Thursday, June 30, 2022

The Supreme Court

How does the Supreme Court work?  How does our court system work?  Not like you might think.

A reader writes:

I'm extremely ignorant on the constitution and law. (I am smart enough to keep my mouth shut, stay off social media and run from crazies on the right and left) Did Roe vs Wade give a "constitutional" right to an abortion? Has a constitutional right been taken away? I just don't get it.

This is not a dumb question.  Our educational system in the United States is lacking and most people have no idea how our government works.  Your average citizen thinks the President is a King and can do whatever he wants - after all, he sets gasoline prices and inflation rates, worldwide!   In reality, Presidents only wish they had such powers.

Worse yet, our media often confuses these issues, perhaps intentionally to create a clickbait title.  "Representative from Mississippi says Bible is law of the land!" a headline screams.  And although we have some wacky people in the House of Representatives, you have to read the article to realize that the person in question is a State legislator, which although an honorable title, is a lot closer to dog-catcher than President of the United States.  Moreover, the ramblings of one State legislator means absolutely nothing - even less than a wacky bill proposed by Ms AOC or Bernie - that will never get out of committee.  Sadly, many people read such articles and think these things are now laws.

With our court system, it is the same deal.  "Jury awards Bazillion Trillion dollars in court case!" the headlines scream - not bothering to mention that 99% of the award is "punitive damages" (designed to punish wrongdoers) which are automatically cut down dramatically as a result of a Supreme Court decision.  But that doesn't make for a good headline - or an outrage story.

Which brings us to the Supreme Court - and the various appeals courts.   Most people are of the opinion that appeals courts and the Supreme Court are just a chance at a "do-over" on the results of a trial.  You lose at trial court, and you can re-litigate your case on appeal - "All the way to the Supreme Court!" as people like to say.  But such is not the case.

In theory, at least, on appeal, the appeals court only decides if there is an error in law in the trial court's decision.  Generally speaking, the appeals court doesn't decide on the merits of the evidence and testimony.  At trial, the jury is supposed to decide the facts and the judge then applies the law.  The appeals court, not being present to hear testimony, can't really determine whether the jury made an error in determining the facts of the case, as appeals courts can't hear testimony - only arguments on appeal, which are supposed to be limited to errors in the law, unless there is some clear error.

This is not to say that some appeals court judges don't find a law issue when what they are really seeing is a fact issue, but that is not suppose to be the case.  And that is one reason why, on appeal, you can't consider "new evidence" as there is no mechanism in an appeals court to take testimony.  At best, you can hope for a remand for a new trial.

Now appeals to the Supreme Court are even more limited - generally there has to be a constitutional issue at stake.  And this is where it gets interesting.  When this Country was founded, the Supreme Court justices got together and tried to figure out what it was they were supposed to do.  Were they the ultimate court of "do-over?"  Or were they the court of last resort?  Or something else?  The Constitution was pretty silent on the issue.  So they decided right off the bat what their subject-matter jurisdiction was.  And in Marbury v. Madison, they basically decided that it was their job to determine whether a law enacted by the States or the Federal Government was "constitutional" or not.

Pretty neat trick, if you think about it. "This is our job... because we said it was our job!"  And granted, someone had to do it.  So the Supreme Court became the arbiter of constitutionality.   And unlike lower appeals courts, where a right to appeal is guaranteed, the Supreme Court grants certiorari to those cases it wants to hear.  Pretty neat trick, too!  Imagine a job where you could decide which tasks you want to do - if any - and which you can just say, "no thanks!" to.  Nice work, if you can get it.

Denying "cert" is also a way of deciding a case without deciding a case.  If they basically agree with a lower court's decision, but don't want to make a big deal about it, they can deny cert and then let the lower court decision stand, without creating a binding precedent that might limit them later on.  Of course, today, binding precedents seem to mean little.

So what does this have to do with Roe v. Wade or the recent decision on New York's very restrictive (and century-old) concealed-carry permit law?  It's complicated.

The fourth amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Some Supreme Court justices in the past have expanded this to include a "right to privacy" under the penumbra of the constitution. Apparently, a penumbra is a type of umbrella. /s  The bumbershoot of the Constitution.

This is why some people argue that the original Roe v. Wade decision was flawed. They expanded the fourth amendment to include a right to privacy, and then expanded it further by saying the government had no right to outlaw abortion because it interfered with the individual's right to privacy.

Conservatives argue that the Fourth Amendment doesn't convey a right to privacy, and that liberal justices created this out of whole cloth.

But it goes beyond that.  The Roe decision went even further to construct the trimester architecture. In the first trimester, an abortion could be granted almost under any circumstance. In the second trimester, only under certain circumstances such rape or incest,  And the third trimester, under almost no circumstances other than risk to life of the mother.  I am simplifying this a bit, but that's the basic idea.

The question was whether laws outlawing abortion were unconstitutional - a yes-or-no question.  The answer they gave was far more detailed. Some people called this legislating from the bench, creating new law out of whole cloth. But others argued that when Congress is too cowardly to act, the court should step in to create the law.  Otherwise, the question would be brought, again and again, before the court, like someone trying on neckties.  "Is THIS law unconstitutional?  What about THAT one?"  By setting a standard, the court was hoping, I guess, to settle the issue once and for all.  So much for that.

Conservatives believe in strict interpretation of the law, based on the black letter of the law. However, often this is a canard. They strictly interpret the law when it favors their conservative interests and will legislate from the bench when it serves their ends. So it sounds like a legal principle, but it really is a political one.  Courts are supposed to be above politics, which is why Judges, when they run for office, are not listed as affiliated with one party or another - and why Supreme Court justices are appointed for life.  With regard to the latter, it seems that once appointed for life, many justices tend to make decisions that often surprise and disappoint their sponsors, which was the idea behind lifetime appointments.

But even liberal constitutional Scholars agree that Roe v Wade was flawed from a legal standpoint. A simple yes-or-no question was answered with paragraphs of abortion guidelines.  This is not what justices are supposed to do.

Now, to answer the reader's question, yes, Roe v. Wade established that there is a Constitutional "right to privacy" and under this right, a right to abortion under certain circumstances. The new decision basically wipes out that right but leaves it to the States to decide under what circumstances abortion may be legal - if at all.  It is kind of a jarring decision as it is very rare that the Court reverses an earlier opinion entirely.  Justice Thomas has a "hit list" of decisions he'd like to revisit and overturn - Loving v. Virginia (establishing that laws against interracial marriage) is oddly missing from his list..

It was, according to some sources, also a poorly written decision, calling on ancient laws as reason to outlaw abortion, rather than attacking the "right to privacy" argument  or legislating from the bench.  Perhaps this is because conservatives would like to keep the right to privacy, particularly as they are called out for doing naughty things on the sly.  Just my guess.

In the past, the Supreme Court would sort of play footsie in this regard, saying they were not reversing course, just fine-tuning the earlier decision.  Today's court seems more than willing to throw off that cloak of deceit and just boldly change course.  As I noted before, this is somewhat dangerous as down the road, newer justices will feel emboldened to throw out today's decisions as well and reverse course yet again.  The pretense of Stare Decisis was at least somewhat useful.  Precedents are no longer precedent.  The Court becomes a weather vane of public opinion, or more precisely, the politics of the appointees and their sponsors.

And speaking of the States, this whole thing falls along the lines of Federalism versus Anti-Federalism.  Many on the far-right believe in a weak Federal government and the individual States asserting their "State's Rights" - which goes back to the original "State's Right" to legalize slavery.  One would think this issue was well-settled since 1865, but it is an ongoing thing.   Conservatives believe that Congress has overstepped its bounds in forcing States to do things like enact seat-belt laws or whatever.  They want to go back to an era where every State printed its own money and had its own laws incompatible with other States - and the Federal Government would be weak and powerless to enforce its will.  So this recent decision falls along those lines.  Funny thing, the Court defers to State's rights in this abortion decision, but doesn't think New York has the right to determine its own gun laws.

Like I said, Conservatives love to read only the "black letter of the law" except when it is convenient for them to do otherwise.  It is just a canard for saying "I do what I want!"

Courts are supposed to be above politics, but obviously that is a bit of a farce. People can't help having political views even if they are Supreme Court justices.  And many folks are realizing, just now, why it was important that Donald Trump not be made President back in 2016.  I know folks who voted for Bernie or even voted for Trump (as a protest vote) because they felt their left-wing agenda wasn't being sufficiently pandered to by the Democrats. Meanwhile, the conservative Christian Right knew exactly what to do - elect a guy as odious as Trump, simply because he was electable.  They got their Supreme Court Justices - young and conservative, who will be on the bench for decades - and knew that Trump was, at best, a four- or eight-year blip on the horizon.  The Right had their eye on the ball, the Left wants "my way or I sit home and pout!"

And as a result, this is what we got.

Sadly, most people still don't get it.  Like I said, education in this country is appalling - people have only vague ideas on how courts work, and they think Presidents are Kings. They decry the two-party system and vote for "spoiler" candidates, which serve only to elect the opposition.  They don't realize that long-term trends are far more important than short-term issues of the day. The far-right can relax and kick-back at this point.  They can afford to lose the House and the Senate and the Presidency (but I doubt they will lose all three, for long) as they have a firm lock on the Supreme Court, for life.

Was that worth it?  Just because  you're pissed off that you have to pay back your student loans?  Speaking of which, even if Biden or Congress would "forgive" those loans, do you think the present Supreme Court would find that Constitutional?  I suspect we will see a lot of things that are part of a "liberal" agenda, struck down by the new Supreme Court.  After all, there is no Constitutional right to health care, right?

President Roosevelt had the same problem - he tried to enact a "New Deal" only to see much of his agenda struck down by a conservative Supreme Court.  And in retrospect, much of his agenda was, in fact, unconstitutional.  Some argued he should "pack the court" with justices (increasing the number from nine to eleven or even thirteen!) but he wisely declined to create such a constitutional crises.  If one party is allowed to "pack" the court, the next party in power will do the same - until there are hundreds of Supreme Court Justices on the bench.  Cute idea - it would destroy the court.  No doubt it will be raised yet again in the coming days.

I haven't gone into detail here - I have simplified things quite a bit.  There is so much else to cover, such as the overlapping jurisdictions between State and Federal courts, the 13 Federal Circuit courts of appeal (including our Court of Appeal for the Federal Circuit which hears the all-so-important Patent cases!).  It gets very complicated, and each State (or Commonwealth) has its own rules and laws.  In some States, the "Supreme Court" isn't even the highest court in that State!

But again, as Americans, we are pretty ignorant about how our government works - and I blame the educational system as well as the media for this.  It is embarrassing, but many Europeans have a better understanding of our system of government than the native-born here.

If only President Biden would lower gas prices!  After all, that is the most pressing issue of the day!  Why doesn't he just turn down that knob on the wall of the oval office.  You know, the one labeled, "Gas Prices"!  It's right next to the one labeled, "inflation"!

That's the mentality we are dealing with, in the United States.   People get the government they deserve.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Knowing When To Leave

People say silly things like, "If Bush is elected, I'm moving to Canada!" - but they never did move.  It raises the question though, at what point do things get so bad in a country that you have to leave?

Migration is a big topic these days.  Life in many countries has become unbearable, either because of government oppression or because of basic economics.  When people are being tossed in jail and tortured, or cannot find enough food to eat, they may look on in envy at other developed countries as a place to migrate to.  It isn't hard to figure out why they are migrating - even though it involves the risk of death.

But what about developed countries?   I was born in 1960 and World War II wasn't considered ancient history back then.  As kids, we played "Allies and Nazis" instead of Cowboys-and-Indians, using the leftover army gear my Dad brought back from the war, as well as a dented a bullet-ridden German helmet they found during a picnic they had at El Alamein in the postwar era.  Hitler and the Nazis - and the horrific things they did - were recent news, not ancient history.

One thing that always puzzled me about the holocaust is why more Jews (and other victims) didn't just leave Nazi Germany (and other Nazi-occupied countries) when they saw what was going on.  And the answers are complex and varied.

One answer is the frog-in-boiling-water analogy. Changes happen so slowly that people get used to each new level of oppression. "Mr. Hitler talks a good game, but he can be reasoned with!" people said. Or the actions of the brownshirts were written off as a few bad eggs - much as people are doing today with the January 6th insurrection.  Even after Kristallnacht and the many laws enforcing the wearing of the Star of David and eventually putting Jews into Ghettos, many thought that things could not get worse.  And yes, some folks, getting onto trains to Auschwitz, thought they were going to a work camp, where they would be provided with jobs and a place to live.  Right up to the very end, people lived in denial.  "Oh look, showers!"

When things like that go down, when should you look around and think, "Maybe I should duck out of this!" But then again, it may be hard to do. People have connections to a country - means of employment, family connections, and monetary ones as well.  To move, you would have to liquidate all your investments, find a new country that would accept you, and if you are at a working age, find a new job.

The latter is a critical issue.  My Cuban friend relates how many of his family and friends had to work at menial jobs when they came to the United States, as their work experiences and academic degrees were not recognized here.   Doctors and Lawyers had to get jobs as restaurant busboys and were treated very poorly. Most people assumed they were illegal immigrants from Mexico and called them "wetbacks" - or worse.  It was a pretty shitty situation.

Of course, the Nazis knew that the Jews and other persecuted minorities might try to flee - and escape their dragnet/  So they passed laws making it nearly impossible to remove money from the country and make it hard to get an "exit visa".   Sure, maybe you could sneak away, but where would you go, flat broke?  No other country would accept you.  And besides, things weren't that bad just yet, were they?

This is an interesting issue to me, as I can see where things are going in this country, a little bit at a time.  Friends of ours left for Costa Rica well over a decade ago, convinced that George Bush was going to start interning Democrats and Liberals in concentration camps.  Their concerns were a little over-the-top, but on the other hand, Costa Rica is a nice place to liveMaybe they were just ahead of their time.

On the other hand, many of these countries are tiring of expats moving there - even if they bring money with them.  And some countries, such as Canada, which might have seemed like a Liberal haven, turn out to have political issues of their own.  Well, that and it gets really fucking cold there.

In most cases, if you want to move overseas, you have to prove you can support yourself or have a certain amount of money to "invest" in the host country - usually a half-million or more.   And no, they aren't interested in you working for a living over there - and taking away a job from a native-born citizen.  And you have to hope the host country doesn't have an extradition treaty with the United States - lest President Trump (the second time around) decides to issue a warrant for your arrest for being an "Enemy of the State."

Far-fetched?  Maybe. Maybe not. This is, after all, the guy who promised to "lock her up!" without much evidence of any crimes being committed.  And this is the political party whose members are talking about firing squads for transgender people or killing drag queens at story time.  Deadly rhetoric usually leads to deadly actions.  We've already seen a wave of violence against Asian people - often fatal violence - after all the anti-Asian rhetoric espoused by the GOP and You-Know-Who.

Hey, but I'm not Asian, so it doesn't affect me, right?  That's how it starts.

What would trigger me to think about moving from the United States?  I am not sure, but if Trump were re-elected (or DeSantis elected) I would have to think about it.  The rhetoric surrounding George Bush was probably a bit overheated - he seems almost like a centrist compared to today's politics.  Not too much changed in the USA during his two terms - it was business as usual and Republicans didn't rock the boat too much.

But today, well, that has changed, with the GOP strategy calling gays "groomers" and far-right "militias" storming libraries and gay pride events.  Oh, sure, they were caught before they could do any harm - this time.  The next time, they will be better prepared.  The Beer Hall Putsch was considered almost comedic at the time, and most of those arrested were released early - after all, that clown parade couldn't be taken seriously, right?  But a decade or so later, they were in power and consolidated power and started the largest war and genocide in world history.  No one was laughing then.

I see a similar parallel here.  January 6th was a dress rehearsal - a poorly planned coup but also a means of testing the limits of government.   We relied on a few people - a handful at the least, a dozen at most - to do their Constitutional duty. Vice-President Pence, a few other members of Congress, our Governor here in Georgia and our Secretary of State - as well as election officials in a number of other States.   Many of those people have left office and been replaced by Trump loyalists.  How do you think the vote count will go the next time around?  That is, if they even bother to count them.

And what will be their agenda if they "win" this time?  They kind of have telegraphed what they will do, based on what they have been saying and actually have done.  It is clear that minority groups are in the cross-hairs, and the gays are next on the hit list.

We have a military that has been infiltrated by far-right Christian cults. The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs is basically being run by the Christian right.  When the time comes to "do the right thing" the military may do what they think is the right thing, but that will be appalling to a majority of the country.

A large swath of the population will welcome this - they see progressive causes as being against God, mostly because they have had this idea beaten into their heads over and over again at Pastor Cashflow's Megachurch.  And most of the Billionaires and even lesser mega-riches will not only go along with this, but actually fund it through PAC donations, in return for tax cuts (well, actually tax elimination) and loosening of regulations and labor laws.

Far-fetched?  Hitler lead the "National Socialist" party, but it was anything but Socialist.  In reality, it was an unholy alliance between government and industry, with huge government contracts being let out to arms makers - provided they were supportive of the party.  Unions?  They were nationalized and the main goal was labor peace, at any cost.

Today, we see the same sort of thing going on.  People like Elon Mush are willing to endorse Donald Trump if it means he gets to put a penny more in his pocket and prevent his employees from unionizing. Speaking of which, do you remember when I said he could end up bankrupt? Well, whaddya know?  He's hemorrhaging cash. They guy relies on government contracts and government handouts to survive.  He'll support whoever increases his bottom line.  Heck, he even looks like a Nazi!  Sort of Himmler-esque.

Maybe it won't happen.  Americans will come to their senses and realize that gas going from $3 a gallon to $4.33 a gallon (here on the island, no less) isn't quite the end of the world, particularly if you lived though multiple gas crises and bought a vehicle that got reasonable gas mileage.  Maybe Americans will realize that Democracy itself is more important than cheap gas.

Maybe, but I doubt it.  People are freaking idiots.  Look around you.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Skin Cancer

If you live long enough, you will get some form of cancer.  Fortunately, some are somewhat preventable, and others are relatively benign.

I am typing this on my laptop at the surgery center where Mr. See is having a chunk of his ear lopped off.  He has very fair skin (Gingers!) and noticed a growth on his ear that would not heal.  At our annual checkup, the doctor looked at it and made an appointment with our skin doctor (who said there were no appointments for two months!) and somehow got us in.

They scraped off a chunk of the thing on his ear and did a biopsy and called back a few days later - bad news, sort of, basal cell carcinoma.   Apparently this is a common thing for anyone who spends any amount of time in the sun.  A friend of ours has had several of these things hacked off over the years. Again, the advantage of living on Old People's Island is no matter what ailment you have, some oldster will tell you they had it twice as bad - and had to walk to school, six miles uphill each way, in the snow, even in June.

Apparently the basal cell carcinoma can spread, but only to the skin and not to other organs.   In the cancer business, "metastasized" is not a word you want to hear, particularly with regard to your liver.  But supposedly, basal cell carcinoma doesn't do that.

What they are going to do - and it takes hours, hence I bought my laptop - is cut off a chunk of this growth and then do a slide of it and look under a microscope and see if there is any carcinoma in it.  If so, they keep "digging" so to speak, until the slides come up clean.  It could take only one or two cuts, or maybe more.  So it takes time to do.

And likely, over time, we will have to come back to this place to have other growths chopped off.  The waiting room is full of old people with weird scars on their noses and scabs on their arms.  Getting old ain't for sissies.

Can this sort of thing be prevented?  In part, yes, by using sunscreen, wearing long-sleeve shirts, big hats, and staying out of the sun when possible.   When we were kids, they didn't have "SPF" numbers on suntan oil (as they called it) or "tanning butter" - in fact, it seemed that these products were designed to enhance sunburn rather than prevent it.  And of course, as kids, we weren't really slathered with product very much - and no one bothered to give us sunglasses to wear.

The last item still irks me as I see today, young parents at the beach with dark Ray-Bans on, but their kids are squinting in the blazing sunlight, slowly destroying their eyesight while the parents frolic and play. If you need sunglasses, your kids do, too. I guess I can forgive my parents' ignorance as sunglasses for kids wasn't a "thing" back then.  Although you would think that after seeing us in so many family photos and home movies, red as lobsters and squinting into the sunlight, they would have caught on.  But they didn't, and childhood was marked by unpleasant trips to the beach with blistering sunburns and blinding light.   And you wonder why kids get fussy!

There are, of course, many other forms of cancer, some very serious and some not.   If you are a male and live long enough, apparently you will get prostate cancer.  They no longer test for this by putting a finger up your butt, but rather using a PSA blood test.  If the PSA level is high, then I guess they do a biopsy. Some folks have the prostrate removed, which can lead to sexual dysfunction and even incontinence (as happened to one friend of mine).  I had a relative get this and get all dramatic about it - "I have cancer!" he said.  But the reality is, he will die of old age before prostate cancer kills him.

My Dad went through something similar with some kind of slow-growing blood cancer.  He lived to be 93 years old and from what I understand, this cancer didn't kill him.

Others are not so lucky.  A neighbor of ours in Pompano Beach was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer - and aggressive cancer that kills people in a matter of weeks or months.  He spent the last few months of his life in hospitals, desperately looking for a cure and feeling like crap.  Myself, I think I would find a doctor who would prescribe "hospice care" and massive doses of oxycontin and then try to enjoy the remaining weeks.   Then again, I am reading that they have new treatments for even pancreatic cancer and who knows?  Maybe there will be a cure for this in the near future.

Cancer treatments have advanced a lot in recent years.  My late sister, who died of breast cancer, fought it for two decades.  Toward the end, she went to see a specialist in Denver who noted that had she had access to the treatments they have today, when she was first diagnosed in the 1980's, she would likely have been cured.  The odd thing about breast cancer is that there was an "epidemic" of it in the 1980's and 1990's and then it started tapering off and no one seems to curious as to why this is.  Was it all that pot-smoking my sister's generation did?  Or was it the early birth control pills that she took?  Both have had links to breast cancer, but like I said, not many people seem curious as to why a cancer takes off like that and then declines.  And no, "testing" doesn't create cancers - it only monitors them.

With any luck, Mr. See will emerge largely unscathed, with only a nibble of his ear removed.  I keep joking that if they pierce it, I will buy him a gold ring to put in the hole.   But likely, this will be a recurring thing over time.  And I wonder whether this means our daylong trips to the beach (which we do less and less of) will curtail over time.  We used to have three convertibles, and back in the day, our dermatologist told us "Sell them!" as he thought they were basically cancer machines.

But we're keeping a good thought.  Like I said, our neighbor said it was no big deal - you just go back every year for a checkup and maybe every other year to have something gouged out.   It could be a lot worse.

Our doctor's father was the artist who drew the "Joe Palooka" and "Rex Morgan, M.D." comics - so there is plenty to read in the waiting room.

UPDATE:  Three scoops and we're back in business.  Stitches come out on Thursday.

Monday, June 27, 2022

Harvesting the Stupid

You can't fall for a rip-off if you are astute - and you can choose to be astute or stupid.  Your choice.

NOTE:  This is an older posting I only finished today.

I recounted before about a conversation I had with a young(er) man, when he asked me "What do the car companies do with all the cars that remain unsold?"  I quickly realized he had clicked on a "sponsored content" article or some Facebook posting which was going around a while back, claiming that car companies actually made cars and then immediately crushed them - or put them out in huge lots to rot, because no one wanted to buy them - or they sell them for "pennies on the dollar" but only to those in the know!

I am not sure what the point of these articles was, other than perhaps a come-on for a "lead service" to steer you to some car sales site, or perhaps our Russian friends, at it again, trying to convince people that capitalism just doesn't work.  After all, you want a new car and the car companies are just throwing them away!   This sort of nonsense just stirs up background dissent among the population.

What happens to cars that are unsold?   There are none - they all get sold.   Sure, car companies crush cars - test prototypes and experimental jobs.   When unions go on strike, there are often half-finished cars on the assembly line, whose unpainted bodies might be rusty after a few weeks.  Often these are crushed as well.  Cars that are flooded in hurricanes, or fall off the transporter or whatever - often these are destroyed.   But the rest go to dealers, who sell them, and when they can't sell them, dealers are given "incentives" to move older models off the lot.

When we shopped for our (used) pickup truck, we were chagrined to see some smaller rural dealers still selling brand new 2016 models - in 2018.   Oddly enough, they weren't offering big discounts, either.   Sometimes the dealers wait for assistance from the manufacturer, but for hot-selling models like the F150, it may not be forthcoming.   Sadly, this happens a lot with smaller rural dealers, who think they need to get maximum profits from the few cars they sell (and often their lots are clogged with unsold cars).   Like I said in a previous posting, the car companies would rather do without these dealers, as they don't move iron off the lot the way the mega-dealers do, in the big cities.

As a last resort, what dealers will do is take a car from the new car lot, and move it to the used car lot, and cut the price - or often raise it.  As I noted before, used cars sometimes cost more then new ones, because used car buyers are often less sophisticated and dealers can make more money from them, in terms of sales price, add-ons, extended warranties, and of course, sub-prime financing.   And that is one reason why, when we went to some of these dealers, with our checkbook to pay the entire purchase price, they weren't interested.   There was some other chump out there who would pay top dollar for that car.   It was why, even when I used a "buying club" to buy our first F150, the dealer tried to mess with the pricing.  They weren't happy that I was buying the most loaded truck on the lot, for a far lower price that they could get from some jughead who "just had to have it."

In some instances, manufacturers will offer dealers incentives to move iron to the used car lot.  When the Audi TT came out (basically a VW Golf in drag) it was quite popular.  But its bathtub shape caused aerodynamic lift, and one professional rally driver was killed in a high-speed accident when his personal car lifted off the ground at speed.   They recalled the cars and fitted wings to them, but the damage was done - no one wanted to buy one.  So they paid the dealers to sell them as used cars, at which point they sold - everything finds a price, even at a loss.

Dealers do other weird things.  We saw some trucks on sale on the "Off Lease Only" site, some of them had absurdly low miles on them, and the Carfax was odd.  The car was shown as unsold for nearly two years, and then suddenly shows up at auto auction with 5,000 miles on it, and is re-sold twice before making down the food chain to Off-Lease Only.  Wrecked car?  Perhaps.  A salesman explained to me that it could have been a "parts runner" or a demonstrator, or more likely, a hard-to-sell model that was gotten rid of.  The truck in question was an oddball - a cab-and-a-half, with every single option, pushing the purchase price into King Ranch or Platinum territory.  Buyers of those trucks aren't interested in a cab-and-a-half.  Cab-and-a-half buyers want a white truck with a rubber floor and a bench seat, not skylights and surround-sound.

But the cars do not remain unsold.   When manufacturers cannot get dealers to take on the cars, they sell them to the rental fleets.  And in the past, each rental car company had a relationship with a major manufacturer.   Ford offloaded a lot of cars to Hertz, for example.  When no one wanted to buy GM's boring sedans, they made their way to Avis, which kept the assembly lines running.  In the pre-bankruptcy days, GM had to pay the workers whether the factory was running or not, so it made sense to make the cars, even at a loss, rather than pay people not to work.

Of course, the problem with fleet sales is that you flood the secondary market with lightly used cars.  It also tarnishes the marque, as people associate your vehicle with rental fleets, and thus value it even less, leading to an even greater decrease in new-car sales.  Some cars became so famous for being rental car fleet fodder, it is hard to believe anyone would actually buy one new.   Car companies are getting away from this - the post-bankruptcy UAW contract doesn't incentivize them to do this, and moreover, they realize it is a short-sighted strategy, moving iron for the short-term, but damaging sales, long-term.

I digress, a lot.  But it illustrates the point - it is hard to understand how the world works, and the world works in complicated ways.  It is a lot easier (and let's face it, more fun) to believe some click-bait story about cars being crushed at the end of the assembly line, or left to rot in fields somewhere.  It is an easier story to digest, and as I keep repeating as one of my mantras, Easy Answers Are Usually The Wrong Answers.   Understanding how things actually work takes effort, and most people are lazy.

I recounted how, yesterday, we got three phone calls in succession from Trumpcare telemarketers. If you choose to be astute, you can spot this as a rip-off at 1000 yards.  How?  Well, for starters, they are violating the Do-Not-Call registry, so you know they are crooks.  They call three times, from three different numbers (which you can't call back, as you only get disconnected numbers) spoofing the caller-ID feature.   Legitimate companies don't do this, period.   And of course, they use confusing language and fast-talking to make it seem like they are affiliated with mainstream insurance companies or the ACA, when in fact they are not.   I realized this 30 seconds into the call.

They are selling something that sounds awfully convenient to me - low-cost health insurance!  Yea, that could exist, on Planet Bizarro.   Again, when something sounds too-good-to-be-true, it usually ain't.  And when a story sounds convenient to your personal interests, you should examine it doubly carefully.

The next time these bozos call, I will ask them one simple question.  I'll just say, "Gee, I'm kind of busy right now, can I call you back?" And I suspect they will not be able to provide a call-back number, because they are frauds.

Today, I got two calls, on my phone this time, from "the credit card company" offering to refinance my staggering credit card debt (today's balance: zero dollars and zero cents, at 7.17% interest).    When I press one, a man answers in a thick Indian accent.   I pretend the line is noisy and I can't hear him, and keep him on the line for several minutes, before I say, "I can't understand you because of your thick Indian accent!" and he says, "You motherfucker!" and hangs up.   It is two in the morning in India, and these guys are wired on cheap crank, or speed, and have a quota to make.  The best way to mess with them is to waste their time.

I am not picking on Indians - but that country does seem to be the source of so many of these fraudulent calls.   There are many brilliant Indian Engineers, Businessmen, Scientists, Teachers and whatnot.  These telemarketer callers are not among them and never will be.  From their perspective, we here in the USA have a staggering amount of money (Oh, right, I forgot, things here are awful, right?) and they deserve some of it.  So whatever moral qualms they have, they swallow, so they can make a few bucks.

And others - including many here in the USA - have no such moral qualms.  Many a lawyer I've met has told me they have no compunction about "harvesting the stupid" - taking advantage of other people's ignorance of basic facts, or their basic lack of skepticism.   If someone is dumb enough - or greedy enough - to fall victim to your scam, too bad for them!  They should know better, and in a way, these con artists are right.

There is a staggering amount of informed stupidity in this country.  On that same trip, at the same campground, I met another young(er) man who informed me he voted for Bernie.  "In the primary, you mean," I replied, "Who did you vote for in the general election?"

"Aren't they the same thing?" he replied.   This floored me.   Maybe we should go back to the old days when only rich people could vote - or something.   What was worse, the fellow was a naturalized citizen, who had to pass a citizenship test.   Many naturalized citizens, as a result of this test, know more about American history and laws than native-born citizens do.

It seems that stupidity is the new smart.   But it seems to me that many people choose this rather than choosing smartness, because smart is hard.

People love to mindlessly worship celebrities.  People spend hours watching "Reality TeeVee" and believe it to be real, even after it has been demonstrated, time and time again, to be vaguely scripted and heavily edited to create plotlines and conflicts, where there are none.   People dedicate their lives to a celebrity rock star or a football team, to the detriment of their own lives.  The yearn for that 15 minutes of fame, when maybe they, too, will be celebrated as a "superfan" in some kooky piece on the 6 o'clock news, showing their home  and car painted in team colors.

I know people who can tell you more about the personal finances of their favorite celebrity or quarterback, but yet don't know the balance on their own credit card.  We are fed this crap to distract us from what is important in our lives, to get us to believe in easy answers to tough questions, so that when these shifty people call or advertise to us, we jump on their phony promises like a drowning man reaching for a life-ring.

It doesn't take but two or three brain cells to realize that it doesn't profit anyone to make cars and crush them, or leave them "unsold" on huge lots somewhere.  Even if you are selling at a loss, you are doing better discounting a product and moving it off the lot than just destroying it and getting nothing.   And common sense would tell you that some click-bait ad on the Internet isn't going to steer you to "pennies on the dollar" on highly demanded brand-new SUVs.

There are plenty of people out there willing to harvest the stupid.   Yea, it sucks, I know.  As Christians, we are suppose to protect those weaker then ourselves and not exploit their weaknesses.  But sadly, a lot of people who consider themselves Christians - particularly "Visible Christians" who make quite a show of their faith - have no qualms about ripping off those less astute than themselves.  If God didn't want them to do it, he would stop them, right?   But since they are prospering from such chicanery, it must be a sign of God's approval.

The only real answer is to stop being stupid, which is hard to do, as stupid is fun.  The young man I met wanted to believe that he could get something-for-nothing, in this case, a new SUV for pennies.  The other young man wanted to believe in the fairy dust of Bernie Sanders - but didn't even understand the election process, much less the daunting task it would be to elect Bernie Sanders or push his agenda through Congress.

It is kind of sad, too.  Because you try to explain these things to people and their eyes glaze over.  "Yea, yea, yea," they say, "That's all very well and fine.  But where do I go to buy a leftover SUV??"

I guess you just can't help some folks!

Sunday, June 26, 2022

A Sense of Purpose

People need to have a sense of purpose, otherwise they become depressed.

When I decided to retire, almost four years ago, now, a reader wrote, saying I would become "bored" in retirement with "nothing to do" and maybe he had a point - which is one reason perhaps why I have this blog - among other activities.  The human brain and human body are designed for action and purpose.  And life without purpose and action is a life unlived.

This is why cockamamie ideas like "guaranteed annual income" or whatever are bad for the human soul.  Go to any government housing project such as the "Homes" on MLK boulevard - or any other place where human beings are being warehoused - and you will see a lot of bored and aimless people - unhappy people who often get into legal trouble simply because it is something to do.   Being a gang-banger seems like an odd career choice, until you realize it is at least a career choice, even if destructive to the soul and society at large.   People want to have a purpose.

This may be why some retirees do end up lonely and depressed - and why the suicide rate isn't highest among bored teens but among older men.   Once they quit their jobs and careers, they feel useless and worthless and decide to check out.  Women traditionally had more domestic roles - when their husband retires, they still have to work - often twice as hard with a cranky husband at home.  Maybe when the legions of working women start to retire, we'll see an equalization in suicide rates.  Progress!

But seriously, you have to keep busy if you want to retire.  It isn't that you stop working when you retire, but you just stop getting paid to work.   Many older people take up hobbies - woodworking, gardening, restoring an old car, trying to maintain the perfect lawn.   Others travel (as we do) and explore their world in the few years they have left in it.  Still others take on part-time jobs, either working for money or volunteering for some good cause.

The worst thing to do is nothing.  And yet I see a lot of older people fall into this trap - sitting around the house, watching Fox News and getting angry at the world - and unable to do anything about it.  These are very depressed people - and there are a lot of them around.  Don't add to the problem, if you can.

It is funny, but I read these online comics and one common theme is the mental illnesses of the authors.  Everyone is struggling with depression, it seems.  And when they are depressed, they lay in bed for days at a time, feeling like doing nothing at all.  And you have to wonder whether doing nothing isn't what causes the depression, not vice-versa.  Or perhaps laying about just exacerbates the depression and makes it chronic.

What got me started on this was a small argument I had with Mr. See.  When we go away for the summer, we have to close up the house, which involves a lot of cleaning and putting away of things - patio furniture, the hot tub, the golf cart, and so on and so forth.   I mentioned to Mark that I wanted to clean off the front porch while he was at a pottery class.  "Don't do that!" he said, "I want to clean the rocking chairs, first!" - as if hosing down a $99 rocking chair was beyond my skill set.

So I sat around and did nothing - paralyzed by these rocking chairs that apparently had to be wiped a certain way.  I finally realized Mr. See was being ridiculous - and controlling.  We are leaving in a week, and don't have time to wait for him to do special rocking chair cleaning.   So I cleaned off the front porch and put things away.  It isn't rocket science.

But it struck me that it wasn't Mr. See being obstinate about something stupid - we all do that on occasion - but how I felt in response - helpless, useless, and purposeless.   And I see this happen to a lot of older men, particularly when they start to slide down the hill toward dementia.  The wife, trying to be helpful, takes away more and more responsibilities from them - as if they were a small child.  The husband feel useless and helpless and gets angry.   And it happens the other way around as well - wives stripped of their few duties by "helpful" husbands, to the point where they have nothing to do.  Depression sets in.

I noted before this was (and maybe still is) a problem for many suburban middle-class housewives back in the day.  They hire a maid to clean the house, a lawn service to mow the lawn and then have their groceries delivered.  They have nothing to do except sit around all day, watching television.  It is a recipe for depression.  It is a recipe for learned helplessness.

So, maybe our reader was right.  Retirement can be a trap, if you let it be one.  The idea that sitting around doing nothing is an irrational idea and one that leads to sadness.   It pays to have a plan of something to do, whether it is a hobby or even a part-time job.

And I have thought of the latter, sometimes, and I can't say I would write-off the possibility entirely.  However, with our travel schedule, it is hard to do, and what's more, with the Great Recession underway, I suspect the "labor shortage" is about to resolve itself in a big way - and not a good way.

Sadly, this may mean more people will be laid off, and unemployment benefits extended and yet legions of more people with no purpose in life.

And that is sad.  Literally sad.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Not Quite the End of the World - But It's a Start!

Recent Supreme Court decisions are not quite the end of the world, but nevertheless part of an overall trend.

Everyone is up in arms (sorry, pun) about recent Supreme Court decisions regarding guns and abortion.

The gun thing is interesting, as the media is painting it as abolishing all regulations about guns and letting just anyone buy a gun or carry it anywhere.  It is not quite the case, and some political types are characterizing it as open-season (again, sorry) for gun owners.

This is not quite the case.

When I lived in New York (where I was born and raised) you could not just carry a concealed handgun without a permit, and permits were hard to come by.  A friend of mine worked for Oneida Silver and had to carry valuable securities with him.  He obtained a permit to carry as he had a legitimate reason to do so (not merely a speculative reason) and passed background checks and got references from several upstanding members of the community, including a Bank President and the local Sheriff.

It wasn't impossible to get a concealed carry permit, just hard.  And it wasn't for your average drunken Joe - it was for serious people who were upstanding members of the community.  And that law had been in place - without challenge by the courts - since 1913.

So, the Supreme Court overturned this.  What does this mean?  Well, background checks can still be required.  Convicted criminals can still be barred from buying or carrying weapons.  People with mental health issues may be barred as well.  And certain locations, such as government offices can be deemed gun-free zones (particularly the Supreme Court, I am guessing).  So it is not like the media presents it in the news.  And you can be sure new laws will be enacted and challenged in the courts and what is and is not permitted will be hashed out.

Sadly, the minority opinion relied less upon the law than upon public opinion - making noises about recent mass-shootings as justification for the law.  These are not legal arguments - those are political opinions that have more of a place in the legislature than in a courthouse.  And besides, as the majority noted, the concealed-carry law in New York State did not prevent the recent mass-shooting in Buffalo.  In fact, I think it would be hard to argue that the law has prevented much in the way of gun violence - criminals are not too worried about obeying the laws.

At best, I suppose it would give the Police something to charge a criminal with, if they are stopped and found to be carrying a weapon without a permit.   Perhaps this would be useful in a situation where there wasn't enough evidence to charge them with another crime, but they still wanted to put a wrongdoer away.  But whether it prevented gun violence - that is harder to prove.

Nevertheless, this represents another frog-boiling-in-water scenario, where the court has moved the needle slightly in one direction.   Fewer Americans, per capita, own guns than they did 50 years ago.  But the few that do, own a LOT of them - an arsenal in fact, such as the fun fellow shown above, who clearly does not know how to properly care for firearms.  No, that is not burned grass in the photo - those are all firearms.  Grass is very acidic and can corrode metals (why you should never park a car, long-term, on grass) and let's not even talk about the dirt.  He'll spend several days, if not weeks, properly cleaning all those weapons.

What concerns me is the next time there is an insurrection at the Capitol (and there will be a next time, you can count on it) the Police won't be able to stop and arrest people carrying concealed weapons, on their way to the riot.  They are just law-abiding citizens, right?  Yet many were carrying weapons that day, and in fact, a few were arrested.  One guy had a cache of weapons in his truck, plus bombs.  I guess that is OK by the SC now.

The problem is, this small minority of gun owners coincides with this small minority of people who want to overthrow the government and install a Christian Nationalist Fascist government.  And thanks to decisions like this, it is easier than ever for people to accumulate arsenals of weapons.  If you talk to these folks, they are quite up-front about it - they argue that the Second Amendment exists primarily to threaten legislators and government officials into toeing the line.  Do as we say.... or else!  Don't tread on ME, buddy!

Kind of sick - and scary.  Just because your ideas lose at the ballot box is no reason to overthrow the government.  Democracy is a majority-wins kind of game, even in our country where the minority wins half the time, thanks to the electoral college and gerrymandering.

But I digress.

The other half of the equation is abortion.  The Supreme Court - as expected - has overturned Roe v. Wade, which as I noted before is a flawed decision from a legal standpoint.  The question before the court, back in 1973, was whether abortion could be outlawed by the States, under the Constitution.  The court constructed the "trimester" system from whole cloth, which some felt was an overreach - legislating from the bench, because legislators were too scared to legislate.  Maybe now Congress will get off its ass and pass a nationwide abortion law as it should have done in the first place.   But don't hold your breath.

It is like the gay marriage thing - which I suspect will be next on the chopping block.  Rather than go through Congress (which is chock full of cowards) the Supreme Court decided (with a conservative Chief Justice, no less!) that since the Constitution was silent on the issue, well, it oughta be legal.   Now granted, under the auspices of Res Judicata and Stare Decises, such decisions should not be overturned.  After all, the court has decided already!  And courts don't make mistakes or ask for do-overs or change their minds.

But the Supreme Court has a long, long history of making bad decisions and overturning decisions they made earlier - sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.  Dred Scott was a horrible decision, based on the politics of the time, more than anything.  Fortunately, the court did not feel bound by its own precedent later on.  But this also means that nothing the Supreme Court decides is final anymore.  While Roe may be overturned, there is nothing to say it may reinstated down the road, if, for example, three new liberal justices are appointed (after some freak accident takes out three conservative justices).

This tends to undermine the authority of the Court, which is more and more viewed as an arm of the Republican Party.  Then again, during the Roe era, conservatives felt the court was merely an arm of the Democrats.  Payback is a bitch.

But what are the real consequences of this decision? From what I understand it does not outlaw abortion entirely (just yet) but allows States to pass laws outlawing or restricting abortion rights.   You can bet there will be a lot of bus trips made to adjacent States by women seeking to abort a fetus.  Whether this can be outlawed - as has been tried in Texas, by allowing people to sue those "aiding" in obtaining an abortion - remains to be seen.

UPDATE:  Some have noted that many States, such as Wisconsin, never removed anti-abortion laws from their books.  Technically, I suppose these are now enforceable in that State, unless repealed by the State legislature.  There is less than a 50/50 chance that will happen anytime soon.

Overall, though, I think it might not change things too much in the near future.  Abortion rights have already been severely restricted in the you-know-who States, and they probably will remain that way.  Whether people want to continue living in such States - with liberal gun laws and conservative abortion bans - and opening new businesses, remains to be seen.  However, as illustrated by Elon Musk, some people care more about their tax bill than social issues - which is why Musk moved his operation to Texas from California.  It's all about money, to some people.  Until they wake up in a far-right Christian nightmare, that is.  But the very rich can afford to move - and break the laws as well.

Then again, put enough Californians in Texas and things might change.  It is already happening to some extent, and one reason why Virginia and even Georgia, are turning blue, if not purple.  If these decisions by the Supreme Court are that unpopular, we'll see a big turnout at the next election.  Sadly, most people either don't care or are apathetic, and a minority of folks end up carrying the day.

Of course, there are other decisions - and a plethora to come - that are also moving the needle to the right a little bit at a time.  And maybe this is part of a pattern - when society goes conservative, the court goes liberal, and vice-versa.

Change may come, but not for some time, and not before more and more things like this, whittle away what we had.  There is a core group of Americans who would like to see our country turned into a religious theocracy - with public schools teaching religion, or at least one religion.  And six of those Americans sit on the Supreme Court.

Gun-toting religious theocracy, here we come!

UPDATE:  See my earlier posting on Abortion (and my other posting).  Maybe back in 1968, the "shame" of having a child out of wedlock was enough to drive young, unmarried women, to have back-alley abortions and risk death.  Today?  More than half of all births in the US are out of wedlock.  So the idea that women will "go back" to having dangerous abortions performed by shady doctors is a little overstated - particularly when they can take a bus to another State.

Rather, abortion and Roe v. Wade has turned into a talisman - a line in the sand - for both Left and Right.  For the Right, it was the impossible goal, always out of reach.  For the Left, it was then dangling threat that was always on the horizon.

Well, the impossible goal has been reached and the threat realized.  Of course, the next step for the Right is to outlaw abortion, State-by-State. And the next steps for the Supreme Court have already been outlined by Clarence Thomas - who has basically said that "errors" made by previous courts need to be "corrected."

And one more thing:  Violent protests or even blocking roadways isn't going to convince anyone of anything, other than perhaps you are a lunatic and they were right all along.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Implied Endorsement - Buying Legitimacy

Just because something is advertised on television or is sponsoring a stadium doesn't mean it is legit.

I was reading online about MLM schemes which are sort of funny and yet heartbreaking at the same time.  Like Fred and Barney or Ralph and Norton, the lower-middle-class always seems to latch onto some sort of "scheme" to make money - but ends up losing it all in the end.  MLM, Crypto, Gold, you-name-it, if there is a will, there is a way to pluck money from the pockets of the ignorant.

Sadly, most people don't think very hard and get their normative cues from advertisements and television.  And one of the biggest misconceptions people have (and I had, when I was younger) was that if something is advertised heavily or on television, well, it must be somewhat legit.  After all, the "Big 3" networks must check these people out before accepting their ads, right?

Well, maybe that was somewhat true in the past - although from the dawn of the advertising age, cigarettes were a big advertiser in all forms of media, and we know how that worked out.  But today?  On major networks you see ads for the shittiest sort of deals.  And on shady news sites, you see ads from the most legitimate sort of companies.  Part of the problem is that people buy ad time in bulk and may not realize where their ad dollars are going.  The other part of the problem is that local stations may accept ads from shady dealers and the networks have no idea what is going on.

But the real problem is that people assume that if a major network has an ad for an MLM scheme or other ripoff on it, then it must be "normal" to engage with such folks.  The rent-to-own furniture store has regular ads on television!  This must be a normal thing to do!  And that right there is the entire point of advertising.

Even Disney is in on the deal - allowing MLM scheme "Scentcy" to sponsor a "fragrance garden" (i.e., a garden) in Epcot.  No doubt Disney got some cash for the deal and maybe a free garden as well - all in exchange for a small sign advertising the brand.  What does "Scentcy" get out of it?  Legitimacy.  People assume - wrongly - that since Disney is allowing them to sponsor this garden that Disney must have checked it out and it is a good deal.  After all, Uncle Walt would never steer them wrong, right?

These sort of things act like an implied endorsement and for most folks, it flies under the radar.  The caveman selling ugly houses advertises on the major networks - that has to be legit, right?  Another caveman (what is it with the cavemen?) advertises invention promotion schemes on major network television - has to be legit, right?  After all, the television never lies to us, right?

Actually, it lies all the time, every time.

But of course, this is nothing new, and today it is raised to scary new limits.  Driving our golf cart around the island today for a picnic, we saw an electric "Mini-Moke" on the road.  I wasn't aware they existed.  The original "Moke" was based on the British "Mini" car (now made by BMW) with a Jeep-like body.  Now they make an electric one, and curious, I looked it up online.  Like most NEVs, it is kind of overpriced ($20K to $30K) but what really turned me off was them gushing that "Pete Davidson was seen driving Kim Kardashian's Pink Moke to her house!" which of course, was staged, and no doubt they all were paid and given free cars or whatever.  I'll keep my $300 golf cart, thank you - endorsed by no celebrities or anyone for that matter.

By the way, Pete Davidson and my brother have something in common - they were both arrested in Manlius, New York, for possession of marijuana.

We live in an age of product placement, product endorsement, and influencers.  I was watching basketball playoffs in a bar and it was interesting to see who sponsors the jerseys.  It isn't just Nike, Adidas, or LA Gear anymore - companies unrelated to sport pay to put their logos on college basketball team jerseys.   These are the same colleges that claim they cannot pay their players because they "would lose their amateur status" (!!).

I wrote before about these phony "air conditioners" that are hyped on television.  No doubt many people bought them, thinking, "Well, it is on TV so it can't be a scam, right?"   Well, imagine my surprise when I saw a pyramid of the damn things in the middle of the aisle in Walmart.  I guess Walmart will do anything for a buck, but when the return rate exceeds 50% they may re-think their strategy.  What's next?  Walmart hyping MLM schemes?

The more shady a company is, it seems, the more they have to attach themselves to legitimacy. I wrote before about Jerry Lemelson, who filed hundreds of patent applications for inventions he may have actually invented.  He sued companies on these Patents and made hundreds of millions of dollars. Some critics claim he was a "Patent Troll" - getting vaguely worded Patents and then suing people for nuisance value, even if they didn't really infringe his claims.   He sponsored a museum and "invention" center at the Smithsonian, and also sponsored the management school at MIT.  To me, it smacks of trying to attract legitimacy by affiliation.  And maybe that is why so many Billionaires start these "foundations" to do good deeds, after spending their lives doing bad ones.  You can bet Musk will have some sort of charitable foundation to cleanse his record once he is dead.  Oh wait, he already has one.

Implied endorsement by affiliation is why sports arenas are named after crypto companies or telcoms.  They want you to think that crypto "makes sense" and is "normal" - even though you can lose your shirt on these totally speculative "investments" in nothing.  Crypto desperately needs legitimacy, which is why they pay people to say smart things about it - often paying them in cryptocurrency no less.  Even "the Sooze" got into the act, dropping a hint that maybe crypto was worth looking into.  Everybody has a price, and once you have a reputation, you can sell it.

But an endorsement - implied or direct - doesn't turn a bad deal into a good one.  Yet we all crave direction in our lives - reassurance that something we are buying isn't a total piece of junk or a ripoff scheme.  Normalizing bad deals is important to get people to sign on to them.  And with MLM schemes, if you can make them seem "normal" the people who are ripped-off by them (which is to say, about 90% of the participants) will assume that their reason for failure was "not trying hard enough" which throws gasoline on the fire of low-self-esteem, priming the pump for the next MLM fiasco.

Maybe this is another one of those boiling frog scenarios again.  When I was a kid, the companies advertising on television were trying to sell us crap, to be sure - sugary cereals, soft drinks, fast food, and of course, cigarettes.  But the ads for car companies weren't for come-on lease deals.  And you never saw ads for Ronco appliances or infomercials for costume jewelry - but then again, we only had three channels.

Maybe back then, we were justified in thinking that there was some level of "vetting" of advertisements on television.  The companies advertising weren't selling scams, but actual products, even if they were somewhat overpriced and maybe unhealthy.  But no one was selling Amway on the nightly news, no one was selling absolute junk, until cable television came along.

UPDATE:  I am reminded that both Tupperware and Avon advertised heavily on television back in the late 1960's - the jingle for "The Tupperware Lady" or "Ding-Dong, it's Avon Calling!" are burned into my brain.   Both are somewhat MLM schemes and both were advertised on television heavily back in the day.  So maybe this stuff has been with us all along.

But again, maybe this sort of thing can be turned around.  It is like police tape, roping off a crime scene.  You see a company trying to ride on the coat-tails of some other organization using an implied endorsement, and you have to think why they are doing this.  Are they trying to make their product appear "normal" when in fact it is a scam?  Are they trying to sanitize their image?  If their product was so damn good, why would they need to advertise it at all?  And right there, we learn something - the more someone has to advertise a product, the less likely it is a good bargain.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Coffin Ship

A coffin ship is a ship that is designed to sink, for insurance purposes.

A recent article online details the perils of a floating restaurant from Hong Kong.  It was a famous place, little more than an elaborate Chinese-styled building on a barge.  But the pandemic came and it had to close down for a couple of years and the owners started hemorrhaging cash.  They decided to have it towed to another location for repairs and a storm came up and it sank.  Oh, gee, too bad!

Of course, many observers wondered whether the sinking was intentional - an insurance scam.  The floating restaurant is an albatross around the owner's necks - it could not be easily scrapped and it would cost too much to repair and likely would never reopen due to the pandemic.  So you sink it and claim the insurnace proceeds, right?

It is an old game.  If you are like me and like to watch ship videos on YouTube or read about the fate of certain ships on Wikipedia, you might notice that an awful lot of ships never make it to the scrap yards of Bangladesh.   The ocean bottom is littered with the carcasses of old ships - and inland lakes and waterways have their share as well.   A typical Wikipedia entry ends with, "The ship was renamed [insert weird name here] and sold to new owners.  It was being towed to Chittagong, Bangladesh for dismantling when the towline snapped in a storm and the ship sank in 5000 meters of water and declared a total loss."

It happens so often you have to wonder whether these towing companies are paid extra to tow the hulk out into a typhoon or whether they just open up the scuppers and saw the towline and let it sink.  After all, the insurance payout might be more than the scrap value at that point.

Apparently, this was not a new thing, either.  Back in the day, "coffin ships" were sent to sea with the idea of sinking them.   An older wooden sailing ship, rotted to the keel and full of shipworm and decay, would be painted up smartly and then renamed and sent to sea with a full crew.  The ship would then fall apart in a storm and sink with all hands - and the owners would pocket the insurance money.  It got so bad that Lloyds of London noted that it appeared that no ships were ever scrapped when they wore out.  They all just sank.

Even in the more modern era, this seems to be the case.  Much ballyhoo was made of the Edmund Fitzgerald because of a Gordon Lightfoot song.  But the reality of the "lakers" was that these were essentially disposable vessels - like an aluminum beer can - whose contents were worth more than the container.  The insurance claim for the cargo of the Edmund Fitzgereld (or any one of the hundreds of lakers that line the bottom of the Great Lakes) was more than for the vessel itself, which was worn out, ready for a complete overhaul (or scrapping) and inexplicably sent out into one of the worst end-of-season storms in history - when most other boats had been laid up for the winter.

The value of the crew was less than the ship itself - in fact trivial.  Their families were paid out nominal amounts and the next boat was crewed by yet more desperately poor people from rural Michigan.  Next!

This trend continued even to relatively recent modern times.  And Austrian businessman put a bomb onboard a cargo ship, after he loaded it up with containers full of worthless scrap iron, which he had over-insured as "uranium mining equipment" and then tried to collect $20M in insurance proceeds when the ship sank, killing half the crew.  Oddly enough, several Austrian government ministers were caught up in the scandal, as they had participated in the scam by certifying the cargo and obstructing the subsequent investigation.

And like I said, it seems a lot of worn-out ships tend to sink when being towed to the scrap yard, the tugboat company inexplicably sailing right into major storms, the tow-lines snapping as the derelict ship takes on water (because someone conveniently left a hatch or port open).

I suppose we are making progress with coffin ships - no longer are we sending sailors out to their deaths in these aptly named floating coffins.  Rather, we let them sink under tow and then scam the insurance companies.

So I guess that is progress.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Using the Internet to Screw Amazon

A friend told me about this great idea.  I wonder if it really works?

I mentioned before that I buy fewer and fewer things from Amazon lately.  If I go online and look for a product (usually searching by name and model number so as to compare apples-to-apples) I find that Amazon rarely has the best prices. Sometimes eBay beats them (but not too often, lately) but other times, I am finding specialty sites or manufacturer's sites have the best prices.

So for example, I need a furnace filter or some bug spray.  The best price turns out to be a filter distributor or a bug spray distributor (for drain fly liquid).  I wanted to buy a power tool or vacuum cleaner - the manufacturer site had the best price! Sometimes even brick-and-mortar wins out.  I was looking to buy a case of flying insect spray (Cutter) and of all places, Home Depot had the cheapest price at $6.31 a can, versus nearly $10 on Amazon.

But it is tedious to open up all these windows and keep searching on Google (which wants to steer you, again and again, to Amazon or a promoted advertiser).  You often need to go to the second or third page of Google to find the best bargains.

Anyway, a friend mentioned that when he wants to buy something, he searches for it on Amazon, finds the product he wants and then puts it in his cart and then logs out.  Then the waiting starts.  Within a few days or even hours, he starts to get ads and promotions for the same product at a better price.

Yes, all those tracking cookies have a useful function.  The Internet now knows you want something and they sell that information to online retailers.  They might even know the price that Amazon offered you.  So they know they have to undercut that price to get your business.

I don't know if it really works, but if it did, I like the concept - using those tracking cookies and other forms of online surveillance to turn the tables on Amazon and other online retailers.

It would be a neat trick!

UPDATE:  A reader writes:

This trick is definitely worth a try if you don't need the item(s) quickly. I sell on Etsy and 1-2 years ago they started offering sellers the option to give cart coupons to customers (or whatever they called them) where they would send an email with 5-10% off on your items if they put your item in their cart and they didn't complete the order

They would go out within 1-3 days if I remember, depending on your preferences

After that I noticed a big spike in customers doing it, fishing for hidden coupons essentially. I've used it with some success since then but most of what comes are just email reminders that  "You left something behind!"


Monday, June 20, 2022

From BnB to AirBnB - the History and Meltdown of the Gig Economy

The Gig Economy is going to melt down, eventually.  In the meantime, most of us little folks will get hurt.

Once upon a time, maybe 50 years ago, there was a mythical land of enchantment called the United States of America.  It was a prosperous place, but one that was carefully regulated.  You couldn't just paint "taxi" on the side of your car and drive people around for money.  That had been tried, decades prior, and it was decided it was a bad idea.  So instead, the number of taxis was regulated and there were standards that had to be met to own and operate a cab.  This prevented an oversupply of cabbies and outright wars between cab companies (and by wars, we mean violence, not price wars).

Back in those halcyon days, you couldn't just throw a few mattresses on the floor and call your house a "Hotel" - there were regulations in place, beginning with zoning.  If your area was zoned residential, you could not run a commercial enterprise there.  The number, location, and type of hotels and motels was controlled, and they were inspected and had to meet standards, for example, for fire protection.   Hotel owners couldn't charge "hidden fees" tacked on to your credit card after you left.  There were rules - rules to protect the public from an unscrupulous few.

But that started to change.  Maybe it was the recession of the late 1970's and early 1980's - that's about when the "Bed and Breakfast" fad started.  People would rent out rooms in their house, or cabins, as a "Bed and Breakfast" lodging, complete with a bed (duh!) and a light breakfast served the next day.  At first, there was opposition - from neighbors and from competing hotels.  But in the name of "do your own thing" many municipalities went along with this new trend, as it was deemed to be "good for the economy" and would attract tourism.

For every winner, of course, there were losers.  Maybe the "BnB" owner was making some money at it (doubtful - I have heard horror stories from nearly every BnB owner I have met - most sell out after five years or so due to the hassles and costs) but the neighbors weren't too happy about the increased traffic, the noise of vacationers having a good time, and so on and so forth.

The concept expanded.  Vacation Rentals By Owner or VRBO allowed people to rent out apartments and even houses as vacation destinations.  They are now merged with AirBnB and call themselves "Ver-Bow" which is a stupid name.

I hate to say it, but we were caught up in this trend as well.  In the early 2000's, we bought two condos in an 11-unit building that had been rental apartments in a somewhat sketchy part of Pompano Beach, Florida.  It was on the water, with deeded dock spaces and with so many vacation hotels being bulldozed to make room for high-rise condos (and we know how that worked out in 2008!) there was a demand from "Snowbirds" from up North (and Canada) for places to stay for the winter.

We rented out our condos by the week and month and made good money.  A real Godsend was back-to-back hurricanes, which provided us with rental income in the summer, as State Farm needed places for their adjusters to stay while handling the backlog of claims.  We made good money - and then sold out for twice what we paid for the place.  That was back in 2007.

Of course, there were victims in this scenario.  While it is inexcusable that waterfront property should fall so far from grace, the apartments that were there before the place went condo were a haven for local workers who needed a cheap place to live.  When the place went condo, they were evicted, and 11 units were taken out of the local housing stock (about three or four were rented back to "full time" residents, however, as their owners were only interested in the dock spaces!).

I have mixed feelings about this. In retrospect, we were guilty of "gentrifying" the neighborhood - if "guilt" is the right word.  By sprucing up the old apartment building, we helped bring up property values in the neighborhood, which were on the rise anyway.   If we hadn't bought there, someone else would have - likely a speculator who would have flipped the properties in a matter of months.  It is a double-edged sword.

Now enter AirBnB. AirBnB rents out apartments and houses on a nightly basis - basically turning even your spare bedroom into a hotel room.   In our new libertarian economy, this is permissible, and zoning laws have been changed to accommodate this concept.  I note that our remaining condo in Virginia does not allow for AirBnb rentals - there is a minimum rental period of one year.  So even with local ordinances modified, community rules such as HOA docs or condo docs, may prohibit such uses.

The problems are the same as with the BnB and VRBO only amplified.   Neighbors now have to deal with nightly rentals and in some cases, people are renting out AirBnB properties and holding a rave with 100 people attending.   Neighboring homeowners are getting upset.

Not only that, but the profits are so staggering that people are snapping up properties to turn them into full-time AirBnB resorts.  They even have special mortgage instruments that factor in potential AirBnB income to allow folks to pay top dollar for properties. Of course, this means the working stiff who just wants a place to live, is priced out of the equation.

Some "landlords" are cutting to the chase and renting out properties they don't even own.   It is an old scam - put an ad on Craigslist or even VRBO advertising a property for rent - collect a "deposit" and tell the tenants to move in.  The tenants arrive and find that someone else, in fact, owns the property and never had it for rent - on VRBO or anywhere.

A couple in Miami took it to the next level - renting out apartments and paying the first months' rent and then renting the place nightly on AirBnB - for months and months, until the owner of the property could "evict" the "tenant" who never paid rent, but raked in 100% pure profits from their AirBnB rentals.  Worse yet, since the properties were specifically zoned to prohibit nightly rentals, the owner of the property ends up being fined for the actions of their "tenant".

You start to see why we had these pesky "regulations" in the first place.  Libertarianism is a fine theory, but it falls apart in real-life practice because human beings are pretty shitty most of the time.  This is why we can't have nice things.

It gets worse.  Many renters are finding that they are being socked with "cleaning fees" and arbitrary fees, often buried in the rental agreement. A simple two-bedroom apartment, listed for $250 a night for four nights, ends up costing $1500 with excess fees.   Guests are tasked with doing chores before they leave (cleaning, doing dishes, washing sheets) or end up zinged with punitive fees.   Many are starting to wonder whether a hotel room, with maid service and endless clean towels, isn't a better bargain all around.

Of course, this model is nothing really new, at least in vacation destination resort areas.  On our little island, we have a "Hotel Condo" where each "room" is owned separately but rented out by the "hotel" to guests.  It worked OK, although the income from the nightly rentals was never quite enough to justify the ownership costs (by my calculations).  Many owners freaked out recently when they were hit with $50,000 special assessments to repair the aging buildings.  Such is the joy of owning a condo.

But since that condo-hotel was built (in the 1970s) the island has expanded the concept.  The local real estate companies rent out houses by the night or week, and many folks come here with extended families and party all night long, parking a dozen cars on the lawn.  It is hard on the properties and fortunately it is mostly limited to the beach side (we are on the marsh side which is quieter).  But more and more properties, including some on our street - are switching to this model.   For some owners, it is the only way they can "afford" a vacation home.

I recall a law partner I worked for once had a house on the Outer Banks.  It was rented almost every week of the year, other than the two or three weeks he and his wife visited it.  Their plan was to rent it out until they retired, at which point the mortgage would be paid off and they would gut-and-remodel the place, as it would be pretty tired by then. And for many middle-class and upper-middle-class Americans, this was the battle plan.  Today, some folks are amassing multiple rental properties and becoming the Conrad Hilton of AirBnb, albeit on a smaller scale.

When our island was redeveloped, six hotels were torn down, but only three were rebuilt - as hotels.  The remainder were made into houses or townhomes, which are perpetually rented to vacationers.  The model of renting a house for vacation is here to stay, it seems.

But nearly everyone, it seems, is getting screwed on this deal.  The owners end up getting fined, the neighbors end up getting pissed, the guests end up getting zinged, and the locals end up priced out of the housing market.  Who wins?

Silicon Valley.  AirBnB and VRBO, like Uber and Lyft and the plethora of "side gig" economy jobs such as food delivery (which is technology doncha know!) all skim a pretty hefty chunk off the top of each transaction and provide little more than a listing platform.  When landlords or renters get into trouble, AirBnB washes their hands of the whole thing.  "We're just a listing platform!  We don't own the properties, we don't negotiate the prices!"   So they benefit from running the world's largest virtual hotel chain, without the messy business of maintaining buildings, securing tenants, and paying employees (other than themselves).

The same is true for more traditional vacation rentals, such as here on our island.  The local "real estate" companies seem less interested in listing or selling houses as they are in renting them, which is a steady income stream.  More and more listings on our island are from off-island real estate agents.   The rental business is just too good.

But even then, there are regulations.  We live under the benevolent dictatorship of the "Island Authority" which pretty much does what it wants to do, but treats us pretty fairly, all things considered.  And one of the things they decided to do was require that people obtain a license if they want to rent out their homes (or a room or whatever) and pay a "bed tax" as well.  Properties are subject to inspection and expected to meet certain standards.  They don't want someone renting out a run-down hovel and giving people a bad impression of the island.

Those sort of things do happen.  I met more than one landlord who put the rattiest stuff in their rental units - broken furniture, mis-matched and chipped china, bent cutlery, and so on and so forth.  "They're just  renters - screw 'em!" they would say.  Others simply shipped off to their condo whatever cast-off furniture they were getting rid off from their own house (and buying new stuff and deducting it as a "business expense" on their taxes).

Of course, the renters were not all innocent parties.  I met a young couple who regaled me with stories about problem renters.  They put all new glassware and tableware in the kitchen and new pillows in the bedrooms.  A few months later, they come back to find old jelly jars replacing the new glassware, and mismatched silverware in the drawers and chipped and mismatched plates in the cupboards.  On the beds are lumpy and moldy pillows.  It seems that some of these tenants bring their old crap with them when they go on vacation and then swap it out with "the good stuff" the landlord left behind.  The cleaning service is charged with counting the number of cups and saucers and forks and pillows.  So long as the numbers add up, the quality isn't questioned and the cleaning lady, who works on 20 houses, has no idea what was supposed to be there.

Again, humans are shitty.  We can't have nice things.

Hotels see the same thing - people steal towels and silverware and whatnot.  They leave horrific messes for hotel staff to clean up.  Sometimes they even tear out the walls - but they usually charge guests for that sort of thing.

Many municipalities have already enacted laws limiting or outlawing AirBnB-type rentals.  As in our condo, rentals can be limited to no less than a year or six months or whatever, which essentially kills off the weekly or nightly business.  I suspect, that, over time, perhaps more municipalities will enact such rules (which, at one time, were in place - it's called zoning!) thus limiting online overnight rentals to tourist districts or selected areas.

And now we are back where we started.  It seems we go through this every 20-30 years or so.  We decide to abolish "restrictive" laws because they are bad for business or that people are chafing against restrictions of their "freedoms".  Then we realize, a decade later, why we had these laws - taxi laws, zoning laws, banking laws - and then re-enact them.

Back in 1935, my Grandfather Wiggins would fly down from Idlewild Airport to Washington National in a Ford Trimotor, to meet with banking officials to help draft new banking laws and rules to prevent the excesses of the 1920's that lead to the great depression.  He was chair of the banking committee of the New York State Bar and represented Cities Bank.  And those laws were enacted - at least in part - and over the next 30-40 years the economy grew and prospered, despite these "restrictions" on "banking freedoms" or perhaps because of it.  Banks could no longer dabble in the stock market, for example.  Today, every major bank has a trading house affiliated with it.

We create these rules after things go wrong - to try to make an even playing field and make sure the bulk of humanity doesn't get ripped off.  Zoning laws were enacted to prevent people from building a rendering plant in a residential neighborhood (as happened in Georgetown, DC, back in the day).  Taxi laws put an end to the taxi wars - and drivers and passengers being ripped off or exploited.   Hotel regulations were put into effect to provide safe lodging and prevent tragic fires.  Laws prohibit hotel owners from excluding customers on the basis of race or religion.  These are not bad laws.  But some folks think they go too far.

Today, we are seeing, once again, why these regulations were put into place.  Maybe the taxi laws weren't providing better taxi service.  And maybe there should have been a better way of regulating cabs.  The former mayor of New York tried to standardize NYC taxis along the lines of the famous London Cabs - but was shot down by a judge who decided that used Police cars would make better taxis than brand-new purpose-built Nissans.  Freedom!  Freedom to have a shitty taxi service, that is.

Uber drivers are finding they are being exploited.  Passengers are being zinged with rush-hour pricing.  The lack of background checks means some are being raped or robbed. The Wild-West or Libertarian approach doesn't always work - in fact, it rarely does.  One wonders whether this model is sustainable.  Uber is pleading with people to come to "work" for them (as a contractor, of course!) with online ads showing how much you could make if you turned the family car into a taxi (for which it was designed, of course!).  Despite all of that, Uber continues to lose money - as most of these "gig economy" companies do.  Of course, the people running these companies are raking in millions of dollars, in salaries and stock options.  Stock options pumped up by inflated priced because - you guessed it - the "little guy" buys into the idea that this is "the next big thing!"  Gee, just about everyone gets screwed in these "side hustle" gigs, don't they?

Surprisingly, AirBnB doesn't seem to be all that profitable - if profitable at all.  Some charts show the company as losing money, while others claim it has a P/E ratio of 85 or so (which is very high).  Either way, it doesn't smell good.  By the way, it is interesting how, on the Internet, when you try to research whether a company is profitable or not, you get lots of "Revenue" charts (which only shows gross income) or "EBITA" charts (which shows a mythical income if the company didn't have to pay its bills - wtf?) or other specious metrics.  Debts have to paid back - along with taxes.  It doesn't matter if your company is "profitable" but mired in debt and has a negative cash-flow when servicing its debt and tax obligations.  Eventually it will go out of business.

But like Uber, AirBnB and VRBO are advertising heavily online - like a man desperate for a date when the bar is about to close.  It makes one wonder what is really going on.

Myself, I am starting to like hotels again - the few times I have had to use them.  You know the price up front, you don't have to do the laundry or the dishes, and there is an endless supply of clean towels.  Plus, you don't have to dick around with some "app" just to make a reservation.  That sort of shit is getting really old, in my book, particularly when the apps are buggy and don't work very well.  Maybe over time, they will improve, but I doubt it - IT guys just have to throw in yet another slow-loading animated logo and slide show, just so you can order a sandwich at a restaurant.  Shit never ends, does it?

The bottom line is this:  The "gig economy" isn't helping us little people at all.  We were sold on this idea that we would get discount airfares on Expedia (also affiliated with AirBnB) or cheap taxi rides on Uber, or a cool resort vacation for cheap on VRBO.  Our food would be delivered cheaply via GrubHub and we could all buy cool stuff for cheap on Amazon - and work in the warehouse to pay for it all!

Oh, right, thatA leaked memo claims that Amazon has a staggering 150% turnover rate every year.  You go to work at Amazon in January, and expect to be fired or quit by September.  Worse yet, this turnover right is twice that of retail in general.  That's right - retail has a 75% turnover rate as it is.  A career in the retail business is an oxymoron.

This is in stark contrast to our friends in Europe, where jobs like "Waiter" or "Store Clerk" are indeed careers, not something you do while in high school or looking for your "real" job.   In France and Italy, being a waiter is seen as a honorable career - people retire from such jobs.  But for some reason, in America, we view such people at little more than a disposable commodity - to be paid a sub-minimum wage.  They have to hope the customers take pity on them and tip - another concept alien to our European friends.

Maybe they have the right idea, maybe not.  But it seems like this "gig economy" thing is just turning into a dog-eat-dog mentality, where everyone is trying to screw everyone else out of their last dime.  How on Earth is this sustainable?