Friday, March 31, 2023

People Worry About Banks - They Should Worry About This Instead! (& SIPC)

People worry that they might lose money if their bank goes broke.  Meanwhile, they ignore the steady drain on their wealth.

I easily lost 10% of my wealth last year without even trying.  And I say that even as my various accounts mostly show increases in value, as the stock market inexplicably kept going up (until recently, that is).  How could I lose money?

Well, with near 10% inflation going on, the spending power of that money is now 10% less - across the board.  Everything from fuel to hamburger buns to vegetables to prescriptions to houses to cars to.... whatever..... is going up in price, has gone up in price, which means every dollar I have in my hand is worth 90 cents now - and will be worth less in the future.

Oh sure, inflation is always happening, except during deep recessions when deflation actually occurs.  But in the recent past, inflation was hovering around 1-2% and was not that big a worry.   Your dollar of last year being worth only 99 cents this year, didn't seem like much of a tragedy.

But it gets worse.  As the worldwide recession takes hold, stocks and other investments (including homes) will decrease in value.   Your $1000 of mutual funds may decrease to $600 in value, at least temporarily.  Where is the anger, outrage, fear, and panic about that?

You don't hear about it because it is a slow-moving trend - much as inflation was - so it isn't "News" like a bank failure.  Ditto for inflation - it is in the "news" but isn't a news event that happens all at once.  You only realize inflation is occurring if you read about year-end statistics, or if you are an astute shopper and know prices of everyday goods (which you should).  The average person knows the price of gasoline and little else.  That is why people get into credit card crises - they order fast-food to be delivered, paying tens of dollars for a burger, then whine when they have to spend that much filling the gas tank on their car once a week.  They hemorrhage blood from an artery, but worry about a shaving cut.

Of course, when they hear the words "bank failure" it is natural they get nervous about their money - if they have any.  I guess that is one advantage of being broke - you don't worry so much about the stock market.  When I was a stoner lab technician with a zero net worth, I didn't give the "financial news" much thought - other people losing money wasn't my concern.  Of course, if I lost my job because of a recession, that would be different!

Funny thing, through all those recessions, I always had a job.  90% of the working population usually does, too.

But getting back to topic, should you be worried about your investments and money in the bank?  Going to the bank and taking out all your cash and stuffing it in a mattress just sounds stupid.  The FDIC insures bank deposits to $250,000 and if you have more than that in a bank account,  you are missing out on great capital gains.  Even during periods of "low" inflation, your money leaks out the door, bit by bit, due to inflation, unless you can invest it at a rate greater than inflation.

As recent events have illustrated, the Fed will honor those FDIC pledges to account holders - and even to companies that were not covered by FDIC insurance!  The government, it seems, isn't about to let innocent parties be damaged by the poor choices of a few bankers (and the Fed's own raising of interest rates!).

But what about your IRA or 401(k)?  Even if you did want to take the money out and stuff it in a mattress, this would boost you into the highest marginal bracket possible, plus a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you are over 59-1/2, and with State taxes could swallow up nearly 1/3 to 1/2 of your savings.  Stuffing in a mattress just isn't an option.

Fortunately, there are some backstops in the system.  The Securities Investor Protection Corporation is a federally mandated, non-profit, member-funded, United States government corporation created under the Securities Investor Protection Act (SIPA) of 1970 that mandates membership of most US-registered broker-dealers.  They provide up to $500,000 in protection for securities held by your brokerage, including up to $250,000 in cash.

Now, whether this works in a total meltdown situation, remains to be seen.  You may recall the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation serves a similar function with regard to pension benefits - but can pay out as little as 40 cents on the dollar when a pension goes bust.  It's better than nothing, but then again, if you planned your retirement based on one number and then it is cut by more than half, you may be pissed-off.

You may also recall the PBGC threatened insolvency when the Teamster's pension plan went blooey.  It was simply too big a fish for them to swallow.  But Congress, sensing a lot of dissatisfied voters on the horizon, provided the extra cash to keep things going and rescue the pension.  Sometimes Democracy works.

You don't want to be known as the guy who put retirees out on the street - which is why it is puzzling that Republicans have made "abolishing Social Security" and Medicare the centerpiece of their platform.  They do know their number one source of Fox News Voters is the old people living in The Villages in central Florida, right?  Oh, right, that's why they promise only to kill these programs for people "born on or after 1960" - screw the kids and grandkids, preserve Grandma's way of life!  Of course, it is the kids and grandkids who are paying into the system that keeps Grandma's checks coming.  People are idiots if they vote GOP - they want the system to fail, so they intentionally underfund it to make it fail.

But I digress.

Of course, the SIPC isn't going to make you whole if your Twitter stock goes bankrupt.  It protects your assets, not their value (except cash, up to $250,000).   With regards to stocks, they will recover your share certificates, even if they are worth only pennies - as an investor, you took that risk.   The risk you didn't take was the CEO of fly-by-night brokerage house running off with all your investments.

Should we be worried about the future?  Well, hell yea - and it was all preventable, if we had only stopped fucking around with this "cut taxes and spend yet more" plan of the GOP and instead provided a steady predictable tax environment.  Similarly, years of near-zero interest rates are finally catching up to us in the form of inflation.  It is like someone flooring their car with one foot firmly on the brakes.  When you finally let go of the brakes, the car fishtails out of control and takes off like a rocket.  The Fed is so good at doing too much - and then too little.

Just saying, maybe a little recession a few years ago would be better than a monster one, now.  And it isn't like we didn't see this coming, after the debacle of 2008.  Same shit, different decade.   We primed the pump, convinced that endless growth was "good" and could go on forever.  But eventually, something had to give, and all the funny-money loans being tossed around came due, and no one could pay them.

But whoever is in office doesn't want to be "the guy" in the hot seat when it all comes undone - because the plebes really do believe that the President is a king and sets gas prices with a big dial on his wall, every morning.  So Politicians kick the can down the road, goose the economy a little further with a shot of ether down the throat of the carburetor.  And as the engine overheats and sputters, they just hope they are not in office when it finally blows a head gasket.

People get the government they deserve!

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Electric Cars, Electric Trucks, Electric RVs, Electric Tools, Electric Lawnmowers!

The future of battery power is here - and unless supplanted by something else, it isn't going to go away.  That doesn't mean, of course, that the market has stabilized, yet.

Not a few years ago, you went to a construction site, such as a roofing job, and there were a handful of "pancake" compressors running, with hoses crisscrossing everywhere, and the sound of nailguns snapping through the morning air.  Air power was king, even if it was wildly inefficient.  Electric nailguns, running on 110V would require a dozen extension cords and create electrocution hazards.  Not only that, but the instant power released by compressed air beat what instant power you could get from a solenoid back then.

Today, lithium-ion battery powered tools are supplanting pneumatic tools, slowly across various industries.  Air power will remain for some time, of course, just as IC engines will remain in an era of electric cars.  Your local muffler and tire shop isn't going to trade in all their tools just to be trendy.  But for many others, who occasionally need a power tool, such as homeowners, handymen, and some carpenters and sheetrock installers, the battery-powered tool is becoming more and more popular.  You see a sheetrocking job, and there is a "power station" bristling with charging battery packs, next to a scratchy AM radio playing Banda music from Mexico.

Myself, I have a plethora of 20V tools (which is arguably already obsolete) in the Black and Decker universe - a hedge trimmer (given to me by a neighbor, which got me started on Black and Decker 20V), two leaf blowers, a line trimmer, two screwguns, a sawzall, and a small circular saw. Not having to hassle with cords turns out to be a big deal.

Vacuum cleaners and other household appliances are following suit.  We have a cult of Bissel model 1984 vacuum cleaners here on our island.  They are so light, you can literally lift them with your pinky finger.  Just pick up, press "start" (gently) and go!   No cords, no heavy vacuum to haul around.  The end result is you are more inclined to vacuum more and enjoy it.

But of course, this scratches the surface - robotic vacuums are a big deal, of course, and some of our friends have them.  I recall the primitive first models coming out decades ago, no doubt with nickel batteries - they were little more than robotic carpet-sweepers than just randomly ran around the room like a child's toy.  Today they are far more sophisticated and are priced accordingly.  Will there be one in my life someday?  Perhaps, particularly as I get older.

I have resisted the robotic vacuum, only because those early models were quite primitive and waiting until the technology is mature (as it is rapidly becoming) makes sense.  Prices will also stabilize as the technology improves - so there is no hurry to be an early adaptor or ride the "bleeding edge" of technology, in my opinion.

A reader writes, asking me what I think of electric lawn mowers, particularly now that battery-powered ones are readily available.  It is an interesting thought. I'm on my second Honda push mower which seems to get the job done, provided I changed the air filter and put fuel stabilizer in the gasoline before I go away for the summer. It is loud though.  A neighbor was throwing away a similar Honda "mulch" mower, so they are pretty readily available.  I use that mower (with new mulch blades) to mulch our flower beds twice a year, basically by running everything over with it, to produce a nice chopped-up mulch.  It helps to get it all wet, first, as that keeps the dust down. It beats the shit out of the mower, of course, but it was free.

I expect my next lawn mower may be my last and it probably will be battery powered electric. The technology is already there and I think by the time I'm ready for a new lawn mower it'll be even better. My neighbor next to me has the battery powered electric mower and really likes it. For a quarter acre lot or less I think it works pretty well. Some have removable battery packs - the same kind as used for other power tools around the house.  So you could use the same battery packs as in your electric drill, etc.

If there was some standardization of battery pack formats (I wish!) you could use the same battery packs to run your house vacuum, your power tools, your lawnmower, and even your electric bicycle.  But the manufacturers make less money that way - they would prefer to sell you dedicated packs with proprietary formats.  It is the one downside to the battery regime.  Imagine if you bought a Honda car and it could only take Honda gasoline, sold at the Honda dealer.  They would sell a lot fewer Hondas, to be sure.

My neighbor behind me has a old-fashioned corded model which have been around since the 1960s as far as I know. A neighbor of ours had one when I was growing up in the 60s, so that's how I know they've been around that long.  The corded models are a lot cheaper I think almost half the price of the battery powered ones. There is the hassle of the cord, but I have lots of extension cord and I tend to mow the lawn in a pattern anyway so it's very easy to lay out the cord to accommodate your mowing pattern, I think.

For many modern homes, such as townhouses, with postage-stamp sized lawns, a corded model (which are very, very inexpensive) might make sense, if you are on a budget.

Some of these battery powered electric mowers are just string trimmers, though. They use a string like a weed wacker and that wears out rather quickly.  I think I would try to avoid these.  There are a plethora of models available at your local big-box store - even riding mowers for larger lawns.  The catch is, they are more expensive - perhaps twice as much - as a basic gasoline push-job.  Because of this, we can expect gas mowers to stick around for a while.

Of course, you could argue that the maintenance on a gas mower (annual oil changes, gasoline, air filters, spark plugs) offsets the higher cost of an electric mower.  And perhaps this true.  That being said, I can find parts for my Honda mowers online or even by the side of the road.  Some new-brand made-in-China mower?   I suspect that when I hit a rock with it, that's the end of it, as the motor shaft bends or something stupid like that.

I guess that is one thing to think about - are there parts, such as mower blades, available for the mower?  Check that out before buying.  Just a thought.

A neighbor of ours one street over has a robotic lawn mower that patrols his yard and keeps the lawn down. I've never seen it actually run - it seemed to sit in one place all the time - although their lawn never got long, so maybe it was stealth mowing at night.  I saw them fussing with it one day I think it broke. I think it also used weed wacker string instead of a metal blade for obvious reasons.

They had a robotic mower on display at Lowe's a few years ago, with a fake "lawn" it was supposed to mow.  You pushed a button and it would demonstrate.  The button was broken.  It was also outrageously priced (in the thousands) and I doubt they sold many in our impoverished little town.  I don't think they carry it anymore.  Robotic mowers sounds like an obvious application of robotic technology, until you think about the neighbor's toddler walking across your lawn and sticking his hand inside it.  Safety measures aside, it isn't hard to see how someone will get hurt - or allege to be hurt by it.

Sam's Club and Walmart use robotic floor sweepers which have a bevy of cameras (which also scan for inventory bar codes as it sweeps!).   They seem to be well designed and stop if you walk in front of it.  One of them sort of started harassing me at Sam's Club, trying to sweep the aisle and stopping several times, as I moved near it.  Eventually, it gave up, made the sad R2D2 sound, and phoned home to the death star.  An employees came by later and drove it away.  So there are limits to this technology so far.

But I digress.

At the campground we are in, a neighbor is showing off his Lithium battery pack.  It was very sophisticated and sort of plug-and-play and fit right in his generator compartment.  He had an "expansion pack" as well and it would run his air conditioner for several hours, if necessary.  The problem is, you have to recharge it by plugging it in somewhere, so as an "off the grid" solution for camping for days or weeks, it isn't there quite yet.

We have two 6V golf-car batteries in our camper, wired in series.  They work OK, but twice a year, I have to top off the batteries with distilled water.  It is a pain in the ass.  And realistically, they last about five years (they are four years old already).  When the time comes, we will spend the money on a 12V lithium battery (they make them now) which has no acid to spill or water to add - and lasts a lot longer than five years.   Escape (the company that makes our trailer) offers these from the factory now.

And others are taking it even further.  Another neighbor has a fancy new RV on a Ford Transit chassis (Class B Motorhome).  It is chock full of lithium batteries and will run the A/C for a day or so, and can be recharged, apparently, from the engine while you drive.   Some argue that in the future, the very rig itself may be powered by an even larger bank of lithium batteries, although I suppose that would weigh a LOT - much as the GM electric "Hummer" now weighs close to 9,000 lbs.

The point of this posting is that this stuff is here to stay - unless supplanted by something better (and no, I am not sure hydrogen is the answer, except maybe for aircraft or something?).   It is already at the Walmart stage of adaptation - meaning it is redneck-proof.  But that doesn't mean the teething pains are over.  There will be a big shakeout in the lithium battery products business in the near future, just as there was in the early days of the steam engine and the IC engine.

Another neighbor down the street from us just bought a Rivian pickup truck.  It looks cool and is orange like a creamsicle.   I am not sure I would have bought one - Rivian looks destined to be an orphan brand down the road, as they struggle to actually produce products.  My neighbor is one of the lucky few to actually take delivery of his truck - many others will be waiting until 2024 and beyond for theirs.

I noted before there are many off-brands of EVs that are claiming to have a product "next year" every year for nearly a decade.  Only a few are actually delivering on that promise.  Tesla has delivered the most cars, it seems, but not without a struggle.  Tales abound of how the production line is rushed and quality, fit-and-finish, are diminished.   Mainline automakers are getting into the game, and frankly, if I was in the market for an EV pickup truck (I am not) I would buy a Ford or a Chevy before I bought a Rivian or a "Cybertruck" (the latter of which doesn't exist yet).

And I suspect a lot of folks would feel the same way.  One reason the "IBM-PC" dominated the computer market (and its format continues to dominate, long after IBM got out of computers) was that many people were taking a "wait-and-see" attitude about personal computers.  There were a plethora of machines back in those days, each with its own O/S and even slightly different version of programming languages.  I once programmed an Olivetti desktop PC that was the size of a typewriter and would display one line of code a time, on a red LED dot-matrix display - unless you wanted to print out your "program" on a spool of thermal fax paper.

AppleDOS, CP/M, there were a host of formats and brands.  When IBM came along with its PC-XT, it wasn't a startling innovation or significantly better than other brands, it was just a big name brand that people were familiar with.  The expectation was that everyone would coelesce around this banner - and they did.  It was a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Of course, it was Microsoft which really came out the winner, with its poorly coded DOS.  Back in the day, we thought 640K of memory was a "lot" so Microsoft programmed MS-DOS to allocate only a portion of that to usable memory, with some of the coding located at higher addresses.  When computer memory expanded, they had to create "extended addresses" to access this additional space.  No one expected that anyone would need megabytes, much less gigabytes of memory for a "personal" computer.  Like I said before, Bill Gates fell bass-ackward into a swamp and came up smelling like roses.  He's the luckiest guy in the world, not the smartest!

But I digress, yet again.

The point is (and I did have one) is that I suspect we will see the number of formats and brands condense over time.  Our European friends will no doubt start to insist that battery packs (of all types) conform to a standard format, so that they can be interchanged with other devices, regardless of brand or type.  They are already doing this with smart phones.

In America, some on the right decry this "interference in the free market" but once upon a time, America was at the forefront of setting standards for all sorts of technology, from computers to telephony, to radio and television.   Your standard light bulb has an "Edison thread" that dates back to the late 1800's.   Whether set by the government or by industry associations (e.g., Motion Pictures Expert Group or MPEG), at one time, we did indeed "pick winners" in the marketplace, and as we were one of the largest marketplaces on the planet, what we said carried a lot of weight.  It is sad that we gave up this huge market advantage in the name of "Free-Dum" and "Free Enterprise".

But I digress... yet again.

UPDATE: I was at Home Depot today. Out front, about six Kobalt zero-radius electrics - all 80V. One battery pack plug-in, and space for three more. I guess you have to change batteries on the fly.  Inside, electric push mowers were about 1/3 the selection overall.  The zero radius was $2600 which isn't much more than I paid for a Cub Cadet zero radius, ten years ago.   I think these things are here to stay.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

What a Shame! Chrome Won't Update! Sob!

Sometimes, running obsolete software has its advantages.

I noted before there are a plethora of free movies on YouTube - without ads!   We watched the entire Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western saga - "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly", "For a Fistful of Dollars", etc. with nary an ad - although most were listed as "Free, with Ads!"  (Note: Some of these "free" films are also the network television versions, cut for time and content - bummer!).

So why no ads?   Well, I am using adblocker plus, and I am running Windows 7 Ultimate, which is now orphaned.  And I disabled updates for Chrome (even on the netbook) so the "new, fun" version of Chrome, which blocks adblock, won't load.

And will never load, on my (now) three hoary old Toshiba laptops - as I now get a message every time I log onto chrome that "Chrome won't update until you install Windows 11!!!"

What a shame.  I guess I need to get Windows 11, which has ads in the operating system.  And to do so, I will need to buy a new computer.  I mean, I want to have the latest and greatest, and for sure, I don't want to be seen on an airplane (which I never go on anymore) with my "lame" laptop with its four hour battery life.  People I don't know might mock me!  Wait until they find out I don't own an Applewatch! I will be shunned like Amish!

Do we really need all these "updates"?  Increasingly, I think not.  Just as GM finally got the Vega or the Fiero right, just as the last cars were coming off the assembly line, older versions of software are often the best, just as they are updated for the last time.  Windows 7 Ultimate has been a very stable platform for me, and Word 2000 works great for word processing, and Quickbooks Pro 2002 does everything I would want it to do - and more.  I paid for these programs, 20 years ago. Why should I pay again, just so I can save my documents in ".docx" format?  Particularly when I can download .docx documents using shareware and save them in good old reliable .doc format?

What are the "advantages" of the new versions of these programs, other than an opportunity for the software maker to sell yet another new copy of their software?   I am a big fan of Quickbooks, but after paying for three or four upgrades, I kinda got burned out on having "the latest and greatest."

And often, particularly today, these "software upgrades" are not upgrades, but a chance to put ads or spyware in your computer, or, as with Chrome, disable adblocker type software.  In other words, the upgrade helps them, but not you.

The other issue I have with "upgrades" is how they clutter your hard drive.  Windows was the worst at this, installing upgrade after upgrade, until the patches and fixes took up more space on your hard drive than Windows itself actually did.

Of course, this is all old school thinking.  "Hard drive?" a friend asks, "Isn't that one of those spinning thingies?  Who uses those anymore?"  And of course, he has a new netbook or Apple that uses solid-state storage, but actually stores most of his data on the "cloud" which is, of course, a plethora of servers and.... hard drives.  Electric cars may be the wave of the future, but IC engines will keep going for another 30 years at least, if nothing else because there are billions of them running around on the planet, and they do last a decade or two.  I suspect we will say the same for hard drives - their obituary has been prematurely written dozens of times, already.

But of course, the powers-that-be will have none of this self-reliance nonsense.  No doubt, I will log on someday and Chrome will  refuse to load or Google will disable it somehow.   And then, I will have to return to Firefox or figure out how to load Linux on my computer (where do I buy the install discs for that?  Drivers?  What?) or chuck it all and buy one of these crappy Windows 11 machines for $400 or more.

Or maybe by then, my need for a computer will dissipate completely.   I certainly hope so.

In the meantime, I don't need much more than what I already have, to surf the net, check the balance on my bank account, and download free movies.

I mean, what more would these super-duper modern computers really do for me?  And no, I have no desire to tick-tock, facebook, or tweeter!

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

(Free) Brita Filter Pitcher!

Buying and carting around bottled water is a pain in the ass.  Paying $50 for a filter pitcher is a pain-in-the-ass, too!

If you ever want "free stuff" stop by your local campground.  In the pioneer days of yore, when "settlers" crossed the great divide, they discarded many things they thought they would need in their new homes - heavy furniture, cookware, clothing, and just about anything that was weighing their wagon down, as they literally had to lift it over the Rocky Mountains.

Similarly, campers and RV'ers often discover that things they thought they desperately needed, were just taking up too much space in their small campers.

What sort of things?   A Keurig coffee-maker.  A brand-new bread machines.  100 feet of Christmas lights shaped like green apples.  Books, CDs, DVDs - galore!   All sorts of interesting stuff! Campgrounds usually have a place for "exchange" of these things, such as by the laundry room or the community room.  Free for the taking!

The other day, we saw a nearly new Brita filter pitcher - a fancy one with some sort of electronic filter change reminder built-in.   I took it home, cleaned it up and changed the battery on the electronic gizmo.   I went online and ordered a six-pack of filters (maybe off-brand) for not a lot of money.  And wa-la, we have a Brita pitcher.

Do we need one?  Well, maybe.  Water quality in many campgrounds varies - and minerals and sediment and funny tastes is one common complaint.  We have an ice machine in our camper (another appliance you may find in the "free" pile as well as a Farberware coffee maker (a $5 score, brand-new, from Goodwill) and bad water makes for bad coffee.

We used to buy bottled water, but it is heavy (8 lbs per gallon!) and the cost, even at $3.95 a case, adds up.  So the Brita does seem to help.

Of course, Brita filters do not take out bacteria or viruses, and if left to molder, can actually become a home for mold and mildew and whatnot.  You have to keep them clean.  Of course, sites that tell you how horrible Brita filters are, often have links for the super-duper filter they say you should get, or are chock full of water paranoia and all sorts of new-age homeopathic nonsense - so consider them with a grain of salt.

But if you don't want the water to taste funny.... then find one for free!

Monday, March 27, 2023

Joke Killers!

There is something wrong with people who try to unjoke a joke..

You've had this happen before, no doubt.  You heard a wry joke somewhere and want to amuse your friends, so you try to tell it to them.  But one of your friends is a joke-killer:

You:  I have a joke: knock-knock!

JK:  "Oh, this is one of those knock-knock type jokes, eh?  I'm supposed to say "who's there?" and then you say something that makes me feel foolish!  I get it!

You:  Just say, "who's there," asshole!

JK: OK, "who's there?"

You: Never fucking mind!

JK:  Not much of a joke!

It is the same with people who try to guess the punchline - confusing a riddle with a joke.  Or, worse, they know the punchline, and blurt it out loud, when you are with a group of people, most of whom have never heard the joke.  It ruins the comedic timing and the joke falls flat.

I don't try to tell jokes anymore as a result - it just isn't worth it.  My own husband was a joke-killer until I explained to him that in the world of jokes, it isn't a contest to see who wins.  And maybe that is the problem with jokes and comedy in general.  We go to see a standup comic and he makes us laugh, not at him, but often ourselves.  He uses deceptive or misdirecting language to set up a scenario that, by the time the punchline arrives, was not what we thought it would be.  He fooled us - took advantage of our good nature - and if we have a sense of humor, we laugh at how we were fooled.

He's killing us - that's the language comedians use, when they connect with an audience.

But some folks take offense to this form of mental rape, so to speak, and they try to derail the joke by interjecting with comments, guessing the punchline, or saying, "Oh, I heard this one before..." or some other form of heckling, which is what it really is.

Hecklers are an increasing problem for comedians, it seems.  You go to a comedy club to see a comic - and at smaller comedy clubs, these are up-and-coming comics, often a mixed bag.  And some drunk yahoo has to insert himself into the picture by making loud comments and just ruining the comedic timing and the comedy for everyone.   Maybe it is a result of the pandemic, or our increasing use of televisions in place of live performances, that cause people to talk-back to performers, try to rush the stage or otherwise make the event all about them.   Or they talk loudly during movies - which is no great loss for the current crop of comic-book (excuse, me, graphic novel) -based explosion movies.

No one wants to be an audience member anymore - we all want our 15-minutes of tick-tock fame.  And maybe this is the result of a slew of Tee-Vee shows that posit that anyone can become the next warbling, auto-tune, ballroom dancing, cake-baking, podcasting, multi-media star.  In fact, we are all entitled to it.  No one wants to sit back and be a passive listener, it seems, not even long enough for someone to tell a silly joke.

A good Dad make a good audience for a joke, even if poorly told.

So, what's the point?  Well, we are all joke-killers on occasion - I have to admit I have done it myself.  Fight the urge!  Resist the temptation!  Let the joke-teller tell the joke.

Then we can all have a good laugh.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Shades of Grey (The New Non-Fiction)

Advice is easy to give, which is why I try not to give it!

I mentioned before that I am not Ann Landers or Dear Abby - I don't answer reader questions, for the most part, and I am not an "advice" columnist, influencer, or Sooze Norman.

Years ago, at the Birchmere, we saw Susan Werner warming up for Madeline Peroux, and she nearly overshadowed the main act.  She has released a number of albums, but the one that really stuck was "The New Non-Fiction" (as well as "I Can't Be New") which is chock full of interesting songs and thoughtful lyrics.   The other day, I was listening to "Shades of Grey" and forgot how insightful it was.

Some of her songs seem to hint at a conservative bent, but since I don't want to know the name of her cat, I will not investigate further - that would destroy the buzz.

God forbid you ever mention that you're looking for love
Mention it to anyone
And you'll be gettin' more advice than you could ever dream of
Cheap advice, ain't it fun
Hey, let everybody have their say
And at the end of the day
All you really get's another shade of grey
Interesting comment - "relationship advice" is one of the biggest topics on advice columns and the Internet - the latter being the worst source of information.  People go online and ask total strangers (often teenagers) for relationship advice, detailing scenarios that may or may not be true.  For some reason, some folks crave relationship advice from strangers rather than just talking to their partner.

Of course, the flip side is true - if you mention you are dating, your parents and grandparents will have all sorts of helpful "advice" - much of it unhelpful.  And I described before how women will subsconsciously sabatoge relationships by telling their "BFF!" that her new boyfriend is probably cheating, as he was seen reading a copy of Playboy magazine.  Case closed!
And everybody's gonna tell you 'xactly what you oughta do
If you're thinking 'bout a family
Have a baby, don't have any, really gotta have two
If you wanna live happily
Hey, let everybody have their say
And at the end of the day
All you really get's another shade of grey
And time just ticks away
With the whole world holding sway
While the sun goes down on one more twenty-four hours
I've seen this in action - particularly with parents and grandparents.  "Oh, you should try for a boy!" (if they already had a girl).  Or they tell you to have two kids, so they will keep each other company (they say the same thing about house pets!).  Everyone has advice!
Everybody yippin' yappin' in the interview chair
Hawking their philosophy
Be a Christian, be a Buddhist, be a billionaire
Be like me, can't you see
Hey, let everybody have their say
And at the end of the day
All you really get's another shade of grey
So get up and walk away
Walk away
This goes back to I don't want to know the name of your cat.  People become celebrities and they go on talk shows and act like what they have to say - outside of their sphere of celebrity - has some deep meaning, whether it is their neo-Buddhist philosophies or some sort of pseudo-science medical beliefs.  And we all listen to it, too!  Because what Cher thinks of the plight of children in Sudan is more important than what we think....
So don't tell me the answers
I'd rather learn them for myself
And don't sell me your answers
Put your book back on the shelf
With the new non-fiction
Well, it is true, that the answers you learn yourself - the hard way - are the best lessons in life.  Education is painful, which is why so many people eschew it.  You learn more from putting your hand on a hot stove than you do from reading 100 books about hot stoves.  And if someone tells you not to put your hand on the hot stove, odds are, you'll ignore that good advice.  "Don't tell me what to do!  Free-Dum!"   Irony Alert: The "Free-Dum" crowd lets anonymous people on "Qanon" tell them exactly what to do, starting with emptying their checking account and ending with going to jail.

And that right there is why people want to give helpful advice - they want you to avoid all the painful experiences you will go through in life, and it pains them (a second time) to see you struggle with the same stupid things they struggled with as a youth ("New credit card!  I'm rich!  Whoo-wee!").

But then again, there are also bad actors out there, particularly these days on social media, intentionally giving bad advice because it profits them.  Buy this accessory for your car!  Buy a stock that I am shorting!  Buy a fancy new product that you don't need!  And since their "advice" is candy-coated and flashy, people tend to follow that more than Grandma's admonition that she wished she saved more money over the years.

Of course, things have changed since they were your age - and  much has stayed the same, despite outward appearances and the glitz and glamour of the modern age.  In fact, one way you can tell if someone is lying to you, is if they say, "All that has changed!  The world is different today!"   And I say this because back in the "dot-com" era (before the social networking era) the liars said that, claiming "profits and losses are a thing of the past!  It's a new paradigm!"   And thus went

So yea, you have to take advice with a grain of salt.  Read it all and think about how it applies in your own life, but don't fall victim to the trap of "Oh, that doesn't apply to me because Grandma didn't have smart phones when she was my age!" - or because the "advice" online amounts to convenient thinking. Much has changed, but most things stay the same - relationships, bank accounts, making a living, getting ahead, saving money.  You can't "modernize" your way out of the basic facts of life.

I write stuff in this blog, mostly so I can get my own head in shape and think about things.  If someone gets something out of that, fine.  If not, fine also.  But it pays to learn from the mistakes of others and the mistakes of the past.  History never repeats exactly the same, but gee-whiz, there are pretty predictable patterns, if you know what to look for.

And sometimes, asking Grandma might tip you off to them.....

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Can the Free Market Police Itself? Maybe, Sort Of....

When people do bad things in the marketplace, other shady actors may call them into account.

A reader recently sent me this link to an article about Square, the "fintech" (throw up in mouth a little) company that is basically a credit card processing company (and if that is "tech" then I'm the Pope).  You've probably used their services before, and although they are pricey (if you are a retailer) it is a turnkey solution for small businesses and they send you receipts by e-mail, which was a pretty neat feature - ten years ago.  Today, there are many competing companies, such as Clover, which we use at the Parcheesi Club.

Anyway, the article alleges (act shocked) that this silicon valley tech-that-is-not-tech company overstated its earnings so that the founders could exercise their stock options and make countless billions of dollars.  I know - shocking!  A silicon valley company that turns out to be nothing more than a vehicle to cash-out millions, if not billions, for venture capitalists and founding members?  I mean, that has never happened before, right?  Or is it the blueprint of modern "business" practice?

The game is played like this:  You start a company with an idea - a good idea or a bad idea, it makes little difference.  Then you do an IPO and before that, a "roadshow" to hit all the financial channels and blogs and newspapers and whatnot (even town-hall type meetings) hyping the crap out of the company.  The IPO "drops" and the share price soars - making huge amounts of money for the banks and others who sponsored the IPO, but raising very little actual money for the company.

So what's the point?  The point isn't to raise money for the company, but to create a market for what were basically untradable shares of a closely held company, before the IPO.  Post-IPO and after the "lockout" period, insiders can sell their shares, which are inflated in value, for a hefty profit.  Problem is, you have to sell the shares in a trickle, lest the plebes on r/wallstreetbets catch on to the scam (no worries - they never do, and the well of chumpism is bottomless!).

If the share price starts flagging, well, you go out and hit all the financial channels again and hype the crap out of your stock.  You can also hire an army of bots to slam social media with positive spin on your company - and sometimes this is even legal.

In Commercial Law, we call this "puffery" - if you say your company is super-duper great and so on and so forth.  It isn't really "lying" to say that you are excited about your prospects for the future or all the great projects you are working on - provided they exist.  It is lying to say something works, when it clearly doesn't (Theranos) and you could go to jail for that - and people did.  It is lying to say you made a billion dollars in profits when you actually lost more than that.

And that is where Square - or its parent company - comes in to play.  Someone is accusing them of over-stating earnings in order to prop up the stock price and cash out big time.   But who is that someone?

Hindenburg. Not the Zeppelin, but a hedge-fund type of company that "shorts" stocks of other companies.  And I digress here, but a Zeppelin is a rigid lighter-than-air craft (airship) made by the Zeppelin company.  A dirigible is a rigid airship of any brand or make.  A blimp is an inflatable, non-rigid airship.   It pisses me off to see professional writers for newspapers call the Goodyear blimp a "Zeppelin" or refer to the Hindenburg as a "Blimp".   A trivial complaint?  Perhaps, but words matter and while we expect you and I to be sloppy with language, we expect more from people who write for a living.   But what am I saying?  Even the NYT and WaPo are riddled with typos these days.

Anyway..... Hindenburg, the company does sort of the reverse of what silicon valley companies do.  They buy "shorts" on a company's stock (bets that the price of the stock will go down - and pay off massively if they do) and then do a roadshow (sounds familiar?) telling all the financial press and prognosticators what a shitty company they are shorting is, and how the stock is overpriced and how the company founders are a bunch of fraudulent bastards.

And sometimes, they are even right, too!

People wake up and realize that XYZ company and its purported "hoverboard" product were just vaporware and the company was overstating earnings for the last four quarters.  The stock plunges, the short-sellers make millions (if not Billions) and maybe XYZ company goes bust and the founders go to jail.  Justice is served, right?

Libertarians and free-market mavens would argue so - that left to its own devices, the free-market is self-policing.  After all, the SEC can only level trivial fines and doesn't have the manpower to scrutinize the balance sheets of every damn company out there.  So let the free-market balance it all out!  

Cold comfort to the small investor who bought $5000 of XYZ stock and is wiped out completely when XYZ goes bust.  But hey, he should have known better, right?  And that is the conundrum of the Social Media Stock Market - where hundreds of millions of plebes are "betting" small amounts of money on startup companies which - even if legitimate (ha-ha!) - are more than likely than not to fail in short order.

The free market has other self-appointed police besides short-sellers, and like the short-sellers, they profit themselves greatly, while the individual makes little, if anything.  Class-action lawyers, for example, can rake in tens of millions of dollars for their firm, as these sort of lawsuits are always settled before trial for a trivial amount ($5 per victim).   But you could argue that the threat of class-action lawsuits is enough to keep companies in line, much as the lone gunslinger enforced the law in small towns in the Old West.  His law, of course.

Or, you could argue, as many companies do, that these class-action lawyers are just parasites who feed off the success of major companies and contribute nothing to the bottom line.  On the other hand, lawsuits like this (along with Patent Troll lawsuits) are a barrier to entry for small companies - who may have to merge with a larger company or go bust - while major corporations just write a check and call it the cost of doing business.

Personal Injury attorneys arguably work the same way.  They rarely recover much for the "injuries" suffered by the bulk of their clients (most of these suits are slip-and-fall or minor car crash cases worth only a few grand apiece, which the lawyers take most of).  You could argue this makes grocery store aisles safer or makes truck drivers drive more carefully.  Or you could argue that it just means the grocery store has cameras in all the aisles now, and that truck drivers are worse than ever before and insurance rates are jacked up and again, considered the cost of doing business.

You can argue it either way.  There is something of a poetic justice, though, of a company accused of fraud being taken down by short-sellers.  The free-market incentive to police the world is a greater force than actions by government employees - in some cases, anyway.  Government employees can be pressured by politicians to back off - or their budgets cut, as the GOP routinely does to the SEC and the IRS.

Congress has, however, in other situations, actually passed laws deputizing the general public to "go after" bad actors.  You can sue someone for a fixed amount per phone call or fax if they call you unsolicited or send you junk faxes (back in the day).  And a few citizens have cashed in on this (including me) - but the majority of such bad actors are overseas and hard to sue.

And of course, there have been Qui Tam actions for a long time - allowing you to sue on behalf of the government if someone is ripping the government off.  You get a percentage of the settlement, which can amount to millions of dollars.  And a few people have cashed in on this, as well.

In recent months, however, this sort of thing has taken a dark turn, as States like Texas have passed laws allowing individual citizens to sue doctors if they are suspected of performing abortions - sometimes even across State lines. The net effect, if such laws are upheld, would be to chase OB/GYN doctors out of those States, as is already happening in Idaho.

Sometimes, in the end, Privateers sometimes end up being hanged a pirates!

Maybe real police isn't such a bad thing, after all.

Friday, March 24, 2023

I (Still) Don't Want To Know The Name Of Your Cat!

Quentin Crisp said it best: "There is no dark man!"

I had a dream last night, I was reading one of those Gothic romance novels - the kind you used to call a "bodice-ripper" before that was considered date rape.  It went something like this:

"Oh, Rex, take me away from my evil stepfather, on your mighty steed, so that we may live together forever in happiness!" she cried, burying her face in his muscular chest.

"Surely, Stormy - take my hand, and we shall both be free!" he replied, gently caressing her head and lightly kissing her face.  "But there is one thing I need to tell you, first!"

"What is that?"

"Well, I live with my Mother and have a cat named Mittens.  You're not allergic to cats, are you?"

Mood spoiled.

It is human nature, I'm afraid, that we are all human.  If you go to a leather bar, you might see some guy who looks like a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom of Finland, and half the Village People.  He's nearly seven feet tall, a wall of muscle, and handsome.  Surely this is the man of your dreams, right?  Then he opens his mouth and in the most mincing voice imaginable, reveals he is an interior decorator named Bruce - and yes, with a cat named Mittens.  Do you want to go home with him and meet Mittens?

I wrote about this effect before - we all want to project our fantasies and desires onto others.  And nowhere is this more true that with celebrities.  And in recent years, celebrities have let us down by turning out to be mere mortals with mortal failings.  In fact, they tend to turn out to be first-class jerks.

I was listening to 80's music on YouTube and they played an old Joe Jackson song.  I remember hearing that on the radio all the time back in the day (when people actually listened to the radio).  Come to think of it, one of the lines in the song was "We'll leave the TV and radio behind" - and I guess our generation did - replacing it with streaming services.  But I digress.

I was curious as to what happened to old Joe Jackson - was he a one-hit wonder?  Well, I looked him up and was bitterly disappointed.   He has written a bit, but his writing kind of sucks.  And his big, big deal since the 1980's?  Speaking out against smoking bans.  He decided to die on that hill, (as did Penn & Teller) claiming that the "Nanny State" was going too far and there was no evidence that secondhand smoke (or apparently, firsthand) was bad for you.

Mood spoiled.

The problem with taking stands like this, is sometimes you end up on the wrong side of history.  Smoking would still suck, even if it had health benefits.  It smells bad and is a fire hazard - so many people die in bed from smoking. In fact, the whole urban legend about "spontaneous human combustion" died out when smoking died out - it was, after all, just people who were dead drunk, falling asleep in bed or an easy chair, dropping a cigarette, which caused the upholstery to smolder.  With fewer people smoking, there are fewer such fires.  That, and most modern furniture is made with fire-resistant stuffing, instead of smoldering cotton batting.

But the main deal is, a minority of people don't have the "right" to blow tear gas in your face, or throw stink bombs in restaurants, which, in effect, smokers were doing for a century or more.   The "rights" of smokers trample on the "rights" of everyone else.  And trust me, living on Old People Island and seeing friends die of COPD, it isn't pretty.  Imagine being smothered with a pillow, slowly, over a number of years.  It is a horrible way to die.

But that is what Joe Jackson will be famous for.  You know, he might have been better off keeping his mouth shut and he would have been remembered for his music!

Yea, yea, I know, "everyone has the right to their opinions!" and that is true.  But being a celebrity amplifies your opinions, and being a celebrity doesn't make you right about anything.  People are sick and tired of political Oscar speeches, or celebrities using their celebrity to advance a "cause" like a First Lady or Miss America contestant.  Just shut the fuck up and cash those fat paychecks - right?  Because the fact you were born attractive (or made that way under a knife) and have a good Agent, doesn't mean the thoughts going through your empty skull are in any way significant.  Hollywood hired you for your looks, not your brains.

OK, maybe Meryl Streep excepted.

But we see this a lot today - people who had successful careers who then, later in life, show us exactly what kind of shitheads they were and are.  And again, I get this - they are human after all and not Gods.  So when they fall from their pedestal, well, we should not be surprised.

And maybe part of the problem is that once you become so successful and have an entourage, you start to think you really are so clever.  Gyneth Paltrow apparently thinks she owns the ski slopes and is an expert on quack cures for diseases you don't have.  Again, sort of spoils the mood, don't it?

There are others - a litany of others - such as JK Rowling, who, after cracking open a box of wine, gets tipsy and goes on Twitter to say mean things about "Trans" people.  And by that, I don't mean having a meaningful discussion of whether it is fair for a trans athlete to play on a girls team, or whether government or insurance money should be forced to pay for expensive operations or whether children should have hormone treatments.  No, no, rather she has to try to troll trans people and say horrible things.   It is not just a matter of her "expressing her opinions" but rather showing us her real character.

And like clockwork, when these sorts of people show us what rotten sons-of-bitches they are, they complain they are being "cancelled" for their opinions, when in fact they are being cancelled for being shitheads.

There are exceptions to this trend.  Keanu Reeves, by all accounts, is a nice guy and a decent human being, even if the movies he stars in (such as the John Wick franchise) are rather over-the-top violent.  But he doesn't have a "Controversies" section on his Wikipedia page, and when asked about religious beliefs, he gives oblique answers - allowing us to project onto him what we want to see.  The only "political" position I could find he supported was reading a poem at a "Free Tibet" event, which earned him the ire of China, which banned his films.  Oh, well, even he steps in the dogshit once in a while - China is a huge market for Hollywood films, although I guess the Chinese can stream him through Starlink or something.

Once in a great while, you read about a celebrity who fades off into obscurity without bursting our bubbles.  You really wanted to root for Clint Eastwood or Charlton Heston, but they both sort of lost their minds toward the end, and became gun nuts.  Worse yet are the washed-up stars who shill for utter scams like second mortgage companies or burial insurance.  I mean, what a way to screw your own fans!

Even getting married is problematic for some celebrities. Teen heartthrobs in particular, are often forced to conceal their marriages or relationships - or at least downplay them - as their teenybopper followers want to project their romantic fantasies on these icons.  And no one wants to know the name of their cat, either.

Just a hint:  If you become a celebrity someday, keep your opinions to yourself and appear as neutral as possible, so people can project onto you what they want to see, and not who you actually are.  If you do this, you can keep your celebrity going on for a good long time.  And you won't end up hawking burial insurance at 2AM on some off-beat cable channel.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

F150 Panoramic Sunroof Repair

Sometimes, you can do it yourself.

The King Ranch was in storage for a few months and when we went to go camping, I realized I had left the sunroof closed.  I usually leave it in the popped-up (vent) position to air out the truck in storage.  Anyway, I hit the button and it made a sickly cracking noise and wouldn't open.  I tried it a few more times and it finally opened, but sounded like there were rocks in the mechanism.

It is the kind of thing you dread owning a car with a sunroof, or a convertible with a fancy electric top - or worse yet, one of those retractable hardtops with motors and limit switches and levers and gears.  It all goes wrong over time and only the dealer has parts and know-how to fix it - right?

Well, in the case of the sunroof, many dealers are clueless about them as they tend to break out of warranty.  So they quote astronomical prices to repair them - from $600 to $1000 or so.  One dealer had the balls to ask $4000.  The repair, in this instance, turns out to be simple, and the parts cost about $150 from sunroof doctor and there are all sorts of DIY videos on YouTube (some better than others - it pays to watch several).  I also pays to take the time to understand how the thing works, which becomes quite clear once you work on it - it is not the giant mystery it seemed at first, nor was it horribly complicated.

The problem is twofold.  Panoramic sunroofs, unlike ordinary one-piece sunroofs, have two pieces of glass.  So in a regular sunroof, you have a seal that goes all around the glass and seals against the sheetmetal of the car.  In the Panoramic, one side of the glass has a rubber seal that seals against another rubber seal on the rear glass.  These seals can stick together over time, if the roof is left closed.  When you finally open it, it acts like it is glued shut and the "pop" you hear is a plastic part of a metal rail cracking.  A piece of this plastic can fall off and get in the track, causing further problems down the road.  And as the plastic track is now cracked, the "follower" that moves the sunroof along this track will jam or can jam.  The good news is, Ford designed this with a torque-sensing overload, so if it does jam, it will reverse or shut down to prevent damage to the cable drive.

I ordered the parts - about $170 delivered, and they came in a few days.  I sort of put it off (CoVid) but we wanted to go camping, so after watching all the videos, I gave it a shot.  Removing the glass was easy - three 9mm bolts on each side and you put an old blanket on the back of the roof and push the glass up and rest it on the blanket (hint: slam the edges of the blanket in the rear doors so it doesn't slide off the roof and destroy the glass.

Removing the "rails" was a little trickier, but the kit even came with some extra parts and screws.  The first one was the hardest, and took about 30 minutes. The second took about 15.  It isn't really a "rail" as it moves with the sunroof.  It is a track that moves the rear edge of the glass up and down to open fully (down) or pop into vent mode (up).  It also moves the front of the glass up or down as well.

Once the rails were in place, I could work the mechanism a few times and confirm it worked.  I re-installed the glass, putting in the bolts loosely and then pushing up on the glass until it was flush with the roof, adjusting both sides accordingly.  Once I confirmed it was flush and worked properly, I tightened down the bolts.

And... done!

Supposedly Ford has had a big problem with these rails and redesigned the part with a different kind of plastic.  We'll see.  In the field, things happen that you don't see during development.  I guess they don't have live oak pollen in Dearborn - it lands on everything here.  Add a little water and it is like glue - particularly on that rear seal!

So, keep the seals clean and lubricated and be prepared - after seven years - to fix it.

Some people say, "Well, that's why I would never have a sunroof!  Nothing but trouble!  Best to stick to simple things!"  Well, that's one approach, Amish.  But the point of this blog is how to live better on less, not how to live like a Monk on bread and water.

$170 repair after seven years and 68,000 miles.  Not bad.  The only other thing I've done to it is change the oil and put in a new battery and a set of tires.

I can live with that!

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

A New Gold Bubble Coming Soon?

Are we at the beginning of  a new gold bubble? 

A reader recently was looking at this blog entry from 2010, which I have updated as follows:

UPDATE 2023:  Gold has gone up - and gone down.  Usually the "little people" buy when it goes up, based on FOMO and because it is being hyped online.  Then it goes down and they sell at a loss - again due to fear.

Is gold a good deal?  A hedge against inflation?  A safe harbor?  None of the above?  I think the latter. As we saw in 1982, the price peaked and people had to wait two decades to get their money back, not even accounting for inflation.

Recently, there has been an increase in inflation and a lot of panic-talk about bank failures.  Surely this will spike the price of gold, right?  Yet, oddly enough, it remains relatively flat, if not in fact, decreasing slightly.  And maybe this is because all the gold-bugs went over to the Crypto sites and started obsessing about that instead, leaving gold to be what it always was - a commodity mineral, no different than diamonds, silver, or for that matter, zinc, lead, or even dirt.

Gold has gone up - and down - and really hasn't kept pace with even inflation.

If you look at the chart above, your first impression might be, "gold has shot up in value!"  But if you look most closely, you see that the guy who bought in March of 2022 lost nearly 20% of his investment by September of that year.  And if you factor in inflation, $1400 in march of 2018 is worth nearly $1700 today.  When you dial that into the equation, you can see that Gold isn't making wild gains after all.  In fact, your mutual fund likely did better over the same period of time.

So did the gold bubble "burst?"  Well, one of them did.  Maybe more to come, who knows?

This chart, from 2000-2023 shows the 2010 bubble.

As the chart above illustrates, in 2010, when I wrote this entry originally, the price of gold peaked at about $1800 an ounce and then dropped to about $1200 for a long time until 2020.  That's ten years to earn your money back, not factoring in inflation.   Factor in inflation, and that $1800 in 2010 should be worth $2400 today.  Yes, the gold bugs got burned if they bought in 2010.

So what does this all mean?  Well, in 2010, people were panicking because the economy was in the toilet.  2023 seems poised for that pattern to repeat again - panic and fear are ruling markets, people are pulling back from investments and new businesses.  Layoffs are starting to accelerate.  And the housing market is finally slowing down as interest rates rise.

Wait for it - 3...2...1....  Some idiot on social media is going to say "buy gold!" after they already bought it.

Wash.  Rinse.  Repeat.

Of course, some may argue, "Well, this time, I will get in on the ground floor and clean up when those other idiots buy in!"  And maybe that will work, or maybe it will not.  Maybe, if you are lucky, you may double your money in a few years.  Maybe if you are unlucky, you may lose half.   You could make the same arguments for buying bargain stocks when they hit rock bottom.

My only take is that if someone is hyping whatever it is on the Internet, it is probably a bad bet.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Sometimes A Crises Is A Good Thing!

The chickens are coming home to roost at America's overpriced colleges.

First of all, let's debunk the term "crises" - the media loves to use it to describe just about everything these days.  Gas goes up ten cents a gallon and it is a "crises" because some idiot who bought a monster truck, jacked it up and put Bozo tires on it, is getting only 11 miles per gallon and he's entitled to cheap gas.

Crises is a mega-volcano blowing up humanity.  Crises is not a small drop in college enrollment.

But it is happening and has been happening and it was one of the first postings in this blog - colleges are headed for trouble and acting like nothing has changed.  But two things have changed, dramatically.

Demographics is the first part.  This generation of High School grads is smaller than the previous one, which was smaller than the one before.  Colleges thus have to compete, quite literally, for admissions.  You need butts in the seats to make a college work, and no students means no college.

A ran into a fellow who said his grand-daughter is having trouble getting in to college.  She has good grades and good SAT scores, but is relying on a needs-based scholarship to get into a prestigious school.  She has been accepted by her "backup" schools but is wait-listed at her desired schools.  It appears that many of the top tier schools are putting scholarship students on wait-list, hoping that some wealthy "legacy" applicant who will pay the full tuition amount will apply at the last minute.  They are that desperate for money.

The second problem is that schools have priced themselves out of the market.  Many would-be applicants are reading the horror stories online of young people who mortgaged their lives for a college degree and end up as a Barista at Starbucks instead of a Barrister at Law.  They still have to pay back fifty grand or more in school loans.

It is no different from GM back in the 1970's.  People saw poorly-made cars selling for close to ten grand and getting shitty gas mileage.  Meanwhile their "kooky" neighbor just rolled over 100,000 miles on his eight-year-old Toyota, getting 30 mpg in the process.  It takes a while, but eventually people catch on to what is happening.  Markets have a lot of hysteresis, as we are seeing today in the housing market. But you cannot hold back a flood, for long.

What will happen as a result of this drop in enrollment?  Well, more of the same thing.  Small, liberal-arts colleges are the canaries in the mine.  Many have sky-high tuition rates and the resultant degree is viewed as less valuable - if not worthless - in today's job market.  Granted, education should be much more than vocational training.  But then again, many of these small colleges started out as places to park young women for four years, while they found a spouse.  And this was the case not only in the early 1900's but until even the 1960's.

Times have changed, and having any college degree is no longer seen as a sign of distinction.  This idea that everyone should go to college is flawed, as what made a college degree worthwhile, was its exclusivity, even if that was a bit elitist.  When everyone goes to college, college becomes the new high school.  And these statistics that "You'll make 75% more money" by going to college are created by... colleges (Georgetown University, for that particular boner).  Yes, that was true in 1967.  Maybe less so, today.  And it depends on what kind of degree you get, of course.

If more schools go out of business - as many already have - it will mean more applicants for larger colleges and universities.  If that is the case, not much will change - tuition will remain sky-high and students will fall into the same traps as before.  But if the trend continues, maybe - just maybe - some schools will have to figure out some alternatives.

For example, cutting costs.  Many schools have built building after building when a wealthy alumnus kicks in money - and they want something with their name on it.  But maintaining these buildings - many of which are half-empty most of the time - is costly.  Many schools have cut the important parts to the bone - replacing tenured professors with adjunct, part-time faculty or graduate students - while padding the perks for the administration.  It may take bankruptcy to reverse this trend.

Then there are majors.  It is possible that students may demand more out of their education than an easy "A" in touchy-feely studies.  Again, this is problematic.  Florida is experimenting with removing "wokism" (which means whatever you want it to mean) from school curricula, including State universities and perhaps even private ones.   Whether students will flock to these "anti-woke" schools of flee from them, remains to be seen.  Perhaps not politicizing education in any direction is a good start.

Like I said before, the "Gay and Lesbian Student Association" at my alma mater (and its weekly beer bashes) is gone, replaced by a "Center for Queer Studies" and some way-too-serious people.  I guess you can get a degree in this now, although I am not sure why or where it would lead to.  I think that is best a home-study course.

Economics cannot be denied, and you would think colleges which teach economics would realize this.  You can install as many rock-climbing walls as you want in the student center, it doesn't make the resultant degree more worthwhile.  Rather, it just turns college into a hangout for rich kids to play around in, and for middle-class kids to make the biggest mistake of their lives, by signing up for student loans.

Of course, one reason why nothing has changed for so long was that it is 18-year-olds making these economic choices, and they are not a very experienced lot, when it comes to finances.  While young people decry the antics of oldsters, they do, subconsciously, put a lot of faith in what their teachers and parents have to say.  And when everyone says, "go to college, you'll earn more money that way!" they tend to believe it, even if it makes no sense if it incurs $100,000 of debt.

Compounding this are parents who - let's be honest here - want to get their hormonal and stinky teenager out of the house.  And college is a good way to do that.  And parents really believe the "college is key to success!" bit, because it was true for their generation.  Not only that, they want to impress their friends that their kid is college-bound and not some slacker working a slug job.

Colleges know this, which is why they have resisted change for so long - and will continue to do so.  They know that people salivate at the chance to get into their school, and so long as people feel that way, there will be no incentive to cut costs or lower tuition rates.

So, after nearly 15 years of blogging about this issue, I doubt much will change.  And no, "student loan forgiveness" or "free college" are not the answer but rather just throwing more gasoline on a fire of burning money.

I mean, come on, you tell these greedy college deans that the government will pay the bill?  Tuition will double overnight!

UPDATE:  See this article, which notes that many companies and government agencies are eliminating college degree requirements for many high-paying jobs.

Monday, March 20, 2023

The Decline of the Family Empire

Adult children should not be kept as pets.

You may recall the recent online viral video of a "young" man (age 38) in New Jersey, who was arrested for threatening to kill a Sheriff in Florida.  He lived with his mother, who announced, "They're here!" as the Police arrived, as if this was something she had long expected.  And she probably did.

What was odd about the whole thing (well, there was a lot of odd) was that the Sheriff was taking a stand against neo-Nazism and apparently this pissed off this living-with-mom-always-online dude.  How on earth is Nazism going to make his life better?  It is just another prime example of The Pariah Mentality - a chance to sacrifice your life for imaginary internet bonus points from your "chums" on 4chan (or 8chan or whatever) who are likely Russian trolls.

Another article recently claims that more young people than ever before are living with their parents, or some such nonsense.  This fails to take into account, I think, the agrarian society we used to live in, a hundred years ago or more, where just about everyone lived with their parents until (and if) they married. It also doesn't account for cultural differences - many recent immigrants are from cultures where young people live at home until (and if) they are married.  The article posits this as an economic problem, though, when I think it may be more of a matter of some young people taking the easy way out.

Some young people argue that the "cost of housing!" makes it too hard for them to move out.  And if you are living in your parents' house, rent-free and banking your paycheck for the day when you can afford to move out or even buy a home of your own, then good for you.  But I have witnessed, firsthand, many young people who live with their parents and then spend all their income on consumer electronics, new cars, restaurant meals, and so on and so forth - saving nary a penny.

To give you an idea of what I mean, I saw an attempt to discredit a stupid online "meme" that posited that "Millenials" (or some such punching-bag) were spending $900 on a new iPhone, but couldn't afford to save up for a down payment on a house (or whatever - it is a stupid meme).  But what was even more idiotic was the "response" that "Well, we don't have $900 to spend on a new iPhone - so we pay for it in $27 monthly installments!"

Ugh.  I buy used Samsung Galaxies on eBay for $99 to $199 each and pay cash.   Of course, I am not concerned about impressing the girls with my new iPhone or live in fear that my texts may appear in green bubbles - and thus be mocked by strangers.  Or imagine having no tattoos!  It would be like walking around naked for chrissakes!   I am not saying that all young people are this stupid, only that I was that stupid at that age, and not much has changed since I allegedly grew up.

And again, I think a lot of this "Let's feel sorry for ourselves, we have it so bad!" mentality is spread online by trolls who profit for your depression.  Russia for starters.  Commercial enterprises also know that depression results in more sales - of everything.

But I digress.....

From what I can see, families have this three-generation dynamic.  The first generation is born into poverty and then struggles to make good.  Their children - the second generation - is exhorted by their parents to improve their lot in life.  They get jobs, start business, buy a house, accumulate some wealth, and have children of their own.  This third generation is born into relative comfort - if not outright riches - and is spoiled by their parents who say, "I want you to have all the things I never had when I was growing up!"

The third generation has to deal with the decision matrix of inherited wealth.  If your parents are wealthy enough that you can "get by" on their largess and live comfortably for the rest of your life on an inheritance when they die, well, why bother trying hard and taking risks, when you can sit in an easy chair and relax?   And many people "do the math" on this and decide to take it easy, instead of working hard.

If your parents let you do this, it is so much easier to fall into this trap.  Some parents secretly like to lord over the failed lives of their children.  I've had parents report - with almost apparent glee - about what lazy good-for-nothing layabouts their children are.  Although the stereotype of the live-at-home 30-something is that of an "incel" type "neckbeard" male, women are more often subject to this form of parental abuse.  As noted in the book The Millionaire Next Door, many successful men view their daughters as damaged goods who will require support for life.  And I know of many, many daughters who, while not living at home, live a life subsidized by, or in fact paid for entirely, by fathers or even brothers or uncles or helpful Grandmas.

This three-generation pattern seems to be fairly consistent, from what I can see.

Let me give you some examples of what I mean, starting with my own family. My Dad's father (Grandfather Bell) was on the tail-end of this three generation pattern.  His Grandfather came to America as an immigrant from Ireland (or Scotland - the records are unclear) with not a penny in his pocket.  He struggled.  His son did well, and by the third generation, the "Bell Brothers" were running a Maxwell and later, Buick dealership in New Jersey (Note:  There is a Bell Buick in New Jersey today, but it is of no relation).  My Grandfather sort of coasted and his own brothers eventually threw him out of the dealership, as he was a chronic drunk.  The cycle is primed to begin again.'

Enter my Dad, who is born into this abusive nightmare of violence and poverty.  He vows "never to go hungry again!" and gets good grades in school and gets accepted to MIT - as a business major.  After the war, he changes his religion to something more palatable to the corporate suite, and marries what he thinks is a girl from an upper-class family (but itself removed by one generation from poverty).  He climbs the corporate ladder and has three children who are want for nothing in life - private schools, college educations, etc.

And like clockwork, this third generation falls down the economic ladder.  My elder siblings, raised in the 1960's, "renounce materialism" and seem to intentionally sabotage their own lives.  My late sister - again, following the pattern - lived on handouts from my Dad her whole life.

Her children seem to be following the pattern yet again.  As the "second" generation, they are (largely) pulling themselves up from poverty and becoming successful.  Their kids will  end up living in their basement and smoking pot and playing video games.   It is a perfect machine.

Or take my Grandmother Bell's family.  As I noted before, they came over here as Swiss immigrants in their teens (early teens) and worked as servants on the Steinway estate on Long Island.  That is where they met and became Mr. and Mrs. Wilby and moved to Little Silver, New Jersey, buying 100 acres of farmland, back when that part of New Jersey was farms - and not a bedroom community.  Great-grandfather Wilby built a house (and by built, I mean he put it together, himself, one nail at a time) and raised a family of four daughters and a son.

Once again, the pattern continues, although this time, in two generations, not three.  Three of those daughters apparently never left the house.  They were still there when I was a kid going to visit my "great aunts" who were perpetually old.  I think my great uncle moved back in with them later on.  I am not sure if he had any kids or not.  My Grandmother escaped and married my alcoholic Grandfather - but even she eventually returned (kicking and screaming) back to that family homestead.  When you have so much handed to you, the incentive to leave home diminishes rapidly.

But what about my Mother's side?  Same deal.  The Wiggens and Platts came here in the 1700's and cycled through this three-generation deal.  My Great-grandfather Wiggins killed himself in his 30's, leaving his wife to raise three kids on her own, which she did by trading second mortgages - which was unusual for a woman in the late 1800's to be doing.  Her children all went to college, including my Grandfather, who ended up as a lawyer and mayor of Larchmont, New York.  Once again, the pattern - raised in poverty, he vowed to do better.  His kids?  Not so much.  While they were not living in their parent's basement, they did rely to some extent on an inheritance (which indeed, was fought over) and were not as successful as their Dad had been.

It is a pattern, but of course, not a perfect one.  And no, you are not destined to follow such a pattern.  I was able to break free from it, to some extent, myself.  I saw that my siblings were sort of going nowhere in neutral and decided to start taking my life and career more seriously.  I finished my degree, got into law school, and the rest, as they say, is history.  I broke free from the pattern and was lauded by my family for being successful resented for not lowering myself to their level.

And right there you see the problem and how the trap can ensnare you.  The crab-bucket mentality raises its ugly head.  When my Grandmother Bell started dating men and going to speakeasies in New York City in the 1920's, her spinster sisters told her, "Who do you think  you are!  Your behavior is scandalous!"   And no doubt what they really meant was Who do you think you are, leaving the nest, having a boyfriend, getting married, raising children?  You should be staying home with us for the rest of your life!

Sounds weird, but it is true.  Families are weird and a lot of this shit is way under the radar.

Look at the Trump family, for example.  Fred Trump makes millions in real estate and his Number One Son says, "Dad, I just want to pilot airplanes" - a safe job that pays well, but certainly isn't a millionaire-maker.  Fred Trump Sr. is left with Little Donnie as his successor and everyone knows Little Donnie was dropped on his head as a baby.

But Little Donnie grows up and inherits a pile of money and throws it at one ill-conceived venture after another.  He would have made more money putting it in a mutual fund.  But he does find success as a "Reality TeeVee" star - and licenses his "brand" for millions.

His kids?  Ne'er-do-wells who don't venture far from the family home or business.   None of them become independently successful outside of the orbit of Trumpworld.  And once Trump is gone for good, it is likely they will fade from the limelight, quietly living off their inheritances, from Dad, which divided by six, will be a lot less than they think.  And again, they are choosing what to them will seems to be an optimal outcome.  After all, they know what happened to their Uncle who decided not to follow his Dad in the family business!

The list goes on and on.  I know so many people who are successful in life - and by that, I mean a comfortable middle-class existence - who regale me with tales of failed sons living in the basement or how they pay the rent on their perpetually single daughter.  And they say this almost with pride, as if having children as chattel is some sort of perverse luxury, which in a way, I guess, it might be.

Many on the far-right are decrying the demise of the American family, by which they mean, the White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant family.  And maybe there is a nugget of truth to this - it seems that the big wasp-y families of yore are going by the wayside, with successive generations having fewer - if any - children.  Meanwhile the worst sort of people are  squirting out children like litters of puppies.

For centuries, people have worried that the best and brightest of humans would die out, as the poorest and least of us have dozens of children.  It was part of the Eugenics movement.  It drove racist arguments about [fill in the blank name of minority group] "taking over" the country.  It drives arguments about "miscegenation" and other nonsense.  It is the same racist arguments made concerning "The Irish Problem" back in the days of the potato famine.

Of course, on the flip side, the same arguments can be made.  European "royalty" was so inbred that the successive generations were prone to bizarre genetic illnesses and of course, craziness.  And maybe right there is why this three-generation pattern occurs.  As I alluded to above, mental illness sort of ran in my Mother's family (and landed on her, exactly) and that in part kept the successive generations from building upon success.

And maybe that is not a bad thing.  People come up from the poorest backgrounds, regardless of race or religion or upbringing.  It isn't common, but I have seen people raise themselves up from the rural trailer park or the inner-city ghetto and strive for greatness - or at least more than their parents' ever hoped to achieve.

Maybe too, that is where the miscegenisists and racists are wrong - interbreeding of various races and types of people doesn't weaken the strain, but improves it.  We have bred generations of dogs to have certain traits and looks - and often, too, genetic defects that cause premature death or disease.  This is particularly true for inbred dogs from puppy mills.   On the other hand, a cross-bred "mutt" from the pound is more likely to live a long, healthy life, as their genetic makeup is more diverse and tends to suppress those recessive genes that carry defects.  Perhaps - I don't know.  I am not a biochemist.

And of course, there are exceptions to the rule - or is there a rule at all, or is my brain merely seeing patterns because it is a neural network programmed to find patterns?  There are some families who build dynastic wealth, with each generation building upon the success of the previous one.   It does happen, but it isn't all that common.

All that being said, is there any way to avoid this trap, either as a parent or a child?  I think so, and it begins at home.  Whenever you read a story online about some "kid" (age 32) doing something odious like a mass-shooting or organizing a Nazi rally, it often turns out they are living in their parents' basement and Mom and Dad are basically doing nothing to change this, and in fact, are enabling it.  "Gee, son, you need me to sign these documents so you can get an AR-15?  Where's my pen!"  "Hey thanks Mom, for taking me to the shooting range!  Now I don't have to get up close to murder you!"

People read about these tragedies and often it is the parents who are pilloried for letting this happen. And it didn't happen overnight, either. It took years of coddling and support to create the perfect parasite, and when they turn on you - and society at large - it is of no surprise.  Parents often identify one or more of their children as "special needs" kids, even if the kids are not special and what they need really is a kick in the pants.

Of course, in some cases, these kids (and I use that term loosely as a 30-year-old is not a "kid" except emotionally in these circumstances) are indeed mentally ill and that is tragic.  But it is also dangerous, too.  Mental health advocates like to argue that mentally ill people are not a threat to society at large, but are more of a threat to themselves or more likely to be a victim of violence.  Maybe that is the case, but that is cold comfort to the person assaulted and maybe killed by some sainted homeless person who gets off on pushing Asian women in front of subway trains.  Google it, it is a thing.

Early intervention is probably a good idea - but again, the stigma of mental illness may prevent some people from seeking such help.  The craziness of parents isn't much help, either.  I know two young men driven to madness when their parents just could not accept they were gay.  One "Dad" actually had his son treated with aversion therapy - electric shocks - to chase away the gay.  It didn't work, and now he is into S&M as a result (just kidding about the latter part).

In other words, sometimes the parents are clearly to blame as they are crazy themselves (particularly religious crazy).  But also parents can be blameworthy for not pushing the child out of the nest when the time comes (as my parents did) and not letting the child back into the nest when they discover the cold, cruel world is not as cozy as their parents' basement lair.

As a child, there are things you can do as well - starting with not settling for a basement lair.  Yes, it is expensive to live on your own. Welcome to reality. When I was in my 20's, it appalled me that nearly half my income went to paying rent.  I worked at what I thought was a good job and at the end of every month, I was pretty flat broke.  But I realized that independence comes with a price, and if you want to have your own life, well, you have to pay.

As I noted in another recent posting, the cost of living has gone up, but in reality, it is not much worse (or perhaps even better) than when I was in my 20's.  When you factor in inflation, the apartment Mark and I lived in back in the 1980's costs about the same today.  And no, wages haven't "stagnated" that much - if at all.   The same jobs Mark and I had in the 1980s pay more today when you factor in inflation.   Again, I think we are being sold a bill of goods by the Russian trolls.  "Everything bad, comrade!  Might as well give up!"  It is right out of Sun Tsu's Art of War.

Again, the easiest way to cut your rent in half is to simply get a roommate or preferably a spouse.   But you can't get a spouse when you live in your Mother's basement.  So the basement lair becomes a dead-end trap.  A young man moves in, sets up his game console, and uses his 100% disposable income for pizza delivery.  He spends all day online becoming a pariah and gets fatter and fatter and more and more slovenly - and then complains that "females" won't date him because they are all whores and materialistic.  The basement is a deadly trap - get out of the house.

On the other hand, if you struggle to become independent and show you can support yourself, well, chicks dig that, because biologically, they have a uterus and deep down need stability and certainty in their lives, if they are ever to reproduce.  It's in our genes, our hormones - this need to survive.  No one wants to data a Momma's boy or an incel.  And incels are not "involuntary" - they moved into that basement willingly!

It is possible to avoid the "bounce-back" kid trap or becoming an incel-in-the-basement.   So why do parents let kids move back in, and why do kids settle for so little in life?  Comfort is the reason.  It is easy to fall into these traps because confrontation is difficult and by the time your kid wants to move back into the basement (with his swords and guns) you might be a little afraid of him as well.  I have read online of parents setting their kid up with an apartment and paying the first years' rent and then moving away leaving no forwarding address.  That is kind of extreme, but it illustrates the dangers involved.  Better to address this early on.  But again, this involves confrontation, and many parents, after one-too-many shouting matches, just give up and let their kids free-range and kick the can down the road another year or two.

For the kids, well, it is again comfort.  Why struggle with rent when you can have all the cool stuff that your buddies all have, and live rent-free?

Comfort is deceiving, though, and what we think of as comfortable is not.  People claim they like pillowy-soft mattresses and then complain, years later, of back problems.  People claim they like "yummy" foods that are best served at an 8-year-old's birthday party (pizza, burgers, cake, ice cream, etc) and then years later complain about obesity-related health problems.  What we think of as comfortable is not.

Doing the hard thing sounds like less fun, but leads to greater happiness down the road.  Yes, it is comfortable to wallow in your own crapulance - we call that "depression."  It takes motivation to get up and do things.

In other words, it pays to get outside of your comfort zone and do the hard things in life, whether it is addressing your kid's life going off the rails (before it is too late) or booting his ass out of the house when he reaches the age of maturity.  As a kid, it means giving up the comfort of being a kid and moving on to the adult world and realizing you have to make it on your own and this is some serious shit.

And not some stupid video game.