4/10/2020

The Rat’s Rules #3: Never Become Expert at Something You Hate

I can’t believe I’m finally just now getting around to writing up this “rule”: “Never become expert at something you hate, they’ll make you do it for the rest of your life.” This is something I’ve said for at least 40 years. It’s also something I failed to observe for the overwhelming majority of my life. And it’s not an original idea.

The make-or-break moment, for me, came when I was working for one of the least ethical companies on the planet (outside of the military or military/industrial complex) in 2001 and I was depressed to the point that I could no longer read . . . anything. I had become “expert” at organizing and manipulating data (product failure data, in this case) so that product problems could be identified and fixed. Nothing about this “expertise” appealed to me, but it was specially unappealing in a company that had absolutely no interest in improving product reliability. While I have spent a lot of my life at a keyboard, including writing database code, I don’t have the right kind of obsessions to be good at it; or, more importantly, to like doing it.

That job put me in 4 to 5 hour-long meetings a day and most of what went on in those meetings was political posturing and career positioning. I do not believe meetings of any sort are productive. . . politics in business is just bad management. But the job paid more than $100k/year and that was more money than I ever imagined I would see in any life. I hated the company, I hated the job, I hated myself for working at the company and doing the job. My grandson was the inspiration that tripped my quitting-trigger. I realized that my kids had grown up watching me be a lousy work role mode and, now, my grandson would too. With him for inspiration and several friends for support, I left the big money for the scary world of self-employment and temporary contract work. Worst case, I figured I would burn through my retirement savings in 5 years and have to look for “a real job.” Thirteen years later, I retired without having touched my savings and having added substantially to our retirement security. Best of all, I did not hate any part of the last 17 years of my working life. Sure there were bad days, but there were always great moments and good weeks and memories that I treasure to this day.

A lesson that only came to me in retrospect was that when I was doing work that i liked and, even, loved I didn’t need anyone to “make me do it.” Now, to clean up this Rat Rule, I want to be clear on the fact that nobody but me ever made me do the jobs I didn’t love. I chose to take that route for a variety of ill-conceived reasons. I always had a choice to take jobs that were less secure, didn’t pay as well, required more training and preparation, and/or would have taken more effort on my part to obtain. Always. Nobody every put a gun to my head and said, “Do this shitty job or else.” I always weighed my options and went for security, more money, and something that was familiar (something close to what I was already good at). Always, until 2001.

In 2001, several things ganged up on me to help me break that habit. One, my high paying job was so demoralizing and counter to everything I felt was precious to me that it broke me; literally. Not being able to read was simply one symptom of the major depression that job forced me into. Two, my kids were grown and on their own and no one really needed me to stuff my nose into the grindstone for their survival. We went through some rough economic times between 1968 and 2000 and I often felt that if I slipped off of that treadmill we’d be living under a bridge in a heartbeat. Three, I had the surprisingly good luck to have a friend in high places, Michael McKern the director of Musictech College, who offered me a temporary job helping to build the studios in the school’s new St. Paul location. That took a lot of the risk out of quitting my old job. It wasn’t anything near a replacement for the money I gave up, but it was enough money to keep me going for the interim and it gave me a new mission to focus on.

For me, maybe the mission was the thing that turned “work” into something less onerous. For a decade, I really felt like I was doing something that often contributed to making my student’s lives better and, as a result, the world a better place. The problem with most work is that most of us can’t connect the work to our life’s mission; whatever that may be. Having a mission is probably the most underrated quality of a modern life. Just going to work for the check is demeaning and boring and tends to make humans into machines; not very good machines, either. Machines are predictable, reliable, and unemotional. Humans are none of those things and when they are in a creative, inspiring, motivating environment humans kick machines butts every time.

Looking back at a 55 year work career, I am not one of those people for whom work is a means in itself. I need for my work, the thing that I will spend most of my life doing and most of my time attending to, to be something I believe is worthwhile and useful. Like the mistake I made so many years in pretending that I was made to do unsatisfying work because I was good at it, I have also made the mistake of believing that most people do not need a mission in life. I do believe that the overwhelming majority of people in my culture do not have a work mission and do not know that they need one. In this case, ignorance is fatal to your spirit, soul, consciousness or whatever you call that thing that decides if life is worth living or not. It is also true that the mission some people decide upon can be harmful to the world and their community: racial supremacy, wealth and power at the expense of anyone who gets in the way, experimental technology that risks the environment or life, and the rest of that list. Still, when you look at the people who have taken on harmful missions, you can’t help but be a little impressed with their effectiveness.

Missions are powerful and apathy isn’t. If you want to have a career and a life that you don’t hate, you will have to figure out what your mission is, then you will have to stay on it regardless of how easy doing something else seems.

4/01/2020

Labeling Ourselves

Now that the US has decided to speed up the country's decline into a failed empire and 3rd world banana dictatorship, pretty much everything that once resembled civil society is vanishing. Which means the loud pipe morons are proudly demonstrating their assholiness with every opportunity. Apparently, our degeneration has given every spoiled white boy license to act like an asshole; from eBikers to bikers to neo-Nazis (alt-right, to the genteel) to your neighbors and their yard tools.Bicyclists are engaging in hit-and-run road warrior crap. In our fading empire, every nitwit with $200 to blow can buy an assault weapon and another $100 turns it into a machine gun with enough bullets to take out a theater full of victims. We have elected officials who set levels of stupidity and assholiness that astound the rest of the world. Not us, though. We haven't had anything near enough stupidity.

Back here in Minnesota, I have a neighbor, who I  call "Slo Mow Man," who mows his lawn "conservatively" every 2-3 days. He's a retired California civil servant who moved to Minnesota to spread his retirement money further into the 21st Century. I have never seen anyone drive a riding lawn mower so slowly. He mist have had a low-low gear installed at the local Hardly shop. Likewise, when he uses his wood chipper, he fires up the motor and, apparently, wanders around his several-acre-yard gathering sticks, hiking back to the chipper with one of two twigs in his hands, tosses them in, and goes back to wandering. The wood chipper runs all day and rarely does any actual chipping. All of that pales when the snow flies or the leaves fall. His use of the leaf blower is a source of depressing entertainment, if you are deaf. It's kind of hilarious to watch him blow leaves off of his driveway, into the wind where they blow right back as he creeps down his driveway at a pace that would frustrate snails. You just know this guy pisses into the wind, too. Likewise, after he takes 2 hours to plow the snow from his driveway, he whips out the leaf blower and tries to blow the snow dust from his driveway, turning a 20 minute job into nearly an all-day affair. 

Typical of that crowd of folks, he's convinced the rest of the country is "lazy, entitled, and resentful of white people." Ok, he's probably right about the last point. Hell, even I don't like white people much and I am one. 

After going over this sad, degrading history, I have decided that we need a new national anthem and this is the song I recommend. (20 years ago, it would have been Jame's Brown's "Living in America.". Those days are long gone. Today, you'd have to be desperate at the level of those who are willing to risk Trump's immigrant concentration camps to "eat your heart out" to become an American.) We've become the sort of international laughing stock that the wingnuts used to claim we were during the Obama years; when US perceptions in the Rest of the World was about as good as it has ever been. Today, that perception is dropping out of sight, to the point that our chimp President was laughed at while addressing the United Nations.




3/28/2020

This One's Pretty Good Too



Spread these ads everywhere. Don't let anyone forget how incompetent this bastard was and is.

One of the Best Political Ads in History

3/16/2020

Ok, Boomer

Or is that “Ok Boomer?” Whatever. We all know it’s the clueless, snarky response of a spoiled brat who imagines that he or she has it “harder than any other generation.”Baby boomers just don't seem to get it. Millennials have it a little harder than they did. Not only with college tuition but let's look at the job market. Most jobs now, you need a college degree for. 61% of Millennials attend college compared to 46% of Baby Boomers. You need a college degree for places to even look at your resume. That wasn't the case when our parents were looking for a career. But now, not only do they want a college degree, they want you to have experience.” That’s typical of the kind of mindless drivel these children spew and they even imagine it is true. 

I’ve been dismissed a few times myself and I don’t waste my time trying to educate these kiddies any longer. I just remind myself that I’m not the jackass whisperer and move on with my life. However, I wonder if there will come a time when these old children discover how wrong they are? The author of the article I quoted above lists a collection of “boomer prices” vs today’s prices and imagines that somehow those numbers account for inflation. Of course, they do not, but math skills and, even, simple accounting skills appear to be something that has been lost in their education. It’s not like the tools aren’t there in K-12 and beyond, it’s that they do not want to waste their precious screen time learning those skills. Strangely, they imagine that my generation magically got that stuff effortlessly. “A dozen eggs for Baby Boomers” did  “cost about $0.84” and today they cost $0.99 to $1.50, for an inflation value of 20% to 50%, while the minimum wage was $1.00/hour in 1960 and today’s minimum wage is $7.25 (federal) to $15.00 (several states) for an inflation rate of 700% to 1500%. Eggs are one example and there are several examples of items (like housing) that have inflated far beyond wages. College, however, is one item that varies by state; from the worst case, California, where college tuition went from free to $138,000 for 4 years of UCLA and $15,000 in 1970 to $28,000 for 4 years at typical state colleges (like the University of Nebraska where I attended). California’s tuition rate is nearly an infinite increase, but most states saw an 85% increase in tuition over 50 years, not even close to wage inflation over the same period (the 1970 minimum wage was $1.60). 

As I’ve marveled before, humans don’t ever seem to learn anything the easy way. Two generations away from the last war fought with draftees, young Americans shrug off reality and history as if it doesn’t pertain to their situation or any situation with which they have chosen to compare themselves. For example the claim, “Most jobs now, you need a college degree for.” Ignoring, the fact that this presumably college educated kiddy doesn’t even know about dangling prepositions, that whole claim is a joke. The kinds of jobs that my generation didn’t need degrees for are often crying for applicants today, but Millennials don’t want anything to do with manual labor. I’ve been told that “we were promised great jobs if we went to college” by nitwits who were told in clear terms by a collection of experienced adults that their degree in music was worth slightly less than the paper upon which it was printed, economically. Not only did they persist in wasting money on that degree, but they doubled-down on the delusion and went for an MFA (which stands for My Fabulous Adolescence). Now, they are surprised that Starbucks asks for a degree for a coffee shop management job because every idiot serving coffee or donuts has a useless liberal arts degree. Why not ask for it? 

Housing inflation is an interesting problem. Housing is expensive in the places young people insist on living; large cities, and the quality of home Millennials insist is their right. My first house, in 1973, cost $8,900 in Central City, Nebraska. The place was a dump, but it was all I could afford. In three years, I replumbed the place, turned an attic space into two bedrooms and a sewing room, built a garage and workshop, and landscaped the place while supporting my wife and two kids on $3.25/hour and regular 80-90 hour weeks. My “vacations” were spent working on the house or working a second job (R&R bands and music equipment repair, usually). We sold that house for $16,000 and moved “up” to Fremont, Nebraska and a larger $20,000 1920’s house. I started the remodeling routine over, but in 1979 I was laid off along with 1,400 people in my company and almost 2,000 others in two other industries in Fremont and I sold that house for $18,000 and slipped the “buyer” $5,000 under the table so they could make the “down payment".” So, not counting my improvements and labor, I lost $7,000 on that house. I didn’t buy another house for almost a decade. 

Chased by the constant regional recessions of the 1980s, we moved to California where my salary was $28,000/year (with the usual 60-90 hour work weeks) and a typical middle class home was $120,000 at 15% interest. Totally unaffordable, by any math I understand; although at least one of my kids thought I was a failure and a fool because I couldn’t figure out the ladder of mortgages, second mortgages, credit cards, and third mortgages her friends’ parents used to pay for their homes. Like today’s young city dwellers, California homes were far beyond my reach in 1984 and that only got worse until I left in 1991. Just like city life, almost everywhere, today. 

However, while I lived in California and didn’t have a chance in hell of owning a home there, I bought a nice, normal, very old house in a normal town in Nebraska for $5,000 cash. Over five years in California, I took occasional “vacations” to Nebraska to fix up that house until I had it in good enough shape that I could rent it. As a landlord, I made a little money, took decent tax write-offs, invested money in the property, and a decade later sold it for $15,000. Not a terrific profit, but not bad either. I have always believed in the adage that “you never want to buy the nicest house in the neighborhood.” Usually, I’ve bought the worst house in the block or neighborhood or, even, town, fixed it up, and sold it for more than I paid for it. It’s hard to describe what I’ve done in houses as “profitable,” but at least I didn’t lose a lot and had a place for my family to live. 

That isn’t something a lot of today’s young people are willing to consider suffering with. They imagine that not only should they get to live like their parents do after decades of work (without the decades of work), but they should get to live in the city of their dreams in the house of their dreams with the stuff of their dreams. 

Good luck with that. 

I recently read a book about war, from an American perspective, that described “warriors” from each succeeding generation who imagine themselves tougher than the previous generation but who fought less risky, less demanding battles, for shorter durations each generation. For example, Civil War veterans were tougher than WWI vets who were tougher than WWII vets who were harder tested than Korea or Vietnam vets and so on. I suspect that is, on average, true. Today’s military that depends on drones to take the big risks probably feels really battle hardened, but has a terrible time with third world fighters who are throwbacks to American soldiers of at least 70 years ago. 

Likewise, today’s kids act as if they are being tortured and mistreated when they are asked to perform ordinary work tasks. They have self-directed themselves into the college path to avoid growing up or having to learn manual labor skills. It turns out that electricians, welders, mechanics, technicians, and plumbers are worth a LOT more than musicians, graphic artists, anthropologists, historians, librarians, clerks, help desk phone operators, and the rest of easy liberal arts “skills.” That was true in 1960-70 and it will be true in 2050. That 54% of Boomers who didn’t attend college often found dirty jobs doing hard manual labor in dangerous conditions for long hours and they supported their families. 

When I tell kids that they wouldn’t believe the kind of crap I did to support my family, they say, “Ok, Boomer.” Then, they expect me to feel sorry for their foolish economic decisions and general low energy and motivation. I don’t. I am not the jackass whisperer. I’m 71 and I have, possibly, infinitely more days behind me than in front and fixing the future is not my job. If it was, I’d quit.

2/10/2020

Book Review: Bullshit Jobs in A Bullshit World

I recently suffered my way through a terrible book, recommended by a retired professor friend who (apparently) hustles any book written by a fellow anthropologist: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, by David Graeber. Graeber setup a definition of “bullshit job” that excluded his own job, "anthropologist and anarchist activist" and any other job where the occupant does not think what he/she is doing is pointless. So, being clueless and selfish at pretty much any occupation makes that job some variant of worthwhile, according to Graeber. 

I will have to disagree. 
 
One of the things I experienced working in a for-profit college for 13 years was the bullshit academia attitude of “What can I do to keep myself busy and employed without a moment of thought as to whether my class provides any value to students?” Liberal arts academics are desperate to sell their bullshit services because outside of those ivy-covered walls those “services” are pretty much worthless. With a PhD in anthropology/literature/history/music/philosophy/etc. and an ability to pour coffee into a cup and carry a plate you can probably get a wait-staff job, if you aren’t too lazy. Otherwise, what you know and can teach does not have a market value outside of the education system. If you can incorporate those fields of study into a writing career or take your “broad-based education” and turn it into a profitable hobby or convince someone that your liberal arts background makes you a viable candidate for a marketing, sales, or management job, power to you. Seriously. It happens although I don’t know why. . 

In the meantime, I’ve thought a lot about bullshit jobs and, more importantly, important and critical jobs and how our fucked up incentive programs (taxes, education system incompetence and obstacles, paychecks, and general encouragement/discouragement) are as far as getting the right people into the right jobs and getting the rest of the braindead bulk of humanity out of the way. A typical western STEM education, for example, is loaded with bullshit classes taught by bullshit experts; from "anthropologist and anarchist activists" to anthropology/literature/history/music/philosophy/etc. PhDs. There are areas of those fields that are of use to every serious adult, philosophy’s Logic and Critical Thinking, Advanced English Grammar (in the US, at least), and . . . that’s about it based on my own experience. At one time a “liberal education” required several hours of college-level math including calculus, similar hours of real science including calculus, and cross-disciplinary courses in STEM subjects. Today, a liberal arts program is designed for the lowest common denominator with inflated grades for mere participation. With that in mind, forcing a serious student to waste time with these fluff courses is practically theft. 

For a really long time, I’ve believed that management jobs, from corporate to the President of the United States and all important jobs in-between should be drafted positions. Anyone who wants that kind of job is exactly the kind of person who should never be allowed anywhere near it. On the compensation scale, the jobs a society needs the most should pay the most: scientists are probably most mission-critical in today’s world, followed by physicians of all specialties, engineers, computer programmers (especially cybercrime experts) and technicians followed pretty closely by farmers (actual farmers, not corporate farm managers) and a variety of critical jobs from water purification technician to garbage man. The easy, unimportant stuff like middle management, banking executives and hedge fund traders should be taxed into near negative incomes until no one wants to do that job ever again. Most of the rest of the jobs in our culture are likely bullshit jobs. 

A realistic definition of a bullshit job is any job that, if every practitioner of that occupation vanished tonight, would either not be missed by society as a whole or could easily be replaced in a day or two with equally unskilled labor. Doctors, nurses, scientists, engineers, mechanics, plumbers, electricians, skilled construction technicians, food farmers (not corn or soybean corporate welfare queens on tractors), and the like are real jobs. Bankers, hedge fund “managers,” a huge variety of “higher education” academics and administration doofuses, salespeople, burger flippers, wait-staff, telephone sterilizers and the like are bullshit job practitioners. And it doesn’t matter if they know it or not. 

Postscript: In these corona-virus pandemic days, it has become a lot easier to determine which jobs are really bullshit jobs. If you are sitting home now, unemployed and clearly "unnecessary," your job was bullshit. If you are fumbling around at one of the stock exchanges, gambling and guessing a whatever direction the President's latest gibberish is going to take the market, you could not be less critical to any aspect of the economy or national security. Obviously the author of this books self-exemption from the world of bullshit jobs has been proven wrong. Every anthropology prof on the planet is sitting at home hoping for extended paid leave because not a one of them is critical for any aspect of life. 

2/01/2020

Post Mortem: I Just Wanted a “Family Day”

Monday 2/26/2018

My wife, Robbye, and I are having one of those classic “quiet days” after her day-long plan to drag me into the Cities for a day of being ignored by the kids, buying stuff, and waiting around for her visit to end stalled when she learned I had no interest in going. She tried the guilt trip, the anger trip, and the "I’m not talking to you” trip and we’re still in the last phase. She decided, yesterday, that she wanted to go into the Cities for a political meeting. Later, she decided she wanted to visit our daughter and her family before the meeting. Sometime after that, she started saying “we” when she described her plans and, this morning, I had to remind her that I had other plans for the day and had no interest in the 100 mile trip just so I could sit around being tolerated until she got back from the meeting. 

I’m just not into all of the family hassle any more. I’ve been everyone’s daddy for 60-some years and it hasn’t been particularly rewarding. I was a pretty terrible parent and only slightly worse as a grandparent. I tried, but I don’t have the necessary skills. I disappoint people on a constant basis, mostly because I do not understand them . . . ever. I don’t know what people want from me and I don’t know what I’m supposed to get out of most relationships. 

About the only line I’ve managed to draw in my life has been on funerals. Even that one gets crossed far too often. Once someone is dead, I’m convinced they no longer need anything from me and I would rather not attend funerals as a rule. I went to my step-mother and father’s funerals and those events were as baffling as being hit on the head from behind by a stranger. I don’t know why I was there or if anyone cared that I was. If my goal in life is to bring comfort to others, I’d just as soon they kill me and eat me for that purpose. 

Robbye and I are at the point in life where we are considering what we’d do if we were suddenly alone. She likes to think she’d do something independent, for the first time in her life. She imagines herself driving places towing a camper, a dog, a cat, and a house full of stuff. Or she might put all of the crap in a storage bin, where it will rot and be infested with mice, rats, and insects. The exploring part is the dream, though. I suspect she will muddle along in our Red Wing house for a year or so, get tangled up in some sort of home repair scam and lose a bucket of money, panic, and sell the house, camper, furniture, and the rest of our stuff for a huge loss and move into an assisted living facility. I like to think that I’d observe a reasonable period of mourning and hit the road. I’d probably sell the house to be sure I have nothing to come back to and simply disappear from my past life. 

The obvious directions are west or south: west coast or South America, that is. The past three years in Red Wing have made it pretty obvious that the “home” we thought we’d discovered and built is a myth. We’re about as established here as we were when we moved from Colorado to a rental house in Roseville in 1996. The “communities” that we imagined we were part of are all illusions. People say you aren’t a Minnesota resident until you are at least 3rd generation and, apparently, that is true. Likewise, once your kids no longer depend on you for support and sustainence, your relevance to their lives vanishes. That’s normal, if unexpected, and healthy for them. Sticking around to see if they might still need you is, however, insane. 

So, my wife’s dream of a “family day” is something she and we are going to have to get used to not having from here out. The kids don’t need us, probably don’t like us much, and get bored quickly when we are around. We always feel like we’re imposing when we visit them, their busy lives go on hold while they put up with us, and that’s about as satisfying as a pizza that has everything you don’t like sprinkled on top of the things you can just tolerate.

11/27/2019

Picking and Choosing Your Science

The climate change deniers fascinate me. We know these are not people who deny science consistently, right? They pick and choose which science at which moment they will believe or disbelieve. Christian Scientists (and a tiny minority of other superstitious cults) are the only superstitious people who are even a little bit consistent. They refuse medical intervention for all health care issues, relying on prayer and luck. As a result, they die younger than the general population. Still, you have to give them some credit for actually living their beliefs and the species should thank them for their non-contributions to the gene pool as a result.

In general, though, most superstitious people hedge their bets. They might pray and even insult their healthcare practitioners by thanking gods and magic when modern medicine heals their ailments, but they accept every therapy offered without even reasonable questions. Clearly, they are terrified of death and know that prayer is just a habit; not something to be counted on. “God helps those who help themselves” they will chant, but when it comes to climate change, overpopulation, toxic air and water, mass killers in grade schools, dwindling natural resources, or even failing political and social systems, that’s when they resort to useless chants and prayers and nothing more. If that doesn’t seem inconsistent to you, you are the problem.

My favorite deluded superstitious nonsense is the dichotomy of those who rely on the daily and weekly weather report while pretending that climate scientists don’t know what they are talking about. Climate scientists are the adults among the hierarchy of people who predict weather. All of the mathematical models created to predict local and world weather (including hurricanes and winter storms) came from climate scientists. Meteorologists are the teenagers in this scientific family, simply interpreting the information provided by climate scientists for the average mindless civilian and narrowing down large scale weather observations to local predictions. The television talking heads are the family babies, unschooled or barely-educated kiddies who are too ignorant to even take the dumbed-down meteorologists’ interpretations and get that right. Worse, some of those idiots take it on themselves to make their own idiot best guesses; assuming (correctly) that anyone stupid enough to listen to their ignorant predictions will also be too damn dumb to keep track of how often they are wrong.

NOAA’s seven-day forecasts “accurately predict the weather about 80 percent of the time and a five-day forecast can accurately predict the weather approximately 90 percent of the time.” There is a cost to US disbelief in science and scientists. One cost is that as climate change (caused by human pollution, idiot) changes the large-scale weather actors the weather is becoming less predictable; based on past performance. The EU, Japan, China, and other nations have been investing resources on improving weather prediction models. The US has been concentrating on making the Koch’s happy by reducing federal spending on any activity that doesn’t make money for those corporate welfare halfwits; i.e. military waste. There is a half-funded “plan” to improve the US models, but it mostly depends on piggy-backing with other national algorithms to moderate errors in the obsolete US system.

Some of the best US-born climatologists are working and living outside of the US, thanks to the unscientific climate in their home country. Genetic engineers and scientists left the US for more civilized environments in the early 2000’s, alternative energy research and production moved out of the US during the hyper-pro-oil. Bush/Cheney years, and manufacturing mostly abandoned the US during the Reagan years. The pride that Trump’s “uneducated” take in their overall ignorance is a long-standing US tradition, but it cost us the headstart in space exploration in the 1950’s, the automotive industry in the 1970’s, the computer industry in the 1980’s, and today it is costing us the remains of our democracy as pseudo-conservatives are so easily bamboozled by Russian, Chinese, and Iranian trolls.

So, at the least, I recommend that superstitious folks be forced to live their professed faith. Do the world a favor and avoid scientific medical treatment, go back to riding horses since modern transportation technology uses far too much science for your tastes, stay off of the internet and cell phones, take your best guess at the weather and keep disbelieving climate scientists in all respects, and, by all means, pray that you and your children are not gunned down by other science-denying wingnuts.

11/18/2019

The Bottom of the Water Slide

My sister, a devout traditional Christian, often asks me how I can face death believing it is the end of the road. The question baffles me. My father, for instance, who was also a fairly traditional Christian was terrified of death; especially at the end. So, obviously, faith isn’t enough of a comfort for some. Lack of faith in an afterlife, so far, has been incredibly comforting for me.

The image of life that comes to mind is the trip up and down a really large waterslide. The early stages of life, for many of us, are a long slog up a bunch of stairs to “the top,” which might not be much altitude in the end but the climb is pretty much the same for most of us. 

Growing up, education, career, family, friends, economic ups and downs, and the rest of life are all part of that climb up to the top. Mostly, it’s a slog for everyone but the very rich or very lucky. We all end up at the top, though. 

You could look at retirement being the time you spend on the platform waiting for your turn down the slide. Or maybe the years after the kids have (hopefully) moved away and into their own lives and you get to enjoy the remaining calm, productive years of your life. Some people get a couple of decades on the platform, some a few minutes, some get tossed headfirst from the top of the ladder to the slide. For many of us, the platform is particularly uncomfortable because of our fear of heights, discomfort from the long climb, 

The ride down the slide represents the moments at the end of life; often a few seconds to a minute or two as we slip from life to death. There is some research that indicates that there might be intense pain, fear, and/or hallucinations in those moments and that portions of the brain may live for as long as 10 minutes after “death.” Regardless of how much brain activity there is or how long it lasts, it will always be a tiny fraction of the lifetime we’ve lived and, as such, it’s a fast slide down into death and oblivion. 

And then the ride is over.

I do not see any of that as either scary or undesirable. Honestly, I feel like I’ve experienced more of life than I needed to see; especially life with other humans. The level of stupid that appears to be state-of-the-species is mostly depressing. This country has long worshipped corruption, greed, injustice, and outright evil and I’ve seen enough of that. The fact that there is no afterlife, no more requirement to put up with idiots and criminals, is damn comforting. In fact, it might be the best thing about being old and having more years behind than in front of me. If I had the slightest bit of doubt that there might be more of this bullshit after death, I would be far more afraid of death than I am in knowing that religion and superstition are man-made bits of bullshit designed more to control the masses than to comfort them.

11/01/2019

Is It Socialism or Is It the Russians?

Trump and other small minds often like to point to Russia and China as examples of countries that “tried” communism and socialism and proved it to be an impossibly corruptible system. Russia, for example, has “tried” several forms of government; from kings to capitalism. Regardless of the political system Russia has tried, the end result has been a total clusterfuck. If you were being generous, you might pretend that Russia has a difficult climate which makes creating an organized society complicated to impossible. That would require ignoring all of the countries with similar or more harsh climates who have fashioned just, economically sound societies with a high quality of life. The only rational way to look at Russia’s failure to create anything resembling a decent quality of life is to acknowledge that Russians are, on average, dumb as bricks. 

Their current experiment with capitalism is a case-in-point. Without even a brief nod to economic equality and an attempt to approximate a middle class, Russia’s oligarchs quickly moved from being corrupt and rich government officials to being corrupt and rich “capitalists.” The Russian public and what passes for a working class accepted it and even applauded it. Russia’s huge military class can be told to march into a burning pit, dragging their spouses and children with them, without complaint. The Russian people, overwhelmingly, are the most gullible, passive, and corruptible collection of semi-humans on the planet. That is true to the point that if you are a white supremist and you have a spot of Russian blood in your veins, you are a walking, talking joke. 

Even fairly useful pieces of data like the unemployment rate are messed up in Russia. While the advertised unemployment rate is currently 4.9%, the facts are that Russian companies generally don’t fire employees, they just pay them less during down times. A LOT less. The alternatives are unemployment compensation of $24 to $124 a month, which is small but so is the Russian minimum wage of $175/month. As the Russian labor spokesman says, "The official unemployment benefits are mostly symbolic. . ." Russians generally don’t bother to register for benefits that barely exist, so their unemployment statistics are barely meaningful.
Russians are good at breaking things, though. While there is no evidence that Russian programmers could write a successful computer program regardless of how lucrative that could be, they are fairly competent hackers and computer thieves. Of course, their success is assisted by Putin’s little handmaiden, Trump, and the drain-swamping collection of idiots, racists, and traitors Trump and the Trumpanzees who do pretty much anything the Russian and US oligarchs tell them to do. Trump has opened up the US for Russian interference so blatantly that so-called “conservatives” weren’t even upset when the FBI’s cybersecurity brain-trust resigned rather than go along with Trump’s collusion. So far, it appears to be impossible for Trump and gang to do anything that will put off his loyal fans. He wasn’t joking or exaggerating when he said he could kill someone and those idiots would stick with him. 

All that said, nothing about the failure of socialism and/or communism in Russia reflects badly on either economic system. Russians can’t do anything well, let alone manage a social system that relies on competence, social justice, economic equality, and democratic principles to offset the natural human tendencies toward entropy and corruption. If you want to honestly look at functional socialist nations, you need to be making comparisons with Finland, Iceland, France, Germany, Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands. Picking the dumbest, most corrupt and mismanaged failed states to compare against ourselves might be gratifying, but that is not information if you are looking for actual data about which economic system supports and provides the best quality of life, democratic values, social and economic equality, and is most sustainable.

7/22/2019

The Cost of Being Honest

Since I was a kid, probably around nine years old, I have known with absolute certainty that there is no afterlife, there are no gods, and that life is more pain than peace and more sorrow than joy. That dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest that conservatives claim to love so much in economics and social justice is the law of the universe. I know that. Even more to the point, I know that almost every person who pretends to be a true believer of every “faith” invented by human beings knows the same thing. Some of you pretend to believe in your gods because you’re terrified of reality, many pretend to believe because they make money from all of the song and dance that comes with superstition and hoodoo, the rest know that convincing people to tow the line on make-up rituals and superstitions is the cornerstone to creating a servile public that won’t bite back when the elites take their usual over-large “share” of the shrinking pies. The remaining few who actually believe in gods and the Big Rock Candy Mountain are simply crazy. There are, for sure, millions of crazy people, but there are billions of the other sorts.

 Pretending to believe is the easy course to take and the most common path, especially for kids. Getting into that habit early makes faking it easier, even semi-natural, as an adult. One of the things kids learn early is that adults do not like to be called on their bullshit. They dislike it so much that they will abuse, abandon, and disfigure their children in an attempt to squash the natural impulse to ask “why.” Nothing about that response is, of course, convincing, but for most humans ending the questioning is good enough. You don’t have to really believe in the bullshit, you just have to pretend to believe and learn enough of the rituals to avoid attention.


All of that comes with a price tag. The price paid by conservative societies like ours, the Muslim countries, and much of Eastern Europe comes due when any sort of stress gets applied to the social or economic system. Outside challenges to the lies and pretense can cause total meltdown and the end result is often what Arab countries have demonstrated for the past 400 years: total stagnation and cultural decay in the service of maintaining the status quo of the lies and the people who profit from them. 

When “In God We Trust” becomes the national motto, reality has to take a distant back seat in the bus to keep truth quiet.

My father and I got into pissing matches over my resistance to joining the Protestant cult; from when I was an adolescent until right up into the last years of his life. Until recently, I thought he was just trying to make me conform for selfish conservative reasons. I am just now suspecting that  he was trying to teach me how to conform to minimize the difficulties I would experience in a life of being an outsider. Religion, especially cultish and dangerous evangelicals, are a growing portion of “the uneducated” that Trump loves so much. A lot of the western world is losing its religion, especially Germany, the UK, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and the rest of the Nordic crowd. I suspect I would be more comfortable there, if I could speak any language other than Midwestern-butchered-English. Too late now.

An upside of Trump is that he has totally discredited any moral claim evangelicals may ever make. It’s pretty obvious that their love affair with a philandering con-artist is 1,000% about the money and 0% about “Christian values;” unless, money is the Christian value. As weird as Americans are about Islam, "While more than nine in 10 Americans would vote for a presidential candidate who is black, a woman, Catholic, Hispanic, or Jewish, significantly normaler percentages would vote for one who is an atheist (54%) or Muslim (58%)." No problem, I suspect most atheists who want to run for office just do what Trump has always done: lie. The rest of us would just as soon not waste our time working for superstitious nitwits. a

7/17/2019

Why Aren’t You An Activist?

July 17, 2014

I’m writing this in 2014, after reading Doug Fine’s excellent book, Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution.  Many of my friends are pot smokers and some of my family use cannabis for medicine and I have nothing against the weed. I have, in my past, smoked (and inhaled, you giant douchebag Willy Clinton), eaten, and ingested marijuana and I know the stuff is a more powerful and effective “medicine” than a good percentage of the crap doctors and druggists peddle legally. I have given money to California's grower co-ops’ defense funds and to a few pro-legalization candidates. All that said, I don’t have a dog in this hunt.

I don’t really care if marijuana becomes easily available. If it does, it won’t matter to me. I probably will still look at pot as the route to being a lazy stoner. Not that I have a problem with lazy stoners. Many of my friends are exactly that. The fact is, nobody is easier to manipulate, arrest, scare, intimidate, or move from one place to another than stoners. That’s why the phony War on Drugs is so popular with cops. It’s easy, safe, and usually uncomplicated “work.” It’s also why there is overwhelming evidence that the country can afford to downsize its police force at least as much as the military. When it comes to “fighting crime,” cops are mostly issuing parking tickets. Criminals scare the crap out of the typical cop.

All of that brings up the problem in decriminalizing most drugs; the drug “criminals” are too helpless and lazy to do the work. The people doing the work, mostly, have good intent and the people opposing them are motivated by greed, corruption, and cowardice. The current police state incarceration system, the grossly profit-driven enforcement system, and the monopoly the drug companies have on healthcare profits are the greed portion of the opposition. Corruption starts at the local levels and works it way to the top of our government, corporations, and other institutions that have a stranglehold on profits and power due to the phony “War on Drugs (and poor people).” The cowardice is obvious to anyone who has met or read about the people involved in the marijuana legalization movement. From the growers to the distributors to the users of all sorts (recreational, medicinal, psychological, etc) these people are as harmless as butterflies in comparison to real criminals. Any cop who has the arrogance to pretend to be protecting and serving the public in a marijuana bust while ignoring real criminals from street hoodlums to Wall Street bankers is deluded, dangerous, and corrupt.

The majority of US citizens know this is true. An overwhelming percentage of US citizens expect marijuana legalization (75% to 15%) in the next decade. How they expect these large profitable, corrupt, and powerful opposition forces to be overcome is unclear. With a public that is overwhelmingly apathetic, uneducated, uninvolved, and timidly conservative, the instrument of change is likely to be explosive. "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” John Kennedy

5/20/2019

Disproving Divinity

5/15/2019

I woke up this morning to a dream where someone was asking my why I didn’t believe in their particular god or in human divinity or heaven and hell or any of the usual culprits of human religions. My dream answer was, “For the same reason that I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, the Greek gods, magic, Star Bores Force/Farce, or even invading aliens from Mars. It’s silly.” Seriously? Doesn't the whole idea of a La La Land "upstairs" for the good, if incredibly simple-minded and often viciously violent, people who populate all of the world's religions and hell "downstairs" for the non-believers (the people who create the tools we use and the technologies that keep us alive (scientists)) seem like some kind of ridiculous story for gullible children?

Oddly, that wasn’t any more popular a response in my dream than it is in real life. It is, however, exactly how I feel about all things supernatural. Nothing I have ever experienced has convinced me that humans are anything more than an incredibly successful species—like dinosaurs, trilobites, and giant mammals—that will overpopulate its environment, crash against a wall of resources or experience a huge die-off from an environmental disaster, and either disappear or become even dumber and insignificant (like humans were 100,000 years ago). We’re just a well-dressed (some of us, anyway) animal with basic instincts and drives. We're not all idiots, but for all we know there were some brilliant dinosaurs who warned the other dinosaurs that building some kind of shelter from asteroid hits and weather-independent sustainable food source might be a good idea?

An alternative nightmare I've had is that there is a heaven and it is filled with the kind of tripe that passes for believers on earth today. Billions of idiots, all surrounding some giant bearded white man, singing with the kind of awful verve that only arrogant and musically untalented religious people exhibit. A one-stop hell for some and perverse and foolish heaven for others. I see a lot of that sort in rural Minnesota and have been surrounded by them for most of my Midwestern life. When I learned that 54% of my neighbors voted for Trump and 56% for Jason Lewis in 2016, I realized that this place is more than half-stupid. That is not a comforting thought. Stupid people are easily inspired to do stupid things: like buy Trump steaks, enroll in Trump University, buy stock in Trump Hotels and Casinos, and vote for the nation's Biggest Loser when he tells them "I'm gonna make you so rich." When those stupid promises turn to shit, stupid people are always looking for someone else to blame. "Burn the witches!" Imagine eternity filled with billions of that kind of moron. If I'm going to pray for anything, it will be for oblivion after death. I don't need any more stupid. Life on earth, in the middle of in these United States, has given me all of the exposure to stupid I need.

I’m in the early pages of Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet. So far, it is a fascinating look at the two main perspectives on how humans might survive into the future: environmentalists and technologists. But the early pages are also about how shallow that whole argument is, because humans like all successful species are more likely to self-destruct following Gause’s “S-shaped curve” of population growth and collapse than to fumble into a Star Trek utopian future. No matter what happens to us and the rest of the mammals, birds, and reptiles currently living on this sphere, fungi and bacteri will carry on when we are gone until the sun goes nova.

In general, conservatives, and in specific, Republicans and evangelicals are the gods of unintended consequences. From a biological debate position, Alabama's state government is providing a demonstration to disprove any claim humans might have as a divine or special species with their mindless opposition to abortion and birth control. A biologist would argue, "To avoid destroying itself, the human race would have to do something deeply unnatural, something no other species has ever done or could ever do: constrain its own growth." In banning abortions and fighting birth control, conservatives are behaving like fire ants, zebra mussels, tree snakes in Guam, rabbits in Australia, Burmese pythons in Florida, and bacteria in a Petri dish by breeding until the environment can no longer support the expanding species and causing massive population collapse the old fashioned and natural way. How can you not love that kind of irony? In pretending that their argument has some divine purpose and guidance, these fundamentalists are actually demonstrating how incapable humans are of acting in any extraordinary way to prevent species extinction. In other words, proving that humans are not smart enough to "constrain its own growth."

I, for one, think that is pretty entertaining.

As long as humans, on average and in the majority, insist on behaving like simple animals, I will continue to believe that religions are just silly; at best. At worst, religions are a key part of basic animal instincts that will destroy the species. Being a believer in the idea that many of the things we laugh about would only evoke terrible sorrow otherwise, I’m sticking with laughing at the idea that humans are something special in nature or the universe.I mean how can you not look at illustrations of hell and not be amazed at how gullible, primitive, and ridiculous religious humans can be?

4/16/2019

They Are Hurting? Who?

In one of the many conversations I’ve had with a local friend, I presented the proposition that Trump supporters, and most of his voters, were motivated by racism. In fact, many are primarily motivated by racism.

He responded with, “I don’t believe that. They are hurting and they voted for someone who promised to give back what they’d lost.”

Of course, what they imagine they lost was racial entitlement.

I have thought a lot about the phrase “they are hurting” since that conversation. I hear that phrase from liberal and wingnut commentators often, too. Living among the white working class my whole life, I’ve seen plenty of their hurting. When they pretend to be Christians and to care about the “unborn,” they are intentionally hurting women’s rights and liberty; even when it is women doing the hurting. When they “support the troups,” they are intentionally hurting the world by providing fortune and bodies and minds to the terrorism of whoever our “enemy of the moment” may be for the profit of the military/industrial complex and the 1% who profit from that industry. When they deny the overwhelming evidence and common sense scientific conclusion that human carbon output is the primary cause of rapid and destructive climate change they are hurting future generations of humans and the entire planet. When they pretend that athletes taking a knee in protest of police murders, racial targeting, and societal racism they are hurting everyone who doesn’t look like them. When they agree that building a Great Wall to stop immigrants from fleeing the political and environmental consequences of American exploitation of South and Central America they are hurting people who have no alternatives. So, it’s true that they are “hurting,” but who they are hurting is the real question.

I don’t believe that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist. As Lincoln once said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time.” I figure that “some” is about 5-10% of the population. You can also “fool most of the people some of the time” and that might add another 10-20% to Trump’s voters. The people who go to Trump rallies and who cheer for his racist crap and his mindless corruption, however, are not in Lincoln’s benevolent estimation. They love Trump because he says exactly what they think and believe. That doesn’t let the other 20-30% off of the hook, though. They are hurting exactly the same people who are the targets of Trump’s fascist policies. Ignorance and stupidity do not excuse fascism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. When you claim you are “hurting,” you need to at least admit that the hurt is something you are inflicting, not something that causes you suffering.

3/18/2019

The United States Is A Ponzi Scheme

Ponzi Scheme: a usually-illegal operation in which participants pay to join and profit mainly from payments made by subsequent participants. 

Humans have evolved to believe in one fallacy over all of the others: “If it seems too good to be true, it must be the truest thing of all.” As a species, once we humans have achieved some level of comfort we appear to become convinced that we have done something to deserve that comfort for the rest of our lives. That’s not just a problem in the USA, but everywhere there are people with “1st world problems.” Here in the USA we have taken that quality to extremes. 

Republicans harp at “entitlements” without bothering to look up the word to see what it actually means. They, of course, object to the working class entitlements like Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, Medicare and Medicaid, welfare, and anything that isn’t an immediate transfer of funds into the paws of our 1% and, even, the Russian 1%. They do not object to the corporate welfare and idle rich entitlements. Obviously, if you are rich you deserve to be so. God said so; Jesus, not so much. I, however, object to all entitlements that are unfunded. 

Take Social Security, for example. Washington D.C.’s Urban Institute, a non-partisan research institute found that “a two-earner couple receiving an average wage — $44,600 per spouse in 2012 dollars — and turning 65 in 2010 would have paid $722,000 into Social Security and Medicare and can be expected to take out $966,000 in benefits. So, this couple will be paid about one-third more in benefits than they paid in taxes.” That’s not an “unrealistic return on investment” over a half-century of work and interest accruement. 

My parents’ generation, the so-called “Greatest Generation,” really kicked Social Security in the teeth by voting themselves solvent after a lifetime of insane military spending and general economic foolishness. The Urban Institute found, “If a similar couple had retired in 1980, they would have gotten back almost three times what they put in. And if they had retired in 1960, they would have gotten back more than eight times what they paid in. The bigger discrepancies common decades ago can be traced in part to the fact that some of these individuals’ working lives came before Social Security taxes were collected beginning in 1937.” The reason we’re expecting Social Security to become insolvent any minute now is because the Greatest and Silent Generations paid themselves overtime salaries on part-time work. Of course, the other reason is that Republican Presidents since Nixon have raided the so-called Social Security “lock box” for every military boondoggle imaginable and if they couldn’t outright steal that money, they simply spent money that didn’t exist and attached the bills to the Social Security IOUs. Trump is doing that with his wall boondoggle. Best case, “Come 2034, so say the system’s trustees in their 2015 report, the trust fund will be exhausted and, absent a law change, they will be able to disburse only 75% of promised benefits.” Worst case, the whole US economic house of cards will collapse on itself and Social Security insolvency will be the least of our concerns. It has happened, often, in the country’s speckled history and is more likely to happen again than not. 

The two biggest money-sinks outside of actual earned, useful, and necessary “entitlements” are our grossly racist and unjust prison system and the military. People are making money out of the slave labor harvested in the prison system, but those people aren’t “the people.” The more than 2 million people in US prisons are generating a profit, but not for the public or government forced to live with the world’s most incarcerated public on the planet. The corporations harvesting slave labor, charging exorbitant prices for “services,” and providing labor to the for-profit and government administered prisons are one of the largest lobbies in a nation of monster lobbies. Just the prison phone services make $1.2 billion per year and they doing such a terrible job that PharmaBro Martin Shkreli is still running his old drug company from prison and Tweeting as if he were an actual human being not doing time for felonies far worse than many people doing far more time than this “white collar criminal.” The collection of corporate-welfare queens in the prison system run from commissary companies racking up $1.6 billion to the $3 billion for-profit bail system to the privately-held for-profit prisons that are not adequately monitored and whose income isn’t even known because they don’t have to disclose that information to the people, taxpayers, who are paying the tab. 

The War on Drugs is another corporate-welfare entitlement that involves local, state, and federal “law enforcement,” the for-profit prison system, a collection of para-military sub-contractors, drug enforcement equipment and weapons providers, and a variety of con artists who make buckets of money convincing the public that prohibition will actually work “this time.” As long as there are billions of dollars to be made selling illegal drugs, someone is going to be getting that money. The solution is to cut the legs out from under that profit motive by legalizing drugs, emphasizing education and providing safe and economical use for the small percentage of addicted users, and whatever is left to be described as “illegal” penalize at the source. 

Finally, the biggest cause of the nation’s insolvency is the vast and uncontrolled war spending. Like the drug business, war materials are a source of easy money with practically no quality requirements or practical purpose. The military-industrial complex has had exactly the kind of ride as the dope peddlers: low cost and outrageous profit margins. Worse, the Pentagon has no interest in making the slightest effort at controlling costs or making sure the public gets something for its money. The country has flushed somewhere between $5T and $15T down the post-9/11 war rabbit hole. The Pentagon, through incompetence, corruption, and laziness “misplaced” more than a few trillion dollars (total amount unknown); somewhere between $3 and $9T. Our current national debt is about $22T and the country hasn’t made a serious attempt at repaying any of that debt since Nixon started cutting taxes in 1971, but we really kicked the debt into overtime during Reagan’s fiscally irresponsible regime. Reagan paid lip service to shoring up the Social Security fund with his 1983 “reform act” (never believe any Republican tax modification is a “reform”), but he followed that up with massive deficit spending and liberal use of federal funds for a variety of money-wasting military projects. 

Obviously, the insane pensions paid out to military lifers—especially the officer classes—are just more of the same sorts of boondoggles taxpayers should not be tolerating. A grade-10 general makes $19,762.50 per month and will receive as much as 100% of that salary after 40 years of “service.” Considering the miserable job the military has done both protecting the country and being responsible with taxpayers’ money, I think they ought to be indentured servants after a few decades of leeching off of the public tit. When we say “thank you for your service” to these characters, we should be rubbing our sore assholes and walking bow-legged at the same time. Likewise, the variety of “injuries” ex-military people use to justify disability claims is amazing. Having taught at a college that actively recruited veterans with “disability college funding,” I’ve seen some pretty comical characters burning taxpayer money while avoiding working for a living. Worse, I’ve heard some of the strangest claims from veterans of my generation and, based on that, I can only hope Trump does succeed in privatizing the VA so that it can quickly bankrupt and be abolished. 

If we—meaning my generation the “Boomers”—don’t help solve these problems, our kids will solve them at our expense. Between the X-Gens and the Millennials, we are finally outvoted, demographically if not practically. In 2019, Millennials will outnumber Boomers. They could elect representatives whose only platform is balancing the budget by any means possible, including putting Social Security on pause until it is solvent. I cannot think of a good argument against that, in fact. My generation has been financially irresponsible . . . forever, since early adulthood. Today, half of the country’s bankruptcies are over-50. “Seniors are going into retirement still carrying debt, including mortgages, credit card debt and student loan debt. They are depleting their savings and retirement accounts just to make ends meet.” 

One of my many complaints about news reporting leading up to the Great Recession was all of babble about “more people than ever own homes,” when what they should have said was “more people than ever are in debt for home purchases”; two distinctly different things. Almost everyone I know in my generation has some to a lot of house debt and one of the most basic rules I know of is “you can’t retire until you own your own home.” “Own” your own home, not live in a property that is owned by a bank. If you not only don’t own your home, but you don’t own your car, recreational vehicles and/or boats, haven’t paid off your credit cards or, even, college debt, you not only are not ready to retire you have also demonstrated an inability to manage money like an adult. Our kids should take that information for what it is and stop listening to Boomers as if they were full-developed, educated adults. As the third generation of Ponzi Scheme suckers Boomers are not totally to blame for the economic mess the country is in, but we are likely to be the ones to take the fall for it. Based on the evidence, we won’t deserve much sympathy.

3/04/2019

Gratitude, Don’t Leave Home without It

Twenty-five years ago, our youngest daughter suffered dozens of critical injuries in a car crash. Luckily, she was quickly rescued and treated by some of Denver’s most dedicated and talented police, firefighters, EMTs, and doctors. After she had been released by the hospital, Denver General, and was on the road to recovery, I began an effort to thank the people involved in her rescue and recovery. My motivation was not as self-inspired as I wish. When we were waiting for our daughter to regain consciousness in Denver General’s brand new ICU, I noticed a picture of a young man on crutches stuck to a post in the middle of the sparkling, hyper-busy, multi-million dollar ICU. It was an unprofessional photo in a cheap 8x10 plastic frame with a small note from the parents of the young man, thanking the medical personnel for their dedication and for their son’s life. After reading that note and seeing how special it was to the people who worked in one of the country’s busiest and most sophisticated hospitals, I started bringing in pastries every morning while our daughter was in the ICU. For several years afterwards, I sent the Denver General ICU a picture of our daughter with an update on the life they had given her and a box of artery-clogging pastries from one of our favorite Denver shops.

That got me into a cycle of trying to identify everyone involved in my daughter’s rescue so that she and I could thank them. What I learned from that was that of the three million people living in the Denver area and however many thousands of people rescued by first responders, almost nobody felt particularly grateful when they or a loved one was rescued, kept alive, brought back to life, and/or returned to good health from near death or terrible injury. The chief of the fire department that cracked open my daughter’s demolished pickup, extracted her from the wreckage, and delivered her to the helicopter the moment it arrived at the scene (14 minutes after the crash) had been with the Denver fire department for 40 years. During his career, the only time a citizen had contacted him about any of the thousands of rescues he’d been involved in was a lawyer delivering a lawsuit summons.

The same goes for the citizens who take on the responsibility of running our cities, counties, states, and the federal government. At the lowest level, it’s a thankless job that sets up the office holders for disrespect and abuse without much return on the time and energy investment. At the highest level, as we saw in the 2016 election, the more service and committment a candidate has given to the community and the country the worse that candidate is treated by both the media and the voters. There is a price for creating a society where greed, ignorance, and narcissim are valued characteristics: that price is best described by “we get the government we deserve.”

A recent editorial in my local newspaper, “Thank Our Elected Officials,” was a timely and decent reminder that we can disagree with our elected officials while still respecting them and appreciating their service. There is no such thing as a successful non-participatory democracy and Americans better either step-up to the responsibilities of maintaining that form of government or we’ll have to relearn that, as disorderly and inefficient as democracy is, it is far better than the alternatives.

2/18/2019

When Does Marketing Trump Products?

As usual, I stepped into a discussion about the “importance” of marketing when I should have just ignored it all and let people believe the whackadoodle crap they want to believe, uninterrupted by reality. As usual, the marketing dweebs out-jabbered me and I’m happy to let them wander off into the woods as they usually do. At this point in my life, it no longer matters to me what happens to anyone’s business and I’m less inclined to be interested in anyone’s mission than at any other time in my life.

However, I get to have the last word (if I want to) on my own blog and here it comes.

The question from marketing is always, “How do people hear about the product you are selling if not marketing?" The answer is simple and complicated. The simple part is that word-of-mouth spreads far faster and more effectively than any advertising campaign. The complicated part is that word-of-mouth spreads bad news far faster and more effectively than any advertising campaign can ever hope to repair. From my years in quality management training, I remember a restaurant rule that went something like “It will take $50 in advertising to convince a customer to try your business, 5 seconds of lousy service to drive that customer out the door, and $5,000 in more advertising to get them to try you again.” Something like that.

My favorite example of how effectively word-of-mouth works is In-N-Out Burger vs. McDonalds and Burger King.  When my family lived in California in the 80’s, there were probably a dozen fairly substantial fast food chains. Fast food was nothing more than a commodity to 90% of those businesses. None of them did anything particularly well, so the best marketing program probably “won.” Creative accounting probably helped those chains help convince suckers to both invest in their franchise and to buy their engineered addictive “fat, salt, and sugar” concoctions. You couldn’t drive a block on any busy street without seeing an ad for McDonalds, Burger King, Burger Chef, Wendy’s, Hardies, Carl’s Jr., and/or any of those commodity food producers.

The burger joint of choice for Californians remained In-N-Out Burger and before the internet the best way to find one was to ask for directions from someone wearing one of their t-shirts. There were two In-N-Out Burger stands in Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa and neither of them bothered to do much more than keep their signs lit, marketing-wise, and their lines flowing through their drive-thrus were always long. Like Aldi’s, those lines moved fast, so it was always worth the wait to get a hamburger made from actual beef, fresh tomatoes, onions, and lettuce and fries made from actual potatoes. When an In-N-Out Burger appeared near my daughter’s home in Plano, Texas, her junk-food addicted husband immediately changed his food allegiance to actual food. No advertising required.

Likewise, the pro audio company I worked for in California couldn’t afford an actual marketing department for the first 6 years I worked for the company. When the company started out, in 1973, the founder spent all of his inheritance and some of his siblings and parents’ money promoting a company that had yet to figure out product development and manufacturing. After a brief flash-in-the-pan period of media presence, the company downsized to a half-dozen employees in a cheap business district in Costa Mesa. For the next ten years, the founder worked at learning his engineering craft, the original employees learned how to manage money, purchase parts, and develop a sales rep network. By the time I started work there, “marketing” consisted of very information-strong ads in industry magazines and a couple of sales meetings each year.

That same year, the company released its first professional quality power amplifiers and by the end of 1983 our problems became “how can we make more of these products, service our customers, and maintain our product quality?” For the next six years, we doubled our gross sales every year, maintained a 24-26% profit margin, and led our industry in customer service and product quality.

The company’s CEO idolized Hartley Peavey and Steve Jobs and had a minor hard-on for Donald Trump. He saw himself as a similar marketing “genius” and desperately wanted to reform the company as an “ideas business” instead of a manufacturing and engineering company. In the next few years, manufacturing moved to China, product development became diffused and only somewhat focused on customer needs, marketing became a more powerful force and a larger empire in the company, and it took another decade for the gross sales to double between 1992 and 2002. It’s a privately-held company, so it’s hard to guess what the profit margins are now, but based on the gross sales, the size of the administrative staff (especially in marketing and sales), and the luxury of the new facilities and number of executive officers, I’d guess 5-8% max.

There was an upside for me. Having spent 8 years in an executive position near someone who saw himself as a marketing genius, I developed pretty thick charisma armor. When Donald Trump went public for his one-and-only time with the Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts (DJT) IPO, I remembered the giant space between reality and our CEO’s self-image and, for the first and only time in my investment career, I shorted about 1,000 shares of DJT. I know, not an impressive bet in the scale of things, but it was a big deal for me at the time. My incredibly clever and sophisticated investment philosophy was “anything that the CEO I knew so well believes is a ‘good idea’ is going to be a guaranteed disaster.” I missed the IPO peak by a few weeks, but I still got in when the stock was valued at about $29. I sold off half of my shorted option in 1998 and the rest in 2001 when DJT was pretty much a penny stock.

I have never had that much confidence in a stock’s value collapsing since. I was close with Apple in 1997, but Bill Gates stepped in to save Apple with a $150M investment and a dumbed-down version of Office for dumbed-down Mac users. Peavey is still a privately held company, so there has never been an “investment opportunity” for me to bet against that company. I would if I could, though.

My takeaway from all of this is that marketing is what you do when you can’t do anything useful, original, necessary, and/or well. When what you have to sell is fluff or a me-too commodity or crap, you probably need marketing to convince customers to part with their money and waste their time. There is a price to be paid for shifting resources from manufacturing, design, research, and customer service, too. Regardless of the delusions and propaganda saying otherwise, everything is a zero-sum game: you can’t spend money in one area without taking those resources from other areas. Moving resources to an unexamined, usually poorly-managed area like marketing (especially if the marketing is an external “organization”) too often means that manufacturing (the hardest job in any product-based company) gets shipped off-shore and important, mission-critical skills are lost forever. (And the off-shore vendor gets to refine those skills on someone else’s money, eventually becoming a competitor.)

From the inside, I have since witnessed the farce of marketing-driven mismanagement several times and every one of those attempts at an illusionary business model resulted in spectacular crashes; just like DJT. I don’t really know if marketing actually ever works, but I do know that if you think your business desperately needs marketing assistance you have a lot to worry about.