - interesting term!  In fact, the plots of many operas are kind of thin, if you think about it.

In Shakespeare's day, at the Globe theater, the cheap seats weren't seats at all - people stood on the floor in the center of the round enclosure.  And from some accounts, people got pretty rowdy during performances, which is why Shakespeare always had some gratuitous violence in most of his plays.  Gotta play to the cheap seats - or the folks standing, anyway.

So much of today's culture seems kind of infantile in comparison - well, at least at first.  Hollywood movies are a worldwide export, and often the bulk of profits are made in overseas sales.  As I noted before, this means a lot of "Explosion Movies" are made, where there is little real dialog and a lot of cliches and sound effects - and of course, explosions.  You don't need to translate "blammo!" for the overseas audience - but it helps to have a rainbow cast of actors from all over the world, so the foreign audiences can identify with the plot.  Almost every Hollywood movie these days has an Asian character for that reason.  China sales often exceed US box office.

And yes, that is pretty crass, but no more crass than Shakespeare putting a few extra stabbings in his plays, just to spice things up.  A writer has to write to his audience.

Then again, I am not very fond of either these new explosion movies, or movies based on comic book characters.  I mean, I grew up with comic books - I read them in the barber shop, but I rarely bought any.  We knew they were sort of base culture and didn't give them much thought.  Today, we have to have "backstories" for each character and explore their motivations.  Even the villains have motivations for their evil - sometimes they become sympathetic characters, while the "good guys" are dark and brooding.

Back in the day, the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad - and we never gave a thought as to their motivations or "origin stories."  We probably would be bored to death by it all.  I know I am.  Plus, it seems a little infantile to put such great reverence into something as facile as a comic book.  I am sure today, someone is doing a PhD dissertation on a comic book character's motivation or some such nonsense.

In a way, though, this is perhaps no better or worse than how we have attached great reverence to "classical" music, opera, theater, and literature - perhaps with more seriousness than the original authors intended.  Indeed, much of what is written over the ages is designed for entertainment.  Light Opera like Gilbert and Sullivan was never meant to be taken seriously - or dissected for greater meaning.  Plays by Oscar Wilde were wildly popular, but were light comedies for the most part.  People attach great meaning to The Great Gatsby, but it was just a piece of entertainment.  If you find hidden meaning in it, I think it is only because you are looking for it - that's just my opinion, anyway.  A lot of people thought it was over-rated, including Hemingway, who was probably overly sanctified as well.

The scary thing about all of this, is that today's light entertainment becomes tomorrow's serious culture. Already there are scores of scholars who are trying to find great meaning in rock-and-roll music of the 1960's.  Don't get me wrong, there are some great songs there, but for the most part, it was popular entertainment.  Yet some folks attach an almost religious-like reverence to bands like the Velvet Underground or other artists like David Bowie or Prince or Eric Clapton, and yet, those same artists did some pretty silly things in their day.

So think about this.  What will happen 20 or 50 years from now?  Will scholars be dissecting rap music in serious tomes, trying to find hidden meaning in these great artists of the early 2000's?   Will NPR's "Performance Today" include music by Snoop Dogg or Tupac Shakur?  Maybe, in fact, I would be willing to bet on it.  After all, what do we refer to, today, as rock-and-roll of the 1960's?  Classic Rock.  Yea, it has been fossilized.

So maybe comic book movies and explosion films are not quite the end of the world - although I don't believe they will become a classic genre in years to come.  It is like the spate of "disaster" movies from the late 1970's. Yea, people still watch them, but often only for comedic value. Watching Shelly Winters swim underwater in The Poseidon Adventure is a hoot.

And yes, science fiction films - once limited to teen exploitation and drive-in markets in the 1950's, are now taken deadly seriously, with backstories and "franchises" and legions of fan-boys engaging in "Cosplay" and dissecting plot lines and character development and writing "fan fiction".  I dunno about you, but Star Trek was a fun ride for three seasons on television, and the first Star Wars movie was a fun homage to the SciFi movies of the 1950's (and the Saturday morning serials).  But then people had to get all serious about it.  It is like trying to find "meaning" in a roller-coaster ride.  "Did you think that second turn after the initial drop was put in there for character development, or was it just ironic?"


People are still making "serious" films and "serious" music and writing interesting books that are often not featured on Oprah's book club (where everyone buys them and pretends to read them).  But these are finding a smaller and smaller audience, it would seem.

Speaking of Halloween, that is another aspect of our culture that is fascinating to observe.  When I was a kid, as I noted before, you had these crappy Halloween costumes and you went trick-or-treating and got candy and that was it.  It wasn't some month-long deal with "pumpkin spice" and grown men and women wearing  costumes.  And no, we didn't have costume day at work, either!  Again, we have taken something that was never meant to be taken seriously and turned it into this "thing" - mostly for commercial purposes.

All I can say is this:  Hope you bought your Halloween costume back in July, because the stores are already tooled up for Christmas!

You Can't Win Playing Their Game!

You can't win at a game run by someone else.

In my previous posting, I mentioned that you can't win at a casino.  Sure someone might win, but over time, that person probably breaks even, at best.  Gamblers remember their big wins, but forget the years of small losses.  Over time, they lose - otherwise casinos would go broke.  They have a lot of overhead to cover! And online casinos?  Just scams!

Similarly, you can't win at shopping.  I have friends who regale me with tales of BOGO deals and coupon clipping and sale prices - as if somehow they made money by purchasing something.  Maybe they got a small discount, but they aren't re-selling the item for a profit, merely cluttering their home with stuff.  Like I said before, one friend likes to "shop" and then give away the stuff they bought to friends.  Maybe this provides some entertainment value, but it isn't a way to make money.

It is like couponing - if it was such a good deal, what's the name of your yacht?  If clipping coupons really made you money - like they show on those "reality" tee-vee shows - then couponers would be insanely rich - buying items for half-price or even getting things for free, and then re-selling them.  But you never hear about that happening as retailers are not idiots and aren't letting product go out the door for nothing.  At best, maybe you get a small discount, and if you intended to buy whatever it is anyway, great.  But the purpose of couponing, in most cases, is to get people to buy things (or brands) they were not predisposed to buy.  It is a way of manipulating consumers, and you never make out being manipulated.

I thought about this, this morning, as every morning I log onto my bank's website, balance my checkbook with an old copy of Quickbooks (I keep my own, separate record from the bank's records - no bounced checks this way!) and pay off the balance on my credit card, daily.  I do this because I've been down the road of intractable credit card debt.  You charge things and don't look at the balance and at the end of the month you get a nasty surprise and can't pay off the balance.  Since you have a "miles" card, the 22% interest kicks in, and the next month, you pay off even less of the balance.  Slowly, over time, the debt accumulates until one month you can't even make the minimum payment!

It happens - to everyone in America at one time or another.  You can't win playing someone else's game.  I've had readers tell me I am an idiot for paying off my credit card daily because, "you can play the float and get that money, interest-free for a month or more!"  And technically, this is true - you can charge a chalupa on your credit card on the first day of the billing cycle, and then payment doesn't come due until the end of the grace period at the end of the billing cycle.  Whoo-whee!  You get 45 days interest-free on that chalupa!   You could have invested that money in "stonks" in the meantime!  And you are making 22% interest, right?


Just because the credit card company is charging 22% interest on a rewards or miles card doesn't mean you are saving that by "playing the float" - if there is an "opportunity cost" argument to be made (and usually these don't apply to consumers in spending decisions) it is the paltry 1% interest that maybe a bank savings account would pay.  For one month, that might amount to pennies, if that.  I get 10 cents ever month from my bank, for $3000 I keep in my savings account as a buffer.  Gee.  Swell.  That's totally worth the risk of a late payment or not being able to pay off the balance.

So I pay off the balance every day.  In effect, my credit card becomes more of a debit card - just an instrument through which money flows, not a debt instrument for financing purchases.  Because even at "good" credit card rates, financing anything with a credit card is a bad idea.  That being said, I keep a 7.15% credit card in my safe and use it every so often (and take it with me when travelling) because, well, you never know when you might need it.  And sometimes it is handy, at the end of the year, to put something on a credit card and pay it off in January, as it means I don't have to take more money out of my 401(k) and thus pay higher taxes (and lose my Obamacare subsidy).

Speaking of miles cards, that's another game you can't win, because they run the game.  I gave up on "airline miles" mostly because I gave up on airlines.   Flying in an airplane was really cool when I was a kid in 1968 and we flew first-class in a 727 after having drinks at the Admiral's club.  Then they let just anyone do it.  And after a spate of hijackings and crashing planes into buildings, well, the fun really went away. Who cherishes the loud acoustics and the nervous flop-sweat that you can smell when you are in line at TSA and some lady behind you is line-humping you?   And the seats - so close together - and the fellow passengers behaving badly!  Gee, airline miles!  I want those!

But they play a game with them.  They can - and have - changed the number of miles you need to get a "free" ticket.  They limit the number of seats on each plane that can be purchased with "miles". If you make reservations a year in advance, maybe you could fly the family to Florida on the same plane - provided, of course, you pay the various fees they sometimes charge.  Some airlines charge fees to allow you to keep your miles, otherwise they expire!

The only use for airline miles I found was to try to get an upgrade to business class, and even then, only by using miles I earned by flying.   Miles from credit card purchases?  That would take forever to generate enough to get a free flight - they would expire before you could use them!  Again, it is their game, their rules, and they designed the game so you never win.  They also designed the game so you think you are winning at it.  It is the same folks who designed the casinos!

Or Facebook, for that matter.  Or Amazon, or a host of other things.  People think they can "win" at the car dealer and "pull a fast one" on General Motors, because you know, they are pretty stupid about selling cars and have only being doing it for a few months.  Oh wait, not.  The automobile dealer is like an abbitoir - you are herded up the chute to the captured-bolt gun and then hung up by your heals, your throat slit, and you bleed out.  And I am sure many a cow in the stockyard told their friends how they intended to "win" at the slaughterhouse game.

So, given all that, how can anyone possibly survive in our economic system?  Many do not, which is a key gripe on folks on the Left these days. People - particularly poor people- keep trying to "win" at these games and get stung time and time again.  And yet, they are the first go back to the well of abuse and get stung again.  And sadly, the middle-class is falling for this sort of thing more and more.

People go to fast-food restaurants every day for lunch and wonder why their credit card balance keeps going up!  Back in the day, going to a fast-food restaurant (which meant McDonald's) was a special treat, not a substitute for a kitchen.  Today, there are entire districts given over to fast-food chains, of which there are dozens - our habits have changed.  We waste money on this nonsense, eat half-pound bacon-cheese burgers, and then wait in the waiting room of the cardiologist in our electric wheelchair, taking our diabetes medicine.  But hey, they had a coupon for that cheeseburger!

The answer is, like so much else in life, that there isn't an answer and that scares the crap out of most people.  The reason religion exists is to provide pat answers to questions that can't be answered.  What happens when you die?  Jesus. What is consciousness?  Jesus.  What is the meaning of life?  Jesus.  OK, thanks for that, I feel better now.   And yes, we need those pat answers to make us feel better and to stop worrying about questions that cannot be answered.

Of course, the simple answer (and wrong answer) is to not play games that are set up and run by other people.  It is a wrong answer because you can't avoid these games entirely. You have to eat.  You have to have a place to sleep, some clothes to wear, some money in your pocket, some means of transportation.  It means you have to interact with other human beings, and thus be forced into these economic casinos, to some extent, whether you like it or not.

But, you can limit or minimize how often you play these games.  For example, you can just choose never to go to a casino, and thus never lose money there.  You can keep your old car as long as it is reliable, rather than trade-in every three years.  The fewer times you have to buy a car, the more money you save.  The 7% sales tax alone can run a couple of grand, every time you trade-in.  If, over a lifetime, you buy ten cars, as opposed to fifteen, you will save a lot of money.  And if you can find a late-model used car from an individual, well, you save even more - because individuals such as yourself are less inclined to be playing economic games, and their skill level is about equal to yours.

Things like bonus miles, BOGOs, sales, discounts, and whatnot are not "bargains" but games retailers play to get you in the door and make you think you are winning.   There is no way to avoid these games, but you can choose not to play, particularly when you don't need to.  Oh, sure, they will try to lure you back into the game, claiming that this time, for sure, you are going to win at car leasing or grocery couponing.  It is akin to a poker game I was roped into once - I wanted to quit, but my "friends" told me to stay in the game.  "You could win it all back in the next hand!" they said.

I didn't.  I found new friends, instead. 

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Get Rich or Get Thrifty?

How do you accumulate wealth?  Slowly over time, or all-at-once in the big score?

When I was in my early 30's, I was doing pretty well - or should have been.  We owned our own home, but of course it was mortgaged for more than we paid for it to pay off credit card and other debts.  We owned my office building, which was a good investment (and money-maker) as well as half a duplex which generated $100 a month in positive cash-flow (and a nice depreciation deduction).

But we were still living "paycheck to paycheck" on over $100,000 a year - back in the 1990's when that really was a lot of money.  What the heck was going on? I couldn't figure it out! It couldn't be our lifestyle - after all, we lived the same lifestyle as our neighbors, or so I thought.

I thought about investing - in addition to funding my 401(k) and life insurance and whatnot.  I opened a trading account and bought some stocks - much as the kids today are doing on the Internet.  I thought to myself, "I'm going to make the big score!  All the stocks I pick are going somewhere!"  And that was true, only that somewhere was in the toilet.

We struggled this way for a long time - always one paycheck away from insolvency, even though we owned a lot of "things" and stuff.  It took me a long, long time to figure out that the get-rich-quick mentality was the wrong approach.

It is funny, but I selected the name of this blog on a whim.  It isn't a very good name, but it must have made some small impact.  When I search Google for old blog entries, I might find one or two, but then I find pages upon pages of sound-alike entries, all criticizing my blog, indirectly.  "Is Living Stingy really a way to make money?" a website called "Clever Girl" asks.  There are dozens of others - the image above was scraped from one of them.  The conclusion is, of course, that I am full of horseshit, and the way to get ahead in life is to go to an online casino or perhaps invest in some stock tips!

Donald Trump claims he is being "censored" on the Internet.  The reality is, the folks who run "Social Media" realized that you can't sell much to survivalists other than their black-powder muskets and pallets of survival food.  Not much profit in that.  So they pivoted to stock manipulation, with this "Robinhood" and "Stonk" nonsense - bidding up the price of random stocks through the stratosphere, by getting some 20-somethings (such as I was) all riled up over these stocks, and posting bizarre things with all sorts of technical-sounding jargon and numbers ("the reverse flip-swap index has flimmered to 5% over-asking at the close after-market!  This is big, people!").

I mentioned before that early on in this blog, I got inquiries from young people asking how to "get rich quick!" and were disappointed when I told them things like get rid of cable TV and don't buy an iPhone and never lease a carThey wanted stonk tips!   You won't find them here.

Sure, there are people in this world who "get rich quick" or at least appear to do so. We all hate Jeff Bezos because he is a lying son-of-a-bitch (if you doubt me, buy something on Amazon - they lie to you several times, just during the checkout process!) but on the other hand, he didn't become one of the wealthiest persons on the planet overnight.  And the reason he got so wealthy is chumps like you and me keep sending him our money.  We buy his crap from his site, and we hype the price of his stock.  If you really want to protest wealth inequality, stop sending rich people your money.  It is as simple as that!

And so on down the line.  Yes, some folks "got lucky" and also were unscrupulous in their business practices.  Bezos is the new union-buster and he crushed the competition online by undercutting prices to build up a critical mass - that's the American way, go big or go home.  And again, we "little people" are complicit in this strategy.  Some new IPO comes out and we all go ga-ga over the stock, even though the company is hemorrhaging cash trying to crush its competitors.  We bid up the stock price (the little people are the ones who drive up prices, not the whales who got blocks of stock as early investors) which in turn bootstraps the whole deal.

But that's the ever-loving point.  These small investors - buying a few hundred dollars of stock at a time - are the ones driving up prices and making the rich people richer.  I saw a pathetic thing online where a guy posted his statement from Computershare, of his massive investment of $150 in GameStop.  It is guys like him who are driving the share price through the roof.  And by posting this on Social Media, well, it bootstraps the whole thing.

What ends up happening, of course, is that the guy who started this nonsense cashes out, and the share price plummets, and the "little guy" loses his hundred-fifty bucks.  Not enough to sue over, although there is a class-action suit against Robinhood over some of these trading irregularities.

This sort of "investing" is worse than gambling.  At least in gambling, you know the odds, and everyone at the gaming table has an equal chance of winning.  Well maybe not entirely equal, but at least close.  Gambling is still stupid, of course.

But get-rich-quick schemes? They always end up in tears.  They get the other guy rich, not you!

So what's the alternative?  Well, it was staring me right in the face, when I was 30-something and living "paycheck to paycheck".  I had a lot of money pass through my hands, but it was like trying to shovel water with a sieve - it just went right through and all over the ground, mostly going to waste in the form of bank interest.

Over the years, I had great opportunities handed to me on a platter - most people do, including the current generation. But I squandered most of these opportunities on silly things and status symbols.  When I bought my first house, I could have paid off the mortgage in a matter of a few years, if I had saved my money, not bought a brand-new car, and instead gotten a roommate.  Instead, I spent money like it was water, and made the minimum payment on the mortgage.

Similarly, I could have invested more in my employer's retirement plan, but chose not to do so.  Worse yet, when I left a company, I generally cashed-out those plans, paying tax penalties and then blew the money on dumb things like motorcycles.  This is not to say I couldn't have had a motorcycle, only that I could have bought one used for a lot less money and had just as much fun, if not moreso.

And so on down the line.  A few dollars here, a dozen dollars there, and it would have made the difference between having money in the bank and "living paycheck to paycheck".  Like a goldfish growing to the size of his bowl, I spent to the size of my paycheck.   The fault was all mine, not the government, not my employer, or those "rich people" or whatever.

Compound interest is a bitch when you are paying it, it is a lovely thing when it works in your favor.  And simple compound interest calculators illustrate how even putting aside $5 a day - the price of a cup of coffee, would, over a 45-year working life, puts $557,996.97 in your 401(k) at 7% rate of return.  Of course, this requires you not spend $5 on something else - I learned that the hard way, and saw many of my friends make the same mistake.  You can't save money without taking something out of your budget first.

When retirement rolls around, well, you get taxed on the money you take out of your 401(k) - so it pays to take out as little as you can every year. If you are debt-free by retirement, well you don't need to take out much, and your tax bill may be negligible (a few hundred dollars for me) as you are in the 15% bracket and the standard deduction cuts most of your taxable income.  It isn't impossible to do.  It isn't even hard to do.  But we choose to do other things because they are easier and more fun.

For example, as I noted above, we refinanced our house and took out cash to pay off credit cards - effectively financing a restaurant meal we pooped out in 1997 over 30 years amortization.  Pretty stupid stuff!  But most folks do it, thinking they are being "smart."  Why drive some old Toyota, when you can get a home equity loan and buy a Mercedes?   Problem is, the Mercedes will be far less reliable that the Toyota, and certainly won't outlast the 30 years of mortgage payments.

It is easy to fall into these traps, as the financial industry tells you that you are being "smart" with your money by taking out a home equity loan.  But of course, the people telling you this are selling you a home equity loan.  Funny how that works, eh?  And that is the topic for my next posting, by the way.

The one sure-fire way to get wealthy - or at least middle-class comfortable - isn't betting on long-shot payoffs in wacky things like gold or bitcoin or "stonks" or whatever.  Even if those things do go up in value, your $150 invested isn't going to turn into millions. And in most cases, the small investor never makes money at these deals anyway.  You can't win playing someone else's game.

Get rich quick?  Not likely, so just give up on that.  Get middle-class slowly.  It beats poverty!

Friday, October 29, 2021

The Labor Shortage and Minimum Wage

Will full-time employment become a thing again?  Millennials, don't give up yet!

Weird things are happening, but to some extent, I predicted they would.  Economics runs in cycles, of labor surplus to labor shortage.  To concentration of wealth, to revolution.  From shortages to surplus. From high prices to low.  And the conditions for labor in 2011 when I started this blog, have almost changed 180 degrees.  This is good news for working people.

I noted before how many companies are avoiding hiring full-time help, as they would then have to pay for health care and other benefits.  So many workers - particularly younger workers - have to work two or three part-time jobs to make ends meet.  This leads to scheduling conflicts.  Boss from Job #1 calls and says, "I need to you to work tomorrow!" and the employee replies, "I can't, I have already promised Job #2 I would work a shift there!"

So Boss at Job #1 says stupid things like, "We need to see a level of commitment from you, and I need you to work this shift!" to which the employee replies, "Well, you won't show enough 'commitment' to me to hire me full-time, which is why I have two jobs!  And by the way, I'm not coming in tomorrow, or ever, I quit!"

And in today's market, employees can get away with that.

The tables have turned.  Unionizing is back in the news and union membership is up.  Nothing like the old days, of course, but there seems to be more support for unionization.  A tipping point has occurred, or is very near.  Cries of $15 an hour minimum wage are subsiding as most companies have to pay at least that much just to get workers in the door.  Things like drug tests - peeing in a cup - have gone by the wayside, at least for marijuana.

Employers are getting so desperate that they've even offered to hire me.  I was in Home Depot back in June, trying to find a cabinet hinge for the camper, and as usual the cabinet hinge display was a mess.  I carefully put all the hinge packages in the correct bins until I could find four identical stainless-steel 1/2"- offset hinges that I wanted.  The department head saw me doing this and said, "Want a job here?  I can interview you right now, put the smock on you, and have you stocking shelves this afternoon!"

I declined, noting that I was leaving for four months at the end of the week. "I don't care - a week is better than nothing!"  They are that desperate.

Why is this?  The pandemic, or something else?  Something else, I think.

I noted along ago that the age pyramid has become more like a minaret - we aren't running out of people just yet, but the population isn't increasing as rapidly as in the past.  Combine this with more stringent immigration policies (started under Obama, accelerated under Trump, and pretty much left alone under Biden) and we have a shortage of young people or immigrants to take all these "entry-level" jobs.  Folks like me are retiring in droves, at the same time.  This is good news for young people, but it makes older people nervous.

Simply stated, we were hoping for a retirement marked by low inflation and low wages.  In such a scenario, we could hire people to mow our lawns or trim our shrubs or literally wipe our asses (in the nursing home) for not a lot of money - eight bucks an hour or so.  Well, in the last few years, that wage rate has doubled, which means prices are going to go up, which means the amount of money we old people have saved may not last very long.  Weep for us.

It also means politics are changing.  I am no big fan of "The Squat"or "Ms. AOG" or whatever, but they do represent the voice of (some of) a new generation.  Sadly for them, they are outnumbered by the older generation for the time being.  But in a short period of time, a lot of "Boomers" will kick the bucket and American politics could change as well.  That being said, a lot of these new Nazis and "Proud Boys" are of the same young generation - so it sounds like the Squat has their work cut out for them.

This shift in demographics hasn't just affected the job market - colleges and universities are feeling the pinch too - as I predicted years agoEnrollment is down, due in part to demographics, but also due to other factors.  Xenophobic immigration policies have meant that many foreign students are finding it harder to get visas - and American universities rely on full-price foreign students to fill the seats.  The pandemic hasn't helped foreign students get into the country, either.  The value of an education has been called into question as well, as many colleges and universities are offering oddball studies and majors that are of no real use in the world. A bachelor of arts in queer studies?  What's the point of that?

Throw in the drumbeat of discontent that has been building up for the last two decades over student loan debt, and you can understand why maybe some 18-year-old today is making the logical choice not to go to college.  I ran into a lady the other day and she told me her daughter was just starting college at Expensive U.  "What is she majoring in?" I asked, and she replied, "She's not sure yet!"   "Well, I hope she isn't borrowing a lot of money to do so!" I replied, at which point the woman winced.

Some people still haven't gotten the memo.  Myself, if I wasn't sure what I wanted to study, I'd spend two years at community college figuring this out and getting those basic courses out of the way.  But that's just me.  For a lot of people, where your kid goes to college is wrapped up in a lot of status nonsense and bullshit.  My son or aughter isn't going to some trade school!   That's the sort of nonsense I heard from my own Mother, when I was pursuing an Engineering degree.

So colleges and universities are feeling the pinch, particularly the small, liberal-arts and specialty schools such as black colleges and women's finishing schools. Some have tried to buck this trend by admitting whites and men.   But do you want to be the only white guy at an all-black college?  Or the only man at an all-women's school?  And does your degree in African-American or Womyn's studies qualify you for any job other than teaching the same topics to the next fellow?

The job market ties into this. Many employers are not so picky anymore about hiring.  Back in 2009, you could make people take drug tests, make them jump through hoops, ask for two years' experience for an entry-level position, as well as a college degree - and pay minimum wage.  Worse yet, you could offer them an "unpaid internship" and basically make them slaves.  That is changing really fast. For many jobs, experience trumps degrees, and employers - desperate to find qualified help - are overlooking lack of credentials.  This in turn is making many younger people question the value of a college degree in the first place.

Or you could, as I did, get the job first, and get the degree later on.  Granted, this took me 14 years to do, but then again, I was paid the entire time - and had full benefits as well. Maybe that will be a new model of employment.  And you know what?  It was 14 years of discovery and fun.  I wouldn't take it back for all the money in the world.

Of course, that was back in the day, when benefits of a full-time job weren't all that expensive.  Health insurance, for example, for young employees, was pretty cheap.  But many companies became top-heavy with retirees, who were covered by the company's health plan, which in turn, drove more than one company bankrupt.  While many on the far-right decry "single-payer" health plans, many employers would welcome them, as it would relieve them of this expensive burden.  One reason why we have so much trouble competing with foreign countries in manufacturing, is that their labor rates are much lower as those foreign governments provide health insurance and other benefits - which means the employer doesn't have to pay for them.

It is akin to how we use food stamps and other benefits to subsidize Walmart.  Yes, that is the case - by providing government benefits, employers can pay less.  But this is a double-edged sword.  If someone makes $15-an-hour in this new paradigm, they may lose these government benefits, which means in real terms, they break even in the deal.  That being said, higher wages and company benefits would be preferable - to most people - to begging the government for assistance.

So cheer up young people! The $15-an-hour job you protested for is here - not necessarily due to legislation, but economics.  And pretty soon, full-time employment may become the norm.  Stranger things have happened!

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Sense of Urgency!

One trick salesmen use to snare a prospect is to instill a sense of urgency in the prospect.  If someone pressures you to "Buy Now!" maybe you need to step back a bit.

A reader writes asking me about how sales people pressure prospects with a "sense of urgency" to buy things NOW rather than think about them.  I covered this before in a posting about games car salesmen play, which included links to videos (which may not appear on the mobile platform - sorry!).

In response to that posting, I got some feedback from readers who claimed such things could not happen as they were illegal!  And that saddened me almost as much as the comment I received from a young law student in response to my posting on inheritance scenarios, which he claimed were "against the law!" and thus could never happen.  Sigh.

Naivete is also a big weapon that salesmen use to snag prospects - people assume that a big company with a slick storefront and fancy ads on television has to be legit - after all, how could they operate if they were ripping people off?  But the reality is, the police today consider these economic disputes, better solved through tort action than criminal law.  So if you get ripped-off, for example, by one of those national dental chains, well, your only recourse is to sue them, and that costs even more money, and you might lose, as it is a "he said, she said" kind of deal.

It struck me, as I drove through the strip-mall hell that is our local "city" that so many of these shiny chain stores and whatnot were in fact, utter rip-offs, yet they remain in business because people really can't do much to get their money back.  And let's face it, half the people don't even realize they have been scammed.  And those are just the obvious rip-off places.  So many more, like car dealers, just offer horrible deals that cost the consumer far more than they should actually pay.  Leasing cars, for example.

But as the dealer training videos illustrate, instilling a sense of urgency is often essential to getting the customer to buy.  As they point out, everyone wants a new car - the smell of new vinyl, and the new gadgets and toys you can have.  In the 1950's, it wasn't hard to sell a new car to someone driving a pre-war flathead six, with three-on-the-tree, manual brakes, and manual steering.  Sure, it may have been good for a few more years, but hey, overhead valve V-8 power!  Hydramatic transmission!  Power Brakes!  Power Steering!  And those shiny new tu-tone paint jobs!

So people are inclined to buy - a good salesman just needs to push them over the edge.  It is sort of like a seduction, sex, a conquest.  And if you talk to salesmen, they talk about their sales in those terms - behind closed doors, of course.

So they put on a "Sale!" of a new car or a new sofa, and tell the customer that they can buy the product today at the sale price, but that if they decide to come back on Monday, that price is no longer available.  Of course, it is a ridiculous proposition - prices are based on market demand, and not on some arbitrary points in time.  Even with a factory rebates, a clever salesman can back-date the sales contract.

There are other ways of inducing urgency.  The old line of "they didn't make many in this color!" (or with these options, or this model) and the "I'm not sure when we'll get another one in - if ever!" is a way of pushing your prospect into buying now rather than waiting.  Of course, it is nonsense - the factories make millions of these things - whatever they are - and there will always be another one coming down the line.

Another gag, often used with cars, is, "I had a gentleman here a while ago who was very interested in this car!  So it might not be here when you come back!"  Same shit, different day.  There will always be another car.

Speaking of which, Ford just reported unexpected better-that-forecast earnings, even as sales were down due to parts shortages.  Why was this?  Well, most car manufacturers have horrendous overcapacity.  Worldwide, there is more than double the amount of production capacity to meet demand, in normal times.  As a result, in normal times, companies have to offer rebates and sales to cut prices and move metal, particularly at the end of the year or for unpopular models.

With the "shortage" of parts, the car companies can lay off workers and close plants (or drop second and third shifts) and thus cut costs.  And since they don't have to offer rebates or discounts (particularly volume discounts to larger dealers) they make more money per car.  As they taught us at GMI, we could make $1000 a car and sell a million cars, or make one car and sell it for a billion dollars - it didn't matter, the end result was the same.  Profitability trumps market share.

So in recent months, people have panic-bought cars and trucks and RVs, even though they should have known that shortages were only temporary in nature.  Indeed, I drive by the RV dealers today and see the lots overflowing with rigs.  I see big-rig trucks on the highway laden with new Ford F150 pickups.  The shortages will end, eventually - and some people will feel foolish for overpaying for things.

But this "shortage" nonsense is good for business.  Already retailers are saying that due to "pipeline" problems, there will be shortages of "must have!" Christmas presents, so "if you see it, buy it" as one retailer noted.   Again, Christmas creates yet another means of instilling urgency.  Your kids will hate you if you don't have that new PlayStation by December 24th - so get cracking Dad!  Black Friday is only a month away!

It's all pretty stupid.  And by the way, deciding you "must have!" a certain product basically gives up whatever leverage you had in the marketplace.  It is akin to raising the white flag of surrender.

So why does this time-honored technique work?  Well, if a prospect comes into the showroom and kicks the tires on a new Edsel and then says, "I'll think about it and talk to you tomorrow!" they may go home and talk to the wife and discuss the finances in more detail.  Some bills arrive and they realize that their "paid-for" '39 Plymouth still has some life left in it, and they can always buy the Edsel later on.  The neighbor stops by and tells them the Edsel is a lemon of a car and not to buy it.  The longer they think about the purchase, the less likely they are to buy.

This is why Amazon loves "one-click" buying and tries to instill urgency in its customers.  I don't know how many things I have bought online in the last year that were listed as "only three left!" or "order soon, inventory running low!" and so on.  Some places, like Wayfair, have convoluted algorithms that change the prices in real-time.   If you "think about it" for more than an hour and then go back to their site, you may find the price has gone up.

And of course, today, who knows how we are being spoofed?  Google knows what I am searching for, and perhaps tells some of these retailers what I am searching for, what I have clicked on, and what prices I am looking at.   You really have to dig, it seems, to find bargains on the Internet.  I was all set to click on some drain fly killer liquid on Amazon for $48 when I realized that a competitor had it for $32 for the exact same product.

So urgency works in a number of ways.  In many cases, if the customer "sleeps on it" they will likely decide not to buy at all but instead keep their money and learn to live without the product.  Or, they will find the same product (or a better one) at a better price elsewhere.  Whatever the result, the customer leaving the building (or the website) is usually the last time you will see them - or so goes the folklore amongst salesmen.

Instilling a sense of urgency is essential in making a sale.  It prevents the prospect from cross-shopping on price, or even thinking whether they need the product at all.  You can "close the deal" by using good old FOMO or Fear Of Missing Out.  In the real estate business, this is particularly true, particularly in times like these, where people start bidding against one another for the privilege of buying a house.

So salesmen - they're a bunch of rotten, lying, sons-of-bitches, right?  Well, some are.  Others are just using the time-honored techniques to sell things.  And like the salesman's training videos note, the prospect wants the product - all you are doing is showing them how they can afford it.  So from their perspective, not only are they not cheating you, they are doing you a favor!

They have a job to do, and so do you.  Managing your money and spending it wisely should be approached as a serious job and not some ride at Disney World.  Buying anything isn't "fun" it is a battle - and the marketplace is a battlefield.  Yes, this isn't a fun as going "whee!" and just paying whatever or signing whatever they put in front of you.  But that approach to commerce usually ends up in tears.  And which is better - the long-term satisfaction of scoring a good deal, or the trail of tears when you realize three years later you are stuck in a crappy lease deal?

The good news is, you have so many weapons at your disposal.  And the sense of urgency is one of them.  Whenever someone tries to sell you something - anything - predicated on the limited time to make the decision, this is a tipoff - police tape - roping off the deal as potential ripoff.  And the shorter the time period they offer, the more likely it is a scam or at the very least, a bad bargain.   If the "rebate" or sale on a car is good for a week, well, you can go home and think about it (even still, you'll probably change your mind).  If they tell you the deal expires at midnight, odds are, you should walk away entirely.  If they tell you that you have to buy within the next ten minutes, just run away as fast as possible!

Sure, it is nice to have nice things.  But getting snared into a bad deal, with high-interest financing or insurance you can't afford, isn't a good way to go about it.  And I know from experience - when I was younger, I did bonehead things like trade-in a perfectly good car for a new economy car that cost me more in insurance premiums than in car payments.  And I could afford neither!

I've learned to walk away.  When we bought the F-150, we texted back and forth for nearly a week before we reached a price agreement.  The Nissan Frontier we looked at for five years before pulling the trigger on it.  The Hamster was the same deal - we negotiated the price over the phone before we even went to the dealer.  You can do these things.  Few do.

We saw people in dealerships coming in with their "trade-in" and then sitting down to see what the dealer would do for them - often spending hours there and walking away without even knowing what they paid for their new car.  It is sad, and it leads a lot of people to be unhappy and think the system is stacked against them.  And yes, the poorest people in this country often are snookered this way - which is how they became poor and how they stay that way.

Sense of urgency is just a huge red flag.  Whenever someone tries to pull this stunt on you, step back and think about what is really going on.  Odds, are, it won't be good!

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Not Funny

A comedian can get away with a lot, so long as he is funny.  David Chappelle is now a Muslim terrorist.  I'll bet Dave didn't find that funny, did he?

My stinking hippie brother got his PhD in puppetry.  Pretty silly stuff, but he found a job running a puppet museum making big bucks.  So all you millenials with "liberal arts" degrees - hang in there!  Maybe by the time you are 60, such a job will open up for you.

But as much as I mock my brother, I have learned a lot from him.  And he pointed out that puppets have been used, historically, to say things that people can't get away with saying. The court jester has a puppet that says horrific things about the King - and everyone laughs, because the puppet said it, not a person. The jester would be beheaded if he said these things himself.

Jeff Dunham, who is a "vent" (ventriloquist) has some pretty controversial acts, including Achmed the Dead Terrorist ("I Kill You!") and until recently, a black character named "Sweet Daddy D" who was an unfortunate combination of black stereotypes.  Dunham is a bit to the right, which dispels the notion that only leftists can be funny.  But like any good comedian, he skirts that fine line between what is acceptable and what is outrageous, and then crosses back again before anyone notices.  Maybe "Sweet Daddy D" was a bit too over-the-top in this age of Black Lives Matter.  A black comedian could get away with it - not a white comedian.  Maybe Dave Chappelle can take up venting.  Just a suggestion, Dave!

Dave Chappelle grew up in a white suburb of Washington DC, and went to a mostly white high school and hung out with a lot of white friends.  His comedy has been very popular with white folks who want to be hip, and back in the day, he was kind of funny.  Much of his humor was of the racial variety, and being black (in theory, anyway) he could get away with "crossing the line" and then crossing back - particularly since his white audiences found it funny.  And being a white black man, he wasn't threatening to white audiences.

But he kind of freaked out and disappeared for a while - coming back all puffy-faced like he had been binging on the high-carb institutional food at the mental hospital.  He converted to Islam, got married and had two children, who he named Ibrahim and Suleyman, and now lives in White Bread, Ohio, on a big-ass farm.   And he's gone all conservative on us.  He hasn't strapped on a suicide vest just yet, though. 

Oh, Dave, it was a joke!  Don't you find it funny?  No, it wasn't funny - that's the point.

Not hard to understand - Islam is a pretty conservative religion.  So is Catholicism.  If you want to believe that stuff, you have to move to the right - at least a bit. And his latest "controversy" isn't about his faux blackness or massive pot use, but about some oddball comments he made about "transgender" people - which he has been doing for a long time now, but for some reason it is now just being noticed.

If you read my blog, you'll realize I am just as mystified by the whole thing as Mr. Chappelle is.  I mean, if you want to wear a dress and mutilate your genitals (crosses legs and winces) go right ahead - provided you are over the age of 18 and you don't expect the rest of us to pay for these million-dollar operations.  Asking children what their gender is?  I am not comfortable with that anymore than I am comfortable with encouraging children to "come out" in high school.  This stuff can wait until you are age 18 - there will still be time to figure this all out.

And no, I don't think you are "homophobic" or "transphobic" if you are uncomfortable around gay people or transgender people.   Being around things that are alien to some people can make them anxious - this is a pretty normal reaction.  A lot of people are afraid of clowns.  That doesn't make them horrible people.   Clowns are creepy - which is why they are featured in a number of horror movies.

On the other hand, I don't hate transgender people.  It's a complicated issue, to be sure, but just bashing trans people isn't funny.  And that's the number one rule in comedy you can never, ever break:  Not being funny.

A few years back, Michael Richards, who played "Kramer" on Seinfeld was doing stand-up comedy in California.  Like so many people who were stars on successful television shows, he found it hard to get work, once the show wrapped.  And apparently, his stand-up wasn't all that great.  He was being heckled by some black members of the audience, and he tried to riff off that, but it went horribly wrong. "The white man is speaking!" he said, and someone recorded that with a cell phone and his career was shot.

There is a stand-up comedian out there who makes a thing about skewering hecklers.  I think he even plants fake hecklers in the audience so he can take them down.  It is pretty funny (although tiresome after a while).  I guess if you are a comedian you have two choices when it comes to hecklers - you either drop the mike and leave the stage, or you cleverly skewer them.  Richards did neither.  Instead he committed the ultimate crime a comedian can commit: He wasn't funny.

Racial humor is touchy.  Handled deftly, you can cross that invisible line and make a joke - and make a point - and than race back to the safety zone before anyone realizes what you just did. The best of comedians get away with this.  The worst?  They are no longer comedians.

When it comes to politics, well, that gets touchy too.  I recounted how we went to the Grand Ole Opry the other day, and one of the Gatlin brothers started going off about "cancel culture". It wasn't funny, and we didn't come to see a political pundit - we came for the music.  And granted, Country music can be somewhat conservative, but it is still music.

On the flip side, the "Dixie Chicks" went off on George Bush a few years back, and were roundly criticized by those on the right for their stance, and for politicizing their music.  Lately, they have changed their name to "The Chicks" as they felt "Dixie" was racist.  Kind of pointless, as their career has sort of petered out, but then again, maybe that was the point - to create a news story and get publicity.  Either way, it came across as silly, even if their heart was in the right place.

I hear that the Winn-Dixie grocery chain is changing its name to "Winn" too.  Just kidding.  They are offering a $20 gift card if you get your booster shot, though.  Something to think about.

Chappelle's comments about transgender people may have had some valid points, but the way he presented it, it failed because it wasn't funny - it was just a politcal rant that came across as mean-spirited and not funny, just uncomfortable.  And now Chappelle has doubled-down on the whole thing, just like a Fox News commentator, claiming he is being persecuted and "cancelled" and playing the victim card.

Boy, has he changed!  From suburban race-comic stoner to righteous Islamic political commentator!

And yes, you can go political with humor, although it gets tiring.  George Carlin went all political - as does Bill Maher.  Both get tiresome really fast, as they get all self-righteous and blather on about their political views - and assume everyone agrees with them.  But after a while, it isn't funny.  And again, the only crime you can commit in comedy is not being funny.

Of course, like with the Dixie Chicks, maybe the real reason for the "controversy" is to garner publicity.  Some folks will watch the Chappelle special just to see what the fuss is all about. Others will watch it to be outraged.  Still others will watch it because they are indeed "transphobic" and want to root for "one of us!"   It will be disappointing to the right-wingers when they find out Chappelle has gone all Islamic on them.  Because, you know, Muslims.

The funny thing is, this Netflix special wasn't the first time Chappelle told transgender jokes, or the first time he got flack for it.  In fact, it seems he has gone out of his way to be anti-trans over the years, relishing the fact that he pisses off trans people. Consider this 25-minute-long compilation of Chappelle telling trans jokes and whining about how trans people don't like him:

Maybe he's going to go all Eddie Murphy on us.

It reminds me of an old Eddie Murphy comedy special I saw on Netflix years ago.  Murphy came out on stage in a red leather jumpsuit of sorts and then went off on a rant about how "All you faggots are looking at my ass!" or something along those lines.  Again, it wasn't funny, just uncomfortable.  And for the record, Eddie Murphy is the most unattractive black man on the planet.  And no, he doesn't have a nice ass.

But his jokes about gays came around to bite him on the ass - so to speak - when he was arrested with a transgender prostitute.  He initially tried to claim he was just "giving her a ride" and then claimed he didn't realize he/she was transgender.  But then he finally broke down and admitted he was into it.

So you have to wonder what drives Chappelle.  He seems to be making a "thing" about this transgender deal, for a long, long time, and only just now has he been called out on it.  Perhaps as a black man and a Muslim, he is finding it hard to come to grips with his own urges.

It is unfortunate, but in the black "community" there is this exaggerated sense of machismo, which we see in the "playa" and "gangsta" posturing that is prevalent, for example, in rap music.  So it is doubly hard for black people who are closeted to come out, as the cultural bias is that much stronger.  Not only that, but fundamentalist Baptist is the most common religion among many blacks, so there is a lot of preaching from the pulpit against homosexuality.  Needless to say, that is also the norm among Muslims as well.

But again, I think it is like with the Dixie Chicks - Chappelle's comedy is past its sell-by date.  Comedy, like music, is a young person's game.  The best comics and the best musicians are under 30 - as Chappelle was, in his prime.  You get older and you get off drugs (as Richard Prior and Steve Martin did) and you are no longer funny - just some old guy trying to recapture the lightning.

As they say in the entertainment business - "There's no such thing as bad publicity" and the only thing worse that bad publicity is to be ignored.

Yea, I don't "get" a lot of what this fuss is about transgender people.  I am not sure why some folks feel they need to alter their bodies to try to mimic another gender.  I mean, before this surgery was possible, how did people get by?  There have always been effeminate men and "butch" women and they seemed to do OK in the past - and even thrive.  But I am not sure making a comedic career out of beating up on them is a good idea.

Particularly when it isn't funny.

POST SCRIPT:  Of course, this has turned into a hot-button election issue in the Virginia Governor's race.  It seems that in a Loudon County school, two high school students - a boy and a girl - were meeting in the girl's restroom for sex - consensual sex, at first.  No, that isn't right, but it has nothing to do with transgender people.

Anyway, the boy apparently took it too far, and the girl says she was forced to perform oral sex in the girl's room. The boy was arrested and is being tried for the crime. The uproar is that the County school commissioner didn't expel or suspend the boy, but sent him to another school.

The far-right is posing this as a transgender issue - claiming that "transgender bathrooms" allowed this rape to occur.  But I am not sure that is the case, as no transgender people were involved in this situation.

But it fits a narrative the far-right has been pushing for a long, long time, that transgender people are rapists, and if you let them in the "other" bathroom, they will rape little girls. And some right-wing activists had done dumb things like invading the ladies changing room at the local pool, claiming they "identify" as a woman, when they are clearly an overweight, hairy, and intact, incel.

What Chappelle should realize is that while he acts white, was raised white, and has a largely white audience, he isn't white.  And the people who are coming after the trans people will go after the gays next. Then the Asians, then the Jews.  But the blacks?  They are right up there near the top of the list.

...along with the Muslims.

If his "comedy" turns a few elections, he may live to regret it. Or is he a closet Trump supporter?

Oh, right, he is.

UPDATE:  The big difference between Dave Chappelle and Richard Pryor is that Pryor was willing to engage in some self-depreciating humor, particularly after his freebasing incident ("Pryor on Fire").  Chappelle seems to take himself far too seriously these days, playing the victim card and all, but perhaps this is because of his recent life changes.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures, Desperate People

Why are some people predisposed to fall for cons?  Could the Genie effect be at work?

Lately, I have been getting dozens of SPAM messages in my SPAM box, and most of them are for frauds.  A few make it to the regular e-mail Inbox - and they are getting better all the time.  I started getting one a few months back, claiming to be from Amazon, saying I had ordered a new $745.65 television to be shipped to someone in Louisiana.  "If this is not correct, call this 1-800 number now!"

I always like how con artists use very specific numbers!

Well, you know how the con works - they get you to panic, thinking someone has compromised your Amazon account, and you call and give them your credit card number and expiration date and CVV2 number to "cancel" the order and "credit your account" - but instead the scammers just charge stuff on your card.  Social Engineering at its finest!

The first messages were pretty crude and went right to SPAM, but I got one today that Google thought was legit and other than the return address being nonsense, looked pretty convincing - they had the logos and the spelling right for a change!  But since I had seen this same scam before, I knew it was a hoax, even before I clicked on the return e-mail address.  Somehow I doubt Amazon is using "" as a return e-mail address for official communications.  But then again, who knows?  Maybe Bezos is a cat nut.

But it was interesting how they use fear to get you to call some phone number in a panic - convinced that you were going to be on the hook for a new television that some crook in Louisiana ordered. He'll be laughing at you, while he surfs 500 channels of cable!

Of course, there are other ways to tell it is a fraud.  If my credit card was charged for this, I would get a text message and/or an e-mail from my bank telling me this - right after the charge was made.  I set up my "notifications" on my bank site to do this.  I presume you do too, right?  I mean it is a PITA to erase these things on a daily basis - balance notices, notices of charges, etc. - but we old people are lonely anyway and it gives us something to do.

It is handy for other things.  I was running a charge once at a small retail store and the clerk wasn't sure the charge went through.  But almost the second she swiped the card, my phone buzzed with a notification from the bank that a charge was being made.  Kinda handy - but you'd be surprised how many people fail to use this free service.

Of course, I can also log on to Amazon and see there is no $745.65 television charged to my account.  And even if there was, I could cancel the order, dispute the charge with my credit card, and so on and so forth.  But it does illustrate the folly of storing credit card numbers on retail sites - someone hacks into your Amazon account, they can order things and your credit card might be charged.  But then again, it would be kind of stupid for a thief to order a television shipped to their home address.  Some thieves try to get around this by having the item shipped to an abandoned house or to someone else's home, at which point they porch-pirate it.  But even then, a stakeout could catch such a thief, if the local police were notified by Amazon and the shipping partner.  It is a pretty dumb crime.

But that wasn't what I was posting about. Well, it was in a way. The "Social Engineering" scam outlined above relies on fear to get people to respond.  If you can get your victim to think emotionally and not rationally, you can fleece them before they know it. That seems to be the common denominator in  most scams.

The other scam e-mail I have been getting - in droves - is from an online casino, where they tell me, in ludicrous fonts and with lots of odd characters and emoticons, that I have $9,567.32 waiting for me in my account.  Really, like this could actually happen?  How dumb do you have to be to click on crap like that?

Not dumb, just desperate.  I got to thinking (always a dangerous pastime) and realized the people who click on these things are probably in desperate straits.  They are in debt and see no way out - student loan debt, credit card debt, car payments - whatever.  Suddenly, someone tells them they have over nine grand waiting for them in an account somewhere!  Maybe the computer made a mistake in their favor for a change!   Who knows?  It might be just the thing to dig them out of their financial hole - the Genie they've been hoping to find.

It reminds me of Chelsea Clinton's Father-in-law. They had to delay her wedding for a year because he was in jail for stealing from his clients.  He got sucked into a Nigerian con and claimed he was using client money to send to Nigeria in order to receive millions of dollars in "certain modalities".  Hard to believe a smart guy like that could fall for such a con - and steal money to do it.  But I wonder if perhaps it was the other way around - he was "borrowing" money from client funds, and when this e-mail came from a Nigerian Prince, he thought it was the solution to his problems!  Those millions would pay back the missing funds and keep him out of trouble!  What could possibly go wrong?

Likely too, he was halfway into dementia, which is one reason I decided to retire early, pre-dementia. Another attorney where I live is still working well into his late 70's and it isn't going well.  Several clients have complained to me that he is no longer answering phone calls and neglecting their legal matters.  They tell me this because they find out I'm an attorney and wonder if I could handle their case!  But I don't do wills and real estate closings - and besides, I'm retired.  And the reason why I am retired is - other than I can be - is that I don't want to be that doddering attorney I met once at the Patent Office search room, wandering around looking for search work, when he should have been out playing golf at Retirement Acres.  I vowed back then, at age 28, never to be that guy.

But a lot of older people didn't plan well for the inevitable - and by that, I don't mean death (the great inevitable) but getting old and no longer being able to work.   Yes, that's inevitable, too.  This "I'll just work until I'm 70!" sounds keen, but it isn't practical in many cases.  As a result, there are a lot of desperate old people out there, who see the latest MLM scam or scheme, or social engineering scam as a way out of their problems.   Maybe my ship has come in!  If I just send of $500 today, I can become my own distributor of essential oils!

It is very sad, needless to say.

You may wonder why con-men would bother to con people who are broke.  After all, wouldn't it be more profitable to con a millionaire?  Problem is, people who have money tend to be more astute, unless of course, they are lottery winners or something.  So you are wasting your time trying to con them.  That's one reason why these SPAM e-mails are full of typos and poor English.  Whether by accident or design, it turns out to be an excellent filtering means.  People who are astute see through these cons and don't waste the con-man's time.  People who don't notice the bald errors are more likely to be true believers.

But broke people - they have no money, right?  Well, WRONG.  As I keep harping on in this blog, the poor are not without money, they just can't hang on to any of it.  They squander money in a number of ways - buying overpriced status items, for example.  Falling for the worst sort of retail deals imaginable - the poorest deals are offered to the poorest people in the poorest neighborhoods.  The liquor store with bars on the windows sells half-pints of Fireball for $12, while a mile away at the wholesale club, middle-class people can buy a half-gallon of Bourbon for about the same price.

I testified in a case involving crooked invention brokers.  A client had fallen for one of these, sending off $5000 to have his invention Patented and "promoted to industry!"  They told him he would become a millionaire overnight - and he believed it.  Where did he get the money?  Well he had a job, and he borrowed the rest from his Grandmother.  The poor find ways to scrounge up cash - you'd be surprised.

Of course, these con-artists have flexible pricing.  Can't afford $10,000?  We'll take $5,000 and a larger "royalty."  If that's too much, well $2,500 will suffice.  Flexible pricing is one sure sign of a con.  And to a con-man in Nigeria, $2,500 goes a long way.  Even for Americans, it goes a long way.  One crooked invention broker, when busted by the FBI, had 3,000 bogus "Design" Patents pending, for which they charged their "clients" $10,000 apiece (and paid high school kids $500 apiece to write).  That's a total of Thirty Million Dollars and that spends well in Palm Beach as well as Nigeria.

It is just like personal injury attorneys (who also target the poor).  As one wag explained to me, "They make millions of dollars, one crummy $5000 slip-and-fall case at a time!

The poor make good "Marks" for the con-man, not only because they are unsophisticated, but because they are desperate.  They see no way out of their economic situation, and obvious things like not buying $3000 worth of bling rims from the Rent-to-Own bling rim company, for a $2000 car are not even on the table.  Not getting tattoos?  Not having hair extensions?  Not having a designer handbag (even if it is just a knock-off?).   Not possible.  Saving a few dollars a day is for chumps!  You want to go for the big payout!  That's how the "playas" do it, right?

So the poor are ripe for fraud - they want to believe, because they are desperate and they think that's how "everyone else gets ahead" - through chicanery and sharp practice, or from huge pay-outs from long-shot investments.  That's why lottery tickets are a tax on the poor.  That's why the rich are the ones selling bitcoins and the poor at the ones buying them.

"The poor will always be with us" Jesus said.  And I think what he meant was that you can try to help people in life - even give them tons of money - but they will still be poor.  You can give a guy a free house or apartment, but they won't cherish it, they will tear it apart.  You can build a house for a poor person - as Habitat for Humanity has done - and find out a year later, that the person you built the house for has over-mortgaged it to the hilt and is about to lose it to foreclosure.  Habitat for Humanity figured that out pretty quickly.  Today, they make it hard for the homeowners to encumber their houses this way - and keep the financial sharks from circling the chum tank.

So what's the answer?  Beats me - there isn't one.  Like Jesus said, we'll always have the poor.  You can't fix stupid, you can't unpoor the poor.  You can try to help them, but unless the help is predicated on behavioral changes or is doled on out little increments (and even then...), they will find ways to squander the largess you give them - after all, that's how they ended up poor in the first place.

Years ago, a neighbor of mine came over with all these financial papers and asked me to go over them and help them dig their way out of debt.  They had only $5000 in credit card debt, but couldn't ever seem to pay it off.  I went through their budget and realized they were paying over $200 a month for cable television (all the channels, natch!) and internet service, including a $39.95 per-month "virus protector."  I pointed out that in a little over two years, they could pay off their credit card debt, if they just cut these services - watched off-the-air television and used the free Internet at the local cafe.  You know, make sacrifices in life to compensate for your own malfeasance.

It didn't end there, of course.  They had a restaurant and bar habit (several nights a week) that cost hundreds of dollars a month.  And instead of driving a simple car, they had a gas-hog SUV that required constant repair.   The upshot was this:  She didn't want financial advice, she wanted to "borrow" $5000 from me to pay off her credit card.  And by "borrow" she meant "take."

It was a real wake-up call for me.  I explained to her that we didn't have cable television, and we had the cheapest Internet service (with no "virus protector" monthly fee) but she would have none of that!  They were entitled to these things, even if I was not.  And it seemed to elude her that the reason why I had no credit card debt and $5000 in my checking account was because I had learned to do without.  Hence the name of this blog.  You can't unpoor the poor.

But you can the middle-class.  There is a lot of hue and cry these days from young people who are in debt in their 20's (as I was) about how "lucky" earlier generations were.  "Grandpa bought a house for $20,000 back in 1968 and paid cash for it!  He was lucky!"   Actually, he had a mortgage, and while the amount may seem small, it was a staggering sum of money back then.  Bear in mind that most folks made $5000 a year or less.  Few had twenty grand in their checking account to buy a house with, particularly when they were in their early 20's with a kid in the cradle and another on the way.  But such details destroys a comfortable narrative.

"We have it so bad!  The only solution is radical social change, debt forgiveness, free college, and free money!"  These things are not likely to happen.  In fact, pining for these things is exactly how the Democrats are going to lose the mid-term elections.  It is all-too-easy to paint the Democratic Party as a party of lunatics with no common sense - and crazy ideas about spending other people's money.  This already is the case in some races today, such as the Virginia Governor's race, which should have been a shoo-in for the former Governor who was well-liked in what is now a Blue State.  But it is close - closer than it should be - and the Democrats might actually lose.  The reason they are losing is they decided that transgender bathrooms should be the centerpiece of their platform - when there are other issues far more pressing.

Or consider the recall election in San Francisco for the District Attorney.  The son of convicted terrorist murderers from the radical 1960's, he actually spent time in Venezuela and thinks Hugo Chavez was keen. He also is letting criminals out of jail as, you know, jail is unfair for someone who steals stuff.  Some of these criminals have committed multiple additional crimes and were not jailed until they actually killed someone.  In an era of rising crime rates, "soft on crime" is the wrong answer to a question no one is asking.

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures - people will vote for a dictator, if they think their personal safety is at stake.  And that's how the Democrats will muck up a wet dream.  Donald Trump handed the Democrats the House, Senate, and White House with this antics.  The Democrats are going to hand it right back, with theirs.

But I digress.

Perhaps there is an answer in all of this, though.  To not be desperate - or think you are desperate, just because you don't want to make hard choices in life.  Fear is not an emotion to be trusted.  And thinking emotionally will always get you into trouble!

Monday, October 25, 2021

We Have It So Awful! (No, We Don't!)

Is America a festering shithole place to live?  Why do so many people want to move here, even from other Western countries?  Maybe things aren't as bad as they seem!

A reader writes, in response to my previous posting, that I am naive that America isn't some festering third-world country ready to collapse at a moment's notice.  And I don't blame the reader for thinking that - the Internet is full of sites, comments, and articles, all translated from Russian, making the same point.

But is the USA so bad?  Let's look at things in a real light:

1. Health Insurance:  The "meme" put up by people who never lived in the United States is that medical expenses can top $8000 per month (no, they really say this) which is higher than the annual deductible for an Obamacare plan.  Right now, I pay about $250 a month for an Obamacare plan (last year, it was free - I could go to a smaller plan for free if I chose to do so).  So the idea that masses of people are without health insurance is a little overstated.

UPDATE: For 2022 my monthly cost goes back down to $0 for some reason.  I think I can swing that.

Yes, there are a few die-hard MAGA-hat wearing idiots who refused to sign up for the plan.  One fellow realized his error when his wife was diagnosed with cancer.  He quickly changed his mind about Obamacare as well as a lot of other things.  He finally woke up and realized that the people egging him on to do stupid, self-destructive things in the name of "greater issues" were just using him. And yes, most of those people he "met" online were not from the USA.

Others have health insurance through their employer.  I've had health insurance my whole life, because I worked for a living or qualified for Obamacare - and shortly will qualify for Medicare.  That doesn't mean I get "free" medical care after age 65.  I have to sign up for supplemental plans at that point as well.

If I was too poor to qualify for Obamacare (irony!) I would (or might) qualify for Medicaid.  And if for some reason, I fell through that crack, well, if you end up in the Emergency room, they will send you a bill you can never possibly pay, which means declaring bankruptcy - and you don't pay it.  Sounds dramatic, until you realize that the folks in such a situation generally have zero assets anyway, so they are not losing anything, other than a debt.   Even for middle-class people, such debts are negotiable, in terms of monthly interest-free payments or outright slashing of the overall bill.  The foolish thing to do is to pay the bill on a credit card - then the debt is harder to discharge.

Is this patchwork system better or worse than "Socialized Medicine" we see overseas?  Well, it would be nice if we had a "single payer" system, but if you talk to people from the UK and Canada, they have their own horror stories about "National Health" as well.  Overall, I think they like their system, but it doesn't run any more efficiently than our crazy system over here.  In fact, it can run far worse, and the people who have money do end up getting better care, as they can afford to go out of the system or even out of the country - indeed, often to over here.

Our incentive-based system is flawed, but then again, it tends to reward performance, which is why so many drugs and procedures are developed here in the USA, as the profit incentive exists here.  Sure, they sell life-saving pharmaceuticals in other countries for cheaper - but they might not ever have been developed, if the prices were fixed from the get-go.   So goes the argument, anyway.

It is interesting, but the USA was at the forefront of developing vaccines for the Corona Virus.  It's just a shame we can't get certain people to take it - often the same people who think our country is a shithole.  But Darwin is cleaning up that mess as we speak.  There is a whole forum online devoted to people who claimed the virus was a hoax or whatever - and died from it.  You can read their tweets over time - denouncing the vaccine and masks and whatnot.  The second-to-last tweet in the series will say how the person in question is now in intensive care, and the last tweet is their obituary.  In a few cases, the victims have a road-to-Damascus conversion, but only after the virus has ravaged their body and probably reduced their lifespan by a decade or more.  You can't fix stupid.

But this is the "Freedom!" that people are agitating for, and in the USA it exists more than anywhere else in the world.  Yes, we are free to do idiotic things.  No "nanny state" telling you that you can't have an assault rifle.  But then again, no one to blame but yourself when you accidentally shoot your kids with it.

2. Homelessness: This seems like a festering problem, particularly if you live in a major city in California and some sainted homeless people are shitting all over your sidewalk, pissing on your doorstep, and breaking into your car (not to mention screaming randomly and sexually assaulting your children).  Yea, mentally ill drug-addicted people are a load of fun!

And that's what they are: mentally ill drug-addicted people.  They are NOT "down on their luck" or just in-between jobs or whatever.  People who really are in financial trouble are NOT living under a bridge and stealing stuff for drug money, they are trying to get their life together - and there are a host of organizations, public and private, who will help such people - and do.

The drug-addicts living under a bridge don't want to better themselves - they want to get high as possible.  The good news is, this "homeless crises" constitutes a fraction of a percent of the population.  It is not some great crises that some make it out to be.

The real issue is again, our "Freedom!" which we cherish so much.  Freedom not to pay taxes (as our European neighbors do) to support mental health facilities and drug rehabilitation centers.  Freedom to live under a bridge without being hassled for "vagrancy."  Freedom not to be involuntarily committed to a mental hospital unless you actually kill or seriously injure someone.

Again, the people who run down America in one breath are the same ones who decry "socialism" or higher taxes to pay for mental health care.  Make up your freaking minds, people!

Yes, when I was a kid, we didn't have a "homeless problem" because we had mental institutions across the land.  If you were caught wandering around muttering to yourself or screaming at the squirrels, they hauled you off to the State Home and you had to live there.  We had a "homeless problem" but it was kept under wraps - institutionalized.

In the 1970's we all saw (and read) One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and thought that mental institutions were cruel (and indeed I am sure some were).  Politicians saw a wave to ride - close the hospitals and cut the budget at the same time!  And our friends in the pharmaceutical world offered a solution with a new range of drugs, which worked, sort of, if people kept taking them.  But the first thing a crazy person does when they get well is stop taking the medications, which with the side-effects, is pretty understandable.

But this is not just an American problem - our Western allies have the same problem, although perhaps not as bad - it's worse!  Germany has 650,000 homeless, which is lot, given the size of the country.  It is actually more than we have in the United States, by some counts.

Once again, "Freedom!" rears its ugly head. In Afghanistan today, the Taliban is rounding up drug-addicted homeless people who are literally living under bridges in Kabul, and forcibly putting them in "rehab" centers after shaving off their hair (for some reason).  In a totalitarian State, you can do that - force people to not do drugs and not be homeless.  In many Asian countries, the penalties for using or dealing drugs are severe - even death.  People still do drugs, though.

Meanwhile, in America, we have legalized some drugs and people are seriously talking about legalizing others.  Freedom!   Ready to give that up?

Uh, wait, what was the issue?  That life in Europe is better than here in the USA?  This is worth overthrowing our government for?  Once again, we are throwing away something good for nothing.

3. Income Disparity and Poverty:  Again, it is taken on faith that America is a horrible place, with everyone living hand-to-mouth and paycheck-to-paycheck while Jeff Bezos drives his Lamborghini around the deck of his super-yacht.  The reality is something different.

While income "inequality" has risen over time, the fact remains that the USA is one of the richest countries in the world and our standard of living is higher than most other countries, including most other Western democracies. 

Yes, I know, life is better in the UK - even after Brexit!  But the reality is something different than that.  A middle-class existence there is to own a small car and live in a row house with a tiny twee garden in back.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it is a lesser existence than what the middle-class, or indeed, even the poor have, in America. Food over there costs more, fuel alarmingly so, and people typically don't have the four or five cars parked in the driveway as we do in the States.

Europeans, we are told, are alarmed by how many bathrooms we have - usually one for each person in the home - ditto for television sets, computers, and smart phones.  Nearly everyone in America has a car - and often this is only because you have to have one to live here.

But is our way of life better or worse than theirs?  To some extent, this is a philosophical question - having less often means having more, as I have learned over time. But on the other hand, I suspect most Americans would be loathe to give up their lifestyle to live overseas, even if the food is much better there (but costs twice as much).

Again, this "Freedom!" thing rears its ugly head.  People in the USA make good money, but they spend a penny more than they make - and run up credit card debt as a result.  They feel put-upon by banks and finances because they don't manage their money well.  Maybe overseas they have better "Nanny-State" protections to keep people from buying timeshares or joining Scientology (which is basically illegal in Germany).

America?  You are free to blow your brains out, quite literally.  Sign your life away in a contract.  Join a cult religion - your freedom to do so is guaranteed in the Constitution.   You are expected to be astute when it comes to finances - yet so few of us are.

Maybe it would be better if we had more regulations to prevent such malfeasance.  Maybe higher taxes on the rich would equal things out.  Maybe - but these things are hard to enact, particularly when the very folks who would benefit from such social change are the ones most dead-set against it.

Look at the pictures of the January 6th rioters.  See any Billionaires in the crowd?  Probably not even a millionaire.

But again, historically these things run in cycles.  We had very high taxes (well over 50% marginal rates) back before I was born.  Over time, these have been cut back.  I suspect they will go up again in the future, but it won't happen overnight.  It will take a lot of people voting and organizing to make it work.  But as recent elections show, it can be done.

On the other hand, overthrowing the government and installing a fake-blonde-haired weak strong-man with orange skin will do little, other than to insure that the rich get richer.

Just because social change doesn't occur on a timetable to your liking does it mean the whole system is utterly broken and should be discarded.

* * *

Oddly enough, another reader writes:

I think the idea of just tuning out seems like the remaining plausible alternative - irrespective of which side of the isle you lean. I talk to buddies who are on the opposite side and they are seeing it too. Maybe all these stories of angst and drama are there to distract and divide. Who knows.

All of that said. It’s getting into fall and we need to clean out the garage. Mulch the beds and get the car winter ready. Those activities seem a much better use of time!
He gets it.  Being "outraged!" all the time doesn't make your life better - it makes it worse.  It also makes you a prime pawn for someone else.  Vote.  Donate money to political campaigns, if you can. But protesting and rioting aren't going to improve your life, but make it worse.  Not getting vaccinated to "prove a point" won't make your life better, but will likely end it.  Yet so many people concentrate most of their energy in these fruitless pursuits, while letting their personal lives disintegrate.

Of course, that is the point.  It is all about Externalizing.  If you fail at life, it is a lot easier - and more convenient to blame others for your woes rather than to look inwardly and see what you could have done differently.  It is easy to say "hormones make me fat!"  It is harder to say, "I shouldn't have ordered that huge entree at the fast-casual restaurant - and a little exercise wouldn't be a bad idea, either!"

You know the type, too.  You've met, no doubt, in your life, the loser who has been fired from several jobs, and each time, he has an excuse as to why it "wasn't his fault" that he got fired.  The boss was an asshole, he'll tell you.  And he wasn't sexually harassing that secretary at that other job - women, right?  And the  last place - they accused him of stealing, but they couldn't prove anything!  If you haven't met "that guy" yet, become an employer - you'll met him, eventually.  Hopefully you don't hire him.

I came from a family of outraged! people, and early on in life, I learned that being outraged! was the thing to do.  There are greater issues at stake! - that's the rallying cry of the outraged! types.

I had friends and family members who went down this path - their personal and family lives were often in a ruin, but they could give you the latest dope on the Kennedy Assassination - as if decoding this event from 60 years ago would somehow balance their checkbook. People get into debt, lose jobs, lose spouses, lose careers - but they don't stop.  Perhaps they can't - it is like gambling addiction.

And yes, this is something to be outraged! about, but being outraged doesn't help much. A lot of these people who are sucked into Qanon or Anti-vaxxing or Stop the Steal are not going to quit cold turkey.  So don't bother trying to talk them out of it.  It would be as fruitless as trying to talk someone out of an MLM scheme or Scientology - your "resistance" merely confirms to them they are right.

It sounds heartless and cruel, but the best thing you can do for society is look out for yourself.  If a friend is about to drive their car off a cliff, make sure you are not in the back seat.   The world needs more rational people - rational actors - in our society.  Becoming unhinged because others are unhinged isn't solving anything, it is in fact, making it worse.

And in that regard, if you listen to all this crap in the news and online and start to believe that the United States is a "shithole" as our first reader suggests, it will do nothing to make your own life better, but instead lead you down the rat-hole of depression and obsessing about conspiracy theories and other nonsense.

That's the irony of it all - the very people who obsess about politics rarely contribute to political campaigns or even bother to vote.  "Why bother?" they will tell you, "the whole thing is rigged anyway!"  This is real brain-trust thinking!

The world is a beautiful place, but that is not reported on the "news" because the "news" by definition is just reporting about bad things that happened, just as "history" is a recounting of wars and disasters, not the positive things in life or extended periods of peace.  The Titanic sinking was a "news" story and history.  If they had missed that iceberg by ten feet, well, it would not have been either.

So walk away from obsessing about politics and "the news" - and negative thinking in general.  The difference between successful people in this world, and the great unwashed masses boils down to one simple thing:  Successful people are not chronically depressed, nor do they obsess about things other than what is on their own plate.  As a result they get to manipulate the world more than you do.  This is why we call them "movers and shakers".

Learned helplessness, on the other hand, is a great way to keep people passive and inactive.  And sad to say, platforms like "social media" and network television are designed to make you passive and helpless - to keep you outraged about your situation in life, but prevent you, at the same time, from doing anything about it.

And it goes without saying, preventing you from seeing how good things actually are....