Wednesday, October 31, 2012

For Sale - But Not For Sale

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When something is for sale, but not for sale, walk away as fast as possible.



If you are looking to buy a secondhand car or boat or RV, sometimes you run across the fellow who has an item "for sale but not for sale."   It is a good idea to run away from such folks, as getting involved with them is a bad economic proposition and usually a waste of your time.

What do I mean by this?  These are people who are selling a car, but put an unrealistic price on it (Blue Book retail prices or higher) or who say things like, "I don't need to sell it, so no low-ball offers!" or some such nonsense.

If you are really selling an item, then you need to sell it, period.  And yet there are a lot of people out there who will waste your time with what I call constipated commerce.  And I have written about this before - the fellow who has a boat for sale for nearly a decade, on his front lawn.   Anything "for sale" for more than a year, is not really for sale.

Why to people do this?  The motivations are various, and all bad.  And you can't strike a reasonable bargain with such folks, much less "win" with them, so just walk away from such transactions.  In fact, run away as fast as possible.

There are at least three types of "for sale but not for sale" people I am aware of:


1.  Hoarders - who want validation that their goods are valuable and desirable.  These folks will list some of their hoarded possessions for sale on Craigslist and then be remarkably slow and vague in getting back to you if you contact them.  You ask them basic questions like the price, location, and condition - as well as when you can stop by to see or buy the item - and they answer only one of the four questions.

So, four or five e-mails later, you have only a vague idea of the price and no indication of when you can come look at it or buy it.   And the reason for this is, they really don't want to sell it.  They just get off on the idea that someone else covets a possession that they own.

This validates their hoarding instincts, by giving them the impression that their piles of garbage are, in fact, rare and valuable collectables that people desperately want.  And why sell them, if they are so valuable?

Hoarding is a form of mental illness.  Never deal with mentally ill people.  If you e-mail someone about an item for sale, and they don't answer back promptly, and don't provide you with a clear price, condition, and when/where you can come buy it, just walk away.  The item is not really for sale.



2.  Power-Shifters - who want someone so "desperate" for a consumer good that they will overpay for it.  And such desperate people are not hard to find, either.  I wrote about power-shifters before.  Most are professionals - salespeople and the like who use power games to manipulate people.

But some amateurs want to get into the game, and when they put their car up for sale, the try to power-shift the transaction so that you appear to be the one who desperately wants the product, as opposed to the person desperately wanting to unload it.

I looked at a used BMW wagon on Craigslist the other day.  It was a nice looking car, but for some reason, while the seller put up all sorts of information, the one key piece - mileage - was missing.  Any transaction entered into predicated on a lie is only going to go downhill from there.

So I e-mailed him and asked him, and he responded that it had 220,000 miles on it, which was far above average and near end-of-design-life for a BMW.   And he was asking $2000 over book value for the car as well.   Time to walk away from an unrealistic dreamer - right?

Well he e-mails back that "several people are interested in it!" and that I had better "jump on it now" as the first person with "cash money" (is there any other kind?) will get the car.

I just replied that it sounds like a good deal - for someone else.   And perhaps someone else jumped on the deal - believing this guy's nonsense that the car was worth over book value.   But myself, I was not inclined to pay extra.


3.  The "I'll Get My Price" people:  These are folks who think that for some reason, they are entitled to a particular price on a fungible consumer good, despite the fact that the book value for the item is far lower.  And I've wasted my time with such folks in the past.

We went to look at a Wanderlodge - a classic RV that was built by BlueBird coaches here in Georgia.  Being built on a school bus chassis, they were all-steel.   Not a problem, unless you park it in Florida near the ocean for a few years.

This fellow wanted $20,000 for the coach, on the grounds that it had a rebuilt engine and new tires.  But the real story was that the reason it had these items was that it had sat in the salt air for so long that the engine seized and the tires dry-rotted.  The body and even the frame were a mess of unrestorable pack corrosion - thick, flaky rust that is impossible to fix.

The coach was good only for parts at this point - yanking the engine and the new tires, if they had not already rotted in the salt air.

The perpetual sailboat-for-sale people in Lansing, New York won't budge a dollar on "their price" even though the boat has been for sale for nearly seven years.  (I went up there this summer, and yes, it is still there, and they still mow around it).  Despite the fact that any piece of depreciating equipment drops in value over time, they have not adjusted their price.   And the fact it remains unsold would tell you one thing and one thing only - that it is overpriced.

"The right person will come along..." they say.  Maybe.  Maybe a fool will buy it.   But in the meantime, they have mowed around it for seven years - enough time to double your money in the stock market. 


* * *

Price is king.  Everything else is secondary.   No matter what the item is for sale, it can be sold - and will be sold - if the price is adjusted accordingly.  Nothing else really matters.

In Edith Lank's Real Estate column, people regularly write in, asking how they can get their home to sell, when it has been sitting on the market for so long.  And in every case, she has the same advice - lower the price.

If a house has a bad view, a less-than-optimal location, bad carpet, an old furnace, or whatever that is preventing it from selling, you can always make it go away by lowering the price.   People won't pay "top dollar" for a home, unless it is in top condition and in a good location.  However, people will snap up a bargain and are willing to live with some inconveniences, if the price is right.

Nevertheless, there are folks out there who don't get it.  They see a neighbor's house selling for $500,000 and expect their house is equally as valuable.  But their house doesn't have the same view, the extra bath, and the two-car garage.  And the overall condition is worse.   This doesn't mean the house is worthless, only that it is worth less.

Alas, the dreamers, the power-shifters, the hoarders, and the "get my price" people never seem to understand this.   And as a result they waste your time and everyone else's.

And the worst thing you can do, of course, is to try to buy something from one of these time-wasters.  You will end up paying far too much - and usually end up with a piece of crap.
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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Problem With Buying Services

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Hey!  Have I gotta deal for you!


Buying a new car is a raw deal from so many angles.  In addition to the horrific depreciation you take, the first ten minutes you own the car, there is the issue of pricing.   Or more specifically, you really don't know how much you paid for the car.

In response to one of my previous postings on buying new cars, a youngster commented that he just bought a new (generic crapmobile targeted at 20-somethings) and got it for "$500 under invoice!" and he knew he was getting a good deal, because the salesman told him so.   The salesman is always a good source for pricing information, of course.

The problem is, like with anything else, we tend to self-report purchases based on a certain pricing number which is, by no means, the actual price of the product or service.   So, for example, many people tell me that they pay $79.99 a month for their smart phone, which is only the price placeholder for the basic service.   They "forget" that their actual monthly bill is closer to $100, with taxes and service fees and access fees and the carrier universal service charge.  We lie to ourselves about prices, because, well, we'd rather not think about what we actually paid.

And most retail transactions work this way - and work to the disadvantage of the consumer.  Airlines fought like hell to be allowed to offer "$39.99 fares!" which actually were closer to $99 once all the fees, taxes, and other add-ons were, well, added on.   And then you zing them for a carry-on baggage charge and a $5 diet soda to boot.

And to some extent, you can almost (almost) feel sorry for the airlines.  After all, why are they being singled out?  If I go to the drugstore and buy a six-pack of beer, it might say "On Sale!  $4.99!" but when I check out, the price is over $5 as I have to pay County, City, and State sales taxes.

Or, if you go on a cruise that is listed as "$199!!" you may end up spending over $2000 when it is all said and done.   And yes, I have met people who tell me, with a straight face, that their cruise cost them only $199, when in fact it cost far more than that.   We all want to lie to ourselves and kid ourselves that we are smart consumers and are getting "good deals" when in fact we are getting screwed most of the time.

And I suppose this is human nature, after all.   If we thought about how we are getting hosed, on a regular basis, most of us would just break down and weep profusely.

Car buying services are one attempt to get around this phantom pricing problem.   You go online or to a wholesale club or your local credit union, and for a small fee ($100 or so) you are given a coupon or other paperwork, and you go off to the dealer to get the "pre-negotiated price".   I used such a service once, to buy my pickup truck.  It was not easy to use, as dealers hate these sorts of things.   Why is this?  Because it takes all the "fun" out of the transaction, for them.

A dealer wants to make money, and they do this by chiseling you a little bit on the margins.  You really need to read "Confessions of a Car Salesman" on Edmunds.com before you ever, ever set foot in a dealer showroom.

The car salesman doesn't just tack on $500 or $5000 to the car price and say "pay it".   Of course not.  No consumer is that stupid.   Instead, they use a number of tricks to get you to pay more without realizing it.   They will pay you $500 less for your trade-in that it is really worth, and you might not notice that, or perhaps you are so eager to unload your "clunker" that you take it.  They tack on "document fees" for doing the deal - maybe only $100 or so.  But then again, they tack on a similar fee for doing a loan.   They jack your interest rate by telling you that you have bad credit - when you don't - and pocket more change.   And they get a kick-back from the loan company for doing this.   They tell you that you are getting a deal for "below invoice" and show you an "invoice" that in no way reflects what the dealer actually paid for the car.   They pressure you into buying floor mats (often the ones that came with the car!) or undercoating or paint sealant, often claiming that the treatments were "already performed on the car" and thus a non-negotiable part of the price.  They nail you in the front-end, the back-end, the trade-in, the financing, and even on the "tags and title" - often charging a $100 service fee, which pays for a young immigrant to stand in line at the DMV all morning, processing 15 titles for cars sold that month.  Almost pure profit, for them!

No one outsmarts a car dealer - ever, ever, ever, EVER!   No cow ever outsmarts the stockyard and the slaughterhouse, either.   Thinking that you are a smart cow who will avoid the abattoir is just foolish thinking.

And that is why buying a late-model used car from an individual is such a better deal.    When you are dealing with someone like yourself, there is less of chance for tomfoolery.   Of course, this means really dealing with someone like yourself, not some foreign-born part-time car salesman who is "curbstoning" and pretending to be selling his own car, when in fact, he is basically operating as an unlicensed dealer.

And it goes without saying that you should walk away from dreamers, high-pressure people, and just plain assholes.   When someone tells you that their used clunker is worth over book value (as one person tried to tell me) because "they didn't make many in that color" you just have to walk away.

There are good deals out there, but you do have to look for them.   But you will never find a good deal at a car dealer - new or used, so don't kid yourself.

Getting back to buying clubs, they are problematic for a number of reasons.   The dealer will try to fudge the prices, for starters.   And the dealer will try to get you to ditch the buying club, claiming they can offer you a better deal.   Two experiences, one from 15 years ago, and one from today, illustrate the problem.

In 1995, we decided to buy this pickup truck.  We looked at over 20, new and used, and decided we wanted this particular model because of its features, color, and accessories.   So I went to the Patent Office Credit Union and looked up the price in their buying guide, which was a telephone-book sized binder that had the spec sheets for most every car for sale.  I added up the price of the truck and all the options, and it came to $22,500 at the buying club price.

So I got the certificate from the Credit Union and lined up financing with them, and set off to the dealer with a cashier's check in hand to buy the truck.  What could go wrong?

When I got there, the salesman told me I was an idiot for using the buying club, as "if I had just asked him," he could have "beat their price!"    But of course, to beat their price, he wanted me to finance through the car dealer - at a staggering 15% interest (staggering for back then, even).  I said "no thanks!" and he never did get around to telling me how he was going to "beat their price!"

You see, saying real numbers is never in the interests of the salesman.  They will say "$1000 below invoice!" or "beat the price!" but never something as concrete as "$22,250.89" .   They want to hook you, without making any promises.

So, after an hour of screwing around with him and him having to "talk to the manager about this one" he came back and said, "OK, we'll do the deal!" and wrote up the contract for $23,850, which was over $1000 more than the buying service price.   When I pointed this out to him, he said, "No, that is the price, I have the book right here!"

So I left, and went back to the credit union, and looked up the price again  in their books.   My calculations were right - down to the penny.   And I immediately saw the trick he was using.  He had listed the discounted price for the truck - the base price - but then added in all the options at the full retail list price for each.   Naturally, this came out to a higher number, while still allowing him to argue that he was giving  me the discounted price on the truck.

The dealer didn't want to let that truck go for a low price.  It was fully optioned (for back then) and a real eye-turner.  It generated a lot of showroom traffic, and as young men came by to look at it, they could be transitioned into the sale of a lesser truck or Ranger or whatever.   You never let the "eye candy" model off the showroom floor for cheap.   And compounding this, 1995 was one of those years when car sales were UP (as they are today) and dealers and manufacturers were not offering much in the way of discounts.

So, after a few phone calls with the buying club, I got it all straightened out.   At first, they wanted me to buy the truck at the price quoted by the dealer, and then have the price "audited" and a refund given, if one was warranted.   I told them I was not going to buy the truck in order to find out what the price was.  Finally, they called the dealer and threatened to take them off the buying club list, if they didn't play square.

I went back the next day with my cashier's check, and closed the deal.   It still took two hours, as they wanted to sell me undercoating, paint sealant, and an extended warranty.  Listening to the pitch for extended warranties is like listening to a pitch from Mitt Romney.   Never mind what I said ten minutes ago!  Listen to me now!    So when they are selling you the car, they tell you how great it is, how durable and indestructible and reliable.   They close the deal and then try to sell you an extended warranty - but now the car is as fragile as an egg, with a transmission that is like a hand-grenade with the pin removed.   And they say this without shame, with that same shit-eating grin that Mitt Romney has.   And most people fall for this - they fall for salesmen - which is sadly why Mitt Romney is gaining so much in the polls.   Scratch a Romney supporter, and you'll find someone who leases or buys new cars every three years and thinks they are getting a "deal".

Did I get a good "deal"?  Well, I could have bought a similar truck in a different color and different interior, one year old, with 20,000 miles on it, for $17,000.   That's about $5000 in savings, and it would have lasted as long as the truck I bought.   Another fellow locally had an F-250 which was loaded, that he wanted to sell for the same price as my F-150.  He bought it on a whim (typical car buyer) and when he got it home he discovered it would not fit in his garage, it got only 15 mpg, and his wife was furious with him.  It was probably a good deal (only 300 miles on the odometer) in retrospect.

Trying to get a good deal out of a car dealer is impossible to do, by definition.  I did not  "win" in that transaction, I merely paid an "OK" price for a very overpriced product.

Now, fast-forward 15 years.  A friend had decided to buy a brand-new car.   Their old car, a Mercedes-Benz, is 20 years old and is more suited to a collector than a daily driver.  So they sell it and decide to buy a new mid-level Japanese sedan.   They do the research and pick a make and model, and also what options to get and even the color.  They go to the buying service, figure out the price, and decide it is what they want.   The buying service gives them the paperwork and they set off to the local dealer to pick up the car.  They have cash to pay for the car.

What could be simpler?   Oh, wait, it gets bad.

The salesman says he can "beat the buying service price" by an unspecified amount.  He says he can sell the car for "$1500 below invoice" but fails to state what the "invoice" price is.  So they agree to this, as who wouldn't want a lower price, right?  Or at least that is what the salesman said to them, "Why would you pay more for the car when I can sell it to you for less?"

Makes sense, right?  No one is going to say, "Gee, I think I'd like to pay more...."

So he goes and "talks to the manager" and an hour later they are set to do the deal, but he has bad news.  He can only do the deal if they buy a car off the lot - not the car they wanted.   He shows them one in the same color as they wanted, but the interior is a different color and the options are all different.  Right away they are comparing Apples to Oranges, and trying to compare the price of the car they picked, versus the one presented, is nearly impossible.   You can't compare, dollar for dollar, the LE to the SE, when one has navigation and the other a cassette deck.

So they hem and haw some more, and agree to go through with it.   It has been hours now, and there is a pit in their stomach, not only from lack of food, but from the feeling that a simple deal has gone awry.

Another hour and another trip by the salesman to "get final OK from the manager" and he is back with more bad news.   He is trying to help them!  But the darn manager is such a cock-blocker!   He can do the deal, but they have to finance it through the dealer.   The interest rate is 12% and there are about $500 in closing fees on the loan.   But he is still beating the buying service price!

Well, actually, no.  He isn't.   He is taking a car they don't want, selling it to them for more than the buying service price (since it is a different model, the buyers can't compare prices effectively) and then tacking on more fees in the financing.

My friends are smart.  They get up and walk away, even though they already sold their old car and arguably "need" one pretty soon (never a good spot to be in, as the dealer will use this pressure to get you to sign on the dotted line).

The salesman starts calling them.   He can make the deal work!  Wait!  I'll talk to my manager!

But he never just breaks down and says, "I can do the deal with the buying service" like he should.

And the sad thing is, probably a week from now, my friends will turn up in my driveway with their new car.    Not the one they wanted, of course, but the one the local dealer had in stock.   And they will crow about how they "put one over on the dealer" and got it for "$1500 below invoice!" while at the same time having no idea what they actually spent on the car.

Is there a way to beat the dealer at his own game?  Hell, No!   Buying services are a nice try, but if you decide to try one, don't kid yourself you are getting a bargain, as even at their prices, the vehicle will depreciate dramatically in the first few minutes of ownership.  

If you do try such a service, beware of the salesman - they will try to steer you away from the buying service, arguing that they can offer you a better "deal" - without actually offering you a deal at all, in terms of actual numbers.

If you use a buying service, use a dealer in a larger city.   Small-town dealers pay more for cars and thus have to make more on each sale.   They tend to attract the most odious sort of operators, at least here in this small town.   They push lease deals and "free gas!" and other gags.*

But frankly, I think the best way to avoid being ripped-off by a dealer is to avoid dealers entirely.


* I think the problem in our small town is that most of the salesmen are local good-old-boys, who consider it a patriotic duty (to the confederacy and the klan) to pull one over on a Yahnkee whenever possible.   As a Northerner, you should never do business with a Southern Redneck.   Go to Savannah, Hilton Head, or Jacksonville, and find someone who isn't "from here".
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Monday, October 29, 2012

Food Stamps for Millionaires? Maybe....

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Food Stamps are one of those Government Programs designed to help folks out.  The qualifications for Food Stamps are pretty liberal, in my opinion.   In theory, I could qualify for them, if I restructured my finances.

This has not been a good year for me personally, in terms of economics.  I didn't work very much, probably by choice more than anything else.  But 2013 will be a different story, as a client has promised me a pile of work, perhaps enough to put me back in that vaunted six-figure salary range.

And that is the fun part of being self-employed.  You can make $20,000 one year and $200,000 the next.  And that is why, if you want to start a business, it pays not to saddle yourself with a lot of pointless personal debt or expenses.  And that is one reason I started this blog.  Cutting stupid personal expenses like Cable TV and trendy cell phones, is not optional for the self-employed, it is essential.

I got to thinking, though, "Gee, my income this year was so crappy, I'd probably qualify for food stamps!"  And the scary thing is, well, I probably would come close - even though on paper I am a Millionaire.    How can this be so?   Well, if you have your money tied up in your house (check) and IRA (check) and drive older cars (check, check) and have a low annual income (check) you might just qualify.

Let's look at the criteria on the USDA SNAP site.   They are not called "food stamps" anymore, but the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and they don't hand out stamps anymore, but a debit card.  Pretty sweet!

There are a number of qualification criteria to get Food Stamps, or should I say, SNAP:

Special Rules for Elderly or Disabled


RESOURCES:

Would I qualify for Food Stamps?  Let's look at the first item, resources:
 
Households may have $2,000 in countable resources, such as a bank account, or $3250 in countable resources if at least one person is age 60 or older, or is disabled.  However, certain resources are NOT counted, such as a home and lot, the resources of people who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the resources of people who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, formerly AFDC), and most retirement (pension) plans.

The procedures for handling vehicles are determined at the state level. States have the option of substituting the vehicle rules used in their TANF assistance programs for SNAP vehicle rules when it results in a lower attribution of household assets. A number of States exclude the entire value of the household’s primary vehicle as an asset. In States that count the value of vehicles, the fair market value of each licensed vehicle that is not excluded is evaluated. Currently 39 States exclude the value of all vehicles entirely. 11 States totally exclude the value of at least one vehicle per household. The 3 remaining states exempt an amount higher than the SNAP’s standard auto exemption (currently set at $4,650) from the fair market value to determine the countable resource value of a vehicle. For more information concerning State specific vehicle policy, check with the State agency that administers the SNAP program. 

OK, this is a no-brainer.  First, I am 53, so while the 60-or-older limit doesn't apply, I will be there pretty soon.  Sweet!   Second, $2000 in the bank account is not hard to swing.  I generally keep only that much in my bank account anyway, as I put any surplus into investments.

And one of those investments is my home, which is worth about $500,000, and is paid for.  A half-million dollars and it doesn't get counted at all!  Super-sweet!

Now, I also have a large sum of money in retirement plans.  Guess what?  That don't count, either!

But what about my cars?  Well, there it gets tricky, as you have to look at State Rules for more information.  For Georgia, the rules can be found here as, oddly enough, a WORD document (they don't have Adobe here in Georgia).    The document is silent about cars, however.  But I assume that since I drive 1999 and 2002 cars, both over a decade old and worth about $10,000 each, I might actually qualify.  Never mind that they are in like-showroom condition and are both BMWs, under the guidelines, I might actually get in!

(And of course, this sort of things is ripe for fraud.  It would not be hard to title cars in the name of a relative to get around this requirement).

39 States don't even count cars - so you could drive to the SNAP office in a Ferrari, and it wouldn't make a difference.  11 States exclude one car per household.  Three States use a standard $4650 exlusion, which sort of puts a damper on the party, don't it?

So, from what I can see, the Resources section isn't a real issue, for a Millionaire wanting to collect food stamps.  From what I can see, that is....   But wait, there's more!


INCOME:

At first, this seems like a toughie.   After all, if you have a million bucks in assets and investments, don't you have a lot of income?  Yes and no.  Much of this income is not realized and thus not taxable income.  If my house goes up in value, that is not "income" until I sell it.  With the IRA, nothing is "income" until a withdrawal is made - and you can decide  not to withdraw money from your IRA until about age 70, when they start forcing you to.

So, for example, at age 60, I might have a very low or non-existent income, but a million dollars worth of uncountable assets.  I get no Social Security, and choose not to take any income from my IRAs, and thus limit my income for the year.   I could, by choice, make myself look poor to the government, and do so, in a perfectly legal manner.

But would I qualify today?  Perhaps not.

The standards for income are set forth in the USDA site:
Households have to meet income tests unless all members are receiving TANF, SSI, or in some places general assistance. Most households must meet both the gross and net income tests, but a household with an elderly person or a person who is receiving certain types of disability payments only has to meet the net income test. Households, except those noted, that have income over the amounts listed below cannot get SNAP benefits.
(Oct. 1, 2012 through Sept. 30, 2013)
Household size
Gross monthly income
(130 percent of poverty)
Net monthly income
(100 percent of poverty)
1
$1,211 $ 931
2
1,640 1,261
3
2,069 1,591
4
2,498 1,921
5
2,927 2,251
6
3,356 2,581
7
3,785 2,911
8
4,214 3,241
Each additional member
+429 +330
Gross income means a household's total, nonexcluded income, before any deductions have been made. Net income means gross income minus allowable deductions.
* SNAP gross and net income limits are higher in Alaska and Hawaii.

For a household of two people, we can make as much as $1640 a month, or about $20,000 a year.  Not a lot of dough, to be sure.  But if your house is PAID FOR, well, you don't really need a lot of money to live on.  And $1000 a month buys a lot of inexpensive Champaign, at least in this house.
 
But wait, it gets better.  If I am "elderly" I may not have to pass the Gross Monthly Income test, just the "net income" test.

Deductions are allowed as follows:

A 20 percent deduction from earned income;
A standard deduction of $149 for households sizes of 1 to 3 people and $160 for a household size of 4 (higher for some larger households);
A dependent care deduction when needed for work, training, or education;
Medical expenses for elderly or disabled members that are more than $35 for the month if they are not paid by insurance or someone else;
Legally owed child support payments;
Some States allow homeless households a set amount ($143) for shelter costs; and
Excess shelter costs that are more than half of the household's income after the other deductions. Allowable costs include the cost of fuel to heat and cook with, electricity, water, the basic fee for one telephone, rent or mortgage payments and taxes on the home. (Some States allow a set amount for utility costs instead of actual costs.) The amount of the shelter deduction cannot be more than $469 unless one person in the household is elderly or disabled. (The limit is higher in Alaska, Hawaii and Guam.)
If you understand that previous paragraph, you have the soul of a government bureaucrat.

The income test might be a squeaker for me, at least this year.   Frankly, we make just a little too much to get in under the $20,000 wire - but this year, it is close!    And with the net income test, it might knock me out, as my medical expenses might not be enough to bring that number down.   But as an early retiree, I might be able to make the net income test, particularly in those years before medicare kicks in and my health insurance costs are higher.

But the point is, I am pretty close to qualifying - a few thousand dollars, and I could get in.  And as a self-employed person, this is not really hard to arrange.

But assuming I could do this, what are the benefits?   Not a lot, as we shall see.


BENEFITS

Like the computation for "deductions" there is a convoluted computation for benefits.   See the USDA website for an example of the "deductions" calculation - I did not reproduce it here.

The benefits are calculated as follows:


People in Household Maximum Monthly Allotment
1
$    200
2
$    367
3
$    526
4
$    668
5
$    793
6
$    952
7
$ 1,052
8
$ 1,202
Each additional person
$    150

Benefit Computation
Example
 Multiply net income by 30%...
 (Round up)
 Subtract 30% of net income from the maximum
 allotment for the household size...
 $1,143.5 net monthly income
 x .3 = $343.05 (round up to $344)
 $668 maximum allotment for 4 - $344 (30% of 
 net income) = $324, SNAP Allotment
 for a full month
If a household applies after the first day of the month, benefits will be provided from t

If you understood any of that, you have a career ahead of you working for the U.S. Government!   From what I can see, if my income was "just barely" enough to qualify, the resulting benefit would be pretty low. The maximum benefit for a household of two is $367 a month.  In order to get this, your net income would have to be ZERO.  If your net income was anything above $1273 a month (for a family of two) your net benefit would be, well nothing.

So, it looks like I won't be getting any food stamps this year (all together now, "Awwww!").

But what is interesting to me is that the eligibility requirements eliminate a lot of real assets (houses, retirement plans, cars) from the equation.  In theory, you can be a Millionaire and collect food stamps - legally - if your money is all tied up in 401(k) plans and IRAs, as well as your home.

It also points out how the system is pretty ripe for fraud.   If you can shift assets to others (put them in a trust for your kids, for example) or hide income (legally or illegally) you could qualify.

For example, Joe Carpenter does carpentry work for various homeowners.  He does odd jobs, cabinet installations, small remodeling projects, and the like.   He gets paid under the table, which his customers don't mind doing, as the jobs are small (no loans involved) and the costs are not deductible business expenses to them.  He also gets some jobs here and there from commercial clients, and those are reported as income.  He tried to keep his reported income as low as possible - preferably under $20,000 a year, so he pays little or no income taxes.

For his family of four, he can qualify for a number of government assistance programs, even though he owns his own home (which he built) outright, and over the years, his contributions to his IRA and 401(k) plans have accumulated to over $500,000.  So long as his reported income shows him to be poor, he qualifies.

It is illegal?  On a number of levels.  Unreported income is a big no-no with the IRS.   But the agency isn't going to go after the Joe's of the world, as there isn't a lot of "there" there to go after.  And similarly, the USDA doesn't have the resources to police their system, either.

Is our food stamp program a problem?   Some think so.    But I am not sure that this is not alarmist talk, in some regards.  Or to put is more succinctly, the talk of "Millionaires on Food Stamps" is perhaps just rhetoric to get people riled up.  As my example above shows, it is pretty darn hard to get on Food Stamps, as a Millionaire, unless you are willing to live on very, very, little, or are defrauding the system.

It is a shame that people have to resort to rhetoric like that to make a point, as the program does have 40-47 million people on it (about 15% of the population!) and is growing like crazy.

So I do think they have a point.  There should be a "needs test" to get on to Food Stamps, and this test should include a calculation of assets as well as income.  If someone has a house worth hundreds of thousands of dollars (in equity), perhaps they don't need government assistance.   Let them sell their house, live off the proceeds, and then give us a call when they run out of that.

Is that "harsh"?  Well, yea.  But you aren't "poor" if you have assets.  Getting public assistance should be hard to do and it should be difficult as well.   When you make it easy to get government assistance, well, more and more people do it.

One of the lessons of Welfare reform of the 1990's was that many folks stopped collecting welfare, even before the reforms were implemented.   Why was this?  Some believe that just the talk of reforms scared many folks off the dole, as they thought they might be caught committing fraud.  And that is a pretty powerful observation right there.   If people think they can get away with something, they will.  If they think they will get caught, they won't.

Similarly, while a 401(k) plan or IRA plan is intended for retirement, we should have some method of counting this, or at least pro-rating the accounting, based on age.   While we don't want to encourage people to cash in their retirement plans at age 30, by age 60, they should be spending at least some of this money, rather than asking the government for more.

But of course, getting people to report assets requires self-reporting of assets.   A case worker could, in theory, look up the deed records of a home and determine, roughly, its value and whether it is encumbered by a mortgage.  However, in most jurisdictions, you have to do a title search to find some of this information (most online sites show only the owner's name and the tax bill.  You have to hire a title searcher to get more detailed documentation).

Similarly, I am not aware of any online database the government has access to, that lists the value of your 401(k) or IRA plans.   So trying to enforce this aspect of an assets test would be nearly impossible.   Without evidence of fraud, you could not prosecute such cases, and you could not even subpoena such records, without solid evidence.

Which is why the government probably has dropped these items from any "needs test" - they are hard to enforce.

But then again, many folks would probably balk if these items were listed on the requirements.   Like with the IRS, fear of being audited is a far more powerful weapon than actual auditing.   A surprising number of people would likely walk away from Food Stamps, if they were told their homes and retirement accounts would be factored into the equation, even if they could lie about these assets.

And similarly, not counting the value of cars seems somewhat short-sighted.  If someone can afford to put $2000 worth of bling rims on their car, do they really need $347 a month in food stamps?   I don't think so, but I am probably in the minority on this.  And again, the enforcement is a nightmare.

Now, I am anticipating a comment from certain quarters (or even a particular commenter) - "One way to eliminate fraud in these kinds of programs is to just not have these kinds of programs!"

And I will leave that up to the reader to decide.   With obesity being the number one medical issue among the very poor, it would seem that, increasingly, it is an argument that might make sense.  When people in this country are getting FATTER AND FATTER, maybe we should stop paying them to eat.

Here is a link to a table on the USDA site of the overall cost of the SNAP program, average benefit per person (less than $200 a month) and total number of people on the program.  As of 2011, about 45 million people are on the program, collecting about $133 each.  Total cost, for 2011, was 75,706,080,000.  That's 75 Billion bucks.  Sounds like a lot of money, until you realize it represents only about 6% of our annual deficit, and about 2% of our overall National Budget.

Or look at it another way, it is about 1/10th of what we spend on defense every year.

But you know, a Billion here, a Billion there, and pretty soon you are talking real money!


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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Washing Machine Drain Sock

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They look a bit like chainmail condoms, but these washing machine drain socks can save your plumbing.

Owning a home is a daunting task.   You now own, and are responsible for, a number of different mechanical and electrical systems, most of which you have no idea how to fix, and even if you did, you would not have the right tools.  It can be an expensive nightmare.

And in any financial transaction, if you are not equipped to deal with things yourself, you will get ripped off, big time.   And when it comes to a home, many items are very hard to repair, or are buried underground, and thus expensive to fix.

For example, when we had a pool installed, they broke the main water line to our house.  The old water line went through the back yard, even though the city had installed new city water meter and line in the front yard, decades earlier.   So no one expected to find a water line in the back yard.   The pool contract explicitly stated they were not responsible for underground obstructions, so I was on the hook to repair the water line.   The pool people at least shut off the water at the meter by the road.  But we had no water, not even to flush the toilet.

I called several plumbers in the Yellow Pages (the worst source for information, by the way) and they all said the same thing - emergency repairs like this would cost at lest $2500 to $5000.   And that is a whole lot of money, in case you weren't paying attention.

I wasn't going to pay it.  No way.

First, I shut off the main water valve in the house.   You should know where this is, by the way, in case you do have a plumbing leak or a washing machine drain hose fail.   You'd be surprised how many folks don't know where this important valve is - or try to exercise it once in a while, so it doesn't weld itself in the open position.

Once the water line was shut off, I took my longest garden hose, and some adapters I had, and made a double-ended hose with two female fittings, one on each end.  I went to my neighbor's house and told him I would buy him a case of beer if I could connect my garden hose to his outdoor faucet for the weekend.  He readily agreed.  I hooked up to his tap, and then ran the hose to my outside tap and then opened both.  Wa-la, we have water again, to flush the toilets and even run the ice maker.

No longer in panic mode, we could then carefully consider our options and take our time.  And no, the $5000 plumber was not an option.

Saturday morning I went to the local rent-a-center and rented a Ditch Witch and a trailer.  I think it was like $150 or so.  On the way home, I stopped at the big-box home improvement store and bought several ten-foot sections of 1" PVC water pipe ($3.99 each), some cleaner and solvent adhesive, and a number of elbows and connectors.  All told, maybe $50 in parts.  Why was this a $5000 job?  Because to most people, it is rocket science.


A much younger me, running the "dirt chainsaw" in the front yard of Washington Road.

Installing the new water line wasn't hard to do, just hard work, messy, and dirty.   The trench was nearly six feet down, which was probably overkill, given the frost line in Virginia.  But by the end of the weekend, I had a new water line installed and returned the Ditch Witch to the rental place.

Digging the trench was the hardest part.

So, I was able to salvage the matter, for only a few hundred dollars.  Others would not be so lucky, if they were not as handy and clever.   And there are other pieces of home infrastructure that are harder to repair and replace.

In addition to your main water line, there is the sewer line from your home, to the city sewer, unless you have a septic system.   In many older homes, this may be a cast iron pipe, or an "Orangeburg" pipe or perhaps even sections of ceramic pipe.   As these pipes age, they can be problematic.   Tree roots try to pry their way in, sensing all that good nutrition going down the pipeline.  And with ceramic or Orangeburg pipes, they can sneak a root in here and there, at the joints.

Cast iron pipes rust through, eventually.  But long before that, they corrode and start to look scaly and rough on the inside.   Eventually, they become so rough that they will entrap debris - food from your dispose-all, or lint from your washing machine.   Thus junk will eventually clog the drain when you least expect it (usually when company comes) and the end result is a trip from the roto-rooter man, and an unexpected $250 repair bill.

If the pipe gets bad enough and has to be replaced, you are talking $5000 or more to have a crew with a backhoe tear up your front yard and install a new sewer pipe.   Fun!   And unlike my water line project, this is hardly a "do it yourself" kind of job.

With septic systems, similar problems abound.  Solid matter will clog your septic tank, forcing you to have it pumped out more often.  And solid matter in the waste field will eventually clog the drain tiles, requiring an entire rebuilding of the septic system - again a $5000 job at least, or at least that is what I paid to have one installed at our barn.

So it behooves you to keep your main drain in working order.  Not flushing down paper towels or "flush-able wipes" (a misnomer if there ever was one) is a good start.  Dispose-alls are fine and all, but using them as the lazy man's garbage can will come back to haunt you, eventually.

In our house, they installed a new sewer line for part of the house.  Being built on a slab, it is hard to get at the sewer line without a jackhammer.  But the previous owner did just that, and ran a new line outside.   But for some reason, they left the existing line from the laundry room and just spliced that into the new outside line.

The problem is, the laundry room drain is "slow" and was getting slower all the time.   Water from the washing machine would back up into the laundry sink, and it was not an easy drain to "snake" either.   We had a similar problem at Washington Road, and eventually, when the house was bulldozed, they put in new sewer lines for the new homes they built there.   I am glad I did not spend $5000 on a new sewer line!

One plumber suggested to us that our only real problem was the laundry room drain, and that a washing machine "sock", placed over the drain of the washing machine (and set to drain into the laundry sink) would help solve this problem.   They come in packets of two and cost about $1.99 a package.

It is pretty amazing, but within a couple of weeks, we had to change this "sock" as it was completely clogged with lint.   All that lint had been going down the drain, and attaching itself to the rough sidewalls of the aging cast iron pipe.   And I know this, as every time I snaked the line with my power snake, the head would come back with a wad of lint and small bits of fabric on it, as well as chunks of rust.

I recently added one of these socks to our home here in Georgia, and again, within two weeks, it was clogged solid.  I went out and bought six more.   All that lint was again attaching itself to our cast iron pipes, and causing the drain to slow down.    With the sock in place, the drain now is running faster and not backing up.

Is this a permanent fix?  Of course not.   But jack-hammering up our floors to replace this one drain would be an exorbitantly expensive project with little real gain in terms of resale value or improved draining.

A $1.99 sock kit is a much better option - preventative maintenance that avoids an expensive repair or call to the power-snake guy.

Note that in order to use the sock, I had to disconnect the drain from the washing machine drain mounted in the wall.   You can't stuff the mesh sock down this hole.   Instead, I put the washing machine drain on the edge of the slop sink (secured with a wire tie which I fed through two holes drilled in the side of the sink).

$1.99 and problem solved.  All of life should be this easy...
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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Bicycle Accidents

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Bicycles can be a economical means of transportation.   But all it takes is one run-in with a car to ruin your life.


When I was a young technician at Carrier, we had a senior tech named Ken Cunningham, and he was the greatest guy in the world.  Smart and funny and full of self-depreciating humor, he was always quick with a joke and just a nice guy to be around.   And he was lucky to be alive.

A few years before I went to work there, he was hit by a car while on his bicycle, on his way to work.  He rode his bike nearly every day - when it wasn't snowing - and he had a body of iron to show for it.

But one morning, a motorist, who was prone to epileptic seizures and also had to use leg braces and crutches to walk, passed out behind the wheel, swerved off the pavement and hit Ken from behind, on the shoulder of the road.

The bicycle was destroyed.  The rear stays were pushed out flat and the rear wheel bent in to a pretzel.  Ken hit the hood of the car and went over, fracturing his skull, breaking several ribs, as well as an arm and a leg, as I recall.  He was unconscious.

When the Police arrived, the motorist, who by now was awake, said that Ken was riding "in the middle of the roadway" and not on the shoulder, and moreover was "on the wrong side of the road" - the latter statement reflecting a misunderstanding by most folks, who think you are supposed to be riding facing traffic, which of course is not true.

Ken, being unconscious, was unable to tell his side of the story.  So "wrong side of the road" and "riding in the middle of the lane" were on the traffic report.

Ken recovered from his injuries, and since he was in such great shape, he recovered very well - for a man in his early 60's.   His wife bought him a stationary bicycle and forbid him from riding on anything but a bike path, from then on.

He hired a lawyer, and years later, their case went to trial.  However, since the only "witness" was the motorist, it was a tough case to try.  The damning Police Report was no help either.  Ken could not testify to much.  As in the case with most head injuries, the last thing he remembered was leaving the house that day.   They settled out of court for a modest sum.   As his Lawyer put it, "the Defendant is going to show up in his crutches and leg braces, and the Jury will think HE was the victim!"

Now, a lot of die-hard bicyclists miss the point of this story entirely.   They point to the facts and say, "Well, clearly the motorist was at fault, man!" as if somehow that made it all "right" in their minds.

But no matter who was at "fault", dead is dead - or severely injured is severely injured.   And crippled-for-life is a high price to pay for biking to work.  Ken's wife was right - no more road riding!

Why do I say this?  Well, when you ride in the road, on busy highways, getting hit by a car is a predictable event.   And you can't go through life pretending to be continually surprised by predictable events and predictable outcomes.   It is a crappy way to live.   If you ride long enough, eventually you will get hit.   All the laws and rules of the road and your being "right" make no difference.   You will get hit and end up in a world of woe.  The laws of probability are very inflexible on this point.

It is just like with motorcycles.    They are fun and all, but ride one long enough, and you will encounter a car turning left in front of you.  You can bank on it.

Yes, the odds of getting hit on any one day are not great - but greater than you think.   The problem is, the outcome is very dire.   You may be taking a long-shot bet, but you are literally betting your life.  And if you ride long enough, eventually the law of probability catches up with you.   Perhaps the odds of flipping a coin are 50/50 - heads or tails - and you may get several "heads" in a row.  But if you flip a coin long enough, eventually you will flip tails.

A stream of traffic on a highway is like a 50-mph river of metal.   Cars whizzing by are not only scary, they are extremely dangerous.  One slip by you or a distracted motorist (likely texting) and it is all over for you.  Even a "minor" impact at 25-35 mph can kill you, particularly if you go under the car.

Does this mean you should never ride a bicycle?   Well, not really.  Only that you should not be lulled into a sense of complacency about a bike.  And you should ride defensively rather than trying to assert your "rights" and end up dead.

I see bicyclists, all the time, courting death, not only on our little island, but in traffic in major cities.   They often take risks to save a few minutes or to assert their "bicycle rights" and put themselves in extreme danger.

Riding on roadways is really murder.   Even the faster cyclists can only maintain about 20 mph on average.   Most cars are going by, even in a crowded city, at 35 mph or more.   And cars weigh two tons.   If there is a shoulder, use it.  And if your narrow bicycle tires can't ride on a shoulder, ask yourself why you are riding such an inappropriate bike for the real world.

On our island there are no shoulders, but miles of bike paths.  The "serious" cyclists ride their expensive "road bikes" on the road, and often ride two or three abreast.  They are asserting their "cyclists rights" to occupy a lane.  And it is a foolish game to play.   Why?  Well, the average age on our island is 75, and many of the elderly drivers are having problems with their eyesight, reaction times, and lane control.   You really want to play "chicken" with an 80-year-old with cataracts, who can barely see over the dashboard of her Buick?  Be my guest!

In cities and suburbs, I often see cyclists run red lights and stop signs.  The game goes like this.   You pass a cyclist on a roadway.  At the next stop sign or red light, they zoom past you, often passing close to your car or between your car and another car, and barely slowing down, they go through the stop sign or red light.   There are number of problems with this.

First of all, it is illegal as hell.   Yes, cyclists are supposed to obey the rules of the road and have a right to use the road.  But when you run red lights and stop signs, you are breaking the rules and pissing everyone off.   But more to the point, when you zoom between cars or a car and the shoulder, there is a chance someone may open a car door, decide to turn, or whatever, and you will be caught in a metal vise.

And it goes without saying that running red lights and stop signs is just dangerous.  Maybe a cyclist doesn't have to worry about the A-pillar, but other driver's do.   I was nearly run over by a driver here, who "cut the corner" making a left turn, and almost plowed into me, while I was STANDING at the stop sign.   He could not see me because of his A-pillar, and by "cutting the corner" he was traveling into the oncoming lane.  Run a stop sign or red light, and chances are, the guy going the other way will not see you, until it is too late.

I enjoy biking, but I don't enjoy biking on roadways, particularly busy ones.   Why?  Because it is noisy and crowded and people driving cars are not very nice. 

Yes, we need more bike paths.  And yes, our country is building them.  But for some perverse reason, many bicyclists refuse to use such paths, insisting instead on riding on public roads in the heavy metal stream of car traffic, even if a bike path is parallel and less than 10 yards away.   I for one, just don't get it.   Bike paths rock.  Riding in traffic sucks.

If I had no bike paths to ride on, I seriously would reconsider bicycling and perhaps take up another activity, like walking.   Riding in traffic is just not fun or safe.
 
I used to ride my bike to school - 20 miles each way - along the old Erie Canal towpath near Syracuse.  It was a great ride, except at each end, where I had to traverse a few miles of roadway, and deal with the jerks in cars.   But since most of the ride was on a dedicated bike path, it was a nice, relaxing ride.   But of course, the packed gravel path did require a mountain bike, not some douchebag road bike.

In Washington, I used to ride up the bike path along the Potomac from Mt. Vernon to Alexandria, Virginia.   Again, it was a path that required a mountain bike, with wide tires.  But it was fun and scenic.   Some idiots would always try to ride their "road bikes" on this Mt. Vernon parkway, which was a shoulder-less road, and it was amazing than more of them were not hit and killed.   Again, I enjoyed the ride, except for the city street parts at each end.   I would explore less crowded streets to use and try to avoid the commuter rush.   It made a big difference.

Here on the island, we have a network of bike trails - and again, we have these folks who insist that they are "too serious" to ride on them, but instead drive to our island to ride their expensive road bikes on our shoulder-less roads.   When you try to pass them in your car, they intentionally veer out into the lane, to "prove their point" that they are entitled to a lane.  And they give you nasty looks if you do pass.   What is the point of that?   They would prefer to have a line of cars behind them, all trying to pass?  I fail to grasp the point of it.

Well, the point is, I guess, to wear your Livestrong bracelet and your USPS racing jersey and pose as a "serious racer dude" bicyclist, not just some "amateur" who might actually be having fun, right?  In other words, it is the same-old, same-old that has dogged our humanity since the get-go - the need for people to seek status and show others that they are "better than you" - even if these decisions come at a great personal cost to the individual.

But I wonder if they will think it is worth it all, once they have their head buried in the grill of that old lady's Buick, and watch their life drain out on the pavement.   Was it worth it to be so serious?   Or would they have been better off with a cheap mountain bike, a picnic lunch, and a nice ride through our forested paths, followed by a spirited sprint down the beach - all without a car in sight.

And it will happen someday - someone will be killed in a horrific bike accident on this island.   It is only a matter of time.  I can only hope it is not me on the bike, or me behind the wheel, when some Lance-Armstrong wanna-be swerves out in front of my car.

And all just to make some sort of "point".   I don't get it.  I really just don't get it.
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Friday, October 26, 2012

Wal-Mart Fixies

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Wildly impractical and totally trendy, fixies are now available at Wal-Mart.   Fixies are so "over!"

What is a "fixie"?  If you are over 40, you probably have no idea.  Fixies are bicycles that are descended from board-track racers of an earlier Century.  They have no gears, no brakes, and no freewheel.  If you want to slow down, you have to pedal slower.  Real fun when going down a steep hill!

They have become trendy with a certain set of people who place style over substance, as parodied effectively on an episode of Portlandia.

Your typical modern "fixie" is characterized not only by the fixed gearset (often accompanied by a freewheel set, on a reversible rear wheel) but also by mismatched and wild tire colors, as well as jarring florescent frame colors and usually straight, upright handlebars.  Many modern trendy "fixies" are almost effeminate in nature, with shocking pink or other "little girl bicycle" accessories.

The folks who ride "fixies" of course, are putting style over substance.   They are not practical bicycles, by any stretch of the imagination.   While they may work in somewhat flat environs, imagine trying to ride a fixie down the hills of San Francisco.   And I am sure some do.  And they either have brass balls or no brains - and perhaps the two are connected.

But if you haven't heard of "fixies" just yet (although they were mentioned in a wall poster on Season 3 of Glee - "Fixie Club, no brakes, are you in?") they are already "over" as they are now being sold at Wal-Mart.

Yes Wal- Mart.  I went there today to get some brake cleaner and $1.28 double-check crackers (Triscuit knock-offs, for 1/3 the price, and less salt), as I have disassembled the entire front suspension of the X5 and remove the axle half-shafts.  It is a mess.  I needed brake cleaner.

While walking by the bicycle display, I was checking to see if they had any more of those huge 32" tire bicycles (finally a bicycle built for someone my size!).  They were sold out, but what was shocking, was that they had fixies in stock.

Fixies.   At Wal-Mart.  Who woulda thunk it?

Of course, the bicycle business is all about style.  Really.   Back in the 1960's we all rode "Sting-Ray" bicycles, which were hardly rideable and were horrific, in terms of efficiency (they have re-emerged in recent years as Latino "low rider" bikes, and as a whole new generation of unridable motorcyle-like bikes).

(Our ancestors, of course, in the 1950's, rode balloon-tire single-speed coaster-brake monstrosities that weighted in at 70 pounds or more, and were laden with chrome, lights, and huge motorcycle-like fenders.)

In the 1970's we all went for the 10-speed, with its "rams head" handlebars which caused you to bend over double to reach the brakes.   More efficient, but less practical.  And those thin wheels would bend when you looked at them.

In the 1980's, the Mountain bike took off.  Finally, a bicycle that would not bend a rim when you jumped the curb with it!  But pretty soon, the serious off-road cycle stuff started going mainstream, including incredibly short wheelbases and short frames.   A good trend, gone awry.

The BMX craze took off at about the same time.  Great for doing stunts on a skateboard ramp, but sucky for getting a six-pack at the 7-11.  Ever seen anyone (particularly an adult) try to ride a BMX bike as transportation?  It is just sad.

The "Beach Bike" craze took off in the early 2000's, and it provided us with at least comfortable and easy-to-ride bicycles with wide tires and strong frames - even if they weighed in at 75 lbs (they sell these at Wal-Mart, too, complete with "woody" trim!).

It seems that the bicycle, as basic transportation, has yet to catch on.  But as a style item, is a big success.

So, I guess, it was inevitable that Wal-Mart would have fixies.  And we have to look to our friends West to see what the "next big thing" will be.

But it is funny.   Wal-Mart not only had fixies, but beach bikes, mountain bikes, BMW bikes, and even a sting-ray kind of bike.  And most started at $99.99.

Wal-Mart Fixies.  I've seen it all.
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Colonizers or Colonized?

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In the history of the world, countries have either been colonizers or colonized.  The United States has been both, which is why we are sometimes schizophrenic.

I was ordering some things from China the other day.  You can buy directly from China, with no middleman, through sites like eBay.   They ship by China Post, which surprisingly, gets here in about a week or so.   I bought a wireless card for $5 including shipping.  I bought a pair of biking gloves for about $7 including shipping.  They are pretty good deals.

In this election year, there is a lot of China-bashing going on.    Just as we demonized the Japanese in the 1980's, today the whipping-boy is China.

Just a recap, in case you were asleep during the 1980's or were not born yet:

Back then, the Japanese economy was strong.   Japanese car sales were starting to take off (but were nowhere near the levels they are today).  A Japanese car actually cost less than a US-made car, and people complained that their labor rates were too low and that they manipulated their currency to make their exports more competitive. (Stop me if any of this sounds familiar in terms of today's dialog).

They were also accused of "dumping" products here for below cost, to gain market share and put U.S.-makers out of business.   For example, U.S. Marine (the makers of Bayliner, Sea Ray, Mercury and Mercruiser - the GM of boats) filed an anti-dumping complaint at the ITC against Yamaha.   The complaint was dismissed after the ITC discovered that the largest customer for Yamaha power heads was, in fact, Mercury Marine, who painted them black and sold them as Mercuries.

The Japanese went on a buying binge, buying land and hotels, and golf courses, on the West Coast and in Hawaii.   They also held a lot of our national debt (and still do).   The alarms were sounded!  The
"Japs" were taking over!   Time to do something about it!

So at the GM factory where I worked, they brought in some tired old Datsun or Toyota and everyone took turns smashing it with a sledgehammer.   That will show those "Japs!" won't it?   Of course, the hundreds of man-hours lost doing this stupid stunt put us even further behind.  Today, that plant is closed, 8,000 people were laid off, and the 22-acre building is now a warehouse for Chinese-made goods.

What happened to Japan?   Well, as they became more wealthy, the Japanese worker demanded more money.   Suddenly their cost advantage evaporated.   And the Yen became strong, making exports difficult.    They alleviated this problem, somewhat, by building factories in this country.   But today, Japan is recovering from the "Lost Decade" of the 1990's, when their economy was in the shitter, while ours was roaring back to life.   Nature abhors a vacuum, and in a free-market, eventually equilibrium sets in.

Today it is the Chinese that are the bad guys.  But they really aren't "bad" so much as they want to get ahead.  And you can't blame them for that.   And there are signs that what happened to the Japanese is happening to the Chinese - and India as well.   Wages are rising, the cost of producing goods is increasing.  The vaunted advantages of manufacturing in China are eroding, slowly at first.

And of course, the bad press surrounding the working conditions and lack of pollution controls, is starting to affect U.S companies.  How long can Apple keep its image as the "good guy" in the computer business, when story after story comes out of China about the horrific working conditions in the iPhone factories?  Eventually, Apple will be shamed into doing something, and that "something" will increase labor costs.

But it struck me that we have more in common with the Chinese than we think.   Our country was founded as a colony - or series of colonies - of European nations.   The Americas were colonized by the English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.    And Europe, for the next Century, went on a colonizing binge - subjugating and subdividing Africa, the middle-East, India, and of course China and Indonesia.

We threw off the yoke of colonialism early on, and likely this was because as descendents of Europeans ourselves, we bristled at the restrictions of being a "colony" and not self-governing.   And over time, this revolution spread - even to Europe, and of course, eventually to nearly every colony across the globe, including China.

But in the interim, of course, we ourselves got into the game - laying claim to a manifest destiny and declaring war on Spain, Mexico, the Phillipines, and a number of other countries, in order to gain territories, new States, and control and influence.   We even tried to get into the China game, although the British seemed to have the Opium-Tea-Gold triangle sewn up.

There are two points of view, I think, in the United States - those who think we should be colonizers like our European Ancestors of old, and those who think, as a former Colony, we should know better.

The former are the folks who are always shouting to invade this or that country, lest the Communists get there first, or today, Al Qaeda.  And perhaps there is some merit to this philosophy.  But, like playing whack-a-mole, it is a game that never seems to end.   Today, the latest threat is a small impoverished country called Mali, where the Taliban is taking hold, and terrorizing the populace.  Tomorrow, it will likely be somewhere else.

How do our allies and enemies handle this?   In the old days, the Soviets tried to snatch up as many countries as they could, into their "sphere of influence".  The cold war was a real war.  They finally had their comeuppance in Afghanistan (a cautionary tale there) and in trying to match us, dollar for dollar, in military spending.

Today, our military spends as much money as the next ten largest militaries, combined.   And there is talk of spending even more although the Pentagon really isn't keen on the idea.

Right-wingers like to spread e-mails with fictitious pictures of "the next generation of Chinese Aircraft Carriers!"   But the reality is that China has one (1) aircraft carrier, launched in 2011, which was actually a refurbished Soviet aircraft carrier.  Some threat!

So how does China spread influence in the world?   Well, economically, not militarily.  For example, they are building highways and infrastructure in Kenya.  Unlike an invasion, the locals actually appreciate this, as it creates jobs and provides an infrastructure that allows them to advance as a people.   China is giving them a hand-up into the modern world.   We send drones with Hellfire missiles.   Which is is a better long-term strategy to win the "hearts and minds" of the people?

The real threat from China is not fictitious mega-aircraft carriers that exist only in the minds of right-wing cranks.  They don't exist, and thus are not a threat.  China is not trying to project military power very far outside its own sphere, or indeed, far from its shoreline.   The real threat from China is not the low-cost goods and low-cost labor.  Rising labor costs and a slowing economy there will even things out, over time.

No, the real threat is that while we are trucking around the world, kicking ass and taking names, the Chinese are going around making friends and helping people out.  Rather than try to colonize, they are taking the point of view of the colonized.   Who will win out in the end?   And who will go bankrupt first?

We have to decide which side we are on.  Do we want to extend the excesses of the European Colonial Era into this Century?  Or is there another way?
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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Refrigerator Pie

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Nothing to eat in the house?  Try refrigerator pie!



You may think this is some sweet treat - a kind of sugary pudding pie that is loaded with calories.   But it is anything but.  If you are stumped as to what to eat, consider making a refrigerator pie.

A few years ago, we belonged to a "farm share" program, which is a bunch of dirty stinking hippies growing things like Kale and Collards, which basically have no caloric value whatsoever, even if they are chock full of "viti-mens" (so is Guinness) and will make you regular as a clock.

Anyway, we ended up with a refrigerator full of this stuff - oddball vegetables and enormous root-things that looked rather scary.

Most Liberals would quietly throw it all away and claim to have eaten it.  But of course, we would have none of that.

What to do with a refrigerator full of veggies, as well as a dozen eggs from the farmer down the road (no two the same size or color?).

Hmmmm.....   Well, there's a PIE CRUST in the freezer.

And "Refrigerator Pie" was born.

Chop it all up.  Grate it.  Slice it.  Pureee it.  Toss it all in a frozen pie crust and BAKE IT.  The results will amaze you!   What looked like a bunch of junk in your refrigerator can be made into a mouth-watering meal (provided the junk in your refrigerator isn't a six-pack of diet Pepsi and a half-eaten pizza).

Dinner: Refrigerator Pie

We came up with this last year while on the farm-share program. We had so much kale and swiss chard that we didn't know what to do with it.

Take a pre-made pie crust, and bake according to instructions, then line with a small amount of shredded cheese.

Then, put whatever you have in the refrigerator in it. Rice, leftovers, vegetables chopped up, tofu, whatever you have. Add a eggs to bind it together (it will cut easier and not fall apart).

You can add a top crust to the pie, or leave it open like a quiche. It freezes easily. It is simple to prepare and provides food for multiple meals, or for company (our friends wolf it down)

Ingredients (for this pie, yours may vary):
Pie Crust (open) 1040 for shell.
Tofu: 200 calories
3 cups collards, shredded 147
chopped tomatoes and green chiles (canned) 50
pepper
chipolte pepper
four eggs 312 calories
Total calories per pie: 1749 per pie

Serving size, 1/8 pie 219 calories each. 1/4 pie, 438 calories.

Total calories for dinner: 438 (kind of low!)
(there was probably some leftover rice in there, that I forgot to count).

It was good.  Of course, we washed it down with some local Finger Lakes wine, and maybe that made it seem better.  But the smell, while it was cooking, was sublime.

To us, "refrigerator pie" means taking whatever is in the refrigerator, chopping it up, and putting it in a frozen pie crust and cooking it.   What can you use?  Any kind of vegetable, from carrots, to brocolli, to carrots, to potatoes, to onions, to kale, to collard, to whatever.  The more the merrier.  Boil some rice and throw that in, if you need some "filler".

Some leftovers from last night?  Toss 'em in.   Some hot dogs?  Slice them up!  Have some cheese?  Grate it up!  Whatever you got - throw it in.  And don't skimp on the fresh garlic, hot sauce and peppers.

And the pie will be enough to serve four people - or two people for two meals.

Our ancestors used to make pies like this.  Folks in the North of England called them "Pasties" and filled them with meat and whatever was left over from last night.  Wrapped up in a towel, they would still be warm when lunchtime came around in the fields (and if you are ever in the U.P., you will see a lot of shops selling these).  Making pies, out of "whatever" is a old and honored tradition.

It is worthwhile to keep an extra frozen pie crust in your freezer, just for this....
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