Monday, December 27, 2021

What is Trump Up To?

Is Trump having a road-to-Damascus experience, or just plotting something?

Trump recently outed himself as a pro-vaxxer and also as being vaccinated himself.  He also outed Bill O'Reilly as being vaccinated.  He let slip a little tidbit that the anti-vaxxers, Proud Boys, and Qanonsense people didn't realize - the very folks pushing anti-vaxx theories in the media were themselves, vaccinated.  He has even gone so far as to take credit for the vaccine as part of the "Operation Warp Speed" program.  Like any good politician, he is getting out in front of the parade.

Trump was of course, boo'ed, more than once, and the Trump faithful are apoplectic.  It would be like Jesus coming down from heaven and telling his followers that Joel Osteen is a real piece of shit and an agent of Satan himself.  That would actually happen, I think, if Jesus came back.  But it leaves the faithful with two unseemly choices - either they have to renounce Jesus, or renounce Joel Osteen.

Guess which one they will renounce?  Sorry, Jesus!

There are several theories being bandied about as to why Trump has done this.  And maybe some or all of them are true:

1.  It is a trial balloon:  Trump will float ideas, usually on weekends or other times when the media is asleep with other stories.  If the idea has traction with his followers, he will amplify it later.  If not, well, he drops the idea and pretends it didn't happen.  The Christmas season is a good time for this, as there are all sorts of other stories crowding the media, and Trump's comments get lost - as the comments of most former Presidents tend to do in any event.

2. He read the polls:  It may be that Trump is indeed getting out in front of the parade, as he realizes that "anti-vaxxer" isn't a position that will win elections - once the vast majority of Americans are vaccinated.  And as more and more people die, it will become harder and harder to stick with this program.  Indeed, we are closing in on a million dead - sometime next year - and that will be a landmark right before the mid-term elections.  I think, too, he sees that the anti-vaxxer crowd is pretty small.  He's having trouble getting 5,000 people to show up at a 20,000-seat arena.  In the old days, he might have filled it!

3.  He's trying to normalize:  If he wants to run in 2024, he needs to appear to be less radical.  My neighbors who were Trump supporters took down their yard sign on January 7th and today make no mention of him.  Or, if they do, they suddenly have this amnesia about voting for him - and say derogatory things about him.  He went from winner to loser overnight, and many in the middle-class turned on him with the "stop the steal" and the insurrection.  If Trump wants to win them back, he has to appear to be somewhat normal, at least until he gets elected.

4. He wants to avoid jail time:  With so many investigations going on into his businesses, his taxes, and the insurrection, he may feel threatened.  Time to polish your image and appear to be a nice guy - maybe then, they will call off the dogs.  It may sound far-fetched, but I suppose it could be true.

5. He really had a change of heart - or didn't.  It was no secret that he was indeed vaccinated, it was just something he didn't talk about.  And while many politicians on the right are vaccinated (and will admit to being so, if pushed) they still talk about "freedom of choice" and banning "mandates" and whatnot.  This way they can dog-whistle to the anti-vaxxers while still courting the vaccinated vote.  There is a small possibility that he really has changed his mind about vaccine mandates and mask mandated, but I sincerely doubt it - only because he has no sincere beliefs, just what he thinks will poll well (like any politician, I suppose).

What worries me about all of this is the parallel to the rise and fall of Hitler - and his rise again.  You may recall that early on in his career, Hitler was involved in an ill-fated, almost comic attempt to overthrow the government, known as the Beer Hall Putsch.  It was a comedy of errors - poorly thought out and with little chance of success, and everyone went to jail, including Hitler.  is political career might have ended right there, if not for his publishing Mein Kamptf and the subsequent rise of the Nazi party.  In order to rise to power, though, Hitler had to transform himself from rabble-rouser and street-fighter to respectable politician.  Gone - for the time being - were the Nazi uniforms, and suddenly, he was dressing in morning coats and tophats - like some sort of diplomat.

It wasn't that he was going to convince the opposition to support him, so much as it was to calm nerves and make people see him as less of a threat.  It was a carefully calculated move, and once he was in power, he was able to show his true colors - and the rest is history.  Trump did the same thing during the run-up to the 2016 election, posing as a "progressive" fighting for the little guy, and even as a liberal Republican.  Once in office, the gloves came off.

And no doubt, if Trump was re-elected, he wouldn't have changed his tune.  If the insurrection went as planned, well, it is scary to think what would have happened.  So much talk of "martial law" and suspending the Constitution came about during that time - only a year ago, today!

I suspect that the GOP is seeing the writing on the wall.  These extreme positions and shout-outs and dog-whistles to racists and militias and Qanonsense isn't going anywhere, and what's more, turning away centrist Republicans.  When you try to throw out as many people as you can from your party, you end up with no party!  Take a page from the Nazi playbook - no "night of the long knives" until you've consolidated power!

What is interesting is that this faux progressiveness isn't limited to Trump.  Tucker Carlson, the definition of "mouth breather" if you look it up in the dictionary (his facial expression is perpetual alarmed Pikachu) is now claiming to embrace progressive causes, at least some of the time.  Are we being gaslighted here?

Or maybe both Trump and Carlson have lost their minds - long ago. Trump recently went on an antisemitic rant, claiming that American Jews betrayed him by not voting for him, after all he did for them with Israel.  He's crazy, of course.  I think many Jews were more concerned with his tacit endorsement of ultra-right-wing bigots and racists, who they see as more of an immediate threat to them personally.  Israel has demonstrated time and time again that it can defend itself.  The rash of antisemitic incidents in America, during the Trump administration, is more cause for immediate concern.

Trump sort of gave away the game, however, when he noted that fundamentalist Christians in America were very pro-Israel, which is sure to make Israelis uncomfortable.  Until fairly recently, many in the fundamentalist Christian movement were indeed very antisemitic, calling Jews "Christ-killers" even though Jesus was Jewish.  End-times theologians, however, started preaching that the "end times" won't occur until Jews return to claim Israel.   So the support Israel not because they love Jews or Israelis, but because they want to see the world destroyed.  It is not a healthy thing, and I suspect it makes more than a few Israelis uncomfortable.

I think the only conclusion I can reach is that Trump lost his mind - long before 2016 - and has no real direction or plan, other than on a day-to-day basis, and a unwavering conviction that whatever he decides to do at the moment is indeed the right thing.

It is scary that some folks think he is fit to be President again, in 2024.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Is Financial Literacy Pointless? (I Don't Think So!)

Many on the far-left argue that teaching financial literacy to poor people is not only pointless, but cruel!  What they really need is more money!  But if you give them more money and they just waste it all, have you really done any good?  And while more money might be nice, it might not be forthcoming.  Shouldn't people be encouraged to improve their lot in the meantime?

The election in 2024 is going to be ugly. The Bernie Bros and the far-left are doing everything they can to insure a Republican victory.  Nothing Biden has done is good enough for them, and ditto for the Democratic Congress.  Given that Nancy Pelosi thinks that insider trading of stocks is keen, well, I can't really blame them, in part.

But a meme has emerged in recent months or years that encouraging the poor to make better financial choices is just cruel - they have no money and thus cannot save for their 401(k) or buy in bulk or whatever.

And yes, there is a nugget of truth to that.  On the other hand, things like payday loans, rent-to-own furniture, buy-here-pay-here used cars and whatnot are taking what little money they have and setting it on fire.

Is it such a bad thing to tell someone, "Hey, stop stabbing yourself with a knife!  Maybe you will still be poor, but at least you won't be bleeding to death!"

But that is the problem with "poverty" in America.  There are the very, very poor, but there are also an awful lot of people who make fairly decent money, and with the aid of food stamps, subsidized housing, free cell phones and whatnot, make almost the median income in America.  These are folks who have a lot of money pass through their hands, but don't manage to retain any of it, because they squander a lot of money on bad bargains - bad bargains offered to them by unscrupulous people.

Time was, we outlawed many of these bad bargains.  And yea, they should be outlawed again.  But how about telling people about them and warning them?  If the bridge is out, isn't it a good idea to warn passing motorists before they go off the deep end?  Or should we just give up and wait for a new bridge to be built, and just look on in sorrow as car after car flies off into the river, drowning everyone inside. Hey, there was nothing we could do, and warning them of danger would just be insulting their driving skills!  It would also be condescending.  After all, we have freedom of choice!

Choices.  One other dig the far-Left makes is that "people working for company X" (usually Amazon or Walmart) "are forced to get food stamps to get by!"  So they propose a higher wage, which of course, means they lose their food stamp benefits, their Obamaphone, and other forms of assistance.  Maybe this is a good thing, but these benefits are also a wage subsidy to the employer, as I noted before.

The odd thing is, the same voices decrying how people working low-wage jobs are "forced to get food stamps!" (as if free government money was a bad thing) in the same breath propose "fixing" the problem by handing out more free government money.  Food Stamps Bad - Guaranteed Annual Income Good!  Because you can't buy weed with food stamps!

But I digress.  The point is - and I did have one - is that financial literacy or indeed, any one thing is not a "magic bullet" to alleviate poverty. Many on the Left argue that raising the minimum wage or providing "guaranteed annual income" or increasing spending on social programs would wipe out poverty.  Or they argue, tax the rich and give the money to the poor - Presto!  Problem solved.

I wish it were that easy, but it ain't.  You give $100 to a person with poor financial habits (in every sense of the word) and it is gone.  Give them $1000, same thing.  Give them $100,000 - gone in months!

But again, this is not to say that giving more money to the poor is a bad idea - only that it is not the only idea.  Just as teaching financial literacy won't solve poverty by itself, giving money to the poor won't pull them out of poverty.  Similarly, outlawing payday loans won't eliminate predatory lending - it will just drive it underground.

Sadly, some of the same voices on the Left that decry financial literacy also - oddly enough - embrace payday loans and predatory lending.  "If you are poor," they say, "these are your only options.  You can't blame the poor for making these choices!"  I am not sure how a 300% interest loan is going to help the plight of the poor in any situation - it just is a one-way trip to bankruptcy court.

It is akin to saying blowing your brains out with a handgun is "your only choice" and therefore should not be criticized.  Taking out a payday loan isn't suicide, but it is slow-motion financial suicide.  And yes, these things should be outlawed and the people who run these scams should be ridden out of town on a rail.  But a funny thing - the people who run these scams don't think they are doing anything wrong or taking advantage of people.

Funny thing, too, the poor are a lot smarter than we give them credit for, sometimes.  Many know how to "work the system" including working the sympathies of middle-class people. The fellow behind Hoovie's Garage did an interview about his career.  Hard to feel sorry for him, he was born to wealth and his father owned a chain of Taco Bell restaurants - and eventually sponsored him in the restaurant business - which is how he can afford to buy Lamborghinis and Ferraris and do YouTube videos about them.

But before that, he tried to run a car dealership, and when that failed, he tried to run a "buy-here, pay-here" used car dealership, and that failed, too.  As he explained the scam, you sell these clapped-out cars to desperate poor people who pay by the week for the cars but never end up owing them, as they break down before the loan is ever paid off.  If you get enough customers, paying every week, you have a significant cash-flow going on, and you don't need to sell a lot of cars, once you have this "bank" of poor people to exploit.

Well, to his credit, Hoovie admitted that he was pretty shitty at exploiting other people (something I suffer from as well - I took that "do unto others" crap too seriously!).  One lady, who "bought" a minivan from him, had excuse after excuse as to why she couldn't pay the down payment - which he got months later.  Then she was late on the payments and then stopped paying entirely.  She argued that the van was "defective" and "broken down" and why should she make payments on a van that doesn't run?

And he went along with this, too.  But living in a small town, it wasn't long before he saw her driving the "broken down" van around town - several times.  News alert:  She was lying to him.  But of course, my sympathy for Hoovie isn't very great - he was trying to exploit the poor, which sucks.  Not only that, he sucked at exploiting the poor.  Maybe he has a soul after all.

The point is, the poor are not as dumb as we think - at least some of the time.  And there are folks, who, if you handed them a ton of money, would still live under a bridge and buy a shitload of drugs and beer anyway. The reason why we hand out money in ways that limit how it can be spent (food stamps, housing assistance, etc.) is that some of these folks have children.  And while it may be OK for someone to destroy their own lives, the children don't have such a choice.  What's worse, these kids, raised in such horrific environments, end up in the same cycle of poverty, and thus are part of the problem for future generations.


Financial literacy isn't going to solve all the world's problems. Nor is it a substitute for outlawing predatory lending or raising the minimum wage or making housing more affordable. But it is something we can do - we all can do, right now - without waiting around for Congress to act or for revolutions to come.

The folks on the Left push these false narratives that the only solution is "more money" and the reason behind this is they don't want us to examine how they spend their money, as it may turn out they are living a lifestyle better than our own, while at the same time, demanding our cash.  I wrote before how a "friend" of mine (now deceased) wanted me to "help" her figure out her bills.  I went through it all and figured out how to save hundreds a month from their budget with a few simple sacrifices (Getting rid of Cable TV for example) which would have paid off their "intractable" $5000 credit card debt in a couple of years.

But they would have none of that - they wanted to "borrow" (take) $5000 from me.  Me who doesn't have all the cable channels - in fact, none of them.  It is like another friend who groused that I was "rich" because I had a meticulously maintained 20-year-old BMW convertible (worth $7000 on a good day) as we rode around in their $50,000 leased pickup truck.  "You're lucky." she said, "you're rich!"  And yet, when I did their taxes, I was chagrined to see they were making more money than me.  They were just making poorer choices is all.

No, financial literacy isn't going to solve all the world's problems.  Nor is it a substitute for outlawing predatory lending or raising the minimum wage or making housing more affordable.  But it is something we can do - we all can do, right now - without waiting around for Congress to act or for revolutions to come.  In fact, it may be the only option for most of us, as these grandiose plans of Comrade Bernie and Ms. AOC will likely never see the light of day - at least not for some time.

And even if "guaranteed annual income" became a thing, well, think how much better off you'd be, if you spent your money more wisely.

But that's the point, ain't it? Like my spendthrift friends who wanted to blame their woes on the government or the economy or "rich people" - many on the Left don't want you looking too closely at their new tattoos, their new Playstation, or their new iPhone.  The loudest voices for "free money" who also shout down financial literacy, are not the working poor, struggling at low-wage jobs to feed their family.  No, no, they are often the spoiled middle-class kids living at home, spending their hours playing video games and lamenting that they will never pay off their $25,000 in student loans.

I don't really feel sorry for them.  They have tools in your hands - we all do - to make our lives better.  Pining for dramatic social change is fine and all, but you need to have a "Plan B" when that doesn't happen.

But odds are, it won't.  And if it did, you'd be better off if you are financially literate.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Nextdoor App - Monetizing Gossip

Silicon Valley hasn't figured out a way to monetizing wiping your ass, but they will surely come up with an app for that, soon!

I wrote before how so much of the "tech-that-is-not-tech" today is just creating an "app" for something that people have already done for ages, and then monetizing it - often screwing hoards of people, usually little people, in the process. Take some crappy minimum-wage job like driving a taxi or delivering food and then turn it into an "app" and then call all your employees "contractors" and make them fork over a hefty chunk to the corporate office - and profit!

If you don't skim money right off the top from financial transactions, you can pepper your customers with advertisements.  Better still, you can use "AI" to scrape keywords from their postings, or just figure out what they are clicking on, and then sell this data to marketers who will use it to target your customers for product sales.

The latest gag from our "friends" in silicon valley is a new "app" designed for nervous housewives, called "Nextdoor." What it does is monetize gossip. Unlike Facebook, Nextdoor is limited only to people living in your immediate area (in theory, anyway) and you can exchange information on local happenings and upcoming events!

In other words, gossip.

And as we learned in school, gossip is evil.  Not surprisingly, there soon were a host of unpleasant incidents involving Nextdoor - Karens bullying people they didn't like, or calling the Police when they see a black man entering a house - that he owns and lives inNextdoor claims it isn't racist - and for all I know it isn't.  But just as Facebook didn't set out to promote Qanon, there you have it - unintended consequences which were predictable consequences.

Just a hint for you "social media" developers out there - when designing a social media site, just assume, as baseline, that people are horrible and will do the most horrific things. You will not be disappointed.  Granted, the vast majority of people in the USA are decent folks, but the few evil ones tend to be the loudest voices on social media.  In addition, even the "decent" folks end up saying things online that they should keep private.

Not only that, social media has been shown to take perfectly normal people and turn them into blithering idiots - after all, look what this blog has done to me!  But seriously - social media extends the reach of cults, terrorists, conspiracy theories and other nonsense, worldwide.

But Nextdoor, like Facebook, can't afford to moderate users, at least not enough to make a difference. As a result, there have been a plethora of racist incidents - as well as other unpleasant incidents - involving Nextdoor.  I guess the folks at Nextdoor thought (naively) that since you know the people posting stuff and they live down the street, the system would police itself.  No one wants to make a faux pas in front of neighbors!  But face-to-face communication and online communication are two different things.

Worse yet, thanks to Nextdoor, you now know that the people four houses down think that the election was stolen and that Qanon is real (and vaccines are fake).  Sometimes it is better off not to know.  It is like a friend of mine (well, I hope they are still a friend) who "outed" himself as a Trump fan, after four beers.  I mean, I really respected the guy, but now I am wondering if he has lost his mind. It makes things awkward, too.

Sometimes it is best not to know your neighbors.  Mark is very good about this - we keep our relationship with our immediate neighbors as an "over the fence" kind of thing.  We wave and say "Hi" and maybe chat for a minute when taking out the trash and that's it.  You don't want to get too close to neighbors, because if the relationship goes South, well, it gets awkward.

We invited our former neighbors (both have since moved away due to age) over for dinner once.  On the Left side of us was a couple who were liberal Democrats.  On the Right side - well, conservative Republicans.  All went well until dessert, when our liberal neighbor started going on about George Bush, at which point our conservative neighbor stood up and said, "That's it!  Marge, we're leaving!"  Once again, Mark and I are stuck in middle - politically, metaphorically, and literally.   It was a mistake to invite them both over at the same time - probably a mistake to invite them over at all.  Keep things at a distance - friendly but remote.  This is the way.   You don't have to be friends with everyone.

I received the above letter today from "Your Neighbors on N Riverview Drive" addressed to "Our Neighbor on Riverview Drive" so it was obviously junk mail.  It was "signed" if you will, by someone on Perkins street, which is on the other side of the island and not a "Neighbor on N Riverview Drive" at all.  A little lie, but again, any relationship you enter into based on a lie, no matter how trivial, will go downhill from there.

Note how they use FOMO ("Don't miss out!") and your native curiosity to get you to join.  What are people saying?  Maybe I am missing something!  I'd better join right now!  Of course, the point of getting people to sign up is to create a huge user base (even if most people never go on it) so they can jimmy up the stock price.

I am not sure that I need to join Nextdoor to keep up on the latest gossip - people gossip as it is, and on our tiny island, there isn't much people don't know about one another.  When we bought our house, the closing attorney (who lives here) said, "Welcome to Peyton Place by the Sea!" and we didn't know what he meant.

But we soon found out.

Old people are fine and all, when they are the kindly Grandmother baking you cookies.  They can be evil, though, to each other and their children.  Ask Mom some time, how she gets along with her Mother.  She will describe someone who is totally different from the kindly Grandma you know.

Old people will blackball each other from social groups (figuratively or literally) which is why so many of the social organizations on the island are dying out (that and the "new residents" are all in their 50's, from Atlanta, and come here on the weekends and are not interested in joining your supper club!).  They are getting so desperate for members they even asked us to join, to which Mark firmly said "No!"

I was a little disappointed, as I was looking forward to entrees from the 1968 Campbell's Soup Cookbook. or the 1970 Jekyll Island Garden Club Cookbook, which admonished readers not to use more than "one or two drops" of Tabasco sauce in a casserole, lest it be "too spicy!"  We tend to over-romanticize the mid-century modern era.  Life was pretty primitive back then.

But times have changed and people are changing.  And people no longer join the supper clubs and the art guild and the garden club.  They spend all day long looking at their phones.  They may know their neighbors on Nextdoor, but may have never met them in person.  So Nextdoor replaces the "over the fence" conversations people use to have, or the gossip they spread at the sewing circle, or I suppose, hundreds of years ago, the gossip shared when a Babushka would go down to the well to fetch water.

And that, right there, is the problem.  Nextdoor, like so many other social media "apps" makes it easier to "cocoon" indoors and not see other people - or see others as human beings as well.  We become avatars and characters online - no different than Alex Jones, who claims his online persona is just for entertainment.

One could argue, I suppose, that what social media such as Nextdoor does, is just expose how awful we all really are, as people.   Racist jokes told in private are now online, and we know what horrible things people think and say.  Before, well, they could at least keep up appearances when out in public, because there as a presumption that decent people didn't behave like that.   But with social media, well, you can find plenty of people behaving badly, which in turn, normalizes bad behavior.  No need to hide your racism or your bullying, anymore!  The rest of your friends on Facebook feel the same way!

Of course, Facebook has a particular problem in that it puts people into "silos" which became echo chambers.  You say something racist or admit to a conspiracy theory and pretty soon, your "friends" who are aghast at such things unfriend you.  But the friends you keep - and your new friends - all agree with you, and share the same sorts of postings.  Pretty soon, you are convinced the world agrees with you.

That, in short, is why so many people were sucked into Trump's "stop the steal" movement.  All their friends voted for Trump!  No one they know is a Biden supporter, except the caricature of one (a gay transgender "Bipoc" person from San Francisco, sipping a Starbucks while on their iPhone driving a Prius).  So there was no way Trump could have lost - no one was against him!  I mean, other than that one guy in San Francisco!

And on the other side, same deal, which is why Hillary lost.  All those people in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania - they have to vote for Hillary - there can't be a single Trump supporter in the whole state!  Echo chambers - they distort our view of the world.  Sometimes, you have to listen to opposing ideas, even though you disagree with them - just so you know they exist, and people who believe in them exist.

I am half-tempted to join this Nextdoor thing just to see what horrible things people say.  Or perhaps join, and then spoof the whole thing by making subtly racist comments, like, "I saw a black guy walking down the street.  Does he live here?" - and watch the fun as they all pile on.

On second thought, that is probably a bad idea.

We do have a "Citizens Association" here on the island and they publish a newsletter. We aren't members, but it is so poorly organized that Mark gets the newsletter by e-mail anyway.  What's more, our friends tell us all the gossip, what was posted on Facebook, or what was in the newsletter.  I am sure they will more than keep us informed of what the old busybodies on Nextdoor are up to as well.

Gladys Kravitz is alive and well and on Nextdoor!

What is sad to me is that social media is expanding more and more.  People spend all day looking at their phones - checking e-mails, texts, facebook, twitter, nextdoor, youtube, ticktok and whatnot.  Every website wants to send you "notifications" so you can stay up-to-date!  Up to date on what?  Other than the hurricane alerts, I really don't need to keep updated, in real-time, about much.  Maybe an update app on when the local pub is offering 2-for-1 beers might be useful.  There probably already is one.

And while I'm there, I can get caught up on all the local gossip.

UPDATE: Nextdoor went public through a SPAC, so you know how legit it is.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Van Life - Training the Next Generation to Be Homeless?

There are so many click-bait articles and videos on the Internet that basically seem to glorify the idea of living in your car.

The Gig Economy.  Side Hustles.  Van Life.  Convert a School Bus to a Camper!  You've seen them all, and they seem to make up a Greek Chorus exhorting the younger generation to basically give up on the American Dream, live in their car, and work part-time for Amazon, and part-time for Uber.

Is this by accident, or design?  Or the inevitable consequence of our "new economy" where workers are paid squat while others make billions?

It could be the latter - the Internet is like an amorphous AI that figures out what people click on and then crams that shit down your throat forever and ever, Amen!  So you click on a knitting video, and five years later, your husband is doing textile art.  We don't know if we are influencing the Internet or it is influencing us.

But it occured to me - and a reader at the same time - that maybe this Greek Chorus of voices, telling us to "work a side hustle" in this "gig economy" isn't reflecting a trend in society, but normalizing it.  And these "helpful videos" on how to convert a van into some sort of flophouse are along the same lines.  Housing too expensive?  Go live in your car!  It isn't homelessness, it's a kicky new lifestyle!

Or deathstyle.  The happy couple above were so enamored of  "Van Life" that he strangled his girlfriend and then killed himself.  Happily ever after.  No one talks about the end game to living in a vehicle and working these odd jobs - where it will lead you and whether it is just running in place or whether it is getting you anywhere.  Like I said in the posting above about living in a bus:

One reason why I got off Facebook, was that I "caught up with old friends!" and wish I kinda didn't.  One friend of mine, from my stoner days, confessed to me that he, at 50 years old, was living with his parents and working odd jobs for pot money, with no savings, no IRA, no future, no nothing.  What did he do for the last 30 years when I last saw him?  YUP - he was living in an old school bus, smoking dope and doing "gigs" at local bars for under-the-table cash.  He didn't even qualify for Social Security.   Van Life - what's not to like?

Yea, that's the "end game" to living in a vehicle.  It isn't much different from the "end game" to living on a commune.  My stinking hippie brother tried that - and after ten years of living in an unheated barn in Vermont, woke up one day and wondered where the fuck his life went.  I mean, he had fun and all, but he ended up going back to school (at nearly age 40!) to get a PhD which fortunately landed him a decent job running a small museum.  Others are not as fortunate.

Playing catch-up later in life is hard to do.  Your body gets older and frail and it is harder to do hard work.  You have to hope your mind doesn't go as well.  Trying to fund a 401(k) starting at age 55 (as a friend of mine is trying to do) is damn near impossible.  Your choice productive working years are far behind you.

But I am describing people making choices to do these things - bad choices to be sure, but choices.  The youth of today argues they have no choice - there are no full-time jobs, they are saddled with debt, and these "side hustles" provide no benefits and no retirement plan.  And of course, with the high cost of living, they cannot afford to save on their own.

Not being "boots on the ground" I cannot tell  if this is really true for some or all of the youth of today.  To be sure, there are some who made bad choices at an early age - going to an expensive school, borrowing too much money, and getting a pretty useless degree, or at least a degree that wasn't worth the amount of money they spent on it.  You have to be a smart student-consumer, and that doesn't describe most 18-year-olds in any era.  Sadly.

But then again, there are others who made better choices in life - spent less on college, got a more useful degree in a worthwhile field, and are making good money (sometimes over six figures) because their skills are in demand.   They aren't living in a van.

Still others are making a choice to forego work and live in a van or school bus and "see America" or whatever.   I've had friends do this - working for several years, saving every penny, and then hitch-hiking around the world (twice!) for a year at a time.  They were, however, able to go back to their careers and prosper.

So it is hard to say why these sorts of articles abound today and not in the past. Some cheery articles in some financial press outlets claim that "Millennials" (boo! hiss!) are choosing to engage in "polywork" where they have multiple jobs.  I am not sure anyone so much as chooses this as they are forced into it by a system that penalizes employers for offering full-time positions, as I wrote about recently.

It just seems that the great "invention" of Silicon Valley in the last decade has been to take minimum-wage or low-wage jobs (pizza delivery driver, taxi driver, warehouse worker) and then skim a little bit off the top by making them into "apps".   I delivered pizzas, I worked in the UPS warehouse.  I never had to send money to Jeff Bezos or to Uber as part and parcel of the deal.  Hell, I was making $8 an hour at UPS back in 1985.  Until recently, that's what Amazon workers were getting in some places. (and the older workers at UPS were getting $16 an hour - what many pine for today!).

It is hard to say which came first - chicken or egg.  Did the shitty post-recession economy lower everyone's expectations to the point where driving for Uber or working for Amazon seemed like a good deal?  Were people so stressed for money that living in a car or a U-haul truck seemed like a viable option?

I really don't know which is cause and which is effect, but the same people offering these "gig" jobs are often the same people controlling the media.  Hell, one of them owns his own newspaper.  I am sure there are plenty of cheery "gig economy" articles in the Washington Post these days.

My only observation is that we are on the precipice (and by that, a literal cliff edge) of a major change.  Something will snap in the next few months - maybe the next 18-24 months, perhaps before the 2024 election.  All these crazy "investments" like specious IPOs and "Crypto" and hyped "Stonks" are going to collapse under their own weight.  The bloated housing market will have to adjust prices if no one can afford a millon-dollar "starter home".  And wages will skyrocket - along with inflation - as the shortage of workers continues, unabated.  The birthrate has stagnated and we've kept out all those pesky immigrants - and my generation is all taking early retirement, with a pandemic making them realize life does not go on forever.

Cheery thoughts, I know.  But let me leave you with this nugget.  A friend of mine tried to argue with me about politics recently.  "Do you think your President is so great?" he said.  I told him that I don't view any President as "mine" (and another friend chimed in with the observation that Joe Biden is really a placeholder President - the unTrump).   I told my friend that I thought Biden was doing a better job that Trump.  He said, "Really?  How?"

"Well," I replied,"We haven't had an insurrection in almost a year, now!"  And that struck home.  He admitted that he hoped - for the sake of the GOP - that Trump would not run in 2024.  But that doesn't excuse my friend's endorsement (and voting for) Trump in 2016.  But it illustrates that everyone has their limits and there is a line that had been crossed.

But the funniest thing he said was this, "Kids today don't want to work!  That's why there is a labor shortage!"

Then I reminded him, "Didn't you just take early retirement at age 58?"   OK, Boomer.

Of course, so did I.  But you don't see me bitching about how kids are obligated to work shitty jobs for low pay!  This whole gig economy thing sucks and needs to go away.   And it isn't going to go away so long as we let people promise "more jobs" but only if we cut taxes for the very wealthy.

But like I said, I think we are about to see that change, drastically.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Employee Stock Options & The New Cruelty

Have stock options caused the current level of unrest in America?

Back when I was a kid, my Dad ran a factory that made truck clutches.  He didn't own the factory, he was just a hired manager.  He got a salary and a company car and that was it - no stock options or ownership stake.  The place eventually went out of business, shortly after he retired. The machinery was all from WWII and the factory was small and outdated and their market share was tiny.  During the recession of 1980, the company was pretty much wiped out.

Funny thing, I recall they had a strike there once, and I asked my Dad why they couldn't just fire the workers and hire new ones (I was 12 at the time).  He replied that was against the law (at the time) so he had to negotiate with the union.  Well, all that has changed, as illustrated by the recent strike at Kellogg's - they fired the whole lot and replaced them!  Now you know why unions were in decline.

I digress, but not by much.

Back when I thought I was a hot-shot patent lawyer and flew out to Silicon Valley every month (when Silicon Valley made silicon and not bullshit apps) the concept of the "employee stock option" was just starting to become a big deal.  Startup companies had no money to pay employees, so they paid them very little and offered them stock options.  The idea was, when the company "hit it big" the stock would be worth a lot of money and everyone could cash in.

It was a flawed plan.  The very rich got richer, the poor got poorer.  Why was this and how was this?

Well, to begin with, generous stock options were offered to the executives of the company, to incentivize them to maximize stock price.  The people offering these options were board members who owned huge chunks of stock (by dint of founding the company - they didn't pay much for their shares, hell no!).  If the CEO could jigger up the stock price, he'd make millions.  The real owners of the company, who held more than half the outstanding shares (often 3/4 or more) made billions.

And that, in short, is how we got here today.  CEO's (and COO's and whatnot) are motivated to bring up the stock price using any means available, legal or illegal.  Some companies, like this Theranos, for example, may have been little more than stock fraud from the get-go (a high school aged girl invents a radically new blood testing machine?  That could happen!).  Even if it wasn't a fraud from the get-go, the insiders hyped the product and made a lot of money as the plebes drove up the stock price, even as they knew the machine didn't work.  Of course, the jury is still out on that (literally) and it remains to be seen if anyone gets punished for this.  These complex white-collar crimes are hard to prosecute - jurors are not sophisticated enough to wade through the evidence in many cases, and even when convicted, the punishments are a slap on the wrist.

...that's only if you get caught, too.

So stock options created this new generation of billionaires by incentivizing managers to hype the share price, even at the expense of the long-term survival of the company.  Or it incentivizes managers to screw employees out of every last cent or work them like dogs, or fire them if they go out on strike - whatever it takes to increase profit margins and bring up the share price so they can cash in. Make people pee in a bottle, if it increased productivity incrementally and profitability as a consequence.  Employee stock options are driving the new cruelty.

Employee stock options are why we have CEOs making tens of millions of dollars a year, while their lowest-paid employees barely make minimum wage.  Employee stock options are why American companies pay their CEOs double, triple, or even ten times as much as CEOs in Europe are paid.  When Mercedes took over the failing Chrysler corporation, the CEOs of profitable Mercedes were shocked to learn their American counterparts (who were losing money) were making more than twice as much as they were!  No wonder Mercedes sold out!

All this talk of "income inequality" could arguably be traced back to employee stock options. They jack the compensation for executives through the roof, and make founders into the richest people on the planet. They create sweatshop conditions for workers.  My Dad, (who received a flat salary) didn't get a bonus for screwing his own employees out of every last cent (or talking up the share price on CNBC).

But what about the little people?  A rising tide raises all boats, right?  Don't those folks who worked for peanuts coding for WILLGROWCO end up as Silicon Valley millionaires with their stock options?  Well, Yes and No.  A few do cash in, if their company is wildly successful - and the press is sure to profile them a lot to create this image.  But even for them, there are caveats - their options are often limited and they cannot cash in until a waiting period after the IPO is over.  And often the higher-ups are not so limited.  So WILLGROWCO drops an IPO and Joe Gotrocks, the founder, as well as the executives of the company, cash in a boatload of shares when the share price doubles after the IPO.  After the lockdown period, the share price has dropped and the ordinary employees can then cash in.  They still make a bit, but not as much as their bosses. They feast off the table scraps.

They're the lucky ones.  I saw firsthand how stock options can be a sad joke to others.  You work for a startup coding their new app, for starvation wages (good thing your wife has a job!) and hope to hit it big when the IPO drops and you can exercise your stock options.  Or maybe you go to work for a company that is already listed, and part of your compensation is in stock options.  I've seen it both ways.  You can get screwed seven ways from Sunday.

First, you have to be vested.  If you are not there long enough to vest your stock options, well, too bad for you.  And like with so many other "vested" benefits, management finds a way to fire people days before they are vested.  It is like going to work for Amazon, which promises a "Christmas Bonus" if you stay there until the end of the year.  They fire you on December 29th.  No one ever gets the bonus - that's how the game is played.

For startups, you have to hope the product is successful.  And let's face it, for every successful startup these days, there are four or five or ten that flop. So you sacrifice for years getting this product to launch and it flops - through no fault of your own. The market just rejected it. It wasn't that great an idea.  A recession struck just as the product was launched. There were defects in the product that were not your fault - whatever. For whatever reason, the IPO maybe never drops, or if it does, drops like a lead balloon.  All that work for literally nothing.

Meanwhile, you boss still takes home a hefty salary (even without stock options) and the founders simply move on to funding "The Next Big Thing!" - Part II.

Or say you work for a Silicon Valley company that is going gangbusters.  You sign on with a stock option at $50 a share - which is $5 less than the share price today.  Once you are vested, well, you can cash in - and maybe by then, the share price will be $100!  But a year or two later, your stock option is vested and due to a general recession, a product failure, or just bad business, the share price is now $25 and your stock options are worthless.  The founders and executives cashed-in at $50 a share, on options granted at $10 a share - so don't worry about them too much!

For the average salaried employee, the stock option isn't such a great deal - it is akin to offering lottery tickets as a form of pay - sure, maybe one-in-a-billion win big, but the rest lose it all.  And I've met engineers and software developers who have been through this more than once - giving their all for a startup, hoping to "win big" but ending up with nothing.  And they go back to the well again and again, hoping "this time for sure!"  The dream of riches in Silicon Valley runs deep.

Funny thing, though, if they just worked for a decent salary (which is well into the six figures for engineers and software developers) they could accumulate millions in wealth over time, if they put their mind to it.  And traditionally, that is how people were paid - for their labor, not by the success of the company.  Because you can labor as hard as you can and have all the talent and great ideas in the world, and the company can still fail or the stock price tank for reasons outside of your control (but not outside the control of the CEO, however).

Employee stock options are a cruel joke for the ordinary employee.  They offer this dream of riches which may or may not pan out - in most cases, it doesn't pan out. And even if it does it doesn't amount to much, in many cases.  But for the higher-ups, it really is a dream of real riches - tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars for executives, billions for founders and investors.

There is one other victim of the employee stock option, and that is the retail investor.  These are the chumps like you and me (well, not me, anymore) who read about a company online or see something on television - usually the CEO talking up the company on a financial channel.  We get all excited about the IPO because they hype the crap out of it in a "roadshow" and the financial channels breathlessly report on it for months on end - their executives have options to buy the stock at the IPO price.

So we little people pay $500 and buy IPO shares in something stupid like Zipcar or Groupon.  Well, maybe you did, I was already jaded by the whole deal by the time that crap came out.   And the stock is going places, too - right into the toilet!  So many of these IPOs are for half-baked ideas or for stupid things like delivering food.  Hey, that's "technology" - right?

So you have a perfect system to vacuum up money from millions of people and then hand it to a few hundred or a few thousand at best.

NEXT UP:  Convince the younger generation that the "gig economy" and living in van isn't being homeless, it's a fabulous lifestyle choice!

When did we decide to become a third-world country?

UPDATE:  Someone posted online (and then deleted!) a nice explanation of how stock buybacks (which I wrote about before, twice, well, three times). are also used in conjunction with ESO's to create wealth for the majority owners and CEO's.   Your stock option is vested in April, let's say.  You do a stock buyback starting in February.  By April, the stock has "bounced" because you used company money to prop up the stock price.  Cash in.  Wash. Rinse. Repeat!

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Mandatory Overtime - Getting What You Asked For!

Companies often force workers to work overtime as it is cheaper than hiring more people.

One thing about employment, which I learned once I became an employer (Note: never do that!) is that it is costly to hire people.  As I noted before, not only do you have to pay your employees enough money to keep them from quitting, you have to match the payroll taxes (about 9% or so) so for every dollar you pay them, you have to come up with $1.09.

But it gets worse.  Congress expects you to provide healthcare, which is expensive - it can cost over a thousand per month per employee.  And then there are things like a 401(k) which is something you need to provide to attract good employees - and something you want to contribute to yourself.  In addition to all that, your employees have all sorts of rights, but not a lot of responsibilities.  And Congress has even forced you to enforce immigration laws!   Like I said, don't ever become an employer - it might turn you into a Republican!  God forbid!

As a result of all these requirements, there is a certain "overhead" to hiring a person - fixed costs per employee, no matter how many hours they work.  The system thus incentivizes the employer to work someone overtime rather than hiring more people.

At the major corporations I worked for (GM, UTC) this was a particular problem for hourly union employees.  Management would expect them to work "mandatory overtime" and it was a constant bargaining chip with the union, come contract time.  Simply stated, they required some employees to work overtime - for which they were paid time-and-a-half, and double-time in some instances.  While the employees enjoyed the extra money, many complained it intruded into their personal lives.

From the company's point of view, it was cheaper and easier to force people to work overtime than it was to hire additional workers.  If you needed additional labor, you could just ask an existing worker to work overtime - it was a flexible system for filling in labor needs.  If you hired an additional person, you have to cover that fixed overhead of health insurance and whatnot.  So two union workers, forced to work 60 hours a week, was cheaper than hiring three union workers and having them work 40 hours a week.

You have to be careful of what you ask for - in terms of benefits.

The problem isn't entirely the union's fault.  At GM, the game was to offer "benefits" instead of wage increases.  Benefits are not taxed to the worker (although this has been proposed time and time again).  So, for example, you offer $1 in health care benefits, it costs you $1 to offer it - not $1.09 it costs to provide $1 in wages.  To the worker, who sees maybe 75 cents of that $1 in wages, getting a full dollar of health care seems like a better deal as well.

By the way, there are many, many other benefits that employers can offer employees, including child care, which are tax-deductible to the company and non-taxable to the employees.  It is a win-win situation, from a tax perspective.

But the other nice thing about offering benefits is that in many cases, they were benefits not paid out right away.  So, for example, GM would settle a strike by offering a modest wage increase, but also offering enhanced retirement benefits and health care.  The CEO looks like a genius for keeping labor rates (relatively) modest, but what he has done is put a ticking time bomb under the company.  As the years went by and more and more people retired (and lived longer) the cost of the retirement benefits and health care plans started to accelerate. Compounding this was the shrinking market share the company had.  Sort of a reverse-pyramid scheme - which is basically how GM went bankrupt.

Other countries don't have this problem - our competitors in Japan and Europe have nationalized health care and some countries even have nationalized pensions.  For some reason, in America, we have decided that employers should provide these things.  As I noted before, it makes about as much sense as laying the cost of health care and retirement on retailers when they sell you something - just a different point in the economic chain to collect money (and the VAT tax in Europe is sort of this way).

Imagine going to McDonald's and when you buy a Big Mac, a dollar is added to the bill to fund your healthcare and your retirement.  It makes about as much sense as laying this at the doorstep of employers.

Some on the Left have noted that this system has some other unintended consequences. Quit your job? Lose your health care.  It keeps employees loyal to the company, particularly in the past, when you had to work for X years to be "vested" in the company pension plan.  Many people were fired often days before being vested - or laid off, which often happened to salaried Engineers when a project wound down.  The 401(k) was an improvement in that regard, but in other aspects a disaster.  Our pension is now determined by how much we contribute and the fickle finger of fate that is the stock market.

I suspect that some corporations wouldn't mind it if we went to "National Health" and took this burden away from them.  They could hire people full time instead of part-time (the latter of which they do today, to avoid paying benefits). It is like food stamps - conservatives say they hate them, but companies like Walmart realize they are a wage subsidy which allows them to pay their employees less.  Many people pining for $15-an-hour wages (or more) are finding out a hard truth: They lose government-paid benefits if they make too much money, and thus end up swimming in place.  You get a raise, but you lose your food stamps, Obamaphone, Obamacare subsidy, Section-8 housing eligibility, and so on and so forth.

We have made this far more complicated than it needs to be.

The problem is, of course, that there are too many people in the system who don't want to change it.  The union worker with his "Cadillac" plan doesn't want to see it go away - or be taxed, as Republicans have proposed.  The insurance company which makes a little (or a lot) from each transaction, doesn't want the boat rocked either.  And the medical industry is loathe to have the government set prices for procedures, although they do this already with Medicare - and insurance companies negotiate reduced fees as well, which is why even a high-deductible plan can be worthwhile.

Just a radical thought here - maybe, just maybe, if we disconnected these benefits from employment and made them available for everyone, companies could make hiring decisions based on how many people they actually need, and less on the fixed-cost of overhead for each employee.

And maybe mandatory overtime would become a thing of the past.

Hey, who am I kidding? The insurance companies would never let that happen!

Medicare Advantage? Uh, Maybe Not.

You can tell if something is a raw deal just by the way it is presented.

I wrote recently that a friend of mine went with an AARP supplemental insurance plan, which they felt was kind of expensive and didn't cover much.  I think he said he went with a Medicare Advantage plan instead.  I will have to ask him more about that.

A reader writes saying that some of these "Advantage" plans are no advantage at all and can have high out-of-pocket costs for expensive procedures, which could cause you to go bankrupt.  It sounds pretty scary.

I mentioned before that I was in a restaurant with eight televisions playing an infomercial featuring Newt Gingrich hawking a "home protection" plan to prevent someone from "buying" your house with forged documents.  As I noted in that posting, the plan really doesn't protect your house - they just periodically check public record to see if someone recorded anything for your property, which is something you can do yourself, online.

But the real "tell" on the whole deal wasn't in spelunking the fine print, but in just looking at how the deal is presented - like a carnival came to town:

Red Flag Number One:  Newt Gingrich? Using an older celebrity who is trusted by the elderly - a father-type figure who has nothing to do with the actual product.

Red Flag Number Two:  Infomercial? Selling something using high-pressure sales tactics.  It is like a timeshare presentation - if you watch it long enough, you may start to "believe" in it!

Red Flag Number Three:  Something-for-nothing or too-good-to-be-true?  There ain't no such thing as a free lunch and if bargains like that were out there, you would have heard about them before - not in some infomercial featuring a has-been celebrity.

Whether it is ol' Newt selling home theft paranoia, or Tom Selleck selling reverse mortgages, the deal is the same - you needn't analyze it too much, because just the way the deal is presented should tell you everything you need to know.  Serious business is serious business, not a carnival show.  When they rely on celebrities just to get your attention (and your trust) alarm bells should be going off in your head.

So, once again, at a restaurant, with only four televisions this time, I see an ad for a "Medicare Advantage" program featuring Jimmy Walker (talk about has-been washed-up celebrities!) hawking a medicare plan that pays you money and has no co-pays and lets you defy gravity and travel through time!  What could possibly go wrong with a health insurance plan touted by the former "Dyn-O-Mite!" guy?

And yea, he said it, twice, during the infomercial.  How pathetic when your entire acting career can be boiled down to one catchphrase.

But apparently they've roped in other has-been celebrities, including Joe Namath (he is still aliveI'm doing a Musk).  And the ads and infomercials haven't gone unnoticed.  According to one article, the company behind these ads has something of a checkered reputation and the plans are not all they are cracked up to be.

I needn't even read the article, though.  Am I going to trust my healthcare to Jimmy Walker?  Joe Namath?  Or any other celebrity for that matter?  Something as deadly (literally) serious as decisions on healthcare shouldn't be made based on who has the cutest ad on television, who has the most memorable jingle, or who has the best celebrity endorser.  What's next - health care promoted by Kim Kardashian?  Oh, shit, I just googled that, she already went there.

I still have about 24 months to make up my mind about Medicare Part B or D or C or X or whatever.  The learning curve is steep and there is little room for error.  For example, a friend of mine decided not to get the part D, which covers prescriptions as it was kind of expensive.  As a veteran, they decided to go with the VA.  It seems to work, but is a bit of a pain in the ass, having to see one doctor to get a prescription (under medicare) and then driving an hour to the VA hospital to see another doctor to get the same prescription filled.

Like I said, I am still learning about this, but they explained to me that if they wanted to get Part D coverage now, they would have to pay premiums back to the date of eligibility (age 65) which would be tens of thousands of dollars.  So, choose wisely my friend!

And don't choose a plan endorsed by a clown.

EDIT:  As they say on Reddit, "this blew up!"  I got a LOT of responses from folks and the common denominator is to take what older people say with a grain of salt - they are misinformed as well!

The penalty for not signing up for part D can be found here (thanks to reader for link!)

Another reader reports this merely increased their monthly cost from about $30 to $60.  Still affordable.

Medicare site for reviewing plans (I bookmarked this!):

My friend on "medicare advantage" is actually using a State-run plan for Maine.  Sounds better than what JJ Walker is selling!

Our friends in the UK are mystified - why do we have to make these complex decisions when we retire?  For them, nothing changes - you go to the doctor and you never get a bill, from cradle to grave!

WHY do we make 18-year-olds make life-changing decisions about student loans at a time when their brains are not fully formed?  Why do we make 65-year-olds make similar life-changing decisions at a time when their brains are starting to fossilize?

My enthusiasm for the way we do things here in America is waning.  Seems we make things incredibly complicated for no good reason.

Well, maybe one good reason:  The more complicated you can make any financial transaction, the easier it is to rip-off the consumer.   Maybe that's why we don't have single-payer health insurance. Too many people are making too much money, and they can afford lobbyists!

Geez, I am turning commie in my old age....

Friday, December 17, 2021

60 is the new 40?

Getting old isn't what it used to be.

We were watching old re-runs of The Streets of San Francisco with Michael Douglas and Karl Malden - the classic cop show of the early 1970's.  In one episode, a shop owner is being worked over for "protection money" by a gang of young thugs (who got what was comin' to them - by the end of the episode).  He was later killed and Karl Malden said something like, "Well, he was an old man - 60 years old!"

That sort of made me laugh.  I guess back then, that was considered "old" but as our nation has aged in general, the median age has increased over time.  Back in the day, you could say, "Don't trust anyone over 30!" as that was only about half of the population.  Well, today, the median age is pushing 40, so if you don't want to trust anyone over 30, well, it's most of the population.

It is odd, there are more oldsters than ever before and average life expectancy has gone up almost a decade since the 1960's, (It has decreased recently mostly due to the opioid epidemic). Back when Karl Malden pronounced a 60-year-old as and "old man" he might expect to live another ten years.  Today, he likely will live two decades or longer.  A lot has changed.   And remember - most people of that generation smoked and used asbestos!  Imagine how much longer a healthier generation could live.

This was driven home to me by a trip to our local bank.  I keep an account there as a backup, as we had our Bank of America account  "frozen" for no good reason while travelling and it kind of scared me.  You are thousands of miles from home and now your credit and debit cards won't work?  That's why I always carry a backup in the safe in the camper - and another in the safe in the truck.  Yes, they make truck safes - not very expensive, either!

Anyway, I don't use the account much, other than for ATM cash (which is to say, once every six months) and I asked about whether there was a minimum balance required to avoid any monthly fees.  They said my account was no longer offered, but they could switch me over to a "free checking" account which provided free check printing (who writes checks anymore?) if I was 62 or older.  The clerk confidentially said, "But that doesn't apply to you."

I nodded my head and then realized, "It will apply to me, come this March!" and they both looked flabbergasted.  I was nearly 62 years old?  Yea, it kind of scared me, too.  I literally could collect social security this year, which I hadn't even thought about doing.

I digress, but I decided to wait on social security, at least a while.  The way I figured it, we have enough money to live comfortably for now, and by waiting, my "safety net" will be much greater, not only for me, but for Mark as well.  Might as well spend that 401(k) money and then use the max Social Security to live on, when the time comes. And when the time comes to "go into the home" Medicaid will kick in, as we will have spent all our own money.  Screwy math, I know.  And maybe I am wrong to think that way, but running out of money in retirement is scary.  We live on $30,000 a year (with everything paid for) and hopefully inflation won't ruin those plans just yet.

But I digress.

How did I end up being old?  And on an island where everyone else is older than me, I am constantly reminded that I am a "young whippersnapper" who is still wet behind the ears.  Maybe that has helped.  When you hang out and party with 80-year olds (and they do party - drinking and smoking pot and everything) you might tend to feel younger at 50-something or even 60-something.

Age does hit you at some point. One reason the girls at the bank were so skeptical of my advanced age was that I don't look old.  My temples have gone grey, but my face isn't old and wrinkly - the fat stretches out the wrinkles, as I like to say.  But sometimes in the mid-to-late 70s or early 80s, the wrinkle police check in, and if you have an older friend you haven't seen in a few years, the change can be startling.

They looked "youngish" before but now have that turkey waddle under their chin. And like an old cat, they lose weight and get bony.  Bony bunny, I used to call our 22-year-old cat.  You petted him and you could feel every bone, whereas a year before, he was plump.  The body starts shutting down and consuming itself.  Digestion gets a lot harder (it already has, for me) and pain tends to become a constant thing - which itself causes wrinkles and lines in your face.  When my sister died of breast cancer, she looked as old as my Grandmother - it was very sad to see. And scary.

But hopefully, that won't be anytime soon - but your body gets you thinking about it.  The good news is, 60 is indeed the new 40 these days, with many people continuing careers well into their 60's and 70's - by choice, not necessity.  And those who are retired stay active with all sorts of senior activities, such as down in The Villages.  The biggest health problem there (besides rampant STDs) is pickleball injuries - I am not making this up!

So this is good news.  We live longer and live better.  We feel younger at an age when people used to be considered "old".  When Social Security was started back during the 1930's, life expectancy was about 60 years.  Social Security worked back then, simply because few people lived long enough to collect it.  That is one reason why today, they are raising the age for "full" Social Security to 67 for people born in 1960 or later (for some reason they always use 1960 as a benchmark for these "fuck you" kind of deals.  Gee, Thanks!).  I am sure that the age limit will be raised again in the future and the age for "early" Social Security will be raised someday as well.  That is one argument for collecting early - get the money before they change their minds!

Today?  Well, Social Security is in "crises" because we aren't collecting enough payroll tax (they keep adding "holidays" for the tax, to counter poor economic conditions) and people are just living too damn long.  That, and the number of younger people working is stagnating.  The age pyramid is more of a minaret these days - and you can't have a good pyramid scheme without a pyramid!  Gee, maybe I should collect early!  This gets to complicated and don't even get me started on Medicare Supplements.

The nice thing about having old friends is that you can ask them what they did and learn from their mistakes.  One friend went with an AARP plan which they said sucked.  They are now on Medicare Advantage and claim it is cheaper and better.  Fortunately I have another two years to think about this.  Gee, time does compress as you get older!

So, 60 isn't all that bad. Apparently the girls at the bank still think I am a hottie - or a least not "old" just yet.   It is funny, but when I was a kid, I thought about the year 2000. I would be 40 by then - nearly dead!  Turns out, life goes on a bit longer than that, if you're lucky.

What is interesting is that this all changed within my lifetime,which isn't over just yet.  I doubt I will be the Methuselah or the oldest living person (a crown that changes hands on a weekly basis), but I will have a life that is better than that of my ancestors, perhaps as long as, maybe longer.

But quite frankly, the way things are going in this world today, I am not sure I want to live too long.

Could Tesla Go Bankrupt? (First To Market)

It is highly unlikely that Elon Musk will go broke - after all, like Trump, he inherited a lot of money when he was born.  But Tesla might not be the most valuable car company in the world for long.  In fact, it may be relegated to history before too long.

Elon is at it again, this time calling Senator Warren "Karen" instead of Pocahontas. It seems, just like Joanne "JK" Rowling, he just can't let it go.  When Ms. Rowling started going off about trans rights, maybe the core of what she was saying was true - that trans athletes competing against biological women isn't fair.  And this is proven to be the case, with some trans athletes breaking women's sports records left and right.  It remains to be seen if those records come with an asterisk or not.

But I get that.  And it is sad we can't have a rational discussion about this without the far-left going off about how any discussion, even, is "transphobic" and that "gender affirmation surgery" (which we used to call a sex-change) is life-saving surgery because people would kill themselves if they don't get it  Sounds more like a hostage situation.  But on the far right, similar silliness abounds - positing that letting trans women use the ladies room would result in women being raped - even though there is no real motivation for a trans woman to suddenly decide to become a man again and go a-rapin'.

And sadly, Joanne had to go there - making tweet after tweet including the latest one with some cryptic comment about how "her rapist" was a woman with a penis.  She must have broke open a new box of Chardonnay before that tweet went out.  It is sad, but once you become super-rich and famous, I guess you figure you can just do whatever the fuck you want to, as you already have more money than you can spend in one lifetime.  I call it Michael Jackson Syndrome.  Maybe the Harry Potter books will have an asterisk next to them as well.

Elon Musk is doing the same thing as Ms. Rowling.  He is on a tweet binge and has been for years.  He has gotten in a lot of trouble, too.  He said Tesla would be bought out for $420 a share (420 - get it?  As in marijuana! Tee-Hee!) and that turned out not to be true and the SEC investigated him.  He also has been hyping Bitcoin and now Dogecoin using his Twitter platform.  He is the Donald Trump of electric cars - and that's not a compliment.

His latest dig - after questioning whether Bernie Sanders was still alive - was to call Ms. Warren a "Karen" for saying that maybe people like Musk should pay taxes for a change (which he will finally do, this year).  Radical stuff, I know.  A lot of people are souring on Musk, even his fanboys.  Like I said before, the incels and gamers are realizing that there is no seat on the rocketship to Mars for overweight Bronies.

But I suspect the simps and fanboys are not as legion as they appear on the Internet.  Like any good royal, Musk can afford to hire a Greek Chorus of admirers - bots and trolls and fake Twitter accounts that laud him and "like" and upvote his postings.   All the social media "influencers" and celebrities do this - act shocked.

I noted before that this nonsense about Musk being "the richest man in the world" is kind of overblown.  I have pointed out that first to market is last in the marketplace. While Tesla has shown that electric vehicles can be practical for at least some people, every other car maker on the planet is tooling up to make their own electric cars, and in fact, many are already on the market.  They will likely undercut Tesla in price and features - as well as reliability and service.  The lack of a dealer network, which Tesla touted as an advantage, may turn into an albatross, as Teslas start to age.

Then there is solar city.  In the ultimate insider job, Musk had Tesla buy a solar company that was owned by his relatives. The company is losing money, has a huge debt burden, and has some minor quality issues (causing houses to catch fire). Even with the influx of cheap Chinese solar panels (attenuated somewhat by Trump's solar panel tariffs) the solar industry isn't what it used to be, particularly home solar.  Since most utilities only buy back electricity at wholesale rates, you cannot make much money with a home-solar setup - not like the old days.  The only alternative is to have a battery bank of old Tesla batteries, to store energy for when the sun goes down.

Maybe Solar City will take off. Maybe not. All I can say is, like Tesla, there is no "secret sauce" to solar panels any more than there is to electric cars.  Others will enter the marketplace and sell these things like any other home appliance - at cut-throat margins.  Anyone who thinks there are huge profits to be made in the car business or the appliance business doesn't know much about either - nor have they read history.

Speaking of history, a little history lesson about Musk is in order.  He was born in South Africa to a wealthy family that owned a gem mine.  So like Trump, he basically was born a millionaire - in an era where millionaire meant something.  He amplified his wealth by investing in PayPal, which had a lot of shady dealings early on, as I noted before.

Meanwhile, a couple of dudes from Silicon valley figured out that you could build a really fast electric car by ditching the conventional lead-acid batteries in favor of Lithium-Ion computer laptop or cell phone batteries - hundreds of them!  So they bought Lotus Elise chassis and fitted them with electric motors and all those batteries.   About that time, Musk bought controlling interest in the company and - according to some sources - claimed to be the "founder" of Tesla.   The original Roadster was unlike other electric cars of the time, most of which had limited range and were  painfully slow.  The Tesla Roadster was fast and had a usable range.  The electric car had come of age.

The rest, as they say, is history.  And just as Steve Jobs didn't "invent" the personal computer, the Mac, the iPod, or the iPhone, neither did Musk really "invent" the Tesla car or the SpaceX rockets or much of anything else.  Yes, his name is on a lot of Patents - and pending applications - but like most technology Patents these days, so are a lot of other people's names.  And yes, I have run into the situation before where the department head or company President insists that his name be on every Patent (or most Patents) that the company files for.  That doesn't mean that person was a key inventor, if an inventor at all.

I suspect that like Jobs, Musk may be forced out of the company eventually, if he keeps up his antics.  Perhaps not in the near future, but you never know.  Apple did eventually hire back Steve Jobs, mostly to use as a talisman of innovation to get the fanboys all exited.  I suspect Musk - if he can keep his hand off the Tweet button - could serve a similar role.

But fortunes could change - and change dramatically - for Tesla and Musk.  The papers love to report him as the "richest person in the world" which he is, on paper.  If you use "market cap" as a calculation of wealth, then you can come up with astounding numbers.  But what those shares of Tesla or SpaceX are worth in the marketplace is another matter.  I am worth a couple of million, on paper.  If I wanted to convert that into dollar bills, it would take me weeks to sell stocks, bonds, and other investments, sell off real estate, and even personal possessions and vehicles.  The difference between me and Elon Musk is that when I liquidate my assets, it doesn't affect overall market values.

If I sell my pitiful shares of stock, the market doesn't crash as a result.  If Elon Musk unloaded all his Tesla stock - even over a period of a year - the share price would plummet.  Even selling off a small portion, as he did recently, affected the share price.  So wealth on paper and money in the bank are two entirely different things.  If you live by Market Cap you die by Market Cap, and Tesla stock, which currently has a P/E ratio of over 300 and was over 1000 in recent times, is clearly over-valued by a factor of 10-15 at least.  If Ford and GM flood the market for electric cars, what will happen to Tesla shares?   They become even more valuable is the wrong answer.

Back in the late 1950's, Studebaker was facing bankruptcy.  No one wanted their cars anymore and they could not compete head-to-head with "The Big 3".  So they fell back and punted, cutting the front and read ends off the Champion and updating the styling and calling it the "Lark".   Meanwhile, the newly formed AMC (from Hudson and Nash) did the same thing with their "Rambler" line.   In 1959 recession struck, and people got tired of expensive, chrome-laded showboats that got 8 miles to the gallon and rusted on the showroom floor.  The "compact" car craze really took off in America, and for a few brief years, it looked like AMC and Studebaker would thrive.

Of course, GM, Ford, and Chrysler didn't fail to notice the trend.  Almost immediately they introduced their own lines of compacts - the Falcon, the Chevy II, the Valiant.  And they sold well - so well in fact that by 1965 Studebaker was history and AMC went back to trying to compete head-to-head and model-to-model with the "Big 3." Turns out, people wanted a car from a major manufacturer with an established dealer network.   Lower prices just sealed the deal.

For better or worse, corporate America steamrolls over competition with "me too!" products that are often better - or at least cheaper than - the originators.  And we see this all the time, worldwide, when it comes to proprietary technology.  Maybe the Tesla charging station is the cat's ass, but over time, a more generic model will likely be more popular.  Tesla should freely licence their technology unless they want to end up like Apple.  Yes, Apple.  Outside of the US, they only have a small share of the cell phone market and even in the US, not a majority share.  And the Mac?  A pitiful share anywhere.

It is almost comical how car companies will try to kill the baby in the cradle by making "me too!" products.  Sometimes it works, other times, not.  When VW started selling "bugs" in the US in the 1950's, GM came up with an almost exact copy of the design - the Corvair.   Before he wrote Unsafe at Any Speed about the Corvair, Ralph Nader wrote Small on Safety about the VW.  It turns out the safety problems of the Corvair were inherited from the VW, as GM slavishly copied the chassis design.  What killed the Corvair wasn't Ralph Nader, but the high cost of making it.

Turns out, Americas preferred cheap and simple Chevy II's and not esoteric aluminum-air-cooled engines mounted astern.  The Chevy II in turn, was a counter to the threat of Studebaker and Rambler.  The Corvette was a counter to the "European Sports Cars" that GI's were bringing home with them.  The Big-3 caould afford to match competitors head-to-head across product lines, even if they lost money, for the sole purpose of putting the other guy out of business.

Of course, later, this "me too!" engineering didn't pan out as well.  Saturn was supposed to out-Toyota the Toyota Motor Company.  Unfortunately, like with the Edsel, there was much hoopla and much money spent, and not a lot to show for it.  Some wags opine that for the billions spent on Saturn, GM could have simply bought the outstanding stock of Toyota.  Time will only tell if GM and Ford can out-Tesla Tesla, or whether their efforts amount to little more than another Saturn.  The last attempt - the Chevy Volt - was supposed to be an answer to the Prius.  By all accounts, the Volt was a good car, but for some reason,the Prius faithful never took a liking to it and today it is no more.

Better luck next time!

So yea, it could go either way, I guess.  GM has gone bankrupt in the past - as has Chrysler, twice.  Would Congress bail them out yet again?  This time around, the competition wouldn't be overseas, but right here in America (ironically, Teslas are built in an abandoned GM plant in Fremont California - a plant that used to make the Cadillac Seville before they switched to a joint venture with Toyota, which also fell by the wayside).

A big problem for GM - and Tesla and the overall US economy - is China.  If we get into a pissing match with China over Taiwan (or Russia over the Ukraine) and decide to boycott China, well, all hell would break loose.  GM makes most of its profits in China, and Tesla makes a substantial share there as well.  We got into bed with the Chinese and back when that all started, it seemed like they were pretty reasonable people to deal with.  But now they have the power - and leverage over the world - they are less and less afraid to use it.  Of course, it cuts two ways - China depends on exports as much as we depend on their imports.  It is a sticky situation.

But all these "what ifs" illustrate how uncertain the world is and how speculative investments are just that - speculating or gambling.  Right now, things like Bitcoin and "stonks" seem like hot deals - and they are hyped the same way a used car salesman tries to sell you a car - which itself should tell you all you need to know.  And people are just starting to figure this out.  Folks are realizing that maybe they aren't "too dumb" to understand crypto, but in fact, too smart to invest in it.

When I started this blog, a decade ago, we were recovering from the largest financial meltdown since the great depression - a meltdown that transferred a lot of money from a lot of little people (and from the government) to the rich.  We are seeing the same thing today and the next meltdown may enhance their wealth even further.  But back in 2005-2007 when we were living in South Florida and real estate prices went insane, people told me I was "too dumb" to understand why a house that rents for $1700 a month was worth paying $3000 a month to own.

Turns out, I wasn't too dumb, and I sold out in time.  Others didn't, insisted the fault was that of the banks or something called the "Community Reinvestment Act" from a decade earlier, and demanded the government bail them out.  Few were bailed out (outside of Wall Street) and these same people became angry and bitter and became "tea partiers" and later, MAGA-hat wearing Trump supporters.

I guess they were the smart ones after all.  /s

Musk the richest man in he world?  Maybe on paper.  Tesla the "next big thing"?  More like a thing - a thing that will be copied - and is being copied - by every automaker in the world.

Including China.