Friday, September 30, 2022

Hurricane Recovery - Faster Than You Think!

Our favorite picnic spot on the Sanibel causeway is now underwater.  But not for long....

People are freaking out - and rightfully so - at the level of destruction caused by hurricane Ian.  It hit Ft. Myers Beach (Estero Island) pretty hard, pretty much washing over the island and wiping out a number of homes.  Down the road, the causeway to Sanibel island was wiped out in many spots - the bridges collapsed in sections and water rushed over the sandy parts, forming new channels - including one right where our hamster is shown parked above.

The death toll is unknown, but it could be bad, as a lot of people didn't leave when they had the chance.  Many more left cars and boats behind, only to be destroyed by the storm.  It will take months and years to rebuilt it all - but a lot will be built back faster than you'd expect.  The causeway to Sanibel will likely be fixed in months, I suspect.  But we'll have to wait and see.

The big problem is insurance.  I wrote before that we had a windfall (sorry, pun) profit with our condos in Pompano Beach after a big hurricane, as the State Farm adjusters all needed a place to stay during the normally-slack summer months.  Those State Farm checks paid our mortgage!

So they will once again send down agents and appraise damage and cut checks, although State Farm no longer writes on coastal areas and many more agencies have left Florida (as I noted before) due to the roofing scam (which will go into overdrive now).  The few companies left may also leave the State or jack their rates - already high - through the roof.

Would you write a policy on a house built on a spit of sand in the ocean?   An honest question, as I own a house on a spit of sand in the ocean.  So far, it looks like the hurricane will miss Jekyll Island, but by Sunday, I could be homeless.  Good thing we are in the RV in Mississippi, where it is sunny and cool and a little windy.

The insurance issue could have ripple effects across the country, as other companies re-think their exposure to storm damage.  Anything on any coast is suspect - Texas, the Carolinas, California-Oregon-Washington (with added tsunami risks!) as well as New England which was socked with hurricanes.  You do remember what happened to the Jersey shore, right?

Even inland areas are not safe.  I wrote before how we traveled through Vermont on Route 9 after a hurricane - yes, a hurricane - hit that land-locked State.  The road was washed out in several spots, but the Governor redirected road crews across the State to stop work on every project and rebuild Route 9, which they did in record time.  So it can be done.   The main road of Estero Island looks bad, but it is just sand over the road.  When the hurricane hit in the 1950s, they brought snow plows from up north to move the sand away.  The same will happen again - or something similar.

On the other hand, many entire neighborhoods were reduced to rubble.  The question is, will people rebuild and what will they build if they do?  Already the island was over-developed, as I wrote about before, more than once.  Old houses were torn down and replaced with high-rises, but the same narrow road handled all the increased traffic.  It took hours to traverse the island, which is hardly larger than the one I live on.

Maybe this is a chance to rebuilt in a way that is better for the environment as well as traffic flow and quality of life.  Nah!  Can't have that!  This is Florida, after all.

It is interesting to note that in the views I have seen so far, the newer houses and condos, built on stilts, and made of concrete, seemed to weather the storm much better.  The old "beach shacks" made of wood, floated away and were smashed to kindling.  No doubt, insurance companies (and zoning laws) will require that any new construction be elevated and hurricane-proof or at least resistant.

But whether it is affordable to rebuild is the question.  As I noted in an earlier posting, the property taxes in Florida are obscene.  So if you buy a wiped-out house from the owner (who cashes his insurance check and leaves) and you build a million-dollar home on the bay (it's been done, a lot, there) your property taxes will be in the five figures, easily.  Add in a five-figure insurance bill and you wonder who can afford to live there.  Even a half-million-dollar home is unaffordable - which is why we sold Mark's parents home on Ft. Myers Beach, when they passed away.  As out-of-state owners, we'd be looking at 20K a year in taxes and insurance and would have to rent the place, week by week, to vacationers, just to cover costs.  And of course, today, we'd be looking at a vacant lot.

Actually, it was a vacant lot a few years ago, when a storm came in (two years after we sold out) and pretty much destroyed the place.  And that was just a "tropical depression" not a major wipe-out that we had this time around.

We are fortunate - so far - that Jekyll seems to miss hurricanes.  Florida sticks out into the Gulf Stream, as does South Carolina.  The Georgia coast - all 100 miles of it - is inland from the Gulf Stream and protected not only by barrier islands, but by offshore sandbars and reefs which mean we have shitty surfing, but little erosion.

But that doesn't mean we are safe.  In the late 1800's a hurricane hit the island dead-on and water washed over the island much as it just did to Ft. Myers Beach.  Fortunately, most of the island was uninhabited at the time.  Today, it is only 1/3 developed, but that still means a huge economic loss if we get a major storm.

Maybe it is time to sell?  Or maybe it is too late - after all, the orgy of buying peaked about three months ago when interest rates spiked.

I am sure a few savvy investors will fly down to Florida on private planes and start snapping up damaged properties and either bulldoze them and build mini-mansions, or do half-assed repairs and sell the mildew-smelling homes to unsuspecting buyers (we've seen more than a few in our real estate adventures in the sunshine state!).

But on the whole, I think within a few years, all will be forgotten, particularly if there is not another major hurricane making landfall.  There are lots of hurricanes out there - if you visit the NOAA site during hurricane season, you will notice this.  Many - maybe most of them - either fizzle out in the deep ocean, or hit "other countries" which of course, as Americans, we don't care about much, other than to throw paper towels at them.

And once again, we will get complacent, and then a big storm will hit - and everyone will act like this never happened before.

What would I do if hurricane Ian turned sharply West and wiped out our island?  Hard to say.  FEMA flood insurance covers only $250,000 which they claim is the cost of rebuilding the house.  If this is so, then the cost of the land is another quarter-million.  Problem is, if you want to just "walk away" no one will pay you much for a piece of land that was just scoured by a hurricane, particularly if everyone else is selling at the same time.

People like to talk about insurance scams - and they exist.  But for the most part, with deductibles and all, you don't come out ahead when making an insurance claim - you end being made partially whole, but not entirely whole.  And it is rare that you would come out ahead.

But then again, sometimes it happens.  When Mark's stepmother weathered one of the minor hurricanes on Estero, the insurance company came out and wrote her a check for $10,000 to repair the screen "cage" around the swimming pool.   She called her handyman who repaired and re-screened the cage for $3000.  "I feel guilty about this!" she said.  We told her to bank the money - the next storm would not be so generous!

To the insurance company, it was a minor payout and the cost of researching the cost of repairing versus replacing the cage wasn't worth dickering over - particularly when there were hundreds of other houses to visit and adjust.  And of course, they just pass on these costs to the consumer - so Floridians love to gloat about how they "pulled a fast one" on the insurance company, but then bitch about the outrageous premiums.

Mark's Uncle once had a chimney fire in his house.  Before he called the fire department, he pulled logs out of the fireplace and rolled them on the carpet. "This way I get new carpet!" he boasted.  I am not sure he came out ahead there, but it illustrates the mentality of some people, particularly folks who consider themselves to be "operators" like Mark's Uncle did.  By the way, that's called insurance fraud, although the $500 in wall-to-wall carpet wasn't worth litigating over, from the perspective of the insurance company.

Of course, hurricane season isn't over quite yet.  So hold on to your hats!

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Thing You Don't Need - Crypto, Gold, Guns, Vaping

When you see something being sold in poor neighborhoods, it is probably a "poor" bargain!

We were driving through rural Arkansas and saw many a sign for gun shows, or pawn shops hyping that they sold guns and gold (or bought back same, for half-price, of course!).  The funniest, I thought, was a vaping store that advertised that they sold "Crypto!"

Of all the things an impoverished redneck doesn't need...

I recounted before how during the last recession, people were unloading guns (no pun intended) for half what they paid for them.  They went out and bought an AR-15 because, you know, crime and all, and after a decade of it sitting in a closet (loaded of course, where the kids can find it) they realized they spend a thousand dollars or more on what is, in effect, a paperweight.  No one was busting into their dilapidated trailer to steal their precious collectibles.

But again, you see this all the time in impoverished areas.  A run-down trailer or house with "NO TRESPASSING!" signs all around it, or, as we saw at one house in Missouri (that upon initial inspection, appeared abandoned), "TRESPASSERS AND THEIVES [sic] WILL BE SHOT ON SITE [sic]!"

The less someone has, the more paranoid they are about it being taken away.  So they cling to rusted-out old cars that stopped running during the Reagan Administration.  Then they tell poverty stories to their friends how their rusted-out collection of mediocre cars will someday be worth millions.

But they won't.  The common denominator is that poor people "invest" in things like gold, crypto, and guns and then later on - when they need the money - they sell them for half what they paid for them (the real market value).  Worse yet, they sell them to make payments on a credit card, which is where they charged the purchase to begin with.

It would be funny if it wasn't so sad.  And things like vaping and tattoos and piercings just add to the pile.  You could argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with these pursuits (except maybe vaping, which can destroy your lungs) but they are things that are unnecessary to daily living and really a burden if you are living "paycheck-to-paycheck" as so many claim to be doing.  And yes, in these same neighborhoods are liquor stores with bars on the windows, selling pints of booze - right next to the payday loan place.

But like clockwork, people defend these practices and businesses - often the very victims themselves or people claiming to be sympathetic to the poor.  More than once I have read, in "liberal" publications, that the poor need payday loans, as no one else will lend to them, and they need to borrow on their paychecks to put food on the table.   As if turning $1 into 50 cents somehow feeds your family.

Similarly, many on the left claim it is "poor shaming" to call out someone who has $10,000 in tattoos but complains they will "never be able to pay off" their $25,000 in student loans.  Sadly, unlike a gun or a bar of gold, you can't pawn a tattoo.

They want their cake and eat it too.  Every "poor" person I know has an iPhone they bought on a three-year contract with Verizon.  Every "poor" person I know eats out more times a week than I do - often every night of the week, day of the week, and morning of the week.  But I am "poor shaming" by scrambling my own eggs!  Lookit Mr. Gotrocks with his fancy-dancy hotplate!

I digress.

The point is, the poor are poor not only because they are exploited by the rich, but because they make poor decisions which makes them easy to exploit by the rich.  And in terms of changing behavior or changing society, I see only one realistic and achievable path for most people.  We can wait for massive social changes and hope they don't screw us further (as revolutions tend to do) or we can change our own lives.  In terms of what is do-able, the latter is far easier to achieve.

No one is pointing a gun at your head and saying, "drive ten miles to McDonald's for breakfast!" - and yet, I see people do it, every day, in campgrounds and neighborhoods across America.  Not only is it a horrible waste of money, it is a horrible waste of time.   Similarly, no one points a gun at your head and says "get a tattoo instead of paying your credit card bill!" - yet so many do and then claim to be victims of the "system."

You drive through poor neighborhoods like that - in rural Arkansas or the ghettos of the city - and you see these raw deals being presented and you know the reason why these stores and shops are there.  People are lapping up these raw deals, in droves.

And apparently, that is the fault of us who do not.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022


What is nagging and why do people do it?

What exactly is nagging?  Why do people do it?  And how can it be stopped - or can it?  I was thinking of this the other day.

A husband is late for work, and says to his wife, "I'm late for work, I can't find my car keys!  Have you seen them?"

Now, in response to this question, there are three right answers and several wrong ones.

The right answers are:

"I haven't seen them, sorry!" or
"They are on the dresser!" or
(best of all) "No, but let me help you look for them!"

The wrong - nagging - answers include:

"You're always losing things!  Why don't you keep better track of things!" or

"I'm not in charge of your car keys.  If you can't do a better job of....(etc. etc. etc.)" or

"Late for work again!   You're always running late!  Why don't you... (etc. etc. etc.)"

You see the difference.  Someone asks a factual question ("Have you seen my keys?") and the answer they are looking for is a factual one - one that will help them.

But the nagger decides this is the opportune moment to pick apart their spouse's flaws, real or imagined, or just kick them when they are down and most vulnerable.   They already feel like shit, being late for work and having misplaced the keys, why not make them feel worse?

And we wonder why the divorce rate is so high - and the spousal murder rate isn't lower!

In the movies and comic books, nagging is usually depicted as a housewife constantly talking to the husband - and reminding him of things to do, like take out the garbage.  But nagging is more than that.  It is this incessant need to tear down a spouse or a friend, with this constant background level of criticism.

If we dissect nagging, we see why it is traditionally something that wives are accused of doing to husbands.  Nagging is all about the power imbalance.  Until fairly recently, women were unempowered in most relationships and in fact, little more than property - and still are, in many most parts of the world.  But with changes in social attitudes, I am sure that husbands will start to nag as well - and probably many already are.

In almost every relationship or marriage, one party has more power than the other - it may be slight, it may be severe.  In America, traditionally the husband was the "breadwinner" and had a job and a career and the social status that came with it.  In most households, he was "head of the house" and made all the important decisions - at least on paper.  Wives had to be content with basking in the reflected light of their husbands, being "Mrs [Husband's Name]" and not even having a name of their own.

Like I said, this is changing.

But nagging gives the more submissive party in the relationship a chance to get even, so to speak - to assert some form of power or authority over the dominate party. It is akin to how powerless inner-city youth vandalize and spray-paint things - they are attempting to exert control over their own environment in the only way they know how.

Nagging may be the only way to achieve a power balance in a marriage.

Or it may be something else.  Sometimes people don't respond to simple requests (e.g., "take out the garbage") and thus, the request has to be repeated again and again, until it becomes nagging.   When a person realizes that there are no consequences to ignoring the first request, they wait until the second, third, or fifteenth, before taking any action.  They "win" at the game of passive-aggression, in that, while they are forced to take out the garbage in the end, they make the spouse whine and complain about it the whole time.

Marriage is like a war - or many small, pointless battles.

I think also that television is to blame, in particular, the "Sit-Com" with its put-down humor and annoying laugh track.  We have friends who watch way too much television (in other words, like 90% of America) and they enjoy this put-down humor, which is, in effect, a form of nagging.

In the oh-so-funny sitcom, the main character comes in (to applause, naturally, because entering a room is worthy of applause) and says, "Have you seen my car keys?  I'm late for work!"  The other character(s) then say amusing bon mots with put-downs of the main character's personal flaws, met by howls of laughter - from the laugh track.

That's television in a nutshell, and dealing with people who watch this drivel gets tiresome.  To begin with, they start to think this is funny and worse yet, normal behavior.  So you try to talk to them and they insult you - or the clothes you wear or you hairstyle or whatever.  It isn't that they don't like you (well, maybe...) but that this is what they think is normal for humans to do.  Insult comedy - Don Rickles has a lot to answer for.

Whatever the cause, nagging is annoying - and a form of passive-aggression.   Over time, it can be destructive to relationships and marriages. The extra-martial affair is attractive not because of the wild sex, or "true love" but because, as at the start of any relationship there is little in the way of nagging.

But can it be stopped?  That's the nut to crack.  Once the nagging habit starts, it is hard to curtail.  You can call out the nagger, but that does little to attenuate the problem.  Or you can, like so many spouses do, just ignore it and let it become the background noise of any relationship.

Sadly, that may be the best any of us can hope for.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Amazon Stock Soars on Prison Labor Deal

Amazon has found an end run to the labor shortage.

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - Amazon announced today that it has solved the labor shortage problem and also found a new way to thwart the unionization of its distribution centers by hiring prison labor.

"The solution presented itself," Jack Whitehead, Amazon's vice president of labor relations noted, "We were experiencing labor strife at one of our fulfillment centers, and then we noticed it was within a half mile of a privately run prison.  It was a no-brainer."

Amazon can now hire non-union prison labor for $1 per hour, far undercutting current wages paid to Union and non-union laborers like. What's more, the company no longer has to comply with pesky labor laws, eliminating such perks as periodic rest breaks and restroom visits.

"They can piss in their pants for all we care," Whitehead chuckled, "They're prisoners, what are they going to do, escape?"

Ask whether there could be a shortage of prison labor as well, Whitehead noted that, "That's the beauty of it! We can always create new laws to criminalize everyday behavior and create an endless supply of slave labor. Whoops! Did I say slave? Just kidding!"

Marijuana is still a criminalized in many states, and Whitehead noted that Amazon is on the forefront of pushing to recriminalize marijuana in many more states. "This way," he noted, "We can create an endless supply of low-wage labor for our warehouses."

* * *

It is a frightening thought, but one I had while driving through Arkansas.  We saw a sign that said "Federal Prison" and the arrow seemed to be pointing at a FedEx distribution hub. It got me to thinking..... kill two birds with one stone!

Many people are alarmed by the rise in private "for-profit" prisons, which States have used as a means of handling overflow prisoners, reducing overcrowding, and of course, cutting costs to the bone. Prison industries are nothing new - when I was at the Patent Office, the desks and chairs we had were built at the minimum-security prison in Allenwood, Pennsylvania - where the Watergate burglars were sent.  Each one had a sticker underneath advertising this fact.

But that was then - prison labor was used mostly for government contracts, or, like in the days of "Cool Hand Luke" as chain gangs, clearing brush from the side of the road or breaking rocks for road paving. Even the chain gangs were going away, at one time - thought to be a vestige of the old, racist South.

Today, though, prison labor is a hot topic, as many private prisons are making money by selling the labor of their "guests" to the highest bidder.  Prisoners are paid - a pittance - which is mostly used to buy small items for their own comfort, such as toiletries and the like - things you'd usually expect to be provided by your host!

Many argue that the wages paid are scandalously low - a few dimes and pennies per hour, in some cases.  Others point out that your "room and board" are covered by the government, and thus the pay is not as unfair as it might seem.  If we pay prisoners minimum wage, does the government get to charge them rent?   After all, it can cost well over twenty grand a year, just to keep someone incarcerated, and the principle of charging prisoners for their incarceration is also gaining ground.

But if you think about it, prison labor would be ideal for Amazon.  The "workers" wouldn't be able to unionize, go on strike, or even take a bathroom break - not without asking permission of shotgun-toting guards.  And if the fulfillment center is located next to the prison, then the transportation costs are nil.  Infractions of rules can be used as a means of denying parole or even extending sentences. And creating new classes of crimes and criminals would create an endless stream of virtual slave-labor.

I sort of chuckled as I thought of this - not because the idea of slave labor is funny.  But rather, I thought it would be funny to somehow get access to the Amazon labor relations people and pitch this idea with a slick PowerPoint presentation - and see what happens.  Rather than being appalled by the idea, I suspect several of the executives would instead ask pointed questions as to actual costs and how to implement the scheme.   The morality of it would likely not be questioned.

The more I thought about it, the more horrified I became.  This is a way virtual slavery could be instituted.  We would end up with a two-class society, with the very wealthy able to skip out on criminal convictions because they could hire lawyers, or, as in recent months, never be charged as prosecutors would know not to whack the bee-hive.  Meanwhile, the poor would be assigned public defenders and the best they could hope for is to negotiate a plea deal with as little time as possible.

And maybe - just maybe - we're already there.  Pay a friend with Venmo to have sex with an underage girl and you skate away from charges like a pat of butter on a hot skillet.  Steal a video game from Walmart and you end up in jail.  The rich, it seems, get away with it, or at worst, serve light sentences in celebrity jails and then write books about the experience - and come away richer than ever.

We are at risk of becoming a two-class society, with the very rich getting away with whatever they want, and the very poor having no options at all.

Funny thing, though, while driving through Missouri (and most of America these days) we saw hardly any Trump signs, flags, or bumper stickers.  Part of this is due to the fact that the "Made in America" merch he sold his chumpkins was in fact, poorly made in China.  The few people stupid enough to still fly Trump flags were flying faded tattered remnants of banners.

But one fellow had a sign professionally made at Sign-O-Rama, with the American flag as a background.  The lengthy message on it was something to the effect that the Demmycrats want to create a two-class society - the very poor (who will exist on social welfare subsidies) and the very rich.  I thought this was an interesting take on things, as the same accusation could be better made against the Republicans - who want to cut taxes for the very rich, cut social programs for the very poor, and criminalize all sort of behavior and throw everyone (except the rich) in jail.  He had the right idea, but the wrong party, I think.

Maybe it is just me, but I'd rather collect my free Obamacare and free Obamaphone and Social Security, than live in a prison and working for 33 cents an hour.  One party promotes the former, the other promotes the latter.  Some in the GOP are still serious about abolishing Social Security and Medicare!  I guess they figure the older voters who were their base are dying off - and now they are courting the grievance vote - chubby 30-something men whose lives are a wreck, blaming immigrants and feminists for all of their problems.

UPDATE:  While Amazon doesn't yet use prison labor, apparently many other major corporations do!

UPDATE: A reader reminds me that Amazon’s newest executive of warehouse Learning and Development is a former Corecivic executive. 

Sunday, September 25, 2022


If you want to make something look more important than it is, embellish it.

Playing Cards.  Beer Labels.  Booze Labels.   Currency.  They all have something in common - they are embellished and decorated in a mesmerizing fashion to make them appear more serious and important than they really are.

I was thinking about this while perusing the alcohol aisle at a Missouri WalMart.  As you know, Juame Serra Cristallino sparking Cava is still my "go to" beverage and we buy it by the case.  But recently, Walmart has introduced a line of "Winemaker's select" wines, and their sparkling wine, at $4.96 a bottle (take that, inflation!) is a good deal.  If you are in Bolivar, Missouri, don't bother - I bought every bottle they had.  Well, I left two as a token gesture.  It's like their Woven Squares wheat crackers - when you see them in stock, you buy every damn box (which usually means, all three).

But looking around, I realized there were a plethora of brands of beer, wine, and liquor, and the labels and names of many are quite embellished and decorated - particularly those aimed at the youth market. As a young adult, the mysteries of alcohol seemed deep - and learning all the different cocktails and liqueurs seemed so "adult" at the time.  Sounds a lot better than the idea you are pouring an industrial solvent and nerve poison down your gullet.  It's got botanicals!

Look at the label of a pedestrian can of Budweiser sometime.  You probably can recite the banner text from heart, if you spent many hours of your youth at the kinds of places that served Bud in cans and you played pool for 25 cents at a time:

This is the famous Budweiser beer.
We know of no brand produced by any other brewer
which costs so much to brew and age.
Our exclusive Beechwood Aging produces a taste,
a smoothness and drinkability
you will find in no other beer at any price.

It's like Haiku - poetry.  And many a beer-goggled drunk has read this label and said to themselves, "damn, this is fine beer [hic!]" before power-vomiting in the bar toilet.

We used to buy cases of "ponies" - sturdy reusable green bottles of Rolling Rock "Old Latrobe" from Pennsylvania.  The back of this bottle contained this inexplicable verse:

Rolling Rock
"From glass lined tanks of Old Latrobe,
we tender this premium beer for your enjoyment as a tribute to your good taste.
It comes from the mountain springs to you."

Wow. (Quote signs are in the original).  What mystical poetry that only a drunk could appreciate.  And what does "33" mean, anyway?  It is like the mystical eye in the triangle on the pyramid on the dollar bill.  Serious Mason shit, that's what that is, I tellya what!

Playing cards are similarly embellished.  There really is no reason why a "Bicycle" playing card has all that graphics on the back side - naked angels riding penny-farthings, surrounded by spirograph lines.  All that is to distract you from how plebeian and simple card games are - and the fact you are losing money.

Now, granted, some of this tomfoolery has a purpose.  The fine lithographic work on the dollar bill was supposed to help thwart forgers, who didn't have access to the geometric line scribing machines that the Federal mint had.  But that doesn't explain the strange Masonic symbolism on the dollar bill, or the weird fonts, slogans, and whatnot.  It is designed to be intricate, because intricate is serious.

You see this all the time in Victorian architecture and machinery.  The whole |"steam punk" genre is a celebration of this era when decoration often supplanted Engineering in terms of design ethos.  Don't know how to calculate the stresses on a bridge?  Well, then, add some ornamentation to it!  Even something as functional as the connecting rod of a steam engine piston had to have the image of the queen embossed upon it, otherwise it wouldn't work!

Methinks the "engineers" at the time used this distracting decoration to make the technology seem more advanced and safer than it actually was.  Surely this bridge is sound and this locomotive is safe - look at all the bric-a-brac embellished upon it?  Never mind safety features - you can't see that, even if it existed.

Casinos use the same mentality - they are over-the-top in terms of distracting design elements.   Hey, why not add a "waltzing waters" fountain or maybe a miniature Eiffel Tower?  Pyramids at Giza?  Sure thing!  The message is simple and clear:  This is something important and serious - it has to be, look how ornate it is!  And hey, if a business looks successful, then it must be a good bargain!  How else would they stay in business?  It's all about selling the sizzle.

Rulers have known this since time began.  As Monty Python put is, "How do you know he's the king?  He's not covered with shit like the rest of us!"  So royals from the beginning to today, ride in royal coaches that look like something from a cartoon and wear gowns, capes, and crowns that are designed to wow and impress - although anyone can go to a costume shop these days and put on similar gear that would be indistinguishable from 10 yards away.

So what's the point of all this?  Well, once again, the marketing types are trying to bamboozle us into thinking something is more important than it really is.  Whether it is intricate decorations in the labeling and packaging, or impenetrable jargon and terminology than you have to learn, just to be "hip" with the latest product, the idea is the same - get you to think it is far more important than it actually is.

They try to mesmerize us - to distract us from the underlying bargain.  The "sexy" new car has "tortured" sheet metal (as we called it in the industry) which looks functional and serious, but is not - any more than the tortured headlights that adorn most cars today.   You can make something look important and expensive simply by making it look complicated.  I'm looking at you, Chevrolet - who decided to make the ugliest pickup trucks on the planet?  It's like different people designed the front, the sides, and the back.  But it is ornate and "serious" looking - at least to some people.

Don't fall for design distraction.  Putting gee-gaws and dagmars on a product doesn't make it better, more "luxurious" or "professional grade."  It just distracts you from the underlying bargain.

UPDATE:  A reader writes, noting that "cheap" products are often demarcated by plain packaging, such as the "store brand" packaging that Walmart and other stores use - often for the same exact product in the "name brand" package.

Perhaps this has two intended effects.  First, the bargain-seekers seek out the "plain" packaging as a sign of thrift and value.  But I think a second effect is more to the point:  The "plain" package in your cart or on the conveyor belt (or in your pantry) screams to the world that you are "poor" - and people care more about what others think about them than what they think about themselves.  And brand-name products are a way many people establish their identity and also social status.  See, e.g., Apple products.

Of course, every recession, we see "generic" products become more popular.  In the early 1980's, it was a big deal.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

The Brief Trend of Adopting Chinese Infant Girls

From 1998 to 2018, about a hundred thousand Chinese babies, mostly girls, were adopted by parents, mostly in the United States.  What will happen to this generation of adoptees?

You may have forgotten about it already.  But back in the days of the Clinton administration, it became a "thing" to adopt children from China.  Why was this?  Why did it stop?  What will happen to this generation of adoptees?  All good questions.

China still pretends it is a "developing" country and in some regards it is - trying to develop a working government and stable economy.  China puts out more pollution and carbon emissions than the entire West does, and gets away with this because (a) they want to, and (b) they have this "developing country" badge which is a get-out-of-jail-free card.

China has always been famous for overpopulation.  It is a large country, but has an even larger population.  When I was a kid, my parents would exhort me to eat my green beans, because of "All the starving children in [China, Africa, India, etc.] and famines were a routine thing throughout the tortured history of China.   In reaction to this population problem, China instituted a "one child" policy - every married couple was allowed one child and would be penalized for having more.

Since boys were more likely to get good-paying jobs and support their parents in old age, people preferred having one boy.   Yes, misogyny is an international sport.  As a result, the birth ratio in China was skewed in favor of boys as some parents would abort baby girls.   Given all that (and the same is true in India, supposedly) one would think Asia would be a great place to open up gay bars.  But they get all hinky about that for some reason.

The mythology was that Chinese couples were abandoning their girl babies in the streets and that orphanages were overflowing with Chinese girls. Some claim this wasn't necessarily true, and that perhaps the incentive to have overseas adoption of these Chinese girls was the $25,000 fees collected for each adoption.

Why did Americans (among others) adopt these children?  Well, for starters, they wanted to be helpful and help out kids in need.  It was also easier.   For some reason, right-wing Americans hype adoption as the answer to the abortion issue.  But if you've ever tried to adopt a child (no thanks!) or know someone who has, you realize it costs an awful lot of money and takes forever.  Many adoption agencies, it seems, just want to keep the kids, or keep them in foster care, until age 18.  And many of the kids up for adoption are often damaged goods - born addicted to crack or with fetal alcohol syndrome.  These are kids who act out, not only because of their damage at birth, but because they've been batted around an adoption system for years, going from one foster home or institution to another, usually being abused along the way.

It is a crazy system, as they make it so hard for "normal" people to adopt children, and yet we hear, with great regularity, how the child welfare system fails adopted and fostered children, who are found abused, underfed, starved, overworked, or even raped.   This great screening process that takes years to go through, seems to screen out only the good parents and leave the bad.

So childless couples who wanted to adopt, quickly got frustrated and disgusted with the regular adoption system in the United States.  They would have to wait years to go through background checks and then be given a child to take care of that would be a challenge to professional psychologists.  Many people turned to private adoption - making their own deals directly with parents, often very young, who were overwhelmed with parenthood, or maybe just wanted to make a few bucks in the process.

I know one family who went though this - they tried "the system" and were told to get in line.  Meanwhile, they found a young woman who was having child #4 from an ex-husband, and didn't want to keep the baby - and didn't want to get an abortion.  I am not sure how they hooked up - classified ad in the paper?  You see them all the time - "Childless couple looking to adopt..."

And apparently there is no age limit.  I met a fellow at a campground in Alabama who told me he was in the process of adopting a 30-year-old woman, which is apparently legal in some States - as she was struggling with drug addiction and facing a serious prison sentence.  By adopting this adult woman, he could care for her children while she was in jail, as their "Grandparent."  Sounds like a lot of hard work and possibly dangerous work as well.  I hope he does well.

I know another family that decided to go to China to adopt.  At the time, the "one child"  policy was in effect (it has since been abandoned in favor of a 3+ child policy) and China was basically selling babies at that point.  The reasons they went to China were many.  You can adopt an infant child and raise it as your own (as opposed to a 5-year-old with fetal alcohol system and behavioral problems).  The waiting time and background checks are far less.   You go to China, you come home with a baby - it is as simple as that.

And this went on for a couple of decades, at least, until China shut the door in 2018.  I think they stopped the program for a number of reason.  For starters, it was causing China to "lose face" by basically selling off infants.  What sort of country does things like that?  That treats female babies as excess inventory to be shunted off to whatever country will take them?

But more importantly, the "one child" policy wasn't replacing the population or expanding it.  For all the talk of "Chinese hordes" it remains a fundamental problem with the human economy that it is based on growth.  So long as the next generation is larger than the last, the economy booms.  In many Western countries, the population is barely replacing itself - or actually shrinking.  And for some reason, we cannot figure out how to run an economy based on a stable population.

So the exodus of Chinese girl babies came to an end about four years ago.   And now there is this generation of adopted young women who are now just coming of age.   How will this pan out for them?

Being adopted, regardless of circumstances, can be a hardship to some extent.  A friend of mine, who was adopted (as was his sister) through the Catholic church, would always get maudlin after a few beers and say, "Did I ever tell you that I was adopted?" and we'd reply, "Yea, ever time you have more than three beers in you.  Get over it!"

His parents were pretty typical middle-class people and from what I could tell, decent parents.  He had nothing to complain about, to be sure.  You could use your adoptive status as a crutch, if you choose to, even when you are not incapacitated by it.   On the other hand, as I noted above, you do hear these horror stories about "families" with a dozen kids, some fostered, some adopted, some their own, often found in squalor or abuse.  They've got something to drink about.

So they have this baseline "I'm adopted" thing to deal with, even if they have loving parents and a good home.  But pile onto that, the anti-Asian sentiment sweeping the US (which makes no sense at all, thank you very much Donald Trump!) and things get a lot harder.  It isn't just the virulent MAGA-hat wearing racists out there (and they are out there) who have an irrational fear of Asian people.  There are many, many documented cases of violent assaults against Asian people as of late.  Oddly enough, many of these assualts are from blacks or homeless people, who are making a habit of pushing people in front of subway trains.   The world really has lost its mind as of late.

There is also the subtle anti-Chinese sentiment that these adopted kids have to deal with.  And we all do it, too.  We talk about cheap products from China (which, like opium, we are addicted to) and deride them as being made of "Chinesium".    Give me a good old American pickup truck - made in America with no Chinese parts!  Oh, wait.... like every other car made, worldwide, it has parts sourced from all over, including China.

There is an additional burden for these youngsters, as while they have a foot in two countries, they are strangers in one.  I wrote before about a Korean friend of mine who runs a successful law practice representing some big Korean companies.   I asked him if being of Korean descent helped him with these business contacts - being able to speak the language and all.  Turns out, he left Korea at age 8, and speaks only a juvenile form of Korean.  He learned early on to keep his mouth shut, as when he tried to speak his "native" tongue, it sounded like baby-talk.  Besides, all his business contacts - like most business-people in Asia - spoke English perfectly.

We deride Asians for speaking "Engrish" but let's fact it, the number of Americans and Westerners in general, who speak any Asian language is infinitesimal.   When I told my CIA recruiter friends about the local bartender who spoke mandarin, they got very excited.  And the next week, he disappeared and was never seen again, bartending.

So, our stupid prejudices against Asians are a really big deal for these adoptees.  Yet, they can find little or no solace or support in the Chinese immigrant community, as they have no real link to Chinese customs, language.  They are, to some extent, a stranger in two lands, and feel unwelcome, in some instances, in both.

Some adoptees try to reconnect with their birth parents, which mixed results.  Another friend of mine, who was adopted, and is quite successful and doesn't get drunk and maudlin about his adoptive status, decided to seek out his adoptive parents, which you can do, if you have money (which he does).  They turned out to be two college students who had sex in college in the 1960's and had him.  They didn't feel they could raise a baby, so they put him up for adoption.

They had since divorced and the birth Dad really wanted nothing to do with him, which I am sure hurt.  But Dad had a new, new family, and wasn't even keen on visiting the kids from his first marriage, much less their first child they put up for adoption.  His birth mother was a little more receptive, and his new siblings seemed pretty friendly.  But there was no Hallmark homecoming - it was, in fact, awkward as be put it.  And they haven't stayed in touch that much, in terms of spending holidays together or whatever.  You meet someone after 40 years, what do you have in common, other than DNA?  And the real truth is, we share 99.9% of our DNA with everyone else - a similarly high percentage with other animals or even plants.

My Chinese friend arrived in America with a tiny sticker attached to her, where no one could see, with tiny, tiny lettering in Chinese.  She had a friend translate it and it said something about the child's name and birth mother.  "Oh, surely you saved that in her baby book!  She might be interested in that someday!" I said.  "No, I threw it out," the mother replied.  I guess Mothers don't like competition.  When my other friend sought out his birth parents, his adoptive parents (who he loves very much) were supportive but ambivalent about it.  I guess as an adoptive parent, you always have this subliminal fear that the "real" parents will take your child from you.  Perhaps.

So what is the point of all of this? I dunno. It just seems to me that there is this "lost generation" of young women who were adopted from China, who are a tiny minority of the population, who are basically on their own. There is no generation like them before or after them. It was a blip on the radar, a trend for 20 years or so. Meanwhile, they have to live their lives in a country that is increasingly hostile to minorities of all sorts, with Asians being the piƱata du jour.  I hope there is some form of support system in place for them.

Of course, they are not entirely alone in terms of foreign adoptions.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, many Russian children were adopted by Westerners until 2012, when, like in China, it was outlawed.  Again, the reasons were similar - selling children was seen as the sign of a third-world country.  Russia also has a severe declining population problem.  In addition, there were a few celebrated cases where adoptive parents mistreated or neglected adopted children (which also happens with birth parents!) which spurred changes to adoption laws.

Today, with abortion being severely curtailed, many are pushing adoption as a solution.   But something in the adoption system is severely broken, and it seems these institutions don't want to see it fixed.  Ready and willing adoptive parents with good homes are forced to go overseas or through private adoption, to adopt a child.  It seems the one way to not adopt a child is through a State adoption agency.  And the State adoption agencies seem to have the worst track record in terms of screening adoptive parents.

You hear horror stories about adoptions, both foreign and domestic.  Desperate parents "re-home" adopted children by granting custody to total strangers on the Internet.  The results are about what you would expect.  The real conundrum for society, however, is what happens to these kids when they grow up?   Of course, this is a problem for non-adopted kids, who are also subject to abuse and horrific conditions with their birth parents.

Or sometimes, kids just turn out weird.  I have one friend who has a child who was institutionalized pretty much all their life - and probably will be.  Schizophrenia is an awful thing, and outpatient treatment often doesn't work, if the patient refuses to take their meds.

So, maybe these horror stories are overblown.  The vast majority of adoptees, like my wealthy and successful friend, turn out perfectly fine and in fact, may do better than non-adopted children.  Maybe these kids from China will have to endure racism in our society - as do all minorities.  Being adopted doesn't make that better or worse, does it?

It would be interesting, from a anthropological point of view, to see how this generation of adopted Chinese girls makes out, in 20-30 years.  Do they do better or worse than average, or do they muddle along just like everyone else?

What is certain, though, is that there will not be another generation like this, from China, in the near or even far, future.

Friday, September 23, 2022

The Beginning of the End.... for Starbucks?

Fads are fun and all, but not the basis of a long-term business model.

Starbucks is closing stores nationwide, citing "security concerns" with shrinkage (theft), violent crime, and vandalism.  Not mentioned: unionizing efforts.   It is interesting, but back in the 1970's, if employees tried to unionize or go on strike, you could not just close the factory, move the machines down South, and start up again - that was considered "bad faith" negotiations.  A lot of companies ended up doing that anyway, but by taking a few extra steps, made it look legit.

For example, there was a Caterpillar strike that went on for years.  The company had built up an inventory of tractors, so there was little incentive to settle the strike.  Eventually, they got bored with toying with the union - like a cat playing with a near-dead mouse - and they "settled" the strike.  Everyone went back to work, and a month later, they all got their pink slips as the company closed the plant.

And you wonder why union membership is down these days.  But I digress.

I think there may be another reason Starbucks is closing stores and that is, they are unprofitable.  And they are unprofitable because they don't have enough customers.  And they don't have enough customers because there is a recession going on (shhhh!  don't talk about it!).   Prices have gone up, wages have stagnated, and people are running short on cash.  The first things to go are the toys - jet skiis, boats, RVs, motorcycles, hobby cars, etc.  Then the take-out and delivery foods and restaurant meals.  And of course, right in there is fancy "coffee drinks" that take a half-hour out of your day and cost $5 or more, when all is said and done.

Like any good business, Starbucks has tried to change with the times.  They went big, fast - the silicon valley way - and made designer coffee part of the landscape.  But of course, there is no secret sauce in coffee making, and competing chains and local Mom&Pop shops sprung up (or were already extant) and thus the market for "good coffee" was saturated.

They noticed that their core customers were migrating to sweeter drinks - anything with chocolate, caramel, whipped cream, and so on and so forth.  It is to the point today that Starbucks is more of a milkshake outlet than a coffee shop.   But they went where the market was - and the market loves to eat like they are at a six-year-old's birthday party.

Good coffee doesn't have to be expensive.  Just getting whole beans and making your own pot is a real start.  Coffee isn't a very expensive beverage to begin with. Tea is even cheaper.

Starbucks, however, did to coffee what Apple did to smart phones.  They sold status.  People would walk around with their "Starbucks" (now a noun!) and hold the cup up high, with the label facing out.  Apple did the same thing with their Apple logo, making sure it faced outward and if you had a cover on your phone, it would have a little apple-shaped hole, so people could see the logo.

Recently, Apple has taken this to new heights.  On many dating and chat apps, messages from Apple phones are blue and messages from Android phones are green (this has to do with the message type, actually, not the phone - Apple uses a proprietary message format, of course!).  Apple has been promoting (using bots and trolls) the idea that on a dating app, you shouldn't talk to "green message" people.  It is stupid, of course, but you can bet some idiot went out and bought an Apple phone because of this "viral" meme.   To me, it smacks of desperation - if that is all Apple's got, it ain't got much.

And that is the problem with selling fads.  You have to keep coming up with a new fad to keep the interest of the plebes.  That's why McDonald's doesn't just sell the burgers, fries, and shakes that it did 50 years ago, but constantly introduces (and re-introduces) new menu items.  Can't wait for McRib week, eh?  Yuk.

So maybe there is more to this story than unionizing and shrinkage and theft and crime.  Maybe it is just that people have run out of disposable income and one of the first things on the chopping block is designer "coffee drinks."

And maybe there is something else, too.  Starbucks has become a parody of itself - a clown coffee shop that no longer serves "serious" coffee.  You want good coffee, you go to the hipster coffee shop downtown.  You want a coffee milkshake with a side of Karenism, you go to Starbucks and ask to see the manager.

And maybe - just maybe - people are sick and tired of that shit.  I know I was, more than a decade ago.

If you go to a real coffee shop and ask for a "pumpkin spice frappichino" you will be asked to leave.

That ain't coffee!

Of course, Starbucks isn't going to go bankrupt anytime soon.  Like so many other companies (such as Apple) they may retreat, regroup, and re-emerge as an entirely different thing.  Did you know Apple used to sell computers?  Yes, I was shocked to learn that, too!

Maybe in 20 years, Starbucks will be hamburger chain - or a chain of strip clubs.  Who knows?  Topless coffee shops are already a "thing" in Vancouver.  Just an idea, Starbucks!

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Tax Avoidance Schemes for the Rich and Near-Rich

When you make taxation onerous, people find ways to avoid it.

Driving down the road at 60 MPH we are getting an astounding 16 MPG, which is nice, given the price of gas.  Then, a "big bus" motorhome blows by us as 80 - the bow wave of wind nearly throwing us onto the shoulder.  On the back are Montana tags.  Why pay a 7% "title fee" in places like Georgia, when you can form an LLC in Montana and register your $750,000 motorhome there and avoid fifty grand in taxes?  Of course, some States are getting wise to this!

That is the conundrum. In Southern California, progressive legislators passed a law taxing "yachts" and as a result collected a windfall of tax revenue of... bubkis.   The people with real money who had 50 foot or greater yachts, simply registered them in Mexico, and hired some nice Mexican boys to wash and wax their boat on the Baja peninsula - where they went fishing anyway - and avoided California's tax.  So long as the boat was not docked in California for x days, they didn't have to register it there.

In Old Town Alexandria, the town tax collector would cruise the apartment complexes, where people parked their cars outside, and write down the tag numbers and days they were parked there.  If the car was there for more than x days, a notice would be sent, by mail, with an accompanying "personal property tax" for their seven-year-old Hyundai.  Meanwhile, on the North end of town, every morning, the electric garage door openers would slide open, revealing brand-new Mercedes S-class sedans, with District of Columbia license plates (but no Alexandria tax sticker!).  I know this as I experienced it firsthand.

Of course, these are just examples of upper-middle-class grift.  The very wealthy have far better tax avoidance dodges.  The super-rich get laws enacted to strip them of all tax liability.  Act shocked.

You may have noticed that a lot of celebrities get involved in the wine business in California.  Some of them actually make good wine, too and unfortunately make a profit, which creates more tax problems.  But if you live on an estate of 200 acres, it pays to plant a few rows of grapes and declare you land "agricultural" as it can lower your property taxes - a lot.

For example, when we had the lake house in New York, I looked into this.  If you had a minimum of, say, 20 acres, you could lease that out to a local farmer for haying or planting corn or whatever, and the value of the property for tax purposes would be assessed at a far lower rate as "agricultural" land.  And the law has a good reason - if farmers were taxed for their land at the same rate as homeowners, they would go bankrupt.  And one homeowner on a 1/4-acre lot, uses as many County services as a farmer on 200 acres.  If you didn't have the minimum acreage, you could still qualify if you made, say, $50,000 a year in gross income.  So you could set up a winery, buy your grapes (or grape juice) and make your own wine and sell it, and the five acres you have would be taxed at the lower rate.  Of course, if your house was on that land, they had specific rules about how much land around it would be taxed at the residential rate.

We knew a guy - a staunch Republican - who was a real operator and had his hands in so many grifts it wasn't funny.  He decided to start a winery and planted a few rows of scraggly vines and called it a winery.  The actual wine was made by someone else and since he was also in the propane business, we joked that he was aging his wine in old propane bottles.  The grape vines never took off as he paid someone to plant them and then never watered or took care of them.  They were mostly for decoration anyway.  But we always wondered why he did that, and wondered whether it was to get that lower tax assessment.

And in an area where $10,000 property tax bills were considered "low" it wasn't hard to wonder.  If you could save tens of thousands a year on property taxes, maybe setting up a winery isn't a bad idea, even if it "breaks even." Hell, even a small loss works to your advantage, as it is tax-deductible.  You lose ten grand a year and save $3800 on income taxes (plus the hefty New York taxes!) AND get ten grand knocked off your property tax bill.  You actually come out ahead unless you run out of cash-flow.

I wonder if he got a PPP loan.

Of course, like I said, the real players have even better schemes at their disposal.  Off-shore accounts were a big thing, but are being reined-in in this era of modern banking.   Special tax deals for staring new businesses are a whole level above the small-time grifts I mentioned above.   You want to build a new factory, a new stadium, or even a new Walmart distribution center, and you can get one city or town to compete with another with tax forgiveness and even hard cash money, right in your pocket.

A recent deal in Jacksonville, for example, was shot down by progressives.   The owner of a local sports team had a modest request:  Build me a new stadium, let me keep all the profits from ticket sales and concession sales, as well as the lucrative parking revenue.  The adjacent 20 acres?  Build me an office park and shopping mall and let me run it rent-free for 20 years and then it will revert back to the city!  Of course, 20 years is the design life of many of these types of buildings.  The city gets back an empty shell and a white elephant.

I can't understand why some people were against that deal!   Sad truth is, probably a similar deal will go down, once the hoopla is over.

And of course, the councilmen who voted for the deal argued it would "create jobs" and stimulate the economy.  You too, could be guiding cars into parking spaces or selling hot dogs in the stadium!  It's a definite career move!

The casino owners make the same pitch - build me a casino, let me run it, tax-free, and I'll create jobs, such as croupier, waitress, prostitute, drug dealer, and loan shark.  And when these operations all go bust, the owners walk away, leaving the city or country with an empty venue and a lot of bond debt to pay off - for the next 20 years.

Or say you own a shipping line or a cruise line and want to register your ships?  Why not register (flag) them in landlocked African country?  No pesky inspections or regulations to deal with, and low, low, annual fees.  It's all perfectly legal, too, and based on the manufactured fiction that "countries" are somehow independent of one another and not part of a greater planet.

Celebrities have used this dodge for years - renouncing their citizenship and moving to a tax-friendly country overseas to avoid millions in income taxes.  Why we let this go on is anyone's guess.  Maybe a one-world government with one tax code is the only possible answer - good luck with that!

Major corporations play games with Patents and Intellectual Property in that regard.  Apple registers a company in Ireland and transfers all their "IP" to that company and then licenses-back their own IP to the company for an amount that is conveniently equal to their income in the USA.  So their net income is zero for US tax purposes but is astounding in their Irish affiliate - but taxed very little there.  Ireland is, of course, happy to take these scraps, which still amount to a small pile of money, but a lot smaller than the pile Uncle Sam was expecting.

Maybe some of these loopholes can be closed.  In Virginia, they stopped doing the "car tax" entirely, as a way of preventing cheating.  It is a lot easier to collect taxes on real estate and income than it is on movable, depreciating assets.   Georgia is cracking down on Montana LLCs as the article linked above notes.  It isn't hard to go to the Montana Secretary of State's website and download the LLC data, as well as DMV data and figure out which LLCs are basically shell companies whose only job is owning a million-dollar motorhome.  Cross-index that with Georgia income tax filings or even phone book addresses, and you've got a list of people to go after.  Like in Virginia, in Georgia the tax is not based on what State the vehicle is registered in, but where it is primarily kept.

But again, it is easy to catch Joe Upper-Middle-Class at these games than the really big fish.  The guy who owns a bus company or car rental company can get away with it far easier (although I have heard that many States went after AVIS and Hertz years ago, over this issue.  Where is a rental car primarily domiciled, anyway?)  It is no coincidence that the bulk of rental cars have Tennessee tags on them.

Of course, one way to reduce the incentive for such shenanigans is to make taxes more affordable. As the article linked above noted, forming an LLC in Montana for your $300,001 motorcoach will still cost you $9000 over ten years (plus attorneys fees for forming the LLC and filing annual registration updates as well as Secretary of State fees) - versus paying the one-time $20,000 "title fee" in Georgia.  If the Georgia title fee was, say, 4% instead of 7%, chances are, the urge to cheat would be a lot less.  And enforcement costs would drop way off as well.

Much has been written lately about how Democrats have installed jack-booted thugs at the IRS to audit people - this after years of GOP congress stripping the enforcement arm of the agency.  Funny thing, the Parcheesi club got audited this year, but the auditor was pumping a dry hole - no one takes home a salary from there and there is no "profit" in that non-profit.   But even with enhanced auditing, the odds of being audited are pretty slim.  As an ordinary citizen, the real audit-bait is unreported income (a 1099 you forgot to include in your return!) or taking deductions for a "hobby business" (which doesn't show any profit for five years out of seven, or some such).  Sketchy deductions are also an issue, particularly if you have a large proportion of deductions in relationship to your income.

But again, those are amateur mistakes that are easily detected, even if the amounts of tax due are pretty trivial.  The big boys get away with a lot more and then can hire lawyers to bollux up the whole thing for years, until the IRS throws in the towel and negotiates a settlement.  A friend of mine spent his entire career at the Justice Department, litigating one case involving a major aircraft manufacturer.  He racked up a lot of frequent flyer miles going from Washington to Washington.

Should we be outraged by any of this? Perhaps in part.  Perhaps not so much.  So long as there are taxes, there will be people willing to cheat on them.  Even back in the days of Monarchs, there were Dukes and Earls who were willing to cheat their own King on tax payments, even if it meant literally losing their heads.  Ideas like tax simplification seem like one "answer" - everyone pays 15% of their income!   The problem is, clever lawyers re-define what "income" is, and thus defeat the scheme.

Cutting taxes sounds appealing, but results in huge deficits, if spending is not cut as well (and both parties have been guilty of this!).   If deficits persist, we end up with inflation, as the currency is devalued. This in turn, acts as a tax on everyone, but particularly the poor, who spend every dollar they have on survival needs (food, clothing, shelter).  Sadly, this seems to be the way the USA is going, having learned nothing from the stagflation era of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

I am not sure what the answer really is, other than it is an ongoing battle since the dawn of time, and everybody thinks they are paying too much and the other guy isn't contributing his fair share.

Shit never ends!

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Elvis Syndrome, Revisited

When you become super-rich, it is tempting to surround yourself with yes-men.

One problem with being an attorney is that you often have to give hard advice to clients.  No, you can't dump toxic waste on your neighbor's land.  Sorry, but you can't pay off a judge to look the other way about your son's rape charges.  And no, you have to pay taxes on income, even if you think you don't. 

As a Patent Attorney, the conversations I had with clients were far less dramatic.  Sorry, you aren't getting a Patent - someone else invented that before you.  But it is the same problem - you are paid to give advice to people, and if they don't like your advice, chances are, they will seek out someone else who will tell them what they want to hear.

So "Dr. Feelgood" prescribes drugs for his Hollywood clients - and ends up killing them.  They were paying him so much, he couldn't afford to say no.  And if he did say no, the celebrity would "doctor-shop" until they found someone who would say "yes."

What got me started on this, was I finally finished reading the "oral history" of Anthony Bourdain - and how is life ended was not unlike Elvis, Michael Jackson, or Prince.  He surrounded himself with yes-men, acquired his own Yoko Ono (who had ideas on how to improve the show!) and when she was caught by tabloid photographers messing around with another guy, he impulsively hung himself.  The people in his life who told him he wasn't all that or to get off his high horse were all tossed aside, as he could afford to do without them - or so he thought.

(Of course, Bourdain invented the whole genre of the "celebrity bad-boy chef" and thus created by extension, the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Guy Fieri.  No wonder he killed himself!  The guilt!)

That is the advantage of not being rich.  If you are of modest means, you have to deal with a spouse or family or friends who sometimes tell you things you don't want to hear.  When you win the lottery, you end up with "new friends" who all think you are great, provided you toss small sums at them once in a while, like Elvis did.

Elvis had an "entourage" of hangers-on who he liked to surround himself with.  People who never said "no" to him or said anything to piss him off, as they wanted to stay on the gravy train, such as it was.  In one storied incident, Elvis became enamored of the Chevy El Camino mini-ute pickup truck and went out and bought one for every member of his entourage.  While the boys appreciated his gifts, many of them were just scraping by on the tidbits that Elvis threw their way now and then.  Most of them had to sell the cars and keep it a secret from Elvis, lest they summon his wrath.

People are willing to sell their soul - for a lame-ass wanna-be pickup truck.  It's kind of sad.

But maybe there is a ying-and-yang aspect to this.  People fly high - like Icarus, too close to the sun - and meet their downfall.  The super-rich don't stay super-rich for long, if they squelch any contrary opinions.  And of course, some types of drugs - such as cocaine - amplify this effect.  When you are on cocaine, or amphetamines, nothing you do seems wrong.  In fact, everything you do seems super-right and if someone tells you otherwise, well, they are the problem, not you.

When someone lives like that their entire life, the problem is even worse.  Bourdain sort of did whatever he wanted to, most of his life - becoming a drug addict, celebrity chef, television personality.  But at some point, he did have to deal with limitations, if not just that of his own body.  Others, like Elon Musk or Donald Trump, were literally born with the silver spoon in their mouths.  They were rich from birth and did what they wanted to do, with little or no consequences for their actions.  "When you're famous, you can grab 'em by the pussy!" as a wise man once said.  People are kind of getting tired of that level of entitlement, though.

The problem for such folks, however, is that eventually the system catches up with them, and the longer they go their own way, the stronger the push-back.  Rubber-band theory raises its ugly head.  For Hitler, it was invading Poland.  For Musk, it was trying to buy Twitter.  For Putin, it was invading Ukraine.  For Trump, it was January 6th.  For Elvis, the fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich.  For Michael Jackson, it was young boys.  For Prince, it was fentanyl. For Napoleon, Waterloo. You can get away with only so much, but these sort of folks sow their won defeat - perhaps subconsciously wanting to destroy themselves.

We "little people" have fewer problems in that regard.  There is always a nagging spouse, parent, friend, or boss who will remind you that you are not all that.  Before you can invade Poland, they pull back on the leash.

So, maybe not being famous and rich isn't such a bad deal after all.  I mean, who wants to die of suicide in some bunker while your world crashes down around you?

Not me!

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

The College Implosion

Are the chickens coming home to roost in higher education?

I wrote, more than a decade ago, that maybe the next wave of bankruptcies will be with colleges and universities.  That didn't quite come true, although a number of small, liberal arts colleges, particularly those catering to women and minorities, have struggled or gone bust - or were forced to merge with larger institutions.  The Mom & Pop Diner can't compete with McDonald's.

I also opined that the US News and World Report "College Rankings" were just stupid.  They relied upon self-reported data and used somewhat arbitrary criteria for evaluating colleges.  Not only that, the system used to rank colleges encouraged colleges to work the system by upping their numbers for these arbitrary criteria without necessarily improving the college's real worth.

It seems the chickens have finally come home to roost.  According to a recent article online, a Mathematics professor at Columbia (where my brother got his PhD in puppetry) figured out that the numbers that Columbia self-reported to US News and World Report were, in fact, fudged.  By playing with the numbers, Columbia was able to go from #18 ranked to #2 in a matter of years.  But what is more troubling than the rankings game is that the same professor argues that the whole thing is a money game - designed to cash-in on expensive college educations, so they can support a burgeoning class of administrators who now outnumber actual professors at the school.

Sounds like the makings of a class-action lawsuit.  How many students and grads went there based on these skewed rankings?

At $65,000 per year tuition, Columbia is one of the most expensive schools around.  But is it worth it?  My Brother went there back in the 1990's and as a grad student, taught courses and was given subsidized housing, which made the whole thing a little more affordable.  But today?  Who is paying these outrageous tuition bills?

Rich folks.

When I was at Syracuse, the Engineering Department was not very well known.  Today, they have a new "Computer Engineering" building for Computer Science majors - a "science" the only recognized as an "Art" when I was there.   I got some decent grades and was given a small scholarship at one time.  One of the Deans (of many!) explained to me that they had to get the grade average up to improve the college rankings - and that so many of the students at that university basically bought their way in, by paying full tuition.

And that is how they make money.  Foreign students from wealthy families come to America (or did, pre-Covid and pre-Trump) to attend prestigious Universities and get a valuable diploma.  They didn't qualify for Pell grants or scholarships (generally) so their rich parents paid the full tab.  There were a LOT of guys from the middle-east when I was at SU, and they all drove new, grey-market Mercedes they had Dad ship in through Canada.

In addition, we had a lot of students from "downstate" - New York City or more specifically the wealthy suburbs thereof in Westchester, Long Island, and Jersey.  They were spoiled rich kids who had mediocre grades and couldn't get into an "ivy league" school - so their parents bought their way in to SU.  That was back in the 1980's - I doubt it has changed much today.

And that is just a school I am familiar with. I am sure there are many more.  Even the prestigious "ivy league" schools admit "legacies" particularly if their parents donate money for a new wing to the administration building.

The problem, of course, is that not everyone has rich parents.  Not everyone has a scholarship based on their academic credentials or  athletic abilities.  Middle-class kids whose grades are good but not stellar, have to borrow money - a lot of money - and pay it back over time.  And many are finding the value-for-the-dollar of a college education lacking, particularly when the degree they get doesn't qualify them for that "dream job" if it even ever existed.

Now, granted, some of these students have themselves to blame for a lot of it.  They listened to teachers and guidance counselors and even parents, who exhorted them to get a college degree because for their generation it was the ticket to the upper-middle-class.  Now they act all Pikachu-faced when it turns out that a degree in just any old thing with middling grades is not only worthless, but has a negative value in the marketplace.  They are often better off leaving the degree off their resume when applying for a job, lest they be deemed "overqualified."   Oh, and those student loans are still due.

Worse yet are the students who looked at college as four years of a drunken orgy - a chance to play at being an adult, with all the fun and no responsibilities.  You've read all the articles in the paper - kids dying of alcohol poisoning, or getting into fights at bars or deciding to date-rape or roofie a young freshman.   Kids have more time in college to get involved in politics and extracurricular activities than they do studying, it seems.   They view college as a four-year party and when the party is over, it has to be someone else's fault that they have to clean up the mess.

But the fault isn't entirely with the students.  We have made college an almost toxic opportunity - a chance for four years of fun, at the cost of the rest of their lives.  And we can't expect 18-year-olds to make really logical life choices at a time in their lives when they are raging with hormones and wanting to get out and see the world.  Not only that, in many cases, their parents want them out of the house as well.  Teenagers - what's not to like?

So what's the answer?   Do we effectively nationalize the nation's colleges and universities by making them all "free" as Comrade Sanders proposes?  Would government oversight place a limit on how many Deans and assistant-Deans and assistant-assistant-Deans the schools could hire?  Or would that just create a shitload more bureaucracy with no end in sight and the bill being sent to the American taxpayer?

Or do we try a free-market approach?  In some regards we are already doing both.  Since the government is guaranteeing student loans (and by law, protecting them from bankruptcy) they have distorted the market, in terms of pricing.  Just as guarantees of home mortgages, subsidized interest rates, and tax-deductible interest hasn't made homes "more affordable" but instead made them more expensive, the attempts at making college "more affordable" have resulted in dramatic tuition increases.  The problem is, of course, these come at a cost - in terms of student loan debt.

A true free-market approach would do away with all that.  But the end result might be that fewer people could go to college, particularly the very poor.  And without warm butts to fill the seats, many more colleges would go bankrupt.  We've really painted ourselves into a coffin corner, here.

And maybe, just as a pilot in the "coffin corner" needs to slowly back down, we need to slowly unwind the system that has resulted in so much corruption - yes, corruption - of higher education.  In part, this may be organic.  Many young folks are starting to figure out that maybe a college education is not what they really need - or need right away.  I was fortunate to spend 14 years in night school - finally figuring out what I wanted to do in life, more than halfway through.  If I had "stayed the course" and not dropped out, I would have ended up in a career I didn't like or want, in a place I didn't want to live, and likely be unemployed by now (as opposed to retired, and that's totally different!).

So demand-side pressures will force schools to re-think and re-structure, as is already being seen with the demise and struggle of many smaller liberal arts colleges.  What's more, the pandemic has made everyone re-think how we work and play.  Colleges went "online" during the pandemic, and many people went to "work from home" which I had been doing since about the year 2000 (welcome to the club!).  It just makes sense.

What doesn't make sense, in this world of online books, is a college professor charging hundreds of dollars for a textbook that is "updated" annually simply to make the previous edition obsolete, so that students have to buy the new edition - and it kills the secondhand book sales.  Yea, they were playing that game back in the 1980's, too.

Maybe the student-consumers will figure this out and decide on a different course.  So many very famous and successful people either never went to college, or dropped out when it became irrelevant.  Even many in the middle-class find they can make a decent living without some high-falutin' college degree.

It is like what GM went through in the late 1970's - they were selling bloated, poorly made cars that cost too much and got horrible gas mileage.  People found that cheap Japanese imports - as tinny as they were at the time, were a better value - durable, inexpensive, and efficient.  It took many years, and a few bankruptcies, but the "Big-3" American carmakers eventually figured out how to compete with the imports.  Of course, today, they once again have given up and went back to making heavy, overpriced, oversized SUVs that get crappy mileage.  I wonder how that will play out?

So, it may be that natural pressures in the marketplace bring down prices and cut the waste in colleges and universities.  Or, we can keep pining for free college and student loan forgiveness, and the costs will continue to spiral out of control, while at the same time, degrees become worthless.

People point to foreign countries as examples of how free college works.  A friend of mine got a Physics degree in the UK, spending most of his time at the pub, stacking empty pint glasses in a pyramid (after draining them).  I didn't understand how college worked there and why he didn't use his Physics degree to get a better job, instead of working in retail.  Turns out, he got an "ordinary" degree, which was basically a certificate of attendance and little else.  College, for him, was just a place to park a young person for four years while he (hopefully) sorted his life out.

It cost him nothing, but it cost the UK government a tidy sum, and today that same government is trying to rein in spending with college (which is no longer free) as well as National Health.  Funny thing, the Brits keep electing Tory governments - maybe socialism isn't all its cracked-up to be.  Maybe - or maybe that is all about to change, what with the resounding success of Brexit and all.  As the Tories age out and die off, maybe a new generation will take over.

And maybe therein lies the answer.  Because in 20 years or so, God willing, I will shuffle off this mortal coil and a new generation will have to figure out how to make things work.  Whether "free college" is the answer is something they will have to figure out for themselves.