Friday, May 31, 2024

Hybrids, Plug-In Hybrids, and EVs - Not the Same Thing! (Not Even Close!)

Hybrids are nothing like EVs and don't operate like you think they would.

There is a misconception about hybrid cars, plug-in hybrids, and EVs.  A lot of people think a hybrid car is an "electric car" that has an IC range extender, or is an electric car that recharges its batteries using an IC engine.

False and sort-of false.

As we learned at GMI, a car traveling along a level highway at 60 MPH uses very little energy.  An engine of less than 20 HP would push a Buick at that speed, and I'm talking old-school Roadmasters, too.  It is only in climbing hills or by accelerating that you actually use more energy.  "An object in motion tends to stay in motion, an object at rest tends to remain at rest" - you remember old Sir Issac Newton, right?  And if you know anything about physics, accelerating is like climbing a hill, in a manner of speaking.

So a car on a flat highway, travelling at constant speed needs only that 20HP (or less!) to overcome aerodynamic drag, tire friction, driveline friction, and other parasitic losses.  That's why the guy who weaves in and out of traffic, slamming on his brakes and then flooring it, is not only not making time (and is also endangering all of us) but is wasting a lot of gas.

There are little savings to be had in optimizing a car for highway travel, other than reducing frictional losses and making the car more aerodynamic.  We've done both, with low-rolling-resistance tires and even doing things like putting ATF in the differential to reduce friction - as well as rounding our cars (but not our trucks!) to reduce wind resistance.

It is in the city where gas really gets wasted. Going from stoplight to stoplight involves accelerating (the big gas waster). You hit the throttle to accelerate and the gas consumption goes way up. You step on the brakes to stop at the next stoplight and that energy is converted into heat by the service brakes - wasted into the atmosphere in a cloud of brake dust.

Sure, you can optimize this too, by making the car lighter (F=ma, remember?) or making the engine smaller to limit acceleration.  But that only goes so far and there is so much waste in city driving.

Enter the hybrid.  Not an "electric car" but a way of recovering energy from braking.  A small IC engine is used to propel the car, and when accelerating, an electric motor kicks in to provide the additional energy needed.  When coming to a stoplight or stop sign - and this is key - if you let up on the gas, the electric motor becomes a generator, recharging the battery with the energy ordinarily wasted by the friction service brakes.

The problem is, of course, if you slam on the brakes at the last minute, or accelerate too quickly, the fuel economy goes to hell as the entire plan is foiled.  Accelerate too quickly and instead of using stored electricity to accelerate, you are also using the IC engine.  Wait until the crosswalk to start braking, and the service brake takes over and all that energy gets wasted as heat.

When we lived in Politically Correct Ithaca New York, I met people who had Toyota Priuses (Prii?) as poliitcal statements more than anything else. When I asked them what kind of mileage they were getting, one girl giggled and said, "It'll get 45 but the way I drive, I only get 30!"  Just changing driving habits would increase fuel mileage by 50% and fulfill her PC ambitions - but Nah!  Too busy driving to the environmental protest - right?

A lady sued Honda a few years back, claiming that her Honda hybrid didn't get the advertised gas mileage.  And some stupid judge went along with this and they settled in small claims court.  The truth of the matter is that with any car and in particular with hybrids, your mileage may vary considerably based on how you drive.  You can make a hybrid get 10 MPG by driving like a total ass - that is not the fault of Honda or Toyota.  The defect lies in the nut behind the wheel.

Now a plug-in hybrid is somewhat closer to an electric car, but again is not an electric car with a "range extender" or an electric car that is recharged by its IC engine (although it does do that, of course).  As you might expect, there is no efficiency gained by using an IC engine to charge a battery and then use that energy to run an electric motor.  Maybe that works for locomotives (diesel-electric) where you have to harness thousands of horsepower that an ordinary transmission can't handle.  But for a car, well, it would just make it less efficient as there are losses in every step.

UPDATE:  When the Chevy Volt came out, enthusiasts wrongly thought it was a "series hybrid" - that is to say, it was driven by an electric motor, powered by a battery which was charged by an IC engine.  That was incorrect.  Such an arrangement could work but the efficiency would be horrible, as energy would be lost at each stage of conversion from mechanical to electrical, to chemical, back to electrical, and then back to mechanical. The Volt, like the plug-in Prius was a parallel hybrid, using electrical power to assist in acceleration and then recapturing that energy in regenerative braking (as well as providing a small range through excess battery capacity).  A series hybrid, in retrospect, really would make no sense, outside of railroad locomotives.

A plug-in hybrid functions like a hybrid as discussed above - recapturing energy lost to braking and then adding it when accelerating (which is why hybrids get better mileage in the city than on the highway).  But in addition, you sort of have a little bit of an electric car thrown in.  A reader reports that their plug-in hybrid will go about 12 miles before the engine turns on.  Not a great range, considering that in the EV world, 300 miles is the golden number to hit.  But he reports that for most driving around town, the IC engine never turns on and when he gets home, he can then plug it in and recharge.

I advised him to put STA-BIL in the gas - it will go bad over time, particularly in hot weather as he uses so little of it.

Of course an EV is a pure battery car, and thus relies 100% on electricity to accelerate and then recaptures some of that energy in braking.  Again, drive an EV like a jackalope and you can cut the range very short in no time, as "Hoovie" of "Hoovie's Garage" (YouTube) aptly demonstrated.  What a dork!

But as you can see, while an EV might have a little in common with a plug-in hybrid, it really has nothing in common with a pure hybrid, other than both recapture braking energy (if driven properly). EVs do this to maintain their range.  Hybrids do this to increase gas mileage.  Similar ides, different applications.

Of course, even with a pure IC engine car you can really improve your gas mileage by changing how you drive.  I went to put the trailer away today and was chagrined to see people accelerating toward red lights as if "getting there first" was some kind of achievement or they would win a prize or something. All they were doing was wasting gas and wearing out their brakes.  And I know this as I used to drive that way - getting 30K max out of a set of brake pads.  Today, I get 100K out of a set, without difficulty.  It's all in how you drive.

If  you see a red light or a stop sign ahead, let up on the gas and coast to a stop.  The less braking you do, the more money you save.  The inherent friction and air resistance will slow you down.  Bonus if the stop sign is up a hill - you can convert your momentum into a hill climb.  So few people do, though.

One more thing about hybrids.  There is a lot of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) being spread about hybrids and EVs.  I still hear from rednecks stories like, "Sure dem Priuses get good mileage, but after five years you have to replace the batteries and that costs ten grand!"  Car & Driver did a test where they compared a ten-year-old Prius to a brand-new one and found that the batteries had degraded, at most, by less than 5%.

These cars have been around a long time and are proving themselves to be not only as reliable as IC cars, but even moreso.  A Canadian friend of mine had her Prius stolen and the RCMP told her that it was likely put in a container and was on a ship to North Africa within hours of the theft.  Apparently the Toyota Prius has supplanted the Mercedes W123 (240D, 300D, etc.) as the car of choice for taxi drivers in the Arab world.  The Toyota Hilux pickup is similarly popular worldwide due to its durability.  I sold my 1988 4x4 to a guy who drove it to Guatemala and no doubt it is still tooling around there somewhere.

Having your Prius stolen is an odd endorsement of its quality, to be sure.  But it presence as a taxi (we saw a lot of them being used that way in Barcelona as well) is a sure sign that it is valued for its durability and reliability - FUD notwithstanding.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

For the Love Of Money.....

"For the love of money is the root of all evil." 1 Timothy 6:10

I was thinking the other night - a dangerous pastime - about how so many people in America worship the wealthy.  Whether it is Elon Musk fanboys or "Swifties" or people who follow sports stars or rap stars, it seems we all adore the wealthy and successful.  Well, maybe some do, I tend to be neutral about them.

Few people are fans of a local garage band or some obscure actor.  Few are fans of a sports player in the minor leagues or an unnoticed college athlete - I mean, other than their parents, of course.  It is only when they sign that multi-million-dollar contract that they become worthy of adulation and fandom.

And in some regard, some folks believe this is self-evident. If someone makes a lot of money, then they must have done something right or worked hard or was the best in their field.  I mean, if you won the lottery and became a billionaire, it wasn't just sheer luck - you were one of the chosen few!

Sounds stupid, but I think deep down, a lot of people think this way. Certainly billionaires do - about themselves.  But the reality is, extreme wealth is often a matter of luck.  Earning money - and more importantly, keeping it, requires real skill and hard work.  Many an athlete has signed contracts worth millions, only to be dead broke by age 40. Did they really deserve all those riches?  The folks who took the money away from them certainly didn't think so.

But it illustrates one way some folks get rich - by having fans or a following.  That seems to be the theme these days - everyone wants to be an "influencer" and have thousands of "followers."  Everyone wants to be a Main Character, but no one wants to be an ordinary person.  Problem is, not everyone can be a star.  There has to be an audience somewhere and at some time.

The quote from Timothy above is often truncated to "...[M]oney is the root of all evil!" much as 2nd Amendment types white-out the part about a well-regulated militia. No, the founding fathers didn't enact the Bill of Rights so you can go plink at old washing machines with your AR-15 on the weekends.  They had something more noble in mind.  And no, it was not insurrection.  But I digress.

The love of money is the problem, which I expounded on before.  Money itself is value-neutral - merely a tool to make an economy work in place of bartering.  But when money becomes an end in and of itself (and as a means of accumulating power) that's when it goes off the rails.

And yea, we can condemn those who hoard wealth and do evil things with it, to the detriment of a greater society.  But in most cases, it is we the citizens that allow them to accumulate wealth in the first place.  Most of these wealthy folks become wealthy not because they took our money away but because we willingly gave it to them.  Fan-boys and fan-girls hand over their life savings to go to a concert or buy the latest Apple phone or be seen in a Tesla.  And that is their choice, of course.  But you can't fly to Rio to catch the Swift concert and then text "wealth inequality sucks! - sent from my iPhone."

If we are ever to so something about wealth inequality, it begins with us.  And it begins with us not worshiping the wealthy like rock stars.  And that goes for the pretend-wealthy as well.  Marjorie Taylor Greene - the shame of Georgia - went on a Twitter rant about how Trump has contributed to society by building skyscrapers and "altering the New York City skyline" (like that hick knows anything about New York - I doubt she had ever left Georgia before she was elected!).  In other words, Trump is good because he was a successful "businessman" - although that balloon long ago popped as most if not all of his business ventures have failed and the only way he makes money is doing penny-ante things like grifting steaks and an online for-profit college.

But regardless, what I thought was interesting was that she admired Trump for his "success" - as false as it was.  In her mind, might makes right, and in this case, might is measured by dollar signs.  If you are wealthy, then you should be admired, followed, and listened to.  After all, you didn't just inherit that money and get lucky with it (or in Trump's case, squander it) - right?

Wealth-worship and worshiping the wealthy is, I believe, exactly what that quote from Timothy was getting at.  I am no Bible scholar, but reading the entire Chapter 6 of Timothy is interesting.  He (Paul) exhorts servants to serve their masters (no doubt added in translation somewhere along the way - can't have the Bible teaching Communism, can we?) provided, of course, that the master is a believer and does not blaspheme or confuse "gain" with godliness:

3 If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness;

4 He is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings,

5 Perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself.

Interesting.  Sounds like someone we all know - who confuses Gain with Godliness and holds his Bible upside-down, as only the Anti-Christ would do - right?

But such could be applied to anyone scrambling for wealth for wealth's sake.  Some men (and it is mostly men) try to accumulate vast sums of wealth in their lifetimes - far beyond what they need to support themselves in the foreseeable future (1 Timothy 6:19).  They still die, in the end, and their layabout children or grandchildren generally dissipate that wealth within a generation or two - or sometimes three.  It is inevitable, as each generation increases geometrically.  So what's the point?

There will always be such people, it is true.  Worshiping them, however, is to worship a false God.   Server your master (employer) if they are good people, "withdraw yourself" (quit) otherwise. But even if a rich person is a decent person who does good things, he is not worthy of worship - again a false God.

Worshiping wealth or the wealthy is just wrong.  And stupid.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Problem Facing EVs

EVs are stuck in a bad place!

A reader sent me a link to a video (ugh!) about inventories of EVs.  Most dealers (and manufacturers) want to see 30 days or less of inventory in the pipeline - indicating that the vehicle is popular and that production is in line with sales.  But some EVs have six- to twelve-month backlogs on dealer lots.  Twelve months is problematic as it spans a model year and no one wants to pay new car prices for a year-old car.  At some point, you have to move the car over to the used car lot and sell it as a low-mileage used car.

What exactly is the problem? Well, it is Tesla, in part. Founders Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning turned the EV business (such as it was) on its ear by creating a high-performance roadster (based on the Lotus Elise) that sold at luxury car prices.  Prior to that, EVs were touted as povertymobiles, built small and light as possible and hardly known for speed or agility.  The Tesla Roadster changed all that - offering supercar acceleration and handling - but at a steep price.

And it sold well.  The follow-on Model-S was sold not as some econobox for the environmentally conscious, but as a luxury car at luxury car prices.  Tesla sold all their production and had back-orders for years.  This didn't go unnoticed by other automakers.  EVs had largely failed in the marketplace as the products sold were tiny and tinny and punished their owners.  They were created - if at all - to meet possible government mandates, and not because the makers thought there was a real market for them. So the mindset was build cheap, sell cheap, and bank those carbon credits. It didn't work.

Tesla showed the way - that you can sell a $100,000+ electric car and make a huge profit and sell the carbon credits to other companies.  So everyone jumped in - again - but this time at the high end of the market.   As a result, we are flooded with a plethora of hundred-grand EVs and not enough people to buy them.

Yes, EVs are practical today - for a certain market demographic.  If you own your own home and can install a charging station, they work for you.  If not, well, a charging station better be nearby your apartment or at your place of work.  And you have to hope some jackass hasn't parked his monster truck, laden with Trump stickers, in front of the charging station to make some kind of stupid point. No, no, I think EVs, at the present time, are only practical if you own your own home.  But be prepared to spend some money running a 220V line and installing a charging station.  It ain't hard to do - for me, that is.  Others, who can't change a light bulb, have to hire someone.

But even for me, I am not sure it is practical - yet.  For one thing, I don't need or want a new car.  I don't want to spend the money when I am retired and living on my savings.   Sure, it would fit our "lifestyle" as a second car, but until our current car wears out, well, there really is no point.  I suspect a lot of people are in a similar situation.

And even if I was prepared to buy, well, $100,000 for a "luxury EV" is out of the question.  And the number of lower-priced options ($30,000) is very limited.  Oh, sure, in theory you might be able to buy a stripped Model-3 with limited range (and have to pay for all the software upgrades - no thanks!) but the reality is, once you option it up, it costs far more than that. Meanwhile, I can buy a "loaded" economy IC car, like our Hamster for far less.

GM offers a Hummer EV which isn't selling well.  Why?  Well, tying the defunct Hummer brand to an eco-conscious EV is just plain stupid marketing. The kind of ball-scratching beer-drinking demographic that loved the Hummer isn't going to be seen dead in an EV.  And at 9,000 lbs with battery packs, you aren't going offroad in one.  Off-roading and EVs don't mix really.  All that weight means they will get stuck.  Use a smaller battery pack to reduce weight and you get stuck when you run out of juice.  Either way, EVs aren't traversing Moab trails anytime soon.  They are well-suited to the highway, not the byway.

Ford offers an EV pickup, but again, the demographic for pickup buyers is really antagonistic to EVs.  While Ford has done a great job with that vehicle (and the Mache-E) no one is beating down the door to buy either.  For me, as an F-150 owner, again, I don't need to replace my vehicle right now.  We pretty much use our F150 to tow our camper (90% of mileage) and while formidable, even the extended-range F150 EV isn't going to go far dragging a 21-foot trailer down the road.  And that's considered a small trailer, too!

Not that it can't be done, but it limits one's options.  I met a Canadian man who was towing a 19-foot travel trailer (box type) with a Model-Y.  Even with the dual-motor extended range or whatever, he maxed out at 150 miles or less range, before having to stop.  He would either have to plan his trip so his lunch break coincided with a supercharger station, or jump from campground to campground, charging overnight. Already I am seeing signs at campgrounds forbidding EV charging.  That could become an issue.

My "Ecoboost" F150 cranks out 380 horsepower or thereabouts, out of a lightweight aluminum turbocharged engine and gets over 20 mpg when solo, and a decent (for RVing) 14 mpg when towing. With the extended-range 38-gallon tank, that means the vehicle has a potential range of over 700 miles driving solo, or over 500 when towing.  That's more than I ever want to drive in a day.  Clearly EVs are never going to entirely replace IC engine cars, unless there is another breakthrough in battery technology that doubles energy density - at the very least.

But that is not to say there is no market for EVs in America.  Roughly half (I estimate) of cars on the road are rarely driven more than 100 miles in a day, often far less.  And a huge number of Americans own their own homes in the suburbs (look out the window of an airplane sometime, we are a wealthy nation!).  Most people use their cars primarily to drive to work and back or go to the store.  Long trips are a once-a-year thing, if that.  So clearly, millions of people - over a hundred million, I suspect - could fit an EV into their lifestyle.

.If it was affordable.

Going after the high end of the market might have worked for Tesla, but that segment is saturated. And pickup trucks and huge SUVs don't seem like a natural fit for the EV market. Yet carmakers are pushing expensive EVs and not surprisingly, as the video linked above shows, those are the models lingering on dealer lots.  Affordable EVs still seem to be selling fairly well.  But again, these are not smart-phones.  People aren't throwing away their old cars to jump on the EV bandwagon - they will wait until their old car is ready for a trade.  So sales will be a trickle, not a flood.

Of course, there are exceptions.  The Elon fan-boys, like Apple fan-boys, are jumping at the chance to have tha latest-and-greatest - a "Cybertruck" - and realizing after taking delivery that it is a very expensive, heavy, and large vehicle ill-suited for real truck activities.  And they now realize that they signed a contract agreeing not to sell their cybertruck for a certain period of time, lest the secondary market get flooded (bad pun, sorry) with used cybertrucks.

Meanwhile, Tesla is aggressively slashing prices of its long-in-the-tooth legacy products, which is again causing regret for owners who bought last year and now see their resale prices plummet as new car prices drop.  Many are upside-down on their loans as the balance due is more than the cost of a new Tesla.  And what will happen when hundreds of thousands of leases end and the projected "residual" is nowhere near the actual resale value?   Yea, that.  Now you know why Elon is milking Tesla dry before it goes the way of Kaiser-Frazer or Studebaker.

A price war on EVs could be good business for consumers - and may, ironically, jump-start sales.  When prices go low enough, some folks (even myself!) might jump in.  And once you have an EV and your own charging station, you might be inclined to buy another one, down the road.  Then again, EVs have the potential to last decades, if properly maintained.

I met a fellow over the holiday who thinks he had more money that he does. "I'll just work until I'm 70!" he says.  Translation: I am dead broke and up to my eyeballs in debt buying things I don't really need so I can't quit my job if I wanted to.  He serially leases cars - Cadillacs - every two years.  The salesman called him up and offered him a "deal" on a new EV Caddy as they are not selling very well.  He says he will likely take the deal - a short-term lease.  I wonder if, two years from now, if he will go back to IC engines or be an EV convert.

Cadillac sells EVs, but GM's lesser brands, that used to sell EVs, no longer do - although a Chevy EV SUV is allegedly coming out this year and there is talk of bringing back the Chevy Bolt - again.

In a way, perhaps there is an historical precedence for this.  GM used to introduce new technologies in its more expensive brands, before they trickled down to lesser marques.  One exception was the automatic transmission, which debuted with Oldsmobile (Dynaflow notwithstanding) before it was adopted by Cadillac.  The thinking was, if it turned out to be a dud, it would not tarnish the Cadillac marque. Sadly, other technologies didn't follow suit and things like the V8-6-4 gave Cadillac a black eye in later years.

More expensive cars can absorb the research and development costs of technology more easily - and pay back the investment more quickly. Higher-priced car buyers are more likely to pay extra for "features" as they are a form of status.  But eventually, these features trickle down to even the most plebeian of vehicles.  Hard to believe today, but air conditioning, automatic transmissions, power windows, power door locks, cruise control, power steering, and power brakes were once only options and only available on upscale brands.  And often, they didn't work well, either!  Today, it is hard to find even an econo-box without all of these features, standard.  Back in 1938, a "fully loaded" Chevy meant you had a radio and heater.  Not kidding!

So in a way, it made more sense for EVs to start at the top of the market and trickle down - as Tesla aptly demonstrated.  By the time other automakers got into the game, however, the technology should have been available at lower price points.  Luxury car buyers are also less interested in $7500 tax rebates on hundred-thousand-dollar cars.  And "saving money on gas" doesn't even register with such folks.

It is time for EVs to move downmarket.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Stupidity and Totalitarianism

Fascists are stupid and cruel - and that is why they are doomed to eventual failure.

I read this comment on Reddit, which was made in response to another comment that fascists are basically dumb and cruel.  I wish I had the link.  I copied the text and when I went back later to find the source it was *poof* gone.  Anyway, I thought this was an interesting analysis:
This right here is something I think more folks should keep in mind.

I think a lot of folks in countries that haven't been exposed directly to real destruction mostly understand dictators from fiction (either fictional villains or highly dramaticized/fictionalized accounts of real dictators), and fiction has a tendency to give way too much credit to the intelligence of evil dictators.

Like, the Nazis in popular portrayal were evil, but were also [portrayed as] ruthlessly efficient and organized and competent...but that was not the case. The Nazis were hilariously corrupt (Hitler was secretly paying bribes to tons of people from the public treasury to buy their loyalty) and cripplingly stupid (they refused to engage with entire branches of science for ideological reasons and wasted countless resources on the most ridiculous weapons and pet projects because Hitler came up with them).

They weren't just horrible because they were evil towards certain people...they were horrible because they were evil and incredibly wasteful and incompetent and left even the people they supposedly liked worse off. There was absolutely no upside to them. They did a bunch of cruel and horrible things for stupid and moronic reasons...and just left the world worse in every way.

And this is crucial as we head into a world where these sorts of dictatorial movements are becoming more popular. A lot of people kind of get off on being aligned with the "bad guys", because they imagine that they will become part of this coldly ruthless organization that, while it is brutal to enemies, it will ultimately make society more orderly and efficiently or whatever, and they fancy themselves as "stronger" because they're willing to make the hard choice to sacrifice others for the greater good.

But in reality, dictators are pretty much entirely idiots at everything except hanging onto power. And they end up making society way less orderly, efficient, or pleasant for anyone.

The very structure of a dictatorship means that the people who question or challenge the dictator end up dead, so there isn't anybody to stop the dictator from ordering all kinds of stupid and even impossible things. And a lot of dictators get into power because they're willing to make stupid choices that ultimately make everything worse and that most people wouldn't choose because it's counter productive. They are willing to destroy their own home to rule it.

Dictators generally aren't "evil geniuses" -- that is a concept people seem fascinated with and thus is popular in fiction, but like many things in fiction it doesn't generally happen in reality. Dictators are evil idiots who kill everyone who tries to correct them and over time surround themselves with murderous yes men who will hollow out their society until it either collapses or gets taken over by someone else, and they invariably leave societies poorer and more miserable than they were in the first place.

And the sooner people stop seeing this sort of idiocy as "strength", the better.

I thought this was an interesting take, as a lot of people think Mussolini "made the trains run on time!"  But in fact, he didn't.  In fact, other than win small wars against basically unarmed opposition, he didn't do much except turn Italy into ruin.

People claim dictators improved the economy - in an era where economies were recovering from great recessions and even a depression.  "Hitler built the Autobahns and put Germans back to work!" they say.  But highways would have been built with or without Hitler and none of it was his vision or idea. In fact, the idea originated in the predecessor (and Democratic) Weimar Republic.

You go down the list and you see the same pattern again and again.  Stalin's amateur efforts at industrialization and collectivism produced low-quality goods and starved millions of peasants. Mao followed suit, killing even more.  The Khmer Rouge slaughtered nearly 1/3 of the population because one man had a crazy idea about emptying cities and sending everyone to the country to farm.

In fact, there is no track record of a dictator making things better or making wise decisions.  The "wise old king" of fairy tales simply doesn't exist.  When you have absolute power and everyone lives in fear of you, no one is there to say "uh, that sounds like a really bad idea!"

The only thing consistent across various dictatorships is the cruelty, the slaughter, the suffering, and the secret police.  But even that is inefficient, as innocents are tortured and killed while insurgencies still manage to flourish.  The "pick me!" people who think they will be on the good side of the dictator and reap huge rewards are often the first put before the firing squad, as they are viewed as potential rivals or conspirators.

Just look at all the people Trump has thrown under the bus - once his loyal acolytes, and now, yesterday's news.

Corruption is the other constant with dictatorships.  We see this today in Russia, where oligarchs loot the system and we discover that Russia has basically a cardboard army.  Where did all the money go, that was supposed to re-arm Russia?  Into the hands of the oligarchs.

We have an election this year, and one candidate - Trump - promises to make himself dictator-for-life and eliminate his enemies.  And a substantial number of people think this is a swell idea, too.  Sadly for them, again, it is likely they will be the first put before the firing squad, or sent out as cannon fodder, or told to work long hours for low wages, or see their homes and livelihood destroyed. Likely all of the above.

The track record of dictators is consistently dismal - there are no "good" dictators in history.  Not a single one.

So why do people pine for authoritarianism?  Well, they are stupid, to be sure.  They believe that complex problems can be solved with simple solutions.  Worldwide migration due to war, famine, and economic hardship?  Build a wall!  That'll keep 'em out!  It didn't work for China or Hadrian, it isn't working on our Southern border, either.  Complex problems require complex solutions - but you lose the average stupid voter once you try to explain things.  Simple slogans, chanted endlessly (a favorite of the far-left, by the way - another contingent of the stupid voter) are far easier to get across to the dumb.

This, of course, is assuming the "problems" are real and not hyped or imagined.  Postwar Germany after WWI was in economic free-fall and the punishing terms of the Versailles treaty didn't help matters any.  But oddly enough, the Nazis rose to power during a period when the economy was slowly recovering.  People were tired of recession, and the Nazis amplified each economic hardship to make them seem worse than they were.  They engaged in street violence and then promised to put a stop to it - if put into power.

And of course, they had scapegoats - the other consistent aspect of dictators.  Nearly every Latin American or Middle-East dictator burns an effigy of Uncle Sam and tells their followers that the mean old USA is the reason their economy is in tatters.  Castro - and his successors - blame the US embargo for the failure of Communism in their country.  Yet, there is no embargo with Canada, Europe, or most of the rest of the world.  So why does an embargo with one country wreck their economy?  The short answer is, it hasn't, communism has.  But one way to stay in power is to blame your failures on a scapegoat.

It could be another country or a race or a religion or whatever.  Today in America, the far-right is blaming all the country's woes (such as they are, with the economy booming and America really the only remaining super-power) on anyone who isn't white, Christian, and heterosexual.  We are told that we need to "take back" our country from those icky "race" people and go back to the good old days of polio and racism.

You go first.

The reality is, of course, that things are hardly as bad as either the far-left or far-right make it out to be.  Certainly whatever "problems" we have in this country can be solved without having to destroy our Democracy.

But then again, it seems every few decades, we forget the lessons of the past and people - stupid people - start to think, "Say, maybe Communism or Nazism wasn't such a bad idea after all!"

Like I said, they are stupid people.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Hotel Reservations Versus Campground Reservations

Nights versus Dates = Confusion!

We have made a number of reservations to go camping this summer and I noticed something odd. Mark went to hotel/restaurant management school, and when we logged on to, say,, he would say, "we are arriving on August 21st and staying three nights!"  Meanwhile, the site wanted to know our arrival date and departure date.

This resulted in confusion, as, for example, under the hotel reservation rubric, the reservation is "Arriving August 21st and staying three nights" whereas in campground lingo, the reservation would be, "Arriving August 21st and departing August 24th" - which sounds like four days - because it is. To someone versed on hotel reservations, well, it sounds like you are staying four nights.  And indeed, we ended up making a mistake in our reservations, leaving a "hole" in our itinerary as one reservation had us checking out on a Sunday, and Mark assumed that meant we were staying Sunday night and departing Monday.

And that is not the first time this has happened. Last year, we ended up "homeless" for one night because we got confused between "departure date" and "number of nights" as one campground was indeed using hotel reservation software.  Fortunately, we were able to stay over another night - but were only made aware of the issue when the campground manager asked us why we hadn't checked out yet!

Why do hotels do this whack-a-doodle way of taking reservations?  Beats me, but I suspect it is because they sell hotel rooms based on the number of nights you are staying.  You are buying a night's sleep basically and then getthefuckout, dammit.  With campgrounds, I guess, they want to make it clear what day you are arriving and what day you are departing, so people don't stay over an extra day or reserve an extra day they don't need. Campgrounds sell days, hotels sell nights.

There are exceptions of course. One campground, using a hotel reservation software, reported the reservation in terms of arrival date and number of nights, rather than giving a departure date. Some hotels, on the other hand, give all three pieces of information - arrival date, number of nights booked, and departure date (and checkout time!).  Hey, it pays to be clear!  Still another place listed each day you were staying, which was kind of confusing.

I tried to make a reservation on for one night and it bounced it right out.  I had to select two days - arrival date and departure date - otherwise it thought I wanted the campsite just for the day.  So, two days equals one night - right?  It's not like it is confusing or anything!

How these systems evolved is an interesting topic.  I suspect since the hotel and camping worlds don't intersect very often, they evolved in different ways for different reasons.  Hotels want to know the number of nights so they can multiply that by the "rack rate" and calculate your bill.  Campgrounds want to make sure a site is vacated on a certain time and date so the next camper can occupy it - I guess.

To me, as an ordinary human being, the "number of nights" is confusing as all get out.  I have to count on my fingers to figure out what my departure date is, if I am spending a number of days at a hotel.  When I ask the desk clerk for clarification, it goes like this:

"So, I am departing on Sunday, right?"

"You are booked for three nights."

"Yes, three nights, so today is Thursday, that means I depart Sunday, right?"

"Three nights, sir!"

"OK. that's Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights, departing on Sunday.:

"Three nights!"

"Never mind, I figured it out myself!"

It gets more complicated if you are staying a week or longer.  I don't know why hotels don't just publish your arrival and departure dates instead of hoping you can count the days on your fingers.  It just seems like it would eliminate a lot of confusion.

But maybe that's just me.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Marginal Pricing And McDonald's


When each consumer pays the most they are willing to pay, you have an optimized economy - in theory.

We went to a funeral in Atlanta last week (more on that in another posting) and after picking up the Dowager Widow, we stopped at the McDonald's in Darien to get breakfast.  I went inside to use the kiosk and was shocked to see that every breakfast sandwich was over $5.  Not for the "value meal" but just the sandwich.  Five bucks for a goddamn McMuffin!

The people in the drive-through were all paying that, too.  The drive-through window and the inside menu promote the "value meals" which in many cases were over $10 for a sandwich, hash browns, and a coffee.  Ten bucks!  For fast-food!

The reason I went inside was to use the kiosk as they have a "deals" section there and lo and behold, you could get a sausage McMuffin with hash browns for $2.79 or about half what they wanted for the sandwich alone on the main menu.. So I ordered three and we all ate for $9.04 or what the guy in the jacked truck idling in the drive-thru was paying for just one "meal."

I was willing to explore and take my time and got a better price.  Of course, this was without coffee, but we already had coffee.  For some weird reason, Americans have gotten used to the idea that a cup of coffee, which was basically free at one time, is now worth $2.50 or more (often far more) just for a basic brew.  At the Georgian Terrace hotel, regular coffee is $6 a cup at the restaurant.  When did this happen and why did we go along with this travesty?

Oh, right.  Starbucks.  Sold us the idea that coffee should be expensive, when it was once a cheap staple.

But I digress.

The guy in the drive-thru is late for work and just orders "whatever" because he is in a hurry and is suffering from low blood sugar. So he pays "whatever" and maybe grouses about high prices but doesn't do anything about them.  For example, making meals at home is less than half the price of eating out, as I noted before.  The only reason we didn't do that as well was that we were leaving on a week-long trip and the refrigerator was empty.  And $2.79 wasn't going to break the budget, particularly in comparison to the nightly rate at the hotel we were staying at.

What breaks the bank is when you go through the drive-through every day and are hungry and end up over-eating and over-paying for bad food.  When a restaurant becomes your kitchen, bad things happen.  But then again, I am lucky I have someone in my life who cooks.  I just do the dishes.

But speaking of hungry, the folks at Ambetter sent me the video above.  As part of the My Health Pays program, you watch these short videos or read pdf files about healthy practices and in exchange, they credit a debit card with cash.  I use this to pay our cell phone and hotspot bills.

What is odd about these tutorials is that so few of them are about exercising and eating right or other things we traditionally think of as "healthy" habits.  Rather, a lot of them deal with mental health and emotional issues and a whole helluva lot deal with spending, saving, and money.  Funny thing, but if you are broke and in debt you end up unhappy and this leads to stress which leads to health issues.

I know this as the two major health issues I have had (so far) were stress-related.  Crank up the stress levels and my gout or diverticulitis goes nuts.  Since retiring, both have abated.  Funny how that works.

The above video talks about HALT - Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired - the four factors that can cause you to impulse-buy something you don't really want or need.  I wrote before how car salesmen use these factors - keeping you at the dealer for hours (five or more!) until you are, well, Hungry, Angry, Lonely and TiredHaving a meltdown at the car dealer isn't some aberration, it is how they sell cars.

You reach a point where your blood sugar is low and you are tired and you lose it - lashing out at the car salesman.  But instead of leaving, you end up buying the car, partly out of embarrassment and partly to "show them who's boss!"  Sounds stupid, but people do it - we all do it.  It is a game they play with a stacked deck and you can't win - which is why buying a car from an individual seller is often a better deal - unless they try to play the same games as well.

So while the "invisible hand" of the marketplace works in theory, and each consumer pays the best price they can afford for a product ("a car for every purse and purpose") in reality, emotions skew the whole deal.  And fast-food places have learned, since the pandemic, that there is little point in engaging in a price war, when you have hungry customers who no longer know how to prepare their own meals and are demanding food - now.  Just charge them as much as you dare and chances are, despite all the bitching and moaning, they'll pay.

And on the app or kiosk, you hide a daily "deal" that few will bite on, other than cheapskates like me, so you can cover your ass and say you have affordable options for the less-fortunate.

Until people stop acting emotionally and start acting rationally, nothing will change.

Monday, May 20, 2024

The Drop Shipping Scam-Scam

Drop-shipping isn't really a scam.  Selling people seminars on how to drop-ship, is.

I ordered two filters for an old "HEPA" filter machine that we got years ago as a scratch-n-dent deal for a few bucks when Mark worked for Sheets 'N Things.  God, I guess that was 25 years ago.  Anyway, the machine takes special filters (unlike the cheaper ones, where I just wedge in standard HEPA furnace filters) which can cost as much as we paid for the damn machine.  So I searched online for a cheaper alternative. I opened windows in Amazon and eBay and finally found the cheapest price on eBay.  Amazon was almost twice as much.

I shoulda checked Walmart.

A few days later, a package arrives from Walmart, addressed to Robert Shilling, at my address, with the filters.  What happened?  Arbitrage or Drop-shipping.  Someone (Mr. Shilling?) saw that the price on Walmart was lower than eBay and set up a listing on eBay (not hard to do for standardized products) and then when I bought, he merely had it shipped from his Walmart account and pocketed the difference, which was only a few bucks at best.

If you can program a bot to do this, you could rake in the dough - as even a dollar per transaction would add up quickly, if it was automated.  I wrote about "Arbitrage" before when I ordered an eBay item and it arrived by Amazon as a "gift" order (so I never saw the actual price the drop-shipper paid).  It isn't a scam per se, as I paid the price agreed upon and received the goods I wanted.  It was my fault that I didn't cross-shop on other platforms.

Economists would smile.  In a perfect economy, each consumer pays the most they are willing to pay for a product (more about that in tomorrow's posting).  So if I was willing to spend time on researching prices more, I could have paid less.  But for other consumers, the hassle isn't worth it, and many people just click on the first hit on Amazon and hit "buy it now!" and don't bother to cross-shop, believing (falsely) that they can afford it.

Perfect economic balance, in the warped minds of economists.  But I kid....

To me, it is fascinating that someone thought this up.  And I see no problem with it, either.  The only thing that concerns me is that perhaps Amazon or Walmart are the ones behind this - trolling eBay to see if listings are going for higher prices than on their own sites and then putting up listings on eBay which lead back to an Amazon or Walmart purchase.  Since the Internet monitors everything you do (or at least your browser does) it isn't hard for them to figure out if you are cross-shopping on different sites.

Amazon, Walmart, eBay, and PayPal all desperately implore me to "remain logged in" to their sites, even as I close the windows.  I wonder why that is?  Oh, right, they have my best interests at heart and want to help me out and say, it is convenient to remain logged-in, right?


But getting back to topic, yes it is true one could make money from Arbitrage. In the early days of the Internet, a friend of mine reported that they knew someone in Maine who went to Renys department store (a Maine institution) and bought women's and children's clothing off the discount rack. They would then list them on eBay with a substantial markup.  If they sold they made money.  If they didn't, well, Renys' generous return policy (at the time) allowed them to return items that did not sell.  So it was a heads-they-won, tails-they-didn't-lose kind of situation.  It was the early days of online Arbitrage.

Today, of course, this has gone automated.  You can even set up AI bots to answer customer service inquiries.  So the opportunity for an individual to make money from this is limited.  It is like Bitcoin - you could have made millions if you "mined" coins decades ago. Today?  That ship has sailed and everyone and their brother thinks they are going to be the next Crypto "whale."

That ain't gonna happen.

Levi Strauss made his fortune, not in gold mining, but in selling blue jeans to gold miners back in 1849. That was where the real money was - in supplying the transportation, supplies, and information to would-be miners, who stripped the countryside bare looking for that elusive shiny rock.  Nearly 200 years later, not much has changed.  You can makes lots of money trading in gold - or lose it all.  But you are guaranteed to make a profit selling the idea of making money in gold to would-be goldbugs or silverbugs or crypto-bros or meme-stonk traders or whatever.

And not surprisingly, people are making coin by selling the idea of drop-shipping to the plebes as a "work from home" scheme to make money.  People pay them money to attend an online "seminar" about Arbitrage.  Then people pay a monthly fee to use their "system" to drop-ship.  And since it is only you and a few million other suckers who signed up for this, surely you can corner the market, right?

That's why I have no beef with drop-shippers.  Because market competition exists, if one person offers an arbitrage product for $5 over cost, another will go to $4.  Then another to $3 and maybe $2.  Pretty soon, the arbitraged listing is indistinguishable from the source price listing and there is little profit to be made in Arbitrage.  The invisible hand of the marketplace does its job - eventually.

Not only that, but even dunderheads like me eventually catch on to what is going on and start go check out alternative sites to ensure they are getting the best pricing.  A sure sign a product is being arbitraged is when you see multiple identical listings on eBay for the same product at slightly different prices.

I want to thank a reader who sent me a link to a YouTube video which uses an AI-voice to sell an Arbitrage (drop-shipping) tutorial and service.  I would reproduce the link here, but if I did so, it would generate more traffic for that YouTube site.  The above image was obtained by image searching on "shopify drop-shipping tutorial" and was the first image that came up, out of pages and pages of images - each linked to a separate YouTube video.  Good thing to get in on the ground floor!

It is like a link a "reader" sent me about crypto - "11 things that can go wrong with crypto."   It sounded promising, until you read the link and realize it is saying that crypto is the best thing in the world and all those people crying in their soup just didn't do it right.  Sounds a lot like what MLM-Scheme "Huns" say when a victim bankrupts themselves. "They just didn't work their downline hard enough!" or some such nonsense.

Or the "Buy Ugly Houses" billboards - selling the idea that somehow you can find an endless supply of distressed homes that can be bought for half of their market value, easily fixed up, and flipped with no effort on your part.  Good luck finding people to work on your house, in this market!  Good luck finding an endless supply of cheap fixer-uppers as well!  Better off to sell the idea of house-flipping than to flip houses yourself.

You'll never go broke selling the idea of how to make money.  That's for sure!

If it was such a good idea, why would anyone tell others about it?

Monday, May 13, 2024

The Crime Wave of the 1970s

Crime rates today are at an all-time low, but are edging up.  Nothing like the crime rates back in the 1970s, though!

When I took Criminal Law from Professor Starrs, he explained how crimes are prosecuted and why many crimes go unsolved and unpunished.  To begin with, we have to define what a crime is, by passing laws against certain acts.  Marijuana was once illegal in many States (and still is, at the Federal level) as was alcohol.  "Social" crimes like adultery, miscegenation, sodomy, gambling, and the like were once on the books, but have since been deemed unconstitutional or repealed.  So the first step is to determine what crime is.  And you'd be surprised as to what is and isn't a crime.

Next, we have to detect it.  If someone is victimized (burglary, robbery, assault, etc.) then they may report the crime.  But of course, many crimes go unreported, for many reasons.  If a crime it not reported or there is no immediate victim, police have to detect it, either by interrupting the crime in progress, or determining that a crime has occurred.  While we have so many Constitutional protections in our home, most of them don't apply once you are in your car.  Fail to signal a lane change, and you can get pulled over, at which point an officer can "detect" the presence of a secondary crime. So many criminal cases begin with a traffic stop.

But the police officer has discretion on who and when to charge - and this is where it gets tricky and allegations of discrimination kick in.  If you are a small-town cop and pull over the Mayor's son - who is drunk - you might decide to escort him home, rather than piss-off the guy who signs your paychecks. On the other hand, a poor kid from the other side of the tracks is likely to spend a night in jail.  Yea, the system is unfair.

It is a human thing.  And I've seen firsthand, how some lesser cops will make up their mind early-on as to who is guilty, if anybody.  Before he gets out of his car, the officer might have decided how things are going down - and arrest the victim, not the perpetrator, if anyone is arrested at all.  And like a dog with a bone, once they have decided, they are reluctant to give up on that notion.

Presuming what occurred is defined as a crime by the law, and presuming the police detect the crime, and presuming the perpetrator can be ascertained, and presuming the police decide to arrest the perpetrator, we are still far from over.

The prosecutor may decide ("prosecutorial discretion" or Nul Pros) not to bring charges, either because they are trivial (e.g., trumped-up "resisting arrest" charges) or because there is insufficient evidence to win at trial.  Prosecutors, like the police, have finite resources to bring to bear, and no prosecutor is going to waste much time on your stolen bicycle, particularly if it doesn't look like an easily winnable case.  The law of scarcity kicks in.

Assuming you've gotten by all those hurdles, it may turn out the perpetrator will work out a plea bargain and the perp will avoid jail time as a first offender or the like.  They might even have their record wiped clean.  Again, limited prosecutorial resources, so they punt when they can, and move on to the next case.

But let's assume that even that hurdle has been overcome and it actually goes to trial.  It may be months or even years before it is resolved.  And in many criminal cases, less than half of defendants are found guilty by a jury.  Of those found guilty, a certain percentage may have their conviction overturned on appeal.

So the odds of going to jail are somewhat long, and many criminals realize this. It ain't like Blue Bloods or Law and Order, where criminals are caught, tried, and convicted within an hour-long show. People like to believe that, and the "system" would like you to believe that - fear of being prosecuted is the only thing keeping many people on the straight and narrow.

As I noted before, my friends at the IRS explained that their two greatest weapons were withholding and the inordinate fear people have of the agency.  Without the former, no one would be able to pay their taxes come April 15th.  Without the latter, well, people would realize how unlikely it is to be audited and how unlikely it is you will end up owing more taxes (unless you are an outright tax cheat!).  Fear keeps us ordinary citizens in line.

The funny thing about these probabilities, though, is they don't stack.  If you commit crimes over and over again, the odds of getting caught go up with each crime.  Eventually, if you crime long enough, you will be caught. If you are a habitual speeder, you may not get caught every time, but eventually, you will blow through that speed trap and get busted.  Ask me how I know.  I drive the speed limit these days.  Then again, it ain't 55 MPH anymore.

That's the thing about criminals, though.  A young man may appear before a Judge and claim to be a first-time offender, but in reality, he is a first-time caught offender.  He may have committed numerous crimes, but was only caught for one.  People start to lose patience for criminals, particularly habitual criminals.

Historically, crime rates in the USA have decreased since the 1700's.  It sounds silly to go back that far, but you have to realize how lawless the United States was back in the "Frontier" days.  We romanticize the cowboy era where shootouts took place at the local saloon.  We even do re-enactments of these crimes for our amusement.   But murder is murder and it is never pretty.  We romanticize the shootout at the OK Corral, but not the slaughter of Sharon Tate and her friends by the Manson "family."  Give it time, it will be an attraction at Disney World, just like "Pirates of the Caribbean" - a ride that makes a joke of rape, robbery, and murder.

We took a trip down the Natchez Trace, a walking path that is now a parkway.  Back in the frontier days, traders would built rafts and float goods down the Mississippi to sell in New Orleans - and then sell the wood from their rafts.  Loaded up with their entire income for the year, they would walk back North along the Natchez Trace.  Robbers would await them, of course, and murder them and take their money - disposing of the corpse in whatever way they could.  There was not much of a police force back then, so such crimes were rarely detected or prosecuted.

Crime dropped off, year by year, decade by decade, century by century, as America became more "civilized" and police forces more organized.  Crime reached a nadir in the late 1950s and then inexplicably rose - nearly doubling - from the 1970s through the 1990s and then inexplicably dropping off again.  There has been a slight rise since the pandemic, but nothing like the old days. This hasn't stopped Fox News from sensationalizing crimes and claiming there is an epidemic of crime.

Like I said, fear of prosecution keeps a lot of citizens in line.  Remove that fear, and many people will commit crimes.  In the 1970's, it wasn't unusual to see cars stripped down to the chassis, sitting on their frames, on city streets of New York.  I recall driving under the UN building in the early 1980's and seeing a late model Ford LTD wagon, on its roof in the median. The thieves had no jack, I guess, and found it easier to just roll over the car to remove the wheels.

"Broken Window Policing" has its roots from back then. The city, on the brink of bankruptcy, had few resources to combat crime or tow away stolen and stripped cars.  So people got the idea you could get away with this - ordinary people.  I recall an article from New York magazine of that era, where they left a used car in a fairly middle-class neighborhood and planted a hidden camera to see what happened. It was stripped, of course, and what was surprising was that the criminals who looted the car were not gang-bangers from Harlem but ordinary folks from the neighborhood. One photo caught a businessman in a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase in one hand, and the rear seat cushion of the car in question, in the other.  Hey, everyone else is getting something out of this, why not me?

Some argue that the cumulative effects of tetra-ethyl lead in gasoline lead to the crime wave. Others, the burgeoning drug epidemic, particularly the crack epidemic, of the era.  Still others claim it was lax enforcement, over-burdened police and prosecutors and "soft on crime" judges.  New laws were passed, such as the "three strikes and you're out" law - which allowed prosecutors to get long sentences for habitual criminals.

And crime dropped.  Some say it was get-tough-on-crime laws that lead to the decrease in crime rates.  Others point to demographics - the aging of America.  Still others to the decrease in lead exposure, or decreased drug use among the young.  Frankly, I think it is a combination of all of these, to some extent.  But the bottom line is, a criminal in jail isn't committing crimes.  And if you lock up a young criminal until he is an old man, he isn't likely to commit crimes as an oldster.

Some have argued the "three strikes" laws are unfair, and some States have repealed them. Opponents argue that some poor slob who "just stole a loaf of bread to feed his family!" is unjustly incarcerated for decades.  But if you scratch the surface of these stories, the "loaf of bread" was a hijacked bread truck, and the perpetrator, while having a number of children by different women, hasn't visited any of them or provided as much as a slice of bread to them, either.  And bear in mind, that if he was convicted of three crimes, odds are, he is responsible for a dozen or more - perhaps dozens.  I don't lose any sleep over the three strikes law, mostly because I don't commit crimes - certainly not three felonies!

In some urban areas, certain types of crime have skyrocketed. In LA and San Francisco, people leave the trunks or tailgates of their cars open to deter smash-and-grab thieves, who will do hundreds of dollars of damage to a car, to steal tens of dollars of goods stored in the trunk.  The Police, hounded on all sides for various high-profile cases of abuse, are "quiet quitting" and doing the minimum to investigate and prosecute "mere property crimes" which are inevitably blamed on the victim (for having the audacity to have a job and try to own things).  Ditto for "porch pirates" who are rarely caught or prosecuted, even when caught on a doorbell camera.

In New York and some other cities, it is the "knockout game" which, unlike smash-and-grab crimes on the West Coast, provides no profit to the perpetrator.  Kids in gangs punch people on the back of the head (or the front) trying to "knock them out" which they often do, leading to head injuries and even death, as the victim hits the pavement.  Again, it seems people are getting away with this and thus it proliferates.  Steve Buscemi is the latest victim of this trend - a crime with no rhyme or reason.

It should be noted that many of these "knock-out" crimes are racially motivated - aimed against Asians, often perpetrated by crazy homeless people.  Homelessness, which is a drug and mental health problem - and not an economic one - is another reason for the uptick in crime in recent years.

While these crimes are horrific and concerning (and garnering a lot of press) they do no reflect an alarming increase in the crime rate as touted by the right-wing press.  Nevertheless, they should be vigorously prosecuted.  I believe that some police forces, feeling embattled by the "defund the police" (a nonsense slogan if there ever was one) movement, are taking hands-off approach to a lot of minor (and major) crimes as a means of rallying support from voters - who will vote for "get tough on crime" politicians as a result.  If so, this is a particularly evil thing to do.

The recent, albeit mild (compared to the past) rise in crime can't be attributed to lead in gasoline as we took that out in the early 1970s.  Demographics are not in play, either, as the nation has aged further and the younger generation is smaller than in the past.  It would seem that lack of enforcement and the "let everyone out of jail" movement may be to blame, instead.

Some on the left like to argue that crime is caused by economic conditions - that poverty breeds crime and people from disadvantaged backgrounds "can't help it" and should be treated leniently as a result.  The problem with this argument is that it is a slap in the face to those from the same or similar backgrounds, who don't commit crimes and work hard (and often suffer from the acts of criminals).  The young man accused of assault and battery is painted as the victim of a difficult childhood - and should be excused for his actions.  But what of his brother who experienced the same privation and yet declined the life of criminality and violence?  How is that fair to him?

The reality of crime is that the victims of crime are often from the same social class and neighborhood as the criminal.  Whites fear black-on-white crime, but the reality is, blacks victimize more blacks than anyone else.  I suspect the same is true for whites - particularly with financial crimes.  It is like violence against Muslims.  As a Muslim, you are far more likely to be killed by a fellow Muslim (from a different sect, e.g., Sunni versus Shi'ite) than by a US-made reaper drone.

All that being said, it is an election year, and I recently received a "survey" online asking me about my opinions about various local and national politicians as well as issues.  One of them was about "getting tough on crime" versus "addressing the root causes of crime" - you could see where they were going with this.

In other words, they've turned this into a political football.  Republicans welcome an increase in crime as a means of getting elected.  The "tough on crime" stance is what got both Nixon and Reagan into office (both of whom today would be called "RINOs" by the Maga-set).  It is a formula that works.  Like I said, it seems the police are complicit in this, particularly in larger cities, by taking a more laid-back approach.  But some prosecutors are making things a lot worse by trying out crackpot theories which result in revolving-door justice.  Criminals are released without bail (or much reduced bail) on the grounds it is more "fair" to the poor.  And maybe that is true, but it also means that a criminal need only plead poverty to be let out.  Time to put those crackpot theories to rest - the result in more crime.

And they lose elections as well.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

College Bankruptcies - the Enrollment Cliff

Demographics are only part of the college bankruptcy crises.

More than a decade ago, I opined that the next wave of bankruptcies would be colleges and universities.  At the time, we were going through the bankruptcy of GM and Chrysler's second bankruptcy as well.  The "Big-3" automakers had a storied history of offering the wrong products at the wrong time (big gas-guzzling cars and SUVs of low quality) as well as blowing billions on pie-in-the-sky ideas.

GM, for example, was reported to have spent as much on Saturn than they would have just buying a controlling interest in Toyota.  GM spent billions in a deal to acquire Fiat, then spent an equal amount to get out of the deal - money that Fiat used to buy GM's competition, Chrysler.

In the 1970s, the "big-3" couldn't compete with the Japanese, so they offered such "innovations" as opera windows, landau bars, and vinyl roofs, hoping that a plethora of tchotchke would bondo-over shoddy build quality and decades-old engineering.  It didn't work.   The bonus was, of course, they were horrifically expensive as well.

Today, the "pimp barges" of that era are just starting to become collectible in spite of themselves.  Those cars are sort of along the lines of the Edsel - not necessarily desirable, but more of "can you believe they built this?"

College educations were falling along similar lines, starting in the 1990s and accelerating into the 2000s.  I have no sympathy for anyone "struggling" with student loan debt if they took it out in the last decade or so.  The media has been rife since the early 2000's, with articles about how worthless some college degrees are and how overpriced they are - and how student loan debt is like a life-ring made of lead.  Young people today have no excuse for not knowing.

Like the 1976 Monte Carlo, a liberal arts education today looks attractive from a certain angle and distance, but up close, the cracks appear in the facade.  Kids are majoring in useless majors, such as "gender studies" or "African-American studies" or the like - toxic degrees in many cases that are best left off your resume, as they mark you as a potential troublemaker, not a productive employee.  They also show a lack of sound judgement.

And before you flame me, I will admit that there are one or two jobs out there for someone with those "credentials" - a company might want a "diversity training" officer with such a background.  But such jobs are few and far between and like a "communications" degree, the colleges are cranking out more graduates in one year than there are jobs in the industry overall.  No, you are not going to be the next Dan Rather by going to Newhouse School.

And to boost corporate profits, many companies are laying off their "diversity training" officers and eliminating other touchy-feely job titles, which were good for corporate PR, but not so much for the almighty share price.

Consider my hippie brother (update: no longer stinking!) who has a PhD in puppetry and miraculously .found the one job on the planet that requires that credential.  We are all happy for him that at age 50 he found this job.  Now, if he can just keep working until age 80, he can pay off those student loans.  I kid, but the thrust is true - there are jobs out there for some more obscure degrees, but there ain't many of 'em - and a ton of applicants.

It reminds me of my friend who was a bassoonist for the late Syracuse Symphony (which folded when they could not pay union wages and could not put butts in the seats in the audience or find corporate sponsors willing to throw money at it).  He told me they had an opening for a principle violinist for the orchestra.  They received thousands of resumes, of which hundreds were eminently qualified and of which they selected dozens of finalists.  One lucky person won the job, but even with union wages, it was not a great living.  At least back then, student loans were not a thing.  Today they are.

Time was, a liberal arts degree - or any degree - got you a job.  Back in the post-war era, you could graduate from college and get a salary job and "work your way up" from the mailroom to the executive suite.  You could succeed in business without really trying - or at least that was how it appeared.  And yes, companies had a lot of "dead weight" and indeed, they treated employees better, in some regards, and invested more in their human capital.

I went to school at General Motors Institute, a college started by the then-largest automaker in the world as a feeder for their engineering talent requirements.  Although many if not most graduates (or dropouts, like me) ended up working somewhere else, it was said that GM still benefited from increasing the pool of Engineers as a result.  They felt they were doing a public good.  Those days are over, although the school still exists (as Kettering Institute) and co-op programs exist at other colleges and universities as well.  I highly recommend checking them out, if you feel you can't "afford" college and also want some real-life work experience.

On the other hand, not many places are offering co-op programs for English Lit majors.  And this is a general trend.   College is so expensive today that students are forced to make hard choices.  Sure, there are always the rich kids who can afford to party for four years (and their parents gladly pay, to get them out of the house).  But the near-wealthy and middle-class can't afford to do that.  And I've seen middle-class kids try to emulate the lifestyle of their trust-fund frat brothers through the use of student loans.  It does not end well.  Bad grades and a useless degree - and a lifetime of crippling debt - are not a fair exchange for four years of binge-drinking.

Three small liberal arts colleges I am familiar with have gone bankrupt - with only one being saved so far. My sister's Alma Mater, Sweetbriar, went bust, but was saved at the last minute through donations from wealthy alumni.  The school had the money, but it was tied up in an endowment that limited the school to an all-girls college.  Fortunately, a judge threw that limitation out, and with alumni donations, they are back in business - for now.

Cazenovia College - in my old hometown - went bust when they borrowed millions of dollars to install a new equestrian center and other improvements.  They apparently didn't do the math on how to pay back that money.  It is akin to how many "brick and mortar" stores went belly-up in the last few years.  Pundits blamed the problem on Amazon, but the reality was these companies were often taken private, saddled with staggering debt, and then unable to pay it back.  Such was the case with Caz College.

Our lake house was in Aurora, New York - the one North of Ithaca, not near Buffalo.  It was a funky place, home to Makenzie-Childs pottery.  The founders, Richard and Victoria (or as we called them, "Dick & Vic") were our next door neighbors.  The town was host to Wells college, named after and founded by, one of the founders of Wells Fargo as a "seminary" school for his daughter to attend.  The town was also home to a motley collection of old hippies and colorful characters.

It was more than a decade ago when we lived there, but the school was struggling even then.  They went co-ed to try to attract more students and tied-in with Ithaca College and Cornell to allow students to attend classes there.  One wealthy Alumni, Pleasant Rowland (who sold her American Doll company to Mattel for nearly a billion dollars) pumped money into the school, keeping it afloat and paying to renovate school buildings, including the old hotel and restaurant.

As her reward, the locals hung her in effigy, claiming that making the hotel ADA compliant was "attracting too much tourism" and "ruining" the local vibe.  So Pleasant took her marbles and went home - and donated hundreds of millions to other places where people weren't so stupidly obstinate.

Wells just announced they are closing for good.  Maybe it would have closed anyway, with or without Ms. Rowland's millions.  On the other hand, pissing off your number one alumni surely was a stupid move.  What will happen to the school is anyone's guess.  No doubt the mansions along the lake (many used as school buildings) will become vacation homes for those awful "tourists" that the "locals" were trying to keep out.  Time will tell.

The big problem for the school was that they were offering liberal arts degrees, and as a small college, they had very high tuition costs.  In today's dog-eat-dog world, student-consumers are looking for bang-for-the-buck and a "meh" degree from an unknown institution isn't very valuable anymore.  And whether you like it or not, everything has a value, even (and especially) college degrees. So just get over that and stuff that "education for education's sake" nonsense in the toilet.  Ordinary people can't afford that. And no, neither can our government.

When you are in a job interview and the first thing you have to do is explain what your Alma Mater was all about, you are at a distinct disadvantage.  When I interviewed at Carrier and the USPTO, they understood what GMI was all about.  But at the law firm, it was "what the hell is that?"  Meanwhile, at many an interview, they would see "Syracuse University" on my resume and smile and say, "Let's go Orange!" and then want to spend the rest of the interview talking basketball and Coach Jim Boeheim - two topics I know little about and care less.

Sad but true - your college education will be judged by how notable your school's sports team was, regardless of your major.  Employers know "brand name" schools, even if it is only from watching sports on television.  When I entered The George Washington University (yes, "The" is part of the name) we had no real basketball team to speak of.  The new dean made it a goal to have a division-A team and succeeded.  When I interviewed with employers, it was the same deal, "How about those Colonials?   Made the playoffs!"  Less spoken about was the notoriety of the faculty of the law school, which was a shame as they had some notable professors there.

Fair?  Of course not.  But that's life - unfair.  Good-looking people are hired and promoted over less-attractive folks.  You will be discriminated against based on your race, religion, sexual orientation, appearance, or whatever - despite laws to the contrary.  And your education will be evaluated, in some situations, based on how well-known your school is.  A degree from Harvard still has panache even it the school itself has acquired a patina.

But again, this is just one factor and colleges are facing a perfect storm of a number of factors conspiring against them.  And the biggest factor is the so-called enrollment cliff, a demographic drop in the number of high school graduates in the coming years.  Compounding this problem is the drop in foreign students (thanks to xenophobic anti-immigrant politics) who were previously a cash-cow for many universities, as they generally came from wealthy families and paid full tuition without scholarships or government subsidies.

The vaunted "US education" is losing it shine in many countries overseas.  I am reading online stories from Indian students who came to America to get technical degrees at great expense, only to find employment difficult in the States and nearly impossible back home.  Many US students are questioning the value of a college education, seeing the $100,000 or more (sometimes per year!) as better spent on a down payment on a house or a nest egg for retirement.

The old adage that a college degree will earn you more money over time is based on statistics from the 1960's and 1970's and is far less true today.  Maybe this will turn around, but with so few people willing to get into the trades anymore and so many young people wanting "desk jobs" the labor rates have inverted.  I noted before the law business sort of cratered when everyone decided to go to law school and the medical profession seems similarly affected.  Once the ticket to an upper-middle-class living, a law degree or medical degree is today at best, a ticket to stay within the struggling middle-class.

Meanwhile, the heavy equipment operator is showing me photos of his vacation home and $100,000 pontoon boat, towed behind his pickup truck that cost as much.  Who's the idiot now?  And we wonder why "rednecks" are voting for candidates who promise to cut taxes for people making over $400,000 a year.  Those country folks are raking it in more than we suspect.  The new poor are the professional class living in the city.

There is, of course, one more factor and that is endowments.  Traditionally, colleges and universities had endowments which were big piles of money they had invested.  Often, they could survive just based on the income from the endowment. In fact, one famous school has no tuition as their endowment is large enough to cover all expenses.  In addition, wealthy alumni (who either came from money or made lots of money by dint of having a college education) would donate money or give huge sums to have a building constructed with their name on it.

Today?  Less so. Many schools are burning through their endowments, trying to hang on, hoping that "down the road" somehow things will turn around.  Meanwhile, the new generation of alumni are so broke they cannot afford to donate to their old school.  When you are still paying off student loans well into your 40's, you can't afford to answer the call of the Alumi association.  By charging such enormous tuition and encouraging students to take out loans, colleges, in effect, were borrowing from their future alumni donations.

So take all this and throw it in a blender.  Colleges and Universities are facing big problems.  But for the most part, the initial failures are limited to smaller liberal arts colleges, "women's" colleges, and historically black colleges.  These are small tragedies being played out in small towns and cities across America, making local headlines and then everyone forgets about it.

In the short-term, these closures are good news, ironically, for larger schools.  The few hundred students at Wells will no doubt transfer to some other school, and big universities like Syracuse or Cornell may benefit.  It is like a herd of gazelles - the lions take out the weak and infirm first, which allows the young and swift to escape.  Real shame about grandma, but hey, more grass for us to eat!

The crises will become more evident when a major university goes bust - or a university system, such as SUNY profiled in the article linked above.  Maybe then, college deans will sit up and take notice and maybe change will occur.  Sadly, this will likely lead to a call for more government bailouts or "free college" as they (used to) have in the UK and elsewhere.

Or maybe colleges will realize they need to make structural changes to make a college education a value proposition rather than a black hole to throw money into.


I am not sure I have any answers, only that college was a 14-year experience for me (1978-1992) and I worked the whole time.  I think I got a better education and had a better (and less expensive) experience as a result, too.   Maybe if more companies can be induced (through tax credits) into hiring co-op students and interns, college could be more attractive, more relevant, and more cost-effective than in the past.

That, or maybe we need a new student center named after a wealthy alumni who contributed 10% of the construction cost.  Make sure it has a rock-climbing wall!  Or maybe a bouncy house!