Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Trump Recession

Donald Trump may find himself presiding over a recession.  And if his trade policies are enacted, a depression.

A recession is coming.   I can say that with confidence as a recession is always coming, the trick of course is saying exactly when it will come.    No one ever knows for sure, but sometimes the signs are all there.

After the election, the stock market went nuts, increasing in value by a phantom 10% within two months.   People were ecstatic that Republicans would be in charge, slashing regulations and taxes and letting businesses run "unfettered" by government regulation.   Of course, no one remembered that lack of regulation and oversight is what caused the collapse of 2009.   Economic memory in humans spans 18 months, by my estimation.

Banks making bad loans and brokers making risky investments.   Consumers over-extending themselves with credit and sketchy mortgages.  Builders overbuilding houses and condos in saturated markets.   We all just had a jolly good time and just hoped the hangover wouldn't be so bad.

Well, it took eight years of strong coffee, but Obama slowly resuscitated the economy - one of the longest bull markets in history.  People complained that growth wasn't fast enough and that wages were stagnant and "income inequality" was on the rise.  But compared to the day he took office, things improved dramatically over his term.   When he left Office, the Dow was at all-time highs, unemployment at record lows, inflation nearly non-existent, and interest rates so low the banks were complaining they weren't making any money.

What direction could Trump go, but down?   As it turns out, his slashing of regulations hasn't really changed anything too much.   The loosening of CAFE and emissions requirements may be moot, as States like California might keep its own rules, which other States also follow.   So the idea of 8-liter cars being commonplace might be a little overblown.   Carmakers are using smaller engines with turbocharging to get more power - and consumers are liking it.   My neighbors traded in their old Expedition (a monster of an SUV) that had a 4.9 liter V-8 for a new Expedition (the same truck!) with a turbocharged V-6 that has more horsepower and gets better mileage - from 15 in the old truck to over 20 in the new one.    Ford could go back to the older, cheaper engine design, but it is not clear consumers will buy it, if gas remains pricey.

The "Coal Renaissance" isn't likely to happen either, at least so long as we are awash in a sea of cheap natural gas.   You can go dig all the "clean coal" you want, the utilities aren't going to switch their power plants back to coal and pay more money for the privilege.

Speaking of power, four nuclear plants under construction in the USA are in trouble, as Westinghouse, the prime contractor for the AP1000 reactors is declaring bankruptcy.   How this will play out with power bills for consumers as well as profits for the utility companies remains to be seen.

Speaking of bankruptcies, expect a few major ones this year.   No, it isn't just the Elio wet dream, but storied companies with lots of exposure in the market, including Sears, J.C. Penny and maybe even Macy's - as "brick and mortar" continues its decline.   A disruption in the marketplace could also mean the premature bankruptcies of many money-losing "" and tech companies that have never turned a profit and likely never will.    Investors in a skittish market will be less likely to plow more money into things like Twitter if they don't look like they will be profitable, ever.   A series of "dot com" collapses could start to topple these companies like dominoes.

And let's not talk about Tesla and other Musk endeavors which have not made a profit yet - a recession could cause them to sell out to larger competitors, or just collapse.  Or Uber, which everyone thinks is "too big to fail" but is systematically being shut out of one market after another.  It is one thing to be shut out of Demnark, but Austin Texas?  If you can't make it in the capital of hip, forgetabout it.  And how long before taxi companies push through regulations in other cities?   And let's not forget, Uber has never made a profit, and in fact is hemorrhaging cash.  The pundits wonder what we will do without Uber?  How will we live?  Probably the same way we did before.   Although before Uber goes bankrupt, they probably will be bought out by someone with deeper pockets and more influence.

Speaking of cars, again, have you really read what Ford is saying about the car business?   Cheap leases has meant that a flood of lightly used cars is hitting the market - and car companies are losing money.  Long-term car loans mean many buyers are "upside-down" on their cars, and cannot afford tto trade-in.  With interest rates rising, car costs will rise.  If Trump imposes an "import tax" on car parts, car prices could skyrocket.   Ford is projecting a 14% decrease in profits this year.  Read that again.   How far do you think their share price will drop as a result?  I'm guessing 14%.   Good time to buy an off-lease used car as the dealers cannot give them away (as opposed to SUVs).   GM is faring no better.   Trump's "de-regulation" of these industries will not offset the build-up of used car inventories, the losses in leases that over-valued residuals, and the saturation of the market over the last seven years.

The Fed has raised interest rates, which means the 0% financing and low mortgage rates are going to go away for good.  Already we are seeing higher interest rates in mortgages and higher housing prices - even shortages and bubbles in some markets.   People are already over-paying for crappy houses in shitty neighborhoods just so they can say they "bought before they were priced out of the market!" which as a very, very familiar ring to it.   In other words, the next few years could bring yet another housing bubble, because people deny the 1989 bubble even happened and blame the 2008 bubble on something called the "CRE" and Bill Clinton, instead of their own stupidity (where blame rightly belongs).

And of course, the Fed raising rates was designed to increase inflation to slow down the economy.   So here we have Trump trying to step on the gas, while the Fed applies the brakes.  But like a lady driving an Audi 5000 in high heels, Trump is subject to "pedal confusion" and is actually stepping on the brakes as well.

And a trade war could be the nail in the coffin.   Not only would it accelerate inflation dramatically by raising prices on imported goods a whopping 20% (and let's face, it, a lot of our goods are imported!) it would mean exports would face similar retaliatory tariffs which would cut sales and result in layoffs.  Much has been made of Trump's meddling with Carrier, but in addition to household HVAC systems, Carrier makes industrial and commercial systems which are exported all over the world.   How do you sell an industrial chiller in Europe when it has a 20% import duty?   Or an Otis elevator made in South Carolina?   Or a Pratt & Whitney jet engine made in Connecticut?   All are divisions of United Technologies, all export a substantial portion of their products.  (Disclaimer, I am a shareholder and former employee!).

Inflation would skyrocket.   Go to the grocery store and see many products with 20% higher price tags.  Your car costs 20% more.  Even things like lumber from Canada - now 20% more.   Once you start a trade war, it never ends, and tariffs, once on the books, are nearly impossible to get rid of.  The 20% "chicken tax" on light trucks from 1963 is still in effect, and as a result, car makers do odd things like ship trucks in pieces or install passenger seats in them and then remove and shred them once they reach the States.  This is not an example of more efficient government or more efficient manufacturing or business.

It also illustrates the lengths people to go, to avoid taxes.

But what about the rest of the Trump agenda?   Surly profits will rise once "Tax Reform" (read: tax cuts for higher brackets) are implemented.   A corporate tax cut may help by repatriating foreign profits that many US companies are holding overseas.   But it is unclear that cutting taxes on the very rich will stimulate the economy much, at least that is what we learned from the Bush era.

The other problem with tax cuts is who pays for them?  Since we are not seeing spending cuts, but rather spending increases, we will fall into the same trap as Bush did - cutting revenue and increasing spending, thus raising the deficit.   The biggest complaint about the Obama administration was the deficit spending and increasing government debt.   Trump appears poised to make Obama's deficit spending look like child's play.

And as with Bush, maybe this can go on for a year, two years, four years, or even eight.   But eventually the piper has to be paid, and these "house of cards" economies eventually come crashing down, profiting a very few people very handsomely, but impoverishing a whole lot of people at the same time.

The question is when.    The stock market peaked on March 1, 2017 and has been in decline every since.   Will it ever exceed March 1st levels, or was that the height of the bubble?   It is hard to say for sure.   One thing is clear, though, a lot of people are starting to wonder whether a recession is due.

What is disturbing to me is how quickly the market reacted to the failure of "health care reform-reform" by dropping nearly 10%.   Suddenly, the Libertarian Shangri-La promised by Trump turned out to be an actual Shangri-La - a mythical place that doesn't actually exist.   The myth of Republican solidarity was exposed, and no Republican worth his salt allows a President to cut spending on any government agency whose offices are located in his jurisdiction.   Too late, the "great dealmaker" fails to realize that what he needed was perhaps incremental changes that involved reaching across the aisle for a consensus of those "middle-of-the-road" Republicans and Democrats that represent a majority of Americans.   Too late.

And as I noted before, this is right out of the Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Obama playbooks.  Whenever a President has control of both houses of Congress, they often are less effective in getting legislation through, as attempts to pass things using only one party only serves to highlight the differences among party members.   It also emboldens some party members to be holdouts for political pork, or for coalitions to hold out for their radical agendas.   We see this time and time again, sadly.

A reader writes asking how to time the market - to know when the bulls are running or the bears are coming.   When you do buy and when do you sell?   If I knew that, would I be writing this blog?  I'd be on my jet headed to some sunny tropical island.    And if I knew that, I certainly wouldn't tell you!

There isn't much you can do to position yourself for recession, as timing the market is nearly impossible to do.   The best thing to do is to diversify your portfolio and not panic.   Our paranoid-in-chief, Steve "Homeless Rasputin" Bannon, is a case in point, or at least his Father is.   According to Bannon, he became a political activist after his Father lost his life savings in the 2008 recession.   A lifelong employee of AT&T, he put all his money into AT&T stock and then sold it all in a panic in 2008, thus locking in his losses.   This is not a reason to be a political activist, so much as it is a reason for elder abuse.   Steve Bannon was an investment banker at Goldman Sachs (Hillary's favorite place to give a speech!).  Why he let his Dad do this, or why he thinks it is not his Dad's fault is an excellent question - a classic case of externalizing if I ever saw it.   And these are the idiots running the White House!

So, to survive the recession, don't do what Steve Bannon's Dad did.   Invest in a number of different things, and as you get older, take less risks and put more money into stupid safe things with lower rates of return, like government bonds.   Sure, we all love to see our portfolios go up, up, up with the rising stock market, but when you are 65 or 75, you can't afford to ride the market all the way down and wait for it to come back.

So my personal strategy is to do almost nothing, as I already am diversified into a number of stocks, bonds (corporate and government), mutual funds, bond funds, index funds, insurance, and real estate.   The key is, like with 2009, to be able to lose money - a lot of money - and just shrug your shoulders and say, with confidence, "It will come back".   Because if you invested in things that are not con-jobs, they will come back over time.

What are con-jobs?  Money-losing companies whose valuation is based on fantasy.   IPO stocks in high-tech firms with no profits and no plans to make profits.    Commodities that are hyped as going up in price because they are inherently valuable and everyone can see that, duh!   Yes, I am talking about gold.  Or bitcoin.   These are just placeholders for money that earn no profits and rarely do not go up in value, over time, more than the market - often not even beating inflation.   You need to understand the history of gold from 1980 to 2005 to see that.

The worst thing to try to do?   Try to time the market.   Because unless you are lucky, your timing will likely be off.   Unless the market really goes insane, like the housing market did in the 2000's, it is hard to see when you want to get off.    Housing was easy to spot - who could afford these overpriced houses?   Why buy a house for $3000 a month cost when you could rent it for $1500?   It made no sense at all.

On the other hand, an old-line company with a good product that doesn't appear to be going obsolete, that is also investing in new technologies, that makes a regular, if not fantastic, profit, and pays a regular dividend - and has a healthy balance sheet - that likely won't stay down for long, even as it is dragged down by the rest of the market.   Yes, good investments can be dragged down by a declining market as markets are driven by emotions, not by logic.   

The best place to be, in retrospect, was the guy with the cash in March of 2009.   I bought 1,000 shares of Avis stock with my last $750 cash back then, and it went up over 7000% in price.   I was lucky not brilliant.   And even if I had more cash to invest back then, I likely wouldn't have.   Because that was gambling and not investing.

And those are the folks who lose big, both at the casino and in the stock market - the gamblers.   Gamblers want the "big score" and the huge payback.   But it rarely happens.   And for every "superstar" investor out there who gets lucky, there are dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands, who lose it all and go broke.   Sometimes they are the same person.   Never confuse getting lucky with being brilliant!   Today's golden boy is tomorrows has-been, if he thinks a few lucky trades give him special insight into the market.

So there you have it.   We are heading for a recession, but when and how severe is hard to tell at this time.   My guess is that we will see a recession in the next 18 months and it will turn the mid-term elections against the Republicans.   How deep the recession will be - and how long, and whether it turns into a depression - will depend on whether some of Trump's wackier policies are enacted.   Throughout history tariff wars have resulted in prolonged depressed economies.   I see no reason why Trump has any special magic to prevent this from happening again.

And, quite frankly, after two months in office, I think the market is realizing that Trump has no magic at all, and in fact, is quite incompetent to lead the country, or the economy.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Do-It-Yourself Movement of the 1970's - How It Failed

Should you do it yourself?  Of course, but maybe not the big projects in your life!

I wrote before about the Do-It-Yourself movement and why it often isn't a good idea to do things yourself.  Most of us have half-assed carpentry and plumbing skills, so if we fix things on our own, they tend to look half-assed and may create more problems than they solve.

I find as I get older, I am less and less willing to "do it myself" mostly because new stuff is so cheap and my skills are aging.  For example, I installed a new split-system air conditioning system in our garage, which is also our laundry room.  It came out OK, but it could have been a disaster.  I bought a vacuum pump and manifold gauges and pumped down the system and charged it and voila - it actually worked.

But I was nervous doing this as the last time I used a set of manifold gauges was at Carrier in 1985, over thirty years ago.   Today, we have technologies and even refrigerants that didn't exist back then and what I didn't know about new refrigerants was basically everything.

But at least I had some professional experience at this, albeit out-of-date.

What is do-it-yourself movement and how did it get started and why, for the most part it is a bad idea.   And why are people not doing for themselves the basic things in life we used to do?  These are all good questions!

The "Arts and Crafts" movement of the late 1800's and early 1900's could be considered the founding of this movement.   People were turning away from machine-made and factory-made things and wanting to "go back" to the times when "America was Great" (sound familiar?) and people did things for themselves.

Oddly enough, they celebrated this concept by buying things from factories that were "Arts and Crafts" style, and then furnishing their homes in this style of self-made goods.   Few people hewed furniture out of wood from scratch.

But the idea took off, and of course, for many folks, it never left - making things yourself was always the way things were done in rural America, as the cost of factory-made goods was considered too high.

In postwar America, however, factories were running full-tilt, and people were working hard in the 1950's boom.   And buying brand-new shiny factory-made stuff was the name of the game.   Few people wanted home-spun things in their homes, even if Dad had a hobby woodshop in his garage.   But Mom did make things at home.  She cleaned and cooked and baked pies and sewed dresses.   Dad mowed the lawn on weekends and "did chores around the house".   Simple things were done at home, complex things were often left to professionals, who were reasonably priced.

In the 1970's this started to change.  Stag-flation meant that wages were skyrocketing and labor was expensive.   Suddenly, trying to repair your own dishwasher made sense, as the local plumber wanted a pile of money just to drive out to your house.   Self-help books became a craze, and people started attempting projects that in the past, would have been left to experts.  And even manufacturers got in on the craze, offering products that the consumer could "service themselves".

For example, in my Mother's 1973 Vega Owners Manual, they posited that the new Vega was designed with "easy consumer service" in mind.  It wasn't actually true - the car was no easier or harder to service than other cars.  However, the "do it yourself" movement was in full-swing by then, and possibly this was a response to Volkswagen "Bug" owners who lauded their cars as being "easy to service" which was a good thing, as they often needed it.

Of course, one of the few things you could "do yourself" was change your own oil, a messy and time-consuming job that the local mechanic would charge you for.   Today, we have legions of low-cost oil-change places that charge often less what a "shadetree mechanic" would pay just for materials.   It often makes no sense to "do it yourself" anymore with regard to oil changes, yet many do just that.

This Old House went on the air in the late 1970's and touted the idea of self-home-improvement, at least initially.  Norm and Steve backed away from this "sweat equity" concept, perhaps after a few-too-many half-assed tile countertops (remember those?) were installed by homeowners without proper grouting or sealing.  But the show promoted the idea that you could install you own roof, your own bathroom, or remodel your own kitchen.   And while it is possible for some folks to do these jobs, not everyone should.

The Craft Beer Movement actually started in the 1970's as part of this craze.  As I noted before, many pioneer home-brewers got started back then, even if today's hipsters think they discovered the craze.   Again, the idea of having a lot of exploding bottles in your closet or celler seemed like a good idea at the time.   And yes, some folks went on to found micro-breweries and ended up selling out to the big breweries and made a lot of money.   A lot more bought half-assed "home brewing kits" that ended up being sold at a garage sale a year later.

This also coincided with the Back to the Earth Movement of the 1960's and early 1970's.  We would all go back to living on the land, fending for ourselves, in a quasi-feral fashion.  Again, like the Arts and Crafts movement, it was a way of getting in touch with basic things in life, after feeling detached in a society where most people consumer machine-made products, including machine-made food.   Of course, living in an unheated barn got old real fast, and many folks dropped out of this movement -as most people do, when it comes to movements, but kept vague notions of being organic or holistic or "natural" in their minds - only to be later exploited by marketers.

To some extent, this Do-It-Yourself movement was a good thing.   So why do I say it failed?   Well, simply because today, people are less capable of doing for themselves than ever before.   Most folks have no idea how to fix their own computers, much less smart phones.  Their cars are a mystery to them, even as they neglect and abuse them.   So much of our world today is sealed "black boxes" that you either have to throw away, or take to the "genius bar" to try to recover your data.

But it is worse than even that.  Today we are willing to take on projects that require the skills of craftsmen, but are unwilling to do low-skill jobs like cleaning the house, mowing the lawn, or even preparing our own meals.

Mom and Dad decide to re-tile the bathroom - a daunting job even for a skilled tile man.    They attempt this, but at the same time Consuela their maid, is doing their laundry for them, washing their dishes, and vacuum their floors - all jobs Mom and Dad can do but would rather not do because they are "boring" and tedious low-skill labor.   And I know this as I remodeled my kitchen and bath while my maid did my laundry.

At the same time, of course, the yard man is mowing the lawn.   And when we're hungry, why bother cooking?  Just go out for some fast food, or have "takeaway" to bring home, or better yet, just have them deliver the food, taking away even that pesky "driving" stuff you have to do.

We are all capable of performing these menial tasks, but choose not to because we deem them to be tedious, boring, repetitive, and dull.  So we farm out taskes we are clearly capable of doing in favor of taking on technically difficult jobs that require specialized skills because a TeeVee show said we could do this.

It you want to "save money" by "doing it yourself" think about the jobs you are currently farming out to others, that you are already clearly capable of doing.   If you are sending out clothes to the cleaners that could be washed and ironed yourself, ask yourself why you are paying someone else to do this.   If you are hiring a maid and a lawn guy and you can do these jobs yourself, ask yourself why.    If you are using restaurants as your kitchen, ask yourself - if you really want to save money by "doing it yourself" - why you aren't even taking on this simple task.

Because that is irony right there - the upscale couple who remodel their own kitchen and then use it for nothing more than re-heating restaurant meals.   What's the point of that?  Oh, right, status - the real reason people put in "look at me!" kitchens.

Now, let me anticipate the snotty response I will get from some yahoo out there.  "Well," they will say, "I can afford to hire a gardener and a maid!"   And if that is really true, then what the heck are you doing reading this blog?  The point is, it is idiotic, in my mind, to take on "do it yourself" projects if you are already hiring out half of the basic labor in your life.   The money saved by mowing your own lawn, doing your own dishes, washing your own clothes, vacuuming your own house, and so on and so forth, could pay for a professional tile person to do your bathroom or whatever.

Yet, we do the opposite, and like I said, in retrospect, I found myself doing just that when I was younger.  

Odd.  Very odd.

How Moving Has Changed

How we move today is one reason why the labor market has changed.  The do-it-yourself movement put a lot of people out of work!

When I was a kid, moving was an everyday occurrence. In the new suburbs Across America, moving vans shuttled people's possessions back and forth. Shiny new moving trucks with names like Atlas, Mayflower, and North American Van Lines showed up at your door packed all your belongings and moved them to another city or state.  Every week, a new family moved in or moved out, in postwar mobile America.

Of course, back then when America was great, (sarcasm light is LIT) companies would pay for workers to move to new locations. Or at least they would pay for salaried employees to move, or at least valued salary employees.  As my father once put it, "we even pack the garbage," as the moving company paid for everything including people hired to pack all our junk.

It wasn't always nirvana, though.  On one occasion, North American Van Lines lost half our possessions in the move, apparently due to a dispute with the driver.  Also common the past, all your possessions will be unloaded from the van and put in the warehouse, and then later reloaded into another van for later shipment.  Often, things got lost in the warehouse or stolen, or your couch would become the new break room couch for a month for the warehouse employees.

Today, commercial moving vans are a rarity.  And the major brand name moving companies have shabby rusted broken-down vans (moving company trailers are known as "vans") which appeared to be so old that they might be the same ones my parents used back in the 1960's and early 70's.

Today we have more choices in moving, and people seem more inclined to move themselves, as corporations no longer will pay the staggering fees to move your possessions.  The cost of hiring a moving company to move your things can run into the thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars. For most people this is simply not affordable and their possessions don't warrant spending that kind of money to move them.

As I noted in an earlier posting, people are using new means of moving their possessions including the use of storage pods or buying portions of a tractor-trailer load from a freight company.  We have used the pods with some success.  The cost was reasonable and since we packed them ourselves we could ensure that things were not broken.  Also, since they were not unloaded at any time during the process, wouldn't have to worry about our items being stolen or handled.

Our neighbor use the same company, ABS Freight, in a different way.  They purchased a portion of a tractor-trailer load and the company baced a tractor trailer into their yard.  They filled up a portion of the truck and a movable wall was installed to seal off their possessions from other freight.  At the other end, the trailer was then parked at their new house where they unloaded their household possessions.  This also worked well, although there were fairly limited time windows for loading and unloading, unlike the storage pods.

Today, self moving services like U-Haul, Penske, Ryder, Budget, and the like are more popular than ever.  When we moved to New York, we use two of the largest U-Haul trucks plus a trailer to move our positions.  It was inexpensive but it was exhausting work to load and unload all of this stuff.  UHaul does offer to hire people to help you load and unload, and at the unloading and we did have some local day laborers help us unload, although they did drop my photocopier out of one of the trucks.

It is interesting to me that we have become more of a "do-it-yourself" generation than in the past.  In the olden days, if you wanted to buy something that was bigger than your car trunk you went to the store and the nice man would have the delivery boys bring it to your home where they would carry it up the stairs and install it.  Today, we back our pickup truck up to the loading dock and pretend that we are part-time truckers.

I trace this entire mental attitude back to the stagflation era of the 1970s.  If you didn't live through that era, it was a time when prices were constantly going up and wages were depressed.  Inflation was in the double digits.  People started trying to do things themselves rather than hire people, often with predictable results.

Of course, this meant that more and more people lost their jobs, as more people started to do home repairs and car repairs on their own.  The local department store laid off their delivery people, as more and more people started picking up things in their pickup trucks and vans which became quite popular at that time, despite really high gas prices.

And it was about that time that moving companies started to face difficulties.  The post-war baby boom era fueled the moving van business.  However as our country settled down people moved less and less, and demand dropped off.  And given the high cost of living and the fact that few companies were willing to reimburse this expense, more people started moving their household possessions by themselves.

If you want to know where the jobs went, this is one place they disappeared to. Today, we want the lowest possible price on consumer goods and are willing to put up with inconveniences rather than have full service.

I was at the Wholesale Club the other day and watched a young family try to load an enormous flat-screen TV into their small hatchback car.  It would have been possible to fit the television in the car if they were willing to tie the hatchback closed with a piece of rope.  However, there would be no place left for the children to sit.

Back in the day, you would go to the local television store which would be on Main Street in your small town and purchase a television.  You wouldn't dream of picking it up and putting it in your car to take it home, even if it would fit in the trunk.  And of course you didn't own a van or pickup truck, as those only belonged to people who delivered things for a living.

The man who owned the TV store would have old Gus, who hung out back, bring your television to your home in a van brightly painted with the name of the television store.  He and his assistant would carry it into your house, set it up, plug it in for you, and show you how to operate it.

Today, old Gus is long dead and nobody replaced him.  Delivery services are largely obsolete other than FedEx, United Parcel, and the Postal Service, which bring us cardboard boxes of consumer goods which mostly originated from China.   And since everyone is working these days, Mom isn't home to be there when Gus shows up with the new TeeVee.   We want cash-and-carry these days, including all the junk we bring home every weekend from the "big box" lumberteria.

I am not decrying this new trend, as I appreciate low prices on consumer goods as much as the next person.  Today, we buy almost directly from the manufacturer with very few intermediaries between us and the source.  However, this does mean when something goes wrong, there was no customer service to help us out - something that most people are keenly aware of these days.

Companies discovered that it's a lot easier to have a generous return policy then to have customer service or a repairman.  Maybe in the old days with tube televisions, you would send old Gus or Jim the repair guy out there to replace a tube and get your TV back in working order.  Today, solid state electronics rarely lend themselves to repair, or at least the local repair guy is not equipped to deal with it, not having the correct tools and testing equipment.  Better to just replace the broken flat screen TV and ship the old TV back to the factory for repair or to an authorized service center where they can diagnose the problem.  Or, it is just thrown away is part of the cost of doing business, as it costs a lot less than old Gus and Jim the repair guy, who with their hefty pensions and benefits today cost too much to employ.

There has been a lot written lately about where all the middle-class jobs have gone.  People say that the jobs are going to China and that factory production has gone overseas as well.  However, the United States remains one of the largest manufacturing countries in the world and is slated to outpace China in the next two years despite Donald Trump's best efforts.

Similarly, a lot of people point to automation as being the cause of our nation's woes.  Robotic factories employing foreign-made robots assemble electronics and automobiles with fewer than half the number of people required as in the past, sometimes far, far less.

But I think there's another factor at work here.  We used to have an awful lot of people in the service industry in every small town who did things for us, whether it was operate an elevator, deliver a package, style our hair, pump our gas, or wash our car.  Every business had someone who answered the phones and opened the mail.

Today, and the name of cost-cutting, we've eliminated number of these jobs and replaced them with automated systems, or just merely eliminated the service entirely.  Very few people today remember the era of gas jockeys pumping your gas, unless you live in one of the few States which still require them.  "Self-serve" gas stations were another product of the stagflation era of the 1970's when cutting costs meant laying off pump jockeys for good.

Some folks are talking about instituting a guaranteed minimum income as a means of offsetting the loss of jobs.  The idea is as simple as it is ludicrous.  Everyone would be paid a fixed amount of money which would be just barely enough to live on.  People could then choose whether they wanted to work and make more money, or just stay home and live on this minimal stipend.

If you think this proposal is "logical" then think for a moment what 315 million (the population of the United States) multiplied by ten thousand dollars (the number bandied about by the guaranteed income people) would total.   And then think of what the cost per citizen would be (the same as the money given away) and it starts to become clear.   Those who would work would be taxed in an amount equal to not only their own "free money" but that of others.   Taxes would have to go up substantially to cover this cost.   The incentive to work would be depressed, the incentive to not work or work under the table would be great.   But we already have that today - the subject for another posting.

While it is true that we may need to find jobs for all these people whose livelihood will be replaced by automation, perhaps other things can be done.  After World War II, Japan took a course of creating make-work jobs such as "elevator lady" who would stand in the elevator and bow politely as you entered, ask you what your floor was, and then push the button for the floor.  It was an entirely make-work job, but the government encouraged companies to create these positions so that the country would have full employment.

I'm not saying that that would work in the United States or that that's what we should do.  Creating make-work jobs would just increase the cost of services and raise prices for everyone.  Also, I think it is a little too early to sound the alarm on unemployment, with unemployment rates in this country at dramatically low levels at the present time.  In fact there are labor shortages in many parts of the country today.

The real problem will be to find jobs for people like old Gus and Jim who have no marketable skills are obsolete technical skills.   Back in the days of Mayberry, RFD, guys like Gus and Jim could hang out at the local gas station, get odd jobs and get by.  We never asked what would happen to them when they retired, as they likely drank themselves to an early grave or died of smoking-related diseases.

The Gus's of the world still exist today, and in an economy that does not value unskilled labor, they will have a tough time of it.   Compounding this is that Gus no longer wants to take a job he deems beneath his dignity.   Cleaning houses, working construction, picking crops, and mowing lawns are deemed to be work than only immigrants would do, when back when "America was Great" Gus would willingly take such jobs, if there was a pint of cheap whiskey offered as a bonus.  My ancestors worked as servants and gardeners.   Today, I doubt anyone in my family (or extended family) would take such jobs.

Raising the minimum wage is also offered as a panacea for our labor problems.   The problem is, the idiots proposing this (and sometimes pushing it through) don't want a 10% raise or even a 20% raise but a 100% raise, nearly doubling the minimum labor rate to over $15 an hour.   As you might expect, this tends to make more automation look like a good idea, and has not caused, but accelerated the trend of installing automated kiosks in fast-food restaurants (Something our European neighbors have been doing for years now).   Fully-automated fast-food machines are then next logical step and are technically feasible today, just not economically feasible unless this $15 minimum wage thing becomes a national reality (not likely today as it was before November 7th).

(Oddly enough, cooking our own meals is the one thing the do-it-yourself movement seems to have failed at.   We all want to do our own "home improvement" projects such as putting up new tile in the bathroom - something that few of us are skilled at - but no one wants to fry an egg.   Guess which saves you more money in the long run?   Subject for another posting!)

Self-driving taxis and trucks are the next issue.   Millions of low-skilled people will be put out of a job.   And since even truckers today text while driving (I kid you not) few will mourn the passing of the human-driven car.

But in the past, many jobs have been eliminated and new jobs created to fill the void.   We lost all these manufacturing and service jobs over the years.  Factories have closed for good.   Jobs went to automation or overseas.   Yet the unemployment rate in this country is at all-time lows.   New jobs are created where old jobs are lost.   The Internet, for example, has created millions of new jobs, however most of them are technical skill jobs dealing with computers or software.

A lot of people, however, make a few bucks creating YouTube videos or even blogging.  There are jobs in "content creation" that don't require coding skills.

So it is hard to say.    Some argue that while the unemployment rate is low, the employment rate is also very low - that is to say, there are a lot of people who are simply not looking for work and have given up.   How do you think guaranteed minimum income would affect that?  Others would point out that wages have also stagnated, and for unskilled labor, gone down, as a result of too much unskilled labor and not enough jobs (supply exceeds demand) and thus while there is "low unemployment" underemployment remains high.

On the other hand, as an optimist, I would point out that the real cost of goods has gone way down in the last 40 years, and thus even the poor have nicer stuff today than we did in the past, and in fact are better fed as well - even obese.  The poor today are living the middle-class lifestyle of the 1950's.

Times have changed before - and jobs eliminated and new ones created.   The uniformed movers of the 1960's may not be very common today, but other jobs have taken their places.   I think it is a little premature to worry about automation decimating the workforce (and decimating means 10%, look it up).   It may very well be that people find new things to do with their time.  That seems to be the way it works out, historically.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Another Word From the Illuminati...

Note: I started writing this back in May of 2015 and finished it only now.

We Illuminati are hard at work, preparing to enslave the nation!

In the mail this morning, this screed:

There is an IMMEDIATE NEED for all types of companies to assist with Remediation, Flood Clean Up, Renovation, Inspections, Debris Removal, Security and Engineering work for both Services and/or Products. All types of companies needed such as Veteran-Owned, Woman-Owned, Minority-Owned, HUBZone and 8(a)-Owned as well as Small Business's are NEEDED NOW. 

Once registered  through (DHS) Department of Homeland Security and (FEMA) Federal Emergency Management Agency a company will be able to work under many other agencies such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) just to name a few.

Yes, as I have mentioned before, I am a government contractor, and a former defense contractor.  So here I am, now hard at work, helping build FEMA domes and FEMA coffins, so we can put you all in jail and take over America.

Why do we do it?   That is a good question.   You see, we 1%'ers aren't content to own the majority of the wealth in this country, we want all of it.  And why not?  We're entitled.  We work hard.  We put money aside.  We invest.  Right?

So, obviously, the next step is to just round up everyone and put them in detention camps.   A slave-labor economy will be so much more efficient than a consumer-based economy, won't it?   I mean, once we turn all the Wal-Marts into detention camps, we won't have to waste time selling products to people, loaning them money, or hooking them on cell phone plans.

And since everyone will be in detention camps, we can shut down all the car dealers and repair shops, as no one will have to drive anymore.   It will be sweet for us, to be sure, driving everywhere at 100 mph with no traffic.  Once we have all you "little people" locked up (and take away your guns, it goes without saying) life will be sweet, right?

Or maybe not.   In a consumer-based economy, we make money when people consume.   I make money on my Altria stock because you smoke cigarettes.   If we lock you all up in detention camps, what does that do to the sales of cigarettes?   They collapse, that's what.

And if all the Wal-Marts are turned into prisons, how does Wal-Mart make any money?  And why would a Wal-Mart even make a good prison?

This is the problem with conspiracy theories - they don't hold up under even the most mild of scrutiny.   People posit that the powers-that-be want to lock us all up and put us in detention camps.   Years ago, a friend of mine sent me a scary video of a "Bush internment camp" being built - right near a railroad track!  They would ship us all in to the camp in rail cars, and the turnstiles and barbed-wire topped chain-link fences would keep us all prisoners!

Or maybe, it was an Amtrak train station under construction.   Hence the railroad tracks, turnstiles, and chain-link fencing.  But some ominous music and a little narrative and selective editing, and my friend believed - to the point where they left the country in terror.   Drugs were involved, as you might imagine.  (Fast-forward a few years, and the same video is repurposed as an Obama internment camp under construction).

Yes, pot makes you paranoid.  So paranoid in fact that the powers-that-be can get you to vote for a guy who will outlaw pot so long as he doesn't "take away your guns" (How's that working out by the way?  I mean, how many guns did Obama take away?  I have yet to hear the tally).

And speaking of which, what ever happened to Jade-Helm?   That was a military exercise which was supposed to be Obama's plot to take over Texas - or something - using these domes and closed Wal-Marts.   Nothing ever came of that, and the conspiracy theorists seemed to conveniently forget this, just as "end times theologians" conveniently forget when their predicted "end of the world" date comes and goes.

By the way, the e-mail produced above is a con.   Since I am a registered government contractor (for at least one more year) I get e-mails all the time exhorting me to "sign up" with companies with official-sounding names, who promise to get me all sorts of government contracts in areas that I am not qualified to work.   The joke is, these are not government agencies sending these e-mails, but often are con-artists, who want a fee for me to sign up with them, and in turn, they would send me lists of contracts that I could obtain from the government SAMS site by clicking on a few links.

Yes, even lawyers and government contractors are hoodwinked this way.  Especially the lawyers.   You'd be surprised how many "urgent legal needs!" there are on Jekyll Island, judging from the five or six e-mails I receive daily in my SPAM box.

But I am astute enough not to believe that an island of less than 500 residents has such "urgent legal needs!" but instead is a cut-and-paste SPAM e-mail that uses my name and address data scraped from my website or the State Bar website (I wrote the Patent on the scraping technique!).   I can see this, can't you?

So why do people fall for such SPAM?   Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?   People are not very bright and will squander their emotional and physical energy on nonsense.

Just don't do that.   Pretty simple thing.   You'd be surprised how many people fail to see it - even smart people! 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Outrageous Things!

NOTE: This is a posting I started a year ago an never finished.
How dare I say outlandish things like take responsibility for your own life and stop being a victim!

It is funny, but I hear comments from some folks or read comments online about my blog.  It is amazing to me that anyone reads it.  It is even more amazing that people who hate it, seem to read it even more.  If you don't like what I have to say, read something that agrees with your preconceived notions of the world.

Why not?  That's what 99.9999% of the world does.  The Internet is an amazing echo chamber for your own thoughts.    The Internet is a vast place, my little corner of it barely attracts a few dozen readers.

Some folks claim that I say "outrageous" things here in my blog.   I find that rather odd, in this day and age, when you can put up a white supremacy blog and the ACLU will be the first to defend your "first amendment" rights.   But if I suggest that perhaps most of the problems in your life may very well be the result of your own folly, that is "outrageous" and should be shouted down.

And I make these observations from my own experiences.  Almost every financial, emotional, mental, and physical mistake I have made in life was largely the result of my own doing.  Oh, sure, there were other actors in the world who helped me along.   But when something is probabilistically very certain (such as having a motorcycle accident) you can't foist off the "blame" onto the car that hit you, when it fact, it was a predictable event.

So what are the outrageous things I am saying in this blog?  Here are a summary of some of the horrible things I say here that make me a bad person:

1.  Taking responsibility for your own life is a good thing:   Good for society, and good for you.   When you externalize your problems - by blaming others for your woes - nothing gets done, as the "big corporations" and "Wall-street fat cats" aren't going away anytime soon, nor are the Democrats or the Republicans, or the Muslims or the Russians, or whoever or whatever vague and ambiguous large external force you want to blame for all your woes.

For example, nobody - or damn few anyway - suffered as a result of the Real Estate meltdown due to circumstances entirely beyond their control.   People got greedy and decided to buy and flip houses, or thought their ship had come in and they could afford a fancier house than they really could - at a price and on terms that made no financial sense whatsoever.  Others merely over-mortgaged their homes and "took out" equity to pay off credit card bills (as I did).  No one forced these people to pay too much for homes they could not afford on terms that only Satan himself would offer. 

But no, in America, everything is always somebody else's fault, or at least that is how you get elected - and re-elected - in this country.

2.  Mental Health has to be worked at:  Thinking crazy thoughts will make you crazy.  The more you believe in nonsense, the less sense the real world will make for you, and your brain will suffer from this disassociation.  Conspiracy theories, paranormal phenomenon, aliens, religion, etc, are all nonsense and based in fantasy, not fact.   Sure, it is fun to go on a "ghost tour" or visit a church once in a while.  Taking that shit seriously will just make you insane.  If you read enough online stories about pedophile rings in pizza shops, eventually you will find yourself in jail wondering what the hell happened to you.

3.  Crazy people are no fun to be around, employ, rent to, rent from, work for, or have a relationship with.  And I say this one from long hard bitter experience.  A lot of people say we need to "respect" the needs of the mentally ill, as mental illness is an illness like any other.  And there is a nugget of truth to that, of course.   On the other hand, marrying someone who attacks you with a knife is not a very good idea.  And no, you can't "fix them" like an old car.  The best thing you can do for yourself and your own mental health is to leave the crazies for the professionals.

4.  Obsessing about an illness is never healthy:   It is trendy today in America to claim to have some health problem that is nearly impossible to diagnose, or is something people read about and saw on television and then self-diagnose.   People claim to have all sorts of weird allergies that mystify actual allergists.   Folks claim that  eating "gluten-free" is better for them, when there is no scientific evidence to suggest this, other than for a small number of people with a very rare disorder.  Folks like to spend hours on disease websites complaining of their pains and aches - but of course, never getting better.  It is a shitty way to go through life, particularly as eventually you will acquire a real illness that will put things in real perspective, and you will realize you wasted most of your life obsessing about nothing.

I went on one of these sites once, to research diverticulitis.   What I found was a lot of really bad and contradictory information, and a lot of people who spend every day on the site complaining about their attacks and seeking (and getting) sympathy from others.   I quickly realized this was a dead-end and never went back.  I didn't want to go through life identifying myself as a set of disease parameters, but would rather live life instead.

5.  Buying crap doesn't make you happy or wealthy, just broke.  Having a lot of "stuff" seems like the definition of wealth - to small children.   When you become an adult, you realize that having money is the real definition of wealth, and that owning things is anti-wealth.  Treating yourself to a fancy car or a fancy cell phone is fine and all, but if it comes at the expense of your financial well-being, then it is probably a really bad idea.

6.  Borrowing money isn't a privilege, and it isn't a good idea in most cases.  People obsess about their credit score in this country and look at wealth in terms of how much more they can borrow.  But borrowed money has to be paid back - with interest.  And in this age of low interest rates, it amazes me that people continue to borrow at rates of 15% or more (often far more, for payday loans and the like).  Save borrowing for important things - a home, an education (a real one, not 4 years at party U or a "for profit" college).  Borrowing money for an RV or a boat is just shooting yourself in the head.

7. Keeping track of you money is essential to managing it.   You can't just go through life spending when you want to and assuming that someday money will show up to pay your bills.  Believe me, I tried this and it didn't work!   It is a pain in the ass, but tracking every darn penny you spend is essential to understanding where you money goes and where you are spending too much money in life.

And please, if you are not doing this, you have no real right to say I am spending too much money on X when you have no idea what you are spending your money on at all.
8.  Feeling sorry for people accomplishes nothing.   There are a few people in this world who are truly victimized by circumstance.  Most of them are fighting to reverse their fortunes.   The folks who come to you with long sob stories about how rough they have it are the most likely to be con artists looking to con you out of money.   You might feel better about yourself giving a dollar to a bum, but you haven't changed his life one iota - he will just spend it on drugs or alcohol.    Saying you are "better" than others because you care about the less fortunate is just sick thinking and narcissism.   Want to help the homeless?  Work at a homeless shelter.   Odds are, after a week, you'll re-think your sympathies.

9.  Obsessing about politics is pointless.   Vote.  Donate money to a candidate.   But to get all riled up watching Fox News or CNN is just wasting your own energy on absolutely nothing.   Put that energy to use in your own life, and leave the politics to the politicians.  Your input is limited to the second Tuesday in November, or whatever you can spare in your checkbook for political donations.  Forget about the rest.

10.  Stop believing in something-for-nothing.  There are no shortcuts to wealth or losing weight.  People are not giving away cars, motorcycles, RVs, or tractors on Craigslist for 1/4 their actual value.  A Nigerian Prince has not awarded you lottery winnings.   You don't save money by leasing a car - you get ripped off.   You can't deduct your way to wealth.  Buying a huge house to live in won't make you rich, just house-poor.   No scheme or hyped investment will ever make you rich, but likely will bankrupt you, whether it is gold, bitcoin, houses, or whatever.   Others will make money, not you.  Just stop being a sucker!  It is that simple.

* * * 

Now, some of you might say, "Well, this is pretty obvious stuff, Bob!  I mean, if you have lived on this planet for more than an hour or so, you could figure this out!"

You'd think that, but you'd be wrong.  Legions of people believe in utter nonsense and do stupid things and then allege to be victims and want our sympathy when it all goes wrong.   While we might feel sorry for such folks, a better approach is to learn from their mistakes and move on.

And yet our media, our schools, and even family members all preach the opposite.  We should feel sorry for people and the next IPO for some "dot com" company is the biggest news in investing!   The two are related of course, as the people who want you to feel sorry for them are the idiots who fell for the crap the media sold them.

But that is an outrageous thing to say because the folks who have one hand on your wallet don't want it said.  They want you to be weak, passive, and squandering all your dough on stuff to make yourself feel better about life, even as you go broke.  Why bother trying?  Have another beer and roll a joint and lose your mind.   There, feel better now?

Of course not.

This is, of course, not some grand conspiracy, but something called "human nature" and "civilization".   Throughout history there have been haves and have-nots.   And the haves know how human beings think and act, and how they are prone to feeling sorry for themselves, depression, and craziness, and how these weaknesses can be exploited very easily.  Loan them money for a new Camaro.  They'll feel better about their situation, even as they go broke.   Meanwhile, you make money.   That's how it works.

If you can see through this fog, it suddenly becomes clear.   Sadly, few do - or maybe it is a good thing few do, as it makes it easier to be one of those few!

New Passive-Aggressive Muppet

Is this progress or political correctness?  I cannot decide.

Fresh off the wire:

For the first time in a decade, the classic children's television show Sesame Street will introduce a new passive-aggressive Muppet on the air.

Her name is Julia. She's a shy and winsome 4-year-old, with striking red hair and green eyes.  Julia likes to paint and pick flowers.  When Julia speaks, she often echoes what she's just heard her friends Abby and Elmo say.  Julia is passive aggressive.

Presenting Julia to the gang requires a bit more explanation of her passive-aggression to the other Muppets — and their young viewers.  As Abby Cadabby (the 3-year-old fairy played by Leslie Carrara-Rudolph) explained during NPR's recent visit to the set in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., it can be hard to get Julia's attention.  Big Bird had to repeat himself to get her to listen, for example.  And she sees things where others don't.

"That's just Julia being Julia," Abby said.

Julia, chuckling, then displays a different-but-fun way of playing tag, and everyone joins in.  But when a siren wails, she covers her ears and looks stricken.

"She needs to take a break," Big Bird's human friend Alan calmly explains. Soon, all is well and play resumes.
 * * * 

OK, I went there.  Because when I first read this article about the "Autistic Muppet" (are we being redundant here?) I kind of shit my pants.  I replaced the word "Autistic" with "Passive-Aggressive" as it appears that Julia is not Autistic, but just an annoying person to be around, who wants everything her way and screw everyone else.

Which pretty much describes people with Autism, sadly.

Julia can't play "tag" with the other kids unless she can change the rules of the game and play it her way.   The world is a merry-go-round with her in the center and other people are just wallpaper, and their feelings mean nothing, so she can snub them and they have to "understand" her "difference".

Mentally ill people are like that, sadly, which makes being around them difficult.

And of course, this is on PBS and reported on breathlessly by NPR.   The Left loves Autism and diagnosing it in everyone from themselves, to their kids, to historical figures (who cannot rest in peace, it seems, without being accused of being Autistic or Gay - poor Abraham Lincoln!).

The sad thing is, other than severely Autistic people, it is all-too-easy to make amateur diagnoses of "mild autism" or "Autism Spectral Disorders" (what a cool sounding name!  I sound smart just by saying it!) in yourself, your family, your children, and others.   As I noted, some readers slap this label on me.

OK, from now on, we only play "tag" my way, right?  

Don't get me wrong, people with severe autism have a rough road ahead and so do their families.   They basically will find it hard to work and live in society and will either need the support of a family for the rest of their lives, or an institution.   If you have an autistic kid, you have a lot on your hands.

But this social trend of calling people "mildly autistic" has really got to stop.   Because it is just a trend - like people claiming they can't eat wheat and thus are entitled to "gluten-free" bagels or whatever, wherever they go.

Mental illnesses should not be trendy and hip.  There is something wrong here, and I can't quite put my finger on it (because I am autistic, natch).   Or maybe I am seeing this because of my autism.

No, neither is true.   What we have here is another example of mass hysteria, induced by the media.   A few years back it was "Lyme Disease" which is serious shit, but affects very few people.  But a lot of folks decided they had it.   Before that, Fibromyalgia.   Then "Chronic Fatigue Syndrome".

And when it comes to children, multiply this by a billion.   Little Jimmy isn't dumb as stone, he's dyslexic!  Now we have a name and a condition to staple to his forehead and mark him for life.   Parents will go out of their way to "find something wrong" with their kids, which happened to me and probably would have killed me if someone hadn't put a stop to it.

The problem here isn't the inclusion of an autistic character in the show.  The problem is turning autism into pop culture and creating a world where autism is diagnosed in everyone.

And diagnoses of "Autism Spectral Disorders" is skyrocketing.   Why?  Because it is in all the magazines and on all the daytime talk shows and is saturating the media.  So Mom and Dad go shopping for a doctor who will say their kid is Autistic so they too, can have a special snowflake of their own.

If maybe they just left the kid alone, he'd do OK by himself.

You see, a diagnoses of "Mild Autism" doesn't really help much.  Why?  Because we don't know what causes it and there is no cure for it.   You are just slapping a label on a person, and labels are rarely helpful.

You are also giving a person an excuse not to succeed.   Once you tell people they are damaged goods, they tend to live up to that expectation.    Once you tell people they have an "easy out" because of their dyslexia or autism or whatever, they will use this crutch to get by, arguing that they can't succeed because of their "condition".

Thank God no one ever slapped such labels on me, as I would never have succeeded in life.

We need to stop making illnesses or conditions trendy or popular.  Medicine should not be dictated by what is trending on Twitter or Facebook.   People should not be diagnosing their own maladies online or diagnosing maladies in their children.   Housewives should not be deciding that they know more about vaccines than doctors.   

This trendiness shit ends up being dangerous, and that is why I am more than a little ambivalent about Autistic Muppets.  Because if we go down this road, then, well, we have to have a Muppet for every disorder imaginable.

And a Muppet for every minority group.   Of course, Bert and Ernie aren't gay - just good friends.

Can Refugees Fit In To Western Society? Maybe.

A startling article from the New York Times implies that some Syrian Refugees might not make it in the West.

The New York Times is hardly a conservative newspaper.  In fact, it is now the Left wing "newspaper of record" and there is nothing wrong with that.   Liberalism is not a dirty word.

But this means when the New York Times reports troubles with Syrian refugees fitting into Canadian society, we should sit up and take notice.   It is one thing for Fox News or Breitbart to say this - we can safely assume both are lying all of the time.  But the New York Times?   If anything, we would expect them to wallpaper over any difficulties with refugees fitting into our society.

But a recent article illustrates just that.   Many refugees with professional skills and talents and some English Language skills seem to fit in well to Canadian society.   It is harder for the less-educated and the poor.  The article follows one family who were poor farmers in Syria before they were displaced by the war.  The Father has a second-grade education and cannot even read or write his native Arabic, much less English.  The parents have never had a bank account and the mysteries of balancing a checking account and using the ATM are still not understood nearly a year later. 

The Dad is sending money back to Syria to his own Father, who refuses to talk to him when Dad finally cuts off the funds.   In a fit of pique, he smashes the cell phone provided to him by the government and declares he wants to move back to Syria.

Meanwhile, sponsors of some of these families have had enough.   After spending a year supporting them financially, chauffeuring them around, having to help them with every aspect of their lives, they just want out of the deal - let the refugees get by on their own, and not bother them anymore.

It is a sentiment I understand fully.  Trying to "help" people can backfire on you in a big way, as some folks love to put themselves in peril and expect you to bail them out.  They become dependent on your largess and aid, and thus never learn to act on their own.

We had a cleaning lady from Mexico, who was here legally.   She seemed never to know whether it was snowing or blowing.   I was appalled when I found out she was using a check cashing store to cash the paycheck I gave her (we did withholding, social security tax, and set up health insurance and even a 401(k) for her - she appreciated none of it and would have preferred to be paid in cash).   I ended up "cashing" her paychecks for her and then paying her in cash.

But it didn't end there.   Every week, there was some sort of crises.   A letter would come from Ed McMahon telling her she had won the Publisher's House Sweepstakes and she thought it was a deportation notice.   She was as helpless as a kitten and expected everyone else to handle things for her.  And she refused to learn more than a few words of English.

We moved away, eventually, and she latched onto another one of her clients to help her with her everyday needs, from doing her taxes, to getting government assistance.   She wasn't a stupid person, she just found it easier to rely on other people.

And other people get tired, eventually, of doing this.  It is one thing to show someone how to handle something, it is another to do it again, and again, and again, with them refusing to learn as they prefer you just do it for them.   Altruism starts to wear thin at about this point.

The refugee thing is an interesting one.   Many are fleeing war and violence and strife.   Others just want a better life in a Western country, where going in welfare makes you far richer than working hard in their homeland.  And stories filter back how you can move to Germany and get a free apartment and spending money, just for showing up.   These stories may be exaggerated or even untrue, but they are no different that then "streets paved with gold" stories my ancestors told the folks back in County Cork, circa 1850.

The problem isn't ISIS or Al Queada, or war in Libya or Sudan that is causing this "refugee crises".  The problem is the world is becoming overpopulated and we are running out of resources in the worst parts of the world, such as the Middle-East or Africa.   So people flee from shitty areas and go to places that are less populated and more wealthy.   The window-dressing of religious conflict or conflict between political ideologies is just window-dressing of the real underlying problem - overpopulation.

And often the people overpopulating the most are the least educated and least skilled.   In Saudi Arabia, homeless kids are sent to school - to memorize the Koran which trains them for no other job other than suicide bomber or Jihadist.  A country that still imports petroleum engineers from the West!  But there are no jobs for their own citizens.

How do you fit someone whose world-view is shaped this way into a Western country?   Their children, no problem - they are young an impressionable and will gladly accept a better way of life.  I can only hope the "Dad" profiled in the article doesn't drag his family back to war-torn Syria just because he can't read the road signs and figure out an ATM.   That would be pretty sad.

Ms. Stark, believing that Mr. Hajj didn’t understand his accounts well enough to realize what had happened, went to the bank to try to figure out what had gone wrong. When that turned up no evidence of theft, she and the other sponsors wondered if there were other explanations for the unfamiliar pattern. Had Mr. Hajj sent the money to his father in Syria? Stashed it away in a drawer?
A few weeks later, Mr. Hajj asked the sponsors about going on welfare. He had heard about it from his classmates in English lessons. Some were enrolling, seeing it as a safer bet than insecure, low-wage jobs, they told him. One explained that he could work and still collect the government assistance, if he could persuade his boss to pay him under the table.

Oh, shit.   This is like what every Trump supporter has been saying.   "They come here to go on welfare and then wire money back to ISIS."   Maybe not literally true, but plausible.   Of course there are native-born Americans and Canadians who work under the table and collect welfare as well.  Everyone wants to scam the system!   Maybe this Syrian guy figuring this out is a sign he is ready for citizenship!   Welcome to the West!

Or maybe, if you "adopt" a redneck from Syria, you can't expect them to become middle-class citizens in America or Canada.  They will just be rednecks here.

Anyway, it is an interesting article, and considering the source, it is fascinating that it casts some doubts that all refugees will fit in to Western Society.

The Nature of Relationships

We need relationships in our lives to the point where we will put up with a lot to maintain them.

One of the best ways to save on money is to have a partner or spouse.   "Two can live as cheaply as one" the old song goes, and to some extent, that is true.   When Mark and I both moved to Alexandria, Virginia, we were both spending about $650 a month each on an apartment.   Moving in together saved us $325 each a month - a lot of money back then, and even today.   It cut our housing costs in half.   And as we saw from previous postings housing costs are the single highest expense for most folks, even exceeding food, cars, and health care.

There are other savings as well.  If each of you has talents and abilities that compliment and not compete with each other, you have someone who fills in the holes in your life.    Mark likes to cook, I like to fix things.   He's creative, I'm more logical.   He has ideas, I have ways of making them work.   We don't always agree, of course, but the combined power of two makes more than the sum.
And in the best scenario, a relationship should be like that, where 2+2=5 or maybe even 6, as your combined powers amplify each other.   You give each other confidence and build each other up.   Your ideas and dreams are expanded by a point of view you never thought of.

In other scenarios, 2+2=4 or worse, it equals 3.5 or 3.   In the worst cases, 2+2=1.5, which means that each partner is worse off for the relationship than without it.   And sadly, this is where a lot of people end up, in a relationship where they would be better off being alone.

For example, you are in a relationship with a drug addict, an abuser (physical, mental, sexual, financial, or whatever) or someone who is tragically mentally ill.   You end up giving and they end up taking, and your life is worse off for the bargain.   There should be some advantage to you in a relationship.

Of course, one sign you are in a bad relationship is where you start tallying up the advantages and disadvantages and "keep score" so to speak.   It is a sign that maybe you aren't happy with what is going on.

It is funny, but often you don't see your relationship the way others do.   A friend of ours has a precocious 8-year-old who once asked me, "Why do you let Mark boss you around like that?" which generated a "shush" from his Mother.   I never thought about it, but he does like to control things, as I guess we all do.   But to some extent, it is good to have direction now and then.   Out of the mouth of babes.

On the other side, Mark's brother once (cruelly) remarked, "You're lucky to have found Bob!" as I guess he thought Mark was a gold-digger or something.  And Mark rightfully replied, "No, we were lucky to find each other!" which is true, because without him, I would still be driving a Chevette, at least metaphorically.
People on the outside might not see the whole picture,

Nevertheless, some relationships are "race to the bottom" relationships, where each spouse tries to outspend the other in retaliatory purchases.  Or relationships where the whole family wants to ride Dad like a cheap mule, until they extract every penny from him.   Or relationships where the husband abuses the wife, cashes his paychecks in bars, hangs out with his drinking buddies from high school, while expecting the misses to have the trailer clean and dinner on the table when he gets home at 2 AM.

What got me thinking about this was a reader thanking me for one of my most popular postings, Husband sends money to Brother, which gets a surprising number of hits, telling me it isn't just me that is seeing this go on.   The reader is in a relationship, but not married, and her partner sends off hefty sums to relatives who are not really in need.   When someone owns a vacation home, they don't need your money.  Meanwhile, she struggles to make ends meet.

I somewhat flippantly said, "Well, maybe it is time to look elsewhere" which is sort of a cruel and stupid thing to say, not knowing the whole story.  But, on the other hand, they are not married or have kids, so maybe she is still young and has options.   And if he is sending money to relatives before marriage, do you think this will stop afterwords?

The problem is, of course, that finding your "soul mate" is damn difficult to do.  Statistically, you are going to marry or live with someone you work with, someone you know from childhood, a friend of a friend, or someone nearby where you live.   This is pretty obvious, if you think about it.   Sometimes lighting strikes.  A friend of mine came to Jekyll 30 years ago on vacation and met a local boy and fell in love.  30 years later, well they are married with two kids.   It happens.

Others use dating services or computer matching setups.   I am skeptical of these as they try to match interest for interest instead of looking for complimentary matches.   If you are both marathon runners, you won't be supporting each other at the next marathon, but competing instead.   My personal opinion is that matching interests one-to-one is not a good idea, as you will not be exposed to different experiences and different ideas, but rather be arguing all the time over who is right.  Then again, as I noted, marrying an alien isn't necessarily a good idea either - someone whose life experiences are completely alien to your own.

But it seems - at least to outsiders - that some folks "settle" for less than they should, or at least might be better off being single than ending up with the partners they do.   And I'll give you some real-world examples of folks who made odd choices in partners that keep their friends and family scratching their heads - and often end up in divorce court.

For example Joe and Mary are living in sin together.  I say "living in sin" as Joe is a devout Catholic and has a wife and two children.  He met Mary who was 20 years his junior and decided to move in with her and have a child (which came first, I do not know).   He refused to divorce his wife as he was a devout Catholic and that is a sin, but adultery I guess isn't.   People do like to compartmentalize their religious beliefs!

The problem for Mary is that she has nothing.  The house is in his name and his entire estate, including the house they are living in, will go to Joe's wife when he dies, leaving Mary with nothing, other than her own savings.   We are not talking a 50/50 split here, between the two spouses, or even 60/40 or 70/30.    The wife, who Joe has not lived with for over 25 years, gets it all and Mary will have to struggle to get by.

And since she is 20 years his junior, well, it was likely that she would outlive him by quite a spell.  Mary's sister shakes her head and wonders what Mary sees in Joe and why she went along with this scheme for so many years.  And Mary's sister worries that Mary will start asking her for money, once Joe passes away and leaves her destitute.   But the overriding thing is, Mary's sister feels bad for Mary that this is the "marriage" she had to settle for in life, a 2+2=3.5 at best.

Melissa and Daniel come from radically different backgrounds.  Melissa went to private boarding schools and graduated from Swathmore.  Daniel barely scraped though high school and works menial labor jobs.  Why Melissa married Daniel is anyone's guess.   She thought she was "in love" with him, but they were two different people whose interests did not compliment each other.  She was a left-wing liberal and agnostic who smoked pot, he was a right-wing conservative fundamentalist who liked to swill cheap beer.   He cashed his paychecks in bars and came home drunk on weeknights, and on more than one occasion, Melissa had to bail him out of jail for his DUI arrests.  She had to reply on her parents to send her money periodically, in order to make ends meet.

They ended up getting divorced after many years and after having two children, whose upbringing in a chaotic household was anything but normal.   Melissa's family also scratched heads wondering what Melissa was thinking marrying someone who was such a layabout and whose fundamental values were so different than her own.    You get one shot at this in life, maybe two.   Melissa had only one.

This wasn't a 2+2=4 relationship, but 2+2=1 or even zero.

Nancy and Shelia were lesbian lovers.   They shared a row house in Maryland and had been living together for over 20 years.   Every month, Nancy would tally up the bills and send Shelia an invoice for her half of the living expenses.  When I asked Nancy about this, she said "Shelia is a compulsive gambler, and if we had the same checking account, she would drain it dry to go the casino!"

At least Nancy had a realistic eyes-wide-open view of her relationship with Shelia.   But it is sad, to me, that Nancy (from experience) didn't trust her "life partner" and that Shelia wouldn't get help for her gambling addiction and was more than willing to steal from her lover to gamble.

This is a 2+2=4.0000 relationship, but only because Nancy keeps such meticulous books.   Sadly, when Nancy died, Shelia ended up tearing through the money Nancy left to her and ended up homeless within a year.

Bruce and Lillian have been married for years.   For the first part of their marriage, Bruce made most of the money, but didn't manage it very well.   They have enough to get by on, but Bruce keeps sending money every month to his sister, who he is convinced "needs their help" to pay off her credit card bills, even though she has a good job, a pension plan, and a paid-for Condo she is living in.  Lillian is livid that she has to "do without" while Bruce's sister spends their money.

When confronted, Bruce says, "It's my money so I can do whatever I want with it!" failing to realize that in a marriage, there is no "mine" and "yours".

A few years later, Lillian comes into a sizable inheritance.   And of course, you can guess what happens.  Bruce says, "Well, we can finally retire in style!" but Lillian replies, "Well, maybe I can, after all, this is my money!"

Poetic justice for Bruce, but it is hard to feel sorry for either of them.  They are both selfish people wanting to "win" all the time and use very ugly psychological games to control each other.   The last time I checked in with them, they were sleeping in separate bedrooms - in separate apartments!  It makes me very, very sad.

Here is a relationship that isn't even 2+2.   It is a pair of deuces wandering around the planet, never really intersecting with each other but upon occasion.  There is no savings here, not even on rent.  Their skills don't compliment each other.   One wonders why they stay together except out of habit.

* * *

The list goes on and on.  And it is why my posting on "Husband give money to Brother" is so popular.  People are stuck in relationships that are really of no benefit to them or worse yet, are a detriment to them.

Of course, we are looking from the outside-in.   Maybe they get something out of the deal we don't see - wild, kinky sex or something.   Or maybe it is just the needs of one partner to be abused due to low-self-esteem issues from their upbringing.   "This is all I deserve!" they say inwardly.   And often an abusive spouse will reinforce this message.

And of course, Love is a many-splendor'ed thing.   We do fall in love and love people even if the relationship is to our detriment.  You can't argue love logically, it is pure emotion.

But love is also a two-way street, and if someone loves you, they shouldn't abuse you, right?  Or at least not abuse you that much.

Now pardon me while I go hug my husband.   I like the way he bosses me around.