Archive for January, 2010

Stuff Old Farts Like

This item is spurred by a recent Facebook exchange between myself and a young Will Thomsen after I commented on Conan O’Brien’s departure from late night television. There was a blog about it on Stuff That White People Like, and I suggested that perhaps it was time for something about old farts. Will thought that it was a good idea, and like the moth drawn to a flame, I’m writing about it. I promise that this will not become a regular thing.  Will, this is for you……….

You wake up one morning, look in the mirror and you see your father.  It just sort of sneaks up on you.  You can’t get service in certain stores because you don’t fit their demographic.  You find yourself holding onto the handrails as you walk down the stairs; taking two steps at a time is long out of the picture.  Women talk with you in ways that they never did before; where once you were a potential threat, now you are “cute”.  The day comes when you realize that you are, ahem, old.

Of course, what constitutes being “old” is a sliding scale kind of thing.  When you were a senior in high school, it was beneath you to think about dating someone that was in the fifth grade; now you’re married to her.  And, for those who still consider themselves to be “young”, my words to you are hold that thought.  I still do, because although my body has aged, I’m still the same juvenile delinquent that I’ve always been.  And like every other Baby Boomer, I have no intention of doing things the way that my parents did.  When you roll around to age 60, you will think the same way.

The self-obsessed Baby Boomers are, as a group, an obnoxious lot.  Everything’s about us, and the society has catered to us for decades.  Botox and Viagra are just two examples.  Space Cowboys and The Bucket List are two others.  The list goes on.

Now of course, as a declining demographic, we’re losing our grip on society, thank goodness.  Not that we’re going quietly; we’re just going.  You find yourself looking in the obituaries, and you mutter when see someone younger than you.  Likewise, people dying at 60 once got the comment: “Well, they were old.”  Now at age 60, it’s: “They were so young.” In any case, regardless of age, life’s like that.  One day you’re here and the next day, you’re not.  In the meantime, some amusements:

Social Security – As I get closer to filing for Social Security, I’m beginning to like it more.  As my generation slowly loses political power, it becomes easier for the politicians to paint us as a bunch of grey haired whiners who are sucking the life blood out of the young.  You can always trust the politicians to get it wrong.  They’ve been forcibly taking money from me since I was 16, and now, all of a sudden, I’m becoming a Welfare Queen.  Face it, the politicians took my money and spent it on other things; like a National String Museum in some Congress Person’s district.

If the Social Security program had been run by actuaries, there would be no problem, but they didn’t.  The same applies for Medicare, and where once Congress curried the favor of the elderly by increasing Medicare benefits, now they talk about achieving national health care by cutting the same benefits.  Let’s not get started about that…..

Senior Coffee – You hear about senior coffee at McDonald’s, but I’ve lived it.  Actually, I discovered senior coffee in my 40’s.  My lovely bride and I were driving through Texas on vacation, and we would stop at McDonald’s in the afternoons for a restroom break (another important thing for seniors) and a cup of coffee.  After a couple visits to different McDonald’s, I realized that they were under charging me.  When I asked the counter person, she told me that I was getting the senior rate.  I rather huffily told her that I didn’t qualify, but her response was “I don’t want to show disrespect.”  When we left Texas a week later, the practice of discounted coffee stopped.  Now, of course, I’m back in the chips.

The AARP – One would think that old farts like the AARP, and maybe they do.  Not me.  Based on their actions during the 2009 health care “debate” (so-called), the AARP is just another lobbying organization that has forgotten who it is supposed to represent.  Likewise, the organization has mutated into an insurance marketing organization with tax-free status.  Sweet.

In true Baby Boomer fashion, I tried to burn my AARP card, but the card appears to use space-age materials that make it impossible to destroy.  My wife signed me up for membership, against my wishes, and although I have resigned at least twice and sent them a letter telling them to stop bothering me, escaping the AARP is like trying to evade The Borg.  They start coming after you when you turn 50, a full fifteen years prior to your retirement.  I’m guessing that it is just a matter of time until the AARP has membership drives in kindergarten, with the final goal being the issuance of an AARP card that is attached to your birth certificate.

Early Bird Special – You don’t see these in young towns like Atlanta, but if you go to cities with a high proportion of retired people, you see the Early Bird Specials.  That is, discounted meals and such for people that are willing to have dinner at 4:30 PM.  I’m not a fan, but I suppose that I could get with the program if I treated the 4:30 PM meals as being “lunch”.

Bingo – Likewise, you don’t see much bingo being played in Atlanta, but a little reminder from the contested 2000 Presidential election in Florida:

A Palm Beach Voter

Shrimp – Speaking of gambling, I’ve got to mention a story about shrimp.  Years ago, when I was in my 40’s, we went to visit a friend who lives in Boulder, Colorado.  She was living with her mother, who was retired.  Mom loved to gamble, and would take a bus from Boulder to Blackhawk with a bunch of like-minded seniors.  The bus would leave in the evening and they would stay all night, playing the slot machines.

The big deal for the old-farts was to buy breakfast at the casino at just the right moment.  The idea was to get in and pay for breakfast, and then hang around until about 10:30, which was when lunch began.  If you were seated in the restaurant at the time, you could then continue eating lunch without paying the higher price charged for those just coming in.

Mom was describing the process to us, and then got a reverential look in her eyes.  “Lunch is when they start serving shrimp”.  She had this weird, beatific look, and I’m thinking to myself that this is just a bit deranged.  Think about it, shrimp being served in the mountains of Colorado, thousands of miles from the ocean.

Well, we went to the casino the next morning and did as instructed, sitting down and paying for breakfast.  As 10:30 rolled around, the shrimp wagon came out of the kitchen and the server used a shovel to pour thousands of cooked shrimp onto a bed of ice.  As with so many other things, imagination exceeded reality.  You could smell the ammonia produced by decaying shrimp across the room, but the seniors were lined up four deep to get at them.

I hope that in my dotage, my values don’t slip that way.

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Well, Scott Brown won the U. S. Senate seat in Massachusetts to complete a Senatorial term ended prematurely when Ted Kennedy died.  And now we will be inundated with analysis for weeks. There will be some who will maximize the meaning of this election, while others will minimize it. Barney Frank has already suggested that the filibuster isn’t legitimate.  What is it that law professors say?  “When you don’t have a case, argue the law.”

This is, of course, an opportunity for the Democrats to gracefully back away from an ill conceived and wildly unpopular attempt at reforming health care.  Well, as gracefully as is possible in the situation.  The Democrats mistook the electorate’s attempt to correct the systemic inequities that had developed in the Federal government for a “mandate”.  Perhaps they will reconsider their actions.

There is little doubt that the current President of the United States will continue his agenda.  There’s no reason for him to change course for another two or three years.  It is just a matter of time before the President distances himself from the Congress, just for self-preservation.  Can the “National Malaise” speech be far behind?

And the tone of this speech might actually be right; it’s not the fault of the politicians, it’s the fault of the American people.  For electing the leaders that we have elected.  For expecting too much from mere human beings.  And for not reminding them that they are just human beings.  An upset election such as in Massachusetts is one of those reminders, one that we should do more often just to keep our elected leaders honest.  Not all the time, just often enough to keep everybody focused.

There are a few Democratic members of Congress who might be giving consideration to their career future.  A few Republican members of Congress would do well to consider their career futures, too.  The independent voters swung away from the Republicans because they lost the clarity of their message.  The Democrats are experiencing this, now too.

It’s the larger message that is being lost.  The American people have become quite concerned about the state of their governance, at all levels.  As was opined in the 1960’s, “If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem”.  Of course, we’re always looking for the simple explanation and the simple solution, but life’s not that easy.  At the same time, we’ll keep voting people out until we’re satisfied.  The United States remains a center to center-right country, and until the politicians get that message and then live it, there’s going to be more turmoil.

Certainly, Scott Brown will face considerable opposition when he runs for reelection in 2012.  However, it is helpful to remember what Brown said during the election campaign.  “This isn’t Ted Kennedy’s seat, nor the Democrat’s seat.  It is the people’s seat.”  And we would all do well to remember that, not only in Massachusetts, but in our own home town.

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As the War on Terror drags along, some cracks are beginning to appear in the facade.

Recently, Helen Thomas asked a representative of the Obama administration the embarrassing question of why?

Thomas: “Why do they want to do us harm? And what is the motivation? We never hear what you find out on why.”

Brennan: “Al Qaeda is an organization that is dedicated to murder and wanton slaughter of innocents” They attract individuals like Mr. Abdulmutallab and use them for these types of attacks. He was motivated by a sense of religious sort of drive. Unfortunately, al Qaeda has perverted Islam, and has corrupted the concept of Islam, so that he’s (sic) able to attract these individuals. But al Qaeda has the agenda of destruction and death.”

Thomas: “And you’re saying it’s because of religion?”

Brennan: “I’m saying it’s because of an al Qaeda organization that used the banner of religion in a very perverse and corrupt way.”

Thomas: “Why?”

Brennan: “I think this is a — long issue, but al Qaeda is just determined to carry out attacks here against the homeland.”

Thomas: “But you haven’t explained why.”

Helen Thomas is interesting on several different levels.  Consider that she is a descendant of Christian Lebanese and grew up in Detroit.  She’s covered every President of the  U.S. since Jack Kennedy; let’s face it, she’s seen some good ones and seen some not-so-good ones.  And, while the rest of the lapdog press rolls their eyes at her persistence, sitting there waiting for its daily Kibbles & Bits from the current administration, she’s doing the reportorial thing and is actually asking a hard question.  Of course, the administration was unable to answer the question because they don’t know why.

If you are a certain type, cozy in your $5 Million Dakota apartment in the lower west 70’s, the response is:

We cannot stop terrorism or defeat the ideologies of violent extremism when hundreds of millions of young people see a future with no jobs, no hope, and no way ever to catch up to the developed world.”

Interesting if true, but people say those words because that’s all that they have.  The same thing happens when people get their backs to the wall and yell out “Racism”, people of all colors regardless of political persuasions.  When they can’t come up with a cogent reason, they fall back upon the comforting words of their youth.

Never mind that many of the jihadists have been the sons of doctors and civil engineers.  Our Mr. Abdulmutallab, the panty bomber, is the son of a prominent banker.  Yeah, things have been tough in the banking business, but “…..people see a future with no jobs….” ?

The teachings of Islam say that committing suicide is a sin, but if you die trying to kill the infidel, then it’s okay.  So, that’s how the terrorists get a pass.  The promise of 72 virgins in the afterlife is strictly for Western consumption; it’s the only concept that we can get our heads around.  Likewise, the prospect of children who stand every chance of financial success, another Western  notion, deliberately killing themselves for an idea is lost on us.  No, whatever those radical imams are teaching the kids of successful lives is what we call in The South, strong juju.  So, Thomas’ question of “Why?” is particularly relevant.  And, one which we are not prepared to answer as of yet.

Meanwhile, we are promised even more stringent measures to protect us from the potential of terrorism, regardless of the actual realities.  Please see here.  For decades, the politicians and academics have spoon fed us the notion that we should be perfectly safe.  The War on Terror, or whatever they want to call it now, is perfect for political gain because you just never know when that next terrorist is going to explode in your front yard.  This is not to say that it isn’t going to happen, it’s just a question of how likely it is that a terrorist is going to blow up your azaleas.

One of the evergreens of old school military training is that when one guy in the outfit screws up, the whole outfit pays with extra laps.  The general idea is to encourage group cohesion, an ever necessary notion in battle.  Or in PE class in high school (as preparation for the military life).  The reason that this works is because when the lights are turned out at bedtime, select members of the outfit escort the screw-up to the showers for a heart to heart beating.  This encourages the screw-up to not repeat the event which earned the D.I.’s ire.

Now of course, we see this stuff all over the place.  Every little stupid rule.  Every odd paragraph in an instruction sheet (my favorite is the instructions for camping tents always now include the phrase: “Do not set up under trees”).  “Zero Tolerance” in schools is another manifestation of someone screwing up.  It’s just that we don’t know who it is and thus can’t have that little discussion with them in the showers about not screwing up again.  Absent that, we come up with stringent rules, but as any good lawyer can tell you, exceptions to those rules can usually be found.  So, because of our current approach to terrorism, we are all forced to suffer indignities that may not be necessary.

So, my money’s on Helen Thomas.  Until we answer fully the question of “why”, nothing’s going to change.  Even if the terrorist does nothing except disrupt an airplane flight from Amsterdam, they’re still in our lives.  They don’t even need to lift a finger; we do it for them.  Why?

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A Gallup Poll near the end of the year found 25 percent of people — just one in four — feeling satisfied with how things were going in the United States.

So, there you have it.  You and I are probably kindred spirits.  And, if you are one of those 1 in 4’s, you just haven’t heard the news yet.  It’s easy to look around and see something wrong.  No challenge there, but the United States is currently going through a process of unwinding a lot of bad investments.  Not just financial investments, but also life-style investments and political investments.

Our financial structure has been gamed and fiddled with until it can’t wring out one more penny.  State & local governments are finding that out, too.  Rupert Murdoch tells us that broadcast television, “free TV” if you will, is not profitable unless we pay for it.  The costs of production are too high.  Likewise, state and local governments talk about rasing taxes, further.  It never occurs to them that perhaps we should cut the costs of producing that television show, or cut back on the funding for those pet programs.  That perhaps government shouldn’t be doing everything, if for no other reason than that government can’t do it very well in many cases.  Likewise, perhaps there’s too much television already and we should not be expected to prop up a bloated broadcast bureaucracy.  Everybody has their pet programs, of all sorts of subjects.

At the same time, this is a resilient country, populated with ingenious hard working people.  To my mind, the free market works, and anything that interferes with the free markets is not necessary and part of the problem.  Also, this is a country that, when left alone, generally sees the bright side of life and acts accordingly.  To be sure, there are the doom and gloom types.  Presumably they are one of those 1 in 4’s, too.  Just depends upon the subject.

It seems so morbid upon reflection, but when the Challenger exploded in 1986 as it was blasting off, there was a sobering moment.  And, then the jokes began to roll.  No need to recount them, but it was America’s response to a horrible event that would frame our lives in that time.  Or, consider a bond trader’s response to a brief stock market rally after a long rumbling fall in the early 1990’s: “A dead-cat bounce.”  Today, it is “Fruit of the Boom”.  The bond traders always seem to come up with the morbidly funny stuff.  Go figure.

The fact is that our current political leadership has failed.  Much of what makes for political success is no longer successful.  When the music stops, you sit down and wait for it to start again.  Many of our “leaders” are now heading for the exits before we do it for them.  The health care debacle has to be passed, because too much attention has been paid to it by the entire country.  To not pass something would be to admit the obvious, that the current political model no longer works.  So, what to do?

That will be the measure of how good a country we really are.  When the going gets tough, will the tough get weird?  We’ll see.  Certainly there are those out there who can competently lead our country, but will they step up to bat?  Will the people give them a chance to correct things?  Will we get some political demagogue like Hugo Chavez?  Or will we get leadership that says “I have an idea.  Follow me.”

We’ll see.

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Zimbabwe Funny Money

There are some of you that read these pages that consider inflation in abstract terms.  You hear the television pundits talk about it, but you’ve never lived it.  The above note comes from modern day Zimbabwe, and is the result of Robert Mugabe‘s corrupt administration.  They call it hyperinflation, which means that the money is already worthless before it is issued.  Things got so bad that the European company that printed Zimbabwe’s currency stopped doing so because Zimbabwe could not pay them for the printing costs.

Nor is this the first time that governments felt that they could print their way out of a financial crisis.  Consider Germany in the 1930’s.

Of course, you are sitting there, confident that it can’t happen here, but it did.  Not as bad as Germany or Zimbabwe, but in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, inflation was eating up peoples’ cash savings to the tune of about 18% per year.  A “good” mortgage had an interest rate of 18%.  Treasury Bills paid 18%; so you were just treading water.  With a typical savings account paying around 7%, you were losing money.

Now, one has to wonder how long the current “good-times” will last, if you can call them that.  The Federal government is spending far more than it is collecting, and promises to spend even more.  State and local governments are in trouble.  There is the temptation to inflate the currency by printing more money.  This would make people feel better; “I’m making more money than last year”.  Inflation would correct the housing price problem by cheapening the currency so that prices would come up to the currently unrealistic pricing of some houses.

But if you have done the right thing by building a savings account with cash in it, you lose because the money numbers will be the same but the buying power of those saved dollars will be less.  Borrowing will cost more because interest rates have climbed, so as a private business, you will need to raise your prices to correct this inequity.  As prices go up, people demand more money for their services, even Federal employees.  It’s a dangerous gambit.

And, as an aside, while the Zimbabwe One Hundred Trillion dollar note is worthless, it does actually trade in the United States.  Although Monopoly money is a better bet, you can buy the Zimbabwe note on capitalistpig.com for $7.99 $8.99.  [Inflation struck at capitalistpig.com.  RO’C]  So, presumably, the Zimbabwe 100 Trillion dollar note actually has a value of about $8.00 $9.00.  I hope that Dr. Mugabe doesn’t find out about this market.

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