Tuesday, May 31, 2022
Sunday, May 29, 2022
There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch!
When someone offers you a free lunch, watch out!
Living on Retirement Island, I get these postcards in the mail about once a month. If I went to all these "invitations" I would be even fatter than I already am. What is up with these offers of free meals? Well, like anything else, they are trying to sell something, and in this case, it is insurance or more precisely, an annuity.
Are annuities a bad deal? Not necessarily - but not necessarily a good one. I covered annuities before and they come in all shapes and sizes and flavors as well as good, bad, and indifferent. There are open-ended or life annuities which pay out a fixed sum every year for life, or a closed-end or term annuity that pays out for only so many years. If you get an open-ended one, make sure you are aware whose "life" it is based on. Many a spouse has been chagrined to find out that their husband's hefty annuity terminated upon his death - leaving them with nothing.
But the basic problem with annuities is that for every dollar paid out, there has to be more than a dollar coming in - basic math. These companies are not charities - they do not operate as a public service. They hope to make money - a lot of it - off your money. It is like any other investment scheme, although a little more opaque than most, as you really have to dig to figure out where it is your money is going and what it is "invested" in.
And is your money safe? Suppose the insurance company underwriting the policy goes bankrupt? Where does that leave you? Most annuities and insurance policies - in fact, I think all of them - are not FDIC insured. I've read that the "Secretary of State" in some States insures these policies, but I would guess that would depend on what State the company is in - or you, for that matter.
Of course, there is risk in any investment. Buy something "solid" like GM stock - what could possibly go wrong? It has been a "blue chip" stock for nearly a century! Then they went bankrupt. So you can lose money on almost anything. I am not "anti-annuity" only that I am not sure it is a swell idea to put all of your money into one investment, as if that one investment goes sour, you might be out of luck.
For me, the point is moot. Our "cash" is tied up in IRA accounts, and if I wanted to withdraw a hundred grand to buy an annuity, well, I'd have to pay taxes on that - and it would not only kick me into a higher tax bracket, it would also wipe out a $20,000 annual Obamacare subsidy. So I would have to take out $140,000 to cover that and the State and Federal income taxes. Maybe if I sold the house and had a pile of after-tax money laying around, I could swing that. But even then, I could think of better places to put the cash.
What is telling, though, is the way it is being sold. You can spot a bad deal at 100 paces just by the way it is presented. If this was such a hot deal, we'd be staying up all night, lined up at the door to their office, in sleeping bags, waiting for them to open - like people in line for rock concert tickets - so we could buy an annuity. But instead, they have to offer a "free lunch" to get us to attend and listen to their spiel. It has all the charm of a timeshare presentation.
As a 2022 Covid twist, you can attend the "online" seminar and get a $50 gift card to the restaurant. I signed up for this, but there was no indication of how to "attend" this seminar - no link provided. Is it a Zoom meeting or what? Live or pre-recorded? I guess I'll have to wait and see. I'm betting I never see the $50 gift card.
I hate to say it, but these types of promotions also cheapen the reputation of the restaurant involved. Halyards, another SSI restaurant, also hosts these sort of events. I was never too impressed with that restaurant chain either. The restaurant hosting this event does have a banquet or event room, but I could not see how many folks it held. Even if you assume there are only 50 people or so, and each meal costs them $25 or so, that's $1250 the promoters spent, just to get "leads". You can imagine how this works - they likely get a 5% commission on each "sale" - so if they sell even one annuity for $100,000 they come out ahead. If they do two or three or more, well, they make a nice sum for a day's work.
So why do they put on these seminars? They cost a lot of money and there is no guarantee they'll get a commission! Well, the reason is, they work. Once you get people isolated like that, and hold their attention for several hours (and you know the food will be withheld until 8:00PM to get everyone's blood sugar nice and low) they start to go along with what you are saying. Put a "shill" in the audience to say things like, "Gee, these
timeshares annuities are a good deal! My wife and I are buying two!" and others will go along with it. Evangelical churches work the same way.
How do you avoid this trap? Just don't go. Yes, I know, it is appealing to "steal the cheese" and go to a timeshare seminar and get a "free weekend vacation!" and a "free barbecue grill!" or something along those lines. It is tempting to go to a casino and try to scarf some free drinks, too. Odds are, you won't get any (I tried - you need to drop at least $100 at blackjack just to get one watered-down drink. They don't give free drinks to non-players!). Same for these sort of deals. Chances are, at best you are bored for two or three hours and maybe get a somewhat satisfactory meal. But of course, it would be a much nicer meal if someone wasn't droning on about annuities while you were eating.
Just walk away from things like this. There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch! TANSTAAFL! When someone dangles out "free" in front of you, odds are, they have one hand on your wallet. They hope (and know) you will salivate like Pavlov's dog.
Don't be a dog!
UPDATE: I did not attend the dinner and was busy the day this did the live video broadcast. But they e-mails me and told me I could watch a recorded version, so I did (while doing other things, of course). It was a pitch for annuities, as I suspected. The gag was that these annuities were guaranteed to never decrease in value (you could always get your money back - provided the company isn't bankrupt) but you may make 10% or 20% or more over time or whatever. You could not withdraw all of your money at any given time, but could take out 10% every year - so over 10 years, you could extract what you put in.
A friend of mine signed up for a similar annuity - they paid in a hundred grand and it grows in value and if they become incapacitated, it pays out in the form of extended care (nursing home, etc.). If they don't use the policy, it pays back what they put in (with no interest). And interesting angle to be sure.
Would I buy one? Well, it fails two tests - the first being, The more complicated you can make any financial transaction, the easier it is to snooker the consumer. This is a complicated contract between you and the insurance company, who you hope won't go bankrupt. It is hard, if not impossible, for an ordinary consumer to understand all the ins and outs of such contracts, which is why they use the hard-sell.
Second, these companies aren't working for free. The presenter tried to intimate that they wanted to "help" people and weren't making money at this, but for sure they get a commission on each sale - they are not a charity. And neither is the insurance company, who makes a profit off your investment as well.
It may be simpler and easier to just invest your money and move on. If you are worried about variations in the market or losing money, maybe an FDIC insured CD is a better idea - or a government bond.
But they did send me a $50 gift card as promised! So there's that!
Saturday, May 28, 2022
Getting older does have some benefits...
I turned 62 this year and where did all the fucking time go. I qualify for Social Security, but haven't claimed it just yet. Some argue you should claim it as soon as possible - "you get more money that way!" while others argue to wait until "full" retirement (66 or beyond) or age 70 where it maxes out. I will think about this some more.
But as I noted before, you can start collecting elderly swag pretty early on. By age 40 the "AARP" will be badgering you with promotions. And many places offer discounts for people over age 55 or 60. Senior coffee, discounted stays, all sorts of things. And there are "early bird specials" of course!
If you like to go to parks and go camping, though, the "Geezer Pass" - the lifetime "America the Beautiful" pass - is a great deal. If you are not yet 62, fret not - you can still buy an annual pass or get a military pass or whatnot.
But the lifetime pass is the best deal. People grouse that it costs $80 now, but we were given free admittance to skyline drive ($30 normally) and half-price on campgrounds there ($15 instead of $30). So in one trip, we recouped more than half the cost. Making reservations for this summer, we recouped more than the balance. Some places we are staying at are as little as $11 a night (!!).
And the pass is good at most Federal properties - Army Corps parks, National Forests, National Parks, and so on and so forth. When you make a reservation online, there is a box to check off if you have a pass. You enter the pass number and it can knock 50% off the price - or more. Of course, you have to show the pass once you get there, so don't forget to bring it!
Of course, this sort of thing can backfire. Giving discounts to people based on age alone really isn't fair. Does Warren Buffet need a discount on a hotel room, or free coffee? I noted before we went to a State Park and they offered me a "Senior Discount" and I said, "You know, that young couple behind us, camping in an old tent, living out of a ratted old Camry with a baby - they really need the discount more than I do!" And of course, such discounts distort markets. Prior to getting the pass, we could not afford to spend night after night at a campground - now we can afford to park there for weeks, as many old people actually do, which is one reason so many campgrounds are "full" all the time - they have become de facto retirement homes, which national parks were never intended to be.
So yes, I have mixed feelings about the "Geezer Pass" as we call it. But of course, now that we qualify for it, we take advantage of it. And we make sure all the reservations are in my name!
Friday, May 27, 2022
P.T. Barnum - How To Make Money
Maybe he wasn't the huckster we thought he was...
The name "P.T. Barnum" has become shorthand in modern America for hucksterism and hype and shady dealing. He was supposedly famous for saying "There's a sucker born every minute!" - referring to the customers of his sideshows and circuses. Or did he mean something else?
A reader send me a link to this article he wrote, about how to make money. And surprisingly it isn't about how to fleece the "suckers" but how to spend a penny less than you make, avoid borrowing money, and to stop spending on stupid status items. In other words, pretty basic practical advice - much of what I have had to learn the hard way in the decade or so since I started this blog.
In a way, I was disappointed in part, because I thought he would be writing about how to fleece the plebes and get them to come back to the well again and again, handing over their money with their blubbering thanks. Instead, I get "a penny saved is a penny earned" kind of stuff. This is not the P.T. Barnum I was raised to believe in!
So, I thought I would write something along the lines of what the myth of P.T. Barnum might say today...
It isn't hard to make a ton of money in America, provided you have no scruples or morals and don't feel uncomfortable about exploiting your fellow man. It isn't hard to do, as your fellow man is a blithering idiot, driven by fear and greed and the insane need for status and conformity. Target these weaknesses and you can profit wildly.
What do I mean by this? Well it has so many applications.
For example, you want to sell a product and make money. A fool would say, "I will sell an honest product which is an honest value, at a modest profit margin. People will see it is a good value and it will spread by word-of-mouth and I will become successful in the marketplace!"
It is possible to sell products that way, but the margins are thin and as such, you are at the mercy of the vagaries of the marketplace and could go out of business on a moment's notice. And it is the guy selling shiny overpriced pieces of crap who will likely bankrupt you.
On the other hand, if you appeal to the fear, greed, and vanity of people, you can sell your product for enormous profits - and sell them newer products again and again - as people desperately want to "fit in" and be known as having the latest and greatest and most popular product, even if is less useful than competing products and wildly overpriced. This is the business model of Apple, which sells Apple logos with second-rate phones attached to them. You sell status, with a product attached. People are afraid of being seen as "different" or worse yet, poor and they will flock to your store.
It also helps to advertise - heavily (and oddly enough, Barnum does suggest this!). Saturate the airwaves with promotions for your product, or better yet, get trendy celebrities to endorse them or have them just casually mentioned or shown in movies and television shows. Once you create the impression that it is "normal" to drive a 5,000-lb SUV to work by yourself, people will pay tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of owning one - maybe even $100,000 or more! Selling a practical sedan has razor-thin margins and the competition in that sector is fierce.
But suppose you are not in the business of making and selling things. Well, then, you can sell people ideas as well. And today, thanks for a vibrant "retail" investment market, you can sell people ideas about investments and make out like a bandit. You can take a ho-hum company and hype the stock price through the stratosphere using social media. Once the price goes up, "Fear of Missing Out" or FOMO kicks in (remember what I said about Fear?) and more plebes will buy in, thus validating the price rise even further. You can keep this going for years and years, until your perfectly legal Ponzi scheme peters out - but by then, you've cashed out.
And you don't even need a stock to do this - Bitcoin and other "crypto" have illustrated that you can get people to "invest" in nothing whatsoever other than the idea of investment. If someone questions the premise of it all, you just mock them online as being "clueless" and "not getting it" - without saying exactly what "it" is - other than some buzzwords and happy-talk. People will be frightened to question you ever again. Again, you can keep this going on for years before it all falls apart - but by then, you've moved on to something else.
And so on and so forth. You make more money selling people "luxury" homes that cost a fortune to buy and a fortune to maintain - in terms of repairs, heating, cooling, taxes, and insurance. The plebes will bankrupt themselves (literally - see the meltdown of 2008) to have fancy appliances and stone countertops, just so they can impress people they don't even know. They are so insecure that they cannot make judgments by themselves, but nervously look around them to see what the rest of the herd is doing, and then monkey-see, monkey-do, replicate that behavior, even if it is self-destructive (See, e.g., smoking).
And don't forget greed! Greed sells investments, to be sure, but also the idea of getting "something for nothing" by telling them if they buy one, they will get one for "free" or that somehow they can pull the wool over the eyes of a savvy car dealer. If you carefully balance these levers of fear and greed, you can motivate a sucker from both sides of his brain - pretty soon, he won't be thinking at all, but just devolve into a jumble of emotional reactions to stimuli.
The list goes on and on. No matter what kind of business you are in - or scam or con - the key thing is to remember that people are fundamentally idiots and idiots are easy to fleece. You want to get elected to enact tax cuts for your wealthy friends, for example. How do you so this in a Democratic society where such tax cuts would never benefit the majority of society? Simple, you make them afraid of something. Immigrants, liberals, minorities, crime, whatever. Find a bogeyman and use fear to your advantage and they will march in your parade. They may even usurp Democracy for you! It has been shown, time and time again, that when you give primitive peoples the right to vote, the first thing they vote for is to abolish the right to vote. It's like shooting fish in a barrel.
You are only limited by your own imagination - something the plebes are definitely lacking. Take fear for example - people are afraid of the weirdest things. For example, men are afraid that they will be perceived as "sissies" - so you can sell them a plethora of crapola on the basis that "manly men" go for such things. This includes politics! Women are even worse and are little more than bundles of fear - they live in absolute terror about their appearance. And oddly enough, they are not afraid as to how men perceive them, but other women (men, after all, are interested in only one thing, right?).
Of course, this does require that you check your empathy at the door. You can't exploit people and care about them at the same time. You can't be "nice" to people when you are trying to rope them into an onerous car "lease" deal. You have to smile and act like it's normal for a young couple to spend half their take-home pay on a mortgage on a mini-mansion that will eventually force them into foreclosure.
Sure, you can still make money and have a conscience - but you won't make nearly as much. You'll be one of those clueless "plebes" working at a "job" for a "salary" and wondering what your next "big ticket" purchase will be - desperately monitoring your credit score so you can figure out how much the banks will lend you this month - if you are lucky!
OK, well maybe I am being a bit sarcastic. Or maybe not. I noted before how I met a nice couple who owned a chain of check-cashing and payday loan stores. They did not feel they were doing anything "wrong" and I am sure they went to church every Sunday and prayed to the same God as the rest of us, and felt they were Christian people (or fill-in-the-blank of whatever religion claims to be right). They conveniently forget the part in the Bible where Jesus kicks the money-lenders out of the temple.
That right there is why so many on the "Right" get upset when Democrats start talking about regulation reform of the financial sector or establishing consumer protection agencies. It sort of cuts in to what they consider "legitimate" businesses - exploiting their fellow man. In fact, many use religion to bootstrap this - in their own minds. They devolve religion into "God likes me best, because I am faithful, ergo, anything I do which results in success has the blessing of God!"
I think, deep down, they really don't believe this, which is why they are so defensive all the time - fear of being called out as a phony. But it is a way to salve the cognitive dissonance in their own brains. After all, they would not want their own children - or relatives - to be victimized by con artists. But it's OK for them to victimize others - particularly if you can view the "others" as somehow less than human (and yes, race plays into this, as well as economic status).
P.T. Barnum was, I think, misunderstood. After all, he never actually stole money from anyone, but provided entertainment services for people in exchange for money. If he promised "The Greatest Show on Earth!" he delivered it. If he promised a freak show - he delivered it. Maybe he used hucksterism and promotion to get the plebes in the door, but he never failed to deliver value for the dollar - hence the people coming back year after year, whenever the circus was in town.
Today, traditional circuses are on the decline - a victim of animal-rights concerns as well as the rising costs of running a circus. Sure, we have "Cirque du Soliel" but it isn't the same as a line of marching elephants and whip-bearing lion tamers. It's just a stage show with acrobats and music. The real circus today is in the world of commerce - where anything goes and it's a thrill-a-minute.
And definitely a freak show!
Thursday, May 26, 2022
Open Primaries and Trumpism
In an open primary, Trump-backed candidates often lose.
Tuesday was primary election day in Georgia and we voted - in the Republican primary. "Wait," you say, "Aren't you a Democrat?" Well, no, actually we are more independents but lean that way. But in Georgia, we have an open primary system, which I wrote about before, twice.
It took us several years to figure out that voting in the Democratic primary was kind of stupid. Most candidates are running unopposed or have huge leads against no-name opponents. And in Georgia, at least until recent times, the Republican candidate always won. So if you wanted to make a real choice with your vote, it wasn't in the Democratic primary, or indeed, even in the general election, but in the GOP primary. Of course, that may be changing, now that we have two Democratic Senators. But in terms of primary voting, the Democratic ticket is largely unopposed.
The pundits are at it again - this time in an article today pontificating that "Trumpism isn't dead" even if Governor Kemp and Secretary of State Raffensperger won the nomination of their party. These are the guys who refused to go along with Trump's "Big Lie" and overturn the election results.
By the way, our voting machines here in Georgia are very secure. To vote you have to present your ID, which is scanned in on a first computer to make sure you are in the right precinct and entitled to vote. Then, you are given a card to authorize the voting machine. The machines present your voting choices on a screen, and when you are satisfied with your selections, it prints out your choices, which you can then read on a piece of paper. These are then scanned into another machine and the paper is saved in a locked and sealed box that cannot be opened by local poll workers. So not only is there an electronic count, but a paper ballot backup for manual recounts (or optical recounts of the paper ballots). It is about as secure as you can get. And no, I don't want to hear any conspiracy theories about this.
Anyway, Georgians like the Governor and Secretary of State, in part because they stood up to Trump. But in most closed primaries, only the rabid extremists of every party vote, which is how you end up with candidates like Ms. AOC or Laruen Bobert. Of course, even in an open primary, you can end up with candidates like "Our Miss Margie" Green, but in the inbred hills of far Northwestern Georgia, anything is possible, particularly when the opposition candidate quits the race.
In the general election, everyone votes - Republicans, Democrats, and the largest group - Independents. So in a situation where the nomination is determined by the fringe, it can often come back to haunt you in the general election - which is why these fringe candidates try to sound "normal" in the run-up to the general election. "That Mr. Hitler isn't so bad! I hear one of his grandparent's was actually Jewish!"
You know the routine.
So now the governor's race comes down to Kemp, who has shown independence from Trump, and Stacey Abrams, who might win, but let's face it - has no real experience in government other than losing the last time around. But she may get out the black vote.
Speaking of which, the GOP has an issue on its hand. Georgia - particularly Atlanta - has a huge black population, as well as a large population of liberal whites. So to win the Senate, they have a problem - Ralph Warnock is black and the GOP "needs a black" to go up against him. If the Senate race was down to Warnock versus some sweaty, crew-cut white guy with rolls of red flesh over his too-tight collar, the result would be predetermined - Warnock would win. So what to do?
Find a Stooge. And they found one, in a brain-injury football player with a famous name and a history of wife-beating and stalking. I'm not saying he's dumb as a rock, only that today, when asked about Trump's "election fraud" claims, he replied, "Trump never said that!".
It is kind of insulting and condescending, if you think about it. You know how it went down in some GOP think-tank. "We need a [black]. They'll vote for one of their own! Doesn't matter who - some sports star or a church deacon. Oh, wait, the Dems already have the latter. Let's go with sports star! They're dumb enough to vote for that, regardless of his background and experience!"
And it may very well work, which is the sad part. It isn't that the vast majority of black voters will fall for this gag, only that they need just a small portion to be swayed to win. Combine that with new voter restrictions and of course, voter suppression tactics (sending out letters making vague threats about legal repercussions if you vote "illegally" or have a criminal record or some nonsense) and it may be enough to swing the election. Democrats won in Georgia last time around - but by slim margins. It helped that the election was the day after the insurrection. We can't count on Trump being so cooperative this time around.
Open primaries offer another opportunity for the independent voter - the chance to be a spoiler. It is the argument used by opponents of open primaries. The idea is, as an independent or Democrat, you vote for the most whacked-out fringe candidate possible, knowing the voters in the fall will reject that candidate and vote Democratic instead. It is a neat theory, it falls apart on two grounds.
First, the whacked-out fringe candidates now represent the bulk of the GOP these days. I looked at the websites of all the GOP candidates and they all paid lip-service to "voter fraud" and "build the wall" and "stop the steal" and "Biden is a Communist" and other nonsense. There were no middle-of-the-road moderate candidates. Our current governor was about as close to that as you can get, and even he pays lip service to conspiracy theories.
Second, it has never been shown to work. You would have to organize hundreds of thousands of voters to intentionally vote for a candidate they don't like, and then you have to hope it works - and that another candidate you don't like but is more electable, actually wins. And even if you got it to work out a the primary level, suppose the nut-job wins in the fall? That is how we ended up with Trump, I think - a lot of "Bernie Bros" voted for Trump out of spite. Because no one ever liked little Donnie, not even in grade-school. He had cooties.
So why do some States have closed primaries and others open ones? Well, in many cases, the extremists take over the party and push for closed primaries, as it insures that only extremists will be nominated. In other cases, more pragmatic politicians realize that no one will get elected from their party if only extremists are on the ballot. And I think that is the mathematics being done in Georgia and other "open primary" States. People from "up North" may think Georgia is part of the "Deep South" and harbor images from the civil rights era, but in reality, it is a somewhat progressive State - with a large metropolitan area outvoting the more regressive rural ones. It is similar to Virginia and New York in that regard - both with huge metropolitan areas that out-vote the rest of the State (or Commonwealth) whose residents may have other ideas. Yes, Virginia, there are Republicans in New York State - and they even win elections.
The fall election will be more interesting. But even if the GOP makes gains, I am not sure it is an endorsement of Trump or Trumpism, but just a normal reaction in a mid-term election. If the GOP gains control of either house, expect "hearings" and "investigations" to begin, as that is the new norm. And expect the January 6th committee to be disbanded. What took them so long anyway? Maybe Americans are finally getting tired of these "great revelations!" that are always "next week" or whenever. Doesn't matter if it is on the Left or Right, it seems these "investigations" and hearings result in nothing actually happening, other than a chance to create sound-bites for the news cycle.
Wednesday, May 25, 2022
Trouble For Tesla?
Live by the bot, die by the bot...
A lot of people are freaking out, wondering if this is the big crash that we've all been waiting for. During the Obama years, we had a slow and steady recovery from the crash of 2008. During the Trump years, we had tax cuts and other means of "goosing" the economy - and then stimulus spending for both individuals and corporations, to keep the party going during a pandemic.
It all had to end sometime, and the longer we "goose" the economy with low interest rates and deficit spending, the worse the hangover will be.
Tech stocks are taking a beating lately, as many of these companies are not making any money or are not making enoug money to justify their crazy stock prices.
Elon Musk has used an army of bots and useful idiots to pump up his stock price. It is classic "projection" that he claims that Twitter is dominated by bots, when his own posts are upvoted by millions of people who may or may not actually exist. Granted, there are simps and fanboys who think Musk is Space Jesus, but it seems lately, the Internet has turned on him.
The problem with having a company with a charismatic leader is that if the leader dies, is involved in scandal, or just loses his mind, the company is in trouble. Warren Buffet made noises about retiring and was going to hand-off his company to a subordinate. That did not go well with shareholders, so he is back in the saddle, apparently until death do us part. When the inevitable happens, well, Berkshire-Hathaway may have to struggle a bit.
Apple has survived this only because Steve Jobs, while a charismatic leader, was more of a salesman and a promoter than a "hands on" leader. The company has survived without him, and without a new charismatic spokesman.
The problem for Tesla is that the fanboys and meme-stonk buyers have hyped the price of the stock to the stratosphere. The P/E ratio was in the hundreds - the thousands at one point - and has dropped back to Earth to less than 100 today. Meanwhile, GM is loafing along at under ten. Which is a better buy?
The thinking was, Tesla wasn't a "car company" and thus the P/E ratio should be more like a tech company, where profits could expand exponentially as they take over the market. When you have a de facto monopoly (for the time being at least) your stock price may soar based on the expectation of future earnings. Whether or not these grand plans materialize is anyone's guess.
The problem is, of course, that Tesla is a car company, and that conventional car companies are getting into Tesla's space quite rapidly - often with products that are better than what Tesla is offering. I noted before that the Ford Mustang Mach-E is a better product that the clunky Tesla Model X "SUV" with its leaky gull-wing doors and crappy quality or its smaller cousin, the Model-Y. When Tesla was the only game in town, people bought. but once they have choices, will they still buy? VW is selling nearly as many EVs in Europe as Tesla is, and they are new to the game.
But then factor in the charismatic leader. People don't like to mix politics with their spending choices, and any good company knows that you should appear to be politically neutral, at least on the surface, if you are serving the public. There has been a backlash against wealth inequality and people realize that when they buy a "Starbucks" the person behind the counter isn't happy in their job or paid well - and that the founder of the company is a right-wing billionaire. Maybe people are so addicted to the coffee they will continue to buy. Or maybe, like with Chik-Fil-A, there are enough customers who actually endorse the company's religious and political views (which they keep trying to distance themselves from!) so it doesn't make a difference. In my town, many fundamentalist Christians view going to Chik-Fil-A as an atonement for missing church on Sunday.
The problem for Tesla isn't the loss of a charismatic leader, but the retention of one. Musk comes across as a petulant middle-schooler on Twitter, making oblique giggly references to drug use and threatening those who dare criticize him. The political leftists who embraced Musk as a visionary who would wean us from fossil fuels will no doubt have second thoughts about him. Many are pointing out that far from being a "visionary" Musk was merely the lucky son of a gem mine owner in Apartheid South Africa, who bought his way into Tesla with profits he made from PayPal, and used government-backed carbon credits to pump up the profitability of his company. Even Space-X would not have survived without generous government infusions of cash. The "free market maven" is, in fact, suckling on the government teat, big time. No wonder he is turning Republican!
But taking all that aside, I think the Tesla "meme stock" bubble is just deflating as it would have to, eventually. There was no way Tesla could ever justify its dramatic run-up in share price. A P/E ratio of 1000 or more would mean you'd have to wait 1000 years to make your money back, or that the profitability of the company would have to increase by a factor of 50 or more. And the automobile business is a business of narrow margins. You make a profitable product and your competitors copy it - often today using the same components from the same suppliers.
It's also a horribly cyclic business, with sales taking off every four or five years and then tanking, often taking out entire divisions or car companies in the process. Over the years, almost every car company ever founded has faced bankruptcy or has been forced to merge with another, due to changes in fortune.
I noted before - time and time again - that "market cap" is a mythical number based on the number of shares outstanding times the share price the last meme stonk buyer on Reddit paid for a share. Just because some idiot living in his mother's basement paid a lot of money for 1/10th of a share of Gamestop doesn't mean the company is poised to take off and make huge profits in the future. The stock market is not a rational market, particularly when small retail investors are involved. Particularly when social media - which has been shown time and time again to distort people's world view - manipulate share prices. And old Elon has done this on multiple occasions - sometimes with just a Tweet, much to the SEC's dismay.
So this "richest man in the world" nonsense is just that - nonsense. His wealth is measured by the "Market Cap" of Tesla, and that isn't money you can spend, it is a number on a piece of paper - a number he has borrowed against. If the stock price continues to fall, well, he may end up in a bit of a pickle as those loans backed by shares as collateral, are called in. He would then have to sell off more shares to pay back loans, further depressing share prices.
Maybe his new pals in the GOP can bail him out. You laugh, that might very well be his strategy.
Tuesday, May 24, 2022
The problem with pushing the envelope is you run out of envelope.
Jerry Seinfeld once famously said that resorting to swear words is a sign of weak comedy. And if you watch his shows or stand-up sets, you realize he never once says "fuck" or "shit" or whatever, but still manages to be funny. Then again, there are "comics" who resort to swearing to make an unfunny bit try to be funny, or a funny bit funnier. Often it doesn't work and sometimes it is just awkward.
George Carlin was famous for his "seven dirty words" bit, which at the time was considered "out there" and risque, although Lenny Bruce arguably did it all first and Carlin was a pale imitation of Bruce's edgy humor. Carlin went on to do political humor - peppered with swear words which, thanks in part to him, have become part of the lexicon.
Carlin is dead, but much of his stuff lives on, on YouTube and elsewhere, and some of it is still funny, other bits are, well, outdated. Political humor loses its appeal really fast. George Bush jokes were hilarious at the time, but fell flat the day he left office. Topical humor has a sell-by date. Meanwhile, "Seinfeld" is a staple of cable television and online streaming. Much of the humor is still funny, although I suppose jokes about answering machines may be dated in this era of voice-mail and text messaging.
Today we have a new breed of "comic" who resorts not only to vulgarity but to racism and sexism and other -isms to shock and try to be funny. "He's just saying what we're all thinking!" people say, as the "comedian" makes a rape joke. We've erased the boundaries between decency and vulgarity, and as a result, comics have to "go there" further and further into offensive humor. Jokes no longer have to be just funny - they have to shock and create controversy. The Dean Martin roast and Don Rickles insult humor seem tame in comparison to today's "shock jocks" and "politically incorrect" comedians.
I am not sure what the point of this is, only that it is too late, perhaps, to go back to "kinder, gentler" humor these days. Everything has to be charged and supercharged with political content, insults, and controversy. Controversy is what sells newspapers - or clicks or eyeballs. Mean-spirited humor, designed to denigrate or offend, is the new norm. No one today would ever laugh at Jerry Seinfeld observing, "Didya ever notice.....?"
Or would they?
He's still on the air, making lame jokes about answering machines, as his show continues to re-run into a new century - nearly 25 years after it went off the air. Maybe you don't have to be mean and vulgar to be funny.
Monday, May 23, 2022
Loss of Use (Consequential Damages) in Warranty Claims
If your car breaks down, it may be repaired under warranty. Don't expect them to pay for a rental car or a hotel room, though!
A friend of mine asked for advice - which I am loathe to give - about trouble they are having with their Dodge RAM pickup. Seems the diesel engine has a cover on or under the intake manifold, made of plastic, and there is a "heater" in there to warm it up. It is supposed to shut off, but it didn't and it melted this cover, causing the engine to ingest parts.
So Dodge offered to install a new engine, but due to "supply chain" the engine is on backorder for months. Meanwhile, the truck sits in the dealer's bay, with the cab removed, as apparently the only way to remove the engine on these trucks is to remove the entire body first. This will not end well. You have to hope the mechanic replaces every bolt he removed, or the thing will rattle like hell. And all the wiring and other connections? It is just a recipe for disaster. Col. Waddington would be appalled.
But that was not their complaint. Their complaint was it was taking so long to get fixed, and in the interim they had to borrow a friend's truck to haul things. Is Dodge liable under the warranty for loss of use of their vehicle while it is being repaired?
It is referred to as "consequential damages" and most warranties explicitly exclude it. Of course, this can often be a State Law question, so you have to ask an Attorney in your State whether such exclusions apply. But if you think about it, you can understand why most warranties exclude this, as it creates an open-ended liability for the manufacturer. A truck breaks down under warranty. It was carrying a shipment of parts to keep a factory running. The truck is out of service for a day or two and the factory shuts down - costing millions of dollars in losses. If the truck manufacturer was on the hook for "consequential damages" they would have to factor that into the price of the vehicle. They are selling a truck, not a trucking service.
This is not to say there is no recourse. Lemon laws were enacted because of such problems - cars that broke and never could be fixed, it seemed. You buy a car, and for six months it is in the shop - it is like not having a car at all. And under most lemon law cases, if the car isn't fixed after three attempts, well, the car company may have to buy it back.
My friend bought the truck used, and at first that would seem like a bar to lemon-law buybacks. But again it is a State Law question and in New Jersey the consumer protection bureau actually has a lemon law division that will arbitrate such disputes - for free. There are pretty strict limitations, however, as to who qualifies. The vehicle can't be from a private seller or sold "as-is" or be beyond certain mileage limits.
But as I noted before, in many of these "lemon" cases, the real issue isn't the repairs or the inconvenience, but buyer's remorse. We spent tens of thousands of dollars on a vehicle and then are disappointed that it doesn't fly through space or travel through time. It is just a car and it has its flaws. And the more you spend on something, the more disappointed you can get. After seven years, we are very happy with the hamster and have zero problems with it. It was more car than we expected for the money. And that is the key - we spent so little we felt we were robbing a bank. Ditto for our camper. So you tend to overlook small problems.
Our pickup truck, though - the most expensive vehicle I have ever owned - is nice and all, but it is infuriating when something minor breaks. It is also scary how the technology, which is fun and all, can break and break expensive and no one knows how to fix it or can get parts. I was pissed-off that the ride was so bouncy. I was scared to death when I started it and the main display screen was blank. I am glad they replaced one of the four cameras under warranty - but annoyed that the cost of the camera and the "special computer" needed to program the truck to accept it - would be beyond my means if it breaks again, out of warranty.
You realize that you spent a lot of money and created a lot of risk for yourself. If we can put 100,000 miles on this truck without major repairs, we'll be happy - and then we'll dump it. Because I don't want to drive around in a vehicle with a "this doesn't work anymore" or "that's broken" kind of deal.
But after a while, you get over these problems. We paid cash for the truck, so we are at least not looking at seven years of payments to go. Others are not so lucky - and it sticks in your craw that you need these repairs and are making payments on a "garage queen" that you can't even use.
Of course, you can buy less technology. When we went to buy the Ford, we initially set out to get a pretty stripped-down truck. We had good luck with the Nissan in part because it as a basic SV model - it had a few toys but was pretty simple. It got worse gas mileage than the much larger Ford, but then again, didn't have dual turbochargers and an intercooler and whatnot. The Ford generates 100 more horsepower on 0.5 liters less displacement. But that comes at a price - technical complexity.
That is the problem when buying any piece of technology. It isn't until you've bought it and got it home and used it before you find out what it is. And if it isn't what you thought it was, often you are stuck. That's why the Japanese had such luck selling cars and took over the car market in the USA. Americans were tired of buying "lemons" and being stuck with a crappy car for 48 months of car payments. Their neighbor tells them how worry-free their new Toyota is, and well, another sale is made.
Of course, today it is hard not to buy technology that you don't understand or can fix yourself. Internal combustion engines are incredibly complex today in order to get the amazing mileage they get. Electric cars are, in theory, simpler in design but the electronics are beyond the capabilities of most car owners. You have to hope they never break, and for the most part, they don't. Routine maintenance includes replacing the tires every 50,000 miles and maybe the wiper blades. That's it.
But if your Tesla has some more complex problem, well, you are shit out of luck. Then again, it is kind of hard to feel sorry for someone who spends tons of money on any car. You buy bleeding edge, you live on the edge - which is why I think the "Big-3" will cream Tesla with their own electric cars (I saw a lot of Mach-E Mustangs in DC!). Besides, who wants to drive a car from a company owned by a Nazi? I mean, other than Volkswagen.
It's like Prius drivers being shocked to discover that Toyota lobbied to decrease mileage requirements in the USA. Sort of a buzz-kill.
I am sorry I didn't have any good advice to give my friend, other than perhaps to sell the truck once it was fixed and buy something simpler - and older Ford Powerstroke, perhaps. But even then, Ford had its share of esoteric issues with some older models. Maybe owning less stuff is really the only option!
NOTE: This is not to say consequential damages are never covered. Some extended warranties explicitly offer to cover consequential damages, but usually cap these at a certain limit per day. For example, a friend had their RV break down and their extended warranty covered the cost of cancellation fees and a flight home and a rental car. They were lucky as most "extended warranties" claim to cover these things, but when you call the company you get, "The number you have dialed is disconnected..."
Also, in commercial transactions, warranties may cover some foreseeen consequential damages. For example, in construction, a warranty may cover loss of use if that is a foreseen damage, but usaally these things are spelled out in detail in the contracts. You buy a plane from Boeing, and well, if it is out of service for two years because of a control issue, you may be able to recover damages from them for loss of use.
But for your car warranty? Other than a lemon-law buyback, odds are, not likely.
Sunday, May 22, 2022
What is Zoosk? Why Do They Spam Me? How Do They Break Up Marriages?
SPAM is SPAM and just because your spouse got an e-mail from a dating site doesn't mean they are cheating on you!
I logged onto my phone one morning and found weird messages in my Inbox and even more of them in my SPAM box. over a dozen messages from a site called "Zoosk" telling me that someone "matched" with my profile. Many of the names were just gibberish. "aehafhxzx wants to match with you!" the site cheerfully announces. Great. I am a "match" for a cat on the keyboard!
Of course, I knew it was SPAM as I had never head of this site. They were playing the age-old Internet game of "who has been searching for your profile on Facebook?" - when in fact, there is no way for any site to tell you who has been searching for your profile. Even Facebook doesn't offer that service. But apparently, a lot of people get worried about this, hence the SPAM messages about "someone was doing a background check on you!"
From what I can fathom online, at one time, Zoosk was a dating site trying to swim with the big fishes. But on the Internet, it is "go big or go home!" and sites like Tinder and Grindr took off, while the oddly-named "Zoosk" went nowhere, so the founders sold it. Apparently the new owners are running it as a scam. They send out these SPAM messages hoping that (a) you are dying to know who wants to meet you, or (b) you want to know how they got your name and set up a profile in your name. And apparently it works.
People actually sign up for the "service" just to see what it is all about, and are charged on their credit card in a negative option scheme. They try to cancel, but their card gets charged again and again. Sound familiar? Yea, it is the old AOL gag - take a failing online company, fraudulently charge people's credit cards, and keep doing it until they cancel their card. You can make money this way.
Like anything else on the Internet, there may be layers to this onion, however.
When I searched "Zoosk sucks" or something along those lines, I got one of those weird "complaint boards" that had comments indicating the whole thing was a scam - that the profiles were fake, no one was trying to "hook up" with you, and they were hoping you'd pay to see who is trying to reach you. At the bottom of the page, however, was a link to... dating sites!
It is like MLM rebound schemes. Burned by an MLM? Try this one! It's not a scam! You can make money double-dipping, too.
Another site helpfully offers a service to "block" e-mails from Zoosk - for a fee, of course. So you make money by inflicting minor pain on people and then make money offering it take it away. Sort of like how the telcos used to charge for caller-ID, then charge for caller-ID blocking, then charge even more for caller-ID block-unblock. Some sadist figured all of that out!
What was disturbing, however, was one site where I read that someone's wife was scrolling through the husband's phone and demanded to know what all these e-mails from a dating site were all about! Apparently, the wife didn't buy the explanation that it was unsolicited SPAM messages and accused the husband of cheating. You can see how unsolicited e-mail messages can be a problem in fragile relationships.
Of course, in order for most scams to work, you need the cooperation of the victim. You can't be scammed by Zoosk if you don't sign up, and you won't sign up if you don't fall for the "Oh, who is looking for me?" mindset. Curiosity killed the cat. And if your spouse wants to divorce you because of a SPAM message on your phone, maybe it is a good thing - not a lot of trust in that relationship! And why was she searching the trash bin on your e-mail account in the first place? Weird.
I tried clicking on "mark as SPAM and unsubscribe" and it didn't work - the SPAM kept coming and some of the messages went to my INBOX. The messages all came overnight, which tells me they are from a time zone on the other side of the planet. I cautiously clicked on the "unsubscribe" icon on one of the messages and apparently it worked. It was a risky move, as many SPAM sites use the "unsubscribe" icon not to unsubscribe you, but to confirm you are a "live" e-mail address. So if you click on "unsubscribe" on SPAM it may make things worse.
Of course, SPAM is a minor annoyance. I like to clean out my SPAM and TRASH boxes daily. Mark lets it accumulate until Google erases it (after 30 days) which just seems sloppy to me.
Nevertheless, I thought it was a fascinating look at the seamy underworld of the Internet and how they use psychology to get people to click - and pay - for nonsense!
Saturday, May 21, 2022
Low Testosterone? Nah...
A few years ago, we were visiting an...ahem!... clothing optional gay campground. I noted before that this naturist thing is interesting, but not what people think it is. Anyway, there was this guy there who had clearly been to the gym a lot and had one of those body-builder bodies, covered from head-to-toe in tattoos, like the illustrated man. We were talking with him and he admitted that he had taken a lot of steroids over the years, as well as testosterone supplements.
"I wasn't gay until I took testosterone," he said, which was kind of an odd thing to say. He said the testosterone supplements increased his sex drive so much that the only way he could find relief was with other men - the women couldn't keep up! Well, that was what he claimed, anyway.
So this idea that high testosterone levels will turn you into a manly heterosexual is kind of flawed. Some of the most "manly men" I have ever met were gay. I remember when I was President of the Gay and Lesbian Student Association at S.U., we organized a "Gay Pride" celebration with some local organizations, one of them being the Gay Volleyball Club. I went to visit the guy who ran that, and he was an ex-marine, a wall of muscle, nearly seven feet tall. He was mowing his lawn and he was pushing the mower with one hand, like he was handling a toothpick. The idea that gays are all effeminate twinkies is somewhat wrong - although they do exist!
But what is behind all this talk about testosterone levels? Well, of course, part of it is the grifting angle - television personalities selling quack cures to the gullible plebes. Another part of it is political - claiming that the world is turning queer because of low testosterone, or on the flip side, low testosterone is a result of too much touchy-feely politics. Being male, in their minds, means being an insensitive jerk. And quite frankly, we have enough insensitive jerks in the world as it is.
The above cartoon from The Onion, parodies Tucker Carlson's recent rantings on this issue ("All Tuckered Out"). Apparently, Tucker, a real Renaissance Man, who went to Swiss boarding schools and is heir to the Swanson TV Dinner fortune (bootstraps and all, ya know!) is of the opinion that lack of UV light on the testicles is responsible for low testosterone levels worldwide. You have to let the boys out on occasion, I guess, or subscribe to one of his laser ball treatments (no thanks!). It may explain why testosterone levels in the gay nudist campgrounds are at all-time highs. But I am not being serious.
What is going on here? Well, again, besides the grifting angle, it is a political thing. The idea that women are people, too, is scary to a lot of folks, particularly insecure men. It is part-and-parcel of this "incel" thing where men are being told that women should be submissive and the only reason they are not getting laid is... feminism. The narrative is that we are turning into a nation of sissies because we are not being jerks anymore and treating women like property - and now allowing them to vote! You laugh, but bear in mind that women didn't get the right to vote until 1919 - more than a half-century after black men got that right (well, in theory at least).
But it goes beyond that. The "#METOO" movement scares the crap out of a lot of people on the Right - or even the Left. The idea that you can just go up to a woman and grab her anywhere is something that not only President Trump endorsed, but Joe Biden was caught doing (although he never went for the money shot, as far as we know). Being affectionate? Or sexual harassment? It is a fine line. And folks today are finding their careers ruined from actions they took years ago when such things were deemed "OK" - ask Al Franken about that. He was, of course, an utter piece of shit anyway.
But of course, the raised profiles of gay people and now transgender people is riling up a lot of folks. Most people want to be left the hell alone (at least I do) but it seems the media loves a good "gay" story and goes orgasmic over a "trans" one. And some trans folks seem to enjoy the attention - stirring the pot by making a big deal (or so the narrative goes) over pronoun usage. Someone should lose their job for using the wrong pronoun! The stuff is Fox-News-Ready.
It gets even crazier, with politicians claiming that "Purple-haired nose-ring-wearing Lesbian grade-school teachers" are "grooming" their students by allowing them to "identify" as "furries" and providing a litter box in the classroom. Of course, this never happened, but that doesn't stop the far-Right from jerking off to it.
Modern Conservative thought, I am told, is to invent crazy ridiculous scenarios in their head and then get really mad at them and then legislate against them. Whether it is "Critical Race Theory" or "Don't Say Gay" the bottom line is the same: These things are simply not happening. No one is teaching "Critical Race Theory" in math textbooks, and no one is encouraging little Johnny to change genders in Kindergarten, except in the fantasy mind of Tucker Carlson et al.
But never fear, legislators will outlaw these things, even if they don't exist. Meanwhile, the plebes are distracted from what is really going on in the world. The looting of the treasury, dramatic wealth inequality, and of course, our messed-up health care system. Those are trivial matters. What is critically important is testosterone levels!
This also plays into the "Great Replacement" conspiracy theory. Wealthy, affluent, white people are not having kids like they used to. Back in the 1900's, a wealthy family would have a dozen kids. Of course, half of them would die of childhood illnesses, and a wealthy man might go through three wives, two of which would die in childbirth. By the 1960's an affluent middle-class family might have four or five kids. By the 1990's, it was two - if that. Today, upper-class folks are waiting longer and longer to have kids and having fewer of them - if they have them at all. In part, it is because of economics. In part, it is because many upper-class people are in two-income households. In part, it is because thinking people realize the world is over-populated as it is.
But never fear, the utter white trash that comprises "White Supremacists" (the worst examples of the white race) are having litters of flat-faced inbred babies with little hope for a decent education, upbringing, or job prospects. Hey, maybe that is the real problem right there! It isn't we have too many brown people, but too much Honey Boo-Boo.
You see how this works. Real manly-men are ignorant, violent, and abusive. They have litters of children without thinking of consequences. Thinking things through or being considerate of others is just sissy-talk! We need to knock some heads together and get things done!
It is an appealing message - fascism. And it worked for Hitler as well. He promoted the image of the blond-haired, blue-eyed ubermensch who was part of the "master race" and would reproduce prolifically as part of his duty to the State. And attractive-yet-sturdy Rheinmaidens would birth the new world order. Or something like that.
The whole thing sounds ridiculous and weird - to most of us. But to those embedded in the Culture of Belligerence, it all makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, the folks flogging these issues are promoting and fanning the flames of belligerence and violence with this dog-whistle posturing. They claim shocked innocence when one of their wind-up soldiers actually acts out their fascist fantasies. "Who, me?" Mr. Carlson proclaims, "I dindonuffin!"
But it is an old, old game. You pander to the dumbest and most belligerent part of the population (and the mentally unhinged as well) and give them ideas. Ideas such as "Democrats are out to destroy our country!" or "Minorities and Immigrants are taking over!" Then you sit back and claim innocence when attacks on minorities and immigrants skyrocket and people try to intimidate voters or even overturn elections.
It it wasn't so sad, it would be funny.
Friday, May 20, 2022
Concierge Medical Care
Medical Care in America you some of the best in the world and yet it seems to benefit no one.
I mentioned before that our doctor passed away unexpectedly a few years ago. She was a great doctor, General Practitioner or GP, which is the hardest job in the world, I think. If you're a specialist, I think it might actually be easier, as you are always doing the same procedures and seeing the same symptoms and diagnosing the same illnesses. But a General Practitioner has to be a jack-of-all-trades and be able to pick up on a subtle cues as well as handle very mundane things like infected toenails and whatnot. It's hard work and it doesn't pay very well to be a GP.
We looked around for a new doctor after our old doctor passed away and somebody suggested we try this young cardiologist who was accepting patients for General Practice. I kind of felt like we were using a Ferrari to drive to the grocery store. He was highly specialized in cardiovascular care, but we needed somebody to help us with more mundane things like, well, infected toenails.
When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. So the first time we went to visit him, we both ended up having a stress test, and I end up in the hospital having a heart catheterization procedure to install stents which turned out to be totally unnecessary. I had zero stents installed but my doctor did make medical history by finding a heart in a lawyer.
He warned me that if I continued with my current lifestyle, I would be in a world of woe by age 70. And he may be very well right about that. He was, however, pushing a all-vegan agenda, which I thought was a bit extreme. He also rides his bike like 50 to 100 miles a day in the streets and I warned him that that was probably more unhealthy then my carnivore lifestyle. And sure enough, during one of his rides, he fell off and punctured his lung and broke several ribs. He's lucky he wasn't run over by a car.
We decided to find someone who was a GP, and found a young woman who had a practice locally. I say "young woman" as she was in her 30s and pregnant at the time. That seems very young to me now. I remember my Dad mentioning that you know you're getting older and all your doctors are younger than you are. And he was right about that.
She seemed like a good doctor and things seem to be going pretty well, although she seemed a bit distracted by other elements of her practice. Then one day we get a notice in the mail that she is leaving the practice of the hospital and opening the concierge practice on nearby rich people's island.
What is a concierge practice? Simply stated, it's a practice where you pay a monthly fee to become a patient of the doctor. The doctor does not accept insurance or any other form of payment such as Medicare or Medicaid but only cash. If you want to be reimbursed by your insurance company, you have to take the receipts and submit them yourself, fill out the forms, and wait for reimbursement. However, since your doctor is now out of network, very little of the expenses are covered compared to in-network care.
There was a $100 fee just to apply to become a patient in her practice in a $250 per month fee to remain a patient. That's $6000 a year, even if we never get sick. Obviously, this was not in the cards for us but aimed more at the people who live on rich people's island, or more specifically the people live on really, really rich people's island. To give you an idea of what those folks are like, John Travolta used to have a house there at one time.
We're just poor white trash living in a State Park and dependent on Obamacare. Concierge Medical Practice is not for us.
I'm not angry or disappointed at our doctor for doing this, however. It seems that our medical system is unsatisfactory to everyone involved, both doctors and patients alike. I noted before how our original doctor had a room full of files and clerks to keep track of all the records and more importantly file claims with insurance companies. The insurance companies then pay 30, 60, or 90 days later. In the meantime the doctor struggles to keep the lights on. Once you have a steady stream of patients coming in, you can develop a pipeline of cash flow. But it also means that maybe you have 10 to 15 minutes to see a patient which makes the practice even more stressful.
The concierge model eliminates all of these problems. No longer does the doctor have to deal with insurance companies but just with the patients. As long as the patients are rich, this model works very well. But for the rest of us who have to rely on insurance or some sort of government medical program, it's not a very workable plan.
In addition, the doctors can charge what they considered reasonable fees for their services. With most insurance plans and also government plans, procedures are capped arbitrarily. So, for example, you have an office visit, the insurance company might pay $50 or $100 or so, which really is a loss leader.
With more extensive procedures, prices are also capped, with the patient being on the hook for the balance. However, oftentimes the patients can't afford to pay this balance and so the doctors, or more often, the hospitals have to eat this loss.
For more extensive procedures, the problem is even more acute. Since the insurance companies and government agencies limit the amount paid out for these procedures, it encourages doctors to become proficient on an assembly-line basis. I noted before that my doctor who performed my colonoscopy had patients lined up in an assembly-line fashion. There was very little bedside manner or chit chat. In fact during the last procedure - which I hope will be the last procedure I have in my lifetime- he spent barely 60 seconds with me after the procedure, saying that I was "fine." He was about to leave and I asked him for more details since I have a history of diverticulosis. He replied, "Oh you have poly-diverticulosis, you're large intestine is riddled with pockets." I was kind of shocked and then he said people with my condition rarely have serious problems and then turned around and left. I was left with more questions than answers.
But given the way the medical billing system works, there is very little time for bedside manner and chit chat. Get them in, get them out, get them billed, get paid. We've turned the art of medicine into a business.
So I understand why my former doctor wants to start a concierge practice. It's not just a bald cash grab, but an attempt to de-escalate and depressurize the practice of medicine. With a concierge practice, the doctor no longer has to worry about medical billing and insurance companies, but can actually practice medicine the way they want to, and take their time with their patients and reduce the amount of stress in their lives.
In a way it's what I did with my own law practice. While working for a law firm, I had to constantly bill, bill, bill. Every minute of the day had to be accounted for and we had to basically bill 8 to 10 hours a day just to make our billable hour quota., particularly since not every hour we build ended up being billable.
I quit the associate rat-race and it's mythical partnership track and started my own practice. I' eventually reduced this to working from home and taking on far fewer clients while being able to spend more time with clients counseling them and doing quality, contemplative work. Maybe I didn't make as much money as before, but I was able to control my own life better.
Of course, the downside to this concierge medical practice is that very few of us patients can afford it. In addition to paying the application fee and monthly concierge fee, I'm signing a blank check as to open-ended costs should I have any medical issues. Concierge doctors are considered out-of-network, so my insurance will cover a very little of their costs. Simply stated, the risk is too much for me to take.
Of course, some of our friends overseas will say that this is an example of how the American medical system is broken. In England or Canada they go to the doctor and never even receive a bill. However, I understand is there are physicians in private practice in countries with socialized medicine, and that people who have the means can engage private physicians and avoid the lines at National Health. In a way that is similar to concierge practice.
We have an appointment to see a new (conventional) doctor in June, and we'll see how that goes. We are fortunate that we are fairly healthy at this stage in our lives and haven't had any major health crises. Unfortunately, that seems to be the best healthcare plan we have in America: don't get sick.
Thursday, May 19, 2022
The channels you get from basic cable or basic satellite are toxic.
We stopped at a motel on the way back to Georgia. As much as camping in the tent was fun, camping in the rain would not be fun, mostly because you'd have to put away wet things the next day. The motel room had the de rigeur huge flat-screen tee-vee with "Dish" basic cable. It was appalling to watch.
To begin with, there are like 900 channels to choose from, but many are repeats. The same shows are shown on seven different channels - and I am not sure why. Well over a dozen were "home shopping" type channels, with at least five or more selling coins. There were another dozen of paid programming, selling adjustable beds, pillow toppers, and various quack cures. Apparently, Americans have trouble sleeping - no doubt worried about their investments in collectible silver-tone coins.
But if a quack cure or essential oil won't do the trick, each "regular" channel has a plethrora of ads for some medication that can cure some minor inconvenience, at the expense of liver damage. Oddly enough, one of the channels playing these ads was showing "The Fugative" whose plot revolves around a crooked doctor trying to suppress test results showing - get this - liver damage, in order to get a new profitable drug approved. You'd think people would connect the dots here.
But if they don't, no worries! Because another channel has ads for a law firm that is doing a class-action suit on behalf of people who took one of these miracle wonder drugs and now have cancer. You see what I mean about television being toxic - I mean it literally.
The other ads were for takeout and delivery foods, particularly pizza. Pizza! Pizza! Pizza! Domino's, Pizza Hut, Little Caeser's and more - including a new company I never heard of. Funny thing, when I was a kid, we never had pizza. It wasn't until I was a teenager that Mom brought home frozen pizzas from the grocery store as they were "going out" and we kids had to fend for ourselves. But delivery pizza? Just not a thing at home - maybe on a college campus. There was a Pizza Hut in a neighboring town - I went there once with a friend's family. Today, it is a staple food item.
Interesting note, Domino's now offers "tips" of $3 if you pick up your own pizza. When I worked there (40 years ago) they charged the same price whether you picked up the pie or had it delivered. I am guessing the "labor shortage" is forcing them to re-think this policy and encourage people to DIY their delivery.
Of course, if you get grossly overweight from the pizza, the television has the fix for that - various quack diet plans and exercise plans or machines or gym memberships. It is interesting how they cater to both ends of these compulsions and addictions.
It is also interesting how the focus seems to be on women viewers. So many of the shows were about crime and how people are victimized by it. You would think, watching this drivel, that you are about to be the victim of a crime at any given moment. And now I understand why so many people I know are paranoid about crime.
It was weird to watch this stuff, and I felt like an alien from another planet watching it. But of course, this was "basic" Dish service - there were literally 100 other channels devoted to sports that you have to pay extra to get, as well as Pay-Per-View movies. You can spend an awful lot of money watching television, for sure!
Did I mention the Jesus channels - dozens of those as well, including one, on channel 01 no less, that was advertised as "Help Ukraine!" but appeared to be a pitch for helping Ukrainians find Jesus.
Watching all of this was depressing. Even if we found a real program, like a movie or an old episode of "Seinfeld" (edited to accommodate more commercials!) it seemed that for every five minutes of program, you had to sit through five minutes of ads. With movies, the frequency and duration of the ads seemed to increase frantically as the movie neared its climax - I guess they figured out you aren't going to give up.
I realized that a lot of people do watch this drivel, which is why they are so depressed, upset, angry, and feel manipulated. The average American watched 4.5 hours of this sort of crap. Children are raised on it. It is pretty sick stuff - and I didn't even address the "news" channels with their scrolling text-of-doom and Tucker Carlson warning that America-as-we-know-it is about to vanish.
What is weirder is that people actually pay money for this. It is like paying someone to smash your fingers with a hammer. You have to be a real masochist to want to do something like that.
What is funny is that I find myself watching less and less of any kind of media. Maybe it is part of getting older, but I no longer am interested in "the news" online, on the air, or in the paper, as so much of it seems pretty irrelevant or just sensationalism. Music seems like noise and even the good stuff seems like a lot of marketing and posturing and manipulation. Movies and television? I just can't watch it so much. Youtube is now full of intrusive ads, as so many of the channels seem, well, repetitive after a while. For some reason Youtube recommends a channel of a guy going through a junkyard and talking about old rusted cars. It was interesting up to a point, but like so many channels, you kind of lose interest after a while - even the creators seem to move on.
Streaming services? Netflix has gotten kind of thin lately and since the "content" online is divided now into a dozen streaming services, it only takes a week or so to see whatever each "channel" has to offer.
But maybe this is a good thing - maybe consuming so much media isn't such a swell idea. It is just passive consumption, not active living. You don't accomplish anything sitting in front of a tee-vee. And it isn't "entertainment" when every five minutes, a bevy of advertisements appears.
Maybe it is just better to unplug from all that crap. It is funny, but these motels feel they need to provide this basic cable service - but who really watches it? It was a poor advertisement for the service, to be sure. After trying to watch it, I gave up. And I certainly don't want to pay to have it at home.
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